GraceAnne Heater (Rwanda 2014-16) served in Peace Corps Rwanda as an ESL high school teacher. She has won many contests, including a pie eating contest at age 10, a cow milking contest at age 17, and a peeps diorama competition at age 28. She is an avid reader and a passionate but undisciplined writer. She currently resides in Philadelphia with her husband and their adopted Rwandan cat.
The Stories We Tell
by GraceAnne Heater
MURUNDA, MY VILLAGE, was in the only district in Rwanda without a paved road. It was remote, poor, and nearly inaccessible during the rainy season. It was an hour and a half away from the main road, a motorcycle ride that stopped my heart and took my breath, nothing but steep mountains, sharp curves, uneven roads, and views of Lake Kivu with the DRC looming in the distance. Murunda was home to the district hospital, two schools, a large Catholic Church, and a sector office. It was known to be the high-class drinking village of the district. Sector officials, doctors, teachers, and priests would meet over beers where they would watch the sun color the mountains as it set. Nights were cool and the stars shone brilliantly. And once the moon rose over the mountains, someone was bound to say “The moon is not the sun,” and everyone would smile or give a happy little laugh. Inevitably, someone at the table would be new and ask what it meant.
One evening, my husband Michael and I showed up at Kwa Mutwa, the most respectable bar in the village, after buying a few things at the market — candles, tomatoes, onions, dried fish for the cat. Situated overlooking the little town of Mburamazi, the bar was made up of a little brick building and a gazebo on a plateau, dwarfed by mountains all around. Kwa Mutwa, like every other bar in Rwanda, served five kinds of beer, all equally warm and watery. A refrigerator appeared our second year, but it was always a gamble that there would be power at the bar. The bar was wonderful for people watching — you could see the shops and market below and watch women walk by in second-hand sweaters and mismatched floral skirts. Students in white shirts and khaki bottoms were scattered throughout the hills, shabby but clean, all looked identical.
Elisabeth, the former Volunteer at our site was visiting, and the slight change made our daily routine a special occasion. We went around the bar to greet everyone as we arrived, shaking hands, saying hello and how are you in Kinyarwanda. We held our forearm if it was someone important, as a sign of respect. We finally ended up sitting with Jerome, a teacher at the boarding school, Ivan, a mentor to the teachers at the day school, and Elisabeth who was already there. We ordered our beers, large Primus (the least expensive beer, also least alcoholic, often referred to as the beer for women) asking, hopefully, if they were cold, while knowing the refrigerator hadn’t been plugged in for weeks.
Warm beer it was.
“Thank you for responding positively to my invitation,” Jerome said and we laughed at his formality. “No, really, cheers.”
In Rwanda, if you invite someone out for a beer, it is implied that you will pay for their first two rounds at least. This usually led to careful and noncommittal inquiries — “Are you going to the canteen tonight?” “Mutwas?” “It is possible we will see you there.” — but this occasion, because of Elisabeth’s presence, Jerome had issued a formal invitation. He was our most helpful and outgoing friend, someone we relied on to casually set up meetings with village officials or whisper a translation during a meeting.
We caught up on our day. Students were taking exams, which meant that most of us were proctoring. We talked about who had done well, what students had been caught cheating, how painfully long it took students to prepare their papers for the examination.
“I must tell you about my sister,” Jerome said when we were finished. “My parents, they have taken her to the doctor because she is going blind. One day, it just started.”
“That is terrible,” I said, wide-eyed. “That is so strange.”
“Yes, that is exactly what the doctor has told us. They tried the tests and couldn’t find where the problem originated, and the doctor, a foreigner said ‘huh, that is strange’ and ‘I have never seen this before’ and he said we need to go for more tests. And so now, because the doctor does not understand the problem, my parents, they think she has been poisoned.”
“In Rwanda, you know, they have two technologies for poison.” Ivan added. “One is in the food and drink, the other technology of poison is undefinable and spreads through the air to the person it is for.”
Ivan was Ugandan and not nearly as reserved as the Rwandans in the village. He had a knack for provoking arguments and relished it. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to bait us.
“But what about you? You can’t possibly think it is poison?” I turned to Jerome.
“I don’t know,” he said and shrugged.
“But if the doctors said they need more tests…” Michael began.
“Michael is loyal to science,” Jerome told the table. “To the science that is being taught today.”
Jerome and Ivan laughed, and all the Americans contemplated the science that is being taught today in Rwanda.
“And as for me,” Ivan said, “I must return to visit Uganda very soon. But of course, no one will travel on that road by bus this month. Not at night, if they can help it. It is December and that is when the busses crash. Yes, you can even look at the records.” He saw our skeptical looks. “Every December they say it can happen, that a bus driver is driving at night and he sees a beautiful woman who runs out in front of the bus. When he tries to avoid the woman, the bus will crash and kill many of the people.”
Copis arrived before we could comment. A single, older teacher, he was often pressured to get married and settle down. There were handshakes all around before he sat with us.
