Currently, I am sitting on the floor of my dusty front porch in Kigali, Rwanda, but not in order that I may enjoy the sunset. My roommates are away for the weekend, and I neglected to ask for a house key before they left, so I’ve been locked out. I’ve contacted the roommates, and they’ve apparently phoned a man nearby who has the key and told him to bring it here to let me in. I don’t know who this man is, or when he is arriving, but I hope he comes and opens my door, because I am not sure what to do if he doesn’t.
Dependence. I thought I had learned how to speak, eat, find water, go to the bathroom, and open my own door sometime during elementary school, but that seems not to be the case. It is frustrating and frightening to be in a place where you can’t speak the language, because there will be times when cannot help yourself and are forced ask for others to assist you. I can jimmy this lock all I want, and I speak English to anyone who will listen, but neither of these things are going to open my door. I have no choice but to sit and wait on strange man, who most likely speaks a language I don’t understand, to come and assist me.
My two Rwandan neighbors are a few yards away peeling potatoes. We can’t communicate because my Kinyarwanda is even worse than their English, but I think they’ve realized I’ve been locked out. I wonder what they think of the American girl who made a bunch of nervous phone calls, then sat down in resignation on her dusty front porch, pulled out a fancy-looking laptop, and started writing a blog for her American friends about dependence in a foreign country. I really don’t think it matters to them much; I’d venture a guess that they have more serious matters to attend to.
I’ve been feeling sorry for myself for the last few minutes, and I’ve realized I need to cut the self-pity. Problems are relative, and there are a lot of people around here who’d give a whole lot to have their weekend’s biggest trouble being locked out of their house.
Yesterday, I ventured into Kigali with the help of a friend, ironically, to make a copy of my gate key (thus, why I am sitting inside my gate on my porch, and not outside my gate on the street). When we embarked, I envisioned the key-copying process would be similar to that which I had experienced growing up: you drive to ACE hardware, and one of those guys in the red vests takes your key, puts it in a fancy machine, and returns to you an exact replica. Apparently, this is not the Rwandan way.
In Rwanda, you climb a dirt hill side of lean-to homes until you reach the key-man’s shop, which you distinguish from the structures beside it only by asking the locals loitering outside. You give the key man fifty cents, and then he begins to craft a handmade replica of your key on a smooth strip of metal with old, rusted tools. While the process is taking place, you don’t mosey around looking at lawn furniture and eating free popcorn like you do at ACE Hardware; you sit, and you wait, and you talk to the key man’s family.
Yesterday found pasty-white-ace-hardware-patron me sitting in the key man’s shop. My Rwandan friend was with me, and he translated what the key man’s family was saying:
Key Man’s Wife to Rwandan friend: She’s from America?
Rwandan Friend: Yes, she’s from America.
Key Man’s Wife: Do you think she’d take my children from me and raise them America?
Rwandan Friend: Kelsie, will you take this woman’s children from her and raise them in America?
Kelsie: (Nervous laugh) Ha! Funny.
Rwandan Friend: Kelsie, she’s not kidding.
I looked again at the key man’s children. One was chewing on his sandal; the other was petting a sickly-looking cat. Both were covered in dirt. Their house had no door. May the fifty cents I had given the key man was all that they had to buy breakfast tomorrow, I didn’t know. If I was the key man’s wife, I’d probably want the visiting white lady to take my kids and raise them in her rich country, too.
Since arriving in Rwanda, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve considered to be my life’s challenges. I used to be terrified of spending the night away from home – because I had a family who loved me, and on whom I could depend. I struggled with disordered eating – because I had the money and luxury to be choosy about my food. I’ve complained that my university is unduly stressful — because I fail to appreciate that there are people who would give anything to have the opportunities my education affords me.
When you come from a world of fancy machines and flawless replicas, it is easy to cry when you do not have a shiny new key when you need one. The walls of that world which I formerly inhabited are falling down around me now, however, as I sit on my front porch in Rwanda, waiting indefinitely for the strange man to bring me a key that may or may not even open my door.
It’s time I get out of this dust and my tears and go try to make conversation with my potato-peeling neighbors because if I learn to understand their stories, I am sure I would see that the missing key and the locked door are, in fact, not problems at all.