Monthly Archives: July 2012

I, Muzungu

How about that ride in? I guess that’s why they call it the Land of a Thousand Hills…

Oh god…the handshake thing.

It happens almost every day and every time it does, I can see it coming but I’m completely powerless to stop it. It’s like seeing the trajectory of a social trainwreck, but instead of being a hero and saving all those innocent bystanders, I freeze and get run over by the steel rail choo-chooing of cultural differences.

Rwandans, and East Africans in general I’m learning, have this thing with complex, convoluted handshakes with a loose choreography that was universally agreed on at some secret council meeting I wasn’t uninvited to.

It has a couple of steps…I think:

There’s the presentation, the wind up, the slap, the grip and the release. That I’ve got down, at least slightly.

But from there, the routine breaks off into a thousand variants that always leave me standing around looking like someone just asked me to recite the quadratic equation. The snap, the fist bump,  the grab, the pull, the switch, the linger, or one I like to call “The Awkward Pause” where you just kind of hold hands for an undesignated period of time.

Half the time I feel like Steve Urkell backstage at a Wu-Tang concert.

It’s weird, but there are some things here that you just start getting used to, things that back home would seem just wholly strange and inconceivable.

–          Some mornings, *ahem,* every morning, there is no running water in our neighborhood

–          Bathroom facets and shower heads have one direction: on. If you want hot water, boil it, or leave a bucket in the sun

–          I have over 10 roommates but only 3 actually pay the rent. Be warned, geckos are sneaky, treacherous and freeloading reptiles

–          Men casually walk down the street platonically holding hands

–          If you don’t properly set up your mosquito net before bed, you’ll wake up bumpier than Tommy Lee’s genitals

–          If you don’t properly tuck in said mosquito net, spiders will creep into your bed and bite you while you sleep. No superpowers yet. Fingers still crossed.

–          There are armed military guards on every street corner packing enough heat to kill everyone on the road in a moment

–          The price of absolutely everything is inflated because you don’t even have the option to play it cool and pretend you’re a local, although I’ve tried, with varying degrees of consistent failure

I’ve never really had the experience of feeling out of place before. I mean, I had the usual teenage angst ridden years of hormonally-induced self-deprecation like the rest of you, but I mean truly feeling like I was different, an outsider.

When I walk down the street I can almost feel them, eyes following me as I try to blend in with the crowd, the kind of consistent gazes that would give Sauron a run for his money in a staring competition. That gnawing, nail biting sense of self-awareness where all I want to do is sink into the woodwork like a flea but can’t, and just when I think that maybe I’ve finally got it, a kid will usually give me away.

“Muzungu! Muzungu!”

Yes, yes, here I am. They stick their arms towards me out and I fumble their tiny hands into what I play off as an acceptable handshake.

I’d always been given the choice to stand out or blend in, something that made my job much easier and also kind of made me feel like a ninja at times. But here, I always feel like a stranger, regardless of the fact that Rwandans have been indescribably welcoming. I’ve never felt unsafe, but I just can’t seem to get used to those gazes and the feeling of constantly being under a spotlight, lit up nice and bright for the world to see and stare.

I’m reminded of my first ride on a motorcycle taxi, desperately clinging to that little handle, terrified and exhilarated, holding on for dear life to the point where my hands felt as if they’d break off. Now I’m learning that I’d had it all wrong; the trick is not to use the Vulcan death grip, but to loosen your fingers just a little and sway with the motions of the moto; just to go with the flow.

It was all starting to make sense.

There’s this subtle art that I’m starting to learn, like wearing a giant middle finger on my forehead that only I can see, a big inside joke that only I’m in on. This effervescent kind of transcendental universally respected strut that exudes a kind of effortless self-assurance, regardless of what’s going on in my head.

I don’t meet eyes with anyone for longer than a second on the street, just a flashing smile, a wink then a stone faced demeanour that might as well be a brick wall.

I, Muzungu? No, no, you’ve got me all wrong, sir. Me? Just another freak, in the freak community. A man on the move, just sick enough to be totally confident.

Thompson, I think you may have had it right all along.

