Dipping fou-fou, the shouts and shrills of a mighty congregation, blessing the peacemakers
It's Sunday afternoon here in Kigali, Rwanda, and I'm sitting on the third-floor balcony of my hotel room overlooking the street, an unpaved and potholed reddish dirt road like so many others in this city, where pavement only covers the main highways and roads. It is late afternoon, and there is a soft haze surrounding the city, making it hard to see the terraces that criss-cross the surrounding hills.
There is a soldier in uniform standing in a doorway across the street smoking a cigarette, the same doorway where a young boy just passed by selling live roosters, grasping one in each of his hands. This street always seems to be a hubbub of activity. At the moment, people are casually standing and talking, walking by, driving past.
At night, this street explodes with music and voices. Last night there was a man playing guitar and singing on the porch across the street, with a small crowd gathered around him. Mornings are also a busy time on this street, with lots of traffic and horns honking and building construction underway somewhere nearby. Needless to say, the noise makes it a pretty hard place to sleep.
I arrived here on Friday afternoon, after two days straight of airports and planes that took me from San Francisco to Chicago, London, Nairobi, and then finally here to Kigali. I was met at the airport by two people from Internews, the organization where I will be interning this summer. Though I had a brief chance to meet several of the people at the office, my Friday afternoon arrival meant that my work here won't really begin until Monday. So I have had the weekend to recover from jet lag, look for a more permanent place to stay (hopefully an apartment of some sort), and prepare for the rest of my time here.
This morning, I went with one of my colleagues and his family to their church, where he and his fiancée were to announce the date of their wedding as were other soon-to-be married couples. These announcements, and the morning as a whole, turned out to be a much bigger event than I had at first expected. The church, only a couple of years old, holds about 5,000 people and has one of the largest congregations in the city. With walls made of brick and other materials, and the roof a few giant sheets of corrugated metal, it was far different (and much bigger) than any church I had ever been in, and centered around a large center stage, much like a neighborhood community hall in urban America.
With roughly 3,000 people there this morning, the building was packed, and the morning was filled with what turned out to be absolutely phenomenal music. There was some choral music, but a guitarist and a few key vocalists led most of the music and singing on the main stage, which along with the congregation as a whole, generated hours of some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. Like the guitar music last night on the porch across the street, the tones were full and beautiful, and were punctuated by high-pitched shrills that I was told are a characteristically Rwandan sound.
The wedding announcements also took a prominent place in the morning's ceremonies. Each future bride and groom were led up to the stage one at a time, followed by a procession of friends and family who showered them with flowers while they stood on the stage amidst the songs, shouts and shrills of the congregation.
Throughout the morning's activities, the theme of peace remained constant. Most of the songs and prayers gave thanks for the present peace here and focused on the need to maintain this peace. This theme was reinforced when all of the 100 plus schoolchildren present were called up to the stage to join in a prayer for the success of their upcoming exams. The prayer focused on the need for these children to use their studies to grow up to contribute to the peace and well-being of Rwanda as a whole.
The morning was followed by lunch at a neighborhood restaurant, and I was introduced to Rwandan cuisine of a very different kind than I have found the last couple of days at my hotel. The meal was based around fou-fou, a starchy staple dish made of flour from pounded cassava. Using only my hands, I learned to form small balls out of the fou-fou, dip it in a tomato-based sauce and eat it along with a chicken dish, also bathed in a tomato and pepper sauce. It was delicious, but I really regretted having worn a white shirt.
So far I have focused on everything that strikes me as different about Kigali, but perhaps one of the biggest surprises here is how many things are the same. There's an Internet café in the downstairs lobby of the hotel that has a distinctly familiar feel, there's a gym down the road, and the people and conversations at the church this morning were much like they would be at home: children squirming through the sermon, brothers teasing each other, and friends laughing together as they say goodbye and get into their cars to leave the church.
Someone I was talking to at the church pointed out that whenever foreigners think about Rwanda, they think only of war and genocide and forget the rest, and that has certainly been my experience in studying and reading about Rwanda. So it is refreshing to be here and to see the other aspects of Rwanda, the parts of the country that give Rwanda the complex human face that no written account of a country can possibly portray.
The sun is going down now, and there is a black and white cat walking across the edge of a tin-roof across the street. People are starting to gather in the street for the evening's activities, and once again, the noise is picking up.