If you catch a girl walking to the bus-stop with perfectly ironed black dress pants, 3-inch heels, and beautifully placed hair, you can be sure of one thing:
it isn’t me.
Look further. Yeah, you will have to peruse further than the nearby bus stop.
Most days, at least as of last week, I have taken to “going on walks” before I head into work. For some wild reason it helps me start the day right. Feel relaxed. Get some fresh air. Really, it’s probably a need to move since I’m currently on a running hiatus. And I sit at a desk a large portion of my day.
Yep. I’m the sweaty girl with a heavy, unnecessarily large backpack walking in converse (officially my new favorite pair of shoes) on the Kigali pedestrian sidewalks. Don’t worry, I bring my dress shoes into work (sometimes).
On one of my walks last week, I decided it would be cool to walk all the way from my house to work. No big deal…right? Well. According to google maps, I did this:
It was about an 8 km walk (or around 5 miles). To be honest, it felt like a lot more, but let’s be real. It’s probably those Kigali hills. If you have been here, you know what I am talking about. The steep inclines are no joke.
Here’s another reason I’m enjoying these little adventures, y’all. Well, first of all, when I was living in the village, it was a social necessity. It was how you met people. So, perhaps it’s a bit of a habit. But also, I want to see Kigali.
Behind those towering Beverly-Hill like monsters of homes (one of which I happen to rent a room from) there are significantly poorer residences tucked away – they are actually in the same neighborhood. Though, rumor has it that eventually the city organizers are looking to move these residents out and convert this particular area into an “upper income area only.” Who knows.
As you walk along Kigali sidewalks you realize just how clean everything is, for the most part. I see parents holding the hands of their uniformed children as they take them to school. They are sure are a hell of a lot better groomed than I am at this point. If you see litter, which I doubt you will, it’s very little. I will never forget the smells and sights of roads back in Ghana when I was studying abroad; people drink water from small baggies, called sachets, and they are absolutely everywhere. Mountains of them, even. In Kigali, you will instead see hired women dressed in blue or green uniforms that are either sweeping dust or picking up even the smallest pieces of left behind paper. Knowing Rwanda how I do, this doesn’t really surprise me, though. Most Rwandans highly value cleanliness.
I pass incredibly manicured lawns of colleges and vocational schools. KIM, the Kigali Insititute of Management, for example, has red brick reminiscent of my own Hendrix College and an assortment of flowers that nearly every color can be found. These are the institutions and students that I will be interacting with for a large chunk of my time as a fellow with Urwego Opportunity Bank – once I pump out the manual, anyway. Entering my third week, I have been quite swamped putting together the PPM (Procedures and Policy Manual) for the Education Finance Program. Trust me when I tell you that it is significantly more fascinating than it sounds. For the past couple of weeks, I have used my work day to extensively research Education in Rwanda, the history of education financing in this country, and what this means for Urwego’s social approach. What can work here? What can’t? Why?
I have learned a lot. In between my research, I have developed surveys for staff in the Education program, re-constructed and tailored a financial literacy curriculum for children to air on the radio, and completed some site visits. I’ve been busy. It’s made me think a lot. And so, it’s become these morning walks that really gear me up for the day ahead and give me the time and space I need to consider the things I have learned, what I have experienced before, and what I am experiencing now. And also, where I want to go with all of this.
See that tree over to the left?
note the papaya tree. a great place for a great conversation.
It’s adjacent to the clothes drying in the sun and behind Divine’s neighbor waiting for her close-up.
It’s a papaya tree. Last Sunday, I sat on a tattered mat for two hours, under its thin branches, and really talked with Divine. I firmly believe that in the end, no amount of Skype credit, WhatsApp messages, or video calls can replace the feeling of being able to discuss things without any time limit. It’s a rare gem in our world.
We talked about a lot of stuff.
In the past, so much of my writing has been triggered by things or nuggets of wisdom that Divine has shared with me. Apparently that continues.
We were talking about some of the work I was doing in Kigali, with the bank, and soon the conversation shifted to some broader experiences I was seeing in the city. Namely, the blatant concentration of wealth. As I tried to explain some of these observations carefully and delicately, Divine continued to scrub dust-ridden clothes between the crevices of her hands. She remarked,
“…poverty is not only about money.”
