Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

Muzungu mu Bulaya tena…

Bulaya is one of my favorite Kiswahili words. It also appears in Kinyarwanda and Kirundi as Iburaya. It means- those far away places that white people come from- including but not limited to all countries in Europe and North America. When I reference Bulaya in conversation, I can tell that it captures so much more than simply a different location. It captures:

history- the place where white people came from to take over Congo;
current events- the place where UN and NGO workers come from;
economics- the place where most people can make a decent living;
health- the place where most people are not dying from curable diseases;
education- the place where teachers actually get paid and most people go to school;
language- the place where children grow up speaking the language of power, money and politics… English.

All of that in just one word!

Over the past four years, several people have asked me if it’s hard to go back and forth between Congo and Bulaya.  For the most part I don’t mind it, but I definitely face certain challenges.

The Thirty Minute Rule: In Congo, most small gatherings (2-5 people) don’t begin until thirty minutes after the said start time. There are several uncontrollable factors that might cause that delay- rain, a flat tire, getting stopped by the police, road construction, a neighbor in distress… even if none of these factors apply, it is not a big deal to be late.  (Exception: School. I go for a walk most mornings, and between 6 and 7:30 am you can tell exactly which students will be on time and who will be late.  Most groups walk at a leisurely pace, some speed walk, a few reach a light jog, and without fail there are always a few kids all out sprinting.)

I didn’t realize that the thirty minute rule had really affected me until last summer when I told my family I’d meet them in Shirlington for dinner, and sure enough they called me 30 minutes later and said- Where the heck are you? Are you still coming? Well of COURSE I was still coming! I didn’t think it really mattered if I got there 30 minutes later than everybody else.  Oops.

Following Rules: The thirty minute rule is the only rule you can count on people to follow.  The rule enforcers tend to bend, break, ignore and/or individually invent rules. You can drive on either side of the road, you can play in the midst of construction sites, you can cut to the front of a line because usually there is no line, just a crowd, and important documents aren’t actually for record keeping- they are simply for buying and selling.

One summer I met some friends for dinner in a large chain restaurant in Arlington. When we appeared with 4 out of 5 people present, we were informed that we could not be seated until the entire party was present. The whole place was empty. We waited. When the fifth friend arrived, the computer hostess man printed a ticket, and handed it a hostess woman who looked at it, fetched the correct number of menus, and took us to our designated table.  Immediately a busboy appeared, took the ticket, and asked for our drink order. Soon enough, the drinks were delivered and a waiter appeared to take our food order.

I sat, completely zoned out for about 15 minutes.  Why wouldn’t they just let us sit down immediately? There were so many open tables! Did they really need that computer? and the ticket? and three different people to get us from the entrance to a table? don’t the people around us look really overweight? why are these food portions so huge? Wait, what are my friends talking about? should I be paying attention? gosh this place is clean. But, back to the beginning- why couldn’t we have just seated ourselves? Sometimes everyone following the rules so perfectly starts to annoy me- and even just the sheer NUMBER of rules… starts to get under my skin. I think to myself- we don’t really need THAT many rules… but usually after a few weeks I begin to appreciate most rules again, and laws, and the generally law abiding culture of Bulaya.

 The Power to Consume & Waste: People in Congo don’t make enough money to buy much more than shelter, food, and some basic clothes.  Additionally, even if you do have money there isn’t much for sale, beyond building materials, food and clothes. So talking about recent or upcoming purchases is not interesting and not discussed often. Additionally, consuming doesn’t usually involve a plethora of choices- making it an even less interesting topic for discussion.

Entering a supermarket in Bulaya– for the first few times each summer- seems like choice overload, sensory overload. Do I really need 35 toothpaste brands to choose from? 50 varieties of cereal? 4 heaviness levels of milk? Vegetables that look bigger and prettier but less flavor? A box of 2,000 ziplock bags? Why not buy 10 and just wash and reuse? And what kind of chicken is this if it doesn’t have any bones?

I don’t really need that many choices. Nor do I need fashion accessories, tupperware, or a blackberry.  I already have an embarrassing number of accessories, I can reuse glass jars and plastic take-away containers, and my cell phone works just fine. I try to resist as long as possible without buying anything- feeling like it’s strange to spend money on things that I don’t really need. In Goma, every few weeks, it’s a big thrill just to buy a chocolate bar- knowing that I don’t really need it, I just WANT it! But in Bulaya there’s just so much out there to WANT, that eventually my resistance is broken. Although imperfect, at least the seed has been planted.  I’ll forever at least try to live more simply.

Being on time… following the rules… and consuming excessively. These are a challenge to readjust to.  As are the contrary, whenever I return to Congo.  Losing track of time… embracing flexible rules… and having nothing excess to consume (besides really delicious Belgian chocolate.)

Over the past four years I’ve done my best to stay happy in both environments. So, as in previous years, to prepare for my departure in three weeks I’ve begun to:

-Reconnect more with family and friends in the States.
-Plan how to celebrate contributions and accomplishments in Goma.
-Make sure I have lots of pictures and videos of people and things I love.
-Wrap things up at work, with my project, consider my/its long term future.
-Say goodbye to friends and colleagues here.
-Reflect on how I’ve changed, and how that might affect my return.
-Think about what I want to do this summer.
-Get excited for all the good things to come, like:

Bribe-free airports.
Bribe-free everything for that matter.
Smooth, paved roads.
Driving on them.
Running on them.
Hot showers, available anytime.
Electricity, all day everyday.
Internet, practically at the speed of light.
Mattie’s soccer games.
Megg’s rugby games.
Family dinners.
One stop, indoor shopping- without bargaining.
Teaching in my native language.
Getting to know new students.
Dining with old friends.
Making new friends.
Perusing libraries and bookstores, in English.
Living in a neighborhood without walls, barbed wire, and guards.
Seeing joggers and dog walkers instead of soldiers with guns.
Finding people to speak Swahili with.
Going to weddings, without having to cross an ocean first.
Decorating a new humble abode.
Having a trash collector.
Making phonecalls without calculating the time difference.
Fewer and smaller cockroaches.
Non-malaria carrying mosquitos.
Sunset later than 6pm sharp.
Cheap ice cream.
Flavored coffee.
Going to the dentist.
Street lights.
Just being home.
Just being.

An American in America again.
Muzungu mu Bulaya tena.


5 comments on “Muzungu mu Bulaya tena…

  1. Lonnie Rich
    May 13, 2011

    Nice work. You sound like you have read Ann Voskamp’s book, 1000 Gifts.

  2. Sally Reams
    May 13, 2011

    Hopefully the adjustment won’t be too painful and you can enjoy and appreciate the many luxuries we have more than ever!!

  3. Sharon Ward
    May 14, 2011

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts! They are truly an inspiration!

  4. Catherine Freeman
    May 17, 2011

    Sara, what a beautifully written post. Although we can’t experience it the way you are, anyone reading it can gain some perspective on how we interact with our world and ourselves. Thank you.

  5. Tim Z Falconer
    December 8, 2011

    I just found your blog, linked from Mary Le’s blog. I love your approach. On the Etsy page about your mom’s sewing, she says she’s “on vacation” from it and that you’re “returning from Africa soon”, and from your blog I gather that you left in May 2011… are you planning on returning? I love the idea of bringing local fabrics back to the US and having it sewn here, the way it turns the unfortunately-normal sweatshop model on its head!

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This entry was posted on May 13, 2011 by in humanities, travel.
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