Friends always ask me what I make of Rwanda. I have been here for exactly two years and these are a few of my impressions; first, the obvious- the countryside is beautiful, Kigali city is very clean and safe compared to other East African cities and corruption is relatively low. And of course the girls are gorgeous. I am told the guys are handsome too, but that is not for me to say.
Having said that, Rwanda reminds me very much of my sojourn in England and France where I did my undergrad as I will later explain.
There are things about England and France which I will always have fond memories of; the first time I got on to a train, the first time I saw and touched snow, the first time I said something in English or French and the person I was addressing did not ask me to repeat myself so that he could make out what I was saying (strange accent I had!).
I remember the picturesque French towns and the elegant and beautiful French girls and the unfailingly polite English folk.
I also remember the touching random acts of kindness; Being invited by a friend to spend Christmas with his family, a French classmate offering to help me with my French law assignments, being greeted heartily by a stranger on a chilly morning.
The above acts stood out because they were rare. In my past life in Uganda I had come to expect acts of kindness almost as a birthright because that is the nature of the people.
There were many other things to admire about life in England and France, but my overriding memories of university life are of cold winters, being broke, fruitless job searches and the ubiquitous plastic smiles of the English folk.
However, all the above pale into insignificance when compared to the overwhelming sense of loneliness that I felt in my first two years despite being surrounded by friends most of whom were White (only 2 other Blacks studied law or stayed in Halls of Residence like I did).
While my friends were some of the most decent people I have ever met, it always felt like they had erected an invisible wall around them which you could never penetrate.
At first I thought this was a temporary wall which would break down as they got to know and trust me. But with time I learnt this is who they were and this is the only way they knew how to lead their lives.
The only times the walls would crumble was if they got drunk. It is then that someone might confess to hating a certain housemate whom I previously assumed was this person’s best friend.
I found it very sad that anyone has to be drunk in order for them to open up, to embrace their vulnerability, to be humane.
In England most people were keen to get along with everyone else. That often meant being blind to your differences. It also meant engaging in harmless talk like who got the most ‘wasted’, ‘sloshed’, ‘knackered’(all mean drunk) during the past weekend.
It was considered prudent to steer clear of anything controversial like politics or religion for fear of upsetting others who may hold contrarian views.
Intellectual discourse too was shunned for fear of coming across as a bit of a snob. It was actually considered cool to appear to be not so well read. Many of my law course mates bragged that they had never read and completed a book their entire lives! (I did not believe that for a single second!)
Often, my attempts to steer conversations to something more intellectually stimulating was mostly an exercise in futility, my friends wearing blank looks while I pontificated about immigration, free speech, fair trade, latent racism, Islamic fundamentalism, African renaissance or any other topic on which I held strong views.
I particularly remember going to watch the ALI movie with a group of friends. After the movie, all they went on about was how dope Ali was dodging punches with his two-step move which was like he was dancing.
I would have preferred to discuss his religious views and his refusal to be conscripted into the US Army on grounds that he did not believe the Vietnam War was justified.
Fat chance of that happening! In short I always felt there was a disconnect between my aspirations and theirs. Yet somehow we still remained friends.
During these first two years I was always searching for an elusive middle ground which would combine elements of Christian virtue with elements of Western fun. I had become distrustful of the overly religious who I thought were a pretentious lot and was weary of keeping the company of those who led a carefree fun filled existence, like life was one big joy ride.
Many were the nights I spent in agonizing thought, wondering what I could do to find like-minded people or to convince people about this ‘middle ground’.
It was only in my 3rd and 4th year that I started finding friends I could relate to. And things became easier after that.
Back to Rwanda; for all the impressive strides Rwanda has made over the past 15 years, most of our hearts remain cold and distrustful.
In that respect living in Rwanda sometimes feels like déjà vu for me. It reminds me of UK and France. Too many people seem to have erected walls around themselves and will only reveal morsels of themselves while in a drunken state.
Happy New Year to you all!