Thursday, January 23, 2014

Thoughts on Rwanda. And feet.

I’ve been in Rwanda for work lately, and I’ve spent a lot of that time on the roads.  The drive from Kigali to our office is two and a half hours down, up, left, right, across the mountains. Don’t picture a drive either.  It’s a roller coaster ride of hairpin turns forcing you to grip anything vaguely reminiscent of a handle, lest a soft part of your own body collide with a hard part of the car’s interior.  Before taking a bus ride on this route, I was told “Prepare yourself. Someone in the bus WILL vomit.”  Not “may.”  “Will.”   

But I’m painting a much uglier picture than I mean to. Rwanda, as anyone who has visited will tell you, is stunning. Before the name conjured bloody images of machete-fueled genocide, it was known as the “Switzerland of Africa,” and for good reason.  The countryside is blanketed by patchwork shambas carved into the steep hillside and lush forest.  It’s postcard-esque.
The view from my room in Rubengera Rwanda.  From my phone, which isn't doing the view any favors.

But navigating the land on foot is a unique challenge and took a bit of adjustment. You don’t walk across the land as much as you try not to fall off of it. And, if you’re me, you fail at that endeavor, land in the mud and break your sandals in the process. And then 20 minutes later, in true African style, someone comes up to you out of nowhere with an industrial strength needle and thread and fixes said sandals for the equivalent of 15 cents. And you’re on your way.
So, all this walking around the Rwanda hillsides eventually took me to my first field visit. It was “distribution day” for the fertilizer that my organization’s farmers had bought on credit, and throngs of farmers made their way up to the distribution center set atop one of Rwanda’s many hills.  The day started, as is the custom, with a song and dance and then the field officers got down to the business of providing a brief training on the best planting practices.

So, I found myself sitting on a concrete slab amongst hardy hill-climbing Rwandan farmers, all of us leaning in to get a better listen to the live farming demonstration.  But I don’t understand the local language, so despite his enthusiastic demonstration, at some point I zoned out and started staring, like a bored school girl, at my feet.
And then I looked a few inches to my right at my Rwandan neighbor’s feet. 

I’ve noticed this before, but for some reason it stuck out to me that day.  There are a lot of physical differences between “wealthy world” urban-dwellers and African villagers, differences made stark by the intense and unceasing labor required to sustain families in a place with no electricity, tap water or gas-fueled kitchen stoves to prepare a hot meal. People have to be hardier, and they are. 
And this difference is most exemplified by the differences in our feet.

I looked at my neighbor’s feet and they looked categorically different from mine – not just darker and larger, but a different thing altogether.  The toes were fat, almost swollen looking and the heals were hardened with callouses I imagined thick enough to repel thorns.  These were feet forged, I imagined, by walks along those stony roads, weighted down by pounds of firewood and buckets of water.  Feet life had made thick and sturdy.

Then I looked at my own feet.  They looked delicate, dainty and maybe even a touch vulnerable in comparison, as if they probably couldn’t handle the natural environment. Mine were feet wrapped from day one in soft cotton socks and later ensconced in thick shoes with rubber soles engineered to cushion and protect them from their very purpose: walking.  And when they were liberated from their cocoon, there were always smooth surfaces – wood floors, soft grass – to walk across.  My feet had been babied, like an infant in a papoose, all their lives and had come out soft and a fragile.
I soon stopped my reverie, afraid I would be caught staring. I moved to catch the eye of my Rwandan neighbor and to offer one of those language-transcending smiles of good will. 

But her eyes did not meet mine.  Instead her brow was furled into a puzzled expression, and her eyes were looking directly down.  She was throwing that head-scratching expression directly at my own feet, and I could almost hear her thought bubble: “But how did they get like that?”


  1. One of the things I kept thinking about in this post is that as a dancer, feet are often calloused and mangled (thanks to toe shoes). Not an apt comparison, but it was something it brought to mind. Can't wait to hear more about your trip to Rwanda. When do you come home?

  2. Love this post! (I'm so behind in blog reading, it's not funny...) I've always had a foot thing - no matter where I worked, no matter how muddy, how dry, how dirty - I always needed to have clean, cared-for feet. My colleagues, all of whom developed crusty, calloused feet with dirty toenails, always marveled at the pristine condition of my feet, even after months in the bush. I don't get to the field so much lately, but I recently stepped barefoot in fresh cow dung at Lake Elementaita - you can imagine my reaction... :)

  3. Your posts tend to flip my mind open where I didn't realize it was closed. Feet!

    Also, I now adore the custom of song and dance before getting down to business. Your job sounds amazing.

  4. Love, love your writing and thoughts. Thanks lady.

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