Abana mu Rwanda
Children in Rwanda
Children in Rwanda rarely travel alone. They instead prefer to travel in little gangs, roaming the hills with their friends in search of adventure and mischief. Occasionally you come across a small group, or even a rare sighting of a solo child, but for the most part they prefer to travel in small mobs of chaos, kicking up dust clouds and destructing plants with a bizarre ferocity as they sprint down the dirt roads. Nothing is more intimidating than the flocks of primary school children when they get out of school, which incidentally happens twice a day since they go to school in shifts. If you have the poor fortune of needing to leave your house or school around 11:45am or 5pm then you must accept your fate and prepare yourself for the primary school rush.
An example of cute small group of kiddos
Here is how that experience goes down:
You are walking, faster and faster, heart racing and palms sweating, thinking that maybe, just maybe, this is time you can beat them home. No such luck. The first child sees you and sends back word, down the ranks of the rushing crowd, that a mysterious white girl is lurking just ahead and then you hear their battle cries of glee as they descend upon you. They race down the hill, a sea of blue and tan uniforms and a blur of colorful plastic sandals that barely touch the ground as their tiny legs gain momentum. And then, just like that, they slow to the exact pace you are walking and you are suddenly surrounded with no way out. Just as an added detail- throughout this encounter I am playing the theme song of Jaws in my head and the big climax of the song is when they finally reach you and suck you into their mob- in case you were wondering about the sound track to the experience.
Most of the time I try really hard to have this chaotic interaction with mobs of children be productive and positive. I greet them in Kinyarwanda. Then I greet them in English so they can show off the little English that they know. Bursting at the seams with joy and curiosity they usually respond, “I am fine, teacher” before I can even ask them how they are. They love to touch. Apparently all Rwandan children are kinesthetic learners when it comes to examining foreigners. Their little hands reach out and rub up and down my arms in a rhythmic motion that is akin to some type of odd arm hair massage. For the most part I am really fine with this. I know they are curious and I want them to see that even though we are different colors we are the same. When the call me “muzungu”, the local word for white person, I instead tell them my name and ask them to repeat it, offering lavish praise for those who correctly follow my instructions in hopes of eliminating their need to call me out by my skin color. I think it is a good lesson for them to learn and they like the positive attention from an adult, especially a foreigner.
Sometime, however, the interactions are a little less positive and just downright bizarre. One time a child was holding my hand, which is cute, right? Then he went to sneeze and pulled our hands apart and sneezed into my poor unsuspecting hand. To say that this repulsed me would be a massive understatement. I may or may not have chased him down to use his uniform as a Kleenex. Other times I have caught meandering hands as they reach into the back pocket of my jeans or pulling up the hem of my skirt with their little fingers exploring their way up my leg. Those children then received informative lectures in Kinyarwanda about inappropriate touching that lasted way longer than they probably ever imagined possible coming a white girl in the village. By now I am used to the touching of my arms and the stroking/playing with of my hair, but the other day I was surrounded by probably 75 primary school students and one of the kids closest to me leaned over and licked my arm. This was not even a small lick, not that any length of lick is appropriate, but this was seriously from wrist to elbow and an excessive amount of saliva. Who just goes around licking people’s arms??? It was so weird and I have no idea what he hoped to gain by this endeavor but I had put on sunscreen earlier in the day and it was really hot so I was super sweaty, so the joke was on him- I bet I tasted disgusting!
So as you all know I am huge kid person but there is something to be said for mob mentality. If the leader of a “kid pack” is a brat than you can expect your walk to be miserable, with kids chanting “muzungu” and asking for money in every language they know. But for every miserable experience of being harassed by a mob of children there are three more positive ones to balance things out. That’s what I cling to on days when I leave just in time for the primary school rush and it gives me hope that today no one will lick me, attempt to molest me, or sneeze in my hand. But in the end you just have to accept the motto that my mother always told me:
Some days you are the dog and some days you are the hydrant.
For the first time ever I brought out my camera as a defense mechanism the other day. Some really wanted their photo and others ran for the hills when I pointed it at them. It worked nicely to thin the crowd down to a more manageable number. These photos in no way capture the chaos of the primary school rush but maybe they can give you a little taste of the experience: