Home

“Ndi gutaha.” 

“I’m going home.”

Those words rattled in my head with every bump of the crowded bus from Kayonza to Rwamagana. They bounced with my every step up familiar sidewalks and down dirt roads until I rounded that last curve by the banana plants and saw the familiar red gate rising at the end of the path. 

Home is a complicated concept—a network of small towns and rising cities and beloved people around the world—and somehow in the past six weeks, it’s expanded to include a cement and mud-brick compound on the outskirts of Rwamagana town. 

It’s been a rough week. For site visit, I left the comfort of my host family with my school’s Dean of Studies, a near stranger, and travelled to a different district to spend four days learning a new town and new people. 

Sometime amid the tears of fear and frustration this week, I realised culture shock had caught up with me. 

The name makes it sound like a sudden surprise at clear cultural differences, but the truth is it’s less of a shock and more of a pervading exhaustion. You go along thinking you’re fine, but it builds up little by little until, out of nowhere, you’re tired beyond belief. 

It’s a gradual wearing down beneath the grindstone of a million tiny things you don’t even notice in the moment. 

It’s the disproportionate effort required to communicate. It’s being stared at, shouted at, and touched on the street. It’s considering starving rather than take one more bite of unseasoned beans, and then taking one more bite. It’s struggling to keep my shoes clean and knowing that no matter how dirty someone else’s feet, mine are the ones being judged. It’s having to question the cultural assumptions behind any question. It’s not knowing the fair price of anything. It’s wondering whether I’ll ever have cheese or ice cream or chocolate ever again. 

It’s my fight-or-flight never resting, because I have no prior knowledge by which to predict any situation. 

At the beginning of this journey, someone gave us this advice: 

“Fall in love with your country as soon as possible.”

Someone else (probably on Welcome to Night Vale, to be honest) said this: 

“Growing to love something is simply forgetting, slowly, what you dislike about it.”

In the moments when life here feels like a storm battering me, when I think I will break if I’m bent any further, it’s all too easy to remember what I dislike about this country and to forget all the things I love. 

But there are things I love, even when I’m drowning under waves of culture shock and exhaustion. 

I love the rolling hills patterned with fields of beans and rice, the dry rattle of banana leaves in the wind before a rainstorm, the music rolling out the doors of boutiques and down the street. 

I love the warm greetings of shopkeepers I know and the tendency of old ladies to pull me in for a hug instead of shaking hands. 

I love the uninhibited joy of children and adults alike whenever there’s a game or a song or a good conversation. 

I love the goats by the side of the road and the tiny, impossibly blue swallows that dart and dive and swoop bat-like and the magpies and hawks vying for the right to circle any place that might have food. 

I love the sunsets and the dark storm clouds and the vibrant dirt roads. 

And today, when I knocked on that big red gate and heard a patter of feet and the bolt screeching back, I discovered I love the look of surprised delight on Simbi’s face, and I love hearing Nziza chanting my name before I ever reach the door, and I love Hiro’s silent, tight hugs.

I love walking into this place, so strange to me a month ago, and knowing I’ve come home. 

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Foreigner

“Umuzungu!” 

It means “white person” or “foreigner.”

It follows me like a shadow. Children shout it from a distance—either hailing me or pointing me out to one another, I’m not always sure which. Old women mutter it to one another as I walk past. Men on bike taxis call it, maybe surprised to see me, maybe just hoping I want to pay for a ride. 

Some days I accept it with amusement. 

“Well, they’re not wrong,” I’ve said on more than one occasion. 

When I’m in good humour,  if it’s children calling it, I’ll pause on my way and turn to call back to them, “Sinitwa ‘umuzungu’—nitwa Elizabeth!” (“My name is not ‘umuzungu’—my name is Elizabeth!”) Sometimes they repeat this, laughing. If they keep up with me, I often ask their names in return. 

Sometimes it intimidates them and they stop following me and simply watch, eyes wide, maybe surprised to hear me speak their language, maybe surprised a foreigner could have a name, maybe surprised I responded at all.

When I’m in a bad humour, I walk a little faster, hold my head a little higher, keep my eyes forward and pretend not to have heard. On these days, instead of drawing a laugh, the word twists my stomach into a nervous cramp.

It grows tiring, this constant attention. The stares in the streets, the shouts of ragged English behind me, the children giggling and daring each other to run toward me or hanging back, watching… 

This week a toddler on the back of a slow-moving bicycle turned to watch me walk up behind him. In awed tones he said, “Umuzungu!” 

As I passed, I heard the woman walking beside him say, “Oya.”—“No.” And then, in careful English, she said, “This is a person.”

