When I tell people that I spent about five months in a village called Buhanda in the Southern Province of Rwanda, their first reaction is “No freakin way!! You? What were you doing there?” Usually I would say research but that happened organically as I started my quest to find my roots by interviewing old people about their lives before 1959 in Rwanda. The quest led me to paths across the country. I’m currently writing a book in French about that experience but in the meantime you can read summaries some of the interviews here transcribed in their original language (Kinyarwanda.)
What made my life easy in the village was the fact that I was born and raised in a village, in exile (Goma, DRC). I guess the first twelve years of my life had prepared me enough for the poverty in Buhanda. It wasn’t as bad as back in my early days but poverty should not be compared; even though I was fleeing the same in Kigali because I was unable to provide for myself anymore after quitting a full-time job in pursuit of my passion for the arts, which doesn’t pay the bills since people and organisations insist on paying in an imaginary form of currency that doesn’t work in the real world called exposure. When I thought about settling in the village for a while, I knew rent would be cheap and that I could live better on a $100-monthly budget than a $700 one in Kigali. Plus the food would be fresh and cheap too. So I hoped on the bus and headed to Buhanda, where a friend was experimenting organic farming.
I love Buhanda. My house was one-minute from the bus park and the marketplace. Speaking of the market, shopping only happened on Wednesday and Friday. Friday was light in terms of crowd and activities. Why? Because almost everyone is adventist in Buhanda, which is very close to Gitwe- home of the adventist community in Rwanda. There was almost no activities on Friday afternoon. Saturday is sabbath. Nothing happens on that day in the Advetists world. Not even cooking. Sunday is a day off for catholics and protestants. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday are normal days with no market activities. It bugged me in the beginning but with time I got used to shopping groceries only once a week. I was an outsider, anyway. It was obvious in the way people looked at me. I am familiar with strange looks. I’m ok with people whispering to each other behind my back about my hairstyle, piercings and tattoos. I have grown to be comfortable in this skin that makes people uncomfortable due to their personal insecurities. Oh the game of living! On the other hand, at the marketplace they called me boss since I was a regular buyer. Every time I paid for something with a Rwf 2,000, I realized their struggle in getting the change. Most transactions around me happened in coins. I heard people bargaining over 10-15 francs. Then I asked a woman who sold me fruits, “Don’t you think you would make more money if sold more often? I know you’re one of the few to sell here twice a week but maybe a little more would help you earn more.” Then she said, “Who would buy? I’m not even sure I will sell all these fruits today. And it’s a Wednesday!” I didn’t know how to respond to that. I had so many questions about what was happening around me. Why were street lights on all night over two kilometres for people who sleep at 7pm because they don’t have electricity in their homes? Why were there two ATM’s accepting VISA for people who struggled to get change for Rwf 2,000? How was I able to access the Internet when there was no access to clean water? The biggest question was Is it bad decisions that lead to poverty or poverty that leads to bad decisions? A wise friend answered “It’s the chicken and the egg.
But then I remembered that I had once asked a group of old people who had lived their entire life in Isunzu, another village a few kilometres from Buhanda where my friend and housemate was farming, “What are you going to do about the water situation in the dry season? Didn’t you starve last year?” They didn’t even let me finish. They were terrorised by the idea of a scorching sun for two-three months but still had no plan. So I suggested that we dig dams to collect rain water. That was in March. It was raining. They pretended like they didn’t hear anything. My friend and I went on and dug a 7×5×1.5m dam. Our worry was that the soil would absorb the rain water once the dry season kicks in. So we thought we would try dry clay on the sides and see how it would work. Then a mirracle happened: While digging we realized we couldn’t get deeper than 1.5m as we were approaching the water source. That was a blessing in disguise because we collected both rain water and water from the source at the same time. Throughout this whole dry season, my friend had enough to water his crops.
As days went on, I began to feel home in the village. So I decided to adjust- not adjust to a typical village lifestyle but to adjust the village to mine. I didn’t make money in the village. I spent, with so much joy, the little I would make through online translation jobs. Every time I had an idea about producing something for the house, I would step out and get it done with the villagers. I assisted them if I had to but in most cases they had it on lock. I met some unusual minds who were used to produce the usual. Here are few things that I got done by villagers in Buhanda:
A few things that I learned from this experience:
- It doesn’t hurt to try new things. Au contraire, it enriches our experience and that of people around us;
- If we can conceive it, there is no doubt we can make it happen;
- We are not always poor but very often we make poor decisions; sometimes by mimicking rich people’s decisions;
- It’s important to be aware of problems around us, the most important thing is not to simply complain about them but to try, yes try, to find solutions in our capacity;
- We must review our priorities in this part of the world and be conscious of the fact that the cost of looking good is more expensive and far damaging than the cost of living good.
That’s it for me. I’m going to let you go out there and live large! Make every experience worth your time in this life.