I grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb southwest of Kansas City. Back in the early 80’s it was the third wealthiest county in the United States. It was the modern day suburbia version of the Norman Rockwell life. It was clean, safe, an excellent public school system and white. There was no diversity. We were all a bunch of Wonder White Bread kids who never considered there was any other life beyond our mile radius of friends, pools and playgrounds.
Perhaps the only reason I felt that I was different within that group was due to economics, not race. I joke that I was the only “poor” kid living in Overland Park. I was different because my dad did not have a white collar job working in an office downtown. He was a forklift mechanic during the day and a drill rig mechanic at night. He worked two jobs for as long as I could remember. I did not have the trendiest clothes, the new car at 16 or the luxury of not having to work. The feeling of “different” in Kansas, pales in comparison to being one of the few people in a town where you could count the number of resident Muzungus (white person) on two hands.
For some Muzungus it’s unsettling. Our last mechanic Merlyn lasted one month and really, according to Jock, was ready to check out his first week. The week before I moved here I had a conversation with Merlyn after I found out he was stateside. He said he did not like being the center of attention walking down the street, people pointing, openly saying or even yelling “Muzungu”. He would not go to the market. He became a recluse. Merlyn is a big bald white guy.
Fortunately for me, although I grew up with very little to no diversity in my world, I had parents who brought me up to know we are really all the same. We just look a little different on the outside.
A week or two before I left Vegas, I had an appointment to have a final cut and color. I know…you all thought I was a natural Blonde! I had friends ask if I was going to color my hair dark so I would “fit” in better. Newsflash, I would still be white. I would rather be white and blonde than white and brunette. Either way my skin is still the same. I will always be “Muzungu”.
Kigali is the capital of Rwanda. This is where all Muzungus enter Rwanda. There are lots of Muzungus in Kigali. It is a fairly diverse city. Musanze, where I live, is not.
The very first ride I took the day I arrived here was an experience. Jock and I took the rode to Uganda. Two Muzungus on nice road bikes weaving through hundreds of people with baskets of water, food, and wood on their heads. We heard over and over, Muzungu, Muzungu. What was interesting though, is seeing the reaction on the Rwandan’s faces when they realized that not only was I Muzungu, but a Muzungu girl….ON A BIKE!!
Women do not ride bikes in Rwanda. I want to change that. Women need to ride bikes in Rwanda to empower them, to help them gain financial independence. But that’s for another blog….
I spent the next four weeks riding with Jock. Always the same thing….fascination. It’s an odd experience to be pedaling down the road, come upon a school with hundreds of children sitting on the lawn and when they spot you they all start running, sprinting to the road to get a close up of the Muzungus on bikes. I feel like I’m riding in the Tour de France every day. They run alongside you. Sometimes they want to practice their English. They will say, “Good Morning” no matter the time of day. Sometimes they hold out their hands and yell, “Give me Amafaranga!”. Give me Money! This does get old.
Women stare and point. Their eyes as wide as saucers. Most of them are holding tiny babies. They are so young themselves. When groups of women are together they will step off the road, whisper among themselves about the white girl in braids on a bike.
The road bikes are definitely easier to maneuver. You can always outrun the group if need be. On the mountain bikes, traveling through the countryside, it can be unsettling for some. Kids will run alongside you for literally kilometers. I always wonder, where they came from and where their family might be. They are so small, so young and they stay with you forever or until you reach the downhill side of the summit.
I have never felt nervous or scared. Some people I’ve ridden with get annoyed with the constant onslaught of children. They will sometimes touch you, but not often. The biggest threat is having one of them accidentally step into your path. I saw Jock hit a woman and child a couple of weeks ago. That is unnerving. I have had one child throw a rock at me but it’s been the only incident of unkindness or threat that I’ve had in more than 25 rides. I’ve had one wipe out on the mountain bike when I was turning back to find Jock and missed the corner, hit the curb and flew over the handlebars. Funny thing about that was the outburst of laughter around me. Rwandans have this odd trait that if they see you stumble, fall, wipe out on a bike they just stand and laugh. There’s no shock, no concern, no coming to your aid. They just laugh. It is quite odd. Perhaps it shows, the Muzungu is human, or just plain klutsy.
When we’re on the road, we generally pick up a cycling entourage. Men riding these circa 1970 Chinese bicycles that have been welded and pieced together a millions ways from Sunday. When they’re not carrying loads of potatoes or other vegetables, they are quite fast, which is a pathetic reality check to realize they are strong enough to bury you on your $3,000 carbon fiber road bike. It is quite demoralizing to be passed on a hill by one of these guys.
