Lessons In Kinyarwanda

by Lee Gulyas


verb, to speak

ndavuga        I speak
uravuga        you speak
aravuga        she/he speaks
muravuga      you (pl.) speak
turavuga       we speak
baravuga       they speak

Ndavuga ikinyarwanda gicye. I speak a little Kinyarwanda.

My first time in Rwanda, I learned language buhoro-buhoro, slow-by-slow.

The next year, Hassan (the program coordinator for our study-abroad group) held regular lessons. We conjugated verbs, noticed patterns, and struggled with sounds we do not make in English. We would write other things in our notebooks, too, especially things Hassan said, like Kinyarwanda has many, many words. Or, Everybody is ok.

My first day ever in Rwanda, after being greeted at the airport and going to our hotel, we meet in the lobby before dinner. Hassan and I sit on a couch in the corner, and he talks, asks me to repeat what he says. Dutegereje ibisi, we wait for the bus. Simvuga ikinyarwanda, I do not speak Kinyarwanda. Ufite abana, do you have children? Yego ndamufite, Yes I have a child. I pull out my notebook and pencil, and start my lexicon with this young man I just met, this man and I who work together, shoulder to shoulder, this man who does not just let me write and listen but makes me speak in a language I do not know.

verb, to drink

ndyanywa        I drink
uranywa          you drink
aranywa          she/he drinks
muranywa        you (pl.) drink
turanywa         we drink
baranywa         they drink

The Good Samaritan bar sits on the main road in the middle of town, right across from the weekly market—the kind of open-air bar with plastic chairs and tables covered with beer logos, and a TV mounted in the corner that either shows futbol, or music videos. Occasionally you will see a couple enjoying a beer in the early evening, infant in tow, or Evelyn after her shift in the hotel restaurant. But later in the evening, most customers are male, so when our predominantly female group walks down the narrow corridor to enter the metal-roofed patio, the atmosphere shifts for a moment before tables are moved, more chairs appear, and we are made welcome.

The Good Samaritan is where we will learn that in Rwanda, men dance with men in a manner that would be read as sexual in the U.S., but here is not even remotely in the same neighborhood. We will learn that Rwandans love Shania Twain and will loudly sing along, and that if you ask someone to meet you in a bar later that evening, you are responsible for buying their drinks: you have invited them as your guest. We will learn that many of our inshuti, our Rwandan friends, have never been to this bar in the center of their town because even though the beer seems cheap, irahenze, it is expensive. We will learn that bats circling overhead feed on the imibu, mosquitos, that our warm bodies have also invited, but flitting bats are not concerned with byeri spilling from bottles of Primus and Turbo King that rise up into the air in extended hands. Bats are not concerned with the loud thump, thump, thump of Congolese beats. The bats only dart in and out making circles overhead as we all tubyine na turanywa—dance, dance and drink, together.

verb, to walk

ndagenda        I walk
uragenda        you walk
aragenda        she/he walks
muragenda      you (pl.) walk
turagenda        we walk
baragenda       they walk

It feels like most of our time in Gashora is on this road. This rutted dirt road (no sidewalks, no streetlights) from La Palisse, our lodging by the lake, to Gashora center. The road takes us by fields and houses and a Pentecostal church and the crossroad to Bidudu, a dense and lively neighborhood, directly opposite a crossroad to Lac Rumira, where children collect water in the dry season. Next to the radio tower/mobile phone tower/electricity junction box sits Covaga, the basket-weaving cooperative, directly across from the Gashora Sector Government offices and the crossroads to the Gashora Health Center. All this before we reach Gashora Center with all her shops and tailors and bike mechanics and bars and restaurants and produce stands, and of course, the market. We make this approximately three-mile round-trip walk at least twice a day, three times if there is an event or meeting we don’t want to miss, or if we want to go out at night to The Good Samaritan.

This road is the perfect place to walk and look and listen. I often walk slowly, drop behind the students and let their chatter fade away, watch their colorful clothes against the ruddy dirt and the bright green shrubs and bamboo and umuneki trees that frame our way. I walk on as the children fetching water spot us, scream muzungu, muzungu—foreigner, white, outsider—but the children are bored with me and want to play with the students. I will walk this road in the early morning, before the sun crests the hills, and walk late at night only by the light of the moon, hundreds of bats squeaking overhead, after a night of beer and dancing. This road is where I shed my habit of flashlights and headlamps and just walk. Ndagenda. I walk in the dark like the locals, stars and moon and familiarity with each curve and rut and bump enough to guide me home.



gulyasLee Gulyas teaches at Western Washington University, and has twice participated as lead faculty in WWU’s Service-Learning Study Abroad Program to Rwanda. She has received a Washington State Artist Trust Grant and her work has appeared in such journals as The Common, The Malahat Review, Tinderbox, Literary Mama, Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Aquifer, Jet Fuel Review, Barrelhouse, reDIVIDer, and Sweet: A Literary Confection.