Saturday, February 19, 2011

Someday I Will Learn…

This blog might be belated. Oh well. Because I figured it was still relevant to share about how, after 6 months in Rwanda, I have still not picked up on some key cultural intricacies. The most key of these being going to a Rwandan’s house. Someday soon I will learn that being invited to a Rwandan’s house for a “party” actually means that you, as the muzungu, make up the “party” and that if you are late, the whole party is delayed. Because without you there, nothing would actually be happening. And because you, as the muzungu, are the guest of honor, you will be served the “best” pieces of meat and the most food. It also means that a family that doesn’t normally drink alcohol will go out of its way to have all types of alcohol available because you, as a muzungu, most definitely need your alcohol. And finally it means that you will probably find yourself sitting awkwardly and alone in the main room of the house for an hour as the parents hurry to hide the children and prepare your meal. Someday soon I will learn…but I still had not learned by New Year’s Day, when Elie invited me over to his house for a New Year’s “party.”

He said the party started at 3, so I planned on begin fashionably late by leaving my house at 3. This was also necessary because I didn’t pull myself out of bed until 2, and I felt the need to eat a full meal before going, just in case there wasn’t enough food or so I didn’t portray myself as the fat, gluttonous, under-appreciative American in the likely case of a buffet being available. (I soon regretted this choice.) Although being “fashionably late” does not exist in Rwanda, I wasn’t too worried because being “late” doesn’t exist either – you show up when you show up, nothing late about it. I was therefore surprised when Elie called me at 3pm on the dot to ask where I was. I lied, said on my way, and jumped in the car.

The simple process of getting to Elie’s house was a classic adventure of Rwandans being very helpful, but then expecting money in return. “Umm…you just jumped in my car without my permission, and then didn’t actually point me in the direction of Elie’s house…sorry you don’t actually get money for that.”

And then it was only after I arrived – and seeing that nobody else had been invited to the “party” – that I had flashbacks of parties at Jeanne d’Arc’s house and Nathalie’s house…that, of course, I (capitalized) was the party. There were 3 beer varieties to choose from and no sodas. You might remember from my resolutions that I had stopped drinking on New Year’s Day. Awkward. I asked for a Fanta. This was obviously not expected, and the delay between asking for the Fanta (which I rationaled was the beverage most likely to be on hand) and receiving the Fanta suggested that somebody was sent off to the nearby store to fulfill my request.

After 30 minutes of sitting by myself in the living room, intermittently waving at the little girl who peeked her head around the corner before being shoed away by her mother as to not disturb the guest, lunch/dinner was served. Unfortunately not in buffet style – if it had been buffet style, I would have had a lot less to eat. Elie’s wife just came out with plates piled high for each of us. Piled high with…pasta, potatoes and meat.

The meat, it turned out, was turkey. Elie had so liked our Thanksgiving turkey that he went out and bought 2 for his family to raise to have for their New Year’s Day feast. I did not, however, realize it was turkey until this story was shared because it had been boiled. I didn’t taste much except for the texture – I’ll spare you the details – suffice to say that I eat everything, and this was a bit rough for me. Elie commented that it didn’t quite taste the same as at CCHIPs Thanksgiving.

“Maybe that’s because we roasted our turkey in an oven? Maybe the cooking method makes it taste different?”

“What’s an oven?”

“Umm…the thing that’s under the stove…at the CCHIPs house…Gabby cooks his bread in it?”

“Ahh! Un feu (rough translation: fire)! I didn’t know that you actually used that!”

And so the meal continued with boiled turkey, potatoes and pasta. At first, I futilely tried to use a knife and fork – perhaps struggling to get your knife through your meat isn’t quite the same insult in Rwanda as it is stateside – but to cover the embarrassment I soon gave up and dug in with my hands, taking on the attitude that I should just “chug” it all down in 5 or 10 mouthfuls. This seemed the best way to just make it end. Bad idea. Because obviously if the muzungu doesn’t have food on her plate, you must feed her more. Elie actually reached onto his son’s plate, grabbed a large chunk of some part of the turkey body that I’m not accustomed to eating, and placed it on my plate…TWICE. I’m having bad flashback nightmares just remembering this.

It’s obviously incredibly rude in a country plagued by poverty and malnutrition to not finish one’s food, especially in front of Rwandans, at a Rwandan’s house, when the food was taken off one of the son’s plates and then given to you. I couldn’t even take breaks because I didn’t really have anybody to talk to (in English); and the mother seemed to think I was not enjoying my food if I just stopped eating. So I switched my strategy to taking very very small bites, to look satisfied. These proved harder to swallow, requiring a lot more Fanta – which was, of course, diligently re-filled even as everybody else at the table sat with no drinks. It was actually the last half of my Fanta – not the alternately dry and undercooked meat – that really made me feel the need to hold back any puking.

After I was sufficiently stuffed and regretting my pre-party meal, the “party” finally came to an end. At this point Elie announced that he was going to take me to a nearby bar to watch a football game and drink some…more Fanta. Again, a hospitable, yet inconvenient invitation that was impossible for me to turn down. For all of you who have never had Fanta, it’s necessary that you understand: Fanta is essentially Mountain Dew with sugar added. It’s suicidal to drink more than one – and certainly to drink more than four, which is where I was at this point. This Fanta binge rings clearer in my memory than the actual food/food binge. Because…of course…during the course of the 90 minute soccer game, I was served no less than THREE more Fantas, all opened and served before I even collected myself to protest.

So…someday soon, perhaps, I will learn what to expect from a Rwandan party.

*As a follow-up, 2 weeks after this nightmarish New Year’s Day, I was invited to another Rwandan’s house at 4pm on a Sunday. In acknowledgement of the lessons learned on New Year’s Day (and because, at that point, I had already started writing this blog chronicling it), I did not eat or drink anything (all day) before going on the visit. In perfect irony, no food was served and I was left in cranky hunger mood. Although, I did get to drink another 2 Fantas in an hour. Woooo.

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