A Friday Afternoon

We’re working at the Supreme Court of Rwanda this Summer.  Thanks to my friend Linda, we’re also getting to live with a Rwandan family.  On Fridays, government workers in Rwanda are technically let off of work at noon, with the specific instruction that they are supposed to spend the afternoon doing sports (nobody actually works out around here except me. Rwandan quotes on exercise: “I would run, but it makes me feel out of breath,” “oh yes, that feeling of wanting to exercise…when I feel like that I lie down until it goes away”). Paul Kagame, the president, created the sports afternoon to encourage health. It’s fascinating to live in a country with a population smaller than Los Angeles. Once we were at a lunch and Kagame came on TV and answered questions of citizens who called in to ask about certain policy decisions he made. I think it’d be cool if we could just call the president and ask “hey! Why did you cut my scholarship program???” Apparently he does those Q&A things pretty regularly. We’re working on a court business decision at work, and there are five million things I’d like to know and can only guess at which will be affected by the decision made. The more I learn about the case the more I feel like I’m shooting in the dark. Funny how things seem simpler the less you know. I could have made that decision in a heartbeat when I read the initial briefs. After reading all the supplemental material, I could go either way and don’t know which is best for the world. I can’t imagine the pressure of being a president—of having to make huge sweeping decisions which affect so many things you can never be totally sure of, and on top of that having to explain yourself to people. I guess that’s why we need surefire ideals. Things we know are good and can stick to. Like “corruption is bad.” And I guess why dictators like being dictators. It’s way easier to not have to explain yourself. Mad respect for anyone willing to be president.

One Friday, after work and playing soccer with a kid in the street, I asked if I could do laundry. Fam asked if I knew how to wash by hand. I said yes. They gave me some soap and I filled buckets. Picked up the first shirt, swished it around, scrubbed the pits out, then wrung it out and hung it up to dry. Host mom who has been watching me this whole time starts exclaiming loudly in French (she doesn’t speak English). Next thing I know, Joy and Sabrina (host fam sisters) are by my side, insisting that I need/they want to help me. I’m like “no really guys, I’m fine.” But no. Sabrina picks up a shirt and shows me how to scrub “with all my strength.” They fill more buckets and do this 4 step washing/rinsing process which takes a whole lot more time and effort than I ever would have put into it, and my clothes get scrubbed to death like never ever before in life. I’m exhausted by the end of the process, my back and arms and shoulders and quads aching from the scrubbing, lifting (to keep emptying out tubs of water), squatting.

After that, I help Joy do the dishes. It is also a process, made difficult by having to constantly change water, and having to squat over a bucket (hard on the quads!) for a long time. The family is surprised as usual that I’m outside with Joy and the housemaids (everyone has maids here) doing dishes, and then helping to cook.  The maids cook outside on charcoal stoves. It’s quite the process. Gotta light the coals every day. To have dinner ready at 830 they start at 430. It takes THAT long. We’re making this dish I like, a cassava leaf stew, and it all seems really good: beef, leaves, green onion, garlic, until they say “and now it is time to put in the oite.” Oite??? One of the maids takes out this plastic bag filled with what looks to be about three cups of some orange liquid. I read the bag. It’s in French, but I’m fairly certain it says palm oil. Joy confirms my suspicions. And then the maid dumps THE ENTIRE BAG into the pot. SICK. Nice to know that the one healthy green dish we eat is doused in more oil than I have used in my cooking in an entire semester. In disbelief I stick my hand into the orange goo in the pot. One fingertipfull is enough oil to stain my hands, back and front, orange (it’s ok i needed to moisturize after that intense detergent we used to wash my clothing). After doing laundry, cleaning, and helping cook, I am more stiff, sore, and exhausted than I can remember being since I stopped playing sports. Now I know why no one works out around here: they work out all day.

Working at a court makes you think about stuff you don’t normally think about.  When I hang out with the maids I think about minimum wage laws and how that would change things for them.  Would it help or hurt?  Would it help them have better lives or just put them out of work and make everything more expensive.  When I play soccer with the kid in the street I think about education laws here and his future—does he really have a chance with things the way they are here?  When I say “does he have a chance,” what do I mean?  Do I mean a chance at the life I think is adequate?  Am I imposing a standard which actually will not result in him being more happy?  When I walk around I see much more community among the people who live in the shack-like houses which are going to be knocked down soon than among the families behind their big fences and guards in the houses which are replacing the shacks.  Who’s happier: the kids playing with each other, neighbors hanging out in the areas in front of their shacks with each other every night, or the wealthy who watch American TV shoes on computers every night?  Laws can change a lot.  Zoning laws could destroy the beauty of integrated business and community here.  Traffic laws could save lives by requiring people to wear seatbelts and not carry babies on motorcycles, but they’d also hinder the ability to be transported for a lot of people here.  There’s a lot to think about when making laws, and thinking won’t always give a definite answer.  If I ever have to make laws I will be doing so on my knees.

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