Image to left by Jean Michel Basquiat
Ever meet someone who in every aspect of their being exuded something regal, above but not with effort, prideful but not egotistical? This describes Jasmine to a T (bag that is).
We met through one of my research contacts: she was one of our local logistics people, who handled everything as well as everyone. Her English was impeccable as were her demeanor and appearance. Weekly she had a new haircut – dramatically shortened one time, amazingly braided and longer the next, Kid n’ Play another. It was like having a one-woman BET (Black Entertainment Television) session or would it be AET cause she was African? Daily her outfits were astonishing – linen was her thing which came in every color and every design you could imagine, pressed as if it has just come from the dry cleaners. Nothing impressed you about Jasmine as much as her smile. When her face would light up, clouds would part and somewhere music chimed, like a good soundtrack should.
As the Rwandans we generally met were closed, reclusive and quietly hostile, Jasmine was engaging, open, helpful, charming, kind, commanding and pleasant. The difference could be explained in part because she was brought up abroad – like many who had recently returned. The local culture had not gotten to her yet.
Now, this said, Jasmine was not overly any of these things. She would explain but never give too much detail. She would assist us but never fully deliver. She would take us somewhere but never quite all the way and when things got tight/tense she would dismiss us from the room, leaving us with glimpses of the secret world she occupied but little understanding. It was like we were Diane Keaton in the Godfather when the door closed, except they weren’t Italian and this was no movie.
The regality of which I speak was revealed clearly one day in seemingly the smallest of instances. Jasmine would hold a pen as if she never held one. Not the award way that Bush Jr. tried to check out at a supermarket but rather the way that one imagined a great writer would hold an instrument. She would walk as if she was nailed to a board – perfectly straight like 6 o’clock. She seemingly knew everyone or, at least, everyone that we needed to know and equally as important they seemed to know her.
We went to lunch one time – a new Rwandan place and invariably she would be stared at and someone would approach her. It was not quite as over the top as the scene in Coming to America with Eddie Murphy when a former subject bows and stuff but it was clear that something was going on and that they were not socio-political equals. The conversation was short, the head slightly tilted below Jasmine, eyes cast downward. Something was up, but what? We could never quite figure it out and banana beer was not helping.
Another time, in front of the Milles Collines, I saw her get out of an automobile that made a Hummer look like a Volkswagen Beetle. The man in the front seat played for the Pittsburgh Steelers (I believe); not just one player but the whole defensive front line. I saw him/it/them walk around and open the door for Jasmine, who delicately stepped out. As she left, you saw the window go down, some face peered through smoke (which filled the inside) and then it pulled back. The window then went up and the truck/tank/airbus pulled off, dragging the surface of the earth with it. Now, because of my family I have seen a bunch of celebrities in a wide variety of settings. Met the late Michael Jackson before all the cosmetic changes and again later after he transformed. Met En Vogue, the late Whitney Houston. Heck, I even met Robert Flack, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Barry Manilow as well as a host of Hip Hop artists you have never, ever heard of, but this was some next level blingy type $h@t.
Yet another time, some man approached Jasmine in a restaurant when she had left our table to go to the counter and order. She seemed to be somewhat familiar with the guy but did not really acknowledge his presence. The guy’s look was priceless. Remember when the character in the Bugs Bunny cartoon looked at his friend like a hot dog? That was the look. In response, we saw an amazing switch; Jasmine turned from her normally pleasant and engaging self to some off-putting, curt and rude person. To this, the man appeared to move in close and say something.
Responding, I thought in a natural and somewhat chivalrous manner, I stood up to assist our host who appeared to be in distress. My traveling companion and friend, Al (Stam) immediately grabbed me by the arm and pulled me down. “Do you really want to get into something here?” He continued, “Do you have any idea what is going on and who is involved?” He was, of course, correct. I had no idea. We rarely did. Who was this guy? What was the nature of his relationship with Jasmine? How many guys did he have with him (we later counted 5).
Part of the strangeness of the situation was derived from my knowledge of what happened during 1994. Another part of this was Rwandan culture. It was eerily quiet there – too quiet. Everyone walked around, worked (usually hacking or pulling something in a field), talked and/or scowled at passersby. Think of a Brit, add in some Scandinavia and then multiply. Actually, the only time you heard a loud Rwandan was when banana beer and music were involved – a combination that was quite unsettling on more than one dimension. I always found myself simultaneously more relaxed at seeing Rwandans finally unwind and more fearful at the same sight; did I really want to be present when they let loose? Nope, is the answer. Once was enough.
At the same time, I was frustrated by Rwandan unity and their us-nosity; juxtaposed against my otherness and outsider status. Indeed, I don’t think that I was ever in a situation where I felt that if you called someone out that a whole bunch of people would show up to kick your ass. This was far, far worse than the time I got off the wrong stop in South Boston (in the 1980s), making it look more like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Heck, it even made New York’s Alphabet City where Hell’s Angels used to hang out (again in the 1980s) look like a lil bike club. Just something in the way they moved…
I supposed this is the reason that Jasmine stood out. She was one of them but not. And every one seemed to know it.
Despite our pleasantries, however, Jasmine and I had one repeated tension. Because of how she carried herself and interacted with folks, I would constantly call her Princess. Poking fun, I would go out of my way to open doors, stand up when she left a room and all the rest of the chivalrous package (cue Hugh Jackman in that movie with Meg Ryan, which no one but me seemed to see). Whenever I did this, Jasmine would get serious and would tell me not to “do such things.” As it seemed to bother her in an odd way, I continued to push the issue and did it continuously. I’m just kind of like that (as you have gathered by this time).
One day, Jasmine had come over to remind us about bringing our water bottles – one must continually hydrate when in country. After she left to check on where our driver was, some person sat down next to us and mentioned that we were lucky to receive such treatment. Thinking he uttered a sexist remark (with the woman bringing the men some beverage) but unsure, I said “yes, she is very nice.” Pushing the issue, the gentlemen repeated “no, you are very lucky to receive such treatment from her. Royalty in Rwanda never performed such duties (pause) historically.”
At that last remark, Al and I looked at each other and I said, “Excuse me?” The man went on to explain that Jasmine was part of the old Tutsi (my bad - Teabag) royal family who because of the current context kept a low profile. Some in the country wanted the monarchy to return to power. At the time, the deposed king was hiding in the Northeast of the U.S.
But, I digress. When told that Jasmine was royalty, we couldn’t believe it. At the same time, it made perfect sense. Al immediately started laughing and repeatedly did so during the trip because of how many times I put my foot in my mouth.
Upon being confronted with our new information and asked why she never told us, Jasmine blushed and said that she thought we knew. I said that I did not and apologized for any discomfort/danger we put her in. As she said, “it was alright”, she tried to put a happy face on the whole thing. Al continued to laugh and in fact he did this for months, unable to believe how incredibly stupid I had been and how simply hilarious the situation was. We literally got the royal treatment and in many ways at once.