Life in the suburbs*

Mama….. I turned to see a young man holding out his hand for money.

Oya,  I shake my head and continued on my way, but he persists, pushing my shoulder.

Gusaba ni umuco mubi  (Begging is a bad habit).   He stops for a moment, perhaps he is surprised that I know how to say that much in Kinyarwanda.   Another young man just ahead of us is watching curiously.  A companion, or a bystander?   I can’t tell.  He tries again to ask me for money; this time he reaches out to grab my arm, I pull away and keep on walking.

I hear him mutter umukecuru (old woman) and then something which I can not understand but presume is an insult.   Little does he know that inwardly, I am jumping for joy…

“Hurray!  Hurray!  For the first time in almost a year, it is my age that someone is commenting upon instead of the color of my skin.”    I feel like I have finally passed “go” on the monopoly board of life in Rwanda.

I admit, I was surprised at his behavior.   I had not been approached for money since I moved to my new house, and never that aggressively, even in my previous town.   I thought the absence of begging was because I had moved “up in the world” with my new residence, an extravagant 3-bedroom house with glistening white tile floors, plumbing that works when there is water, and more doors with keys than I have ever seen.

I was wrong.  I am obviously still a target for anyone who thinks that having white skin means you have money to give away.  Life in the suburbs is not, apparently all that different from life in the “bad neighborhood” by the bus station where I lived previously and where a sizable portion of my small wardrobe was stolen off the clothes line.

Still I am quite happy to be described as a umukecuru instead of a umuzungu, although recently I have come up with a new strategy when someone calls me a umuzungu – I call back, smiling, “Yego, na wowe uri umunyarwanda!”   (Yes, and you are a Rwandan!)   I am quite pleased with this approach as I have come to understand that being called a umuzungu  is more descriptive than anything else.  I realized this just yesterday when I felt the fingers of a young child touching my hair from where he was seated behind me in one of the local buses.  I turned to ask if he liked my umusatsi (hair).  His mother, when he looked at her with an inquiring glance said umuzungu.  That is, she was teaching him what kind of person I was.  He was less than two; clearly, it is a distinction taught to children from birth, the difference between  “us” (Rwandans) and “them” (Foreigners).

Some of the compounds in my new neighborhood are like mine, with towering walls surrounding a main house and other buildings designed for various purposes, such as housing the kitchen which traditionally, was never inside the house, quarters for servants, perhaps, apartments or houses to rent.  On one side of my house, there are several mysterious locked doors, I think to what would be a kitchen.   But there is also what appears to be a tiny window into someone’s shower, and I have no idea who it is or what relationship they have, if any, to the rest of us in the compound.  Sometimes I hear music.   The walls are not commercial brick, but traditional hand made bricks from the soil, I think, covered with an outer coating of something grayish brown.   I keep thinking that I should go out my front gate, walk around and see what is on the other side of my house, not to mention what is actually next to it.  I realize that I have never lived in a place without any  idea of what is behind me, or who is living, or at least using, a building that is less than five feet from my house.

My house sits at the back of a fairly large compound which contains a main house, behind which are two smaller brick houses, one in front of the other, the back wall of one forming the back wall of the other.  The one which faces the back of the main house, is still under construction, designed to be a retreat for the landlords when they come back to town. The wife continues to work where she was moved after the educational system was reorganized.  I still haven’t figured out what the husband does.

As far as I can tell, their hideaway is going to be very nice, but really dark, with one solid back wall of brick pasted up against the wall of the house behind it which, in turn, has a face that would be looking at the face of my house, were it not for the five foot brick wall between us.   We’re all lined up, four houses, more or less in a row behind one another, with only the main house in front, and my house, the house in the back, not be attached to another house by a shared wall.  But I can hear the men who live in the house that faces mine and, presumably, they can hear me.  We might as well be living together for all the difference that the wall between us doesn’t make.

I have two key chains full of keys:  One for the main gate of the compound in which my house is located, one for the gate lock to my private courtyard, one for the padlock using in addition to the gate lock. Then there is onne for my front door lock, and then one for the padlock used in addition to the door lock.  Once inside the house, on another chain, reside the key to the main hall, the key to the side hall, the key to the kitchen door, the key to my bedroom door.

I always wonder how I will ever get out of the house in time in case of fire, if I have to unlock four doors and a padlock.  Of course, for some reason, fires are very uncommon despite the fact that most people cook on them.  I’ve never seen or heard of one, as a matter of fact.  And there is no such thing as a fire station or a fire truck here.  The one person I thought to ask looked utterly baffled.