When I’m on the road and I tire of the crowds, I simply ride faster. That’s why I prefer the road most days. If I want to chat, which is not much unless they speak English, I let them ride along, if I don’t I work on my speed intervals!
So, last week, I was on my own for the first time. Braided, blondie Muzungu set off ALONE on the bike. I was nervous the first couple of kilometers. I had always had at least Jock by my side…well actually, several meters in front of me! Perhaps a little more depending on the day. Hey, cut me some slack he rode in the Tour de France and did RAAM twice. This is not your average club ride leader!
All I can say…pure cycling joy! I started down the road to Uganda, weaving in and out of traffic to get out of Musanze. I had been quite sick for the past couple of days and I needed to get out and on the bike. And then it started to sprinkle, then rain, then harder, then laughter at Blondie Muzungu riding in the rain. Frustrated, I turned to head back to the house. As I moved in the other direction the rain slowed. I decided to head west toward Gisenyi. This is the road that Straberg, a German company, has been working on since I arrived. It is a mountainous road with patches of pavement, small sections of gravel and serious construction equipment building up the side of the mountains to insert the road.
The more I rode, the happier I was. The scenery on this road is spectacular. Past the last section of construction and nearing the end of long climb alongside me comes Claude. Again, rickety old piece of crap Chinese bicycle, clanking up the hill. He says a hearty “Good Morning!” It’s 4:15 in the afternoon! And then he keeps speaking English. We exchange pleasantries. Then he asks what I am doing. When I tell him I’m just riding, it doesn’t register. Why? Because I want to. Where are you going? No where in particular. Why do you go nowhere? Because I’m out for a ride. But you ride to nowhere? Why? Riding for enjoyment is not a concept Claude is grasping at this point….I need to change the subject….
Claude is a 15 year old Rwandan boy. He doesn’t attend school because his family is too poor and he must work. He learned English when he was going to school. He is one of the better English speakers I’ve come across while riding. He is obviously a smart boy. Unfortunately, a smart boy with no future prospects, like so many in Rwanda.
Claude rides with me for about 15 minutes, shows me where he lives and then he’s gone. A couple more fist bumps with kids along the road and I turn back towards home. (We do the Howie Mandel fist bumps due to the prevalence of tuberculosis among the children. Hacking cough = TB = I’m going home to the US to spend 6 months in quarantine).
First ride on my own…
Yesterday, after spending all day Sunday working, I was ready for a FAST road ride to Uganda. I was feeling better finally and was ready to just get on the road. I told Rebecca and Sarah I would ride again later in the day on my mountain bike with them but that I had the need for speed.
Weave through Musanze, near miss with a moped taxi, hisses at the hordes of people stepping into my path and I’m on my way. I think I talked about the hissing in one my blogs. I am a GREAT hisser. You can hear my sharp hiss for meters. Seriously, you do not yell, “On your left.” Like they would understand the English anyway. You HISS, like a snake. The first time I did it I was so shocked how rude it felt. It is not rude, it’s just how they respond. I am going to be a completely out of touch rider in the states when I return.
About 8-10k into the ride I feel this rider come up on me. It’s not a Rwandan farmer biker, it’s too quiet. I’m focused on my cadence, my speed, the road, the goat on the side of the road who has broken away from his rope and has potential for ending up in my wheels, who is this person on my wheel?
Our night guard at Jock’s house, Alphonse “Rambo” Museruka. He rides a bike Jock gave him after he tried out for the team and failed to make the cut. How did he know I was out here? How long had he been following me?
I looked over and smiled. He gave me his big toothy Rambo smile back and we nailed it. Rambo speaks little English and I speak even less Kinyarwanda. That’s okay on this day….I just wanted to ride. I’m riding Jock’s Scott cyclocross bike. The Scott CR1 carbon road bike I had been riding went to Alex, a genocide orphan, who is riding in the Tour of the Volcanoes next week. Rambo is on a GT Hardtail mountain bike and he’s on my wheel. And he stays there. How is he doing this? Just when I think I’m improving.
We ride hard all the way to the Ugandan border. The entire time, Rambo is watching out for me. As kids come running to the road on my right, Rambo quietly pulls on my right side as a buffer between me and the kids. He does the same with people on the left. There is no entourage of local riders with us today. He does all of this without speaking a word. He never says anything to the onlookers. He laughs every now and then at the shouts of Muzungu. How did this man know this is EXACTLY how I wanted to ride today? We turn around at the border and sprint downhill all the way back to Musanze and the Project Rwanda house….and then he’s gone.
I know I will always be an anomaly in Rwanda. I will be Blondie Muzungu on a bike and I’m okay with that. If it intrigues one other woman to get on a bike and ride, then the craziness of my daily rides has been worth it!
Blondie Muzungu has to go touch up her roots...