Six o’clock in the morning, the sun just began coming up. The sky was in between the blues of night and day. I walked over to the schoolroom behind the guesthouse and meet a group of about twelve Rwandans training as missionaries for Tanzania. They had been reading their bibles for the past hour (somewhat reluctant and distracted from what I am told). The day before I asked to join them in part of their routine. They liked the idea and that was why I was there- to jump in for this next part of their schedule.
“Madamotze. [Good morning.] ” We greet each other. Some speak English others do not. I feel somewhat ridiculous not being able to speak their language as usual but the circle of smiles before me puts me more at ease. Stepping outside onto the main road (go ahead and assume it is dirt, making it good and soft for running). I had walked this same road the night before: no streetlights, only the stars and the occasional motorcycle headlight cruising by. On either side I could make out the contours of banana palms and a faint scent of evergreens was on the breeze. (Strange but yes, there are evergreens growing along the equator. There must be an explanation but I don’t know it). In night walks I can hear people coming up the road but cannot see them. I blend in better at day; Rwandans blend in better at night. Even some new local friends have begun teasing me as one of the most disadvantaged people at night since I am the only one to be seen on the road but I just tell them it is true only with robbers; with cars and motorcycles I have the greatest advantage: Mr. Whitey is one giant reflector. (If this humor seems offensive to anyone, I am sorry to offend but just know you stand alone in your offense. We are all laughing together over here.) I am impressed how well everyone navigates in the dark, though. People plummet down the main hill on their bicycles at night with no lights. It is sort of common knowledge I suppose: bikes and vehicles in the middle of the road, people on the side.
But coming back to the road this morning: we form ranks of three in four rows. They place me at the front. Shake the legs. Roll the head. We start running up towards the local hospital and church started by the Anglican diocese. One minute in I discover there is one more detail for running, we recite the books of the bible in Kinya-rwanda. One calls, the rest respond. “Itan-jiri-o! Ku-va!” Upward and onward into the countryside, shoes patting that steady runner’s rhythm. The words come out on exhale, making them louder and breathier. Every once in a while I need to look at the guy next to me and see his mouth shape the words. He notices, then exaggerate his pronunciation for me to see. I nod. He laughs. We all laugh but keep pace.
All the things there are to see on a run. Ask any runner and they will have some memory of a gorgeous place they once went or a current favorite route they use. Usually the reasons are simple: one likes to run past the baker and smell the bread; another likes to pass under that one grove of trees near the train tracks; this guy knows that girl runs the same route; it is always something. Rwanda has its own subtle splendors for runner’s to delight in. Again, no streetlights, telephone poles or paved roads. The homes along the street are mostly made of concrete, stained all shades of yellow, brown, gray and red, each with its own plot of land. Some yards are filled with banana trees, others with guava trees. Maybe some bean plants growing here and a few aisles of maize there along with a whole bunch of other plants I don’t recognize. (A majority of the country lives by subsistent agriculture.) The land is sectioned with a fence of reeds. The reeds are planted in the ground, growing with a subtle zig-zag, held in line with one or two planks and kept short with a machete. That nutritive, Rwandan red-dirt as front yards and roads; baby goats scurrying away into the grass; cattle grazing on the side of the road; chickens pecking through the fences; the ever-changing drama of clouds rolling in and out of sight over these stubby hills by the hour; it’s runner’s delight.
It happens to be children’s delight too. People are always walking along the road, kids included, so before too long we gain a mini-entourage. One little girl looks back over her shoulder as we come with our noise. Having noticed us (or maybe just me) she begins to run and recite with us for some hundred yards. She’s little. She gets tired. But by then two more kids are running alongside, then five. Two fade off but two more join. Some of the kids are bashful at first, daring to only look out the corner of their eyes with a straight face but most of the time if I shoot them a funny-face or simply smile this would be enough to put them at ease and break into their own natural smiles. Still, some kept a straight face (usually the older ones). The smallest ones, five maybe six years old, giggled and flailed their legs to the side as they ran. The slightly older seven or eight year olds ran straighter but did not look ahead down the road as we did; they kept looking at us. The older they are, the less interested they are. We passing strangers become less exciting as they get older. Later in the day I will see teenagers running in their own groups, looking down the road as we do. Such is life.