They are the hands of politicians and of children. Of teachers and students. Of fathers and grandmothers and distant relatives. Of field workers and shopkeepers, bankers and street sweepers. They are bird-fragile bones beneath wrinkled and dignified skin, smooth young muscle beneath a layer of red Rwandan dust, one chubby joint folded against the next beneath a sticky layer of everything they have touched.
They are myriad, these hands I have held.
They close firmly around my palm, barely brush my fingers, linger the duration of a conversation, drop away with the erratic urgency of a dragonfly in flight. They accompany an ostinato flow of words in English, French, Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili, words I can understand and words I can only guess at, words tumbling one over the next or pressing out painstakingly, hesitating on uncertain lips until finally forced into being by necessity and daring.
Hands are the first part of a person offered to me.
Sometimes, after I have touched my fingers to theirs, a person will offer me more. They offer me their smile, or their name, or their blessing. Old women offer me their cheeks to press against mine. Children offer me their scant phrases of English: Good morning teacher how are you fine thank you teacher. My friends offer me their histories and their families, and my coworkers offer their questions and their answers.
And sometimes I am given nothing but the stories I can read in the hands I hold.
These are stories of mystery, full of elements I cannot hope to know. Callouses tell stories of a hoe a hundred thousand times swung into the sky and a hundred thousand times buried beneath the soil. Muscles sing of jerrycans filled with water and carried on the head until the sun has bleached them pale, of bulging sacks of produce hauled to market, of children lifted and led and loved. Scars whisper of histories I cannot guess, of life lived and sorrow seen, of battles and accidents and throbbing hearts beating through pain.
I hold these hands in greeting and in farewell. This is good culture, to let our skin touch, to brush our fingers and palms against each other’s and repeat phrases that have been spoken so often they fill the air, rolling through valleys on the early morning fog and floating over hills with the evening smoke: You are here. You woke well. You will pass the day in peace. Yes. The news is good. Be strong. Have peace.
Our hands share moments as they press together, each precious to my time-sensitive Western brain that has not yet learnt to consider life slowly as my neighbours here do. These are hands that hold tightly. They cling to families and to culture. Some cling to me, and I feel the helpless gratitude warming me when their fingers tighten on mine and they declare me theirs. These are hands that give freely. They appear with jugs of milk or bags of fruit because they are full enough to give, and my own empty hands accept these gifts and press out the thank-yous I struggle to articulate.
Some of these hands I hold only once, but others I hold again and again, building up a silent history between our skin.
Building professional respect between my chalk-dusted hands and my headmaster’s long fingers. Building camaraderie between my hands that have held mostly books and my neighbour’s which have held three babies. Building trust between my independent hands and the searching fingers of my three-year-old friend.
None of these hands is guaranteed.
My culture is not so good that I don’t sometimes press my hands close to my body where they cannot touch the hands I pass on the street. Suspicious strangers keep their hands away from mine, eyeing my white skin with curiosity and doubt. The toddler at the bus stop holds his tiny hands behind his back when urged to greet me, and as I refrain from reaching toward him I remember that this tiny corner of culture is not a right but a privilege. Just as I do not owe my greetings, so I am not owed the greetings of others.
In a place where I find myself outside, the foreigner among locals, the newcomer among longtime residents, the stranger among friends, I begin to see the value in these hands I hold. The incalculable gift of an individual reaching out, for the briefest moment, to touch their life to mine.
And sometimes, in those moments, I hold my own hands, pressing my palms together in silent gratitude.
Elizabeth Syson lives in rural Rwanda, where she teaches English and literature as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a local secondary school. In her spare time she struggles to improve her Kinyarwanda, writes journals and half-drafted novels, and occasionally reads Tolkien out loud to her cat, who features frequently on her Instagram (@ejsyson). She studied professional writing at Taylor University, and her short stories, creative nonfiction, articles, and devotionals appear in publications such as Hippocampus Magazine, The WiFiles, Havok, Advanced Christian Writer, and The Upper Room. She blogs about cultures, stories, and life at elizabethsyson.wordpress.com.
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