I looked up. She wasn’t looking at me. Instead, she was intensely focused on my blue jeans she had been soaking in suds to remove the stains from beans the previous day. Yeah, okay, I’m a messy eater. She went on,
“Heather, poverty is a lack of something. In the heart….in the mind….you can find the poor everywhere.”
Of course she was telling me this, of course. She has always been one of the more practically insightful people I have known; she’ll just start spewing out really interesting observations about how the world works as if she’s just having a regular conversation about tea or something.
I told her that ironically, the bank I am working for takes the very same approach to constructing their idea of poverty and what they are fighting against. Taking directly from Urwego Opportunity Bank’s official beliefs:
UOB views poverty as a multifaceted, interconnected, and dis-empowering system that is the result of the fall of the four foundational relationships that God established for each person (i.e. relationships with God, self, others, and creation). When defined in this way, all people are fundamentally poor in the sense of not experiencing the fullness that God intended for each of these relationships. For the economically poor, these broken relationships often include shame, a marred identity, and social isolation. For the economically rich, these broken relationships manifest themselves into pride, selfishness, workaholic tendencies, materialism, etc., which result into a variety of individual and social ills.
I didn’t tell Divine this, but it was hard for me to sit there, considering how I have been moving in between two worlds that are quite different yet very much in the same country.
By Monday morning I am working alongside educated, university-attended Rwandans. I have sat at roundtables and lectures and presentations that highlight researchers’ and experts’ newest ideas about how to decrease poverty in this country. It might be from the financial world, from a context of charity, or from the basis of education. In the city there’s a lot of ideas. Some are really good. And for others, I feel like the roots of poverty itself are hidden deep behind the rhetoric. Buzz words appear often when you speak with people in development: the rural poor, girls, access, indicators, outcomes, projects, impact analysis….I could go on.
These things aren’t bad, they really aren’t. And you know what? I like talking about this kind of stuff more than anyone. And to be quite frank, Rwanda is an exemplary example of development. It really, really is. There are goals here (the health care scheme, universal primary education, ICT, and increased agricultural productivity) that have become realities. A simple ‘google’ search of Rwandan development will provide plenty of reading material to prove it so. Perhaps that’s why so many people come to work here; something is going right.
However, I suppose as I was laying under that papaya tree discussing poverty with someone right there, experiencing extraordinary financial limitations right in front of me, I felt a disconnect between those words and the lives being lived.
So much of the need is decided by people who have risen above. Is it good? Is it bad? I don’t know. I’ll tell you this much. Living in Rwanda in a different context certainly makes you consider these sort of dynamics.
And later that evening, when the sun had set and the stars came alive (along with a fresh brew of that old-time banana beer – some things really never change) I had a conversation that rocked me a bit.
I don’t feel comfortable posting exact details but I will say that it highlighted poverty – and the major wealth gap that exists in this country. This person commented on some obvious dissension with “power structures” in Kigali and it took me by surprise. They expressed a dissatisfaction that I haven’t seen so obviously from most Rwandans I have met; most of the time, Rwandans are pretty guarded about personal opinions or ideas. So when I heard what I did, my eyes widened a bit. Woah. There’s something going on here.
I had been sharing some of my stories of what some people had to say about “the village” while living in Kigali. A few people I have talked to seem to lump “the village” together as one entity. It’s as if Rwanda is two things: Kigali and the village. And in terms of a rural and urban breakdown, that can be true, but don’t be mistaken to think that “the village” is the same in the East as it is in the North as it is in the South. Even in a country quite homogenous like Rwanda, at least with some traditional values, language, and religion, places are different. And like Divine pointed out, poverty is different too. Whether you’re in Kigali, near Tanzania, or living volcano-side in the North.
Going back to those walks I love taking, I went on another long one yesterday on my way to work. I was thinking about all of this. I was praying one thing over and over again,
“Lord, let me see what you want me to see here.”
I think it’s begun.
I don’t think it’s going to be easy at times. In fact, I think as the next couple of month’s progress, I will be challenged to reconcile differences and disparities. I’m working, sure. I’m having fun in the city. I’m enjoying weekend visits to old friends. But, I’m also being directed, educated, and presented with things I have yet to ever consider.
That’s a summer worth having.