Sunday, October 6, 2013

Driving While Mizungu

After all the hub-bub with the dog on Saturday, I went to take a shower and decided to use the one in the building I am living in, the one that is just a cold water faucet.  It was really hot so I thought I wouldn’t mind the colder water.  I washed my hair and noticed that it was difficult to get the soap out for some reason.  Then I wash my arms and armpits.  When I went to rinse them I noticed that the water from the faucet was less a delightfully cold and refreshing deluge and more a luke-warm stream which was quickly becoming a tepid trickle.  By the time I finished rinsing it was only drip-drip.  The water had turned off.  Murakoze cyane Rwanda!  (Thank you very much Rwanda!)

At least I was able to wash my hair!  But I couldn’t brush my teeth or wash my lower half or shave or anything.  Oh well.  I got dressed.  I dressed nicely because Damas was meant to take me to see his parents’ house and then a dinner at his house.  I wore capris and a nice shirt recently given to me by my mother-in-law and my orange resin and gold jewelry set and put on mild-level make-up.  I put on perfume.  I wore my plaid loafers thinking we might walk just a bit but not too much so I didn’t want to wear nice shoes or my walking shoes.

Damas arrived on time at four and I got in the car.  He drove me outside the city, maybe half an hour or so, in his car.  His car is HUGE.  It’s really, really big.  It’s a Toyota and a model that is not made in the USA and I have never seen before.  But really tall and four wheel drive standard transmission.  I feel like we are about to hit everyone on the road.  It is an unusual car for Rwanda because it is so big and so nice.  People like to look at it and try to look inside of it because they know it must be someone rich or important.  This is a car that Damas has because he works for a good position in the government.

Some things about driving in Rwanda.  People are EVERYWHERE.  There are lot’s of people out on the street at all times of the day and into the night.  There are motos (motorcycle taxis) everywhere and they are in the way and completely crazy and dangerous.  They cut in front.  They ride beside.  They pull out in front of you.  They do not signal at all.  I asked Damas what he thought of the motos, he said, “I HATE them, HATE them.”  I think I hate them, too.  I cannot imagine a future me or a situation in which I would choose to get on one.  I will not get on one.  It’s just too scary and dangerous.

The cars here and the people do not obey any rules of the road.  They are all over the place and driving on the wrong side and do not use signals.  In order to communicate they use a complex language of what can only be described as Morse code with their high beams.  I don’t understand it.  Suffice to say, I did not like being in a car at all.  I would rather walk everywhere.  The buses seem more safe because they drive more slowly and seem to obey more rules.  So, buses might be an option in the future.  For now, I would rather keep my feet on solid ground.

So another thing about the roads in Rwanda.  All of the paved roads and most of the dirt roads in the city have VERY deep and large gutters on one or both sides of the street.  There are NO curbs.  You could just drop your wheels right into them.  It’s so terrifying to me to be driving like that:  moto, people, other cars, in a big car driving fast, no one obeying rules, and the constant possibility that you might fall off on the passenger side.  I hate it.  It’s the most challenging thing I have done since I got here.  Damas asked me often, “What, are you scared?  Why?!”  As if by asking he could suddenly convince me of the absurdity of being afraid.  How do I tell him that, even though I would be afraid anyway, many mizungu would find driving in Kigali harrowing?

Side bar:  the other day, I overheard a person say, “Rwandans are naturally obedient.”  This was in a political context and meant to say something about the history of more authoritarian forms of government, in particular the prior monarchy.  I immediately felt my stomach turn over.  No one is “naturally” obedient.  In fact, I think this statement is nonsensical.  But, if it were true, then the Hutus would not have revolted against Tutsi rule and the country as a whole would not have sought independence.  And besides all that and the general silliness of such a statement, Rwandans would obey the laws of the land with regard to driving and walking and the road if they were “naturally” obedient.  Sociology teaches us to ALWAYS be suspicious when you hear the world “natural”.

