Dear Developed World,
It’s Rwanda, sending your weekly reminder to look around, wherever you are, and be thankful for the little things. Drinkable tap water. Clothes washers and dryers. Your cars and well-paved roads. Street lights. Covered drainage ditches.
About those last two.
Last night, on the way home from strange lasagna and peanut sauce chicken at the Muhabura, a gorilla trekker hotel whose glory days are long past, my body, darkness, and an open drainage ditch collided in the horrific equation that has been my nightmare for some time now. Very few roads in Musanze have street lights- most of the light after 6pm, when the sun goes down and the region plunges into darkness, comes from shop lights and car headlamps. A few streetlights, maybe three, dot the road from my house to town, a 35-minute walk. Along the road are pockets of civilization, the Rwandan version of strip malls with small rows of shops and petrol stations, and a few houses that bravely face the road and absorb the noise of cars and motos and children chasing each other- an opera of humanity that begins every morning at 6am. Between these pockets, however, the road goes pitch dark at night, lit only as Rovers and motorcyclists, subdued from their usual daytime frenzy by the darkness, pass. So. That’s Factor One.
My commute to work; note the lightless poles
Factor Two: Drainage. Rwanda is a developing nation, and doesn’t exactly have the drainage and sewer system of the first world. Under a town like Musanze, which consists of a small, concentrated urban area with a few paved roads and a lot of rock-dirt ones, I doubt there’s much of a piping system to bring clean water and adequately deal with waste. And when it rains here, it dumps. Nearly every day around three, the thunder clouds boom and the sprinkle begins. People tuck themselves under porches and into houses and shops- there’s no point of trying to do anything. The motos, usually a fearsome pack that roam the main road, disappear, hidden under roofs and canopies. Everything stops as the sky break open and buckets of water come down. I’ve never seen rain like this in California: a monsoon that will take on the most elaborate rain gear and win. To keep the roads from washing away, wide, open drainage ditches line the paved streets, allowing the water to run directly into the ditch and away from the houses and shops. The swell of water takes whatever is on the street as well- fortunately, Rwanda tends to be a very clean country, and littering is frowned upon. I once witnessed a young man throw a plastic Fanta bottle from the window of a moving bus and receive a tongue lashing from an older woman for his trouble.
Brick-lined ditch at the far right
Now, combine those two factors. Dark street, open pit. Add me, three other Americans, a clear night in which we decided to walk from a dinner spot to a friend’s house to end the evening around the fire. A dark patch on the road, with no light to speak of. And watch what happens.
According to my dinner-mates, I just disappeared without a sound. One minute I was walking down the side of the road, and the next moment I wasn’t there. The drainage ditches that line Musanze roads are brick-lined and deep, probably five feet from the road to the bottom of the ditch in some places. I remember my thoughts before I walked straight into it- I had watched a Rwandan man, walking quickly, pass us on the right. I watched his trajectory and though, ok, we must still be a few feet away from the edge of the ditch. Sight and distance estimation have never been my strong suits; nearsighted with glasses means that I still often step wrong off of steps, assuming the ground is closer or further than it really is. My friends from Fulbright gleefully remember the time I fell down a flight of stairs in Prague and winged a full mug of coffee at a wall, which we later scrubbed off to make sure we got our apartment deposit returned. For this entry in my journal of inept locomotion, I watched the man skirt the edge of the ditch, but didn’t manage to do so myself. I went straight into it, stepping cleanly and the ground giving way. I smashed my right side against the brick side, landing on my knee, and whacking my hand on something hard during the fall.
My kind compatriots pulled me out and assessed the damage. All that was going through my head was, God, I do not want to go to a Rwandan hospital. Not a hospital. It took six weeks to get my insurance to ship my malaria pills- what will happen if I have something broken and actually have to go to the hospital? My baby finger on my right hand was bent off in the wrong direction. My brain, in some strange state of shock, processed this and I popped it back into joint, barely realizing what I was doing. “Oh, look,” I almost slurred, feeling far away from my body in the throws of this mild shock, “it went back in.”
I was fortunate. If you are doing to step off a dark Rwandan street and land in a drainage ditch, please follow my lead and do as I did. First, choose a drainage ditch with almost no water, and thankfully, no human waste and/or funky smelling decomposing matter. Second, fall gracefully. Don’t try to catch yourself or half step from the street; you could risk grater injuries instead of cleanly dropping into a dark hole. Third, make sure you complete your descent into said dark hole while accompanied by three outdoorsy types, including a trained EMT. Fourth and finally, make sure that prior to coming to Africa, you obsessively packed medical supplies despite the debate in your head between “I’m going to live in the bush” and “oh, you don’t need Neosporin; you can get it there if nothing happens.”
I survived this evil mathematical equation of dark street + drainage ditch with a few cuts and bruises. My finger is purple and the size of a small eggplant, but I’m spending Sunday icing it to ease the effects of dislocation. My knee has a lovely gash, worthy of my elementary-school bike accident days, and my entire right leg is very sore, making me hobble around like an old man with no cane. But I emerged from the dark, muddy pit with one miracle, one that people working in a country like Rwanda will appreciate: I didn’t rip my pants. Sure, knees can heal, but finding another pair of pants that one can wear to work and around town? Finding that would be the real adventure.
No more swan dives into pits for me. Next time, the headlamp is coming along.
Love, peace, and ice packs from Musanze.