Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Muzehes and Biddies

Rwandans are ageless: all Rwandans between the ages of 15 and 45 look exactly the same. This fact hit me especially hard when the adorable “15 year old” that I sometimes play football with showed up on a moto one day and started chatting with me. As you have to be 21 to drive a moto, I did not even recognize him at first. Suddenly our relationship turned from fun football games to oh-my-god-please-stop-calling-me-please.
The one upside of this fact is that children less than 15 and adults over 45 are easily recognizable – if not distinguishable from each other. The latter are commonly referred to as “muzehes” (“old man”) – and, as I’ve spoken about in other blogs, just about every house “comes” with a muzehe. It seems entirely acceptable to call an elder “old man” to his face. I have yet to determine if this is because the word “muzehe” signifies respect, or because elders are not respected. The former, I’ve decided to call “biddies,” because that is what they are.

Each has a pretty strict dress code to adhere to:

Muzehes wear faux suede cowboy hats, oversized blazers, and tuck their pants into their rain boots. They also carry a thin walking stick. This is without fail. Sometimes they carry a radio with them too.

Biddies would be quite fashionable in the US: they wear their school uniforms (sweater vest, button downs, adorableness) and croc-like foam green sandals. (It is illegal in Rwanda to not wear shoes – a law that has created a challenge for my fondness of doing sprints without shoes.) Sometimes they wear one soccer cleat and one green sandal – while their friend wears the other cleat.

And each has a pretty predictable set of daily activities:

Muzehes walk. Sometimes they stop to listen to the radio with other muzehes, and then they continue walking. They all secretly/not so secretly have a drinking problem.

Biddies go to school. (Sometimes – I just learned today that Rwanda has a “shift” school system with half the children attending in the morning and half in the afternoon. They switch every week if you attend morning or afternoon. The smarter children take advantage of this system and just don’t go to school at all…but that’s okay because they have to be smart enough to figure that out.) And then they roam the streets in groups, looking for fun. They usually find it hidden in the form of burst bicycle tire and a stick, some string and old newspapers, or the closest muzungu (that’s me).

Similar to how every muzehe is associated with a certain house, every group of biddies seems to be associated with a certain muzungu. I’ve felt a little left out…in my first 2 months here…I did not manage to acquire a group of biddies. Every time I left the compound with another muzungu, their group of biddies would excitedly run up to them and hug them and then just kind of stare at me, as if to say “you haven’t said anything yet, but I know that you don’t like children and I can tell that the only reason you want me to hug you is so that you can have a cute facebook picture of hugging a Rwandan child. So…I’m not going to do it.”

But it turns out that my aversion to children, and their subsequent aversion to me couldn’t actually last that long. I’m not sure if it’s the biological clock, or the simple fact that I need a break from living with the same five people that I work with, but *gasp* the children have started to look legitimately cute and adorable to me; and me to them. As a consequence, I am proud to report that I have found my group of biddies.

Their leader’s name is Victory. Yup. Victory. He may not be their actual leader, but he’s the leader to me because he speaks incredible English. The only other name that I caught was Solonge. She’s the one with the volleyball sweatshirt (See blog: “so hot right now”). We first met a few weeks ago when I was doing a sprint workout down an alley. Victory challenged me. I was in a rare happy-with-children mood and decided to turn my iPod off, rather than turn it up louder. We raced. I won. My happy-with-children mood became happier. Victory (no longer a fitting name) went off to go get some boys who are “really good at sport.” They came back…we raced…they beat me. I forgave myself because I’ve reached “that age” when being 10 years older than your opponent in a physical is no longer an advantage. (I hope I could still beat them in a mental contest?)

Victory made me promise to meet them for sport in 2 days, at evening. Two days later I was not in a fun mood and really did not want to play with children. I poked my head out of our gate around 5:30pm and quickly receded at the first sight of a child. A week later, Victory found me: “YOU DID NOT COME PLAY SPORT!” “Yes I did…I swear…I was there at 5:30…” “YOU DID NOT COME! TOMORROW – YOU COME AT 17o’clock. I will see you there.”

I was stunned. But also excited.

And at 17o’clock the next day, I left work 5 minutes early to change into my sport clothing and grab a soccer ball and then ran back to the office to nervously ask if they thought the biddies would like me. I was greeted by “why are you actually leaving the office at the end of the workday?” stares, and quickly ran off to the children…hoping they might be more fun.

And they were! We played volleyball until it became too dark to see the ball. Our group ballooned to more than 20, not including spectators. The only downside was when one small bystander was hit with the ball and went running off, crying to her mother before I even had time to react. I felt like a bad babysitter or something. But the rest of the time was great fun; and I have since had many more enjoyable interactions with Victory and his biddies.

Since Victory lives 2 houses away from me, these interactions are mostly when I’ve stopped a run to walk home and he yells at me “you’re not doing sport right!” I’ve learned the final response to this: “So Victory, how are your grades in school coming?” Bahaha…I’m finally on the other end of the spectrum and can start getting enjoyment out of asking seniors in high school if they’re into college yet, or asking seniors in college if they have a job yet…

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