Slowly by Slowly

“Buhoro buhoro.” 
“Slowly by slowly.”

Everything  in Africa happens buhoro buhoro, it seems.

Our paperwork and medical interviews happened this way, and we said, “Buhoro buhoro” as we sat for hours waiting  our turns. 

Our language training is happening this way, and I say, “Buhoro buhoro” as I struggle to form basic sentences and remember simple vocabulary. 

My integration is happening this way, and I say, “Buhoro buhoro” as I question yet another mundane aspect of life or try to find a way to help without being in the way. 

I come from a culture in which everything happens fast. Commercials advertise devices to save us time, to allow us to multitask, to do a hundred things at once. We study time management and grumble about backed up traffic or late public transportation. 

I often joke that the things that enrage me most are exploitation of vulnerable people and slow walkers on the sidewalk. 

It’s not true, of course, but the fact that so many people identify with the sentiment shows the deep-rooted value we place on speed. 

And now I’ve jumped head-first into a culture in which nothing happens fast (except the bike taxis, which will run you down!), and I find myself often tapping my toes impatiently, grumbling about backed up paperwork or late scheduling. 

Once you get past your instinctive dislike of slowness, though, you begin to feel that there’s a comforting charm to this slow culture. 

Africa doesn’t rush you to know the answer. It doesn’t push you to walk a little faster, get a little more done, skip breakfast to get to work. 

It lets you sit a moment. It lets you step away from stirring beans over the charcoal-burning imbabura to play a little informal soccer with the children. 

Even the work feels restful. 
As my work gets harder—as language proficiency seems a lifetime away and the training sessions overwhelm me—I remind myself to rest. 

I tell myself, “Buhoro buhoro.”

Slowly by slowly I will learn this language. Slowly by slowly I will understand this culture. Slowly by slowly I will build relationships, and slowly by slowly I will accomplish the work set out for me. 

It’s  no good rushing it. This is Rwanda, and Rwanda, it seems, will not be rushed. 

So instead, I sit back. I watch the sky change colours above the banana fields, and I watch the people trudging along the red roads. 

Life here comes buhoro buhoro, and buhoro buhoro is the way I’ll take it.

 Apologies for the lack of photos! I’ve been struggling with my internet and I can’t get WordPress to upload any photos right now. So hey—follow me on Instagram for daily photos and new words in Kinyarwanda! 

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Do You Understand?

“Murabyumva? Murabyumva?”

“Do you understand? Do you understand?”

Eight of us in the classroom chorus, “Yego!”—“Yes!”— in response, even though we’re not sure we understand.

All day this has been going on. We’re saturated with new words, new sounds, new expressions. Our language trainers laugh and clap for us every time we muddle through a word, even when we mangle the foreign sounds with our clumsy American tongues.

Every few minutes, one of them grins at us and asks, “Murabyumva?”

Once in a while, too confused to fake it or maybe just brave enough to admit it, one of us answers, “Oya!”—“No!”

Sometimes, if we’re too overwhelmed to put together a reasonable understanding from the liberal flow of Kinyarwanda and never-ending pantomime our teachers use, they pause and patiently use English to explain the specific meaning of a word or the slight contextual difference between “muramuke” and “ijororyiza.”

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In the space of a few days, this has become my reality.

I’ve gone from feeling like a more-or-less adult to feeling like a child. My vocabulary is limited to basic greetings, “thank you,” “yes” and “no,” and “I want.” I don’t recognise most of the food. I don’t know the customs or the culture. I don’t even know how to ask for the bathroom (I asked someone, and she said, “It’s more complicated,” and didn’t tell me).

I’ve always liked to know everything—to be aware of all the ins and outs, to know the reasons behind everything, to be able to predict and control. I can’t do that anymore.

I don’t know the ins and outs of Rwandan culture or language. I can’t predict anyone’s responses or behaviour. I can’t guess what sounds should go together or how to rearrange my limited vocabulary into a different sentence than the formulaic dialogue on the board.

I’m ignorant and dependent—dependent on my host country’s goodwill and condescension, dependent on my teachers’ forgiveness for my unwitting faux pas, dependent on everyone else’s bilingual abilities to compensate for my own lack of language.

Now that I have no choice, I’m finding that there’s a kind of joy to it.

There’s a freedom I’ve seldom allowed myself in situations I can control. Freedom to make mistakes, freedom to forget, freedom to laugh at myself.

There’s a grace—from myself, from my peers, from my trainers. Grace that says, “Yego!” or “Ni byiza!”—“It’s good!”—when I fumble a word or fudge a phoneme. Grace that cheers for each attempt no matter the failure and acknowledges varying levels of skill as all equally acceptable.

There’s a beauty in the struggle to learn something wholly new, to create sounds that my tongue has never formed before, to admit my utter lack of knowledge and to sit humbly, repeating new phrases like a child, accepting smiles and laughter and wholehearted encouragement from my trainers.

There’s a beauty in not knowing. There’s a beauty in being helpless.

This position of complete vulnerability gives me a new permission to see every tiny step as a great achievement. Instead of criticising my insufficiencies until I reach some high benchmark, I’m allowing myself to celebrate each inch I gain.

In the space of a few days, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with not knowing. I’ve learned to ask dumb questions and then ask them again when I don’t understand answers. To pretend I know and trust that at some point in the future, I will. To say “Yego!” when the teacher asks, “Murabyumva?” and to believe that all the tangles of phonemes will separate themselves in time and that for now it is okay to repeat them half-knowingly, to scramble the mixed consonants, and to laugh and clap and call out “Yego!” for my smallest successes.

I’m Off!

This is a quick goodbye—after a great whirlwind of a staging event in Philly, I and some 47 other Peace Corps Trainees are off to Rwanda!

