I’ll officially be teaching English at a secondary school of about 470 students in Nyagahanga, a remote little village in Northeast Rwanda. I am not replacing a volunteer; I’ll be the first Peace Corps volunteer to serve in my village aside from a couple of Peace Corps Response Volunteers who left several months ago after living in my village for five months. Unlike ‘regular’ Peace Corps volunteers, Response volunteers only serve for a year. They receive little training prior to their service because they already have Peace Corps experience or similarly acquired skills.
The Peace Corps revealed our sites through a Harry Potter adapted ceremony: our names were called by a staff member, we came forward one by one, sat on a wooden stool, put on a hat, and waited for our regions and schools to be announced. Our nervous anticipation was only partially satisfied by these results: they meant little to us out of context, just new names whose combinations of syllables most of us misremembered at first. All we really grasped in the moment was the inevitability of our incumbent separation, and (for some) the exciting certainty of being somewhere very different from our training town: following the announcement of our respective sites, we pinned our names on a map of Rwanda in accordance with the approximate location of our new homes. As more and more colorful pins dotted the map, some friends rejoiced at their proximity while others mourned the lengthy commute between their sites.
We visited our sites from October 21st to 27th, after a two day conference during which we met our future headmasters and counterparts (Rwandan English teachers whom the Peace Corps considers our closest colleagues and collaborators at our respective schools). On the morning of the 21st, I threw an assortment of semi-presentable outfits, my mosquito net, drinking water, malaria pills, pillow, and damp towel after a poorly timed laundry session into my hiking backpack before meeting my counterpart and headmaster at 7:45 am to travel to Nyagahanga together: an hour and half by bus from Rwamagana to Kabarore, and 40 minutes by moto from Kabarore to Nyagahanga. The night before leaving, I exhibited every sign and symptom of delusionally unacknowledged anxiety about the trip ahead: I ran around my room dropping things, cursed the wet clothes that would have to stagnate in my room for a week, bitterly yearned for a sink, and felt viscerally hostile towards the Peace Corps for doling out crucial information at the very last second at an exasperatingly gradual pace, and for constantly expecting us to walk into the near-unknown with a positive, flexible attitude.
At first, my counterpart, her 10-month-old baby, my headmaster and I piled into a Twege bus, where people sit crammed shoulder to shoulder. I struggled not to injure the passengers next to me with my enormous, eggplant colored backpack, my face plastered to the top zipper while I balanced its unwieldy length on my lap. The bus frequently stopped and started along the road, and people climbed over one another to enter, exit, and shift seats. Thanks to my counterpart’s intervention (and to my great relief), we abandoned the Twege after half an hour and boarded an Express bus, a less crowded, slightly more spacious and more direct option.
At the Kabarore bus station, we were greeted by my counterpart’s husband (a moto driver), who ushered me towards another driver. Peace Corps issues very sturdy, large, and dazzlingly shiny white helmets about twice the size and weight of the helmets Rwandan moto drivers carry; they’re oval-shaped versions of the helmets Star Wars storm troopers have. I struggled to swing my giant pack onto my back without strangling myself on my purse, and fumbled with the giant helmet as it engulfed my head and the closed visor fogged up due to my laborious efforts. All the while, a long row of moto drivers chuckled at my obvious inexperience. The forty-minute moto ride to my village winds up, down, and around a series of hills. I held onto the handles at the back of the moto and tensed every muscle in my body to prevent my swaying backpack from propelling me off during steep climbs, and craned my neck to survey the stretches of road ahead for particularly treacherous bumps. I hope my moto driver wasn’t alarmed by the unnatural proximity of our heads as I leaned towards his center of gravity for dear life, thanked my past self for leaving various unnecessary items behind, and swore to myself that I’d pack as lightly as possible in the future. I decided along the way that arriving with an emergency glass jar of Nescafe to avoid caffeine withdrawal may not be worth rolling off a moto, incurring physical injury, and (worst of all) causing a scene for reasons beyond my strange, Western appearance. In the meantime, a few feet ahead of me on the back of her husband’s moto, my counterpart cradled her baby with relaxed nonchalance: nothing but balance and physics tethered them to the moto seat.
