I have found writing to be very therapeutic in this country. On the happy days I can reflect on my adventures and appreciate with newfound gratitude how fortunate I am to be here, on the bad days I can rant and rave about the crazy school policies or creepy men, and on the boring days writing can provide an alternate activity to watching the same movies over and over again. It can also be very therapeutic for the days when I encounter problems that I cannot solve since it gives me a medium to sort out my emotions. When really awful or sad things happen in my life here I find it extremely helpful to put the events into words, I suppose the process transfers some of the pain from my heart to the paper because I always feel a little lighter and happier afterwards. I usually keep these entries to myself since they are very emotional and personal, but recently I have been writing short stories about some of my experiences in Rwanda that I would like to share with others. Rwanda is a beautiful but extremely complicated and often frustrating country so I hope my stories can capture all the different aspects of my daily life.
I have included in this post an excerpt from a story about one of my students, whose name I changed to Jeannette to give her some privacy, who came to visit me seeking advice about a personal problem. I think about 1% of my readers have actually met my students, but since it is not really my story to tell I wanted to protect her identity. Teen pregnancy is a big issue in this country and it has drastic consequences for the mother since they are kicked out of school when the pregnancy is discovered and rarely return. The father of the child goes on his happy way and continues life as normal. Don’t even get me started on this aspect of the school system.
I am still working on the story, and at my current pace I will finish in approximately twenty years, but this is a small section from the middle of the piece:
Her visit falls on the day before my trip to the market so I have almost no food to offer. My usual protocol for guests is to serve fruit but the plastic basket that is often full of delicious offerings now houses a molding avocado and a passion fruit shriveled to the size of a grape. It’s really quite embarrassing so I throw a towel over the basket to hide my slovenly tendencies and search my cabinet for something else to give her. About the same time I find tea and box of crackers she pulls a small banana from her pocket. Barely recognizable as a banana, the skin is completely brown and some gooey banana mush is leaking from multiple cracks. She casually wipes the sticky discharge on her skirt and, while I am overwhelmed with the urge to retch, I cannot refuse when she hands me the mushy disaster of a fruit. I lay it on a plate and carefully divide the small banana into equal globs of brown paste and we sit down together. With our heads bowed I say a short prayer in Kinyarwanda, and although my eyes are shut, I can practically hear her smile as I muddle through the collection of new prayer vocabulary I learned last week. She carefully eats her banana in a delicate and graceful manner while I shove the entire portion into my mouth and never chew once.
I know that she has something to tell me but after two years in Rwanda I am accustomed to long silences, so there we sit. I study the map of Africa posted behind her head and dream of the countries I want to visit. The rain starts to fall and the gentle but persistent rhythm of the rain on the tin roof lulls me into a sleepy haze. And still we sit in silence.
Her weary eyes scan the floor, never rising to meet mine, and she clasps her shaking hands together as she whispers, “ndatwite.” I don’t recognize the word she uses but the slight movement of her hand to rest gently on her stomach is universal. The gesture pulls the fabric flush to her body to reveal the slight curve of her belly that is usually concealed under her baggy uniform shirt. She closes her eyes while her hand rubs back and forth across her stomach, a gesture eerily reminiscent of a student cleaning the blackboard, as if the movement will erase the person growing inside of her. I want to pull her into my arms, envelop her in love and take away all of her pain and sorrow. Instead I rest my hand on her bony knee and ask her how many months the baby has lived inside her. I stumble over the awkward phrasing but she nods and takes a moment to count.
“Maybe five months now,” she whispers. I ask her how she knows it is five. She tells me that after she stopped bleeding she visited a health center to see a nurse. Not willing to risk someone seeing her at the local health center she walked three hours to a different sector since she was not able to afford the 50 cent bus ride. I ask a few more questions and suddenly she switches from English to Kinyarwanda, seeking comfort in her maternal language as she opens her heart to me. For thirty minutes she talks so fast she barley has time to breathe, a steady flow of words that I struggle to understand as they rush into my ear. Finally she stops and hangs her head, and in a moment when words in any language are superfluous, tears slowly cascade down her cheeks and splash at my feet.