Agnes climbs a mountain every month or so and spends the night praying and fasting. This mountain towers above the others which encase my little town and so I decided that we should climb it together sometime – Max included, since Agnes has more than a soft spot for him. I have a soft spot for his vehicle which would knock an hour and a half off the walking time each way.
And so we made a date; first Saturday of January. We made a rough time plan. Morning. We said “See you at your house Agnes!” We did not make a map. But I knew Agnes lived one hill behind the one I can see from my house out North West.
Saturday is market day in my town so before heading out into the country where Agnes lives we stopped off to buy a gift for the family of some food they would not normally buy themselves – ie, anything resembling fruit, vegetables or anything healthy whatsoever. So we loaded up with avocadoes, mangoes, pineapples and green beans and set off on our way. After we had driven for about 25 minutes Max asked whether I knew where I was going. He was not quite so impressed with my knowledge that she lived over the next hill yonder. So I said not to worry, everybody knows everybody here so I called out the window to somebody passing if he knew where Agnes lived. Blank stare. Dont worry, I said to Max, he probably doesn’t understand my Kinyarwanda accent!
Next person...Where does Agnes live? Blank stare. Incomprehensible Kinyarwanda babble back.
Next. Where does Agnes live? She has a brother called Fidelis and a sister called Liberé. (You mean you don’t even know her surname???” said Max). Blank stare.
Where does Agnes live? Agnes? Yes, she lives down there! (smug grin at Max).
Does Agnes live down here? Yes, keep going, just down there!
Where is the house of Agnes? Down there! The road peters out so we have to leave the car by the side of the road. This is after a woman with no teeth directed us to the path. Directed meaning she babbled, pointed and grinned profusely. So I gave her an amandazi – a small deep-fried cake which costs about 3p. She clasped my arms up to the elbow, smiling and thanking me with tears in her eyes. It was more than humbling.
Once out of the car we saw three old men sat in the shade outside their mud hut. I went over and greeted them before asking the same questions about Agnes’s house. They doffed their caps to me (now when does that happen In Britain!) and then sent us down the hill with a small bare-foot boy of about 8 years old.
We tried to keep up with the little boy as he wove between packs of goats and mats of sorghum and beans drying in the sun, down the rubble slopes until we came to the very final hut and he stopped and pointed at it. Of course it would be the final mud hut! It couldn’t be the first!
“Agnes’s house?” He nodded
Then a tiny little old woman came out into the sun, she had a tattered t-shirt on and dirty once-bright cloth wrapped around her waist. She came towards us smiling broadly – wide open mouth displaying very few teeth. She really was happy to see us – I guessed that this was Agnes’s mum who had come to greet us, smiling because of finally meeting the umuzungu girl who had made her daughter the main breadwinner of her family. When she came closer I realized she was blind in at least one eye – one was completely grey, as though a paintbrush had swept over the eyeball, and the other was weeping as though badly infected. She gripped our arms in the formal handshake but went one further hugging us closely to her, muttering happily all the while. Our basic Kinyarwanda didn’t really help, but I looked at the hut and wondered how Agnes and her 7 brothers and sisters could ever have grown up there – indeed, only a few of them have flown the nest. It could only have been one room, was loosely thatched and had a single bucket outside. More and more kids, having heard of the surprise visit had wandered into her dusty yard to watch us. So we played being the living exhibition again, letting them stare, asking questions to which they giggled and shrunk away from us. I wondered if Agnes had already left to try to find us on the main road. She hadn’t come out so she couldn’t have been in.
Then a strange look came over Max’s face...
“Mama, mwitwe nde?” (What’s your name?) He asked.
Pause, as the old lady turns to him still grinning;
“Nitwa Agnes!” she happily exclaimed.
And Max and I just looked at each other, realizing that yes, we had found Agnes’s house, just not the right Agnes. And I felt humble again, at having wrongly guessed she was happy because of meeting the so-called benefactor. And I felt humble for her complete joy at seeing us. And I felt humble because she was probably hoping for something other than a mango on hearing that she had visitors searching for her.
And aside from all that, my smugness dissipated quite quickly, having realized that better directions than “She lives on the hill the other side of that one” are probably needed in future...