By the time we arrived, I was exhausted, aching from the effort of pulling my enormous backpack towards me for the duration of the ride. I stayed in my counterpart’s compound; finding out that I’d have my own room filled me with senseless joy, gratitude, and optimism. Privacy is a priceless gift in daunting new circumstances, especially as an object of attention and fascination. Based on my experiences thus far, Rwandans are truly remarkable in their hospitality. Even though Americans tend to have much more, they often either share far less or share with a keen, underlying awareness of the gains or losses they incur because of their visitors through skillfully conducted mental calculations. In Rwanda, guests are generously provided for without reserve, without a second thought, as if they are part of the family. Never in my experience as a guest here have I had even the slightest impression that caring for me constitutes a burden, even if it’s the case. My counterpart noticed what I liked to eat: she bought me bananas, papaya, avocado, even though she hardly took any herself. She constantly encouraged me to take seconds, welcomed me into her home at all hours of the day and night, all in the midst of doing laundry, mopping, feeding her baby, preparing for school, and helping me navigate our school and town. I followed her around like a duckling, relied on her for everything, and she responded with nothing but patience, generosity, and kindness.
Nyagahanga is situated on the edge of a hill. It slightly overlooks a valley in which farmers grow rice, beans, cabbage, green beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, bananas, and papaya, and also cultivate fish in little rectangular ponds. Two ‘main’ dirt roads intersect where my village stands; they curve up and around a series of hills whose flanks are carved by fields and dotted with banana trees. Farmers weave among them on little paths that snake through trees, shrubs, crops, and houses, carrying machetes and balancing impressive piles of leafy vegetables on their heads. Nestled in this valley, the air is clean and brisk both early and late in the day. In the evenings and mornings, mysterious insects make soft chirping sounds (I think they live in the valley), and birds fly in unison alongside the hills. The afternoon sun puts the sculpted summits of the hills in sharp relief: from the bottom, you can see individual branches, leaves, and shrubs in shockingly bright detail. According to my headmaster, only tourists hike for pleasure; most locals scale the hills for work.
Running in my less populated, rural village is generally more peaceful than running in Rwamagana because far less people, bikes, motos, and cars crowd the streets, but it also feels more inappropriate. When I jog past a handful of farmers at 5:45 in the morning, it’s blatantly obvious that anyone who exerts physical energy in their leisure time has the means to avoid physical exertion for a living. Even so, the people I encountered were quietly observant and responded kindly to my unusual, early morning presence. Since the main roads I run on quickly traverse many little hills, I can look back from where I’ve come and see the road curve around all the slopes I’ve left behind, and take in all the ground I’ve covered.
However remote, even in my village and its surroundings there is always someone nearby: bending over a plot of land, standing behind a banana tree, pulling weeds, sweeping, riding a bicycle, or simply walking down the road. When I don’t see a person for a whole minute, I feel oddly alone. People live and work so close together that it’s hard to tell whose land belongs to who, and discern which paths are communal and which paths lead to someone’s front door. Every bit of land serves a purpose: goats graze on the edges of the sports field by the church, corn stalks surround my counterpart’s latrine, green beans grow on the side of the road.
Just as in Rwamagana, there are many young children wandering around Nyagahanga. The same striking contrast exists between those in school uniforms and those with dusty limbs and faces, with torn and faded clothes. The poverty of some families jarringly exists right alongside the relative wealth of people like the teachers at my school. On any given morning during my stay, I’d simultaneously encounter a man in an unwrinkled button-down shirt and a farmer in tattered clothes within the same 5-foot radius. They occupy the same small space, but lead very different lives. Unlike in the States, an insurmountable, self-conscious barrier does not seem to keep them at arm’s length. One evening, my counterpart stopped to joke around with some children playing ball in rags, and gave them a few cents. On our way to school one morning, she briefly conversed with a farmer about his crops: she in shiny flats and red lipstick, he with a dusty hoe in hand. Their interaction lacked the tense awkwardness (and physical distance) born from an acute awareness of difference in means or social status; it was natural, reciprocal, and close. While some people cross town clutching cell phones and others cross town with bananas on their heads, both parties seem utterly unbothered and unaware of their strange juxtaposition and its implications. It’s likely imprudent and inaccurate to generalize about Rwandan culture based on these experiences alone, but in my village and in Rwamagana, this kind of unflustered coexistence constitutes a significant difference between Rwanda and the States.
