John Henry said to is shaker
Now shaker why don’t you sing?
I’m shaking twelve pounds from my hip on down
Now don’t you hear that cold steel ring?
Don’t you hear that cold steel ring
Don’t you hear cold steel ring
Don’t you hear that cold steel ring
John Henry hammered in the mountain
And the mountain, it was so high
And the last word that I heard that poor man cry
He said give me a cool drink of water before I die
Give me a cool drink of water before I die
Give me a cool drink of water before I die
Give me a cool drink of water before I die…
“John Henry” - Cecile McLorin Salvant
Everything was set up perfectly, I had worked fastidiously to make sure of it. I swept my house of all the dust and dirt. I cleaned out a pot (half of my pot inventory) and boiled a fresh batch of piping hot water. I arranged the assortment of teas I had in descending order of future enjoyment - Earl Grey to kick off the morning, followed by some Chinese tea I received from a friend, followed by countless cups of cheap Rwandan black tea, which often has the taste of a slightly tinted water cup. My lounge chair was cleared of its weekday symbols of neglect - the clothes, bags and books that are always piling up - and prepared for its duty of a long sit. My front door and windows windows were open, letting the cool early morning breeze blow lazily through my small home.
My kindle was loaded with this morning’s star of the show: my latest, and most ridiculous literary venture - a non-fiction account of the first month of WWI, as told by the author Barbara Tuchmann in a book called “The Guns of August”. Turned on to history books by my older brother, I had come to find that I am entirely fascinated with the first World War.
Last I read, King Albert of Belgium had responded to the German ultimatum, which was sent at the onset of their history-altering invasion into the small state, and girded himself and his country for the grave repercussions that awaited. Across the Channel, the English political cabinet was divided on war, and dithering, as usual, as to whether they would honor their promise to uphold Belgian neutrality with a commitment of their Expeditionary Force. Those daft Englishmen! Can’t they see that the Schlieffen Plan necessitates a right flank coursing through Belgium, thereby violating its sovereignty? The fools!
It was going to be a big morning indeed. It was the best morning of the week - Saturday Morning. In the first couple months at my house - when we were restricted by Peace Corps from traveling, and no one even had a mind to because they were figuring things out in their own villages - I had many Saturday mornings to myself, unencumbered and alone. I read, I wrote in my note book, I drank tea and stared out the door at the hills as the early morning hours and the Rwandan clouds slowly passed me by. I grew to love it. I had replaced my American Saturday morning routine of watching Naked & Afraid and VH1 dating show reruns (R.I.P Rock of Love, Flavor of Love and For the Love of Ray J - you were too good for us) while nursing a hangover headache with a solitary and thoughtful, if not semi-productive, set of habits. But as time wore on, and we surpassed our temporal travel restrictions, plans with friends and other engagements started to bully their way into my Saturdays. Before I knew it, I was behind on my reading, I hadn’t jotted down any half-baked blog ideas in my notebook, and I had found myself longing to have that quiet magic back.
On January 27, I had reclaimed such a morning. No plans for the weekend. No friends coming to crash at my house. I awoke with my mind fresh and the day long. After I had everything in order, I went to clean my cup (half of my cup inventory) right before I sat. And standing on the threshold of the door, surveying the early morning light on the hills, I looked.
And I saw it. I saw them.
There were thirty of them, from that I could tell. They were in my village, they were within eye sight of my house, and they were on the hill - Coach Alexi’s Siporo Hill, the one I run on every few days with the kids. Most of them had a hoe, beating down on the ground with characteristic Rwandan repetitious intensity, while the African sun beat down similarly on them in kind. It looked from my distant vantage point to be a trench or a hole, I couldn’t quite tell. But with each forceful drop, I could hear the question, in my own mental voice, asked over and over again. Alex, are you going to finally get off your ass and help with Umuganda? Well are ya?!
Battle of the Frontiers
Its not like I didn’t know Umuganda was happening. I know when it happens - from morning until 11, on the last Saturday of every month. I had been trying to coordinate and participate with my Rwandan friend Thierry for some time now. Months ago, I had caught him in the afternoon, after Umuganda ends at 11:30, and had been told that he and his Rwandan brethren had gone down the road to help build a school. I lit up at the idea, as I always do when I consider the idea of Umuganda. It is a cordoned off time where every citizen in the country is encouraged to go out and better their community, usually by undertaking any number of public works projects that require some level of manual labor. A time to bond with my neighbors. To show them I’m willing to help and am serious about being a part of the community.
I told him I wanted to help and to let me know - that I would definitely be at the next Umuganda. Then the next one came a month later. Rwandans gathered together, picked up their tools, and ventured out do their community work. I was gone, out of the community. Then the next month came. Last Saturday of the month, as it always was. I wasn’t feeling well enough to do it, and I didn’t know in which village it was happening. Then the next month came. The transportation of the country shut down for the morning hours to encourage it - as it always did. But I…I don’t know I didn’t do it again. Excuses, excuses.
