Muzungu With a Smile

My sister is in Rwanda this year.  Being amazing.  Working in a hospital in a rural province.  She's been there for less than a month, though it already feels like longer.  She's living another life there, one that she shares with us through emails and skype chats, but one that we can't truly understand.  She takes bucket showers and uses a flash light to find her way to dinner. She contends with enormous furry bugs and the constant grit of dirt in her food.  She's also living her dream.

She tells us things like this:

Today, I took my first fall. It's been a long time coming. The dirt and gravel roads are slippery and despite my good rubber shoes, I slip. It rained last night, which sounded beautiful on our tin roof. It made the rocks slippery though and on my way to breakfast, I took a fall. I scraped up my right shin and have a huge raspberry colored scrape on my knee. Then today, since it was my first day home and not working in a while, I decided to walk down to the village. Every time someone saw my knee, they pointed and laughed and said, muzungu (white person). Only muzungus fall on the rocks, you see. By the time I hit the residential part I had a train of about 10-15 children following me. They would run up to me and stare at me. I normally don't do to well in the village with people staring at me, which they do a lot. I always say muraho and sometimes they smile and wave, but often they just look at me very bizarrely, as if they cannot figure me out. It makes me feel self conscious even if I know it really often is out of sheer curiosity and nothing more. (I've asked many of my Rwandan friends what it is about, do they have any issue with me being there or how I look? and they say there are some tensions here and there, but for most of them, I just look like a ghost walking around in funny clothes, and if you saw a funny clothed ghost, wouldn't you stare?)

So, I stuck my hands out to the children and bent down to their heights to tickle their bellies and ask their names. They smiled at me and touched my hands to see if I was real.  They were playing with the insides of bike tires rolling them with sticks. I asked if I could try, knowing full well I would never be able to keep the thing rolling, and they doubled over in laughter at the silly muzungu. Then one of the girls did a cartwheel and I pretended as if I couldn't do one. Then all the little girls started doing their cartwheels and I clapped and gave them high fives. We walked farther and one of the girls who was about 7-8 and one of the boys who was about 10 and knew a little english started speaking to me in english. They asked my name and told me good morning. Then we started naming things. I would point to an animal and ask what it was. They would say, goat, then I would ask in Kinyarwanda, and they would say ihene and I would say muraho ihene (hello goat). Then they would die in laughter that I would say hello to a goat. They started pointing to body parts and asking what they were. We learned ears and nose and arms.

Then they pointed to my hair. To them it must seem like I am a yak. Most Rwandans, men and women, unless they are very wealthy, just have shaved heads with very little hair. I had my hair down, so I pulled it in front of my face and put my sun glasses over my hair like Cousin It. They couldn't stop laughing and asking me to do it again about a million times. As I was walking back with my chain of children, I stopped to say hello to a few little girls who were about 4-5. I said witwa nde (what is your name?) and they didn't answer, they just stared at me. So I said, nitwa Hannah (My name is Hannah). One girl looked at me very perplexed and said oya witwa muzungu (no, your name is muzungu - or white person). I just smiled. For now, at least I am muzungu with a smile.

Her messages to us make me ache, not from sadness, but from the task of holding in my heart what is both so big and so small, sad and happy, extaordinary and run-of-the-mill, different and exactly the same.  Like I am listening to a song whose dischordant harmonies bring me swiftly and inexplicably to tears.  Because my twenty-five year old sister is seven thousand miles away falling in the rain and organizing pharmaceuticals for at-risk populations and is, it turns out, a very funny ghost who makes pleasantries with goats. 

And the children can't stop laughing and asking her to do it again and again and again.   

I ache because I know her, the deep real parts that a sister knows.  I read her messages like I am watching someone who has longed to paint finally create a masterpiece.  Because the painting was inside. 

All she needed was a brush.

Over the next few weeks, aside from our emails and weekly skype chats, I will be connecting with her in one of the ways that I know best - creating little lovelies to decorate her home away from home.  My heart glittered when she special-requested that I send her something crafty.  Say no more.