Monday, August 6, 2012
I wake up and find that I’m still in Rwanda.
There’s always a period of mild culture shock following conferences. The week and a half following COS conference has been no exception. When all fifty of us get together, we’re like our own little version of reality, our own self-contained culture. We retell the bizarre things we’ve experienced with humor and irony, putting a buffer between us and the realities of life at site. But then I return to Gihara, watch the paved road shrink behind me as I moto past clusters of waving children, choke on the thick, red road dust and inhale the smoke of something burning that shouldn’t be burning, and realize that this is still real. It’s not just a story to tell and retell. Not yet, anyway. I’m still here.
Jean Paul, a village umusazi,* is outside my house talking to himself. He used to bucket-bathe on my front porch but he’s stopped doing that since the convent ran out of water. His incessant rambling used to bother me, but now I sit and talk with him in English and he responds in Kinyarwanda. Sometimes I tell him my problems when I don’t feel like burdening anyone else. I wanted to talk to him this morning, but he wandered off. I wanted to tell him, “Jean Paul, I don’t ever want to leave Rwanda, but I also want to get on a plane tonight and never look back. Is that strange?”
He would have responded, “Na-na-na-navuze ni umuntu mubi cyane na ndababita iyo bafata ibintu byange byose.” He’s always talking about people beating him or taking his things even though I’m pretty sure he owns nothing other than the clothes he has on. I can only imagine what he’s been through.
The day after I got back to site I visited Uwizeyimana, a girl who was in one of my S2 classes. She stopped showing up about three weeks before exams. Every time I saw her in street I asked her why she wasn’t coming to class anymore and she never gave me a straight response. I only recently figured out why she stopped coming – her reasons are too personal for my blog, so I’ll just say it’s health-related. Before I left for COS I promised her mother I’d come visit her at home. If not for that verbal contract, I might have gotten cold feet. I had no idea what to say to her, no words of wisdom or comfort that seemed adequate.
Uwizeyimana lives in a three-room house made of mud and thatch. Her mother, older sister, younger brother and three other children also live there. When I arrived she brought out tea and food she’d cooked specially for me. We spent a lot of time talking around her “problem” in mixed Kinyarwanda and English. I told her that every day I took roll call and found her absent, it hurt my heart. She smiled, hid her face and said, “Teacher, I’m sorry.” I told her she had no reason to be sorry, I was just happy to know why she couldn’t come to school. I said I’d come back to visit her so we could keep speaking English together. “It’s important to learn any way you can,” I said. She smiled again.
I told her I’ll be leaving Rwanda in November. She said, “You will forget me.” I said, “That isn’t possible.”
Nearly four months before leaving, I’m already regretting things I haven’t been able to do. I wish I’d visited more students at their homes, given more of them individualized attention. I wish I’d given them more than just an English club, GLOW Camp, office hours and the lyrics to “Lean On Me.” Luckily there’s still time left, as long as I can muster the courage to keep on going.
To keep waking up in Rwanda.
*Umusazi means “crazy person” in Kinyarwanda.