*I wrote this post mid-December, and due to lack of wifi I’m posting it a month late*
Here I am, sitting on a twin mattress in one of my two spare bedrooms. This is my third day at my site: we swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers on December 12th, and moved all over Rwanda on the morning of the 13th to settle into our new homes.
Before actually witnessing the process by which the Peace Corps transfers us and all of our possessions throughout Rwanda, I had trouble imagining how we could possibly fit all our stuff into cars, store it, and re-distribute it. But somehow it was done; the morning of the 10th, we gathered at the Peace Corps hub in Rwamagana with all of our belongings, and spent a grueling few hours filling three enormous moving trucks with suitcases, mattresses, buckets, basins, water filters, brooms, boxes, and storage trunks. Once in Kigali, we unloaded everything into a room at the hotel. We had been waiting a long time for this trip to Kigali, our treasured opportunity to buy things for our homes, to eat at restaurants, stay out late (past our 6:30 curfew from before), explore. Before arriving, we were somewhat disgruntled once we learned that only a few hours on our first day and an afternoon on our second day were allotted to us for household shopping. How could we possibly buy EVERYTHING we would need for our houses, lug them around Kigali, within a day and a half? We made lists, came up with strategies and itineraries to ensure that every one of our desires would be satisfied. As one of my friends in the States pointed out, this constituted quite a change for me, since I spent months contemplating what to pack for the Peace Corps…
As always, things turned out okay, and my stress-induced fears were for the most part unfounded. Apparently, you don’t need all that much to get by in your entire house. Apparently, it’s possible to run through a couple stores, grab some things off shelves, and call it a day, without extensive pre-meditation. Apparently, it’s also possible to fit the content of two people’s households into the bed of a regular-sized pick-up truck…you just need a tarp and a rope to make sure it doesn’t fall off.
As soon as I found myself alone, finally, standing in my living room surrounded by stuff, I didn’t know where to begin.
The first few days of solo-living have been lovely, and not quite so daunting or lonely as I imagined. My greatest fear before moving here was that I’d feel alienated and uncomfortable outside my doors. To be fair, my first few ventures to the shops near my house (and still, today), were nerve wracking and awkward for me: a host of stares and comments. When I leave the house, I remind myself that none of the attention is malicious, just a natural reaction to a bizarre appearance in this village. In any case, each day I make myself go outside and visit the shops, to desensitize everyone (including me) to the event. The more time passes, the more comfortable I become, the more familiar faces I spot (with great relief), and cling to for reassurance and for the semblance of belonging. The first time I ventured out, I wound up tagging along with a teacher who lives in the same compound as I do. I met some shop-keepers, introduced myself to some people we met along the way. Just yesterday, I ventured out yet again with a small shopping list. When I pulled it out of my pocket at the first store I stopped into, the shopkeeper there plucked it out of my hands, pulled out a pen, and as soon as I was done buying what I needed from her, took me around to various other shops, checking each item off one by one. Every time I go out, I wind up bathed in sweat for some reason or another: because I feel a thousand eyes on me, because I’m nervous to walk past a cluster of guys, because I’m overwhelmed and I don’t know exactly how to interpret what’s going on around me.
Each new outing results in an unexpected but welcome encounter, a short conversation or greeting that makes me feel a little more at home. This has proven particularly true when I venture up into the hills for a ‘hike,’ because there’s just enough solitude to create meetings that are more personal, less daunting and flustering on my end. On my second afternoon, I wound up hiking up a hill with an older man. We struck up a conversation for a good thirty minutes. I’ve found that people are astounded and incredibly pleased when they discover I can communicate in Kinyarwanda. I think it’s the last thing they expect, and it’s a testament to the nature of my presence: a legitimate, two-year commitment rather than a stint of several months. Only someone who is serious about living and working here would try as hard as we have to learn a language spoken exclusively in this country.
I always feel reluctant to share general observations, because I know how quickly perceptions can change, and how erroneous or misleading first impressions can be. But something I’ve noticed time and time again, especially as I meet new people in my village, is how quickly a genuinely warm greeting on my part transforms a seemingly sullen expression. I’ve watched so many serious, distantly curious faces break into enormous smiles. I think there must be a difference between these kinds of meetings here and the ones I have in the States, because otherwise these transformations in expression wouldn’t strike me nearly as much as they do. Maybe, I initiate and respond to in greetings differently here: I’m not anything special in the States, but here I feel obligated to represent my country and my background well, to demonstrate my desire to live here fully, so I exude a kind of open good-will that I simply don’t back in the States. Then again, maybe people here are exceptionally pleased that I’m making an effort to reach them.
It’s both endearing and frustrating that some people make little effort to conceal their surprise when they see me. At first, I thought it seemed disrespectful to stare at someone different from you, and essentially call them out for it. A few mitigating factors: first of all, I have the fortune of being singled out as a white person, someone they assume is wealthy and comes from a desirous background or country. It’s not usually a derogatory term, or a negatively loaded word (so I’ve been told, at least). In order to overcome my discomfort, I remind myself constantly that I would likely do the same if I had lived all my life in a place where people look very similar, and come from more or less the same place. And maybe, when people here stare and ask questions, they’re just being honest in ways that our culture in America is not, in an attempt to be more polite or politically correct. Yes, it’s uncomfortable when people stare at me. But I’ve come to embrace those moments as opportunities to walk up to someone and be frank, to explain who I am and what I’m doing. In the end, we walk away closer and better informed; in a polite context where someone averts their gaze even though you excite their curiosity or fascination, these interactions don’t take place. In fact, I’ve begun to find it a relief: there’s no need to pretend that it’s normal for someone like me to be here, and it’s impossible to avoid the elephant in the village. The intensity of my presence now may actually be a good thing in the long run, because it spawns the numerous, intense encounters that render my coming and going, like any inhabitant, justified and valid. In the States, it was much more possible to skip to the part where you pretend to belong, where you pretend you’re comfortable or you understand where you are, even though you don’t. Here, it couldn’t be more obvious that I’m clueless, and I don’t mind it in the end. There’s something humbling and freeing about this full surrender, this throwing up of your arms, smiling broadly, and acknowledging time and time again that you’re out of place, until this honesty places you there over time. Even when kids ask me for money (it’s happened a few times here), it’s kind of a relief to explain that that’s not what I’m here to give. Otherwise, it would remain an unspoken, unaddressed undercurrent.
There just don’t seem to be too many frills or fronts here. People visit one another without warning or explicit invitation, and there’s something very intimate about seeing someone’s house, learning who they live with, sharing their food. There’s something intimate about buying toilet paper from the wife of a teacher at your school, or hiking past the home of a future student, buying charcoal from someone who carries it to your house for you (on her head, no less). There’s something intimate about owing this very woman 50 cents, because I only had 950 RWF instead of 1000. There’s something honest and unaffected and direct about the way life goes on. My community is small enough, but people close together enough, that your comings and goings can’t seem to go unobserved, that the various facets of your life unfold in front of everyone. I’ve started running into people who know my name before I introduce myself, and I’ve run into neighboring teachers buying potatoes and helping neighbors fill jerry cans with water. I’ve run into a neighbor who took me to pull carrots, cabbage, eggplant, and spinach from the ground in the valley, donning rubber boots, walking to church with stiff white shirt a big rosary around his neck. The same little flocks of children see me hike by, and there’s something intimate about their catching me in these vulnerable moments, wandering up a hill to places I don’t know, surrounded by people I don’t know. There’s something intimate too about the plainly obvious fact that my wanderings have no concrete purpose other than to learn and explore. It’s just intimate to be automatically vulnerable here, all of the time…