On this topic, in the last few days I have heard all kinds of weird generalizations about Rwandans both from mizungu and Rwandans:

1.     Rwandans are lazy

2.     Rwandans are cheaters

3.     Rwandans like to steal

4.     Rwandans are the most curious and nosey people.  It’s not polite.

5.     Rwandans don’t know anything.

6.     Rwandans only care about their particular career and will cheat you to get ahead.

7.     Rwandans are conservative.

The list goes on but these are the more ugly ones.  For the record, Rwandans don’t seem any different than any other people in the world in terms of human nature.  Both to me, personally, from my short experience of the past week and according to this list.  This list could also look like:

1.     Americans are lazy

2.     Americans are cheaters

3.     Americans like to steal

4.     Americans are the most curious and nosey people.  Its not polite.

5.     Americans don’t know anything

6.     Americans only care about their particular career and will cheat you to get ahead.

7.     Americans are conservative.


So, we are driving, up and up and up and away from Kigali.  Things are getting more and more rural.  Then he pulls over on this road on a vista of the city and says he wants to show me a good view.  We stop next to an open field that works as a vista on top of a hill with a view of Kigali.  There are about 7 children playing in the field.  The moment this giant expensive car door opens a mizungu, me, steps out.  All of the children SPRINT in my direction and surround me.  All say something, muraho!  Or bonjour!  I say Haalloo!  We walk toward the vista and are looking around and the children are standing behind me chattering.  It was hard to listen to Damas because of this.  It’s like being one part freak and one part celebrity.  I notice inside myself the strong desire to say to these children, “There is nothing special about looking like I do except that I sunburn easily, I am inclined to asthma, I am more susceptible to malaria and less susceptible to many fevers and flus, and I am more inclined to be fat.  I am nothing and everything just like you are nothing and everything.”  But, I don’t yet know Kinyarwandan.

We go back to the car and he says that he wants to show me his land on the other side.  I put my purse in the glove compartment which locks and only when the car is on.  Then he locks the car and sets the alarm.  There are a lot of men walking on the road.  We cross the road and start down a path.  There are goats.  Little goats running around and then two baby goats.  They were so unbelievably cute.  They were playing and braying and running around us.  I was delighted.  And before you can ask, no I didn’t have my camera on this trip because I didn’t know we were going there.

We went back to the car.

We started to drive and then drove and drove.  Unfortunately, these back roads are just as dangerous as the city roads but for a different reason.  On the one side is the incline of the hill, you would fall off.  In the middle of the road are these unbelievably deep grooves going this way and that from erosion from the rain which is such a deluge.  This is why Damas likes his big car.  So he can go up and down and around all these things.  The strange thing is that he has a penchant for driving on the left side of the unmarked dirt roads and, from my point of view, seems to like to swerve suddenly to the left if there are people walking on the left and swerve suddenly to the right if there are people walking on the right so that people often get wide-eyed.  Maybe that is why people always want to know who is in the car he drives.  Because it looks like this big expensive car with the tinted windows is trying to hit them.

Side note:  in the countryside, Katie, the Peacecorp worker, says that the mizungu workers use the terms tatertots and hashbrowns to refer to Tutsi and Hutu.  I think that is hilarious.  You are not allowed really to talk about ethnicity in anything but an abstract way here because people don’t want to identify and it’s the rudest thing you can think of.

So, we saw his land and his family land the people who work it.  There are many, many plants in the countryside that try to stick you.  You can imagine, after a lot of walking over this land, I was really regretting what I picked to wear and have decided to definitely ask, DEMAND, Damas tell me PRECISELY what we will be doing next time I hang out with him.

Today, Agnes took me to the local market to buy a chapatti which I ate for lunch with tomatoes and avocados and salt and a little container of grand nuts, which are like peanuts only a bit lighter as if they have less fat.  Agnes used to work here but recently got a job somewhere else and now just lives here.  On the walk, she held my hand.  People hold hands here while walking, I’ve seen it.  I have seen men holding hands with each other and touching each other a lot and women.  And Agnes was holding my hand in a natural way.  I have to say that as mizungu people want to touch me generally.  They touch a lot anyway, but they look for excuses to touch me and in particular to touch my hair.
Today, I am drinking the local Rwandan beer Primus.  It is cheaper and is totally Rwanda.  The “better” beer which is more German and sweeter is from a company that was historically German and is called Mutzig.  I like that too, but it is sweeter and more expensive so less my cup of...err…mug of beer.

Also, I recently found out that Glenn, the 70 year old Bostonian who owns this guest house, likes to bring lot's of nail polish for Agnes and Dinah who then invite their friends and others over to paint their toenails.  It’s their little side business.  I think I might take advantage of their business acumen because the polish I have seen that they have is actually really pretty.

One more thing, my lips keep being chapped.  I thought I wasn’t drinking enough water.  But, in truth, on days when it isn’t raining, the humidity is 40%!  It’s so low!  I am so parched!


  1. Seems fun! XD Could you take a photo of the huge car at the next opportunity? I'm a bit curious about that~

  2. In Indonesia, the big cars were made by Toyota and were called Kijang. It was a model not sold in America and looked sort of like a Land Rover.