Who else thinks that home is a funny sort of a word? It starts with a “h” which French people cannot pronounce. Also, “ome” in another word, “Come” is not pronounced the same way at all. I’ve had time to think about homes this past week. “Come Home” seems to be a trend in my mind. I will not lie and say that I have had a great week. It has been a very, very difficult process of adaptation to live and work in a tiny rural community in Africa. I’ve had good days and bad days. Most days, I just want to go home. Where that home really is… well, that is a little bit hazy in my mind still.
I have a home here in Rwanda too. For the past week and 2 days (yes, I’m counting), I have lived in a tiny community called Musambira about an hour outside of Kigali. My room is a spacious square made of cement and topped off with a combination of bamboo and mud and straw roof which, I discovered, lets in torrential downpours at the far corners. It also does not keep out any sort of noise, be it person, animal or climatic events. I get inside the compound through a rickety staircase of sorts made of stones that always seems about to fall down. It opens up to an inner courtyard, which is where all the action occurs. My room is actually usually a residence for students in the secondary school next door so I have other neighbours who flit in and out to see who the “Muzungu” is. The family lives in a complex house on the other side which I haven’t discovered fully yet. But there is a kitchen and a “family room” in the middle where we sit on the floor and eat all together.
But homes are not made of mud and straw. They are made and constructed by the people who inhabit them. I have so many things to say. I will give a brief introduction and then, hopefully during the summer more things will appear.
First of all, there is Mama Maryam. She is my host mother and I have already grown to love her. I’ve been lucky with my mommies. She is a large woman, always wearing a colourful “pagne” or what the skirts are called here in Rwanda and a “boubou” covering her head. She spends her time in the kitchen I think, at least from what I can see. Cooking one meal after another. This is an impressive lady, let me tell you. She had 11 children with her husband. (Her husband had 3 other wives and had 33 children in total) Another woman lives in a separate house but same compound who is another wife of the late husband, who died in ’94 in the DRC camps. I didn’t get the whole story yet but I’m I have a few more months to find out. She speaks no English or French but we have our Kinyarwanda moments, involving lots of miming and very very simple words that I can understand. I spent my first weekend in the outdoor kitchen with her, sitting on a water crate, learning the words for the different vegetables I peeled with a blunt knife. I learned how to make a fire in small transportable stoves with “amacara”- coal and wood, how to peel potatoes (can you imagine I have been doing it wrong all my life?), I learned to fetch water from the pump (which, because my family is pretty lucky, is actually in our yard) to boil it so I can drink it, I learned to make sweet ichayi- african tea with spices and a little dust thrown in for good measure. I learned to be patient because meals take more than 4 hours to prepare and because I needed to observe more than talk. She taught me to make “chapat”- which is actually chapati but made with a combination of maize and soya flour and to cut onions smalls than most garlic cloves at home. I’ve shelled more fresh peanuts than I have ever eaten in my life (fresh! as in, straight out of the ground, where we dug, for HOURS). She has fed me and told me to sleep and shown me to wash my clothes with minimal water. She’s impressive, let me tell you. Her children are educated and she has taken in orphans and sees them through school. She goes to work in a field far away from the house where she has cassava, peanuts, sweet potatoes and other sorts of deliciousnesses. She is a mother above all. And I’m lucky to add to my list of Ammu and Maman and Mama Maryam.
I have three brothers. Abdallah is my age. He studies in Uganda but is thankfully home for the summer (aka, until I leave). He speaks English, French, Swahili, Arabic and some local Ugandan language. He’s my official translator, confidante, bodyguard and tour guide. Then there is Hakin. He speaks a little English but takes great pride in sitting in the kitchen and teaching me kinyarwanda vocabulary and playing songs on his cell phone. And there is Wahab, who is actually the other woman’s son but who lives in our compound. He’s the hip and cool one, tall and dark and handsome, speaks French and loves to laugh. They are my kitchen companions. We sit around talking about everything and nothing at night while Mama Maryam makes us food. We play snakes and ladders and explore the hills close to the house and sit and think. They find cool places for me to hide out from the children screaming “Umuzungu” and find me the nice flowers I like to take pictures of. I have other brothers that come in and out but they don’t feature too strongly in the story for now…
I also have sisters. Zaytouna– She is also my age, loves music and is a regular actress. She’s very sweet and likes to laugh. She is starting school in Kigali very soon though so I won’t get her very often. Nadya is an orphan who lives with us. She must be about 12 and has lovely eyes. There is Sima, Wadja, Naira, Aisha. There are always lots and lots of people around! In our compound, there is also Mama Happy, Mama Maryam’s daughter- in- law, who has a daughter- named Happy who, unfortunately, cries ALL the TIME.
This just about describes my home here for the next 2 months. I walk to work every morning, about a kilometre and a half away. Children always crowd around us and shout “Umuzungu, Umuzungu”, which I’m finding very difficult. This reminds me too often, that I’m not at home. And I do long to be. I’ve spent many hours thinking about my bed in Montreal, my haven of peace and tranquility at Race Rocks, my family in Laval and Mississaugal, of my wonderful summer spent in Newfoundland and I keep asking myself WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE?
But, then, there are moments like when I spend 3 hours learning clapping games with all my brothers and sisters in the courtyard. Or spend 4 hours cramped around a tiny little television set in a room filled to capacity with people to watch the World Cup, or when I look up and see a star- filled sky or walking to work having little boys and girls waving and calling out “Mwaramutse Raisa”- “Good Morning Raisa” and not “Muzungu”, or having Wahab call me from Kigali to see how I’m doing or Mama Maryam coming in my room when I felt sad to tuck me into bed and rub my head better. Or when Naira leaps out of her grandmother’s arms and runs into mine after work. Or having hunting for butterflies with Abdallah. Or going to work in the fields with farmers and digging in the dirt for peanuts or harvesting soya pods for an Africa- wide Bill Gates sponsored experiment. Of singing Barenaked Ladies and Alanis Morissett, of green misty hills…I have my moments when I think that this is very fast becoming home.