With Carlton’s visit, I found myself reliving many of my “firsts” here in Rwanda. Some things that were so foreign to me when I arrived, seemed quite normal when I explained them to him. Other things, like the telephone and data system, remain a mystery to me! Through this blog, I’ll share a few of my observations related to my daily life.
Resources really are finite!
Of course, we know this intellectually, but it was one of the biggest eye-openers that, as a westerner, took some getting used to. Cash Power!!! This is one English term requiring no Kinyarwandan translation. If you pay cash, you get electric power. But it is only through your usage that you learn how long 10, 20, or 30,000 Rwandan Francs worth of electricity will last.
On his first night here, Carlton wondered why I was so concerned about when he was planning to shower. I wanted to time the water heater just right for his first shower after his long trip! Before I leave the house or go to bed, I take a trek around to each outlet and appliance, many of which have on/off switches, and turn them off (except the fridge). I got caught in the dark with a half cooked dinner and my neighbor, returned home to a fridge full of spoiled food after falling short of Cash Power. Now I check the electric meter regularly. If it looks low, I head off with the meter number in hand to any place (usually the grocery store) selling “Cash Power”.
We are also very aware of water usage here. You can run out of water unexpectedly and it seems to be more about infrastructure than bill payment. And while many people in the city may have running water, you can’t assume they have hot water. In most rural communities and even in some Kigali homes, people still have to pump and carry their own water for daily use from neighborhood wells in these ubiquitous big yellow jugs.
I’ve mentioned before that plastic bags aren’t even allowed in the country. Paper is also managed carefully, as if precious. People rely on cloth dish towels for everyday cleanup and a single paper napkin is neatly wrapped around your silverware when presented at a restaurant. I have not purchased one role of paper towels since I arrived!!
While all of this may sound inconvenient, it’s not a bad thing at all and it has made me realize how much I take for granted and waste. Here, we must actively engage to manage these resources. In the US, we don’t even have to open our utility bills. They’re automatically paid online. At home, we focus on recycling trash, the Rwandans focus more on managing resources before it becomes trash.
Telephone, Internet & TV: I still find the telephone/internet data system more than a bit confusing, which I am now convinced is the intent. Most people have pay-as-you-go plans, often with daily data limits that don’t roll over. You find yourself wondering how many emails, texts, family Skype calls, and “House of Cards” episodes will be covered with one gigabyte. Miscalculate and they either drain your telephone airtime account at extortionist’s rates, without notice, or you are immediately and unceremoniously incommunicado!! However, there are people on every corner, wearing colored vests who can “top you off” and, I’m “lucky” enough to live close to one of the 24 hour offices. I think they are starting to cringe when they see me walk through the door at odd hours with my many screenshots as documentation of my tales of woe!
On the other hand, TV makes absolute sense and offers a different twist on pay-as-you-go. You can get a set plan by the month for however long you want — one month, three months? Sawa, sawa (OK), pay in advance and no early cancellation fees! Want to watch the playoffs, upgrade your package just for that season. Unhappy with your carrier . . .? I finally got a subscription when the Presidential election started to get crazier than I could imagine –at $12 per month!
As Carlton and I commuted back and forth from my tiny two-room apartment in Kigali to my room in the shared round house “upcountry”, we talked about how lucky we are to have everything we need and want at our immediate disposal.
We also realize that we don’t want or even need everything we think we do.
The” less-is-more” movement has been sweeping America, from capsule (tiny) wardrobes to the more extreme, tiny house movement. Coming to Rwanda for six months with a baggage weight limit, forced me to try-out my own “capsule” wardrobe. Carlton also spent several weeks visiting our girls in London and Houston and he too challenged himself to travel in “capsule” style so he could be more nimble on the road. We’re both now singing its praises as a way of life.
Now, that Carlton has experienced life here, as I excitedly recount my day or complain about my internet data saga, all the people, places and things come to life for him. We challenge each other on how we can continue to grow and build on this extraordinary experience.
Right about now, I can hear you groaning, wondering if I’ll return home as a proselytizing, back-to-nature, earth-mother!?!?! You can relax. I’m still a sucker for some creature comforts and a few of the more frivolous things in life. In fact, my African experience has inspired my fashion sensitivities. I’ve re-imagined my utilitarian “capsule” wardrobe to include some funky outfits of my own design in bright African prints (a future blog?)!!
So I won’t be going to extremes, but by simplifying and being more conscious of my “footprint” I hope to make space to be even more focused on what is really important, the people in my life and the community around me. While I don’t have to add electricity to my grocery list at home, I’m sure I will be quicker to turn off lights and adjust the thermostat — reminding myself (and Carlton) about Cash Power!!