Last night I was sitting at a small cafe on the street, waiting for an omelette and watching the people pass. I was right by a university, so many of them were students enjoying one more night out before exams resumed on Monday. I began to wonder about their stories as each new group of friends strolled by laughing and chatting. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between these students and the students I knew at Duke. Even though they lived halfway around the world, both groups of students had so much in common. My group met one student who wanted to become a chemistry teacher. Another group of students had sh0wed us a good restaurant for dinner while they were heading out to go shopping. Many of the students had joined my group in the morning at an Anglican church service.
My team has been in Kigali, the capital city, for the weekend to restock on groceries and arrange visas. We stayed at a hostel on the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology campus. Living among students in a metropolitan area was almost like being back home, so finding common ground with them was not hard. It did remind me, however, to keep looking for similarities among my group of engineering students from Duke and the people living back in the villages in Rwamahwa.
Many of the villagers live on top of mountains and walk an hour to work each day. They farm all year and don’t speak any English. They never went to the university and have lived without running water or internet their whole lives. They seem like the polar opposites of my team, and yet these past two weeks we have found some of the most incredible connections and strengthened friendships.
Our cook, his brother, and another worker joined us one night to play a game called “Silent Football”. Although they didn’t speak any English, they quickly got into the game. They now call my friend Adam, “Grand Headmaster” in a fake British accent whenever they see him.
Another worker named Zaymana went running with us multiple times. He tries to teach us Kinyarwanda every day on the work site although the most progress we had was learning the word “umusazi” which means “foolish”. Now both the locals and the Duke students on the worksite has started calling each other “foolish young men” in Kinyarwanda and cracking up.
One of the workers is even named Joceline. We bonded over our shared name. In the little English she knew, she gossiped with me and the other Duke females about boys and relationships and whether we were getting married soon. She always tries to teach me new skills like using a machete to make stakes to hold up the support walls for concrete.
One of the closest friends of the team is Eric, a twenty year old worker who helped with the bridge built last year. He stays with us during the week because his home is so far away, but he wanted to be a part of the bridge project again this year when he heard that our leaders were returning. He also speaks very little English, yet that has not impeded our friendship. He goes running with Connor and Tim some days. He often helps us negotiate at the market and the shops to make sure we get a fair price. He helps direct our bike taxis to our destinations, and he makes us laugh everyday at the worksite. Eric introduced us to his whole family as he guided us on a hike around the mountain where he and a few of the other workers live and farm.
These are just a few of the people we have grown close to since we got here, and it still amazes me every day how close I can feel to these people when I cannot even have a full conversation with most of them. A few days ago, as we cleaned up from work, a few of the workers smiled at me as I carried some shovels to the shed and told me that I am not a “Mzungu” anymore. Despite all of our differences, I really felt like I was beginning to join a part of this community.