A Graduation Ceremony

23 Feb

(I started writing this back in December but never finished. It’s not as bad as the post about church I started in September but have yet to finish. Please forgive any disjointedness)

This past weekend I experienced many things typical to Rwanda. Thursday December 1st (also World AIDS Day) my host sister graduated from the Kigali Institute of Education with a Bachelors of Arts. This was something we’ve all been looking forward to for a long time partly because I promised to visit for this particular occasion before I moved to site.


I arrived in Kigali the afternoon before and had some business to take care of. Like the naïve umuzungu (foreigner) I am I foolishly thought it appropriate to arrive in a timely manner so I left Fort Peace Corps to catch a taxi an hour before the ceremony was supposed to start at 8 am. Of course I was the first one of my party to arrive calls to my host sister produced vague answers of, ‘I’m on my way and yes I’m close.’ Eight am came and went still no one I knew had arrived. My host mom and her oldest grandson M were the first to arrive. It was so good to see my host mom, I had seen her in nice igitegne to go to church but for this occasion she wore the traditional Rwanda outfit for special ceremonies, called an umushanana (probably not spelled correctly).


Due to the large number of people arriving for the ceremony my host sister got stuck in a traffic jam and I bet it was somewhere close to 9 am when she arrived. Next we moseyed towards where the ceremony would take place only to find quite the line to enter the ceremony. Fortunately it moved rather quickly but as we got closer I could see the CF unfolding inside. In order to get into the ceremony you had to pass through a gate which they were using to control the number of people entering at one time. Because once inside you had to squeeze between a mass of people already seated to grab a white plastic chair to sit on. Perhaps at one point there was a method to the madness but by the time we arrived it was pure chaos. Rwandans aren’t much for lines and I experienced my first full on ‘mob’ when the guards tried to close the gates and my host sister grabbed me and more or less shoved us through the crowd and gates. It was a bit scary, but not too bad.


The whole process of finding a place to sit proved a bit overwhelming for my host mom so we hemmed and hawed about where to sit, sent M to get some chairs, only to call him back. Despite my progress in Kinyarwanda, it’s still a struggle to communicate with my host mom because she’s just plain difficult to understand most of the time. Ultimately we sat under one of the tents set up for the graduates. We weren’t supposed to sit there but after some convincing on my part it ended up being the best decision we made because the ceremony was long and while I thought for sure it would rain, the sun was rather fierce. Not to mention that we were able to sit close to my host sister. Sometime between 10 and 10:30, almost two hours behind schedule the ceremony got under way.


The only way I had any idea what was going on was because I had a program that was thankfully printed in English, though a lot of the ceremony was also in English. Miraculously once things got started they were pretty close to the printed timetable. The ceremony was rather anticlimactic. There was no walking across the stage, handshaking, and accepting of a diploma cover. Considering that the number of graduates there numbered in the thousands I suppose it was for the best. Instead they read off the names of graduates by department/major and after each one that particular group would give a little cheer.


I don’t remember how long we stayed, however we left before the ceremony concluded, but after they read my host sister’s name. The rationale being that we wanted to avoid the rush of people trying to leave all at once. Some relative had volunteered his taxi services so we set off to meet up with him. In the process however my host mom’s grandson M disappeared. They spent several hours looking for him around the university and store he went into to grab a snack. I met my host sister’s godparents while they looked for him, the rain came so we ducked into the little boutique we were standing in front of. Finally, I decided there was no point in me being cranky and hungry just because he was missing so I went in the back and had myself a little snack to try and distract myself from the worry.


Finally, after calling the house in Kamonyi, for reasons I don’t understand we hopped in the taxi and headed home. My host brother and some of his friends stayed behind to look for him. It was weird making the 45 minute trip by car since I hadn’t been in a regular car for that amount of time since I was a trainee. Busses, twegeranes, and motos being my main forms of long distance transportation now. I’m guessing this relative was a fairly new driver because he wasn’t as aggressive as others I’ve ridden with so we found ourselves stuck behind quite a few slow moving trucks on the uphill. I also noticed he struggled shifting gears a bit. Can’t complain too much though because it was a free ride in a car which was infinitely better than squeezing into a twege.