This morning though, they were right there, and I saw them. I had to think about things: But. But. But… everything is set up. Its set up so nicely. It’s set up so nicely that I used the word fastidious to describe my preparations. The hot water, the teas, the comfy chair, the kindle, “The Guns of August”! I’m voluntarily reading a book about World War I! Don’t I deserve a respite from my workweek from the bespectacled, smugly satisfied Book Gods? Doesn’t this fall within their jurisdiction, can’t they hear my pretentious pleas? Fastidious! Respite! Indubitably! Can’t I forget what I just saw, and pretend it never happened, recoil into my burrow and go on enjoying my morning? What was I going to decide to do?
I can’t. I just can’t go out there. I wasn’t prepared for this. Mentally, you know? Like in the ol’ brain there. I’m tired, it’s too early.
Let me get this straight. You’re not going to go outside and help your fellow man in a display of Rwandan citizenship for the great people who have made this place your home. So you can…sit. Sit down in a chair. Do I have that right.
I want to, Harsh Self. I really do. but I had a tough week of work and I was really looking forward to relaxing this morning. I need this, for real this time though. Most other times I would agree with you, but this time, its legit.
Yeah you’re right buddy. You had a tough one. Like all those naps you took. The mark of a hard-working fella. They really took the life out of you. And oh, man, all that chocolate you ate, that’ll really do a man wrong. You remember don’t you, all that delicious American chocolate you couldn’t help but indulg-
I earned that chocolate! I eat well, I’m in good shape! It was good!
Of course it was good, its the best. You’re right though you earned it. Because you worked out so many time- ohhh wait, that’s right! You only went for one run this week didn’t you? Oh, that’s right, you ran one time, then you ate chocolate for the rest of week. But no, man. No you earned it.
I did! I didn’t I? I did! That run made me sore. And I had to cook the other days.
Everyone has to cook, they are humans too.
Yeah but I eat a ton, and I live alone, Rwandans don’t live alone! I have undue responsibilities! Undue burden is a legal principle, I think! The Supreme Court would rule in my favor if my case was on the docket. Jones v Kagame. The defendant holds the right to stay inside during Umuganda.
Jones v Kag- What are you even talking about? Yeah so you live alone? So do literally all of your friends. There are 170+ volunteers. And straight up everyone has it way worse than you, you giant infant. You know what? Don’t do it. Don’t bond with the men of the village and show good faith in the Rwandan experience. Stay inside.
I have so many friends in law school that I get carried away. I’m sorry. But ok ok, I’ll give you that one, Harsh Self.
Quick question: does your back ever get sore from the constant pats on the back you give yourself? I hear they have a cream for that, maybe someone can send it to you along with more chocolates, you man-toddler!
You’re a figment of my imagination! Just hear me ou-
YOU NAP ALMOST EVERY DAY.
Ok I’m getting my things.
With the appropriate attire on, I ventured out. This wasn’t the type of thing I would normally ever do under normal circumstances. I didn’t know anyone up there. I didn’t even know if they would let me in with them. Who knows if there were even enough tools for me to work with. The odds were likely that none of them spoke English, and that my good intentions would hit the brick wall of the Language Barrier and explode in a blaze of fire. But my Harsh Self had spoken. Once I saw them, I had to go. Spending the day knowing that I willingly did nothing when faced with the prospect of bettering my own community was a price that I wasn’t willing to pay. I always laugh to myself in these situations. While I tend to arrive at the appropriate conclusion when it comes to decisions like these, it takes me an inordinate amount of time and rigorous mental calculus to do so - where I imagine that my friends who are better volunteers than me would not need to make the same considerations.
As I walked up the hill I took stock of the situation. There were well over 30 guys; the distant view from my house robbed me of the perspective around the hill. Indeed they were digging a trench for rainwater, and the trench led down a big hole on the side of the road. I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the hole, but it was safe to say it was to be a reservoir for rain runoff. And as they dug, they removed the heavy, clay filled clumps of grass and soil and used them to repair the deep grooves in the road worn from foot and motorcycle traffic. I questioned whether this method would work, but I was here to do some labor, not try my hand at civil engineering. It seemed as though they had been doing this for a long time, so I kept my thoughts to myself.
The walk went by quickly, up until they saw me. When the eyes fell on me, my legs grew heavy and time slowed down. The long, lonesome walk of the single foreigner - relatively nice clothes and Adidas sneakers on - up the hill. For all they knew I was coming to lodge a complaint and tell them to cease and desist. To have me show up unannounced and try to work the earth was probably the last thing they expected of me. I could hear the calls being made before I even made it to the first person. “Muzungu! The Foreigner is here!”.
