Emily – Dunk, Scrub, Rinse, Repeat

There’s just something about washing your laundry by hand under the hot, African sun. I first encountered this simple pleasure on my gap year in Senegal, and have wished to revisit the meticulous, tactile process ever since. The method, as I understand it, goes something like this:

1. Obtain two shallow, plastic buckets from the market (or in our case, hotel reception).

2. Sprinkle your laundry soap into one, preferably an unfamiliar brand with an awkward English name like Sparkling and an electric blue or yellow tint definitely not found in nature.

3. Fill both buckets with water, agitating your soap-filled one until milky suds begin to appear.

4. Dump your clothes in this bucket, and start kneading the ever-living hell out of them, one article at a time, until they begin to relinquish their accumulation of filth. Use the bottom of your bucket, extra soap, and the abrasion of fabric on fabric to aid you in your persecution of grime.

5. When that article of clothing seems sufficiently scoured, douse it in your second bucket of clean water and let it stew.

6. Repeat as necessary, saving larger and dirtier items for last, until the water in bucket #1 is speckled with floating bits of flotsam and has turned approximately the same color as the ground on which you sit.

7. Wring your clothes out, slap them on the line, and voila: crispy but clean in just a few hours.

I’m not sure what it is about this laborious process I find so intriguing; part of it may be the physicality, the way you throw your whole body into the chore until your biceps burn and your back aches. I also enjoy how, regardless of the process, all varieties of laundry-doing produce the same result: clean, dry clothes emanating the faint perfume of soapsuds and arid heat. When I emptied my basin out this afternoon, there was even a bobby pin (pocketed and forgotten) waiting for me at the bottom, same as I always find after removing a load from my parents’ big, white washing machine back home.

I think my favorite part, though, is the visceritude of performing a task fully and completely by hand. There’s no sterile metal box separating you from your mess. I realized today, forearm-deep in murky water, that at home (a place that is, as Robyn Davidson writes, “increasingly homogenized, commercialized, and trivialized”), you don’t even need to touch the soap you empty into the machine. But crouched in an unsheltered courtyard, sweat trickling down the nape of your neck, skirt tucked up and away from the splashing suds, this detachment becomes absurd.

I’m always struck by how well turned out the people of Gashora are; even if they wear the same outfit every day, their ensembles are always crisp, pressed, and spotless. It makes sense. Scouring your laundry by hand heightens your connection to your clothes in a way that the inelegant, indiscriminant transfer from hamper to machine never could. Touch something, cradle it in your hands, scrutinize it for budding flaws; such engaged attentiveness generates respect towards the objects in your care – a reverence that is magnified when one’s entire wardrobe consists of four or five items.

This feeling of connection goes beyond the relationship between person and cloth. This afternoon, I knelt in the sun and scoured soap from a t-shirt – dunk, scrub, rinse. Dunk, scrub, rinse. The repetitive rhythm lulled me into a near trance, untethering my mind from my body and enabling clear, unencumbered thought. It occurred to me how many women all across the globe were currently doing the exact same thing under the exact same sun (dunk), and how many women had knelt and scoured before me (scrub), and how many would continue to kneel and scour for years to come (rinse).

It’s funny, how little everyday rituals can suddenly take on such meaning. After today’s epiphanies in regards to clothes cleaning, I have half a mind to abandon my planned course of study back at Western and instead dedicate my life to writing an exhaustive history of female triumph and oppression as chronicled by our relationship to laundry. And while that certainly sounds enticing, for right now I will have to content myself with a heightened level respect for my belongings, a reexamination of my privilege, and a new appreciation for the smell of sunlight baked into my clothes. And tomorrow, when we walk into town, I will smile at the women, and imagine us kneeling and scouring together, side by side.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Sarah – Solitude Standing

“The worst thing that can happen to a person in Rwanda is to be left alone.” – Derick Burleson “Leaving Rwanda”

As an introvert I enjoy, dare I even say need, my alone time. However being an introvert in Rwanda has proven to be difficult.

Adjusting to a new culture and social norms is always challenging but Rwanda has left me feeling exhausted.

