Now that I’ve been living in Huye for a few months, I finally feel like the town is becoming home. I’ve learned how to overcome some of the little things that make it clear I’m new in the area – I’ve learned the appropriate amount of time to wait before crossing the street, to walk around the fleet of motos waiting outside of the market instead of through them, to have a coin ready in my hand when I walk into the market to pay one of the young boys who insists on selling me a paper bag, how to politely decline a bike taxi, which watchmen appreciate a greeting and which ones don’t. Still, every day holds something new.
Yesterday, as I walked to the market, I saw that a large section of the main road was blocked off. Women in kitenge dresses printed with the Skol (a Rwanda beer) logo and men wearing vests made of the same fabric walked between yellow tents – setting up tables, arranging piles of promotional giveaways, and stretching chords along the pavement to connect at least a dozen speakers.
At the second turnoff, a yellow semi-truck blocked the road. One side of the trailer had been rolled up to reveal that it was a sort of mobile stage, decked with massive speakers, a flashing light, and several microphones – the entire vehicle and its contents were decorated with Skol logos.
I wondered what was going on, but continued on my way. After finishing my errands (in case you were wondering, mission “buy mangoes, tomatoes, and cumin” was two-thirds successful) I began my journey back to Taba (the area of Huye where I live). I became aware that I was walking in a stream of people. Downtown is usually busy around 11 a.m., but not this busy. As I approached the main part of town, I saw that the area of the road that had been blocked off was now flooded with people. Policemen brandishing metal sticks waved the crowd toward the sides of the street. Music blared from the speakers along the road, and as I passed the Skol truck three men switched on the microphones and began speaking in excited, rapid, Kinyarwanda. Light rain began to fall, but the ever-amassing crowd pressed together and cheered. Everyone was eagerly anticipating something – I just couldn’t quite figure out what that something was.
I took my raincoat out of my backpack, pulled up the hood, and continued making my way through the crowd, my journey becoming easier the farther I got from the main part of town. The crowd thinned, but I could see another wave of people walking in my direction. As I neared the intersection, I heard a shout coming from the large white store in front of me. I turned to see Joselyne smiling and waving shyly at me.
Joselyne and I first got to know each other when I stopped into the store to buy chocolate for my students. When I approached the counter with three bars of chocolate in my hand, her eyes widened.
“You?” she asked. I tilted my head to the side and shook it, not sure what she meant.
“All!” she pointed to the chocolate. “For you?”
I laughed, realizing how ridiculous my purchase must seem through her eyes. Chocolate is a treat – but this much chocolate probably looked like a whole new level of indulgence.
I attempted to explain myself: “Ndi umukorera bushake nigisha icyongereza mur PIASS,” (I am a volunteer, teaching English at PIASS).
“Mmmm,” she squinted her eyes and leaned in, waiting to hear how this fun fact about my life related to the fact that I consume large amounts of chocolate.
I searched for the words to finish my explanation: “Abanyeshuri… gusangira…” (Students… to share food…). I couldn’t put the whole sentence together, but I was determined to finish what I’d started. I held up the bars, pointed at them and then in the direction of the university. “Gusangira… abanyeshuri.”
Her face lit up. “Ahh! Yego! Mmmm!” (Yes) she smiled and held out her hand, apparently having decided that this was a permissible defense of my purchase. I handed her a crumpled bill, and she handed it to a woman who suddenly appeared through a door in the side of the building. The woman took it and walked out the front door. The umucuruzi (shopkeeper) raised her eyebrows and said “mmmm,” waiting to see if I understood that the woman had left to break the bill and I needed to wait for my change. I smiled, nodded, and responded with: “mmmm.”
Let me just pause for a moment to explain that when it comes to communication, Rwandans are my people! Why? Well, let me tell you. Often, it is completely appropriate to use the sounds “mmmm” (meaning “yes” or “go on”) and “mm mm” (meaning “no” or “I don’t understand”) in place of actual phrases. Those of you who know me know that these sounds comprise a large part of my everyday vocabulary. Many Rwandans consider “mmmm” and “mm mm” to be indicators of active listening. (The one struggle has been that Rwandans seem to interpret “mmhmm,” which I frequently use to mean “absolutely,” as a variation of “mm mm.” This has become especially frustrating in my Kinyarwanda lessons when I’m trying to tell my teacher I have indeed understood the material and she starts explaining it again.)
So, there we were, waiting for the woman who had taken my money from the woman I was currently standing with to return with my change.