We arrived at my oldest host brother’s house to find family and friends gathered. It was a bit overwhelming, but ultimately very nice to be greeted by neighbors. It was also a bit strange to be called by my given name, Heidi since everyone at site calls me Mahoro. There were also people who pretended that they knew me well that they knew me well and were happy to see me. After greeting lots of people and seeing all the ‘neighborhood’ kids I took a seat of ‘honor’ and the party started. Now parties and pretty much any event in Rwanda are quite long and very ceremonious. A cousin that I know served as the MC. I can’t remember what exactly was said, even though I had a woman sitting next to me translating. I was asked on the spot to give a speech and I did, mostly in Kinyarwanda. The MC offered to translate for me from English to Kinya, but my host sister insisted I do it in Kinya and really what I had to say was pretty simple. It was something along the lines of we are colleagues now since we both have degrees, how I was very proud of her, and how I know the family are good people because I lived with them and they took good care of me. I missed the memo where I was supposed to introduce myself and where I came from, but the MC took care of that for me. I learned then that I was a bit of a guest of honor because I had traveled all the way from Cyangugu which is a great distance and expense.


At some point the grandson who had disappeared in Kigali showed up. I tried to figure out what happened but my host sister told me that M was full of stories about what happened and how he got home. I was just happy that he was kidnapped or hurt. Apparently 10 years is old enough to be traveling around by yourself in big towns.


We ate and I had the fun of juggling a plate of food, a fanta, my favorite kiddo and her plate of food and fanta while squished in between a bunch of other people. I took some pictures and let the girl sitting next to me play with my camera a little bit. The ceremony concluded and a mob quickly formed around my camera. The little kids started pushing on each other and women started asking me to take pictures of them with their kids. Finally, I had to tell them that my camera had died.


After grabbing my bag from the house I stopped to sing a bit of the song on the radio and was delighted when the chorus came and all the neighborhood kiddos started singing and dancing. It was one of the moments I’ll always remember as I laughed and danced with them. Finally, with the last of the light I stated towards my host mom’s house. I could tell that many people wanted me to visit with them but I really just wanted to go home and be with my host family since I hadn’t really had a chance to talk with them before this point.


My youngest host brother Peter was home for the occasion which was a treat since he was mostly at university in Kigali when I lived there. I also enjoyed chatting with the trainee that currently lives there, though she has had a rougher time than I have. A lot of the current trainees who went to live with families who had trainees from our group found they had big shoes to fill, especially considering that hindsight is always 20/20. It was quite the full house and we passed the time chatting, listening to music on phones, looking at pictures and playing cards.


Now, my family was notorious for eating dinner rather late, typically after 9 and sometimes closer to 10. But this time, with having to clean up and bring furniture and other things from the party it was midnight by the time we finally ate ‘dinner’. I wasn’t all the hungry since we had eaten in the late afternoon but I couldn’t just go to bed because I needed to eat in order to take my malaria meds. It was a good diversion though because it gave us ‘kids’ an excuse to visit with each other.


It was weird being considered a ‘vistor’ in what I consider one of my homes in Rwanda. They took my shoes and made one of the cousins wash them. When it was time for me to wash my feet and face before bed I had to ask for a basin instead of just grabbing mine. What had once been a part of a routine that I was responsible for, was now in the hands of others. In a stroke of genius I had packed everything I would need for the night in my moto helmet/purse so that it wouldn’t be a pain to schlep it to the ceremony. As a result, I forgot to pack some crucial things like tp and something to dry off with. Thankfully the trainee came to my rescue.


As I struggle to feel connected to the people at my site there’s something so grounding and energizing about going to visit my host family. I felt it when I dropped in on them in November, and during this visit as well. Even though I struggled to feel connected to them while I lived there, I see when I visit them how much they really do care for me (it’s that 20/20 hindsight again). I can feel that they are genuinely happy to see me. I also realize the thing that I am most grateful for and that is that they’ve never ever ever tried to take advantage of me, a sharp contrast from my experience/perception at site. My host family has known me from my most vulnerable state, fresh off the plane and they have always been respectful of my space, my things, and my needs. Never once have they ever asked me for money, to buy them things or what have you. Whereas at site I’m living with a girl who would be up the creek without a paddle were it not for the things I bought to live/cook and not in a hurry to change, coworkers asking to come over to eat, for money or for the food I’m coming home from the market with.

Regrettably I had to head back to Kigali the next day to run some errands before I went home Sunday. It was a really good visit and my host sister said that she wanted to come visit me as soon as she could.


One Response to “A Graduation Ceremony”

  1. Jill teVelde February 23, 2012 at 9:08 pm #


    I’m so glad you felt a sense of comfort reconnecting with your host family. As I read your blog I can see how much you have grown. I appreciate your creative writing and vivid details. I love the part about dancing with the kids…sniff, sniff, wiping away the tears. I love you so much and can’t wait until I get to visit you at some point in the next two years. Love to you always!!!! Llama

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