Opinion: Getting back up


Published: 07-02-2023 8:00 AM

Brinkley Brown of Concord is a Peace Corps volunteer currently serving as an English teacher in Rwanda.

As I write this, a light rain is falling outside. The first rain since the long dry season began in early June. This might not seem like much in Concord. With the exception of Market Days and the Concord High graduation, rain in June affects little more than when you mow your lawn. But here, in the Western Province of Rwanda, rain is a big deal.

Here, where clothes are washed by hand and dried in the sun, rain means the difference between clean clothes and inside-out underwear. Here, where schools are roofed in corrugated tin, rain means the difference between a productive class and one disrupted by the deafening drum of a downpour on metal. Here, where the majority of folks are subsistence farmers, rain means the difference between a bean harvest with extra on the side to sell at market and one that must be rationed to feed your family for the season.

Thankfully, today’s rain is light. Looking across the valley, I see blue sky headed my way. Damp clothes, classes, and bean harvests are spared another day. Alas, the same can’t be said of the infamous rain that fell in early May.

Early in the morning on May 3rd, I awoke to the loudest rainstorm I’d ever heard. At first, I didn’t recognize it as the sound of rain. I’d been in a war movie-before-bed phase, so I thought I’d dreamed myself on a battlefield live with bullets. When I realized this wasn’t the case, I stumbled to my living room to make sure I’d put a bucket beneath my leaky ceiling board. I had. Sleep felt impossible for the rest of the night.

Besides the mini lake that had become my garden out front, nothing outside seemed out of the ordinary. The sun was shining, people were out and about on the mountainside, and the smell of morning porridge cooking over charcoal was in the air. It wasn’t until mid-morning, when waiting at the bus stop, that I realized something was amiss.

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Normally buses come through my stop every twenty minutes or so. That morning, the street was empty. I asked a shopkeeper nearby where the buses were. Without batting an eye, he told me there weren’t any today. Flustered because I had a conference to get to, I asked for more information. The main (and only) road, he said, had been flooded. Didn’t I hear the storm last night? There won’t be any buses until the water recedes.

Fast forward to that evening and I, along with two of my colleagues, did end up making it to our conference in the Eastern Province. The journey, which usually takes five hours by bus, ended up taking just under eight. Leg one of our journey was a 15-minute bus ride to the flooded stretch of road. Leg two was a 40-minute bushwhack up and along the mountainside parallel to the flooded road. Leg three was descending the mountain (during which I fell and plastered my right pant leg in thick red mud) back to the main road and walking an hour to the site of a massive landslide. There, we slogged through the fallen debris and continued up the road to meet a hoard of buses waiting to shuttle weary travelers on their way. Leg four was a six-hour bus ride, covering a distance of about 85 miles (a speed of just over 14 mi/hr), to our conference in the east.

While this wild journey has been seared into my mind, lengthy bus rides were not the worst of it. Not even close. Even making the comparison is ridiculous.

The extreme rainfall of May 3rd took the lives of over 130 people, many near my village in the west. Thousands of homes were devastated. Thousands of people displaced. Several roads washed away. Over two dozen bridges overtaken with water. Harvests ruined.

Twenty students from my school were displaced by the flooding. Their homes were destroyed. These students and their families are now living in churches, while our community helps them find new land to rebuild. Every day since I’ve come home from school to see dozens of people standing around the local government office across the street. There, officials distribute mattresses, beans, corn flour, buckets, jerry cans, and other necessities to our neighbors in need.

Slowly, our community is coming back. People are rebuilding. Fields are being turned and a new lot of crops planted. Bridges are being reconstructed. Roads are being cleared and filled. We are resilient.

I write about Rwanda’s May rains for a few reasons. First, I doubt it made international headlines, let alone the Concord Monitor. Second, a reminder that natural disasters happen and are happening around the world, many due to extreme weather brought on by climate change. Third, a warning that it’s easy to get caught up in the things affecting your life (a lengthy bus trip) at the expense of thinking about those around you (my students and others affected by the floods).

Check in with your neighbors and support them when you can. Fourth and last, people are resilient. We get up when rains fall and we fall, even if it takes a little help.