Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gates, Keys, and Breaking In

I’m like a lost middle child when I talk about where I’m from. I love pointing out that grew up and went to college on the same street that I was born on, but I’m also quick to dismiss my naivety by bragging that “my parents live in downtown Newark!” I usually use whichever background is most convenient for the situation: if I’m lost in the city, I’m just a small town country girl, and if I’m arguing a point in a classroom, I am sure to bring up my worldly point-of-view.
But, in Rwanda, it is becoming increasingly obvious that I am, indeed, from Hanover New Hampshire. Through and through.
For one, Kigali overwhelms me with its size. Secondly, I enjoy hiking. And finally, I have no idea how to use a key, a skill that is critical in Rwanda.
Everything  here is lockable. And everything that is lockable is locked with a key. I’m talking drawers, dressers, bedroom doors, house doors, office doors, gates, cupboards, refrigerators…I JUST SAID THAT REFRIGERATORS ARE LOCKED I DON’T THINK I NEED TO LIST ANYTHING MORE. Everything has its own key. For the most part, keys are kept in the lock and treated as any lock in America where you just twist and open. But, as a reference point, my high school didn’t even have locks on the bedroom doors and I once broke a window to get into my house rather than figure out the code for the garage or look for a hide-a-key. I cannot use even the simplest keys.
The key to the bathroom door always seems to fall out right when I slam it shut on my bolt for the toilet. And then I’m stuck in a pickle, deciding whether to pause and actually try to lock the door, or just leave it unlocked and hope nobody comes wandering in. This decision would be easier if the bathroom door stayed shut without being locked, if I had confidence that my key-abilities could get the door locked in less than 30 seconds, and if I wasn’t always suffering from some form of Rwandan gastro-disease.
Such are daily dilemmas in Rwanda.
Gates, also, have proven to be a problem. Pretty much every house that has a gate also has a muzehe or umakoze who is responsible for opening, closing, and locking the gate. After nightfall, it is necessary for this person to let you back in. In general, our muzehe has a sixth sense and has our gate open for us before we even turn down our little side road. But this is not always the case, especially when you’re walking instead of driving.
  1. 1.       Knocks just don’t seem to garner the same reaction time as does a loud Land Rover horn. I’ve had a few instances where I’ve played with neighborhood children at the end of my runs because I tried knocking on the gate in vain, and then I just give up and hope for a car to come by soon. Technically, I could take a set of keys with me on my runs…but I know that it would probably take longer for me to unlock the gate than to just wait for the muzehe to hear my futile knocks
  2. And then there was the time that Marvin and I came home in the car particularly late. We honked. And honked. And honked. And then we realized that Marvin is the houseman and has all the keys on his keychain. So he got out and started testing each key in the gate, which didn’t seem to be working. I only just pulled out my cell phone to shamefully call somebody on the inside, when I looked up and suddenly Marvin had leaped on top of the car and started pulling himself up the gate, and then over the barbed wire and spikes and landing safely on the other side. Only to realize that he still could not let the car in because the keys were not in the keyholes as they usually are. He was forced to go wake up the muzehe and get him to come and let us home. At that time, I was happy I had Marvin.
  3. Last night introduced a whole new challenge. I was coming home in the car by myself (I can drive now!) after dark, when the horn of the car broke. I realized this during the drive because horns are necessary in Rwanda to scare people out of your way and off the road. So before even turning down our alley, I had my cell phone out to call somebody to let me in. My cell phone was out of minutes. (I haven’t bought any more since I drunk-dialed the states last weekend and used up $10 of credit in 3 minutes.) I have long given up being a conscientious tourist and always traveling with a copy of my passport, my Amex emergency number, local currency, and US dollars…so I couldn’t run to the corner store to buy more minutes. I’m not going to lie; I was actually pretty useless when I realized how helpless I was. I sat frozen in the car, right in front of the gate, wondering what on earth I could do in such a situation.
It took me a full song to decide that I should inspect the height of the gate to determine if I could copy Marvin’s aerobics from the week before, and then another full song to decide if I should leave the car running or not while I went for the jump. I decided to keep it running just in case somebody heard it, knowing full well that I would be ridiculed for risking having it stolen. (My rationale here is that it took me a month to learn how to move a standard car anywhere, so no Rwandan thief could learn in 2 minutes.) Just as I was inching out of the car, Marvin, my night in MIT armor, opened the gate to inspect why a car had been running outside of it for 6 minutes. I bashfully explained that the horn was broken and quickly settled back in the driver’s seat in hopes that he wouldn’t notice that I was actually considering repeating his feat and jumping it.

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