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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Another Average Day

Today I woke up at 5:15. I spent half an hour watching the sky lighten through my window. The dawn breaks twice here. Once over the horizon, once over the roof of the convent. You have to see it to really understand.

We’ve been doing a lot of group work in my English classes. I like it because the students can talk and I can circulate. Today while I was circulating I felt something tug at my hair. I turned around and found one of my students crouching on top of her desk with her arm outstretched. She was trying to touch my hair without me noticing. When I turned and saw her she gave me a look of utter mortification and almost fell off her desk. The class burst out laughing. I guess this is one unforeseen problem with letting my hair grow out.

I went for a walk after teaching and found a little boy sitting by the road in nothing but a dirty tee shirt. He couldn’t have been older than four. He had a small scythe and was playing with the sharp end, a sadly common sight. I wanted to intervene without scaring him so I crouched down a few feet away from him and whispered, “Hey, kid!” He looked up at me and grinned. “Muzuuunguuu,” he cooed. I was about to tell him I had a name and that it wasn’t muzungu but before I could say anything he dropped the scythe, ran over, and wound both arms around my neck. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Muzuuuuunguuuu,” he said, and started nuzzling my face. Children are often curious about me but the nuzzling definitely wasn’t something I’d encountered before. I tried to stand up. He went with me, dangling off my neck. I told him I had to go. He wrapped his legs around my waist. He didn’t let me go until his mother came and told him to leave me alone. I asked her if he had some kind of problem. “He likes muzungus,” she said.

Once a small child ran at me with a stick. I think he intended to defend his house. He was valiant in his attack, though he cried in terror the whole time. So that’s one possible response, and then there’s the boy with the scythe who nuzzled me. I’ll never understand the kids here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chance Meeting

Besides losing the sense of novelty, I’ve thought of another reason why it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep up my blog. I’m also losing sight of what’s relatable.

For the first several months at site I was an American in Rwanda and I could write as an American in Rwanda. Now, after nearly a year spent as a fish out of water, I can’t help but see things through a lens that isn’t exactly American nor exactly Rwandan. The things that shock me, interest me, aggravate me or gratify me increasingly seem like mine alone. This is a problem I thought I shared only with other Peace Corps volunteers and the select few expats who live in cultural isolation like we do.

But then I met Faith.

Last Monday I had just gotten home from school when I heard knock at my door. I answered it with a scowl because I was in the middle of lesson planning and I suspected it was someone asking for food or money. Instead, there was Faith. She was tall and model-slim in distressed jeans and a tee shirt, with bangles on her arms and her short black hair in a faux hawk. She was definitely African but she was like no one I’d ever seen in Rwanda, not even in Kigali. In perfect British English she said, “I heard you have a guitar here. Thought you might let us borrow it, if it‘s not too much trouble.”

I was so taken aback by her perfect English, her accent and directness it didn’t even occur to me to ask who she was. I said, “Yeah, you can borrow it, but it’s travel-size.”

“Oh, you mean one of those tiny ones?” She mimed a ukulele.

“No, it’s…here, let me show you.” I went into the other room and produced my travel guitar, a blue, meter-long fret board with strings. “It’s little!” Faith said, in that perfect British accent. “Yeah,” I said, “but the frets are full-size so you should have no trouble playing it.”

“I’m Faith, by the way,” she said.

That was the beginning of a three-hour conversation that ran the gamut of things from living abroad to cooking to cycling to music to the differences between American and Rwandan culture. Faith, as it turned out, was the niece of Sister Mediatrice, the nun who manages the health center at Gihara. She had been living in London for something like fifteen years but she’d decided it was time to come back home so she was in Rwanda looking for work. “But I don’t think I’ll find anything,” she said. “I’m an artist, you see, and there’s not much of an art world in Rwanda .” She said she mostly did digital photography and ceramics. She comes from an artistic family, to the extent that her brother and sister recorded some of the music for the soundtrack of Hotel Rwanda. Over the course of her life she has lived in Rwanda, Kenya, France and England in roughly that order. She’s a believer in freedom and nonconformity. She’s nonreligious even though her father is a priest and her aunt is a nun. She’s the most eclectic person I think I’ve ever met, and from the moment I first saw her I had a sense I could tell her anything and she’d understand.

It took me awhile to figure out why Faith and I related so strongly. We barely knew each other. We were almost ten years apart in age and came from drastically different backgrounds. But she, like me, is a person out of place. She told me it had been hard coming home because people here treat her like a foreigner. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I’ll be talking to them in fluent Kinyarwanda and they’re staring at me like I’m a zoo animal. I mean, this is where I come from!” I sympathized. If there’s one thing I relate to, it’s being stared at like a zoo animal.

There was more to it than that, though. Faith was the first non-American I’ve met here to whom I could reveal myself completely. In fact, talking to her made me realize what a wall I’d built up around myself. I try not to lie to my Rwandan friends and neighbors outright, but I do act as if I'm a certain kind of person in order to integrate more easily. You could say I play a character. In Gihara I'm soft-spoken, serious, religious, feminine. With Faith, I didn’t have to be any of those things. We laughed about how she had to dig her skirts out of the back of her closet when she came back to Rwanda because people wouldn't like her ripped-up jeans. We talked about going to Amsterdam. We talked about beer. It was wonderful.

We ended up exchanging contact information. She said if I’m ever in London I’m welcome to stay with her. "Mi casa su casa," she said.

Other than meeting Faith, it’s been an unremarkable couple of weeks. I was supposed to finally teach my first English class for teachers last week but so far all we’ve done is agree on a time, a day and a meeting place. Our dean of studies keeps putting pressure on me to teach on weekends even though I’ve told him several times that I’ll be out of site for the English for legal professionals education project and regional meetings at least twice a month on Saturdays, and no one wants classes on Sundays. My students have finally learned how to write coherent paragraphs with introduction and conclusion sentences but I’ve realized too late that their speaking and listening skills sorely need work and I’m not sure what to do about that in the remaining four weeks of the school year. No one seems to know whether final exams are cumulative for the whole year this term. I’ve been feeling a little harried and a little restless lately, but only a little.

The other night I made banana pancakes for dinner and ate them on my porch with Josias. I realized that however stressed I am about my role as a volunteer, I still love it here. That’s got to count for something.