“Find the answer for this man in America,” Jerome said to me, meaning find him a wife.
He laughed, the good-natured laugh of a happy bachelor, and ordered his beer, and wiped the top with a napkin when it arrived, before taking the first sip.
“There were some strange people in my compound yesterday,” he said. “I think they were thieves. I said to them ‘please leave this place,’ but they refused me. So I called the head of security in the village and told him, ‘if you do not remove these people, please take a look at their faces so that when I am missing something we know who has stolen it.’”
“Did they steal anything?” Michael asked.
“No, but maybe they will,” he said as the food came. We had ordered akabenzi from a local cook and had it delivered at the bar. Akabenzi, or fried pork, was one of the most flavorful, and in my opinion underserved, dishes in Rwanda. It arrived on one platter with seven forks. We each took one and the conversation stopped as we all realized we were ravenous.
Later, we sat talking and watched as a figure that could only be Bumar came up the hill towards the bar, making swift progress on crutches. Bumar was homeless — extremely rare for Rwanda. He was disheveled and unkempt, with a scraggly beard, and torn and dusty clothes – also extremely rare for Rwanda. He didn’t wear shoes in a country that prized clean footwear. He limped around the district, begging and rarely ever spoke a word.
He approached the bar and stopped at the first table, silently, with an outstretched palm. He wouldn’t leave until he had something in his hand or an acknowledgement. After a few coins were handed to him, he moved on to the next table. Everyone shook their head and he moved towards our table.
We watched him approach the table, Elisabeth sat up straighter. She was statuesque and blonde and striking in any setting. When she had lived in Murunda, Bumar would often leave a little money at the bar with instructions to buy her a Fanta next time she was at the bar. Her acceptance was always gracious.
He made it to our table, and we scrounged up what coins we could. Elisabeth handed over a 1,000 Rwandan Franc note, just over a dollar. He stared at it, up at her, and then down at the note again, as if unsure of what to do. Then he turned on his crutches, and left us and the bar and made his way down into town.
“You know about his story?” Jerome asked us as we watched him descend into Mburamazi. “He was a thief. He was caught in Gishwati forest where he was stabbed by the police. In that time, the police, they used poisoned daggers and it was impossible for his leg to have health again.”
I raised an eyebrow at Elisabeth, looking for verification, and she nodded. “Woman would convince him to do their chores. They would offer to pay, but never did. And the genocide wasn’t kind to him.”
“He travels all around this district now, and the people of this place give him coins or sometimes food to survive. But to be around people, he doesn’t like it. And he will never speak to anyone at all,” Jerome said.
We all drank our beer, staring out at the mountains as darkness descended, comfortable enough in each other’s company to be silent. The moon rose over the mountains, bright and full, too large on the horizon. And then we saw Bumar climb up the hill again, and he surprised all of us when he returned to the bar. He headed straight to Elisabeth and handed her a small brown paper bag. She opened it, inside was a pen, notebook and some soap, costing almost all of what she gave him.
“But that money was not to buy me a gift,” she said softly.
Uncomfortable laughter broke out at a few tables.
“Is something funny?” Elisabeth asked a table full of giggling sector officials. They looked sheepish and cleared their throats, shaking their heads.
She turned to speak to Bumar, but was stopped when he, to our astonishment, cut her off. His Kinyarwanda was too fast and ran together too much for us non-native speakers to understand. Everyone at the bar froze, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape, and stared.
“Jerome, can you translate?” Elisabeth asked.
“Most of what he is saying, it does not make sense,” Jerome said after a moment.
“Just try,” she said.
Jerome nodded, waiting for Bumar, who never took his eyes off Elisabeth. He spoke again, the words pouring out.
“He is telling me to translated correctly, he does not trust me.” Jerome said, then speaking to Bumar, reassured him of an accurate translation. Bumar took the notebook and pen and began to draw as he spoke. “Now, he says he is drawing an airplane with passengers, he is asking himself where those passengers will stay.”
“Foreigners,” Copis whispered “he likes foreigners”
“Yes, he has the habit of saying that white people are beautiful,” said Ivan.
“Now he is talking about Gishwati forest, he said ‘Gishwati forest when will you give us our daughters?’ and he is continuing to ask that.” Jerome paused while Bumar continued. “Still he is asking me to translate correctly, he does not trust me.”
“I asked him ‘Why not?’” Jerome told us.
Bumar paused, and looked up into the sky and pointed. Everyone at the bar waited, suspended in silence. He spoke, a short sentence, almost nothing. Everyone around us looked surprised. Jerome’s face had an expression that bordered on astonishment. We waited for him to translate.
“He said,” Jerome paused. “The moon is not the sun.” And with that, Bumar turned and left us again, to go wherever it was he was staying that night.
We told this story to every time the moon rose over Mutwa’s bar. We told it to visitors, to friends, to each other. We would debate what he meant, always giving the words a weighty meaning. And we didn’t stop telling it, even after audiences didn’t care or although the moment was fleeting and gone, nearly impossible to capture in a story.