A lifetime spent with guys on teams had prepared me for this moment. When you’re getting made fun of, or when people are calling you out, there are a few things you can do to combat it, and only one thing you can’t do. The best thing to do is to lean into it - stand tall, acknowledge it and laugh at yourself. The only thing you can’t do is show that it bothers you. So I took a deep breath, wore a smile, and every time I heard someone call me a foreigner I laughed, waved, and pointed at myself.
Is it Possible?
Having arrived at two guys with hoes and shovels standing in a hole, I made my intentions known to anyone who could hear me. My speech was subtle, yet forceful. I believe I struck all the right notes, and walked the treacherous political tight ropes. “I want to help! Umuganda, yes? I am here to help”. After that, I didn’t know what else to do. I hadn’t thought much past this point. I straightened up and waited for a response.
Whereas Rwandans meet most of my little speech-proclamations with silence, this one inspired raucous laughter - a laugh that only a bunch of guys hanging out are able to produce. Immediately, I laughed with them. The whole thing was absurd. Less than a year ago I sat in the halls of the Senate, clad in suit-and-tie, meeting with health policy stakeholders, writing vote memos and press releases. Now I stood here, alone, in the middle of Africa laying myself at the mercy of a bunch of village guys I didn’t know, and all I genuinely wanted was to be granted the vaunted privilege of digging a crude hole in the ground. Life comes at you fast indeed.
There was a flurry of Kinyarwanda, only some of which I could understand. Before I knew it, a couple guys were pointing to the hole, and one of the men in the hole gave me a slight nod, raised his eyebrows with a shrug and lifted his shovel. I knew the message: hey, go for it if you want pal.
Before I knew it I was four feet down, shoveling red dirt out of a big hole. I could feel many of the guys taking a break to watch their little sideshow entertainment for the day, with what sounded like live color commentary from their buddies. Step right up here, step right up! We got a special treat today for ya, a Muzungu aaaaaalllll the way from, you guessed it, America! The Incredible, the Stupendous, The Fantastic Digging Foreigner fellas! And yes, we are taking action! Can he last more than three minutes? Will he cry? That’s the play gentlemen, and if you ain’t got that cash then pick up your hoe and get back to the trenches. That is right I only have the time for the Abagabo with the Amafaranga! It is Pay to Play this morning my friends!
At least that’s what I imagined the chatter to be like. But I could catch a phrase here and there, and I was finding that it seemed to be pretty positive. As I kept my head down and hauled the dirt up and out of the four foot hole, many of the guys seemed to be pleasantly surprised that “afite imbaraga!” (he has strength!). I heard some laughter and repeating that, yes, he did want to do this. After I spoke some Kinyarwanda, shocked onlookers announced to the others “he knows Kinyarwanda! He knows it!”. Knows, of course, is a strong word. But I was happy to prove some people wrong.
I made it past three minutes, and I never cried. I tuned out the talking and I kept to my task. I knew it the situation was ridiculous, but I was there to help. How long can you laugh about a person who is helping you do manual labor? Over time the sideshow ended and I was able to work within the group. After the hole, I picked up a hoe and got to the trench. After the trench I helped patch the road. I was laboring alongside my new neighbors, in a true display of goodwill for the community. We were working hard, but also having a laugh every now and then. By the end there was a trench, there was a hole and the grass clumps had been filled with dirt, smoothing out the rocky road. The community came together, unpaid, and worked together to accomplish a common cause. This is Umuganda.
When the work slowly came to a standstill, and the clock fell past 11, the mood seemed to indicate it was time to go home. And go home I did. I smiled to myself, thinking that, for today, I was able to do the right thing and overcome the integrative odds. There is a constant tension in the Peace Corps experience that every volunteer knows. We are of, but ultimately not of, the communities we live in. We try to integrate as hard as we can, and in the good moments, we flash our language skills with a well executed exchange, or we successfully manage to have a visitor or recognize neighbors at the local community event. But at other times, you can feel out of place, like a square peg trying to jam itself into a round hole, like the stars and stripes of America are plastered on your very face, not allowing you to blend in.
For someone like me - with a big appetite that requires constant cooking, writing projects to undertake, and graduate school studying to do - leaving the house to integrate can feel like a monumental task, made all the more difficult by a love of solitude. But leave the house I must. Connections aren’t made by osmosis - you have to venture out and do things, even if it means leaving the comfort of your Saturday morning to talk to strangers and do laborious tasks. For this, I’m grateful for this unique Rwandan convention of civic volunteering. It is a well laid pathway into the land of integration, all I have to do is manage to start to walk down it.
The day wore on, and I indeed returned to my comforts. And when I rode into town to meet with friends, I recognized my driver. He had been there that morning, working alongside me with a hoe, in the trench. His face was alight, and although I couldn’t understand what he was excitedly saying, I could get the gist of it. He was thanking me for working for the community. I could feel his pride in his home and his gratitude. I smiled, nodded, said “yes!” several times, and when the ride was over, went about my way. Walking away from him and giving a thumbs up, I thought to myself - I’ll never miss another Umuganda.