Many of my conversations when I meet an new acquaintance go a little like this:
Aquantance: “So where are you from? I hear a little accent when you speak.
Sometimes I throw in that awkward joke that I just got in town from the south or that I am originally from chicago, but normally I just answer that I am from the central part of Africa from a country called Rwanda.
“Oh okay Luanda”, they continue “I know such and such person from Nigeria are you close to that? ” To which I politely answer, “no ma’am/sir Rwanda, spelled R.W.A.N.D.A, is a little far aways from that one.” But the big one is when they give me that pitiful look and go like “Oh like the Hotel Rwanda”; this one used to get on one of my sensitive nerves, why is it that the bad image sticks faster and longer than the good one when it comes to Africa, why can’t they know Rwanda from the beautiful animals and the thousand hills that have adorned the country since the beginning of time? Unfortunately it is what it is, and I have learned that it is my opportunity right there and then to add more color on that image of my homeland that my new acquaintance has captured. So I eagerly answer that yes like in the hotel Rwanda but with a lot more than the 90 minutes you remember. I then go on to tell them about my home before and after the hotel Rwanda moment; the laughter that I shared with my siblings around the table, the memories that I made with my parents when growing up, the parks that have endless beauty to offer, the culture that offer so much hospitality, humility and dignity.
I am a first born of five children, I was lucky enough to be born in a family that was self sufficient in the midst of one of the still struggling continent on the planet. My father was an engineer and my mother is a teacher. My family was a traditilnal catholic family and my father took pride in that. We were financially secure if I may use this term; we could afford the new outfits for Christmas and a good goat meal well prepared for the occasion. Our Easter rooster would arrive a few weeks ahead of time so that we can fatten it in time for Easter feast (it was a tradition to eat a rooster on Easter even though the tradition of egg hunting had not reached our little world yet, I guess there had to be someone to eat the chicken while the American kids hunt for the eggs, whichever came first LOL), in short we had enough for our belly. I remember unfortunately that not everyone was as fortunate as we were, in fact I remember that some of my extended family didn’t notice the difference between those big celebrated holidays and their ordinary days. I however remember to this day that my father was very adamant about making sure that his family, friends and acquaintances he could help had a little something special on their plate at least for the holidays. Taking care of ones family and loved one for my father was never an obligation rather a source of pride and fulfillment. I remember that close to the big holidays we would visit my grandparents in the village and my father will buy them everything that he thought they needed to make their upcoming holiday special, from clothing to rice and the special case of beer that will be opened for the occasion and shared from the same bottle (something out generation will look down to but I digress). We would start from my father’s side of family and go to my mother’s side of the family a few miles away from my father’s home with the same goodies, almost everything was bought in double except my grandmothers clothes that had to be in different colors and both beautiful of course. I remember how everyone in my father’s extended family will be excited to accompany my immediate family to the other side of the mountains; from family members, friends, neighbors to the workers who was working in my grandparents farm that day they will all happily offer to carry the stuff we brought from “the city ” to my mother’s side of the family. I can still see the line of ten to fifteen people upward the hill on the little pathways in the green fields. The line almost always followed the same pattern, from the little children playing with us in the front of the line to the young men carrying our suitcases on their heads, the women carrying basket of bananas, potatoes and beans, to the men carrying the special Rwandan brewed alcohol and at last my parents and the elders towards the back of the line with my grandfather holding his carefully polished walking stick and sniffing his brown pipe while waving at his friends and neighbors with such pride in his eyes. He would stop on the way signaling everyone we passed to come and shake the hand of his son, oh the pride and joy in his eyes was enough memory to sustain me for the holidays. This line would stay like this for miles, if any of the people carrying goods was tired in need of rest someone we met along the way will occasionally chime in and carry the load, and sometimes we would just take a break and the whole group will just gather in a field under the tree and just chat (if you have spent time with ol good African folks or at least with me you know how long we can talk lol). Sometimes a random person who lives near where we are taking a break will just come out of their house with water and some Rwandan banana juice for the group, the line would pick up again and up the hill you can see us until we get the to top of the mountain and start going down the other side. We had to go two to tree hills depending on what route we took to my mother’s side of the family. Once on the top of the last mountain we would meet some people from my mother’s family same composition as the one we have; aunties, cousins, their neighbors … who will come to welcome us as the guests and they would show up with drinks and take over for the remainder of the way. Since there was no cellphone, and we would be on the hill opposite our destination, there would be someone at the entrance just sitting there watching as the line goes down and updating the women,cooking and cleaning and getting ready at my mother’s home, of our estimated time of arrival. the welcome was one I will never forget, we would jump from the arms of one uncle to the other, to our aunties to the neighbours some we don’t even know …not yet atleast, and the celebration will start again. we would eat, chat, play and lastly say our goodbye to my father’s side of the family that accompanied us just to do this again on our way back. on our way back we would leave this time carrying gifts and food from our families that would last us for days. Our extended families from the villages would give us anything from the farm that we dont get fresh in our “city markets”. This hospitality, sense of family, togetherness, sharing and love is another color to add to that image of Rwanda that my acquaintances had before meeting me.