Simplicity

There is a small rural village in Rwanda. It spans several hills, as most towns do. I ended up staying there for the first part of my visit to Rwanda, the “culture plunge”.  I plunged thoroughly into the culture! In this town, I drank rosemary tea with creamy milk, I worked the fields with women, I carried a baby on my back, I chewed on freshly-cut sugar cane and enjoyed fried green bananas and my first much-anticipated cassava, I attended a three hour long Catholic mass in the local language Kinyarwanda, I spoke probably more French than ever before, and I took my first trip on a motorcycle taxi.

The Rwandan countryside is incredibly beautiful to me. Far more so than I expected. Often I was left just staring at the hills around us. The earth is so abundant there. Almost everybody owns not only a home, but also a piece of land behind the home – sometimes quite a large piece like a hockey field in total, broken into blocks over the hill.

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The knowledge of how to cultivate one’s own lands for subsistence has not been forgotten in Rwanda. Households, even when some members earn salaries, are encouraged to grow plenty of their own food and the surplus they load in a basket and carry down to the market. Maybe there are parts of South Africa where this still happens, but I fear most of us forgot how to live like this because of urbanisation and land dispossession. I explained to Rwandans that many South Africans live in shacks very close to each other, with no land to grow anything. When such South Africans have no money, they have no food. Standing in a field of sweet potatoes and mielies, banana trees and avo trees overhead, my sketch of South African poverty sounds almost too terrible to be real. No-one seems to believe me.

While there are many things I learned in that town, what God has most strongly revealed to me, so far, about the experience is simplicity. Life in there is simpler than any life I have ever lived. If you ask people what we are going to do tomorrow, they have two, maybe three things on the list. One evening I asked what we would do the next day and the only reply was: we will be washing clothes.

The value of a simple lifestyle is that, with all the clutter of my ordinary life out of the way, I began to hear myself think.

This was not as terrifying as I expected. Maybe you are like me, almost afraid of being too idle because you’re not sure you would like having a conversation with yourself. It wasn’t as scary as that. It was gradual and gentle. I thought more things through, I prayed about more things, and I felt more at peace with myself.

Live closer to the things growing around you, and you will notice your own growth.

It is the third month of the short rainy season. Go down on your haunches in a field. Look down and see the deep red earth, pushed aside with a hoe three months ago to make a shallow planting hole. See the darker bits of composted grass and cow dung, stuck into the hole before the bean was planted there, so that when it germinated it would be surrounded by nutrients. Look how the bean has grown, finding next to it the tall dry branch that the careful farmer has stuck in next to it, and beginning to climb. See the first tender flowers.

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See how green the plant is, seeming like it lacks nothing. It has abundant food, warm sunshine, and plenty of water. Like you. And now let the skin on your feet feel the red footpath, trailing the side of the hill, homeward.

The first few days back in South Africa, I was very pleased when the desire to reflect and to write down brief insights in my journal did not fade. I sensed in myself a hint more grace for people, too; inner peace spilling over in outer peace. I thought that Rwanda has changed me.

But two days later, I was back to rushing from one thing to another and the journal entries dried up. I realised that the peace was a result, at least in part, of the simplicity I had lived. And that I would have to consciously seek out such a life if I wanted to enjoy that peace.

I went to my allotment garden at Ariston. I planted the “dodo” plant seeds that Consellée had given me. And I felt something of the peace return. I will keep seeking.

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2 responses to “Simplicity

  1. I found your comment on Grace Kim’s essay (http://blogs.african-writing.com/blog/archives/267) intriguing and followed the link under your name to your blog.

    Reading this:
    “I explained to Rwandans that many South Africans live in shacks very close to each other, with no land to grow anything. When such South Africans have no money, they have no food. Standing in a field of sweet potatoes and mielies, banana trees and avo trees overhead, my sketch of South African poverty sounds almost too terrible to be real. No-one seems to believe me.”

    I cannot help but wonder about a couple of things:
    1). I happen to think that the vast majority of South African living in shacks are black/coloured South Africans. Is this assumption right or wrong?

    2). If that is true then one needs to consider the reasons they live in shacks

    3). From the reading I have done (in academia and online) and also from interactions with South African friends, mostly black/coloured South Africans, it appears that the relatively recent phenomena of shack-living in South Africa has its roots in people being uprooted from their land and being forced to live in shanty towns where there was little to no infrastructure and means to establish economic industries. And black South Africans who continued to live in rural areas did/do not have the same access to land that certain white Afrikaans do.

    4). Rwanda does not have the same colonial history that South Africa does. While there has been race/ethic conflict … for the most part, black Rwandans did not experience the same level of race marginalization that black South Africans did. So for the most part, black Rwandans have maintained access to their land.

    5). If points 1 through 4 above are correct, then it might be helpful to future readers if the quote above (on shanty/shack living in South Africa) was placed in the right context.

    6). I say this because I, upon reading the quote, felt that the author was telling/writing an incomplete story; that is making a comparison between modes of living/ways of live in two particular/different places which though similar have very different histories.

  2. Hi there Uzo, thanks for engaging with this!

    I agree with you about the major historical differences between South Africa and Rwanda. And yes, that the traumatic way in which many black (let’s use that as a broad term for now) South Africans were uprooted from their land placed them in a completely different position to Rwandans. We’ve just commemorated the centenary of the 1913 Land Act which really symbolises the deprivation that generations of black South Africans have suffered. The fact that urban South Africans in “townships”/shanty towns (not always shacks anymore because of the RDP project) do not grow their own food is very much a product of that marginalisation.

    This history always comes up when I discuss this with others in person, but I didn’t really focus on it in this blog. I do mention “land dispossession” here. I did not mean to ignore history in writing this post. Perhaps “land dispossession” is a very vivid concept to me as a South African, with lots of implied meaning.

    It remains true that the deprivation of poor South Africans, as I sketched it to them, seems unimaginable to many Rwandans. If anything that was meant to emphasise how unjust things still are in South Africa.

    Sorry for taking so long to approve this post, I don’t look at this blog very often at present! Please let me know what you think of this.

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