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.