Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Paradise Lost?

Pastor Joe Handley counseled me: “During the Honeymoon period, you will exaggerate how good everything is”. I have been living a dream,… living in Paradise. Now comes another minor collision with reality:

Last night I sat around the dinner table with my housemates, or rather my mansionmates: Achille, the Director of Project Rwanda, Jock (Jonathan) Boyer, an internationally renowned elite cyclist of Tour de France fame, and Olu, a temporary guest who just arrived from Uganda to explore setting up a high tech security company in Rwanda. Olu, who has a lovely muzungu wife and young children, asked “How safe is it here in Rwanda?” I waxed philosophical about how (and why) Rwanda is by far the safest country in Africa. Achille and Jock concurred. I further stated that one mustn’t be mislead by the fact that we all have guards 24 hours a day, homes are walled and gated, and windows are barred. “None of that is really necessary,… it is all just a cultural thing”. We talked more, and then all retired to our bedrooms.

I woke to a ruckus and the exclamation that “We have been robbed!” In fact, we had been “burglarized” as we slept. (For those of you who care about the difference, “Robbery" requires the use or threat of force to separate the victim from his stuff, meaning you cannot be “robbed” without knowing it and being fearful.) Two laptops, a PDA, two cell phones, a $5,000 road racing bike, two passports, and other cool stuff,… all gone. There was very obvious evidence of entry through an unlocked, unbarred window, and “escape” over a high wall and into a field where we found some of Olu’s papers. The Police were called.

Within an hour, the place was crawling with Police, some of impressive rank. All “the usual suspects” were assembled: The housekeeper, the day guard, the night guard, the hapless boys who live in a mud hut next to our walled mansion, and others. Everyone was interrogated, sometimes collectively, but often while strategically separated. Some stories conflicted in ways that could cause one to confidently conclude “We are on to something. We caught the culprit!”,… and yet it might be just innocent misrecollection.

This is where I confess another one of my many character flaws: Sometimes my cynical, suspicious mind jumps to the conclusion that someone has “done me wrong”, e.g., stolen from me. Just by way of a possible illustration, perhaps my wallet is missing and the only suspected “thief” is Victoria, my U.S. housekeeper of 15+ years who fully deserves (and has well-earned) my utmost admiration, appreciation and respect. After two days of being distressed that she could do such a thing, I find my “stolen” wallet in the pocket of the slacks that I hung up two days earlier. I am NOT pleased to find my wallet. I am much more comfortable as the walletless victim than as the convicted offender. I am ashamed and sickened that I falsely accused and so disrespected the innocent “suspect”. I have suffered this distressing experience enough times that I have grown very sensitive about it,… and perhaps a little more cautious.

Back to Rwanda: I have grown affectionate toward “my guard” who unlocks and opens the gate for me every morning and every night, with a beaming grin and enthusiastic waive. He also washes my clothes, which is the job of every guard. I have grown even more affectionate toward the housekeeper who cooks for me (more than I wish), cleans up after me, and tends to my every need. Now they are contradicting each other. The guard insists that he has had no visitor’s. The housekeeper states that the guard was visited by a stranger yesterday afternoon at 3:30, and again this morning at 6:oo am. The guard denies it. The housekeeper “saw him”. The guard’s cell phone is taken from him, and some curiosities are discovered in the “Call History” that I will not bother to detail here, but they certainly were NOT conclusive evidence of anything. A Police Detective hit “Redial”, and then looked astonished, and then grinned. He announced that a woman answered the phone and spontaneously exclaimed: “If they know that it is you, just give them back the stuff!” Everybody begins the “Case solved!” celebration,… but not me. I find that “spontaneous exclamation” a bit too much to believe. And then the “physical persuasion” begins. And I could hardly bear it or restrain myself. Why did I just stand by? Well, life is certainly more simple here, but it is just as certainly no less complicated. (Am I being clear enough?) As I have already disclosed in previous posts, I am agonizing over irresolvable moral dilemmas like never before. So there I was, feeling great concern for the guard, but also sympathy for my housemates who believe that the loss of their laptops (loaded with their life’s work) and passports is a fate worth than death, but the culprit has now been caught and their lives will soon be recovered and restored. I am also told that if I intervene, the Police will just say: “Fine. Solve your own case. We have better things to do.” I was strongly admonished to “Let the Police do their job.”

After two hours, the Police left with the guard and the housekeeper in separate cars, their guilt and their fate quite uncertain in my very troubled mind. I am not even certain what I should wish for,… except to find a bicycle, two laptops, two cell phones, a PDA, and other stuff in the pocket of my slacks. “OOPS! Sorry, guys. I forgot I put them there.” Hey,… if a camel can pass through the eye of a needle, why not a bicycle in my pants pocket?

So I have already told you of this culture in which everyone above the most impoverished has a guard. Housekeepers have a guard at their own modest homes. Guards have guards. It is selfish if you do not hire a guard because you are denying some needy man of a job. But (now this is where life gets complicated again), the thefts that I have heard of (not many) were all committed by the guard. And that is what the Police concluded this morning. To many, I guess, you select and hire the guy who will steal from you. (Nice to get to choose your own burglar, an improvement upon our practice in the U.S. where we do not enjoy such freedom of choice.) But is this as mind boggling as it sounds? I am compelled to think upon crime, theft and poverty in a country where many (including many guards) somehow are expected to live on $1 a day, even though most items are MORE expensive here than in the U.S. Is honesty, integrity and stellar character a luxury of the rich? (How are WE doing?) What would we do if we were literally hungry, or worse yet, if we saw our children hungry? What is to be learned from Les Miserables and Jean Valjean? I have confessed that I have been quick to falsely accuse and condemn, but are we too quick to condemn even the guilty. Even if our guard did it (a conclusion that I continue to resist), what might be the story behind the story? Is the green wicked witch of the West really all that wicked,… or is she just like me? (No doubt, I am causing some of my family and friends great concern with such chatter.)

[May I please answer your question: “Tom, what are you doing in a mansion crawling with servants? Just suffering for the Lord, I suppose.” Well, it is just “temporary housing” for one month while I have looked for my own place to lease. It is much cheaper than the hotel, and I have enjoyed some very interesting good guys who also live there. I hope that explanation will suffice. And “yes”, I have found and rented my own place. It is nice, but NOT a mansion. I shall move in next week. And “yes”, I have already hired a housekeeper and someone to rob me, and I am proud to say that I believe that they are the highest paid housekeeper and (independent) guard in Kigali. But I will receive your criticism and counsel with gratitude and humility.]

Please pray that I will be back to you soon with a happy ending to this saga.