Today I took my last walk through the little town where I live – Tumba. This is the first time that I am leaving a place where I have lived with no sense, one way or the other, as to whether I will ever be back. In the past, when I have left a place, I have always believed that I would be back one day. After all, I still had decades ahead of me. But this is no longer the case. The years that I have lived now far exceed the years that I have yet to live, a sobering thought at best since I never know how many of those years that might logically be left for me to live, given my current age and the average expected lifespan of an American woman, I will actually have. No, now when I leave a place, I need to fully embrace that it is, in all likelihood, the last time I am to be in it in this lifetime. My only consolation is that this parting is unlikely to be as painful as the one I made last year, when I left my home of more than 30 years in Vermont to someone else.
As I walk along the road that has been under construction since I first moved in, I breath in the red dust swirling around my feet, dirtying my black shoes that I so carefully cleaned this morning. Having clean shoes is very important in Rwanda. It shows that I take care of my possessions, however meager they might be although, of course in my case, in honor of my materialistic cultural heritage, I probably own enough “stuff” to open my own little market in Florida and I have accumulated various and and sundry treasures here to add to the collection, mostly fabric, because I still harbor the dream of settled down in my old age and learning how to quilt so I can make gorgeous quilts to embrace my friends before I depart this world once and for all.
I like buying things here because I know from the faces of the women, and I prefer to support women, from whom I purchase things that the income is much appreciated, and probably needed. Sometimes, like today, I barter. Other times I do not, either because the starting price seems reasonable by Rwandan standards, if not cheap, by Western ones, or because I am simply not in the mood to go through the ritual and I know how happy the seller will be to have gotten higher than the going price from the umuzungu. But I can only carry so much when I leave and so today I was looking for only two things – four of the small Rwandan eggs that, despite their size, have the biggest and deepest yellow yolks I have ever seen in my life, and some scarves that I had seen yesterday for the women in my family in Mombasa.
As I walk, I am aware of the warmth of the sun on my back, and my hunger to see all that I can and to soak it all in for one last time, so that the images can be laid safely to rest alongside a lifetime of memories of different places and faces. I have not taken any pictures in Rwanda, although I did buy a new camera before I came. It just never felt like the right time, given how much “ado” there was whenever people saw me out and about. I now know that had I pulled out a camera, I would probably have been swarmed by children vying to see what I was up to. To this day, I do not believe that people on the streets, in the markets, and in the shops would have liked me taking pictures of them and, given the population density in this tiny country, it is difficult to take any pictures that would not include people. Had I been around longer, I might feel differently. But, for the moment, I am confident that my choice to keep my camera tucked away in its brand new case is the right one, the respectful one.
As I walk, I see the man with the huge pile of dusty potatoes piled high in front of his shop by the side of the road to town, and surrounded by big white bags filled with more potatoes. I watch him weigh a bag on an old-fashioned scale with a huge platform and weights of various sizes that are hung until the two are in perfect balance. It must be older than I am. I reminds me of the scales in the scruffy towns that form the background for dramas of the old West in the United States.
I notice that the shop where I usually buy eggs is closed, presumably the owners are Adventist and today is Saturday. I smile to see that the beautiful stone drainage ditches that were so carefully put in a few months earlier are now filled with dirt and rocks so high than there is little doubt that the new road, once rainy season rolls around again, will flood, just as its predecessor did. Of course, they have not finished the road, and I expect (or perhaps “hope” is a better word) that they will clean out the giant gutters when they finally lay the slabs of cement across it to form the sidewalk, as they have already done on another segment of the road.
I pass a man with a bicycle so laden with stalks of green bananas dripping off both sides, as well as the seat and the handlebars, that he cannot push it on his own; he has had to ask someone to help him push. Even then, they seem to be struggling to keep the bicycle erect. I check the tires, they are still strong as the wheels slowly turn with each step that the two men take. I realize that the little girl who always comes running to greet me and ask me when she can come visit me in my house is not in sight today. I miss her shining eyes and ever hopeful face. I could never invite her to visit, because it would not have been her alone, it would have been dozens and, once I had done this, they would have swarmed around me any time I appeared outside my gate asking when they could come again. I could never even give them the few gifts that I brought for children from the United States because I would not want to leave anyone out, and I never anticipated having so many children playing outside my house when I packed to come here. In fact, I never expected to see so many people. As I strolled into town I reminisced, as I have many times before, at how being on the street on a weekend, or in the evening, in Rwanda, architecture not withstanding, reminds me of being in Manhattan during rush hour.
When I reach Tumba’s shopping district, I pass by and greet the men who sit at the corner where my road joins the main road with their bicycles waiting for a client to pass by who is feeling too lazy to walk wherever they are going. I have never regretted not being allowed by Peace Corps to mount a moto taxi, but I have always thought it would be fun to sit on the back of a bicycle taxi and watch the world go slowly by as my escort peddled his way to my destination. But, if ever there was a death trap, the bicycle taxis are it: Unlike the moto taxis, the riders do not provide helmets. Instead, rider and passengers throw caution to the wind and join the stream of cars, trucks, mini-buses and motorcycles that crowd the road that joins Tumba to Huye, trusting only in Imana (god) and the strength of the rider to keep them safe and get them where they are going.
Tumba’s “main street”, as with every other town I have seen in Rwanda, consists of a series of cement store fronts, some painted in bright colors – yellow, red, blue – lined up one after the other along the road. Without a doubt, all the “action” in Rwanda takes on the sides of the roads that connect towns and cities to one another throughout the country. What lies beyond the inevitable line of shops are homes, like mine, and acres upon acres of fields of cultivated land, many perched precariously on the myriad of terraces that have been dug out of the ground to turn the endless vista of hills into small plots for farming.
