The New Rwanda 7/1/08

I’m in Rwanda, just south of the National Park Volcanoes, where yesterday I trekked (that’s such a poor verb for what we did, but more on that later) to find the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. That’s just a little teaser to whet your appetite…I still have to get around to writing about it.

Suffice it to say that Africa is incredibly different from what I imagined. The people mill around beautiful, friendly, inquisitive. I met up with my safari (a day late, might I add–almost missed the bus, literally). There are 26 of us on a HUGE yellow bus (don’t be jealous, Rothy) and the roads here are a force to be reckoned with. You’ve got to hold onto all your stuff if you want it to stay anywhere nearby as we travel to and fro. Tomorrow we leave Rwanda and head back up to Uganda, where we’ll white water raft class IV (holy hell!)

My first week in Uganda proved better than I imagined. I met up with a group of women in the hostel who were teachers and had just come from volunteering in the village where I’ll be for a month in August. The markets there boasted shelves of amazing handiwork, which I had to force myself not to buy, hence the vignette below.

More stories about the gorillas to come. For now, the marketplace:

“I like your earrings,” she said, her teeth, whiter than the snows of Kilimanjaro.

I took one out: a long strand of silver wire bent and twisted. Handed it to her.

“What kind of bird?”


That wide smile again. “It’s beautiful.” Her eyes grew large as she dangled the bird back and forth between her fingers.

I surveyed her shop, no larger than a walk-in closet back home. Shelves lined with carved elephants and Maasai warriors, batik hangings of zebras in the tundra. She was the youngest craft seller in the market that I’d seen; a broad forehead, nose and smile, square jaw. Striking. She wore a necklace; singlet beads dangled into her breast cleave.

“Did you make any of this yourself?” I motioned to the bracelets, the woven bowls. I was partially interested, partially passing the time. My travel mates stood across the market, haggling for paper rolled necklaces. I couldn’t be bothered to spend any money, but I was intrigued by these women of the market, by this bright-eyed Ugandan whose life was, perhaps, lived out in this cluttered cell, dependent on tourists’ desire for exotic wares.

“No,” she turned her torso from me—a school girl sway. “But I can.” A swivel of the hips back to me. “I draw.” She pointed to a batik hanging, a group of children, long, lean figures painted in fluid strokes.

“Will you draw something for me?” I nodded toward the other hangings: African women carrying buckets and bananas, elephants tromping across the savannah. I could picture the art in my home, but only two days deep into my year long trek, I wasn’t ready to give up my shillings or luggage space just yet. It was a long shot that she’d draw something for me, and even longer shot that she’d do it for free.

“What should I draw?” Her smile, longer than the Nile, her hands, searching for paper and pen. I offered my notebook and told her to surprise me.

While drawing, I inspected the other wares in her store. She explained how to kill a lion with the long, oiled billy club, and how to sit on the small wooden stool without falling over.

Her hand moved quickly, long pencil stokes across the lined pages of my notebook. She told me about her divorced parents, about living with her aunt, about her four brothers, her university courses in IT.

My friends stood across the way, pulling fifty dollars out of their pocketbook.

“I’m Vicki,” she said, put her hand out to meet mine.

“Linsey. Where’d you get all those beads?” I pointed to her neck décor.

“Oh, from all over.” She smiled. The blue plaid one from her best friend, the plastic heart from another gone to America, a matching red pair from a set of twins. “But I’m allergic to metals,” she carried on, leaning over the counter where she drew.

My heart fell. I watched her finish the stripes on the face of the zebra. “I want to give you this,” I blurted out, like a kid with a crush, pulling a silver bird from my ear.

“No, no.”

“Yes, for the picture. But will it irritate your skin?”

“No, no.” Her eyes, wide again, like overland truck headlights. Beaming.

And me, certain I’d “purchased” wisely with my new found friend.

“Then I’ll give you this.” She lifted her wrist, fiddled with a black and red seed bead bracelet.

I couldn’t protest. I helped her with the knot. Years ago, I’d made some of the same flowered patterns, hours of eye squinting and threading gone in minutes.

“I made this.” We met eyes as she wrapped it around my wrist.

I took the hummingbird, looped it through the last bead hanging from her necklace, pinched the ear wire back on itself. “I’ll take a photo,” I said.

“You’ll email it to me?”

Between the photos—me and her, her and the necklace, me with the batik zebras she’d used as a guide for her drawing—my heart swelled. Days, months, years later, I imagined the story she’d tell another intrepid traveler. A mzungu (a white girl), she’d say, we exchanged jewelry. Without a shilling paid, I walked away with a drawing, a bracelet and a distant stranger I was certain I could call a friend.

Later that night, I took the other silver hummingbird and attached him to my own necklace.


1 Response to “The New Rwanda 7/1/08”

  1. 1 jeremy vann
    July 2, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    I am the one from seattle that answered some of your questions about the trip. Am glad to see that the adventure has begun. I look forward to reading your blog about your trip and hearing about your travels. Stay safe and enjoy every moment of your trip. It will change your life


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