Poplar Street; Norfolk Street; 44th Avenue; Rifle Street; Iran Street; Veasey Hall; Umubuga Village; Gacuriro Sector; Otero Place.
Just to name a few.
I’ve lived in all sorts of different kinds of places; the American Suburbs, early 90’s neighborhoods in Denver, vintage college dormitories, newly furnished campus apartments, tin-roofed homes in Rwanda’s countryside, and castle-esque mansions in Kigali’s tucked away urban hills.
I didn’t even really know the name of my Kigali neighborhood until, like, two days ago. Kind of pathetic, honestly, when you’ve been staying there for over two months. In Rwanda, community names are structured in a relatively orderly fashion. From the most localized level to the broadest, the breakdown is as follows: village (umudugudu), cell (akagali), sector (umurenge), district (akarere), and province (itara).
The Women’s Bakery is in the process of organizing a bread demonstration event for Rwanda’s Global Entrepreneurship Week; we are planning to showcase our baking process with local women in our nearby market so we have a solidified relationship with where our office is located.
Confession: I put the wrong community names on the initial registration form. Oops? That’s a hard sign that you should probably dig a bit deeper into where you are. And so, I finally have the cell name memorized. Phew. And even better, I can give motorcycle drivers a better sense of where I live when getting rides home. Excellent.
With this new information in mind, I went on what I would call an “exploratory run” several evenings ago. At just around 5, right when the sun was finally cooling from the day, I began my ascent up the hill to our nearby “black road.” Important fact: 5pm is the pedestrian rush hour of Rwanda. I ran into men, women, children, all coming home from long days at school and work. As per usual, I listened to occasional hissing noises (common to appeal for attention), calls for “umuzungu,” and general surprise as they watched a white girl with heavy breaths, sweat, and black nike shorts run past them.
All this just made me tired. No, not the running, but the ever-present commentary on my existence. It’s to be expected, of course, but I could feel myself slipping into honestly, a whiney attitude, as I turned further down the road. Man, I really am tired of having to listen to this. I really wish I could turn up the music on my IPOD…
Right in that moment, as I prayed for some sense of peace to relax on my run, a neighborhood shop-keeper from my village greeted me. A dearly sweet man, I smiled and greeted him enthusiastically. Okay, I can do this. Keep your head up, girl.
So I did. And then, because of the exploratory nature of this jog, decided to head into the valley below our home upon a hill. I left the crowded black roads and opted for a light, dusty road that guides walkers with wood-bridges over swampy grasslands. The valley crept upon me, and in just a matter of minutes, I was seeing a Kigali I had never seen before.
Smoky, grey, smelly, and full of stench – this is not the Kigali people usually visit. I could feel the culture shock seeping deeply and rapidly into my veins. This was not in the intensity of seeing the rural village areas for the first time; this was different. Perhaps because it was so close to my home, but also because these kinds of places in Kigali are truly tucked away from the general public eye. Homes are stacked upon each other – 1,2 room plots holding who knows how many people. Charcoal stoves are everywhere. Rags. Litter. Pollution. It was overwhelming. I kept running. Mostly because I didn’t know what else to do. I realized quickly that the wooden path ahead led back to an intersection near my home. Perfect Couldn’t have planned that any better.
I maintained my 10:00 mile pace through the valley and encroached a football field. Almost there.
With just a few minutes left to reach my goal of 4 miles, I ran faster. As I sped up, I passed by a middle-aged woman carrying a bulky, burdensome black bag. I heard a small nudge. After your run, go back. Help here.
I just wanted to go back home. Back to my comforts of water filters, couches, and 4,000 square feet of freedom. Go back.
So, obediently, I did. I introduced myself.
“Mwiriwe, ndashobora gufasha….” (Hello, I can help you…)
She hesitantly passed her bag over, uncertain of my end-game. I told her I just wanted to help her because while running, I saw her struggling, and knew I had a few minutes I could offer. God told me to, I said. She flickered a look of relief, and the conversation continued.
“Nitwa Bernadette,” she muttered. She told me she worked for one of the government’s ministries as a cleaner. Her back hurt. She was tired. Worn down. She needed to get home. She had 4 grown children, but she still had obligations in her household so they could continue to study and maintain a functional life. She escorted me through the over-populated village. We stepped to the side and worked through a maze of doors, apartments, sewage, and people. What was this place?
When we finally reached her home, we set that dang black bag down. I was exhausted. I was….well, I just couldn’t believe there were people living like this just 4 minutes away from the home in which I was staying. Life is weird.
We prayed together. I prayed that God would protect her home; bringing comfort and security in Him, no matter what the physical structure of the walls were made of. When she was showing me the way out, so I could get back home, she told me the name of the village proudly.
Over the corner and to the side, the parallel village name was Izuba. Moon (ukwezi) and Sun (izuba). I found this ironically perfect. It might just be the name of the place, but for many, these are the names of home.
That’s why it’s important, I see now. Because these structures, community naming systems, and identifications provide a way for people to share a piece of their life.
I can’t reconcile all of the complications of this feeling. I can’t explain what it feels like to be so obviously blessed in the midst of such hidden and obvious poverty. I do know, however, that guilt is not what God is calling us to live into, and so just because we don’t have answers, doesn’t mean we can’t exist in these kinds of tensions. It’s evil in the world. But we exist as light; therefore, we don’t have to run just away from these complexities just because we don’t understand. That’s freedom, and I thank God for that. We actually are able to live in accordance with His will, if we are willing to try. Moreover, something God has been teaching me in a variety of ways is understanding that His blessings are not without purpose. So, instead of feeling guilty that you have blessings – financially, intellectually, physically, etc. – you can actually steward and share them. Bam! That’s called freedom, y’all.
So, I know that I can humble myself – even in a lack of comfortability – and walk or run that direction, knowing that I might just encounter someone who could use a bit of help. Heck, that person in need of help could very well be me.