My first impression of Rwanda, beyond that of the beauty of the hills and the warmth of its people, can best be described by three simple words, PUSH, PULL or CARRY. In a country the size of New Hampshire, known as the land of 1000 hills, with over 12 million people the roads are crowded with folks, pushing, pulling and carrying everything imaginable. The men are normally pushing (or pulling with a friend) heavily loaded carts with wooden wheels or bicycles. Donkeys and oxen pulled carts are not found here in Rwanda. Without these beasts of burden to carry the loads, men patiently push bicycles laden down with 20-liter water jugs (9 was the highest I counted), wood, potatoes, cabbage, tin roofing materials, furniture (20 stacked plastic chairs!). They even push or pull their families up steep hills on rocky, dust covered roads.
The women are not seen peddling bicycles but are no less engaged in pushing, pulling or carrying. Women carry their heaviest loads on their heads often while carrying a baby on their back. The babies seem very content to be held close to their Mothers, tied tightly to their backs, while she goes about her daily work. That work often includes walking long distances for water. I have learned to recognize a “baby on board” by the tiny feet you can see poking out around her waist. The elderly are not spared from these daily chores, many move more slowly, balancing large sacks on their heads, with a handmade walking stick for extra support. Even the littlest children are seen walking on the road carrying burdens that seem way too heavy for their small frames, dodging bicycles, “motos” and cars.
I am in awe of what I have seen being pushed, pulled, and carried. Each day seems to bring a new surprise, how does that load fit on a bike or someone’s head? While it may seem part of the daily “routine” here in rural Rwanda, the physical loads the rural people carry must be exhausting and are never done. The physical burdens they carry are obvious to an outsider and have impressed me but I have spent much of the last 2 weeks thinking about the how heavy their emotional burdens must be. Burdens that cannot easily solved by a car or even a water spigot in the house. Burdens I will never know or my children can imagine. The weight of a sick spouse or child who needs to be physically carried to a health center 4 kilometers away, the possibility of not having any money for medications or to pay for hospitalization even if you can get them there. (The average wage for a field worker is about $1.50 US, annual salary less than $800 US.) The emotional burden of a grandmother I recently met; she is caring for her two young grandchildren, seriously ill herself, having to beg for food and housing since she has no way to support them now that her husband has died. The parent’s awareness that without the generosity of foreign governments, NGOs and caring individuals, your children’s future is not likely to be different from the present. Their burdens are ones that most of us cannot conceive, and not ones that anyone should have to carry, but unfortunately it is the reality for many living here in rural Rwanda. The Rwandan government, while actively trying to improve the lives of its citizens, cannot do it alone.