I almost turned and thanked her. 

I almost cried. 

In the past month, I’ve grown accustomed to having most of my identity disregarded every moment I’m in public. I’ve become used to knowing that when people see me, the whiteness of my skin supercedes anything else I may be. That I am a writer, an American, a recent graduate, a musician, or anything else is unimportant. That I so much as have a name becomes secondary to the fact that I am umuzungu. 

I have accepted this fact so thoroughly that in that moment I was surprised by the overwhelming rush of gratitude and relief on hearing a stranger teach her child that I am a person first and a foreigner second. 

But she may have been teaching me, too. 

In the past month, I have also grown accustomed to disregarding other people’s identities. 

I ask passing children their names for lack of better conversation, but I forget them immediately.  I cease to see them as individuals, as siblings or friends, as aspiring teachers or doctors or social workers, as mucisians or athletes or anything else. Instead I begin to see them as “the polite child” or “the one who always asks for money.”

I may not reduce people to the colour of their skin, but I reduce them to the quality of their words.

On good days, I may class all the strangers I pass as curious, benevolent bystanders. On bad days, I may reduce them all to hostile, invasive watchers. Either way, I deny their individuality.

I begin to see them all as either clean or dirty, as either welcoming or unfriendly, as likely to either cheat me or deal fairly. 

Any of these things might be true, just as it is indisputably true that I am umuzungu. 

I am a white foreigner, but before that, I am a person. 

And, thanks to a wise young woman I happened to pass one morning, I’m trying to keep in mind that each of these people watching me is also, before anything else, a person. 

It’s Good

“Ni byiza.” 

“It’s good.”

We learned this phrase in our first language session, and over the past few weeks, I’ve caught myself repeating it over and over. 

In the beginning, I didn’t know a better response for almost any question I was asked. How was I doing? Ni byiza. How was the food? Ni byiza. How was language learning? Ni byiza. 

I still catch myself saying this often, especially when discussing some quirk of Rwandan culture of some embarrassing language or cultural mistake. 

This whole experience is beginning to divide into categories in my mind. 

Things I expected:

  • Hot sun and dusty roads 
  • Lots of staring
  • Rice and beans
  • Noun classes
  • Sunburns and bug bites
  • Bucket showers and pit latrines 
  • Slow/nonexistent internet 
  • Cows and chickens on the roads
  • Haggling in the market 
  • House help
  • Long lessons
  • Language barrier 
  • Fear of standing in front of a classroom

Things I didn’t expect:

  • Reserved culture—Rwandans are nice but more standoffish than I’d expected
  • Chilly days
  • Almost total lack of non-meat animals (aside from ubiquitous giant magpie-looking birds) 
  • Almost total lack of coffee
  • Extremely supportive PCVs constantly on hand to answer questions and ease our transition 
  • Lack of daily rain during rainy season
  • Lack of humidity
  • Effort involved in acquiring water 
  • Brushing teeth with a water bottle and spitting into a latrine drain
  • Total inability to connect laptop to internet 
  • Extreme ease of texting/calling family and friends in the States 
  • Being unable to buy a pillow for weeks on end
  • Mixed consonants
  • Another TCK in the group 
  • Receiving preferential treatment from my host family—I still get fed first and take my tea out of nice mugs that nobody else in the family uses

Things I’m still uncomfortable with:

  • Bucket showers
  • Being stared at/followed/called “muzungu”  (“white person” or “foreigner”) 
  • Being uncertain whether any given child approaching will ignore me, follow silently, great me politely, or demand money
  • Constant people and social pressure wearing me out 
  • The concept of me as a teacher
  • Dichotomy between cultural emphasis on cleanliness and lack of some forms of hygiene—significantly hand washing 
  • Verb tenses 
  • Pressure on women to dress/behave properly 
  • Many cockroaches and a rat in my latrine
  • People talking very quietly 
  • Cooking over a charcoal stove

Thinks I’m surprised to discover I like:

  • Pit latrines—you never actually touch the facilities, so it feels cleaner than a toilet and smells better than any outhouse I’ve ever encountered
  • Market shopping—overwhelming, but satisfying and comfortable now that I know a few vendors
  • Repetitive food
  • Learning about the Rwandan school system
  • Porridge
  • Green bananas
  • Evenings at the garden bar with 40 other Americans 
  • Eating supper at 8:30 or 9:00
  • Watching the news in Kinyarwanda and understanding every fifth word 
  • Trying  to converse with my umukozi despite a complete language barrier 
  • Chatting with passing strangers on the walk home
  • Kinyarwanda’s complexity

    These lists grow and shrink moment by moment, experience by experience. Ultimately, to each item, I find myself saying, “Ni byiza.” 

