20 January 2011


I had a Rwandese friend who moved to Canada. We were not particularly close in Rwanda, but we were part of the same group of friends, and when he was in New York for a few months on his way to getting permission to stay in Canada, he emailed me, and we met up to talk about Rwanda and our common friends.

He invited me up to the Bronx to eat Rwandese food, to the tiny back-alley apartment where he slept on the floor of his Burundian friend's room, the other rooms full of immigrant men from other Francophone African countries, also scraping by, also far from their families. I rode the 4 train north out of Manhattan, and S. met me at the subway stop. When it was time to leave, he and his friend not only walked me back to the subway, but rode the train all the way to my stop to make sure that I was safe.

"Our neighborhood is not very good," they told me. "Not very safe. And these black American guys are so strange. They stand in front of the stores and yell at us, 'Hay, you gah-da kwah-der?'" They exaggerated the Bronx accent through their African-French accents. "You gah-da kwaaah-der."

S. moved to Canada, and I saw his friend twice more: once to pick up a bunch of presents to take to his wife and kids in Rwanda when I spent the summer there, and once to bring him the gifts that they sent back with me to him. My head hurt from speaking French. In between, in Rwanda, I spent a lovely afternoon at a craft fair with his wife and kids, wandering the booths in a shaded park I'd never really noticed in downtown Kigali.

It's like that in East Africa. Friends or friendly acquaintances you met once will email you and say, "I'm going to be in your town. Can you show me around / help me buy all the requisite gifts to bring back / take these things I have to send back to my country?" and you do, because that's just how it is, and because if you were in Khartoum / Nairobi / Kinshasa, they would do the same for you, or would find friends to do it on their behalf.

The reason I thought of this story is that months later, after S. had settled in Canada, he called, or we exchanged emails, or something, and he said, "I used to think that people in America or Canada were just making excuses when they said that they couldn't call or email because they were too busy. But now I see. People really are that busy here. I am that busy now, and I don't have time to call or email my friends at home the way I want to do."

That is exactly how I feel right now, only busier. I don't even have the time to call or email my friends down the street right now. There have been evenings - entire days in a row - when the only thing I did on the computer was work and make sure no one was in crisis. Before these last weeks, I cannot remember the last time I got home and did not turn on the computer at least to play for a little while, except on nights when I'd gone out late with friends. But these days, I'm too tired, too often.

A few weeks ago, S. said hello to me on f@ceb00k. We hadn't spoken in five or more years. We were both immersed in our North American lives and just too busy to keep up acquaintanceship in the East African way. He told me that he had married a Rwandese girl he met in Canada, "and we didn't even know each other before we moved here!" He posted photos of their wedding, of a lovely, happy woman and his smiling, handsome face, and the photos made me smile because they were surrounded by the Rwandese community in Montreal. I love that kind of community in a place far from home.

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