A few weeks ago, Meredith and I were walking around town in Kigali, most likely searching for our go-to products (oatmeal, cheese, or spices), or maybe even more likely, headed to Bourbon Coffee to scope out the ever hot commodity of internet (and duh, a white chocolate mocha or café late depending on my particular mood of the day). We passed a highly reflective blue wall on the scaffold of some building in town and for the slightest few seconds, I glanced at my image, flipped my hair, and smiled.
Meredith saw the entire thing.
Busted. We laughed and kept moving.
A slight moment of vanity? Completely forgivable. After all, I maybe look at myself in a mirror once every few days or so. Not to mention my mirror (the only one I own here) is a small rectangle, maybe the size of an Iphone. This is quite divergent from the opportunity to see your reflection back home; mirrors litter my house, the stores I visit, and essentially any sort of establishment I frequent. I’ve welcomed this change. While it makes maintaining things like my eyebrows difficult, I am also released from really giving a damn about my appearance.
That didn’t come out right.
As a teacher and the only white girl living in my community, I do want to look culturally appropriate and nice. Especially since wambaye neza (‘you are dressed smart’) is a highly valued comment in this culture. But I’m not reliant on mirrors for satisfaction in my image, and believe me, there’s a difference. That’s what cameras are for, right?
No, really, I’m not saying all of this as a way to promote some sort of new self-righteousness separation from vanity that I’ve discovered in the last year. Oh no, that’s not really my point at all. The thing is, with a significant decrease in dependence upon mirrors, I find myself separated from the exterior of myself sometimes. I sometimes forget I’m a white girl. Is that weird?
Believe me, as quickly as I forget, I’m reminded once again. A child—sometimes even a full-grown educated man—shouts umuzungu (the name typically used for white or rich person). Someone touches my skin, obviously wondering if I’m another species. A woman gropes my hair in profound wonderment—oh my god, they say in Kinyarwanda (Imana wanjye). And yes, this happens every single day. I’ve lived in the same place for over 9 months, and still being white is mind-blowing for many people I live among.
As I forget my whiteness though, I sometimes forget what comes with being a white girl in rural Rwanda. Because I’m white, people often safely assume the following:
- I’m rich. Very very rich.
- I provide sponsorships. Often and regularly.
- I’m better than everyone else.
- I know Barack Obama. If they ever did cross another white person in their life, well, then I probably know them too.
- I can distribute all of my own possessions—these of course, are replaceable.
- I speak only English.
- I’m like every other white person in the world.
- I can’t possibly cook (or do anything else for that matter) for myself.
Just writing that—making it real—I feel a tinge of anger, frustration, and hurt seethe through my body. I never imagined being white would be this challenging. Because here’s the problem:
I’m a year in.
I’m very solidly integrated into my community. I can speak enough Kinyarwanda (at least enough to get by). Apparently, you can be happy here. I’m doing it. I have relationships that have started to feel very meaningful.
So, what gives?
Well, I’m invited to countless weddings. I’m IN weddings. I’m begged to come to all sorts of church services, family gatherings, parties, you name it. I’m repeatedly requested to visit as per Rwandan culture. I’m asked to give and donate money. I’m a point person for some people who have a problem. I’m asked to take photos. I’m asked to develop photos, spending my own money. And of course, I get the blatant ‘give me money’ every so often.
But even all of that, that’s not what has got me so twisted.
What if it’s the other stuff—the relationship stuff—that doesn’t add up?
What if I am simply a means to get to an end point? You know, make friends with the rich, white girl, and hey, maybe she can hook you up?
What if those people who I love, still see me as WHITE? Not as me, be it Heather or Impano, but the white girl, the umuzungu?
It’s dangerous territory, I’m finding, to question everything in light of who I am and how this affects the people around me. I am learning that you can never be 100% sure of another person’s intentions. We don’t exist in the heads of other people, and for good reason. You can’t guarantee people do what they do for the right reasons. It’s a tough, heavy realization—one that I’ve never had to struggle with (at least not to this degree). My best, strongest relationships in life continue with an equilibrium of trust. Relationships take two people, and it’s give and take, not because you expect that, but because your motivation is love and you believe the same is true for the other person. If you really think about it, every single relationship you have in your life—be it God, your best friend, your parents, your co-workers, whatever—it’s built on trust. Everyone says that, and it’s obvious, but when really put to the test, working through the muck is extraordinarily difficult. Painful, even. Imagine questioning every good relationship you have in reach. That’s what I’m working through now and it’s not really something I anticipated to question with close community members. I’ve found myself almost paranoid, wondering if my students—especially the ones I’m really close with—love me because of what I potentially bring to the table (money, status, connections) and not because of the times we have shared together. To think too much about that, well, it kind of breaks my heart. Like I said, it’s dangerous territory.
My concerns and worries, I feel, are absolutely justified and understandable. I have to take a step back and take stock of what is happening here because this entire experience is important to process. Yet, Suzi told me something pretty powerful the other night over our nightly phone conversation as I spilled and spewed out these reservations of where I stand relationally in my small village: here, there may always be this question. It won’t go away. You have to learn to cope, to coexist, and maybe best of all, to be free of the worry that you can suffocate from if you think about it too much. I know full well I have to move forward. I know I have to trust my relationships here despite what being white may mean. Because while doubt can act as a necessary compass, to live in doubt permanently, to let doubt consume and taint everything I do—where does this take me? Nowhere.
This will be extraordinarily hard—maybe even harder than making and building these relationships in the first place. But, I have no choice.
A dear friend recently wrote me in a letter saying,
I just flipped through some of your pictures.
You look happy, almost like something in you has healed.
I hope you are as fulfilled and joyous as you seem.
Goosebumps hit all over my arms when I read these words late one Tuesday night before I headed off to take my nightly warm bucket bath. She’s right. 100% right.
As difficult as all of this can be, both the challenges and beautiful easy parts place me in a prime position to grow as a woman. I have issues, questions, and as you can see, doubts, like everyone else, but one thing I’ve learned in the last year is how to recognize a difficulty as an opportunity. I’ve always embraced the power of positivity, but believe me, in a year of village life, even I’ve been stretched to new limits and abilities to embrace times of struggle. That’s healing, my friends. And moreover, I’ve realized that integral to this kind of healing has always been my ability to love and trust. Sometimes, you get screwed over. But most of the time, I think, when you believe in the people around you and trust that they are with you for a reason, you reap a much greater deal of happiness, contentment, and joy in life. I’m not saying being naïve is the answer; rather, taking the leap and continuing to trust in the motivations and intentions of other people will bring you a greater peace of mind than questioning absolutely everything.
And so in the spirit of living but working through doubts, I have every intention to do that with this whole issue of being white. Because these years of teaching, living, and breathing Rwanda does count for something; God put me here for a reason. This isn’t arbitrary. I know I’m more than a random white girl in the village. I know this, because I believe in my friends here. I just do. Slowly, I’m revealing pieces of me to them and, that matters. Every day, I will have to rededicate and recommit myself to this. And the most fulfilling part is that I know I can.
Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.