Right from the get go, I have had to accept the fact that there is no anonymity here. The community always knows what the group is doing and where we are at all times. Children show up and wait for us to walk into town, friends show up to kitchen garden building sites, and sometimes they show up wherever we are even if we aren’t following our schedule.

At some kitchen gardens, the sites are so far away that we have to take a minibus to get there. Every time this has happened, a flock of children run behind the bus to and from the work site, almost like they are chasing after us like rockstars, but we aren’t.

Being surrounded by the community can be overwhelming as an introvert, but there is added stress when the word “love” is thrown into the mix. Here people will blurt out “I love you” at the drop of a hat. To clarify, I don’t think they mean it in the romantic sense that we do in America, instead I think they mean it in a friendly sense. Regardless, whenever this happens it leaves me feeling even more uncomfortable and desiring my alone time.

Even when at our hotel, we are never truly alone. We all share rooms so close together. You can hear the people next to you through the walls, you can hear people pacing up and down the hallway, and you can even hear when people go to the bathroom.

While all of this offends my introvert sensibilities, I have learned to accept the fact that this is how it works here. Ultimately this experience has made me appreciate the differences in culture and that sometimes you just have to accept what is. As Gwen has said before during this trip, “My motto for Africa is just accept it.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mary – How to Write About People

In his satirical essay How to Write About Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina instructs, “African characters should be colorful, exotic, larger than life – but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.” (The cause, of course, portraying the ‘real Africa,’ full of the souls of hundreds of millions busy “starving and dying and warring and emigrating” with the hopes the written account should cause the West to send aid.) The idea, Wainaina assures, that rural people whose daily activities are largely based in providing for their families cannot have complex ambitions is bogus. This article is now as old as I, yet this is an idea that very unfortunately continues to be perpetrated in much travel writing. The sense I get is that people are so consumed by survival that everything besides necessities is an afterthought at all, an archaic misallocation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to interview Jean Baptiste, the previously mentioned kitchen garden superhero, who has great aspirations for his community and solid strategies for achieving them.

Jean Baptiste is the president of the Hello Children association, an organization composed of the 23 children and their families living with HIV in Gashora. Jean Baptiste, his wife, and eldest son all live with HIV. I first asked what his goals are for the future. He told me that he hopes to continue to provide food and good health to his family and to eventually build his own home. I then asked what his goals are for kitchen gardens. He wants to improve the nutrition and raise the income of the families and allow empower them to share their knowledge of kitchen gardens and extra produce with their neighbors. His goals as president of Hello Children are equally impressive. He plans to seek out aid for the organization, support members psychologically, physically, and emotionally, to encourage members to have self confidence, to create a community where they don’t have to feel alone, to provide instruction on stopping the spread of HIV, and to finish building gardens for the 16 remaining families. The organization wants the children to know that they can survive and to plan for their future.

That an African subsistence farmer with HIV should have such complex dreams for his organization flies in the face of the type of writing and thinking that Wainaina spoofed. Jean Baptiste has his own cause, with conflicts, resolutions, depths and quirks to spare.

After the interview, I asked Jean Baptiste if he had any questions to ask me. He asked that I spread the story of Hello Children, tell what the organization is doing to help people with HIV and to assure that the organization will continue with it’s activities. So, I humbly dedicate this blog post to the president and members of the Hello Children. It has been an honor and a privilege to work alongside you.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kaylee – Surprises

“Entering the Sheraton is always surprising because you never know what awaits you.” At least this is what our amazing – not to mention brilliant – professor Lee Gulyas says about her travels through Yemen in her article, Spices, Butter and Earth.

What Gulyas is referring to as “surprising” are the smells, for example, “heavily perfumed and chlorinated cleansers…or maybe the wafting aroma of coffee and cigarettes.”

It could be argued that we are always surprised by aromas awaiting us, whether we are walking into our college apartments or driving to the towns we grew up in after spending months away – though I am never surprised by the sweet smell of cow manure as I enter Enumclaw. Here in Gashora, there is no exception of surprising aromas awaiting us.

