The next morning I awoke at five am to the sounds of my bunkmates trying to quietly dress and go outside to watch the sunrise. Our shared room had two simple bunk beds, I had the only space that was left when I’d gotten into the room: the top of one that squeaked perilously whenever I moved to get closer to the ladder. “Val-“ I’d said to Eddie’s aunt in the bottom bunk, “You need to promise me to roll onto the ground if this thing starts to fall.” So far, she was safe, and I lay under the gauzy mosquito net with the stillness of a prey animal, eyes open. Holy crap, you’re in Africa! My succinct waking consciousness helpfully supplied.
I was here to build gardens with a group from Africa New Life, and I’d gotten here because of gardens. Vita Gardens: a brand that had been my sole focus for more than a year. Vita thus far has been creative in a pretty hard to innovate category: garden beds, with an idea borrowed from Africa and its climate challenges – a keyhole garden. Eddie had found the concept in his research and designed a modern, mass-market version. He’d also suggested from inception that we give back to Africa for the idea. The first keyhole garden launched with such a big bang that the resultant expansion of its universe created the entire brand of Vita Gardens. Conversely, ‘giving back to Africa’ shrank, like typing “Kageyo” into Google Earth and watching the screen change from our whole earth in space to the tiny, Rwandan village with the speed of a dizzying tunnel vision. And what does giving back look like? Well, it changed. It reversed, inverted and transformed moment by moment. To tell the truth, I’m writing this eleven days later, and it still feels fluid. On that first full day in Africa though, it looked like a triangle of protagonists in overlapping works: Aunt and nephew. Co-workers. Act 1, Scene 1: making dawn conversation seated in plastic chairs on the balcony of the Africa New Life guest house.
The rest of our group all seemed homogeneous, one entity that had all traveled in a group, and perhaps always did. They were all religious, as is the organization itself. I’d made up my mind in advance to not bring it up; to go with the flow, even though I had no idea what the flow was. There’d been a list of rules since day one, but I’d only memorized the two that directly oppressed me: No leggings. No drinking. It’s hard to order those into most grievous and slightly less grievous. That too was fluid.
The whole group gravitated to the balcony, displaying the same friendly openness as the night before, and where small talk gradually gave way to a daily devotional. I always feel obvious and awkward when I don’t know what to do and what is expected in a scenario. I find rites very beautiful; something about them at once solid and etherial, artistic and regimented. Daily Devotionals were new to me, and I felt like a kid on the first day at a new school where everyone else knew the routine and had the books. This group on the balcony had notebooks (so did I) and their own bibles. I put my notebook on top of the biography of Adele I’d brought out: 50%, a passing grade.
We travelled everywhere in a combination between a van and bus. It was white and during the course of the trip, got progressively dirtier and more like a home base. The windows opened like house windows and the seating capacity almost doubled via well placed fold down seats. After breakfast our first full day, we piled into this white van and drove through Kigali, a city that seemed like a contrast. Green and full of hills. Women swept what seemed to be the public road with brooms that looked like they were borrowed from the wicked witch of the west’s parking spot. Men cut vegetation in wide swaths with machetes and young military men stood guard over indeterminate spots with automatic weapons. There were large beautiful homes, and without moving your head at all, tiny shacks crowding up the side of a huge hill, a small child snaking up the path alone lugging a jerry can of water.
We pulled into the Kigali genocide memorial. I consider myself someone with a pretty well rounded breadth of knowledge, but I don’t seek darkness and I don’t chase monsters. I am someone who needs to explain things from a freudian slip to the greatest evil; and one of the most frightening truths of all is that there is no explanation. A million innocent people could die from the consequences of one person’s orchestrations and that person might never have to answer for it. A quaint thought would be that life is a process of building and then breaking illusions – that’s adulthood, and that’s a pretty formulaic path at that. In reality, sometimes people are given a handful of broken illusions in childhood and they spend their entire adulthood trying to put the right pieces together. That’s where I would put myself. And sometimes people are given nothing and no time to put their own pieces together. People like Anne Frank. And people like Fabrice.
