Emily – Water, Muscle, and Willpower

“…and we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”

-Pico Iyer

A clump of wet earth whistles past my head, narrowly avoiding contact with my left ear. I whirl around towards the direction of the assault and see Pascal, a staff member at Rwanda Science Education Center, sporting a massive grin and a dirt mustache. If you’d told me this morning that in a few hours, I would be knee-deep in a mud pit getting playfully pummeled by Rwandan farmhands, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. International development comes in many different forms I reflect, scooping up another handful of mud and nailing Pascal straight in the chest.

A wildlife conservatory and model farm run by an American expat, our visit to RwandaSEC is a case study for the international development portion of our class, as well as an opportunity to do some service work in the neighboring town of Nyamata. We bounced down the access road in our rickety rented bus, expecting to pull weeds, or maybe feed the chickens – instead, we were invited to roll up our pant legs and aid in the fabrication of some mud bricks.

By now, our group is well-acquainted with the finished product of the brick-making process thanks to the many kitchen gardens we’ve constructed – the solid, rectangular chunks of dried earth are heavier than they look, nicely stackable and perfect for fashioning into three-tiered akarima k’igikonis. I appreciated them as a building material, but had never given much thought to their origin. Until now.

Turning dry, sandy dirt into a moldable substance involves three main ingredients: water, muscle, and willpower. Have you ever seen the episode of I Love Lucy where Lucille Ball makes wine by crushing grapes with her feet? Replace the wooden vat with a large hole in the ground, the grapes with hosed-down soil and straw, and the Italian women with our eclectic cadre of Rwandan laborers and American college girls, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of how the morning went.

I’m always professing my love for the way life is conducted here, un-sanitized and free from the isolating technology of the Western world, but I’ll admit: my conviction was slightly rattled when I realized I was going to have to get in the hole. But I don’t do things half-assed, so I slide out of my shoes, cuff my pants, and leap.

By midmorning, any concept of cleanliness has faded to a distant memory. The earth swallows my legs to the knee, there’s chunks of sludge drying in my hair, every bit of exposed skin has a fine, crackly layer of muck clinging to it – and every one of us is breathless from laughter. When someone announces that it’s time clean up and leave Nyamata, we exit the pit almost reluctantly and drag our feet on the walk to the outdoor faucet.

This malaise turns quickly to squeals of laughter and surprise when we learn that, in this context, “cleaning up” means getting drenched, lathered, and scrubbed down by four handsy Rwandan men with the tenacity and enthusiasm of a NASCAR pit crew. As my attempts to protest this manhandling are rewarded only with a mouthful of soapy lake water, I let Pascal and the others soak me to the skin and slough off my flaky second skin. If nothing else, at least I can now say I have an acute understanding of what my Volvo feels when it goes through the carwash.

Scrubbed raw and dripping wet, I gather up my sandals and walk unshod back to the brick site. The path is a thin, rocky ribbon probably used more often by goats than people, and as I gingerly pick my way downhill I realize how long it’s been since I’ve walked anywhere barefoot. I slow my pace, noticing the red dust clinging to my damp skin, the warmth of baked earth against my soles.

At the bottom of the hill, I survey the brickmaking site. The morning had passed in a blur of foolishness and laughter, yet somehow an assembly of newly-minted bricks now line the lip of pit, solidifying in the midday sun. I walk up and down the neat rows until I find a brick of my own making, kneel, and press a fallen bougainvillea blossom into its side.

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