“Do you have large ones like these?” I say, pointing to a small paper clip. I had already forgotten the rather long and complicated word for paper clip in Kinyarwanda.
“Do you know Lingala? You should know Lingala. It’s the language spoken in the Congo, where I am from? Do you have a husband? You should be my wife…”
“Ah, no, I don’t want a husband…”
The tall elderly bespectacled gentleman with splashes of white sparkling in his closely cropped hair was wearing what looked to be a long white lab coat. He towered over me shaking an extended index finger in my face.
“But I want you as my wife.”
“I like being alone” …… “So, do you have large ones like these?” I could already tell it was going to be a long time before I saw any large paper clips although I was quite pleased with my ability to have a conversation in Kinyarwanda, regardless of how fruitless it appeared to be in terms of getting what I wanted.
“But why don’t you want to be my wife? I want you to be my wife.”
I had met my suitor earlier in the week. He was in charge of the supply room at the University of Rwanda and was, literally, the only person standing between me and my target. I also couldn’t imagine that he didn’t already have a wife. However, he appeared to as intent on catching his heart’s desire as I was on my quest to find large paper clips. The small ones simply weren’t big enough for the mounting stack of handouts we were preparing at the print shop for the workshop I was to deliver the next day
The print shop itself was an impressive room with a long front desk made of alternating strips of light and dark wood on the diagonal, a treasure really. I’d have taken it home in a heartbeat. I wondered who had built it and how many years it had stood in all its majestic splendor, guarding the entrance to the printing department. The room behind it was filled with different photocopiers, almost a dozen in number, silently waiting “at the ready” to discharge mountains of printed pages on demand. However, as time went on, and we continued to only use one machine, I began to wonder if they were but remnants of a more productive past, or perhaps an anticipated future that had yet to come. It was hard to know. I also knew that, if I asked about them, I probably wouldn’t understand the answer.
In the meantime, my hopeful-husband-to-be stood among the waiting photocopiers, refusing to give ground and, of course, declining to confirm whether or not he would give me large paper clips, assuming that he had some stashed away in the nearby supply room. Everyone in the print shop, of course, thought that my feeble attempts to dissuade him in my fledgling Kinyarwanda were quite humorous. All watched with great interest to see who would win the contest.
Nti kibazo (No worries.) I had come early. I had all day to get my paper clips and collate my handouts, and, as it was a certainty that I would never marry, I could wait. I was on a mission, and I would not go home until I had acquired what I wanted, no matter how many marriage proposals I had to turn down to get it.
“You have to have another form”, my husband-in-waiting finally announced. Remembering what we had to go through to get the last one signed, I shuddered. I picked up the phone and called my co-collaborator in setting up for the workshop.
“I’ll be right there….”
While waiting, my suitor continued negotiating for my hand in holy matrimony.
Even my colleague, arriving breathless from, apparently, a mad dash across campus, could not stop the now quite familiar wheels of bureaucracy at the university from turning. He dug up a form which, miraculously, the print shop actually had, and filled it the name of our unit, and our Director. Then we proceeded to the supply room, although here it is called a “store room”.
“He wants to marry you, my colleague informed me. “Yes, I know….
“I want YOU” my suitor exclaimed, overhearing our exchange…” I smiled and shook my head… “No, thank you.”
The supply room, is really not a room. Rather it is a large cavernous building, reminiscent of a large warehouse, row upon row of metal shelves stretched as far as the eye could see. Cool, damp, and dusty, it seemed forlorn, as if it resented sitting alone in some forgotten corner of the campus waiting for someone to remember its bounty. Many, but not all, shelves had the various supplies associated with educational endeavors, paper, tape, markers, pens, scissors, files, etc. Some things appeared to be relatively new, others looked as if they had been waiting for a very long time for someone to want them enough to go through the necessary rituals to obtain them.
When we arrived, we were shown an impressive stack of boxes of paper clips. We were instructed how to fill out the form to get them: “paper clips, large.”
“How many do you want?” Uncertain as to whether he meant individual clips or boxes, I opted for one box. Once the form was carefully filled out correctly, he nodded with satisfaction but, of course, the paper clips remained just beyond our reach, patiently waiting for us to succeed at the next step in our journey to liberate them from their cold, dusty habitat. Because, of course, our form hadn’t been signed by the right people yet. And so began our trek to other buildings on campus to get the requisite signatures for my precious box of paper clips.