I sometimes wonder often what will happen if I ever lose any of my keys because, as per Peace Corps regulations, I hold all the copies of all the keys that grant access to my house or my courtyard.  With bars on every window and padlocks on every door, I am curious as to what would happen the local umukecuru w’umuzungu (old foreign woman) were to expire after locking herself behind three doors and two padlocks.  Then I realize that, in that case, I wouldn’t be around to care what anyone did anyway.  However, given that I travel frequently, it might be sometime before I was missed…Yuck!

But someone does, in fact, keep an eye on me, as I learned after my first trip to Kigali.  Upon my return, our umuzama (guard) came pounding at my gate and gave me a thorough scolding, much of which I could not understand.  Suffice it to say, he left mollified when I reassured him that I would let him know the next time I was going away so, whatever was his concern, it had to do with not being informed in advance whenever I was going to be traveling.   It was reassuring to know that someone noticed when I was missing.  Whether or not, he’d figure out to have someone break into the house  if I wasn’t around, and hadn’t told him I was leaving, I do not know.   The young men behind me might figure it out, as I have become friendly with one after inviting the puppy he had locked in his outdoor kitchen, whose whining and crying I could not stand, into my house.  Max.  He has gone to Kigali but after just having spent a day with him, me a card-carrying “cat woma”, I miss him.

The back wall of my house forms the outer rear wall of the compound.  No windows, of course, but I can see light coming through a very tiny crack in the mortar holding the bricks together, my only reminder that there is a world outside.   However, if the house had windows on its back side, it wouldn’t be the veritable fortress that it appears to be now; I don’t know if our little kingdom of four house would  still be considered a “compound” if I had windows at the back.

Of course, despite all the fanfare, it is really easy to get into the compound since the gates in front are quite easy to scale.   I once found the girl who works for the people in the front house climbing over the fence because she got locked out somehow and I didn’t realize that the voice talking on the other side of the wall of my courtyard was someone actually talking to me and asking for help when she heard me milling moving about. I hear voices of people passing by outside the walls of the compound all the time. How was I to know she was talking to me?  Of course, if she had called me by name, it might have helped, but I don’t know if she knows my name.   She has since vanished, gone on to other employment presumably.

Our houses have glass windows with bars.   It is the glass in the windows and the walls of pale commercially-made red bricks laced with grey that indicate our relative wealth compared to the rest of the neighborhood.

When I open the (easily scalable) gate in the front of the compound, I step out into a completely different world — a world without walls.  In front of me and to the left are small variegated fields, each containing a mélange of different crops all sharing the same space — peas, beans, corn, sweet potatoes, cassava.   All intermingle freely, equally eager to draw life from Africa, the burning heat of her sun, the drenching downpours of her rains.   Bigger than life itself, Africa doesn’t mess with the “little stuff”.    When it rains, the heavens open and the land is flooded.

Sometimes there is so much water that the main water pipes that serves the suburb, called Tumba, where we live, wherever they are, get clogged with mud washed into them by the rain, and I have no water in the houses while torrents fall off the roof and past my windows to flow out the drain pipes on the sides of the cement floor of my courtyard.   When the sun is out, the heat bakes the land so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to remember why I was so annoyed at the mud that tenaciously clung to my shoes the day before.   However, sun has been hard to come by recently.

The houses outside the walls which hide me from the rest of the neighborhood do not have outer walls, nor are they made of manufactured brick.  They are made of handmade bricks composed of the dark red soil of the ground beneath my feet and, presumably mixed with something to keep them in one piece.  Then they are laid out to dry in the sun before being used to build.  Some have glass windows, many have simple wooden shutters, left open during the day but closed at night.  I do not know if the houses have electricity because here, in Tumba, the electric cables run underground.

One of the things I love to see is a house that has been built of the hard, red, handmade bricks with a square opening left for a window that has, in turn, then been filled with more bricks so that they can be removed once the owner has saved enough for a glass window to be put in.   The way construction is done around here is that, once you have some funds to start, you get going.  When the money runs out, you stop, and the house sits, partially-built, like a forlorn forgotten skeleton until you can come up with enough money to build another portion of it.  Often the windows are the last to go in, the final luxury.

Perhaps I am being silly, but when I see a brick-filled window waiting for its glass, I believe that I can actually feel the hope that the owner of the house has for a better tomorrow, a brighter future.   And then, when I see a glass window in a handmade brick house, I am overjoyed that he, or she, has finally achieved the ultimate status of being an owner of a house with glass windows…   Pride emanates from the glint of glass in the sunlight.

*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.

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