Robert Ijambawamana, my Rwandan colleague
told me that the main roads in his country
are so smooth that you can drive your car
on them for years, and never have to change
your tires, and so clean that you can walk
on them all day, and there will be no mud
you have to scrape off from your shoes at night.
Every day I walked from my hotel
to the university. I’d see the little boys
on their way to Catholic school—
blue trousers and white shirts—watch the workers
cutting grass with scythes they swung like golf clubs.
I’d meet my students, who would smile, shake my hand
and say in perfect English Good day, Professor.
The only time I saw Robert angry
was when he said to me We have to learn
the umuzungu (white man) language,
they should at least learn some words in ours.
I wandered off the main road only once
At first it seemed the same: A church,
a school, cut grass, but as the road went on
the grass turned into overhanging trees,
the sounds of English vanished into silence.
And then I saw, or might have only dreamed,
kites swooping overhead, buzzing insects swarming,
two small goatherds driving the flock
across the road who stopped and stared at me.
And then my body heard, in the rhythm of all this,
something it turned into English words:
This road is not for you, umuzungu, this land
is not your land, go back the way you came.
Later, I would laugh and describe this as
my Joseph-Conrad-Heart-of Darkness moment,
but the truth is I was an umuzungu and afraid.
I turned around and ran.