I pass by the shop where I buy vegetables, with its dusty collection of baskets containing onions, potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, squash, the various types of leafy greens which I have never been able to identify, sitting on the ground or upon roughly hewn wooden tables. I pass by the shop where I buy rice, scooped out from bags of grain that are almost as big as I am. I pass by the hairdresser, actually, there are several, more-or-less in a row. I skirt the tower of gas tanks waiting to be taken to provide gas for the lucky few who can afford to cook on gas rather than charcoal or wood, and past the pharmacy, which carries a mysterious array of products which I do not recognize.
I have only bought two things in a pharmacy here – the tiny blue plastic bottle of bleach which they sell to sterilize water, and a packet of 8 ibuprofen. I remember that I was annoyed that I had forgotten my Advil on one trip to Kigali, because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to find the gel caps that I like so much, and because I really didn’t want to buy an entire bottle of something that I would probably only use once. It was, therefore, at the time, to my great surprise and delight to find that pharmacies do not sell bottles of over-the-counter medications, but rather, they sell little packets of just a few pills… for, in this case, a mere 12 cents.
As I walk, I see the inevitable two-year old, thumb in his mouth, stop dead in his tracks at the sight of me and, with eyes as wide as saucers, point a tiny quivering finger in my direction. I stop and smile, and playfully point a finger back at him, much to his amazement. His mother smiles and tells him to greet me, and a tiny hand reaches hesitantly toward me to meet mine to greet with a Rwandan handshake, right hand to hand and, in my case, with my left hand upon my right wrist, to show that I am honored he is greeting me. His mother smiles in approval and they continue on their way. His thumb never leaves his mouth.
There are two customs for greeting in Rwanda — the right handshake, with or without the left hand on the right wrist, or the Rwandan hug, an arm-length apart “empty” hug where arms reach out to embrace the other person’s arms and shoulders, but the bodies never come into contact, leaving only an empty space between them. Sometimes the hug is accompanied by a little shaking up and down of the arms. Children, of course, have not yet acquired the technique of the distant hug and so, every once in awhile, instead of stopping short and staring, a small child will simply run up to me and thrown his or her arms around my legs and hold on tight, sometimes until a parent pries him or her away. I enjoy those moments, but I whenever they occur, I wonder what it is about the child that he sees me as someone to hug rather than someone to gawk at. My guess is that, like the little boy so many months ago who thought I was a street vendor selling his heart’s desire from the pail that someone just happened to set down beside me (earlier post), these children have not yet learned that not everyone is family, in the same way that a toddler often will call every adult “mama” or “papa” when first learning to speak. For these children, the distinction between “us” and “them” has not yet developed.
I pass by the tiny shop where a woman sits at a table with nothing more than a telephone and some sort of hand-held electronic device. It is to her that I give cash and the account number for the “cash power” machine attached to the side of my house, which looks more like an ADT key pad than a source of electricity. I wait while she pokes various keys on her machine in order to produce, when there is a “connection”, a slip of paper that provides a number for me to enter into the key pad at home to add more time to my electricity account. My neighbor’s key pad chirps incessantly next door. We were able to shut my chirper off. In the beginning, the bleeping annoyed me, now it is a welcome sign that the electricity is actually on.
I finally reach my first destination, a storefront with a rack of colored scarves, unlike those I have seen elsewhere in Rwanda, fluttering in the wind. I examine each one carefully, and set aside the first one that I want. The rack starts to topple and the woman whose shop it is runs over to help. She stands and watches as I take each scarf down and examine it carefully, and helpfully takes each one from my hands when I have finished and drapes it over her shoulder. She does not realize that the one I had placed on the top of the stand was one that I would purchase, and so I had to reach under the other ones she had placed on top of it to retrieve it, and place it back on the top of the rack so I could keep track of it while I pulled others off the rack to examine them. The boisterous red and pink one unfortunately is stained; I settle for three with varying patterns, and then set about the business of negotiating the price. Little does she know, I am an old hand at this and, if the price isn’t right, I will walk away. She wants 2000 Rwandan francs apiece, I don’t think they are worth that much. I ask her to reduce her price because I am buying three, which is my usual bargaining strategy if I know I need more than one of something. She shakes her head. I offer 5000 instead of 6000. She counters with 5500. I stand my ground and walk away with the three scarves for 5000 francs. I am pretty sure that she has still made a good profit.
It is now time to go home. I turn to retrace my steps, keeping my eyes open for a shop that has a stack of egg trays on the counter. When at last I find one, the woman remembers me and waits for me to retrieve the plastic box in which I usually place 10 eggs when I come to buy them from my knapsack. But she is to be disappointed today because I only want four and I have brought a tiny paper bag with handles instead. She remarks something about the bag, which I do not understand, and then carefully places four Rwandan eggs in the bottom of it. They fit perfectly. I wave away the 20 franc dime-size coin that is my change away, explaining that I am returning to the United States on Monday and cannot use it. She happily retrieves it from my fingers and bids me farewell.
I slowly return the way that I had come, taking time to soaking up one last time all the sights, and smells and sounds of the town, and my neighborhood. The sky is a brilliant blue, with tufts of white clouds wandering hither and thither. It has been many weeks since the last gray thundering storms settled back into wherever they go until the next rainy season. I look for the little girl but she is still nowhere in sight. I imagine her smiling face as I walk down the path one last time to my front gate. Soon my presence will be but a distant memory to those who live here, the umukecuru w’umuzungu (old white foreign woman) who lived here among us for a time, but who did not stay…
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