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Collapsed Ceilings

by Kim Harrisberg / 28.03.2014

About to brush our teeth before bed, the roaring explosion of glass  and hushed human voices that erupts from the dining room stops us mid-movement.

“Behind the bed! Grab your phone,” I whisper, before darting off to the bedroom to hide between the bed and the wall. My boyfriend follows suit, turning off the bedroom light as he yanks his phone from the charger.

More voices. Urgent whispering. Tentative footsteps. More crashing. The sound of glass sliding across tiles and something heavier collapsing onto the floor.

Without saying anything more, both my boyfriend and I are thinking the same thing: INTRUDERS. We are being robbed. We are so sure of it that we are already dialing the number for the Rwandan Police. It rings… and rings. The thumping of our heartbeats is almost louder than the ill-received jingle the unanswered police line plays back at us.

In our desperation, we message our families in South Africa and we even tweet the police. A family member manages to get through to the Rwandan police on the phone, but they only speak Kinyaranwandan and so the call for help is lost.

In the meantime, we wait for the footsteps to get closer, for the confrontation. We see it unfold in our mind’s eye: the arguing, the pleading, the possible verbal and physical assault, the handing over of any valuable item in the attempt to get out of the situation unharmed.

And then: a timid knock on the door. We had not heard of such well-mannered intruders before.

At this point of the evening, crouching in the darkness behind our poorly-chosen hiding place, it was wholly unrealistic to us that it was, in fact, merely the security guard that had come to investigate what all the calamity was about. It was also entirely impossible to us right then, that the loud crashing of glass and wood was actually the entire ceiling collapsing, bringing down the lights with it as the flimsy material peeled away like a timber shaving from the small nails holding it in place.

Tentatively entering the dining room with a somewhat blunt camping knife in hand, my boyfriend found no intruder, only a mishmash of wood, dust and glass covering everything in the room. You can begin to see why a sigh of relief at such a sight is quite an abnormal reaction.

It was then that I began to deconstruct the way we had interpreted the aforementioned noises.  Would a Rwandan, an Australian, a Ugandan, a German have acted the same way? It is difficult to say, but I feel that many South Africans would have done the same thing we had done. We were raised in a country with many incredible qualities, married with some of the world’s highest crime statistics – so being attacked is often considered inevitable, rather than avoidable for many South Africans. Whether this is paranoia or realism will vary depending on who you ask.

A South African crime statistics site documented 261,742 “burglaries at residential areas” in South Africa in 2013. An average of almost 720 day. There were 105,779 “robberies with aggravating circumstances” too. Not dissimilar from the aggravating encounter we had so vividly imagined.

Rwanda’s crime statistics were not as easy to find, but perhaps that is part of the point. Without even fully understanding a country’s current crime record, is it normal to interpret that crashing glass must mean an attack?

I do not feel our reaction was unjustified. Years of conditioning will do that to someone. But I do believe it is important to take the time to try and understand why we reacted in such a way, and whether it still holds any legitimacy in a changing environment.

Perhaps with crashing ceilings should come the collapse of potentially restricting preconceptions, or at least the analysis of them to better understand their origins and their validity.

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