Cultural Experience | Rwanda

A day in the life… Azizi Life, that is

Yesterday started off well enough, with a 5:30 a.m. wake up call, some sleepy dressing (thankfully everything matched in the end) and the somewhat-random packing of a day pack. I headed down the stairs of the Hôtel des Mille Collines (“Hotel of a Thousand Hills,” yes the one from the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda) in Kigali, Rwanda and grabbed a few portable breakfast items. Within an hour of my wake up call, I was on the back of a Tigo, or motorbike taxi, speeding away from my group on the way to the bus station…or so I thought.

Five minutes later, my Tigo driver pulled into a gas station looking for someone who spoke English to talk to me and see where I actually wanted to go. (Tip #1: Always make sure your Tigo driver actually knows where you’re going, not just that you want to pay him to take you somewhere. Tip #2: Always leave enough time to cross the city again…just in case.)

Needless to say, at this point, I was freaking out. By the time we found someone who spoke enough English to know where I needed to go and to explain this to my Tigo driver in Kinyarwanda, my bus was due to leave in 10 minutes from Volcano Express, a bus line at the station on the opposite side of the city. 

My Tigo driver did, however, seem to understand my sense of urgency, and we proceeded to go whipping through the early morning traffic, managing to cross the city with three minutes to spare. As much as I love going around on a motorbike taxi like a local, I can’t say I was the biggest fan of the breakneck speeds at which we navigated back around the roundabout by the hotel and sped past other busses that were clearly also in a hurry to get somewhere. 

With three minutes to spare, I jumped off the Tigo as it pulled up to the station, turned on my cell service, and probably racked up about $10 worth of a phone bill to figure out where Volcano Express was (there were about 30 busses stacked three-deep at this station). As I ran toward what I was finally able to identify as my bus, the change from the Tigo driver making a ruckus, I saw the person in my group with the tickets waving them in the air and turning around frantically to look for me. The moment I sat down in the back of the bus, we were off, zooming across the countryside to a town called Muhanga about an hour southwest from Kigali. 

The rest of the day, thankfully, was not nearly as stressful. 

Carrying grass on my head for the cows, which I successfully managed to not drop.

Carrying grass on my head for the cows, which I successfully managed to not drop.

We arrived in Muhanga, after missing our stop and having the driver pull off on the side of the road so we could jump out and walk back a few hundred yards, and met representatives from Azizi Life. According to their website, the goal of Azizi Life is “to participate in local initiatives for the development of Rwandan communities working towards physical and spiritual wholeness for all.” This goal is achieved through a mix of selling goods created by local artisans, and convincing visitors (such as myself) to pay about 50,000 Rwanda francs to spend a day with a local family in one of the cooperatives doing chores, learning how to weave, dance, and drum, and otherwise talking with the locals. A combination of these activities (and more) help these local cooperatives with economic security, community development, spiritual growth, and sharing the story, which is a goal I believe in wholeheartedly. (To read more about Azizi Life’s mission or to arrange a trip of your own, click here.)

We arrived to our neighborhood for the day and were divided into two groups, then taken to two different houses for the morning. My group began by sitting down and introducing ourselves (four of us from the US and six Rwandese women aged about 20-55), then being invited to share in a prayer thanking God for our safe journey to the cooperative and for a good day to come. All of the times we prayed throughout the day, the prayers were not quiet and spoken, as I’ve grown to know through my family’s religious background, but instead were songs with clapping and sometimes even dancing. We also did a lot of clapping and dancing that wasn’t prayer-related, so my count may be off, but I think we officially prayed about four times. 

After introductions, our hosts dressed us up in brightly colored fabrics (skirts and head wraps), then took us outside to peel sweet potatoes and chop veggies to put in our bean stew. With the assistance of a translator from Azizi Life, we were able to share traditions, explain how we cook sweet potatoes in the U.S., and learn about which plants grow in the fields surrounding the house. Next, we walked down to a field of banana trees and learned how to make a crown-type thing out of banana leaves so that we could carry some grass from this field on our heads to feed the cows in another field. When we had arrived, the cows had already been taken out in the fields by some of the children, but I did successfully carry long grasses on my head for about 10 minutes without dropping it, and that’s what really counts in my book. 

At this point, the sky was looking ominous so we headed back to the house where we started that day in lieu of going to the river to fetch water. We arrived just on time – the sky opened up and we spent the next hour or so playing hand-clapping games, singing and dancing on a porch in an attempt to avoid the downpour going on around us. When the rain finally let up, we went inside and ate our meal – beans, greens, avocados and sweet potatoes – then returned to the home where we were all originally welcomed to learn how to weave simple bracelets. Though almost all of the women in this cooperative couldn’t say anything in English except “thank you” and “welcome,” they patiently showed us how to twist fibers together then sew the bracelet together to create the final product. 

At this point, I was having a bit of trouble breathing. But we all looked fantastic, even if our dancing left a bit to be desired. (Photo from Faith Knutsen)

At this point, I was having a bit of trouble breathing. But we all looked fantastic, even if our dancing left a bit to be desired. (Photo from Faith Knutsen)

A few more dances, another prayer, and a lot of hugging later, we climbed back into the cars and drove back along the dirt road to the Azizi Life headquarters near Muhanga Town. When we arrived, the women (there were seven of us) were ushered into a room and told to strip down so we could be dressed in traditional clothes as part of our dancing and drumming experience. After being tied into a few pieces of cloth, we were on our way, wobbling slightly as we headed outside to first watch a performance by a traditional dance group perform before we had to demonstrate our dancing ability (or in my case, the lack thereof). A couple hours, a lot of laughs, and some retying of the cloth that kept falling off my chest later, we were ready for our performance with the troupe. Much to our delight, the dance we were taught was actually one that the group had performed when we arrived – not just basic steps that I thought would be taught to the dancing-impaired tourists. 

Though I had a rough time breathing for part of the dance due to the tightness of the traditional clothes around my chest, all in all, I had a wonderful day. Nearly missing the bus in the morning is something I would definitely not recommend, but if you are anywhere near Muhanga and want to experience a day in the life of an artisan or learn a few traditional dances, I definitely recommend checking out Azizi Life. 

This narrative not enough? See for yourself by checking out this video I put together using footage from my iPhone 5s and a GoPro showing a few of the highlights of the day, or follow the hashtag #kateinkigali or follow me on Instagram to see more of my experiences here in Rwanda.

Kate Hiller

Ohio University | 21 stories

Kate Hiller is a Dec. 2015 graduate from Ohio University, where she earned a B.S. in Journalism and a B.A. in Spanish. Over the last two years, Kate has lived and studied in Ecuador, covered the World Cup in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium, worked with the Young African Leaders' Initiative Connect Camps in Namibia and Rwanda, spent time doing radio production with students from the University of Leipzig in Germany, visited family friends in Norway, and spent 10 days on a research exchange in Hong Kong. When she isn't planning her next adventure, you can find her taking photos, getting lost, pretending to be athletic, or cooking something that usually includes noodles. Follow Kate on Instagram @kmhiller527.

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