The only way travel in Rwanda (unless you are very rich and can afford a car imported from another country) is using public transportation. I have spent the past two years riding on motorcycles, twegeranies (vans that they squeeze way too many people into), and buses of various shapes and sizes. I have met a lot of people on these trips. Nice people, mean people, smelly people, funny people, sick people, happy people, aggressive people, creepy people, and just about every other adjective you can think of, they have sat next to (or on) me. I could probably write an entire book just about the characters I have met on buses during my journeys across Rwanda. Two different mothers have tried to breastfeed their infants by pushing them into my chest in order to fortify them with muzungu (white person) milk and I kindly explained, much to their annoyance, that I cannot magically produce breast milk upon their request. A teenage girl has wet her pants and soaked me in urine. A crazy woman chewed on my hair and an adorable old woman once asked for a sip of my water and we spent the entire three-hour drive discussing the best church hymns in Rwanda. People have vomited on me and others fell asleep on my shoulder. Men have tried to get a bit handsy for my taste and were subsequently publicly shamed as I lectured them in Kinyarwanda on their bad culture while the mamas on the bus cheered and laughed. I have played and chatted with awesome kids who have genuine curiosity about either me or the English language and also interacted with brats who try to slip their little hands into my purse. It is a mixed bag and you never know what type of interaction you will get, but most days it is worth making the effort to interact with people because the really great experiences totally make up for the bad. Plus the bad ones make great horror stories to earn me street cred with the other volunteers and really horrify the people back home! 🙂
Today I was traveling home from GLOW (girls leading our world) camp and was totally exhausted. After days of screaming cheers about Jeannette Kagame (she was our hero group role model), dancing and singing with 85 teenagers, and running camp activities I was ready for a good meal and a long night of rest. I was not in the mood to chat with strangers. I got on an empty bus and started to dig in my backpack for my headphones in hopes of deterring conversation so I could sleep the entire ride to Kigali. A few minutes later a girl climbed on and sat in the seat across the aisle from me. I was slightly annoyed. Then she started talking to me and I was really annoyed. I was tired and grumpy and feeling altogether grinchy. I knew I had a choice to make- engage her in conversation by answering her questions or be rude and put my headphones in and crank up my Glee soundtrack. I decided to talk with her and I am so glad that I did. She was awesome.
Her name was Jasmina and she is studying at a prestigious boarding school in Kayonza. She is a student in primary 6, about the equivalent of sixth grade, and speaks English better than most of the adults in this country. She has a sticker collection and likes to study English way more than her native language. She was headed home from school to celebrate the end of Ramadan with her family. She even showed me the permission slip the school gave her. She explained that her family practices Islam but admitted that she finds the religion confusing and her lack of ability to comprehend Arabic leaves her feeling disconnected from her religion. Since she attends a Christian school she is contemplating asking a sponsor to purchase her a Bible. She has a big family and loves to eat cooked bananas with beans.
Everything she said I found fascinating and soon it was me asking all the questions. I moved to sit next to her and she stored my huge backpack at her feet so that I could have more space. At a bus station stop she bought a small pack of gum and bought me one as well. She was such a sweet girl. After about thirty minutes of conversation she asked if I had any films on my phone so I lent her my Ipod and she watched Modern Family episodes for most of the ride. When we got closer to the city she switched to music, rested her head on my shoulder and fell asleep for a few minutes. We parted ways at the last stop and I dug out a few sheets of stickers from my bag to add to her collection and she headed home to celebrate with her family.
I am so glad that I decided to talk with her instead of following my initial inclination to ignore her questions and listen to music. I wish I could say that I always take advantage of these opportunities to interact with people here but unfortunately that cannot always be the case. Sometimes the music wins, and that is OK. Jasmine was a success story and one ride with her washes away the trauma of at least three bad rides! 🙂
I hope to write more about GLOW soon since I have lots of pictures and stories to share!