One of my favorite aspects of Rwandan culture is the sense of community that you feel everywhere you go. It is true that people are not always quick to open up but if you make a little effort, and do your best to speak Kinyarwanda, then you are immediately welcomed into whatever community you happen to be in- even this community is as small as a bus. I make sure to always greet everyone on the little buses for a multitude of reasons. The squeeze buses provide you with a perfect opportunity to socialize because you are trapped in a confined space and you might as well be friends with the old man on your lap and the woman breastfeeding her child while his little feet rest on your knee. Not only does it help with the awkward proximity situation but also is an advantage because the other passengers are often your best chance at winning an argument with convoyeur (aka the obnoxious man who collects money and hangs out the side of the moving bus in attempts to attract more passengers and also frequently attempts to charge you more based on skin color). If you take the time to at least introduce yourself and greet the other people then you are all set when someone tries to take advantage of you- they will immediately argue on your behalf and do not stop until you pay the actual price and not one Rwandan Franc more.
Last week I took a bus into the doctor and it was a pretty miserable experience (the journey was 1.5 hours instead of 30 minutes) but the people were truly fantastic. I was sitting in the very last row next to a window, and even though I was feverish and almost crying, I meekly greeted the woman next to me and the adorable old man next to her. She asked me where I was going and I told her I was sick and going to the doctor. The ride was really long because it was market day at a local village so it took forever for the people to cram their enormous bags of vegetables and cassava into the tiny space behind the last row. I eventually just shut my eyes and rested my head on my backpack and pretended I was back home snuggled up on the couch watching Mama Mia (my favorite sick day movie). Every time the bus stopped to pick up more people the woman next to me would take it upon herself to inform the new passenger of my entire history, “Her name is Suzanna Uwineza, she is an English teacher, she can speak Kinyarwanda but now she is sick and going to visit the doctor.” When the convoyeur opened the window she immediately snapped at him to shut it because I was sick. The breeze actually felt nice but I figured I should just be grateful and bask in the ambiance of her aggressive protective instinct.
Another example this “community atmosphere” happened last week when one of the Senior One students missed class because her father passed away. The other students and class tutor (the chemistry teacher Martha) collected money and food and all walked together, on the weekend, to visit this student and her family. I found it really beautiful that these kids offered up one of their few days of freedom to support their classmate and donated money for the funeral when many of them struggle to find enough money to pay school fees. That is the culture here- you give even when it means you go without. The consistency of people’s generosity is truly amazing. I have been invited to share tea in the dilapidated shack of a neighbor who cannot afford shoes but is always willing to share whatever they do have. I really love America and I think many people have this spirit of generosity (for example look at the responses to the Waldo Canyon fire) but I think a lot of people could learn from the culture of community here. Even if people have very little they are always willing to share and help each other get by. In this tradition of sharing and extreme generosity it is possible that even when everyone has almost nothing they actually end up having everything they need.
Each of us is a being in himself and a being in society, each of us needs to understand himself and understand others, take care of others and be taken care of himself.