Sara: “This land is totally and completely pre-historic looking.”
Heather: “You are so right! That’s like, the perfect way to describe this place.”
Sara: “Yeah—it’s like freakin’ right out of Land Before Time or something.”
Heather: “You know, it’s crazy to think about dinosaurs and then roaming the Earth—like can you just imagine? They would have been as big as these mountains! Incredible.”
*even longer pause* *laughter* *pause*
Sara: “Um. Dinosaurs were big…but not THAT big. If that was the case, there would have been like 6 dinosaurs on the whole Earth.
Somehow, after the revelation that I had a pretty misguided conception of dinosaurs when gazing upon Lake Kivu in Western Rwanda, Sara still continues to be my friend. As Southerners would put tenderly, “bless her heart.”
Sara is one of my good PCV friends and I’m lucky to have her. Sara is quiet—not shy—and her humor is sharp as a brand-spanking new razor. She loves goats, cats, hails from the state of Pennsylvania, and has an equally deep appreciation for the mystical powers of cheese. Plus, her favorite Friends character is Ross which is good for two reasons:
1) I’m a firm believer that your favorite character from that wonderfully made TV show definitely says something about you. And,
2) My favorite character is also Ross. So it just works.
It’s been relatively easy to connect with PCVs and find a good niche of friends. I suppose the difficult part was realizing how special my college girls were (and are) and that the closeness and trust I had with them is not easily replicated—nor should it be! That’s what makes friendships so special in the first place. But, when you have chosen Peace Corps as your life for over two years (and, in fact, it is YOU wholly responsible for having to relieve yourself in a queasy-smelling latrine, live every night by candlelight because of the lack of electricity, and teach in a profoundly changing, disorganized, and transitional education system) well, there is certainly lots to talk about. It really does take a different kind of person to do this, and when you are here in country, it’s essential to have a support network of people who at the end of the day, they just get it. They get why you are here, they get what you are going through, and it’s easy to explain those awkward-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me moments that happen time to time (or more realistically, every day).
But, ultimately, this isn’t about them, because a good chunk of your time as an education volunteer is spent where it should be: in your village, at your site, at your school, and at your house where it is totally dependent on you to make your own friends. Like being back in elementary school, looking for some kind of connections on the playground, albeit the four-square domain or the monkey bars, it’s a new territory and you have no choice but to just put yourself out there.
For me, it’s gone as well as I really think it could. I don’t mean that I’m on the verge of revolutionizing the Peace Corps experience and becoming volunteer of the year—believe me, far from it. By no means do I have a Rwanda BFFL quite yet (best friend for life for those who missed the 90’s craze of best friend bracelets) but I have a good group of what my friends and I call ‘mamas’ (older women who basically are superhuman in strength and energy) and some fellow teachers who I’ve been able to talk with at length in English, share meals, and play cards. I’ve been good about getting into my community (running, walking around aimlessly, going to market, visiting neighbors and students, praying at church, and even like today, carrying market goods on my head proclaiming loudly that indeed, I have become Rwandan—the trick to winning people over is acting like a complete loon, something that comes very natural for me). All of this has undoubtedly aided in my integration. But lately, I have wondered and contemplated about how so many of these people know me, but even after 2 years, will really not know me. You know what I mean?
I’m really not trying to be all existential here, instead, I’ve just tried to take stock of the limitations I have here when it comes to relationships. It’s an entirely new set of rules—a new cultural context—and with that, I find myself in the passenger seat. In many situations, despite being a teacher by profession here, it is me that is the learner and because of an incredibly complicated language, I can’t even fully (or adequately) express my emotions or ideas. To be frank, that’s hard. Really hard. I come from a culture of words and words are power. It’s that simple. I long for companionship and when the conversation is about potatoes or tea every day, how much of that intangible, magnetic, strong, and mutual longing to be together and share more can really grow?
All of this is one side of relationships for me as a 7-month Peace Corps Volunteer.
I suppose I didn’t mention a key element in the plight for friendship: given my role, and given the situation—friendship is exactly like a double edged sword. Stay with me. I promise it makes sense.
On one side is this unattainable longing to just be me and have people who know what that is and what that looks like, no questions asked. I’m talking about the little things that actually, when put together, make a person whole. It’s the little things, you see, that often make up who we are.
It would be oh so comforting to have a person here who gets that I don’t like sugar in my coffee (Rwandans are OBSESSED)—black coffee will be just fine, thank you. They would of course understand the good and bad about my tendency to want to keep everyone happy. That same person wouldn’t look twice if I was carrying around a water bottle 24/7, they would laugh off my quest to speak in a bagillion different accents simply for fun (which I admit, often all sound the same), and they would already know that I do everything intensely: I walk intensely, I write intensely, I laugh intensely…you get the idea.
It’s like doing these things, or acting a certain way—it just feels like home. And believe me; here I have few false pretenses (the only one I can really think of is when I lied to my host family about liking ‘ubugari’—a really strange traditional Rwandan dish—so that they would like me). I am who I am. But as I’ve been saying, in a new culture, well, somehow who you are doesn’t always translate directly.
Ah, yes, but like I told you this whole relationship thing? Well, it’s like a double-edged sword, right? The other side of the sword so to speak:
At the end of the day, culture plays a huge role in who we are. That’s undeniable. But even with a language and cultural barrier, it doesn’t mean you can’t know the very core of someone. It doesn’t make sense, does it? How can you possibly know the core of someone if you don’t really know what they are about? That’s the mystery of relationships, I suppose. That’s the bigger mystery of who we are as a people, how we relate to each other, but also how our lives can also signify something so much greater than ourselves. The old cliché (which, excuse the use of cliché’s here, but if you notice, they are often correct) seems to ring true: actions speak louder than words.
