It’s me again, your unelected, self-nominated, sometimes arrogant ambassador of the others. Reporting from Amsterdam on a five-hour layover to New York.
I’m standing next to a guy who has so far not introduced himself—nor ever would—and he’s telling me about the city.
As I look over Amsterdam, I see hyperactivity. There are tanker ships boating off in the distance behind the train tracks.
Cars move by cautiously, tourists, commuter businessmen, and grounds crews stalk the cities early lights; trams fly by on electric tracks, and most noticeable of all, there is a fleet, a team, a nation of bicyclists, who take there transport seriously, riding with furious order and speed, hundreds of thousands of them, like swarms of bees running along the streets.
I stand for a minute in awe and then begin to smile to myself. Only if Rwanda could see them now. I actually begin to laugh out loud as I think to myself, envisioning the prospect. “What is this?” someone might say, “bazungu doing such things?”
They could never imagine! Even in Rwanda, when I am doing something as personal and universal as cleaning my room, or walking down the streets in my shorts, buying electrogaz—or, say, riding a bike down the road to get some exercise—people stop, turn and wonder.
This is not the bazangu they know. The ones they know have drivers, cleaners, cooks and nannies. They stay in hotels, take Kigali Taxis, talk about the miracle of Rwanda and give money to street kids. They have never been on minibuses or gone to local bars.
You won’t see them drying wet laundry along silky lines in the backyard. You may see them shopping, but to clean their own house is looked upon as silly.
I even have a friend who has lived-lived-in the Novotel for 18 months. Literally. If I brought a handful of Rwandans on the plane with me last night and left them where I stand now, they would be shocked silent.
And if we brought the Amsterdam cyclists to Kigali, the whole city, every passerby in Kigali would be bent over the stomach anemic from laughter.
Who I see now are the same people who would travel to exotic Rwanda and be the same people I described above. People are crystals, with many sides and poses.
The same muzungu tourist is the one riding a bike now, and who is in their natural daily lives. This is how we are when we are as we are.
What many Rwandans see are visions through a thick filter, that of, how we are when we are in Rwanda. I think sometimes people in Rwanda take it simply as, how we are.
Simply put, the most common impressions converging peoples have of each other are flat, one-sided. It’s a rather peculiar circumstance some of us are in.
Maybe it’s not all that strange to live abroad, but given the details and the context, it’s not all so subtle of an emotion, or of a subject of one’s life. Being an expat. Being someone who at once ostracizes and comes to represent his people. I know it when I am playing basketball.
I have never had anything much more than street-hard talk on the courts, but there are times when I can’t help but feel—whether real or not—the eyes of everyone on the one white kid in the shorts and the same red T-shirt.
Now, it’s not a big deal how you play, as I said, people generally don’t judge. But you definitely do not want to suck, because then people will notice and will laugh, as it happened the last time I played, because I missed some open shots—badly.
Usually I’m draining shots of fire on them but— I wouldn’t write all this if it was just something that happened in Kigali and ‘bothered me.’
It’s something that happens everywhere, and the degrees of public visibility of such vary depending on the country and the culture.
If there were any friends of mine from New York reading this I ask you this question: how many times have you been, or witnessed the deepmost as we are moments of another race’s or culture’s life?
Maybe I was the sole odd one, but I doubt it. Not very often, the answer actually goes. I don’t mean just one friend or two, but really through it.
When I came to Kigali I lived for nine months with a Rwandan man, his two children, and his step-mother. I could stay at the house while his wife was getting her degree in California.
Living there was the first time in my life that I got a deep look at someone else’s household, and way of life in an intimate way.
It may sound trite but it is a lot more than a lot more.
Just seeing and knowing through experience, rather than book, that people are acting in similar ways and means 99% of the day, it makes the world a better place.
People take these things for granted. Because we write them, enshrine them and desecrate them in ethereal documents like UN charters that are not enforced, we will ignore so much of the realness of that.
Imagine one-day a month, or one week a year, where homeowner and house-‘person’ switch places or I could go to the street corner and sell MTN cards under the shade of a shack, sheltering me from the sun.
We are so incredibly isolated from each other, be it in Kigali where Rwandans have a very primordial view of bazungu, or be in New York City, the melting pot of the world, where the most common ‘contact’ people have with each other is sitting in silence reading books on the subway.
What I’m saying is, people don’t really understand each other, and probably never really will. It’s not a fault. In the end, whether I am in cities such as Kigali, or in Amsterdam, I see people working together in enormous ways, in the dances of daily life and with larger horizons. It’s quite remarkable how much—and if you are standing on the street in Amsterdam or the ordered chaos of Nyabugogo, there is much going on—people have achieved.