[please listen to the song “Vagabond” by Wolfmother if you’d like a soundtrack for this post]
I don’t necessarily consider myself a bleeding heart. Then I start to recount the interactions I’ve had as of late, and the way I feel about people around here. And it hits me. As the once popular hip hop song declares, I’m sprung. I feel like my interest, trust, fascination, admiration and respect for the people I’m working and living with in this country grows daily. My kinyarwanda is no where near perfect- it can barely pass for “conversational,” but even with a hefty language barrier, I am able to have intelligent conversations, fun conversations, and everything in between.
The catalyst for wanting to begin to broach this topic via blog post? I was visited the other evening by two girls who are in my Senior 3 class. Calls of “mwirirwe” (good afternoon) were sounded in my courtyard around 4:00, Sunday afternoon, and I was pissed that someone wanted to come in and interrupt my reading. I begrudgingly answered the door, and to my (pleasant) surprise, I saw two of my favorite young girls. Kabila and Drocelle came to say hi and hang out for an hour or so. I invited them in and reasoned that I had no cause to be perturbed (after all, I had been reading for hours before they called) and instead decided that I would be happy to be their entertainment for the afternoon. I ended up sharing two copies of National Geographic with them and our conversations went all over the place! We talked about serious things like HIV/AIDS, what they want to be when they grow up, the differences between industrialized societies and traditional societies, and more casual topics like boyfriends, and the difference between the words ‘like’ and ‘love.’ If anyone is a fan of kitschy teenager girl movies, then you will sympathize with me: I wanted to say something along the lines of “I like my sketchers, but I love my prada backpack.” After instantly evaluating that such a quote would soar over my students heads, I settled for “I like this book, but I love my mother.” Or something along those lines. What I really should say is that I love those students. They are always ready to talk with me, ask me questions, converse, help me organize the library and they seem to be genuinely interested in talking with me.
I have had similarly positive interactions with my community members as of late. It truly takes a good deal of effort to go out and “integrate” like Peace Corps demands, but I find that when I do make the effort, it pays off. And as time goes on, it seems to take less effort on my part. The people here know my name, they know that I’m American and they know that I’m a teacher. I hear resounding calls of “Allisoni” echoing through the valley during my walk to the market, I have total strangers greet me as “teacher,” and I even get the snide (but well-intentioned) “umuzungu wacu.” “Muzungu wacu” essentially means “our white person.” Not exactly the most poetic pet named I’ve ever been donned, but I’ll take it. The point is, the people in my community have taken a liking to me... and if they don’t actively like me, they at least tolerate and respect me. That’s all I could ask for.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of walking home from the near-by market town in the evening. And on all occasions, I’ve been fortunate enough to find a lovely walking companion (or 6) to talk with. Rwandans seem to never really want to do something alone. When I tell my colleagues that I’m alone at my home (ie, when Jane is gone for the weekend) they say “Ah, you must call someone to stay with you!” They constantly remind me that “to go alone” is not as good as “going” (read: walking/ traveling) with someone else. This is a fairly social society. One in which you greet your neighbors, and take time to ask about the news of their family; people will talk to complete strangers if they have a question/ curiosity about what’s going on; and, generally, people seem to watch out for each other.
Which brings me back to my original purpose for this post: the reality that I’m falling in love with this place. No, it’s not perfect. In fact, it’s certainly un-perfect, but that just makes me like it more. I can notice problems that at times make my blood boil with frustration. But then I notice that my colleagues are also frustrated and I take it that nothing is going to be perfect out here. There are more obstacles than advantages, problems seem to proliferate on the hillsides, and there are many people who likely have no interest in developing their country. This country is developing, however, and in my opinion, the Rwandan people are on the right track. I can especially notice this in my students. I would say I live in a moderately rural and isolated area. Many folks here never leave the vicinity of our village, but it’s not so inaccessible that I don’t see people coming and going (even foreigners from time to time). My students, who come from poor rural families, have aspirations for education and development and a earnest interest in advancing their status. This is the sort of enthusiasm that I was hoping to encounter, and it makes me hopeful for my students futures.
[Now, not all students have an undying desire to achieve great things- these are teenagers we’re talking about. And, believe it or not, a teenager is a teenager- be they American or Rwandan.]
The problem I find myself arriving at, is that I can’t help these kids. I feel that, at best, I will be able to attribute to some level of education or critical thinking, and that when they’re adults they’ll remember the crazy American teacher they had back in 2011. But I can’t enable them to fulfill their potentials. They have to do that themselves. And it’s tough. Finding money for school is a huge burden on families, and if the students are lucky enough to make it to public schools, it’s because they earned high marks on their exams (no easy feat). Overall, I am finally becoming aware of the internal struggle that (no doubt) every aid worker wrestles with: what can I do that will actually help? My response to this is to do what I can, remain positive, and try to be a good, strong person in my community. But, I’m only one person, and at times it feels like I’ve got a heavy burden. I will certainly keep on keeping on, and I will love at least 80% of the moments, but I will not change the world out here. I suppose that if I positively affect one person, I’ve done a good job. But that seems like chump change when I think about how many people I’m actually interacting with. Anyway, I’m not Superwoman (nor do I aspire to be) and I’m not what we in PC like to refer to as a Super Volunteer, but I am trying, I am succeeding, and I am falling in love.
I’ll leave you with some wise Buddhist words that I happen to agree with:
“Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word.”