“What is your name?” asked the umucuruzi.
I told her, and then asked for hers. I soon learned that her name is Joselyne and that she works in the shop every day (buri munsi).
Since that day, every time I’ve gone into the store Joselyne has gotten up from behind the table with the cash register, greeted me, and then accompanied me as I walked around the store. At first, it was a little unnerving. I wondered if she thought I was incapable of shopping on my own. Soon, however, I realized that she considered us friends, and that walking around the store together was our way of getting to know one another. We communicate in simple sentences – a mix of basic Kinyarwanda and English and French – and although we miss some of the nuances and details, we always seem to figure out the gist of what the other is saying.
And so, it wasn’t really a surprise that as I passed the shop on my way home yesterday, a voice called out to me:
“Amy, my sister! You must come in!”
The hood of my raincoat cut off my peripheral vision, so I had to twist my whole body to see who had called my name. Joselyne was standing in the doorway of the shop, waving to me.
“Amy! You must come! You must come for the culture!”
Confused but intrigued, I turned from the road and walked up the stairs of the building. It would be good to get out of the rain anyway. Joselyne greeted me with a hug and a handshake.
“I’ve missed you!” she said.
I laughed. “I’ve missed you!”
She pointed out through the open doorway to the street: “There!”
People lined up along both sides of the street, crowded into the balconies of the second-story shops, squished together under the large umbrellas that mark airtime kiosks, some even climbed up billboard frames – anything for a better vantage point.
“What is going on?” I asked. Joselyne scrunched her forehead. I ventured again: “I mean, why are all of the people in the street?”
“The street? The street.” Then it clicked. “Ah! Yego! Bicycles!” she said. “It is the Tour Du Rwanda!”
We stood in the doorway of the shop, hiding from the rain and watching the street fill up with people, despite the weather. A man came up to Joselyne, shook her hand, and then shook mine as if we’d already been introduced. Then, a woman walked into the shop and did the same. Soon, the stairs leading up to the shop were packed with people, all of whom had greeted me like a friend from the past.
There I stood, for over an hour, in a doorway with a dozen people I’d never met before and one person I am just beginning to get to know, waiting for something to happen.
“They will be here soon!” The mantra was repeated over and over.
We listened to the radio on someone’s phone. The announcer reported the progress of the bike race live, and my new friends eagerly translated for me. We could see flashing lights in the distance, and suddenly a motorcycle with police lights on it flew past.
Joselyne nudged me. “They are very near,” she said.
And they were! Five seconds later a group of bicyclists breezed past. The spectators screamed and cheered and jumped up and down. And then, the race was over.
We waited, listening to the radio for the race results.
“It was ARERUYA Joseph!” said one of the men. Everyone on the steps cheered again.
“He is Rwandese,” Joselyne said. “We are very happy! Are you happy together with us?”
“Yes, Joselyne,” I said. “I am happy with you.” And I was.
I said goodbye to the storefront steps crew, and once again began my journey home. It was barely raining, but just enough that I kept my hood up. I passed the man who fixes shoes, and the woman who sells avocados, and boy who always wears a purple jacket, and then I heard footsteps right behind me. I was about to turn around to see who it was when –
“Hello, Amy! It is me!”
I turned around to see Jean Paul, the student body president of PIASS, grinning and clapping his hands.
“We won! We won the race! Did you see it?” Jean Paul was so excited I couldn’t respond without interrupting him, so I just nodded. This made him even more excited. “I wish you had told me you were going to be there! I hope you weren’t alone!”
“Oh, don’t worry. I wasn’t alone.”
One of the things that has astounded me most about my community in Rwanda is that people are not afraid to reach out to each other. It takes time and commitment to build trust, that is for sure, but the more I work to prioritize my relationships with the people in my community, the more warmly they welcome me into their circles. A few weeks ago, I never would have imagined being invited to spend hours with Joselyne and her friends, waiting to catch a split-second glimpse of a race. I never would have imagined Jean Paul running to catch up with me so I didn’t have to walk alone in the rain. I’m learning that relationships are much more like waiting together for a race to begin than they are about racing toward any sort of finish line. I’m learning that my understanding of friendship is a little different than some of my Rwandan acquaintances’, and I’m learning that navigating the differences is a beautiful process. And I’m learning that when someone makes an effort to be inclusive, the answer is (almost) always: “Yes.”
For more information about the Tour Du Rwanda: