The six weeks Carolyn, my wife, and I spent teaching in Rwanda was a trip of firsts; my first trip to Rwanda, my first trip to Africa period, first time south of the Equator, and my first extended time in the classroom since retirement. A voyage replete with so many “firsts” fairly demands a set of reactions. Here are just some of the images and feelings I know are destined to last.
- Most Lasting First Impression of Africa: Standing Day 1 in the crowded hallway of a Rwandan fabric exchange surrounded by stalls of brilliantly colored cloth and dozens of Rwandans (many of them dressed in equally striking colors) all playing “Let’s Make a Deal” at the same time. A more exotic din I’ve never heard. “Toto,” I said, “this is definitely not Kansas.”
- Most Favored Delicacy: The East African avocado; soft, lush, flavorful, easy to peel, and falling off the trees! Could those hard, shriveled, overpriced green things they call avocados back home really be of the same species as these?
- Most Glorious View: Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, is a labyrinth of tall, steep hills and deep cut valleys. And at night, all of them twinkle with lights that turn the city’s highs and lows into enchanted vistas. If you are able to catch the panoramic effect of Kigali’s landmarks all aglow–from the Emerald City-like downtown on your left, to the multi-colored eggshell dome of the Convention Centre in the middle, to the planes circling Kigali International on your right– count yourself lucky indeed.
- Most Endearing Reaction: Offer a “Mwaramutse” (good morning) or a “Mwiriwe” (good afternoon, good evening, or good just about anything else) to Rwandans who aren’t expecting a greeting in their own language and watch their faces light up! It’s like offering a Brit a biscuit to go with his tea. The joy is unconfined!
- Coolest Mode of Transportation: You simply must take a ride on a Kigali city bus! The routes and stops seem to change from trip to trip, seats are folded down to hem you in completely as additional riders get on, and your driver may leave the bus to drum up more business at any given stop. Oh, and the bumpiest jolts are reserved for the timid mzungus cowering in the back, wondering how on earth they’re going be able to wade through those folded-down seats so they can get off. A ride, by the way, costs 200 francs, which is–roughly speaking–a quarter. How can you beat that?
- Favorite Restaurant: Kigali is an international city in all respects, including food. We sampled Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, Italian, and Thai places during our time there, and reveled in all of it. We also enjoyed Heaven, Rwanda’s best known eating establishment. But The Hut–right up the dirt road from us–reigned supreme. The introductory fried avocados and goat brochettes accompanied by mounds of rice, chips, mashed sweet potatoes, or plantains were the odds-on favorites. The brochette platters, by the way, cost less than a cheeseburger at Five Guys. How I love this country!
- Most Fun in the Arts: Like Baltimore’s Visionary Arts Museum, Kigali’s Inema Arts Center is a grand place to see old bikes, radios, bottles, cars, and metal fixtures transformed into contemporary art. But wait, there’s more! Inema also is a place for yoga, troupes of young drummers and dancers, wine tastings, mixology demonstrations, and an on-site women’s cooperative dealing in arts and crafts. What’s more, the small cafe is peaceful and cool; the sort of place you could find yourself chatting with a smartly coiffed young banker from Zimbabwe about to head off for her massage, or a group of medical students on holiday from their service projects in Uganda, or a Maryland couple working to bring a smattering of Jewish culture to interested Rwandans. (No, really.) Inema is that kind of place.
- Best “Rwanda Is A Small Country” Moment: Chatting with a lovely student of tourism in downtown Kigali, only to have her turn up on the beach of Lake Kivu–hours from the capital and several days later– to reintroduce herself to us as an old friend. Did I mention that Rwanda is a small country?
- Most Sheepish Feeling: The power went out? Oh my, how dependably undependable life can be in these “lesser developed countries.” Well, maybe if we had settled the pay-as-you-go electric bill like we were supposed to in the first place, the power would have stayed on.
- Most Worthy Idea for Export: How about a presidential campaign that lasts for two weeks instead of two years? That’s Rwanda’s political practice, and it would suit me just fine. Of course, they know who’s going to win since the same guy has been in power for over 20 years. Still, what a rational, utterly appropriate time frame. Any takers, America?
- Speaking of Which, Most Embarrassing Question: “How you in America find Trump?” I’m still not sure what they were asking. I’m even less sure what I was supposed to say.
- Least Surprising Teacher Moment: Honesty compels me to report that faculty meetings in East Africa aren’t any more useful or interesting than they are here. Zzzzzzzz……
- Best Pun: Jean Marie, APACOPE’s gentlemanly Dean of Studies, looked at his students dancing happily with their American visitors and proclaimed our visit to his school as a “Rwanda-ful time”. Clever, and so very nice to hear.
- Most Sobering Venue: Peering intently across the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, you see a bit of Africa that isn’t Rwanda. The frontier is one of the busiest border crossings in the world, with a sea of men and women carrying goods and services to the other side. It’s less noisy than you’d think given the numbers involved, and there is a grimness to it all. Heavily armed soldiers are everywhere. Poverty is in the air in both countries, but there is a grayness to the squalor across the DRC line that changes the lighting in the distance. Granted, the Congolese make nice music; but they are not known for political stability, and there are those on the other side who wish Rwanda harm. The lack of ease at the frontier is palpable. How nice it was to know that we could just edge back and stay home in our new country.
- Saddest Place: The mass graves at Kigali’s Genocide Memorial can break even the hardest of hearts, and there are exhibits that depict even more graphically the horrors of inter-tribal murder on the grand scale. But the small, poignant memorial to the 243 students, teachers, administrators, and founders of Ecole APACOPE who were killed in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide against the Tutsi is magnificently sad in its intimacy and simplicity. I looked at those pictures and read those names every day for six weeks, and feel as if Theogine, Pierre, Esperance, Claude, and the others have been ripped from my world as cruelly as they were from their own. The same photograph of APACOPE’s founder, Charles Shamugika, whose broad, sparkling smile lights up that wall of remembrance hangs in the living room of his daughter Christine, a gifted architect who currently serves as president of the school’s board of directors. Christine also lost three brothers to the madness. May their souls rest in peace along with the rest of APACOPE’s dead, and with the hundreds of thousands of Rwandans who perished from the twin evils of genocidal murder and world-wide indifference.
- Most Lasting Impression: If any nation could be excused for pitying itself into the doldrums or tying itself up in knots of endless recrimination, it would be Rwanda. But a little over two decades removed from the 1994 genocide that claimed nearly a million of its people, Rwanda is a country full of kind, friendly souls doing their best to forgive and move on with life. The survivors have remade the notion of family, as uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends have come together to live as de facto parents, sisters, and brothers. Some of the country’s 30-somethings are so hungry for family that they’ll happily embrace white schoolteachers from Maryland as their surrogate mothers and fathers. So however painful its past or precarious its future, Rwanda’s present is a tribute to hope and reconciliation. And after living and teaching there for six weeks, I can tell you that they have blessed the world with children as smart, as beautiful, as friendly, and as precious as any on earth. May God be gracious to them all.
Phil Greenfield is a teacher, musician, writer and college adviser who taught at Annapolis High School from 1979-2014. Phil was a Fulbright Exchange Teacher to Great Britain in 1996-97, and when the opportunity was extended to teach in Rwanda for the summer of 2017, he couldn’t say no. He and his wife, a music therapist, flutist, singer, pianist and teacher live in Cape St. Claire, just outside Annapolis, MD.