In every chapter of our language book we have different sections wherein we read about cultural, medical and security issues in Rwanda. In almost every chapter, at least one of those sections includes some warning against poisoning.
For example, our most recent chapter — Telling about Happy and Unhappy Events — included this cultural tip: “Mothers may refuse to give their baby to someone they fear will poison him/her or make him/her sick by saying ‘S/he is sleeping.'” Another tip advised against leaving food or drink unattended at a party because it may be poisoned.
My language teacher explained that poisoning is not uncommon in Rwanda, especially in rural areas. He says that a common motivation for poisoning is jealousy: a neighbor sees another neighbor becoming more prosperous and decides to put him in his place by poisoning him. We asked if people are ever arrested for the crime of poisoning and he said they are not because no one can ever prove it against them. Nor are autopsies or other tests performed to verify the cause of death.
So, I am quite skeptical indeed about all these instances of supposed poisoning. I do not doubt at all, however, that poor hygiene adn sanitation can cause illnesses and deaths which poeple with little education attribute to poisoning. In just the eight weeks that I’ve been here I’ve seen enough evidence of poor sanitation to explain any number of illnesses, maladies and unexplained deaths.
Before enumerating these instances, though, I want to explain that Rwandans are not dirty people. Quite the opposite: the Rwandan culture values cleanliness and a neat appearance very highly. One of the biggest faux pas you can commit in this country is to leave the house with dirty shoes. But, Rwandans do not appreciate the distinction between something being clean and it being sanitary. If it looks clean, it is, goes the mentality here.
So, some instances of lack of hygiene here:
- Riding in a “squeeze bus” several weeks ago, I was sitting next to the window. The woman sitting next to me motioned for me to open the window. Then she leaned over me and spit, and spit prodigiously, out the window. Some of it landed on the bag which I was holding on my lap. Apologizing, she used the end of her wrap to wipe the saliva of my bag. Just because it no longer appeared to have spit on it doesn’t mean it didn’t have lingering germs.
- Now that the rainy season has come, the streets are perpetually muddy and keeping shoes up to Rwandan standards is a challenge. When I was getting ready for school in the morning my host dad saw my muddy sandals sitting outside to be washed and said “Make sure you clean those. If people see them like this they will laugh you.” He then returned to washing his face with the baby’s dirty bath water. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the morning bath doubles as a diaper change for the baby so the water was not exactly clean. And, to reiterate, he was washing his face in it.
- Talking about babies, living in a Rwandan family that has a baby in diapers could double as very effective exposure therapy for germophobes. Diapers are non-existent here, at least in the village, so his pants, and the blankets they often wrap him in, are often soaked in urine.
- They try their best to set him on the child’s potty when he has to poop but their vigilance sometimes waves and accidents happen. On one of these instances some of it got onto the couch, the baby’s pants and, worst of all, his face. When his mom discovered this she used the pants to wipe his face, balled them up and set them on the coffee table, splashed some water on his face, wiped the couch with a piece of paper and called it good. Was there any more poop visible? No. Was it hygienic? Was this a sanitary way to clean it up? Not in the slightest.
I was by no means a germophobe in the US but even my hardy germ tolerance is stretched here. My main consolation is that I can be much more hygienic when I get to my own house at my permanent site. And, by the time, I leave training a month from now I’ll have the immune system of an ER nurse combined with a pre-school teacher.