As we walked, distant memories of the little blue notebook in the supply room at the last college where I taught flickered across my mind. There, my signature and the name of my department were all the I needed to get my heart’s desire. From paper clips to markers to flip charts to index cards, all the tools of trade for a teacher were at my immediate disposal.
“Hmmmm…. there is no one in the office today” we were informed at our first stop. “Try the other office”. I trailed along behind my partner, who was scurrying as fast as he could.
“I’m in class now”, he informed me. Apparently, he had left his students in class alone to fend for themselves in order to help me realize my dream of possessing large paper clips. The next office had someone in it, but they couldn’t sign the form. We struck gold at the third office, got a signature and a very impressive blue stamp on the form. I went off to present our prize to my supply room suitor while my colleague headed back to class. As I walked, I couldn’t help but wonder how many more proposals I would have to decline before I would actually walk away with a handful of paper clips.
Back at my suitor’s office, there was a lot going on. Two students were ahead of me, each with what appeared to be signed requisition forms but, alas, something was amiss. They looked genuinely baffled. I wondered who had thought they could avoid the arduous task of getting supplies by sending a couple of hapless students. I waited my turn. I’d already learned that a lot of waiting was involved in most transactions at the university.
My suitor peered at the forms that the students had, then looked up at the students, and a long conversation ensued. Although I couldn’t understand it, it was obvious that, although he wasn’t asking them to marry him, he was most certainly not going to give them whatever they had come to get. Finally, it was my turn. I then handed over my prize, and waiting, holding my breath, as he examined it. He compared it to theirs, tapped his finger on theirs and shook his head. A little more time to examine mine and then the keys came out and we made our way to the supply room. I had not idea what was going to happen to the students who had obviously been sent on a hopeless mission by someone who hadn’t wanted to attempt to navigate the system themselves.
“What size paper clip did you want?”
Startled, I couldn’t tell if he had forgotten our previous conversation and the assistance he had given us in filling our our original request, or whether he was required to go through a ritual of checking each time an order was made. I suspected the latter, having already been coerced into keeping the large scissors we had gotten on our previous trip when I tried to exchange them for smaller ones after discovering that the blades of the large scissors I had already taken off the shelf were rusty, I learned on that trip that there is no turning back, no changing of one’s mind, once an item had been taken off the shelf, and its loss recorded on the pale mustard yellow inventory card that guarded it. It didn’t matter if the item didn’t work. Once you took it, it no longer had the right to sit where it had previously resided only minutes before, and you, or rather your department, had to pay for it.
30-40 minutes later, I had lost track of time,
since I set out on my trek to find paper clips, I emerged victorious from the store room, still unwed, but now clutching a small box of 50 large paper clips that looked to me as if some of its contents were missing. I didn’t count them, but I did make a mental note to bring, along with large scissors, large and small paper clips the next time I traveled overseas to teach….
“Where is the flip chart that we got last week?’ I asked my counterpart when he returned to check on our latest acquisition.
“Oh, I didn’t know you needed it, I left it in someone else’s office and they are not on campus today. Let me call him.”
After a long phone conversation, it was determined that the flip chart would not be available today. I kicked myself. I had kept all the other supplies with me, even hiring a taxi to help me lug them back and forth from my home each time I needed them, because I didn’t want to risk them ending up somewhere where I was not when I needed them. But I had not taken the extra flip chart. What ever had I been thinking??!!
“Did you turn in the requisition form we had signed already? Perhaps we can add it and get another one…. ?” Visions of more visits to more offices for more signatures crept across my weary mind. Who would have thought that getting a box of paper clips could be so tiring?
Still, ever hopeful, I agreed to his plan and together we returned to the store room. Much to my surprise, as long as the supply-room-guardian has your requisition form, you can add to it as much as you like. You just can’t put anything that you take back. Proud of ourselves, my colleague and I headed back out into the brilliant afternoon sun more than an hour after we had first set out on our excursion for paper clips.
“Thank you so much for helping me.”
“Oh, that’s what we are here for, to help each other.”
As he walked away, he turned … “Oh, and yes, by the way …I haven’t been able to get a room for the workshop tomorrow…”
*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.