13. ON THE ROAD TO AKAGERA
One of the things I was looking forward to most in Rwanda - and there are many mosts - was going to Akagera National Park to see Mutware, the elephant, who I'd been reading about in Rwanda news articles. Mutware (whose name means "boss" in English) is thirty-seven years old and has become a famous tourist attraction, with people trying to get him to climb out of the water, where he likes to lie and rest, so they can get a better look, and he sometimes used to oblige. But recently Mutware hadn't been as friendly or accommodating as he used to be. For example, last year he charged three tourist vehicles, stomping them to destruction. And then this past spring he started trampling in the gardens of the villagers living next to the Park. The USA embassay went so far as to put out a security warning about him, but rangers at the Park say it's tourists' own fault if they go in without a guide, and besides, Mutware only acts like that during mating season, or when he's lonely.
I have an affinity for elephants to begin with and have lots of ornaments given to me of elephants, and Orwell wrote a famous essay about an elephant and I myself have also written a parable about an elephant.
So, when planning the trip to Rwanda we made sure that going to Lake Ihema in Akagera National Park was on the agenda so that I could see Mutware, and hopefully he wouldn't be wallowing in the mud in the lake but would be out and about in full view.
Early on Friday morning the taxi driver we had hired for the day arrived at the hotel to take us to Akagera National Park (in the northeast side of the country) and then back to Kigali that same day. Cecile was coming with us and so we detoured over to pick her up before heading to the highway on our first trip out of the city.
Cecile is the friend from Canada who I hadn't met before I came to Rwanda, and is the one who gave me the beautiful sari which she brought with her from Montreal, where she lives. She was born in Rwanda but has lived in Canada for many years and was now back for a family wedding and to be a tourist in Rwanda herself. But, being from the French part of Canada, Cecile speaks French which I, being from the English part of the country, don't. But, in the times we'd met over the past few days, we'd managed to put her growing command of English and my strengthening recall of high-school French into a semblance of communication, and it was kind of fun. The taxi driver spoke only Kinyarwanda but that was fine because Cecile speaks Kinyarwanda. And my husband Bob speaks only English, and with an English accent "to boot", so no one can understand what he says (just joking).
As we drove along the road we spent most of our time looking out the window as it was all so new, seeing banana fields for miles and miles, the same way we see corn fields in Canada. In amongst the trees were very small houses, some in groups and others all alone, and tiny villages were built up near the road, separated by a few miles. Between the villages, going in all directions, were people walking or pushing bicycles. On their heads, or on the bikes, they carried bananas, potatoes, straw and water containers. Everyone was going somewhere or coming back from somewhere, to another village perhaps or maybe to the communal water source - usually a pump in a square. At this time of the day we passed lots of children in dark blue uniforms walking to school, some of them having quite a distance to go we'd discover upon coming upon the school seemingly miles down the road.
What amazed me the most, and which is the personification of Africa, is the women walking so statuesquely with huge loads balanced upon their heads. And the little children - in training - who also walk with smaller loads on their heads, but nevertheless still substantial.
Cecile asked me if I thought I would be able to walk with a load of bananas on my head and I told her "non" in perfect French. But she challenged me to give it a try and so we pulled over and all got out of the car, alongside a family who stopped to wonder what we were doing:
Cecile, in her Kinyarwandan, asked the lady if she would let us borrow her bananas so we could try balancing them on our own heads, and she smilingly agreed.
Cecile, probably because she has Rwandan blood coursing through her veins, seemed to be pretty good at it. She probably could have even let go, given more time. I, on the other hand, was a little less confident. Firstly I placed the weaved cushion of banana leaves on my head, as shown by the lady, and then Cecile placed the "beautiful bunch of unripe bananas" gently on top of the cushion and stepped back. I was actually quite amazed at how heavy they were, thinking that my main challenge would be balancing it for walking, not staying upright without buckling at the knees. I didn't even contemplate letting go and came away from the experiment with even more awe and amazement of people who so sedately and seemingly effortlessly comport themselves down the highways and byways this way.
And it isn't just in the countryside. I took the photo above the day before while in downtown Kigali. Notice the dichotomy of styles - one woman in a business suit and the other in traditional dress. Both styles abound in men and women, the new mixed in with the old.
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