Observations of an Outsider

December 22, 2017, marked the end of my Peace Corps service. The months leading up to my departure were hectic. I wrote and secured a grant to have a library constructed at my school, flew to Philly for a wedding, co-directed two leadership and health camps for girls and boys, and repeatedly said goodbye. It all seems so distant, yet here in America, the most mundane things bring me back to my Rwandan life:  

  • Water- Hot showers are magical in that pressured hot water falls from above on command. I am forever thankful for their convenience and aware of the quantity of water I use as I compare it to bucket bathing. Similarly, I now can’t not think about how much water is used to flush a toilet, 1.6+ gallons, every time I flush. It took me some time to get reacquainted with the idea that tap water is safe to drink (in most American cities anyway).
  • Language- Since coming back to America, I hear so much English. I understand strangers talking nonsense in the park. Random people on the street can understand me asking for directions because I got lost again. That being said, Kinyarwanda creeps up in my mind and out my mouth at unexpected times. I was trying on clothes in South Florida at a department store. A worker gave me instructions in Spanish and I responded with, “Sawa.” Sawa is Swahili in origin but it is used in many East African countries. It means, okay, sure, fine. It is meaningless in Spanish and meaningless in English.
  • Food- I still eat a surprising amount of beans and rice. The avocados in stores here make me sad for their lack of size and absurd price. Overall though, most fruits and vegetables are too big and bright and I miss my local market.

Looking back on the country I called home for 28 months, I have many thoughts. Rwanda is impressive. The government encourages their students to read and teachers are being trained to promote critical thinking skills across all subjects. Entrepreneurship is valued and is a required class in middle school. The country suffered a devastating genocide just 24 years ago but today perpetrators and survivors live together in peace. The people don’t differentiate between Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa because they are all Rwandan. Sixty-four percent of the country’s legislature is made up of women. Plastic bags are banned and Kigali prides itself on being the cleanest city in Africa. Kigali also often plays host to many international conferences. Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world according to internet lists and personal experiences.

On paper, the above looks fine and dandy. Unfortunately, it does not reflect all the realities I learned about and observed. When I was interviewing librarian applicants, I asked, “What is your favorite book, or a book you liked that you read recently?” Without exception, the answer was either the Bible or a textbook. Both types of books are never questioned. Authority is never questioned. Subsequent girls and boys camps highlighted the gender inequalities faced by young Rwandans. The boys had much better English, likely because they are more encouraged, respected,  and called on more to participate in class, as well as tasked with less work at home, amounting to more time to study and rest. The boys had cell phones and wallets with money. The girls did not. At 12, 13, and 14 years old, the effects of treating boys and girls differently is apparent. While plastic bags are banned, burning plastic is perfectly acceptable. Rwanda really is one of the safest countries in the world– as long as you follow the rules and agree with the government. Speaking of which, Paul Kagame has been in charge since leading the rebels to victory, ending the genocide. The BBC was indefinitely banned from Rwanda in 2015 after they aired a documentary putting into question Kagame’s role in the genocide and human right’s allegations. Also in 2015, the people voted to change their constitution, allowing PK to run for a third seven-year term. His Excellency went on to win with 98.79 percent of the vote. #Democracy. 

Obviously, in America we have our own problems and our international friends see them too. I have had to answer questions from my students and neighbors. “Why do the police shoot black people?” “Do you have fear to return to America?” “Why does Mr. Trump not like Africans?” 

Would I recommend going to Rwanda? Eh. Doing Peace Corps? Negative. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Living in a remote village separated from all you know and are comfortable with is certainly and understandably not for everyone. It is beautiful and the people were welcoming. However, having to constantly be aware of what you say and how much skin you are exposing is exhausting. The bureaucracy of Peace Corps can be infuriating. (E.g, I can go home for the wedding. I can’t go home for the wedding. I can go home for the wedding but I have to stay until January. I can go home for the wedding but then I can’t return to direct the camps. I can go home for the wedding and I can leave just before Christmas.) The challenges I faced in Rwanda thrust me into a new level of growth and awareness. I think differently. I see the world differently. For me, it was worth it.

Back in America, in my hometown, things are more or less unchanged, albeit more babies, marriages, and other “adult moves.” I was home for Christmas and then went to Florida because, winter. I was startled by the cold air in grocery stores and overwhelmed with the number of options for everything. Why are there so many Oreo flavors? I was confused and put back when someone threatened to “Venmo me.” People speak in FaceTime and Bitmojis and gifs. I didn’t even get an American phone number until two months after leaving Rwanda because holy Wifi everywhere. After a few weeks of catching up with good friends and sand in Florida, I went to Belize for a month. Why? Because I found a flight for $67 and there were no visa requirements and I had no job.

Through Workaway, I exchanged 4 hours of daily labor for food and shelter. I stayed on a homestead with Americans who believe humans will be extinct in about eight years. It would take me years to thoroughly investigate and research their claims myself. Honestly, I don’t care enough to do so. Maybe that is because I don’t have any children. Maybe I’d just rather not know my expiration date. Maybe I don’t care because I am already living in the way that I want regardless of my death date. If the end of our race is doomed in our lifetime and we can’t reverse that fate, then why fret? In addition to discussing whether we will melt or starve to death in the end, I learned how to work a saw cutter, paint, tend to fowl and sheep, garden, and cook like a Belizean.

 

 

Other highlights (I was going to say less morbid highlights, but the Mayan history is mighty morbid) from Belize were the ATM Cave and Caye Caulker I don’t have any photos from the cave because a tourist dropped his camera on an old Mayan skull and ruined it for the rest of us. Our tour guide/archaeologist did have us hold some teeth and finger bones and I’m not sure how kosher that was. I don’t have any photos of Caye Caulker because I had no phone and no camera by that time. Belize really is an easy place for Americans to travel to; besides having delicious food and being beautiful and affordable, most people speak English and accept USD.

Fast forward to today, I am living in Salt Lake City and working in wilderness therapy. I work in the desert eight days at a time with teens who come for a variety of reasons. Generally, they are all here to learn safe coping mechanisms and healthy communication skills. We also learn how to make fire out of some sticks, string, and a rock. I literally can’t get a raise until I make a fire this way. Plus, it might come in handy when the world ends in eight years…

SLC is much different than any other city I have spent any significant amount of time in. It is small, with about 200,000 people in the city and a little over one million when you throw in the metropolitan area. Pedestrians have bright orange flags to carry when crossing the street and drivers come to a complete halt as soon as a person steps foot on the blacktop. The city has big nice buses that are never filled. I took the bus downtown one Friday afternoon and, as the only passenger, the driver asked me if I knew the route and where he is supposed to turn (!!?). People smile and wave for seemingly no reason. Doors to houses and cars go unlocked and bikes are left unattended. The population, besides being 75% white with a growing Latino population, is an interesting mix of devout Mormons, LGBTQ+ folks, and transplants seeking the outdoor culture of Denver at a fraction of the price. I say SLC is different, but I continue to realize the uniqueness of Philly with our parking cars on medians in the middle of the street, eating Chipwiches from the Fudgie Wudgie Man, and the tendency to climb and/or break poles in celebration and excitement. Go Birds! But, SLC is my home now; I am successfully no longer reeninrwanda.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As they say in Rwanda, Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

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