After climbing Kilimanjaro I headed to Rwanda to film and help on a bridge site with the nonprofit Bridges to Prosperity. I was greeted by Andrew (the Project Manager) a bright , blonde haired bearded man ~ who was kind enough to pick me up at 12:30 in the morning.
Kigali was a much bigger city than where I had come from ~ Moshi & Arusha. Buses, cars moto bikes zipped around the city’s roundabouts and tight rolling red hillsides. Real city pollution filled the air. A vast difference from the open flat lands of Tanzania. The next day Andrew was kind enough to help me run a few errands and gave me a lay of the land. I have a decent sense of direction but Kigali schooled me. Forget any type of grid system or even street addresses. I would just have to remember landmarks to find Andrews house again. There was no physical address for me to reference.
On Thursday we would make our way to the bridge site - Cyamutuda. We piled in the pick up truck. Andrew & I up front and Everest & Étienne in the back seat of the extended cab. Within an hour we were on a red dirt road that then turned into a red, rutted dirt road so deep you could fall into them. The word “remote” now had new meaning for me. We bounced around and up and down. 4 hours later we arrived at the site. Children running and chasing the truck as we made our way to park. Little voices yelling “good morning!” regardless of what time it actually was.
Once we arrive, I plopped out of the truck happy to have my feet on the ground. Children appeared from all directions chiming “good morning” & “how are you?” Beautifully enunciated, yet not sure of the meaning, their attempts at communicating and English far outweighed my lackluster knowledge of Kinyarwanda.
The village was beautiful. Red rolling hillsides with lovely cultivated Cassava and Banana trees. Majestic cows, steer and goats everywhere. Handmade red brick, modest houses with tiny open windows. This would be my home for the next week but rattled my soul within moments.
What struck me first was the joy of these people. Beautiful smiles stretching ear to ear. Everyone shaking your hand, eye contact and “miriwe” or “good morning.” We pranced down, down, down to the bridge site and greeted by Kathryn, the engineer assisting on the project. She shared with me that she was here to offer assistance but that the Rwandans were the ones building the bridge. She had a tiny frame and a giant smile as big as the bundle of curls on her head. I could tell immediately these people adored her and heeded her advice soundly, equal to the impression they had clearly made on her. It’s a unique thing to walk up to a group of people that holds this much respect in its mist.
The river was shallow this time of year but the valley vast. I could see the footprint of the impact the river made once the rainy season started, which would begin any day now.
Within days - Everest, Étienne, Vinuest, Domesean and Kathryn had set the sag and were starting to install the crossbeams. The sag is the tedious task of ensuring the cables are set properly before building the bridge on them. Vinuest is the assistant to the main construction foreman Domesean, who spoke no English. Vinuest also held the job of cooking us dinner each night after working all day. We chopped vegetables and helped when he would allow us, but he was the main cook. He would provide us warm meals at lunch and dinner. Lunch time involved him running up and down the hillside while working on the bridge site.
I should mention, this village has no electricity or running water. Cooking happened over two small charcoal stoves and was usually a veggie stew over rice or potatoes. Water had to be collected in Jerry cans at the spring a five minute walk away.
Once the crossbeams were secured to the cables with long twisted pieces of rebar the decking could be attached. First the crossbeams had to be “pushed out” manually a meter apart from those wearing harnesses that attached to the cables. Once in place the decking would be first nailed down, and later screwed in with long hefty screws. What would take an afternoon to complete in the states, took days here. The biggest power tool was manual labor. The drills that assisted were battery powered and had to be recharged with a gasoline generator. Some of the decking was at the site but most was yet to arrive. I found out that the remainder of Eucalyptus wood for the deck would be arriving that day, which was Umuganda - a monthly day of community service practiced by all Rwandans. This meant instead of the wood arriving via truck it would be carried piece by piece manually atop of people’s heads. It was amazing to watch these people coming down the hillside, usually barefoot carrying boards, four meters long on top of their heads. As quickly as the arrived they were attached to the crossbeams and the bridge was built right before our eyes. My week there was perfect timing and the most visually stimulating because of this.
Once the deck was attached it was stained with used motor oil to protect the wood. The final job was to fill in the huge piles of dirt unearthed where the giant cables were anchored. Once that dirt was filled back in (a laborious task) then it was compacted and cement was poured on top. On one end a beautiful stone wall was erected from river rocks.
The day I arrived was Vinuest’s 21st birthday but he mentioned it to no one. It wasn’t until Sunday night when we were talking about birthdays, we realized his had *just* happened. Earlier that week Vinuest had shared that he had 5 sisters and a mom, but that his brother and “Daddy” had died in the genocide. Kathryn made a quiet phone call to Andrew who would be arriving Tuesday to request he bring up a cake. Andrew arrived with a cake decorated with “Happy Birthday Vinuest” on it. After Vinuest made us dinner, Kathryn and Andrew disappeared in the house for a moment. When they reemerged, they had the cake with a candle and the group of us (about 7 of us) started singing Happy Birthday. Vinuest was confused and shocked that this was for him, he stood up so excited he was literally jumping up and down. It was clear he had NEVER had his birthday celebrated like this, let alone a cake with his name on it. It was one of the sweetest things I have ever witnessed (well, one of many this past month). Once he blew out the candle Andrew told him it was a tradition to take a small bite right away out of the cake. The next thing I know Vinuest has cake on his face and is giggling! We told him it was his cake and he could share if he wanted. He cut us each a piece then sat there with the headlamp on, eating cake with the most genuine, sweet smile on his face. I swear he would have eaten the entire cake if we didn’t tell him it was ok to save some for tomorrow’s breakfast. He sat there for a moment quiet ~ then said, “thank you, this day I do not forget.”
I have *so* many stories to share …like the teacher who brought his entire class to cross the bridge and named it “The Ambassador”; Étienne and Everest explaining to me what a Rwandan wedding was like, the little boy Kazoo who worked with all the adults and would not stop working; the thin older woman wearing the “hello, my name is trouble!” Tshirt, everyone getting sodas the last day … So much to share! These are only a handful of a week that changed my life.
I ended my stay in Kigali by spending time at the Genocide Museum. I weep and walked for three hours. It is a lovely place for so many souls to rest. I will spend the rest of my life trying to wrap my head around this type of human behavior and history, certain I will never understand. It was profoundly moving and worth the efforts to come to Rwanda to visit this site. Nothing could prepare me for seeing the massive gravesite’s or the names on the wall, knowing some souls were never found, women raped, people dumped into latrines to die or that infants and children were massacred.
I left Kigali yesterday morning with Andrew once again being kind enough to take me to the airport. My flight said nonstop to Kilimanjaro but ended up stoping in Dar es Salaam for a moment. Taking off from DAR I was given a sneak peak of the beautiful water. Islands and what I believe was Madagascar off the coast. The colors were vibrant and an indicator of my next stop ~ Bangkok. Today I leave to meet Terri and share some much needed time with her. This next month will be a new adventure on the heels of something so deeply lovely.
Goodbye Africa. I promise I’ll be back!