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker
– Leonard Cohen (“You want it Darker”)
The cloud of this knowledge is like discovering a door where you never knew one existed. You can never go back to not knowing it’s there, and it’s always tempting to open. Games don’t seem so innocent. Machetes don’t look like garden tools. I found, despite not wanting it to, that it cast a sinister cloud. Not only over Rwanda, but over being a human in general, and our short sighted cruelty in classifying and persecuting each other over tenuous and arbitrary ideas of difference in spite of the shortness of our individual durations.
We drove a few hours after this on the way to where we would stay when we built gardens. Along the way we stopped at one of the Africa New Life boarding schools for a quick break. A group of boys who were playing soccer on the lawn walked over to us as we followed a cement path from the building. “Hi!” They said and all smiled. They wanted to be spoken to, and were excited to interact. They were also completely adorable with some of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen on any kids. I think our group didn’t know what to say. (I certainly didn’t) and started asking the kids what became the de rigueur questions: “What’s your name?” “How old are you?”
All except Eddie, who had stepped over the small hedge and was speaking the universal language of soccer.
The basics are not great conversation, and soon the kids were in a couple of small groups, seemingly by age. One playing a variation of “Red light, Green Light” and the other sitting in a circle. As is my predisposition, I drifted towards the less active group, and was welcomed by the circle widening to accommodate me, then dwindling personal space with little elbows on my legs. “Why do you have long hair?” One asked, and I realized that none of the little girls I’d seen had hair any different from the little boys. Something I hadn’t thought of until that moment. “Hmm… That’s a good question.” I said. They noticed my apple watch pretty immediately and laughed at the face on it, a picture of my dachshund. “He doesn’t wear a bow tie every day.” I stupidly explained feeling awkward about the watch and that I’d chosen to wear it in Africa. I hadn’t thought they would notice. They knew pretty much how it worked and about things that surprised me, like facetime: “Can you see people when you call them with that?”
Then one asked “How much does that cost?” I hesitated, and then answered honestly “$300 American” Which got an incredulous reaction from all of them. “I think that’s a lot of money too.” I said uselessly. I really do. I wanted the watch for a year or more before I gave in and let myself buy it. But let’s be honest, we’re comparing something beyond apples to oranges here. “What else can it do?” One asked and I found myself downplaying it. “It doesn’t do that much really. You always have to have the phone around.” I was drowning in my own privilege. Perhaps there was another way I could let them down about how the battery doesn’t last much more than 12 hours, or that it sometimes asks Siri things I don’t want to.
After I’d downplayed the watch a little more the little boy beside me asked “Do you have a goat?” and I could’ve hugged him for changing the subject. “No. I don’t have a goat.” I answered. They all looked surprised. You don’t have a goat?! “Don’t you need a goat? Don’t you need the things you get from a goat? How do you get the things you need?”
My heart sunk. The questions lining up in a perfect line.
“Yeah, I don’t know why I don’t have a goat. I have to buy all of the stuff I need at the store.” My mind flashed only to goat cheese, which I then exaggerated my need for and consumption of. In the coming days, I would come to realize that having a goat was akin to having savings for Rwandans and is probably the single most important thing a poor family could acquire.
“Well, how much does a goat cost?”
I got this line of questioning, and I’m not proud to say, I lied: “I think a goat costs about $300” My intent in saying it was to make them feel better, and I don’t know if it worked or not. I don’t know what they thought. They were incredibly sweet little boys, but the reality of that situation is that those children were so poor they’d left their families at very young age because they were lucky enough to be sponsored, and they all knew that. A goat would’ve been life altering for their families. Here I was admitting I didn’t have a goat, but I did have this thing strapped to my wrist that had a picture of a dog in a bow tie on it.
I didn’t wear the watch again on this trip. I haven’t put it on again since, actually, though I will. I’m just not in a hurry to. I felt ashamed looking at it. It’s a symbol of such a gross disparity that ticks every single second that the chasm still exists. Some people will have so much they can churn their electronic devices at perceived obsolescence, while others will be so delighted to just look at photos of someone else’s family on one you’d think it was a gift. I have wasted more in my life already than other people will ever receive. That’s a hard thing to reconcile, and I don’t know if it should be.