Monday, May 25, 2015
I visited my old Peace Corps site over the weekend. I took a twegerane to Nyabugogo, Kigali’s main bus park, and bought a ticket for a southbound bus. As I boarded, three different scenarios ran through my head. I’d show up and the whole village would look different, no one I knew would live there anymore, the Peace Corps would have discontinued my site and the whole visit would be nightmarish and disorienting. Or I’d show up and things would be even more beautiful than I remembered, I would be welcomed with open arms, an impromptu celebration would be thrown in my honor, tears of joy would be shed, the new PCV would be beside herself to meet Gihara’s inaugural volunteer. Or I’d show up and it would be as if I’d never left. I put in my headphones and watched a familiar stretch of countryside swish past, my heart pounding in my throat.
When I arrived, the reality I found was mixed. The village was largely unchanged. It was market day, and the same vendors who used to sell me fruits and vegetables had laid out their usual spread. People waved to me and called my name as if I’d returned from a weekend vacation. I found a new storefront had emerged among the tea shops. A giant icon of Jesus had been erected in front of the convent where I used to live – so huge, I thought for a horrifying moment that the convent was gone – but when I rounded the corner, the familiar green gate was still standing.
The nuns I used to live with were no longer there. New faces had taken their place. Sister Donatile and Sister Amarita have been permanently relocated to some other country – the Central African Republic, if I understood correctly – by some authority in the diocese. Sister Mediatrice left Gihara to pursue a degree. Sister Marie Rose is still based in Gihara, but she was gone for the weekend. I was still greeted warmly and invited to have lunch at the convent, but I felt a little like I’d come home from summer camp to an empty house.
Leaving the convent, I wandered off into the hills to look for familiar faces. My goal was to find Annoncée’s house. I’d been there so many times I was sure I could find the road, but new houses had sprung up all over my route and I got thoroughly lost. I fell back on a village habit and started asking all the children I encountered if they knew Umwarimu Annoncée, eventually gathering a sizeable party. So it was that I and about half a dozen children showed up in her front yard.
Before I had time to wonder if she’d remember me, she ran outside and threw her arms around me, literally lifting me up into the air. She said, “Long time!” Finally, someone who felt the same way I did. I asked her about the school where we used to teach together. Apparently Peace Corps discontinued the site – the school has not received any new volunteers. My former students are now in their final year of secondary. Otherwise, things are unchanged.
I left Gihara feeling dusty and exhausted. Back in the capital, I’m scrolling through the phone numbers I’ve amassed. I didn’t find Louise, my best Gihara friend, nor did I find her number. I have a few phone numbers for people who might be able to find her, though. I’m thinking this is how I’m going to spend my weekends – tracking down old friends.
Outside, rain is pounding the walls of the house. It makes me think of the dry season and how unsettled I would get when the rain tankard ran low. It would get so dry that honey bees would gather around the spigot searching for droplets. I always wondered what would happen if the water ran out completely, but I never got a chance to find out. Just when things would start to seem desperate, the sky would open up like a tap and release a deafening torrent. Rain would hammer the tin roofs and flood the gutters. Every time, it felt like a prayer miraculously answered. Rain still sounds like that to me – like a gift from God.
For the first time since the plane touched down, I feel a sense of relief.