Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Day in the Life

There is so much to describe about life here in Kigali. I think perhaps the easiest way to give you an idea of what it is like is to describe an ordinary day here.
The birds, which all have lovely songs that are new to me, are the first noises I hear in the morning. Then roosters start to crow from all directions. The night is still upon us, except for a glimmer of light perhaps only birds can see. My cell phone’s clock says it is about 4 am. I sleep and doze for a few more hours under my bed net on a comfortable double bed. I hear the increasing sounds of traffic as the city wakens and begins its business. I hear the sounds of the young women arriving to begin their day of sewing in the studio behind the main house at 8 am. I think about what the day will bring.

At some point – perhaps the need for coffee or a drink of water, perhaps I hear Jeanne arrive – I decide it is time to get up, usually about 8:30, which, if you know me, is no easy feat. In the bathroom, which I access from my room, I wash, brush my teeth, taking care to use boiled water, take my meds and get dressed. I make my bed, open the curtains and windows, and tie up my bed net into a knot over the bed. I am never this tidy at home! Then I make my way to the kitchen down the hall.

The kitchen is small, with tiny ants, flies and other little bugs all over the place. I am now used to this somehow, and I am okay with it as long as they aren’t near the food we prepare. On one wall, there is a deep, double wide stainless steel sink, with a flat area for drying dishes. Across from this is a three foot high fridge and above it, two cabinets with shelves. They are not used for much except empty paper bags and empty water containers. On the wall between the fridge and sink, a 4 burner gas stoves sits on a table. The stove is attached to a large propane tank on the floor beside the table and fridge. On the other side of the fridge is a toaster oven, which sits on a very low table. If you want to use the toaster oven, you must unplug the fridge. The trick is to remember to plug the fridge back in! On the fourth wall is a cabinet, filled with dishes, cutlery, pots and pans and so on. The top of the cabinet holds bowls of fruit, onions, garlic and lemons. This is also pretty well the only flat surface to cut or mix anything, besides the top of the fridge. Above is a shelf on which rest supplies like coffee, tea, spices, milk powder, honey, sugar, and cans. We use clean dinner plates to cut up what we prepare, which works but dulls the knives very quickly. I hope to soon find a cutting board somewhere. It is ironic, because John raised quite a lot of money for Tubahumurize making gorgeous cutting boards and here there are none. I don’t think it is part of the culture.

Generally, Simon is the kitchen at this hour. He is a charming local boy from a rural area who was hired to do all manner of duties – cleaning dishes, washing floors, preparing meals for the sewing students, and so on. He also runs errands such as just today, I sent him to the store for more powdered milk and matches (needed to light the stove). Sidebar: the matches are made of wax, so lighting them is a trick that involves holding it close to the sulfur point to strike it because it bends easily, and then moving your fingers back very quickly once it is lit. Yesterday, he washed all my clothes (except my underwear) and brought them folded to me at the end of the day. He speaks only Kinyarwanda so communications are difficult. We do a lot of gesturing, but he only needs to be shown once as a rule. And he is learning a bit of English along the way.

For my first task, if Simon has not already done so, I funnel the water into bottles from the large vat of water Simon boiled the night before and put them in the fridge. Next is coffee. I have a small espresso pot so I get that ready, along with a pan of clean water to which I add sugar and milk powder. I make a cup for myself and one for Jeanne. Then Simone and I have some kind of breakfast – perhaps fresh fruit, perhaps eggs that are scrambled, fried or made into an omelet. Perhaps there is bread and we make a bit of toast. These days we are out of butter, and this can only be purchased downtown. We eat at a large table in the main room, which is also the room where the group counseling sessions and workshops are held. We clean up and Simon does the dishes.

After this, we discuss all kinds of things with Jeanne from what is planned for the day to dreams for the future. Also, one or the other of us is often needed to help Jeanne write a letter or email in English. Simone is mostly her private secretary these days. Jeanne’s computer is in her office and her cell phone serves as a modem, through which we access the internet. Unfortunately, this complicates our lives as there is often a bit of a lineup of people to use this computer. It is our main contact with the outside world. We keep the modem stocked with money, using cards that can be bought practically anywhere. Indeed, people approach you in the street to sell them. You scratch off the wax to reveal the code and enter it on the phone to fill up the account with minutes.

These days, when I am not giving a workshop or sitting in on counselling (something I have not done as yet) or assisting with English lessons, I am preparing for another workshop. The one I am working on now is basically women’s reproductive health – puberty to menopause and what comes in between, as well as a bit about child development as most of the women have families. The area where I need to use the internet relates to the women who are HIV positive. I know a bit but need to understand better how this disease affects the way they would ideally behave. I work at a desk in my room on my own laptop, except when I need to access the internet.
Lunch often consists of leftovers, which today is an amazing dish that Simone prepared last night with fish, coconut milk, tomatoes, garlic, onions, ginger and half a habaƱero. So utterly delicious! Today we will eat this with rice prepared by Jeanne. I plan to look over her shoulder as she makes rice, because my two-to-one rice recipe makes sticky rice and hers is the way rice should be, separate grains. So I will learn. And she will get to taste Simone’s cooking!

