Some stories that have happened to me or my friends that I find funny. Some of these things are normal, everyday life for people here, but to us foreigners they seem quite strange.
“Can I follow you home?”: There are many things that people do here that make Americans uncomfortable. One of the most common things is people asking to follow you home…literally. Just the other day I was walking back to work from the immigration office and two kids rode up on bicycles (I use the term ‘rode’ loosely, as one boy seemed to be just walking while sitting on a bike). Even though it was mid-afternoon the boys started with the traditional English greeting of “good morning.” They then jumped right into, “where are you going?”, “where do you live?”, and “can we come visit you now?” I am asked this at least once a week, and generally I just act like I never heard the question. Also instead of telling people exactly where I live, I give a general hand wave in one of the four cardinal directions. If you do tell people where you live, they will visit you, and they don’t call ahead. Which brings me to next interesting part of life here.
Visitation: In Rwanda, just like everywhere else, it is normal to visit friends. However, it is not normal to notify friends before a visit. It is also normal for the visitor to bring a gift of food or drink for the visitee. However, it is not normal for them to know what he/she likes to eat or drink. So, if you slip up and tell someone where you actually live, they will come to visit, and they will bring gifts. These gifts are oftentimes things that you might not actually want to consume on the spot. Such as, milk. Milk that has just been boiled (you have to boil milk here because it comes straight from the cow) and is being carried in a dirty jerry can (bright yellow plastic container used to hold fuel, water, or milk). You will then be expected to drink all, or as much of, the milk on the spot. Sometimes the milk is brought in quantities exceeding two liters. If you don’t drink the milk, it means you don’t accept the person’s friendship, and they likely won’t return (which means sometimes a problem can take care of itself).
Electrocution: Electrocution is a part of daily life here. You may think that’s because I’m an electrical engineer (maybe you think I’m a bad one), it’s not. I get electrocuted on a daily basis because all of my electronics are made for 120V, but here we get 220V or 240V. What that means is your computer adapter or phone plug in adapter transforms the voltage down from 220 or 240, to 120. However, when your device does that, it doubles the current flowing into your device. This means devices charge much faster here, but it also means excess current gathers on the outside of your computer, phone, and charging plug-ins, so that when you touch them wrong, you get a nice zap. This results in me getting zapped at least 10 times per day at work, which results in me jumping in my seat and looking like a fool in front of my officemates 10 times per day.
Personal Space: Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, which has a great effect on personal space. i.e. there’s not much of it. It’s perfectly acceptable here to sleep on a stranger’s shoulder when on the public bus system. In fact, I know some mzungus who do it now. In fact, it’s been done to me. Unfortunately for my shoulder sleeper, I also had food poisoning and was vomiting out the window every so often, but that’s another story. The lack of personal space also means that one seat can become 2-4 seats if needed. My office at work consists of 3 rooms (think normal American living room size all together). On a normal work day these three rooms, which are in total the size of a living room, contain 16 people. However, our office only contains 12 chairs. So sometimes our workers have to share their chair with another person…for 8 hours… People share chairs at any required moment, without complaining. I’ve sat on a single chair with two other people at a bible study. I’ve seen 5 of our workers cram themselves onto a piano bench for our morning devotion. If there’s no space, just force your way in.
Traffic: The traffic here amazes me every single day. Not because there’s so much of it, Rwanda has extremely high tariffs on cars because they don’t want to have to build expensive roads all over the place. Well, that hasn’t deterred the very rich and the various mzungus that live here. So there are cars on the road, let me tell you what else is on the road; 15 passenger taxi busses with 5 giant bags of charcoal precariously strapped to the top, 15 passenger busses with 22 people inside (I rode in one of these), large taxi busses carrying comfortable amounts of people while also attempting to travel the speed of light, giant dump trucks, normal sized dump trucks, small dump trucks that are more like 4 wheelers, semi-trucks with one trailer, semi trucks with two trailers attempting to drive straight up a mountain at 5 miles per hour,fuel trucks, fuel trucks that have jackknifed on a thin road and are now trying to shimmy their way out all while not exploding, bicycles, children on wooden bicycles, bicycles carrying 7 foot long pieces of wood or metal roofing, bicycle taxis carrying people who are carrying 7 foot long pieces of wood or metal roofing, motorcycles, motorcycles carrying people who are carrying 7 foot long pieces of wood or metal roofing, people walking, grandmothers who appear to be standing still but are actually walking, extremely drunk people walking who stumble directly in front of a car (people do die fairly often in this way), mzungus driving excessively fast in landcruisers, mzungus who are terrified to be driving a manual in Africa (I’m one of these), army trucks loaded with soldiers, army tanks with machine guns on top, police pickup trucks with policemen precariously balanced in the truck bed, bulldozers, steamrollers, those big things that scrape the top of the road flat, asphalt layers, and last but not least, the ubiquitous mother carrying 500 tomatoes/onions/passionfruits on her head. Now, you may have noticed there’s some construction equipment in that list. Many many many roads are being constructed here, but I have yet to find a construction zone that cannot be driven/walked through. On a daily basis I walk within feet of a bulldozer working on a road. I have been in what I think was a 1993 Toyota Corolla and driven behind a giant bulldozer as it drove (slipped through mud) and cleared a landslide from off a road (we drove over the landslide). standing between you and an insanely large piece of construction equipment that could easily crush your Corolla is a man hold two flags, one red, one green. I don’t know what these men are doing, and neither do they, but I do know what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to hold up the green flag if the path is clear and you can drive, the red flag if you need to stop so you don’t die. However, none of them do that, instead they stand on the side of the road and wave both flags at you at the same time. This means, “???” So, then you ask them if it’s ok to go, and in response they raise their eyebrows. I assume this is the Rwandan equivalent of “proceed at your own risk.” We always proceed, and often have to honk so the steamroller knows if it rollers backwards it will not flatted gravel, but a 1993 Toyota Corolla. I haven’t seen anyone die on a road yet, and I’m not sure how. My hope and prayer is that I don’t die on the roads, and that I don’t kill anyone while driving. Kids here like to play a game where they spin a wooden top on a road…behind a blind corner….then they play the game called, “desperately try to grab your spinning top from the road while the car bearing down on you tries to brake and not smear you across the pavement.” Apparently they think it’s a fun game.
That’s all my funny stories for now, they’re not meant to be offensive, I know sometimes laughs feel like jabs. I truly enjoy the people here, and living here in Rwanda, cultural gaffs and all.
Tune in next time for stories about; vomiting out of a moving bus with strangers and your co-workers, trying to explain to the motorcycle driver where you want to go, and making children cry because you’re white and they think you’re going to eat them.