I’ve just returned from visiting my host family for the second time since I became an actual volunteer. It was uncanny how comfortable it felt. They’ll never know my middle name, they don’t know about my education history, they maybe won’t ever fully know the depth of my dorkiness tendencies, and explaining my family has proved difficult (‘divorce’ is a fairly uncommon concept in Rwandan culture). And yet, I feel at home with them. They know my pronounced preference of Coke to Fanta, my love of sport and desire to be outside whenever possible, and they get that I like to hug people. A lot. Moreover, after my travels back home, accompanied the whole way by my host dad (he wanted to know how to get to my house so he can bring the whole family next time—I KNOW HOW CUTE IS HE??) he told me over my coffee table that I was a woman with a good heart who loves people. It blew me away—what a wonderful, beautiful compliment from someone who I think knows me better than I even realize.
I felt honored. I thought back to times we’ve shared.
The first three months I was like a baby. I was scared, unsure, and quite literally, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even speak to them—my family. I can tell you this much, I was completely prepared to pack my bags and fly back home after the first couple of days in Rwanda. I was afraid that I was way in over my head; I made a vow to myself that I would give it a whirl with my family and see if maybe I was jumping the gun too early. Oh, and was I ever! I’m trying to stay on the cusp of not being overly dramatic, but seriously. They’re the reason I stayed. As my understanding and knowledge grew, so did my perception. These people—my new Rwandan family—they are good. They love people for the sake of loving others. They live in the middle of Rwanda, this family, they don’t’ have much, but they have hearts of complete gold. Maybe in the same way that they won’t completely know me, I can never fully know them. But, I’m learning to never underestimate the power of humans and reading each other. Sometimes, a good person is just that—good. You don’t even need words. It just is. It’s the truth.
Maybe it’s here where the real love and friendship exists. It’s the recognition of goodness in an often broken, messed up, and confusing world, and the commitment to care for that person in whatever way you can. With my best friend that could mean a 4 hour phone conversation in complete comfort and openness without holding anything back. Here in Rwanda, that could simply mean a clean and comfortable bed to sleep in for the night. A warm cup of tea. A home cooked meal. Laughter.
Even more beautifully, what I’m seeing is that good people, well, they are there when you need them the most.
My wonderful wonderful WONDERFUL (did I say wonderful?) friend Jackie lives in my sector, in the next village over. She’s a community health worker—which means she gives out medicine to people with malaria, AIDS, you name it. She’s probably around 34, maybe? She has 4 children, but no husband. Where the father of her last three children is, I’m not sure, but her first husband died in the Genocide in 1994. She didn’t go to secondary school, she doesn’t speak English, and my, how people love Jackie. People told me about her—they told me that it’s Jackie that has the greatest heart, and man, they were right. Jackie and I met through a mutual teacher friend and since then, I’ve visited her house a couple of times while she has also visited me. She’s given me plantains and vegetables, and I’ve given her macaroni and soup mix. But nothing compares to what she gave me the other day.
Last weekend, on Saturday, we had a 5 hour (that’s normal for any kind of ceremony) memorial service in my village. It was a time of remembrance (the whole week was spent remembering the Genocide, particularly at community meetings that we had every day that were mandatory for all people). Specifically, the community had found some remains in a nearby river from people that had died and were left in the water and were going to properly bury them in the village memorial. With my friend Philos translating, we heard from all sorts of officials—most notably the district mayor—and heard a couple stunning and moving songs from a popular music artist. We even heard a survivor story. The entire time, the emotion was thick and palpable. I could sense it. However, many kept their grief to themselves. Only once did I see one woman break down completely and moan as though pain was leaving her body and subsequently, had to leave the ceremony. That was, however, before the casket was brought into the memorial and when people were allowed to go inside and pay their respects.
I thought it would be good for me to go inside. And it was. I saw people finding their family members’ names on the new, updated tarp that was freshly printed for the service. I saw people leaving flowers, many marked with specific names of people who died 18 years ago. After a few minutes, I knew I needed to leave. Tears had continually lined my eye ducts for the entire 5 hours, but now I could feel them coming. And fast. I walked briskly away and became even more choked up when I was greeted by a couple of my students who looked somber and sad. I need to get out of here. That was when I saw Jackie. She was hugging her friend from behind and looked sad, but also resolute. She was not crying. I thought of her pain. I thought of her and what people had said about her: Genocide survivor. Survivor. SURVIVOR. I don’t know if I’ll ever know why, but as I shook her hand to greet her, I just burst into tears. I’m not a pretty crier—my friends and family can tell you that—and so I was grateful that she embraced me without any hesitation and let me cry right into her chest, on her perfectly tailored satin green dress. I couldn’t hold it anymore. I was just, so so sad. And then, when I realized that HUNDREDS of people were watching this scene unfold, I cried more. I cried because I felt silly. Why am I crying? This isn’t even my story; I can’t even BEGIN to understand this kind of pain. But, I cried. What can you do? After being brushed away to another friend’s house for a nap (apparently in Rwanda, resting is the cure for everything…they may be on to something…) and dinner, Jackie told me that I couldn’t go home for the night—it was too dark, it was too late. She insisted I stay at her house. And so, that night, I slept in Jackie’s bed, right along with her, under a white mosquito net. It’s a twin bed—a tight squeeze—but I saw her sticking to the edge as much as she could; she wanted me to have as much space as possible. I coughed a lot that night (it’s gotten colder with it being rainy season and all) and I woke up to her making sure I was covered with the blanket.
This was all from a woman that though I have grown to deeply admire, I don’t really know her that much. And in the same way, she doesn’t really know me either. But it’s that double-edged sword, isn’t it? When you are a good person, it’s just who you are. No language can really express what that looks like anyway.
Friendship, love. It’s all relative sometimes.