I rode into my village this afternoon, returning from my weekly jaunt into my biggest regional city to check and respond to email, charge my computer, soaking up the glory of a cold Coke, and corresponding back home via facebook. On the ride, gliding past the steep hills and low valleys of the East, I could feel myself just moving and not really thinking much at all. For a moment, just taking in how beautiful Rwanda is. I’m convinced it is the best kept secret in Africa; the country still continues to face the challenges of moving past the genocide (yes, even 17 years later) but, wow, are the moving and developing with every intention of putting Rwanda on the map. And why shouldn’t they?
As I inched closer to the road that leads home, I began to see a heavy stream of blue collared shirts and navy blue pants and skirts. Aha. My students! It was just around 2:00pm and they were beginning their trek home—sometimes maybe 15 minutes and sometimes well over an hour. My students (yes! I can actually say that!) are hard workers and I can barely put together what their lives must be like—both good and bad—and I’m right here living alongside with them. I’m continually amazed by what they do, in and out of school. At school, they write in excruciatingly perfect lines as to keep their notebooks neat. They don’t have textbooks they use on a regular basis and so these notebooks they have comprise the purpose that a textbook would normally have. If I erase the chalkboard too soon, mayhem breaks lose. They like seriously, a bagillion subjects. Math (called ‘Mats’ which makes me feel like I’m a 3 year old with a bad lisp when I say it), Chemistry, Biology, Physics, English, Swahili, French, Kinyarwanda, Business Entrepreneurship, and Creative Performance. As far as I can tell, that’s just the beginning.
Outside of the classroom, as I noted, students can walk extensive distances on the long unpaved reddish brown dirt road just to come to school, which begins nearly at the crack of dawn—7:00am! However, I, in some strange adaptation, have grown to love the road. Except in the rain. Oh no. That’s bad. Just the other afternoon, I saw the sun hiding a bit and thought I’d go on a quick run as I waited for my water to boil for my bucket bath. Maybe 20 minutes into the run, the rain came. And hard. The reddish brown road turned to a seemingly dark brown abyss, and I don’t know what would have happened if a kind woman did not let me wait it out inside the safety of her home. Her family then of course laughed for a solid 10 minutes at me when I said ‘ibirayi’ (the word for potato) wrong. And so, I can happily (and dryly) say that that wasn’t a shining Peace Corps moment for me.
The people here always tell me the road is bad. It’s grooved in surprising places and goes further in the ground when you wouldn’t expect it. Yes, a smooth black asphalt ground would be nicer. And, when it comes to riding in a much squished small bus next to someone with questionable body odor across the country, well then yes, absolutely! Bring on the asphalt! But, I find myself appreciating the natural road as I walk past homes and people moving about. Maybe I like it because it’s so unexpecting? You really never know what you will get.
I see women, returning from fetching water. Their muscles long worn seep through their clothes and water drips on their faces as they somehow, almost magically, carry a 5 gallon water jerry can on their head. I am in awe of them. Many times, I’ll pass a boutique or two (essentially a small shop—Rwanda is littered with them, even out here in the rural countryside) and men will be drinking banana beer out of a yellowish jug with a straw. I always refuse their offers for a taste; the smell itself could drive a herd of cattle away. Children always line the streets. Today, it might be hopscotch, tomorrow it might be football. Yet, they all know when I’m coming, even from substantial amounts of feet away. “Umuzungo! Umuzungo!” And then, like clockwork, children storm the road from houses, from grassy fields, and once, I kid you not, a large tree. The kids, they come from everywhere.
People are always moving, going somewhere. Rwanda is mobile like that. But it’s not like the movement of America, where so many people are glued to their Starbucks coffee cups and checking appointments on the ubiquitous Blackberry. Whoever you see on the road, you greet. This could be a simple “Mwiriwe” but I’m learning that a handshake along with these words—even a hug—is much preferred. Greetings are extremely important in Rwandan culture. And it all starts on the road.
People also are often on the road to visit people. Much like greetings, visiting is also quite significant. When you visit, you usually take tea (or at my house—coffee) and sit to ‘Tuganira’ (to have dialogue). I live across the street from the pastor and his family, and it’s becoming our tradition to visit each other. They always offer me the most delicious chai tea, so good that I don’t even bother asking the number of tablespoons of sugar that went into this delicious creation. When their kids come to see me, I offer some candy, water, and maybe even a game of cards—American style (which means we play ‘War’). They like the simplicity of it, and I do too. The Rwandan card game (which, by the way, there is only one, true to Rwandan culture in there being one way to do things) is a little more complicated and I’m still getting the hang of it.
Last week, I visited an old woman I met on a run. Believe me, she’s old. I came upon her house when I saw her cultivating in her front yard. She led me inside her home. She lives in a muddish-dirt home with a handful of rooms. The rooms had few things, and the room I sat at had a bench, a table, a bike, and some jerry cans on the side. Moments like this are some of the most meaningful, but also some of the hardest. Like I told my mom, I may be roughing it out here, but my home here is royalty compared to many others.
