“You go ahead,” I breathlessly exclaimed, no longer confident in my feet’s ability to maintain their balance as we inched higher up the rocky slope.
“I’ll be right here when you come back down,” I assured my two friends, sensing their hesitation. As they finally acquiesced, I watched as they continued up the mountain, shadowed by the crowd of children who hadn’t left our side since we first got off our bodas, and trailing behind our unofficial tour guide.
“The top is just a little further,” he urged them, “I know the way.”
He must have been no older than 10. “I will take you to Kibuye,” were his first words when we met along the trail – not so much an offer as a declaration. His floppy rubber sandals and skinny frame were strangely fitting with the nonchalant air of confidence he exuded. Our thick hiking boots, nalgene water bottles, and backpacks full of produce for the trek felt like neon signs of our musanze-ness as we were led up the mountain by a group of mostly barefoot children.
Allowing my body to collapse on a soft grassy patch along the steep hillside, I looked up to find that two of the boys had stayed back. Their hands frantically gestured towards the path from which the voices of my friends and their hiking companions were now fading. “No no, you go ahead. I’m staying here,” I said, forging my own awkward hand motions in an attempt to convey the message where words were of no use.
They finally stopped, looked at each other, glanced back at me, then sat down several feet away, keeping their eyes pinned to me all the while. I made myself comfortable in the tall, cool grass, grateful for the chance to fully process my surroundings: endless layers of lush green hills spotted with dirt fields, clusters of trees and houses – all of which faded into soft grey outlines in the background. Mesmerized by its grandeur and vastness, I became transfixed in the beauty and stillness of it all. I allowed my body to sink deeper in the grass as my thoughts sunk further into my surroundings – getting lost in the contours of the mountains and taking with them all concept of time.
My awe began to wane as minutes started to feel like hours. I wondered how far my friends had gotten. I shifted my focus to the little boy in the distance whose tiny figure grew closer, whipping at some goats while repeatedly pulling his oversized shirt back onto his shoulder with his free hand. I watched intently as he hopped with ease up the rocks, his tiny bare feet seeming to mock the arduous battle I had faced earlier ascending the same path.
I soon became keenly aware of how alone I was. “I am somewhere deep in the mountains of Rwanda with no phone, no idea where my friends are, and no one in sight who speaks French or English,” I thought. I glanced over at the two boys still sitting a few feet away, now casually playing a game of cards in the grass. The glanced back at me.
As if on cue, the sky suddenly let out a monstrous boom, prompting the boys to duck to the ground. The clouds had turned a threatening shade of grey. For the first time in hours, one of the boys approached me and began to speak in a slow, enunciated manner, but again to no avail. He pointed at the sky and down the hill. “I can’t leave this spot, my friends won’t find me if I do.” But he was insistent.
As it began to drizzle, I followed the kids down the slippery mud path, the two of them running up to grab my elbows each time I stumbled, until we finally approached a mud hut. I crouched behind them through the open doorway and found a tiny room with several people gathered along two narrow wooden benches, all seeking shelter from the impending storm in a neighbor’s house.
The boys motioned for me to sit. I offered a smile to the strangers around me, whose dark figures were illumined only by the light which poured in through the small door, now half covered by a large wooden plank. I could hardly make out their countenances as I strained my eyes to find theirs, hoping that my shy awkward smile relayed to them what words couldn’t. The rain continued to beat down on the roof, quickening its pace and intensity, conveying a sense of desperation and force in its efforts to make itself known to every inch of the room. It was all at once dominant and subtle as it became the constant backdrop to the soft murmur of voices.
I looked around at the dim discernible shapes in the room – the corn stalks hanging from the ceiling, the large metal pot in the corner, the wide-eyed toddler on the bench across from me, his gaze as strong and constant as the rain on the roof. Unable to do much else, I finally stared out the crack in the door, watching each raindrop make its mark in the dirt as I soaked in the unexpected warmth of the small crowded room.