I never know where to begin when it comes to writing about my experience in Rwanda because there are so many details to explain and describe. Here goes:
We have training from 8-5 Monday-Friday and 8-12:30 on Saturday. Within a given day, we cover anything from language, nutrition, medical care, Peace Corps’ development model, food preparation, Rwandan education, cross-cultural understanding, to safety and security. I’m particularly awed by the Peace Corps’ Rwandan staff: not only to they teach us Kinyarwanda, they also manage to bridge the gap between American and Rwandan culture with humor, patience, and tact. They’re candid about the differences between our cultures, and they provide valuable insight into how we may be perceived by our neighbors and friends. Apparently, here it’s frowned upon to eat in public unless you’re planning on sharing the food you have with those you encounter. The streets are relatively quiet and people seem reserved, but our Rwandan teachers have emphasized that this self-containment does not necessarily mean that judgments are being withheld: people notice what you’re doing wrong and may hold it against you without your knowledge. Our Rwandan teachers have taught us how to take showers, respond to social invitations, turn charcoal stoves into ovens, interpret unfamiliar gestures, and explain why we don’t want to attend church…
I usually wake up around 5:15 (if the roosters haven’t already done the job) and meet my little running group (there’s usually 3-4 of us) around 5:45. After witnessing the sunrise and taking in the misty hills, I cheerfully carry my bucket sloshing with cold water to the shower. I cherish the few minutes I spend drinking instant coffee on my plastic woven rug (a prized possession that makes up for my room’s concrete floor) after a breakfast of tea, bananas and bread. I head to language class at 7:55 because my teacher’s house is only a five minute walk away. There’s three of us in class, so we have to remain attentive and on track. We all look forward to the 10 am coffee break at the Peace Corps hub because most families don’t serve coffee here, and also because it means that all of us get to be together. We have our lunch break between 12:30 and 2, and spend the rest of the day learning Kinyarwanda or attending sessions on various other topics.
During our lunch breaks, many of us walk to the market under the beating sun on the red, dusty path that leads from the Peace Corps hub to the open-air market near my house. We typically buy the same combination of foods (avocado, tomato, small oranges, bananas, peanuts, and chapatti) and carry them back to the hub to have little picnics on the back porch. It’s cheaper than going to a restaurant (although everything is cheap here, relatively speaking) and wonderfully fresh, though admittedly repetitive.
A few days ago, as we were trudging back to the hub with our arms full of fruit, one of Rwanda’s characteristically violent and spontaneous thunderstorms inundated us out of the blue. We ran for cover, clutching all of our things (in violation of cultural norms). Everyone disappears from the road when these mini-storms strike, and time seems to stop until they’re over. A few nearby shopkeepers laughed at us but also offered to take us in. Given our limited knowledge of Rwanda’s language and culture, we’re overly cautious and wary of any seemingly kind offer; we politely declined their invitation and stood outside under a tiny roof, holding our huge avocados, bitterly unable to slice them open (we’re always starving, it seems).
During rainy season, everything becomes muddy, covered in thick, sludgy, bright red dirt. Since Rwandans are very particular about the cleanliness of their clothes and shoes, walking on dirt paths post-rain is treacherous and legitimately stressful. This predicament is so important and integral to Rwandan life that our Rwandan teachers spent an hour teaching us how to properly clean our shoes, backpacks, and clothes, how to both mop and sweep muddy floors. Today, a particularly violent storm shook my house; water trickled down the walls and poured into my room through the windows, the gate to our compound fell off its hinges, and small bits of ice skid under the front door into the hallway. The branches of a papaya tree next door ended up in a messy heap in our yard. I was shocked by the fact that our house felt like it was about to fall apart, but for my family this storm seemed like a fairly routine occurrence.
While things are going, I occasionally have my doubts: I wonder if my host mom likes me, since she’s fairly quiet and doesn’t often strike up conversation. I wonder if I’ll be any good at making friends here, speaking the language fluently, and teaching, especially when I’m alone at my site. Nevertheless, these semi-low points are almost always countered by something that dissolves my concerns: I’m able to learn something new about my host mom, meet up with other volunteers after class, see the sunset walking home, or share a laugh with my host brothers. Each of my concerns is usually defeated by a small piece of evidence that every difficulty can be tackled and overcome, even the linguistic and cultural barriers that make it hard to really feel at home. Today, I got up at 6 on my only day off to go running early, in the hopes of avoiding the people who usually stare at me in the street; to my delight and surprise, many locals were out running too. They clapped, nodded, and smiled when I ran by, and I did the same for them.
Even when we aren’t conversing with one another, my host mom’s warmth and kindness speak for themselves. We laugh when we start humming at the same time, when my host brother starts to dance or falls asleep during dinner. We groan and say “izuba!” (sun) when it’s infernally hot and we’re both trying to wash clothes and dishes in the yard. She shows me how to make ginger tea and has me to make guacamole for us (my only, somewhat pathetic contribution to dinner). She lets me peel carrots and tomatoes so I’ll learn how, even though I’m awkward and slow. I really wonder what moves her to take in so many volunteers and treat them like her own children; one day I’ll ask.
On October 17th, I’m going to found out exactly where in Rwanda I’ll be teaching. Stay tuned!