My counterpart took me on a walk to familiarize me with the village, show me our school and my house. The school consists of several rectangular buildings that each contain about four classrooms, a staff room, a cafeteria, and a little field. My house overlooks the school; I share a little hill with a couple (both nurses at the health center nearby) and their baby. I’m lucky: my house has three bedrooms, running water, electricity, a real toilet, a shower head of questionable reliability, and a kitchen sink. Apparently, Peace Corps volunteers stationed in remote areas tend to receive ‘nicer’ houses because it’s more difficult to find homes that meet Peace Corps’ housing standards.
My counterpart laughed as she led me to the ‘downtown’: a strip of little shops about a block long that line a particularly rocky tract of dirt road on the other side of a wobbly wooden bridge that crosses over a red, muddy stream where the two main roads intersect. This remains the most intimidating aspect of my village; the cluster of stores, bars, and moto drivers awaiting customers fills me with dread because I know that all eyes will turn towards me when I pass by. During my visit, I attempted to confidently meet some people’s gazes at reasonably timed intervals to mask my discomfort and act, if not feel, like I was at home. Braving these one-on-many, impersonal encounters in my village has confirmed my suspicion that Rwandans intimidate me when I can’t approach or speak with them individually. Since the overwhelming anonymity of their collective attention feels judgmental and unfriendly, regardless of its actual nature, sometimes I erroneously ascribe these characteristics to the individuals in the crowd rather than the strange circumstance we share. Through individual greetings, eye contact, and exchanges, Rwandans are transformed in my perception and also change their behavior towards me: their expressions soften and any air of guarded reserve melts away. I met many people whose initial aloofness gave way to kind warmth: my neighbors, the physics teacher at a nearby boarding school, the women whom I run by in the morning, my counterpart’s younger sisters. The doubts and misgivings on both sides prove to be unfounded.
My school is a welcoming, laid back, and well-meaning place. My counterpart and I are two of 18 teachers, 16 of which are relatively young men. We lesson plan, eat, grade papers, and talk in the staff room. Many of the teachers approached me to welcome me, express their enthusiasm to improve their own English through conversation, and ask me questions about America. They are respectful, witty, and good-humored, and seem to genuinely care about their students’ progress and well-being. When they teach class, my future colleagues don what look like white lab coats, as is customary in many Rwandan schools. They just use chalk, a chalkboard, and build motivating suspense in class by encouraging their students to correct one another, write answers on the board, and answer their questions correctly. Students want to learn, and they want to win; they urgently ask for their teacher’s attention by snapping their fingers and calling ‘teacher, teacher!’. When I spoke with the teachers about how they handle poor behavior, they emphasized the importance of managing their classes with careful, psychological tact rather than the physical violence that some teachers throughout the country still resort to, despite it’s illegality.
I observed a few lessons, and lurked about the staff room for the two days I attended school, and finally mustered up the courage to approach the curious students lingering outside the door. Turns out their nervous laughter, whispers, and stares were innocuous, too, only derisive and intimidating from a distant, insecure vantage point. We spoke in English and Kinyarwanda; they cheered when I told them about the Rwandan foods I like, and told me they want to learn English, to practice, to start a debate club. I reminded them that I don’t have a husband (she’s too young! my counterpart insisted at the school assembly after I introduced myself in Kinyarwanda to the student body. This was one of the first questions asked by the students after my introduction, along with my age). We decided (I think), that if I can speak enough Kinyarwanda to converse with them after a month, their progress over the course of two years will be even more remarkable, even if all we do is chat about how much we like bananas, avocado, and fried potatoes. My plan, moving forward, is to keep giving my new neighbors, students, and colleagues the benefit of the doubt, and remember that things are far different – and far better – close up than they are from afar.