Back in the good old days when I was at Colby College, I hated the drive between my house and the campus. After each holiday, I’d pack up my things and drive 2.5 hours north from NH to Maine. The drive itself was not terribly long, but route I-95 through Maine has to be one of the most boring roads on the east coast. Pine trees line the highway from the NH border straight through the exit into Waterville, ME, obstructing any good views with the exception of driving through Portland for a few quick minutes. However, after last weekend, I think I might NEVER complain about a commute to or from school again.
I have two friends who are currently attending secondary school for Tourism in Musanze, Rwanda, about two hours outside of Kigali. I met Pacifique and Remember last year in a village in Northern Province, where they told me about their schools, studies, and ambitions for the future. These two young men kept in touch throughout the year, and now they feel like two little cousins to me. I really wanted to see them again during this trip, so Martha and I stopped in Musanze last weekend to meet up with them. Both guys are from the volcanoes region of Rwanda, which is also home to the popular and rare mountain gorillas. Essentially it is a region of treacherous terrain, stunning views, and a startling contrast between luxurious tourist lodging and immense poverty. Though I understand that tourism brings excellent economy to the region, it makes me feel sick to think about the fact that people stay in a hotel for $700-$1400 USD per night while the families in the surrounding huts are mainly subsistence farmers.
Remember picked us up at the bus stop in Musanze, and walked us to Pacifique’s school so he could join us to travel back to Remember’s village where we first met. Unfortunately, Pacifique had an exam the following day, and the patron at his school (aka the disciplinarian?) wouldn’t allow him to leave. After I engaged in a frustrating conversation with the patron, he still denied permission for Pacifique to go. So Martha, Remember and I decided to meet up with Pacifique the following day, and we headed out to Remember’s village, which is called Sunzu. In order to pass there, we took a “bus” which could more accurately be described as a dilapidated 12 passenger van with 16 people inside. We flew down a patchy road with more potholes than tar for approximately 45 minutes before hopping out at an unmarked location on the side of the road. Remember led us over to a dusty side street where I read a sign that said “Mwiko Primary School- 5 Kilometers.” I suddenly remembered that this was the name of the school in Sunzu. There were no moto taxis in sight. No cars half filled with umuzungu tourists to drive us up the road. It was 3:45 pm and as Rwanda is practically on the equator it is reliably dark at 6pm. This meant that we had just over two hours to walk a round trip of 10K up and down a mountain while having at least a small amount of time to meet with his family and friends in the village.
10 kilometers isn’t even far for me, and is merely a typical run, but this trip up the mountain was more difficult than most 6 mile journeys. Less than 100m down the road, we were swarmed by smiling children, dressed in a variety of school uniforms, thread bare hand-me-downs, or whatever other clothing they happened to find. These kids were not like the well-spoken, well-dressed young children we pass everyday in Kigali. They were incredibly friendly, incredibly cute, and incredibly in need of basic sanitation, clean water, clothes, food, and better education. Some of the kids’ funniest quirks were their attempts at English. In the country side, English education is not the same quality as in the city, and most of their phrases are learned through rote memorization in crowded classrooms of 40-60 pupils per one teacher. Therefore, the most common phrases they used to greet us were “agacupa” (Kinyarwanda word for “water bottle”- they spied ours and wanted them) and some of the English phrases they learned in school such as “This is a pen!,” “What is my name?,” and “Good morning, Money!”
Funny as it was, the last phrase was rather frustrating for me. White people are almost always associated with money here, but to be addressed directly as “Money” was just unreal. My guess is that it came about through the children’s reasoning that “Good morning” should be used as a greeting, and that they ought to ask white people for money. As we were sweating and panting up the steep, dusty, rocky road at 7000-8000 feet elevation, the calls of “Good morning, Money” became more and more obnoxious to me. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the children shouting these increasingly annoying phrases as we walked along, but there was everything wrong with the reasons why they were saying it. How did our world get to the point where young children see white people as money? How do white people have such a tendency to get wrapped up in money that they completely ignore these friendly children while driving to their mountain top paradise? And how was I possibly getting angry with these children when I, as a white person, felt a part of the problem keeping these kids impoverished? We stopped to greet, shake hands, and laugh along with the kids, but ultimately we weren’t helping them. And should we have? And if so, then how? Or was it enough just to be with them, to have patience, and to enjoy each other’s company? As “Money” encountered “innocent poverty,” I realized that both we and the children were ultimately trying to make sense of each other’s presence and role in this crazy, spectacular, complex, and racism-ridden world.
As these thoughts flew through my head, we summited the mountain to witness the spectacular views of two beautiful lakes down below. We were in paradise. We were in poverty. We were living in the most ridiculous paradox that I have ever encountered. And finally, after 45 minutes on a cramped bus, and an hour of hiking, Remember arrived home from school. I will never complain about my school commute again. Well, at least until there are three feet of snow on the ground.