I stepped out of the shower and blew my nose. Red. Inside my ears. Red. The remnants of a day at Akagera National Park on safari. I had been warned.
Awake at 4 a.m., we climbed into Land Rovers at 4:30 and were on our way. People walking on the sides of the street. Always walking. Bicycles loaded up with “umbrellas” of green bananas. Yellow canisters for gathering water. Gathered sticks and wood. Futon mattresses. All morning long. From the city on the way out to the park. We go through a traffic circle and I see arrows for Tanzania and Uganda. We are not going there.
Dawn has broken and children are walking to school. Different colored uniforms denoting the different schools. Many wearing hand-me-down uniforms, several sizes too large. All of them smiling, waving. Some yell out “muzungo” or “well to do.”
We stop at a gas station to use the toilet and we are guided to a pit toilet that needs to be unlocked. Why is it locked? I roll up my pant legs and go in, but refuse to shut the door. I squat low to the ground. I feel like I’ve gone native. My friend Lilly recommended I bring lots of tissue and hand sanitizer to Africa. I am grateful for her advice.
The road into the park is windy, uneven, chewed up red dirt. Long. An hour or more to the entrance. Once in we see zebras, giraffes, tiko. Running water buffalo. Hippos bobbing their heads out of the muck – one up, one down, like whack-a-moles. A handful of gray monkeys.
Rwanda has far less developed safaris than Kenya. It is known for its gorillas. The country limits the number of permits issued to visitors. One of our group has snagged a coveted permit and for $500 is off early in a jeep by herself. Later, over dinner, she tells us about feeling black fur between her legs as a gorilla pressed into her and kept on walking.
The ride home is long, dusty, red. We see banana and pineapple trees. Corn, rice and sorghum are growing. We doze on and off. I listen to a political debate about Israel from the seats behind me. I am quiet and I learn a lot. We are on Africa time. Everything takes a little longer. Everything moves a little more slowly. There is time for talking.
Yesterday morning we met with the Peer Parents from WE-ACTx and learned how these HIV-positive teens and young adults are providing guidance, support and an experience of hope and health to other young people with HIV – most of them born with the disease. In the afternoon we brought yoga mats, collected by the congregation, to the younger children living with HIV – and watched David lead them through Ashtanga poses and an overall experience of joy. His goal, he says, is to bring smiles to their faces. And he does. Later, the children have a snack of donuts and milk. All of them are thin. All of them want their photograph taken and to see themselves on our cameras.
We walk to dinner in the Muslim quarter and eat whole roasted fish and potatoes. No plates, no utensils. Prior to eating, a server brings liquid soap, warm water and a basin to each of us. We eat with our hands. It feels intimate, communal.
Back in our room, my roommate and I debrief on the day. It is full of emotion. We want to leave our American lives at home but all the “stuff” of our lives follows us here. And I have the great, good fortune to have a new friend to unpack it with.
We just got back from dinner – Ethiopian food. The music is cranked outside the CommonWealth Guest House where we are staying and people are dancing in the yard. Last night it was Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing Islands in the Stream. The music seems as random as the architecture.
Tin shacks dot one side of the green hills. Modern, clean-lined homes surrounded by walls the other. It reminds me of Mexico. The dichotomy is everywhere. Women in traditional African fabrics, baskets on their heads, walk side-by-side with women in jeans. Sidewalks (and dirt roads) teem with people walking. Toyotas line up in traffic.
Those who visited Rwanda four years ago are amazed by the growth and changes. Today we visited the WE-ACTx clinic that provides comprehensive health and human services to women and children with HIV and AIDS. A doctor from Cook County Hospital in Chicago founded the organization in 2004, along with a handful of other individuals. She lives in Boston now and visits the clinic a few times a year. The permanent staff is comprised of locals. Chantal, one of the employees, holds a notebook emblazoned with the Oracle logo.
In the morning we filled packs with 30-day supplies of AIDS medication. In the afternoon we helped paint a mural in the library. Filling the medication packs, talk turns to politics and the country’s insistence upon calling the 1994 genocide, “the genocide of the Tutsi People.” It seems obvious. Stories are shared in hushed tones about the tensions that remain between Hutus and Tutsis. And what it is to have victims and perpetrators living side by side. I hear the words Rwanda is a lot about veneer – appearances. Newly paved streets. And the absence of ethnic identity cards.
In our down time this afternoon, several of us go for a walk. We ask Judith at the reception desk if it is safe to walk. “Very safe,” she says. “You will have no problems.” We pass a gaggle of uniformed students leaving school at 5 p.m. The youngest ones want to touch our hands. They say “hello” and “bon jour.” The older girls – tweens at best – look at me with surprise. Their heads are shaved short, as are the heads of the smaller girls. It appears to be the custom. We imagine they are not used to seeing a white, Western woman with a shaved head. It still draws attention in the United States. The younger ones are excited to have their picture taken.
We walk up the hill two by two. A truck full of young men passes by. The give us the thumbs up. I am painfully aware that my skirt is a little shorter than the norm here. Above my knees. I am uncomfortable.
Tonight I will sleep under my mosquito net again. It feels like a dreamy pillow fort. My roommate has a twin version in the bed next to me. Last night we traded stories of our lives, as if at camp. Tonight, perhaps, we will sleep.
Last Monday, I mentioned to my therapist that I was put on a diet when I was 10. I was in the 5th grade; and seemingly overnight, our 1970s harvest gold kitchen was transformed — divided by foods that were “mine” and “theirs.”
This was also the year I stopped going to recess.
Instead of going to the “senior” playground at Green Elementary School, I took my “diet lunch” (consisting of melba toast, a measured amount of cheese, and sliced carrots or a piece of fruit) to my 4th grade teacher’s classroom, where I sat alone, correcting papers.
I stopped playing when I was 10.
The story of being forced to diet in fifth grade has deep grooves in the brain. I know it like I know my name. But, I had never connected it with my ceasing to play with my pals. Or the understanding that I had become serious — young. And fast.
As a way of helping me develop compassion for myself, my therapist suggested I look at 10-year-olds this week.
“They are really little, ” she said.
I didn’t see any until today at dance class. My teacher’s daughter, Rose. She looks about 10 to me. She is small, lithe, boyish –with short dreadlocks. Adorable. I watch her wrap her arms around her stepmom’s waist, and around other students. Her father is away right now, in Africa.
I did not look like that at 10. I am certain of it.
I look in the mirrored wall of the dance studio and I see my soft arms and my rounded belly. And I think of Friday.
I am sitting in the cab of my friend Kelly’s truck — in the middle, three across. The third passenger squeezes in and says, “It’s a really good thing you are skinny, Lesley. Otherwise we’d never be able to do this.”
I don’t think of myself as thin. In fact, I’ve always guessed that my Weight Watchers members are thinking, “Yeah….she could lose 5 or 10.” Or that the reason they like me so much is that I am, ahem, “real.” And by that I mean, not “too thin.”
I tell the third passenger that he made my day. He replies, “It isn’t a compliment, Lesley. Just the truth.”
I want to believe him. Instead, I think that maybe I should get to know him better. That maybe he is really nice, rather than a teller of truths. I call my best girlfriend, Julie and we laugh. We talk about the word “skinny.”
And I think about 5th grade, and the Sasson jeans my mother bought me when I lost 10 pounds.