Russell Jeffrey: Rwanda

You Need a Friend

Mr. Gaby was the first person we met in Rwanda, and without him we would have been completely lost. His head, shorn like the heads of most Rwandan men, balanced on his body more than six feet in the air – inches above the tallest in our group. Gaby seemed to know his way around everywhere, and he could bargain, discuss, argue and talk his way around until he got what he had come for. We were naturally curious when we discovered that he could speak seven languages. He advised us that the first word to learn in any language is “thank you,” or, in Kinyarwanda, “moracoze.” After that, it is up to you.

The second person we met on our trip was Gaspar, the bus driver who drove us all across the country. He was a very shy, humble person who was probably the best bus driver in Rwanda. Gaby knew that Gaspar was excellent, and the bus company knew that Gaspar was Gaby’s first, second, and third choice if he needed transportation for a group like us. We soon learned that Gaspar could squeeze the bus through gaps in the rush-hour streets of Kigali as smoothly as he could cruise through the hills, and because of our trust in Gaspar’s skill, the bus became a safe place for us throughout our trip.

We spent our first week in the capital, Kigali, at a guesthouse called Kings. As such, we became familiar with the staff members, Justine, Augustine, and Celestia, and the owner, Mr. Amos. Justine could not stand idly by as the white, American students struggled to do the most rudimentary household chores. She often had to show us the proper ways of doing things like washing clothes and peeling potatoes after she had a good chuckle. Augustine was a cheery fellow who always greeted us with a smile, but we were never quite sure exactly how much English he understood. He always smiled and nodded politely when we asked him questions, but we found that some conversations required much more pointing and gesturing than others. Luckily, he was quite familiar with the English phrases, “There is no hot water,” and “There is no Wi-Fi.”

I met another person in the village of Kanembwe. At the time that we visited, there was some confusion about the ownership of the land we were working on, so while Gaby was off talking his way through a Rwandan police force, an electric company, and a village of several thousand people to sort things out, we were left with little more than hand gestures and the Kinyarwanda words for “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, and “white person”. The guy I met seemed to be about my age or a bit younger, and he was one of the only people we met in the village who spoke a lick of English. He wore a red snapback cap turned around backwards, and he called himself Jumeve. (Pronounced with a soft “J”, Ju-may-vay is my best attempt at spelling the name from I-don’t-know-what-language that I only saw written as “JMV”).

Over the course of the two days we spent in Kanembwe, there were many occasions that sent me in search of Jumeve to make sense of the ideas that the people were trying to communicate to us. I was told that I could be cut by sharp minerals if I touched the cement, I was told that it was considered a “blessing” to get peed on by a baby, and I declined the requests of several men who thought it was my job to marry off the ladies in our group. None of these messages were understood without the help of Jumeve. At the end of our stay in Kanembwe, I briefly got to say goodbye to him. His grin, which I had always received when I smiled at him in passing, fell away when he understood that we were leaving. He gave me his WhatsApp number and asked for something to remember me by. I thought frantically: Shoes? I need those; Notebook? Tattered; Money? Impersonal; Tape measure? Cheap. Then it struck me: Pocket knife. I unclipped it from my belt and handed it to him. He nodded, we exchanged mournful smiles, and I went on my way to join the others for the ride back to our hotel.

On the morning of our trip home, Gaby arrived with a different bus driver (Gaspar had a scheduling conflict) and took us to the airport. I was comfortable letting everyone else take pictures that would be shared after the trip, but my biggest regret about the trip is that I failed to capture Gaby. There are very few pictures of him in our shared folder for, I suspect, the same reason that there are not many pictures of Gaspar’s bus. In the rush and jumble of our first few days, Gaby and Gaspar quickly became the secure foundation from which we operated – the giants whose shoulders we stood on to see Rwanda. I only have one recording of Gaby speaking. In the recording he says one word, “Nzagukumbura,” which is the Kinyarwanda word for, “I will miss you.” I miss him, too. Because, although I have returned from Rwanda, I left a little piece of me behind. I left it on purpose, and maybe someday I will go back to look for it.

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