I don’t know when I’ll have internet again; it could be a few days, and it could be a few weeks. I’ve been given to understand that the internet at our training site is spotty at best. I’ll be back as soon as possible!

In the meantime, a quick reminder that the “Rwanda Updates” dropdown has a few different pages that may or may not be interesting to you, including how to send me mail. Also a reminder that these pages will not send you email notifications when I update them; you’ll have to actually go there and read them from time to time. 😀

And, as always, thank you for coming along with me on this next adventure!

Halfway

A. A. Milne wrote a poem called “Halfway Down.” The second verse goes like this:

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!

Tonight I find myself on that halfway stair.

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I’m halfway here or there—halfway home or not—halfway staying or going—halfway beginning or ending.

All of my things are packed, either inaccessible in suitcases to be locked in checked baggage, or carefully situated in my carry-on, or safely tucked away in storage bins to await my return. This puts me in a strange position, just for twelve hours or so, of having nothing.

It’s a feeling of rootlessness I know too well and yet am always surprised by—this question of where I live, where I belong. At the moment, it’s easy to pinpoint; I certainly don’t live here anymore, but I certainly don’t live in Rwanda yet.

Sometimes it’s more subtle, not marked by where I’ve settled or not settled but by a quiet awareness inside me. Sometimes it’s the unexpected distaste of filling my office with personal items. Sometimes it’s the reluctance to actually unpack a suitcase, since I’ll probably be packing it again soon. Sometimes it’s a fake smile when I meet a new friend, or a longing glance at a world map on a passing wall.

My halfway stair is clear to see at the moment, dramatically bookended by two very different countries, by an obvious before and after. It’s all too clear that this is the step breaking my life in half—my childhood and my adulthood suddenly splitting away from each other in the scanning of a boarding pass.

But there have been other halfway stairs. Sometimes it feels like my whole life is a halfway stair, frozen between something and something else—I seldom know what. My whole life feels like that moment between a long sigh and a sudden inhale.

Neil Das wrote a “Haiku on Moving—For Friends Newly Moved”:

home’s the skin we live
in, moving its shedding; you
now new and tender

they say you leave your
heart, i say your lungs; it may
take some time to breathe

How to Say Goodbye

I’ve made a lot of goodbyes in my relatively brief lifetime. Long ones, short ones; temporary ones, permanent ones. Some I saw coming for years, and others appeared out of nowhere, bumps in an unexpected turn in the road.

And I’m facing another one.

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I hate goodbyes—the messy emotions, the awkward eye contact, the lingering guilt of being excited to leave while I’m folded in one last hug. I’ve avoided them, skipped out on them, brushed past them. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to do them properly.

But what makes a proper goodbye?

I’ve heard formulas and read advice—mostly checklists of things you ought to do and say and feel, places you should go, people you must see one last time.

I hate seeing an inherently emotional experience laid out like a to-do list. Goodbyes are deeply personal, painfully beautiful moments in which we pass from one world to another. They are, to me at least, too mystical for the mundanity of mnemonic reminders and check boxes.

It’s not about a formula; I think it’s about balance.

See, I’ve tried wallowing in the impending loss, and I’ve tried waltzing away without looking over my shoulder. Neither leads to satisfying transition. So I’m striving for balance, for an intentional halfway between disregarding my present and fearing my future.

I’m preparing to arrive in Kigali while preparing to leave Arizona, nurturing the anticipating and tending the grief simultaneously. I walk a fine line, noticing all the lasts while envisioning all the firsts.

I wonder if I’ll have a new pet as my dog licks my fingers, and at the moment I envision some vague, furry shape in my future, I realise my absence will be an eternity for this solid furry shape in my present.

I buy seeds to plant my favourite herbs and vegetables in my future garden, and I know I will not see the first flowers and fruits of the baby trees growing now in my present garden.

I hope my unknown host family will like me even while I’m exchanging bad puns and sarcastic banter with the family I’ve always known.

A photo by Kalle Kortelainen. unsplash.com/photos/HnWoAM0bMec

Every day, every moment, I am beginning goodbyes.

Goodbye to my books as I stack them in bins for storage. Goodbye to short shorts as I pack for a more conservative culture. Goodbye to soul-baking desert heat as I look forward to a milder climate.

Goodbye to the sunflowers we picked along the highway and planted in the backyard, and goodbye to the overgrown tomato vine that supplies my breakfast so often. Goodbye to morning cuddles when my mother flops on top of me to wake me up, and goodbye to evening scuffles when my brother tries to correct my faulty karate form.

It’s goodbye to more than that, though. It’s goodbye to effortless communication and innate cultural understanding, to time-proved friendships and subconscious patterns enforced by years of interaction. It’s goodbye to knowing how I fit into the social structure.

It’s goodbye to everything familiar.

Every day, every moment, I am beginning to grieve, to see the world through the lens of an upcoming ending.

Every hug, every wave, every “see you later” might be the last. Every flash of light against familiar walls and rooftops is the sun setting on this part of my life. Every drop of rain as the monsoon season finally wrings itself out is time washing away what I know.

Saying goodbye properly, I think, is not a matter of right or wrong, of checking every correct action off a list before you step onto a plane and into your future. Goodbye isn’t a ritual of words and hugs, a cliché of tears and tissues.

Goodbye is a perspective.

It’s noticing the moments passing and embracing them while you can. It’s acknowledging the apprehension and excitement tangled up inside you as you consider your future and knowing they are both valid, natural, healthy. It’s slowing down for the view you may never see again and still speeding up for the one you’ve never seen before.

It’s knowing that the road always curves, that goodbye is inevitable, and that, whether or not you ever loop back to this stretch, the road beyond the bend holds adventures, joys, sorrows—life.

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