Apr 182013

by Carl AuerbachHuye,Rwanda mainstreet


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.