Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mzungu! Mzungu!

Gringo. Gavacho. Farang. Keenok. Suddha. Mzungu. As foreigners in a foreign land, the first word we learn in the local dialect is what they call us, the white people.  Schoolchildren shout it as we pass by. It jumps out in conversations held by locals. Sometimes it is derogatory in nature. Other times it is used matter-of-factly: we are the outsiders.

Here, in Rwanda, and throughout much of Africa, we are greeted with Mzungu! Mzungu! A Swahili term meaning ‘aimless wanderer’, the tag was originally applied to European explorers. Also used is the Kinyarwanda word Rutuku, or ‘red’, for the color we turn in the sun. Which is, in some ways, better than a name originating from bird shit or pink/white fruit, as is the case in Thailand.

And, despite the large number of expats in Kigali, never before have we been so clearly the foreigners. With almost nothing to speak of in the way of tourism (aside from some incredibly expensive gorillas), the number of white folks coming through Rwanda is miniscule compared to some of the more touristic countries. We are, in some ways, still a novelty: children run up to us in mobs to say hello, good afternoon, and touch our hands; I’ve even received a couple of hugs.

Our skin color, our hair, our clothing, our language, all of these things make us noticeably and immediately different. Unfortunately, the world over, these things make people assume we are inherently wealthy. We have discovered that it also means that, here in Rwanda, they assume we have the correct answer for every situation. Although, that is probably just because they don't have the hordes of drunk tourists visible in some places (another assumption we try to dissuade people from making about Westerners).

And though my name is not Mzungu, and I will not pay higher, mzungu prices, we try always to be good ambassadors for the white people, our fellow gringos, the farang spread across the globe, doling out handshakes, conversations, and hugs, dispersing myths of automatic wealth and knowledge, and spreading smiles.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Grand Opening

Had you asked me mere months ago where I thought we would be at the start of 2013, Rwanda would not have been my first answer. Nor would it have appeared in a probable top ten list. Yet, life being unpredictable as it is, here we are.

Beautiful circumstances have conspired to land us in this tiny African country, working for newly-launched (opened on January 7th) City Arts Kigali. Springing from the overwhelming success of Ballet Rwanda, the country’s first classical ballet school, City Arts fills a vacuum in Kigali: offering a dizzyingly expansive selection of classes for children and adults.

Win and I have been brought on to dedicate our time to teaching art and yoga, respectively; the other teachers, expats and Rwandans alike, teach classes and workshops once or twice a week, as they have real jobs to attend to.

With such an exciting job prospect, we did a very basic research rundown of Rwanda --- Is it safe? Check. Is it affordable relative to pay? Yep. Is it somewhere new from which we can launch explorations of other African countries? You bet. --- and left the rest up to chance. Beyond the basics, no amount of research will tell you whether or not you will like a place. Sometimes you just have to jump in with both feet. So, that's just what we did.

Rwanda’s reputation among the western world is based almost solely on the genocide of 1994. It is understandable; what we know of a place is based on what is in the media. Since the early 90s, however, Rwanda has become an incredibly safe country, especially when compared to some of its neighbors. People walk around at night. The streets, though only about ten percent paved, are virtually spotless. Grass is kept trimmed, hedges squared. I even hear that the police pride themselves on being helpful.

Not only is Kigali clean, but it is breathtakingly beautiful. Known as the ‘land of a thousand hills’, the city is a mass of rolling green, highlighted by the orange of roofs and the red of the dirt, all under a huge, expressive sky. And by night, the cityscape sparkles with breadth and depth. Roads snake around and over it all, making for some of the most impressive mototaxi rides I have yet to experience.

Most importantly, people are friendly and helpful. Smiles are wide and bright. And food, though a bit bland, is plentiful. We have eaten a decent amount of goat in the past week and a half, along with a ton of rice, beans, potatoes, and other starches. But local produce is cheap, as is local beer. We have what we need, and with a little exploring, we are sure to find more to eat, experience, and enjoy.