    The expected and the unexpected are equally good. Recognising what I dislike is as valuable as noticing what I enjoy about this new life. Ni byiza, all of it. 

    The more I say it, the more I realise it’s not a judgment I get to pass on the culture or situation, but a position I take. It’s a choice to see each of these things as somehow, in some way, good. 

    I don’t get to choose any of these things. This is where I am, and this is the way things are, and the choice I have when faced with this is to recognise all of it and say, “Ni byiza.” 

    A Season for Rain

    “Igihe cy’imvura.” 

    “Rainy season.”

    They told us when we came that it was the beginning of rainy season. 

    When I first came home, my host father told me, “This is a season for rain.” 

    He continued to tell me this whenever it sprinkled, and I, having seen after a week nothing more intimidating than a long drizzle, began to doubt that “a season for rain” in Rwanda had the same tin-roof-rattling, soul-drenching connotations as rainy season in Panama. 

    On Saturday, though, this season for rain settled in with gusto. 

    It pelted down, deafening on the rooftops. It killed the electricity for hours and drenched me on my sprint to the latrine before bed—a cautious sprint, because the water running through the compound had already made my flip-flops treacherous and left a sizeable bruise on one hip. 

    It set the thick orange mud flowing.

    In Rwanda, it seems, a fine layer of dust collects everywhere despite everyone’s constant sweeping and scrubbing. Everything looked clean until the rain hit, and then rivulets of muddy water streamed across the porch I’d thought pristine. The courtyard our umukozi scrubs every morning ran brown and yellow. Grit and slime collected in my shoes, between my toes, around my ankles. 

    Now, in this second week with my host family, I think that dust has been collecting inside me, too—imperceptibly, in places I thought I’d kept clean. 

    As the sunshine of my first experiences disappears behind dark clouds of repetition and exhaustion, it is a time for rain. 

    As the raindrops fall, I see that tiny irritations I thought I’d brushed off have collected and now, brought to life, flood muddy through me. 

    Things like having my food choices questioned solicitously yet relentlessly at every meal.

    Finding that every conversation in Kinyarwanda is too many words beyond my comprehension. 

    Feeling isolated by distance from town and lack of good internet to access my usual communication channels. 

    Desiring to integrate yet needing to recharge alone. 

    Fighting bugs in the latrine and stares on the streets. 

    Hearing “umuzungu!” everywhere I go. 

    Developing canker sores as a side effect of my malaria prophylaxis. 

    They collect like dust in the crevices of my soul, and as the raindrops of tedium, weariness, and failure fall, they thicken, collecting in puddles and rivers until they seem to be everywhere. 

    The mud in Rwanda is like no mud I’ve seen before. It’s bright orange and ubiquitous. It sticks to everything it touches, flicks up behind each step to speckle my trousers, goops between my toes, cakes my shoes. On rainy days, not only the dirt roads are muddy; the asphalt and concrete run with muddy water. There are no clean puddles to rinse my feet. The mud seems to be on everything—the roads, the walls, the people—until it’s all I can see. 

    At first look, the rain doesn’t seem to wash clean anything that wasn’t clean before; it seems to merely spread the mud. 

    But after a while, I can see where the rainwater has cleaned great patches of white concrete on the side of the house. I can see the trees gleaming, washed of the dust that muted their leaves. 

    The rain accentuates the dust and dirt, but it also ultimately washes it all down to the ground. 

    And with time, I can see that the rain in my life is washing away the muck. With repetition, I begin to see the clear patches. 

    Finally mastering the art of walking to the shower without my igitenga slipping. 

    Being one of the few trainees who didn’t experience unpleasant splattering or missing the hole during my first visits to the pit latrine. 

    Understanding more and more words in my host family’s conversations. 

    Hearing my host siblings say they love me. 

    Being able to text my friends and family in the US as much as I want. 

    Ordering food successfully in Rwandan restaurants.

    Making brief friends with strangers on my long walk home. 

    This is igihe cy’imvura—this is a season for rain. 

    It soaks through my trousers, splatters on my hair, and turns the red dirt roads into an orange morass. It’s cold and inconvenient, but it washes down the houses. It nourishes the crops. It cleans the air. 

    And it always ends. 

    Soon enough it will be dry season. Dust will clog my nose and coat my shoes and rise in clouds from the roads, and it will bring its own troubles. 

    So for today, I can only embrace this season of rain.