In the 30-minute walk from our hotel to Gashora center we smell scents from enticing herbs to rotten eggs to beautiful fresh flower blossoms and a smell I can best compare to the time I helped gut a home, which had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The broken fridge full of rotten food, which stewed in heat for the past nine months, spilled its contents all over the torn apart ground. Putrid I think is the best word to describe that experience. Luckily, that smell does not last very long and it is not found in many places.

However good or bad the smell is, we are always being surprised by the many aromas of Gashora and not only that, but the love and kindness we have received from everyone in this small village. No matter how many bad scents we have come across during our time here, it seems as though we have found more sweet ones. And no matter how many difficult times we have faced – sickness, being away from home, exhaustion, heat, language barriers – we have all seemed to find more positives then negatives.

With only a few days left here in Gashora, we cannot help but be sad to say goodbye to all of the incredible people we have met. But we – at least I – can say that we are excited to move forward, meet more amazing people, see more parts of the flourishing country of Rwanda and be surprised by more aromas waiting to greet us.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Grant – Walk the Line

Grant – Walk the Line

“If we excavate the memories of childhood, we remember the paths first, things and people second…” Bruch Chatwin, It’s a Nomad Nomad World.

The children love to walk with us, and that is something we have gotten used to in Gashora. They may only follow us a few feet, sometimes, they might follow us all the way back to the hotel. They will always stop at what to us seem like arbitrary places on the road. Once they hit said arbitrary place, they sometimes just watch us walk away, other times they just start running the opposite way. This is what we have dubbed The Line.

The Line is an invisible place in the road that the children will not cross. We’ve all had them growing up. Maybe your mother said to never go past the house with the red door, or to always be in sight of the house. If you were ever caught beyond these lines, you were sure to get in trouble. I had these invisible lines growing up, but like many, you tend to forget what they were once you grew out of them. The children of Gashora have these lines too, despite our initial worries. While we were warned about this line, we were still amazed about how far the kids would follow. We’d meet with some very young kids in the city center who would follow us all the way back to the hotel. We’re talking kids ages 3-5 who would walk with us clear across town, so not surprisingly, we felt like kidnappers! The Line was always there, however, so without fail they would break off and head for home. Even the ones daring enough to jump onto the back of our moving car, they never passed The Line. Kids can be bold and strange, but in the end, they are just kids, the same as we were.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kelly Jenson – Kicking Rock

When living in a community where English is not the primary language, learning how to communicate with people you meet is a journey all on its own. Since we are only in Rwanda for a short period of time we only touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning their language. I have found that at times body language communicates more than words. I love communicating with kids when they aren’t asking for something from me.

Sometimes the biggest journeys are the little ones. In this journey I learned the body language of laughter, tickles, and smiles— any action can be a form of talking. Bruce Chatwin wrote, “All of our activities are linked to the idea of journeys.”

There is one boy who I met at one of our kitchen gardens, and he was the noblest child I have met during this trip. At the kitchen garden I pulled out my camera when I was kneeling and kids raced over to me and wanted to hold my camera. They started to grab and I had to say “Oya” (No in Kinyarawanda) to tell them to stop. The noble young man (about 10) came over and told the kids to stop, while he helped me put it back in my case. His eyes were so kind and his actions were so gentle, when we looked at each other, he captivated me. He wasn’t expecting anything from me in return. I asked one of our translators what the word for friend was, then I pointed to my new friend and said, “inshuti” in Kinyarwanda and he nodded and smiled.

I have seen him since first meeting him, and I enjoy every excited wave and smile we have exchanged. A few times he was walked me to the gate at La Palisse. One memory sticks out in my mind.

One day on our way home our group went to visit some people at the basketball courts on our way home, and my friend was there, we waved and exchanges smiles. As our group left the court and started to walk home, my friend ran to my right side, looked at me and took my hand and walked along side me. Soon after a girl around his age began to hold my hand too. After our hands were linked for a little, I wanted to communicate to her so I began to tickle her. She giggled and smiled, we all enjoyed laughter and calm joy that came from the body language exchange. Then my young noble friend started kicking a rock like a soccer ball. I started passing it with him and soon enough the girl joined in. As we joyfully walked down the long dirt path, I found myself in a place of peace. I was having a little adventure with two children who I could only communicate with through the actions of my body and I was more content in that moment than I am when an influx of words are being said.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment