The Walk to Muhazi
Trip Start Apr 01, 1979
78Trip End Ongoing
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This past weekend, though, I stood at my front gate as always, but beside me was my neighbor, a transplanted Ugandan named Edison. He smiled brightly, the skin of his face appearing even darker against the brightness of his gleaming teeth. He is 23, smart, na´ve, and kind almost to a fault. Within a few days of meeting me, as we were walking along the path towards town, he asked me never to leave. He was imploring me to stay in Africa, to remain his friend, and that he would have his uncle find me a job and an apartment. I don't know why this caused me to say I had a girlfriend. He clearly wasn't coming on to me, he just liked knowing someone from America, and that that person cared to spend time with him. Indeed, I care to spend a lot of time with, for he has become in a short time, my best friend here.
The previous evening, as we were returning from visiting the house of an old lady who had lost her family in the genocide (a place rightfully devoid of any lingering cheerful spirit, with a broken woman for whom Edison buys food), I mentioned the summer home of Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, was supposedly somewhere just north of us on the shores of Lake Muhazi. Edison knew it, and offered to take me there the next morning. I readily agreed.
So we stood in front of my gate, ready to go. Edison began to walk, and turned left. LEFT! I followed with a smile. To be fair, I had ventured a little ways up this path before, where I found a school and a soccer field, but had never gone further. We walked past the school, and the church which was its epicenter, and on into the rows of banana trees beyond. Periodically we'd see a house, mud walls and tin roof, with some denizen toiling out front. Smoke billowed out from within, corn cobs scattered without, bent and bedraggled women worked while the children carried jerry cans of water to and fro.
Edison did not know the way, as he had proclaimed the day before, but there was only one fat lane ahead, with skinnier versions jutting off at random intervals. We stayed to the larger route. I would occasionally see a sight that attracted my eye, and my camera was stealthily brought out for a quick shot: a man with a sweaty brow pushing a bicycle with clusters of bananas slung across the seat; a mud brick church with half its walls eroded away, yet the cries of hallelujah roared thunderously out; a stream of long horned cattle walking menacingly towards us; a child clutching a heavy machete.
He then spoke up in a string of remarkable English. "You cannot go there, and I cannot tell you the way. It is forbidden. Why do you want to bother him?" We didn't want to bother anyone. Edison told him, in fact, that he had visited once before, with his uncle. "Then if you have been there before, why do you ask me the way?" It had been an official visit, and he had gone by car via the main road. "Yes, you have gone the wrong way, that's true. It is shorter that way perhaps, but for this way, I cannot help you." We nodded in unison, and pushed on, choosing left.
After some minutes, we had decided to moderate our intentions. It was hot, we had already walked several kilometers, and it would be enough to reach Muhazi, just the shores of Lake Muhazi. We entered a cluster of homes further along. Edison asked again for directions, this time to the lake. A discussion ensued. Three others were brought into the conversation as they happened along the path. One man, pushing a large can of water in a wooden wheelbarrow, agreed to not only tell us the way, but to take us there in person.
He was an old man, but wore his age well. He did not stoop and his gait was long and swift. I was obsessed with his hat, which read Alta Genetics Corp USA, and his jacket which said something similar but had been faded by the sun from a perhaps once bright pink into unintelligible words on a light red background. Edison and I had been sauntering along the trail, but the man, named Thomas, set off as if shot from a cannon. I struggled, at first, to keep up.
Edison, translating periodically, told me that the man said the lake was not far at all. In fact, it probably was just a couple of kilometers after all was said and done, but given the pace we walked under the hot sun, it seemed much further. Eventually Thomas broke off the main path and took a small trail that began dropping straight downhill. Within a few minutes, I saw a finger of the lake stretching out before me. I can't say my breath was taken away, as I needed it too much to keep up, but nearly. I was truly stunned by the beauty of the scene before me. The lake was onyx against a lush green background. The hills dropped off steeply, maybe 300-400 meters down to the glistening water below. I took a picture as we walked, not wanting to fall too far behind.
"He says he can now get you a fish, if you want." A fish? "Yes, he will get you a fish." Um, okay, how in the world would he do that? "With a stick." I'm having visions of Tom Hanks here, you know. "Tom who?" Nevermind. Tell him no thanks, but the offer is very kind.
In hindsight, I should've taken him up on the fish offer, but in real time it just seemed so impossible that I passed. Next time perhaps.
Edison, do you believe him? "Of course." But ghosts, really? "Yes. My father met a ghost once. He was driving a soda truck, with coca-cola going from Uganda to Kenya. He stopped to pick up a lady, and when she got in, she had the legs of a cow! He asked her, 'why do you have the legs of a cow?' But she did not respond." Okay. What happened after that? "She got out." Yeah, that makes sense.
Edison and I, after some discussion, agreed to come back and see the ghost for ourselves one night in the months ahead. He said we could meet the ghost and not be afraid of anything as long as we didn't talk about it for four days afterward. I asked if he meant just with each other or anybody, my mouth turned up in a wry smile. He responded forcefully, "Not with anyone!"
Even having declined the offer of a fish, and nearly having laughed at the ghost story, Thomas brought us to his house on the way back up the hill. It was a modest establishment to say the least, a small mud hut with dirt floors. His wife came out, a child at her side and another on her back. Thomas said he had one more son, who was playing somewhere in the neighborhood. There was a pile of corn cobs in the yard, but no other adornment. The wife appeared to be at least 20 years younger than her husband. He didn't offer us anything, which is strange for this culture, but probably because he had nothing to offer. I sputtered out words of broken Kinyarwanda, thank you, nice to meet you, goodbye, and soon we left and were headed back home, back down the same worn path flanked by banana trees.
The return took over an hour, and I made it home dehydrated and sunburned. I had intended to visit the school that afternoon, but put it off for another day. I was tired. Too tired to eat or even sleep. I showered, thanking the heavens (or the utility company) that the water was working. I sat down on a chair in the shade of my porch. The sun was starting to descend in the sky behind me. I knew that I had finally done something worth doing in this place, and the only thing I had really done was turn left. Sometimes, it seems, that's enough.