[Well it is now tomorrow evening, that is to say Saturday. A whole day has passed. Jeanne loved Simone’s dish and I learned a new way to make rice. And Simone and I found a shop that makes furniture and they will fix up a board that we can use for cutting in the kitchen! We pick it up tomorrow.]

Now I will go back to generalities. On three afternoons a week, there are workshops in English and also a yoga class in the early evening. These were organized and are led by Simone. I assist with the English, and in the yoga class, I am a student. It is amazing how a bit of exercise and stretching makes you feel good! And I adore watching as women master this new language, even in the smallest ways.

Once a month, there is a general meeting held at a church hall down the road apiece. This month’s meeting was today. There was a lot of singing and prayer and a homily by the sewing instructor. This was all in Kinyarwana so I was mostly flirting with a little girl of about two years. All the women today were given a bag of goodies, from articles of clothing to toothbrushes to little bottles of perfume, to pencils and so on. All the things that were donated by so many different people. There is something unsettling for me in giving such small things. Not that I think they aren’t appreciated, but that they are so very little. On the other hand, the women are very appreciative of the fact that so many people know and care about them and live so far away. Happily, I was able to give one of the toys that I had gathered from the Op Shop and from Sophia to the little girl. I am sure it was her very first toy, a small, gray bunny rabbit, something that some other child no longer wanted. I am sure it will be well-loved. A dream would be to be able to put a child’s toy in each of the women’s bags. The pre-school children all seem so under-stimulated.
One of the concrete things to come out of the gathering was the demand for more English classes, which Simone is delighted to insert into the schedule. Another is I put forward was that the women form a choir, led by me (not that I am qualified but hey, who’s checking!) and pretty well all the women in the room raised their hand when Jeanne put out the idea to gauge interest. And they want to sing Canadian songs! Simone and I spent a couple of hours today brainstorming songs that would be fun to harmonize, but we did stray beyond Canadian borders… for sure!

Another interesting thing that happened at the monthly meeting was that Jeanne said I would basically discuss any problems with women who had a health issue. So a gaggle of women followed us back to the centre where I gave out acetaminophen and a lesson on drinking enough water to stay hydrated, and also some back pain meds for a few women with sore backs, but first insisted that they stretch some before I would give it. And to the little 2 year old, I gave a two week supply of vitamins because she has a cough and because her mother took some red pills and she wanted some too.

So the afternoons pass in a variety of ways and then it is time to prepare dinner. That all takes awhile. Simone and I have developed a kind of dance as we work in the tiny kitchen, trying not to bump into each other or infringe on what the other person is doing. Simon is often watching as well so we have to avoid him too. But somehow we get it done and the table set and then we eat and clean up. So far, we are eating very well. The fruit here is fabulous. Fresh pineapple for about $1 and riper than I have ever tasted. Tomatoes and avocadoes and papayas, which are so sweet and delicious… And something that Jeanne calls Japanese plums, which are egg sized and red and full of edible black seeds, the size of a peppercorn perhaps. And so on. What is harder to find are grains in variety. And there is just one bakery that sells brown bread, all the way downtown. Not cheap.

One day soon I will have to get some more Rwandan cash. This is a cash economy and very few places accept Visa. I think I have figured out the currency and am beginning to get a sense of what things cost. I can even bargain a little bit but I also tip, which is not part of the culture… so I guess it all evens out. As an aside, I brought a bunch of US $100 bills. I had been told they should be new, and they were, at least in terms of ones that are more difficult to tamper with. But here, the exchange on bills that are older than 2006 is less than on the newer ones. Not sure what that is about, but I would have to say someone somewhere is pocketing the difference.

Into the evening, Simone and I often play a couple of games of cribbage. We may also do some emailing and writing and reading. Even though night falls quickly, we do have electricity in the house, although the lighting is not that bright. But bright enough to do those things. I am glad I brought a small desk lamp with a halogen bulb so that I can see better and a transformer so it works (thanks Jim). My old eyes don’t really do that well in dim light.

Sidebar: This evening we enjoyed a torrential rain. The heavens opened. The wind blew. Thunder rumbled and cracked. After the deluge, the night air smelled so delicious, free of dust and heat and humidity. It may be the beginning of the small rainy season…

At bedtime, I take a quick shower. And I do mean quick as the water is cold only, from all the taps. It is a bit like diving into a Canadian lake in July, say, and gasping a few times and then saying, well this isn’t so bad really. At least some of us say that. :) Anyway, it feels awfully good to wash off all the sweat and dust of the day. And that is pretty much the end of my day. I open my net and put it around my bed, along with my lamp and a book and bunch of crosswords and sudokus and such. And pretty soon I go to sleep to the soporific sounds of drinkers and loud music from the bar next door. Like a lullaby…

All in all, life here is pretty grand. Murabeho!

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