I sat with her daughter and her daughter’s husband. After nibbling on some plantains and beans, her daughter brought out their brand new newborn baby, Kari. I held Kari for at least 30 minutes, watching her look at me with her wide and big beautiful eyes (one of the highest compliments in Rwanda). She didn’t fuss or scream like some children do. She was all smiles and I couldn’t believe how precious she was. This family sent me home with some corn—a lovely gesture considering what little they had to give.
I walked home a little lighter that day. I passed women dressed in full African garb with a seemingly endless amount of fabric patterns. Some used this very fabric to hold their babies upright on their backs. Sometimes while simultaneously carrying large bags of food to sell at market. When I’m in a really good mood, like I was this particular day, after holding such an adorable child, I’ve been known to greet the goats. Sometimes the cows, but always always the goats. It’s weird, I know. Even for an American, talking to farm animals might cause a question regarding mental sanity. But, I mean, usually it’s just a small utterance of “hello ihene” (ihene meaning goat in Kinyarwanda) and to be fair, it was a habit I developed with friends during training; for whatever reason, we just loved the goats. Often, we would make practice dialogues in Kinyarwanda class with the concept involving a talking goat, or a mother goat, or something to that effect. Our teachers for sure thought we were crazy. The ridiculousness of it just seems normal, representative of this Peace Corps experience entirely. One day in training, I went to go get one of the goats for my host grandmother. They hung out in a green pasture nearby, and so it was relatively easy bringing the goat back home. Upon arriving back, I delivered the grayish black goat to Marita, and then rushed to text my friend Sara. “I walked a goat! You won’t believe it. I WALKED a goat!!” Rwandans think I’m nuts. But it probably fits right into their common theory about Americans and their pets: all Americans love their dogs and cats more than people. I’ve tried qualming such hearsay, but like I said, greeting the goats takes any authority I have and mushes it right up.
My weeks and days are full of teaching now: making lessons, making nametags, and grading homework and quizzes. I love it. But also, my days are still full of walking the road, running the road, greeting friends and community members, visiting families old and young, and yes, even talking to the goats.
With my days in the classroom and being busy establishing relationships with my students, I continually find myself coming back to the reason I started this journey in the first place. I want to help bring hope to a community that may need it, but more so, I want these young, bright, capable students to believe in themselves; I want them to embrace an opportunity to take down boundaries of a painful history, a life of poverty, and the limitations that growing up in a developing country can present. I want to pay it forward because that kind of support and belief works in such a way. We learn. And then we pass it on.
I can feel my grandmother’s arms around me with her sweet Chanel perfume lining her shirt, jacket, and pretty much everything else she had on. We were at the park we walked to nearly every week, to feed the ducks, play in the leaves, or just exert the extra energy Lance and I carried back from a full day at school. Whenever she put her arms around me, I could feel her smiling. Many times she would tell me that I could do anything I wanted. Not in the sense of eating all of the grilled cheese sandwiches she would make later, but in the sense of finding whatever made me happy and satisfied in the world. I could do it.
I can see my parents cheering at soccer games that would become field hockey games—they missed very few. They were (and are) always my biggest supporters, fans, cheering section, counselors…you name it. They do it. They never discouraged me to try something new—I am not afraid of failure because of them.
Even when we were just little kids, I can still hear my brother’s soft but vibrant words of praise. After our dozens of football sessions (I would be quarterback, Lance the receiver), he was always so good about encouraging me, even telling me that I threw the ball better than most of the boys. Lance rooted me; always reminding me of where I come from and to give thanks that we somehow got to be together. He was my best friend growing up, and he inspired me to be a good role model and a good big sister.
I think about the hugs, the words of motivation, the attitudes shared with me about never giving up and believing in the life you lead. I’m only 23 but the support systems I have had in my young life are bountiful, and when I really think about it, unbelievable. Grandparents, extended family, my dear friends from every stage of growing up, family friends, coaches, teachers, teammates…so many people have been integral in shaping the woman I am becoming. How could I ever say ‘thank you’ enough?
I think to say thank you, you become an action. You live out your gratitude; you pass it on.
I say all of this, not as a digression to my life as a PC volunteer in Rwanda, but because I am here, teaching, and trying to maneuver my way around a life that is still very new for me. Without the support and love I grew up with, from countless people, from countless walks of life, encouraging a life of no boundaries, I wouldn’t be here. It’s that simple.
My strength is in living this kind of life, and my goal is to encourage in the very same way. In moments of struggle, when I ask, “is this worth it?” I always come back to this. If the people in my life can share and embolden the beauty of setting goals and achieving them, well certainly, I can not just stick this out, but thrive and pass on the life lessons given to me.