The part of rural Rwanda I was in yesterday and earlier today smells like burning tea leaves. When a neighbour showed me what he said was tea, it looked a lot like rosemary to me, but smelled like tea.
In the matutu yesterday on our 10 hour journey over mostly awful roads, the kids bought snacks at a fuel station. One bag of popcorn and one bag of grasshoppers. They think I'm ridiculous for not eating them. Or the "matooke and offals" that were a possibility for breakfast at one place we stopped. Matooke is like plantain. Offals are just, well, awful.
In restaurants, you are usually handed a menu, but it's more of a conceptual art piece. You have to ask "what is there?" It might be matooke and offals. In which case you go to the place where you have chapati and black tea. (African tea has boiled milk in it). For lunch yesterday it was goats and chips, fish and chips or beef and chips. I had the fish and chips and the came whole, skin and fins on the plate. "You have to wash your hands because you can't eat fish with a fork," laughed Tina. I don't know if I got deep inside as she did, but it was surprisingly delicious.
Asking "what is there" is a way of following the cadences of local english. Like, "we found what? the boy." Rather than "what do you think we found?" Pronouncing the ends of words so the kids understand. Clo-zed for closed. it's clo-zed. Clo-thes for clothes. Finish-ed. We understand each other.
I find Rwandan and Congolese french, far far FAR easier to understand than Haitian or even Quebec french. Most of my conversations in the french in the past year have been about devastation. Haitian cabdrivers and people on the borders of congo/uganda/rwanda. My waiter emmanuel and I decided tonight that despite the hideous winters of canada, "l'hiver c'est pas la guerre." Then we laughed.
The single most frequently found food that sits most easily in my tummy is, bizarrely, spaghetti napolitain. Mostly pasta with tomato sauce, sometimes with a few veggies added.
The food ugandans eat 90% of the time is posho, a kind of grainy meal akin to grits or polenta, if these were completely bland and gravy-less. Preparing it involves a bitterly detested and mysterious chore called "mingling posho," and the woman who's been our cook for 10 years flatly quit last week because she doesn't want to mingle posho anymore. I don't blame her. A decade of making a kind of peasant rissoto in enormous pots over a blazing fire is probably enough. We had already agreed to support her 3 year old son through school, and after some compromise involving a local worker coming for 20 minutes a day to mingle the posho, our director ordered her to rip up her resignation letter. He commented later he thought she was pregnant. The boy who knows her well told me he thought she was just growing fat.
I actually like posho, and ate it two or three times at the project this year, with peas. I should cook it at home. If I knew what mingling it meant.
You don't get posho in restaurants.
We almost hit a little girl on the road today who dashed out without looking. That would have been horrifying, not only if we'd injured her but for the paperwork. I'd probably be found in an orange prison jumpsuit building a road. Unlike Uganda, in rwanda, if you overload your taxi or matatu, you can be arrested. You have to buy road permits for non-rwandan cars with specific destinations, which is why our driver couldn't take me to kigali (he'd bought one for gisenyi). There are frequent random police roadblocks. You aren't supposed to bring plastic bags into the country (though no one asked me about mine). There are rules about littering, but that didn't stop sylver from throwing a water bottle out the window while proclaiming what a pristine country rwanda is.
All of the people who worry about my safety in africa probably have no idea that the most dangerous thing is roads. And I've been on three different motorcycles in the past week, and was helmeted only once. The boda drivers here carry spare helmets but frankly, I'd rather risk bouncing off the pavement than ringworm or lice.
I hate that I have started to be able to discern different tribes based on facial features and body type.
None of this adds up to what it means to be here, but without any of it, I couldn't understand the context at all.