Stereotypical expat picture with an African child

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Don’t Worry Rwanda, I Was An Awkward Teenager Too

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I swear, six year-old Dave had a coronary when we stumbled on these guys

I was having a lot of fun to begin with, but when we saw the giraffes, life took a sharp right turn at ‘Surreal Avenue’ before blowing a tire and crashing into a streetlight on ‘Pinch Me I’m Fucking Dreaming Boulevard.’

Our safari guide had said the magic words and given us the green light to step out of the car, slowly, so as to not frighten off the tower (no, seriously, that’s what you call a group of giraffes.) As I stepped out and nervously fumbled with my lens cap, a group of nearby warthogs startled and ran off single file into the thick bush. I quickly pointed my camera in their direction then decided not to bother.

Because…well…giraffes, right?

The Akagera National Park surprised me in a lot of ways. This was the side of Africa I had learned about in textbooks and Discovery Channel specials; that seemingly endless expanse of massive lakes and thick bush booming with wild life. This was the kind of place where at any moment you’d expect Simba and Rafiki to stumble out of the bushes looking guilty, humming Hakuna Matata and mumbling something about White Castle.

But the park, as beautiful as it is, is a finely focused bubble that pops as soon as you realize exactly what it is. The jeep, the safari, the smiling khaki-clad guide, the throngs of loud Ammuhrican voluntourists each wearing a different T-shirt broadcasting their respective alma mater or hometown (just in case you were too shy to ask,) all of it was part of a guise, a weird illusion that gets solidified the moment you lay eyes on your first zebra.

This is not the Rwanda I had known thus far, but sadly I feel like this is the Rwanda most people see; distant, removed and passing quickly by the open window of a moving vehicle, doors locked.

Kigali itself has actually surprised me with its modernity. When you think of Eastern Africa, your mind is immediately overloaded with images of guilt-ridden World Vision famine commercials or flashing newsreels of people in faux military garb chopping each other’s arms off with machetes in the jungle.

But the reality of the city couldn’t be more opposite…something I’m actually very thankful for.

I remember a funny conversation I had with my mom the other day. After the usual Italian mother-hen diatribe about how I’m too skinny and the now expected reminder to not give my passport to strangers on the street, we got on the subject of how I get to work. Of course, I lied and said I take the bus, casually avoiding the topic of motorcycle taxis; she’d grab the next flight over just for the chance to throttle me. Stunned, she cried out, half laughing, almost as if she was covering her tracks just in case I was being sarcastic and she had missed the cue:

“There are buses?!?!?” she finally said.

Hell, I might as well have told her I teleport to the radio station.

“Well, sometimes. But other times they get caught up in elephant-related traffic jams in the jungle. In that case, I usually just string some banana leaves together, stand really still for a while, then rope together some exotic birds into a kind of floating mat, then I fly to work. It takes some practice, but it gets easier the more I do it.”

That time I was being sarcastic. That time, I think she got it.

Yes, Kigali has buses, and roads, and skyscrapers, and shops, and bars and cafés and just about everything else you’d expect from a city of over a million residents.

It’s strange, I get the same feeling in Kigali than I did in Istanbul, that feeling of being caught right in the middle of an urban identity crisis. Kigali is a pimply, greasy, awkward teenager with a crackling voice and bad facial hair, aware that he is no longer a boy but not yet sure how to be a man.

But the beauty is that the city doesn’t really seem to care and neither do its residents.

In every way, Kigali is the shining beacon of an African city in the midst of a social and economic shift, but other parts of the country seem stuck in that disadvantaged Lion King cultural clusterfuck that people envision when you whisper the word ‘Africa.’ Driving to the national park through hours of untouched sub-Saharan landscape and banana-thatched rural villages, Kigali seemed like half a world away.

Don’t worry Rwanda, we’ve all gone through awkward growing pains, but sooner or later you’re going to have to make up your mind and decide what you want to be: thriving, modern metropolitan African powerhouse or safari jungle adventure.

It works for now, but you can’t be both, at least not forever.

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As seen in Kigali, never.

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