My favorite experience so far at site was during Umuganda, a community work activity that citizens partake in one Saturday morning every month. I went to Umuganda one morning. The location was about a mile from my home. The community work that was being done was the building of a new secondary school. I had no idea that an entire school could be build out of dried mud and rocks. I really found out that day just how resourceful Rwandans are and just how hard they work.
On my walk to Umuganda, I met up with a neighbor of mine, Mama Dionne. She took me under her wing that day. We walked together for a while sharing about our families. I thought we were heading to the site where Umuganda was taking place. We stopped prior to the site at the bottom of a mountainside. Mama Dionne told me to wait for her there. I asked her what she was going to do and she explained to me (at least I think) that she was going to get a rock to bring to the school. She wanted me to wait because she felt I was incapable of carrying a rock. The school location was in eyesight. I explained to her that part of my being here was to learn about her culture and that I wanted to go with her to get a rock. She proceeded to tell me that she felt I was not strong enough to carry one. I told her she was probably right but if I was to become Rwandan, I needed to learn how to become strong like the women here. This apparently convinced her enough to let me tag along.
As I headed up the mountain, I slowly began to regret my choice to partake in this activity. I had not realized that her plan to get a rock involved hiking up a mountain for nearly two hours. I could not understand why we needed to climb the mountain in the first place to get a rock. Rocks are everywhere in this country. She could have found an easier place. I also began to wonder how in the world I was going to carry a rock down the mountain.
Adults are required to partake in Umuganda. Children are not. As we climbed, we passed many homes where children, unoccupied by the supervision of their guardians, stopped their chores to, of course, to watch the muzungu climb the mountainside. Most of our hike was done in silence. I followed Mama Dionne's footsteps, watching her feet as she went. The treads in her broken sandals did not fail her. She never slipped once.
We finally made it to our location. Mama Dionne stopped near a patch of banana trees. I took a seat in the shade while she searched for our rocks. In less than five minutes, she emerged with two big boulders large enough that I began to doubt my ability. Of course, I knew what was coming next. Rwandan women carry everything on their head. This was not going to be any different and I was expected to do the same.
Mama Dionne began to make the traditional padding used to help cushion your head when carrying things it. It is made out of woven banana leaves and grass. She made one for herself and one for me. No turning back. I placed the padding on my head and with her help, lifted the boulder on top. I stood there for a second to get my balance. It was heavy, but manageable. I knew I could do this. Mama Dionne then lifted her boulder to her head and we were off.
We slowly made our way down the mountain. No breaks. Sweat dripped off my face, the rock became heavier, and my arms grew tired from holding them upright to keep the rock in place. The same children we passed on our way up now stared in amazement what I was managing to try. Myself, I was impressed about my determination. I kept watching Mama Dionne. She showed no sign of weakness. She just kept going, as if this was just an ordinary activity in her life. Then I reminded myself, it was.
We made our way to the school just as the mornings activities were finishing. As we passed, still carrying the stones on our heads, people commented about my ability. They were delighted I was willing to take on in such a difficult task. I really think that was a moment I gained a lot of respect, especially from Mama Dionne. More importantly, I think my respect for life here grew as well.