The Things They Carried.

Colin and I made it back from our 2.5-week trip to Indy, much to Shu Shu’s relief.  I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to decompress back home and spend time with friends and family.  I was able to see some of my old refugee clients also, which was pretty amazing! Although it was hard saying goodbye a second time, I feel recharged and ready to take on what comes next, which should include some job contracts!

Old clients!
Old clients! Look at that baby….
Don’t tell but this kid is my favorite.
So happy to see this lady, one of my old Congolese clients.
Family time
High school besties

The title of this blog post comes from my fav book, The Poisonwood Bible (read it, read it!); in the book, it’s used as a chapter heading describing all of the things that the Price family took with them to Congo when they moved as missionaries in the 1960’s.  As the travelers among you know, airlines weigh baggage but not people, so the Price family hilariously wore layers upon layers of clothing and tied cooking utensils, pots, and pans to their bodies, bringing all sorts of things they thought they would need in rural Congo.

I felt a little like this coming back to Rwanda from the States—our main items being huge blocks of cheese (they have a local cheese they call “gouda” but it’s definitely not the gouda we know; our 2018 goal is to learn to like it, but right now it’s 2017), fitted sheets (why can’t we find fitted sheets anywhere?  We granted ourselves this luxury by buying some in Indy), Ziploc bags for food storage (plastic bags are actually illegal in Rwanda, believe it or not.  Don’t tell on us), and infinite sunscreen.

Even after only 3 months in Rwanda, there were already things we’d gotten used to.  It felt weird to have drinkable tap water, hot showers on demand, and a car to get around.  A real struggle when we first arrived in Kigali was the inability to use google to look up our questions—things like how the trash system works, how to pay bills, how to transfer money to another bank account, etc.  While easily researched online in the States, most things aren’t “google searchable” in Rwanda, and we use word of mouth to find “answers” (we’re never quite certain if it’s right!).  It’s also expected in Kigali that when leaving the house you should look nice.  Flip flops, sweatpants, hoodies, and even my beloved Burkenstocks are frowned upon; I think that wearing them outside is a sign that you’re not wealthy enough to buy nice clothes, so even Colin, who used to wear T-shirts, shorts, and Burks to work, has to wear nice button-up shirts and close-toed shoes all the time.  My host family used to make me iron my clothes and wash my shoes every morning, but I think we’ll hold onto the American millennial aversion to the iron for a little while longer.

Rwanda also has quite a bit of security measures that Indy definitely doesn’t have.  To enter every shopping mall in Kigali, there are metal detectors and pat downs, although often they’re pretty lax.  (In Uganda, it’s even more relaxed; Colin walked into a coffee shop with his huge backpacking backpack and the security guard looked at it skeptically, poked it with his metal wand, and asked “Is there a bomb in there?”  We all laughed and he let us through without searching anything.)  Additionally, armed guards are stationed throughout Kigali, creating a sense of omnipotent state authority.  Getting into the airport via car is extra rough, with multiple security checks, drug-sniffing dogs, and myriad baggage scans.  Don’t fret for us; I believe most of it is a show, to discourage any kind of supposed resistance, and Rwanda is actually one of the safest places in Africa.

Rwanda also has infinite manual labor for dirt cheap.  This is a topic of some controversy, especially to us Americans with our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.  There are many Chinese companies operating in Rwanda, many of whom hire Rwandans for infrastructure projects.  There’s been a road/bridge project happening close to our house since we arrived in late August so the main road near us is flooded every day with Rwandan workers providing the manual labor while Chinese managers oversee the work.  Renting big construction equipment like bulldozers is pretty expensive, I’m guessing, so these companies hire workers from the never-ending local labor pool to manually dig and carry bags of dirt instead.  What’s kinda cool is that men and women are hired equally for construction so we’ll often see women working alongside the men doing tasks Americans typically think of as “male”.

House help is also super common in Rwanda, where most local families (above a certain socioeconomic class), hire a “house girl” or “house boy” to do daily errands, cleaning, and cooking.  They’re paid approximately $35/month and often live and eat with the families they’re serving.  Usually aged 15-25 or so, they generally come from villages outside of the city and send money back to support their parents and families.  So many people are shocked that we don’t have house help, as it’s expected that wealthy folks will have at least one person helping around the house, but so far we only hire someone to hand wash our laundry once a week.  It’s the conundrum of not wanting to perpetuate a system of inequality and classism but of being able to provide a job and consistent financial support for someone to support their family now….. I stressed about this dilemma endlessly in college—the idea of whether we should focus on long-term, systemic change or address the immediate needs of food/shelter/clothing NOW.  My personal compromise is that we need both but not sure what that means for our house help situation.

We’ve also found that making our own furniture and clothing is way cheaper than buying it already made in a store.  As an Americans, I have had the luxury/comfort(?) of being separated from the labor that goes into my daily life—my clothing is made in factories, my produce is sold in a supermarket, the roads are made by construction equipment….. The actual people power that goes into making my daily products is separated from me and/or replaced by machines.  In contrast, Rwanda’s people power is right in my face, making blatantly clear the reality that people work for me to produce the things that I need in my life.  I don’t really have answers or judgments—it’s just an interesting cultural contrast.

Hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving and that you’re staying warm!

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Holly M Hendrickson
Holly M Hendrickson
3 years ago

It was great to see you! Good luck with your new endeavors! What did Shu Shu think of the laser toy??