Allyship

Allyship.

There is no word in Kinyarwanda for this concept.

Gloriosa, one of Peace Corps’ Rwandan staff members, explained: “In the Rwandan context, ‘allyship’ isn’t a special word, because you’re supposed to already be there for everyone. . . . There are people around you who count on you.”

But in English, we have this word. Allyship.

ally (v.) to unite for a common cause

In American culture today, this is a politically charged word. It immediately conjures ideas of minorities, systemic oppression, protests, and angry social media posts. But at its simplest, to ally means to join together for a cause.

To stand with someone. To support them.

At a recent Peace Corps conference, we discussed this idea of allyship. We talked about what it means to us and the different ways we see it—or don’t see it—in our own lives. I was struck by the intensity of the feelings revealed during this discussion, and by the unexpected bits of wisdom and poetry presented as people allowed themselves to be vulnerable.

Let me share some of their words with you.

“Being an ally is being okay with being uncomfortable . . . to help someone avoid being hurt.” – Aimee Carlson

Here in Rwanda, allyship takes on a more personal significance for all of us. In this context, in this place where we are perpetually other, we become uniquely aware of our own diversities.

Some of us are PCVs of colour who struggle against stereotypes of what an American should or should not look like.

Others of us represent diverse genders or sexualities and struggle to fit into a culture that doesn’t accept or acknowledge those aspects of our identities.

Justice will not happen “…until my pain is your pain…until I step down from my fight and you step up.” – Dominique Henderson

We may represent minority religions or no religion—both cause interpersonal discomfort in a highly religious culture.

Still others of us are differently abled physically or live with mental/emotional health problems that make daily life a unique struggle.

“Being an ally requires us to constantly manage our own ignorance.” – Claire Pennington

We come from different socioeconomic, family, and educational backgrounds but face the stereotype that all Americans are wealthy and successful.

Many of us are single and have to justify this to neighbours, coworkers, and even strangers on the bus.

“You won’t fix them. . . They don’t want you to . . . Its someone else’s struggle.” – Stina Stannik

Our desperate need for allies is thrown into stark relief against the backdrop of life in Rwanda. Our need is not merely for political allies but for personal allies, at times and in ways that we never would have imagined.

We live isolated lives here. We see each other from time to time, but in general we live alone in our villages, tiny islands of our own culture in the midst of people we love but sometimes cannot comprehend. People with whom we often cannot share our struggles or to whom we cannot explain our fears. Well-meaning people who are at times the cause of these struggles and fears.

“Absorb some of their pain into yourself.” – Claire Pennington

So we become allies for each other.

We correct stereotypes over and over, even when they don’t apply to our own identities. We listen to one another’s fear and despair and exhaustion and tell one another that it’s okay to be tired and afraid and so done with this. We celebrate one another’s small victories. We acknowledge one another’s identities. We do the small things we can do—over the phone at night after long days; over beers in regional towns on weekends; over WhatsApp in between classes and visits and lesson planning.

“I am an individual in a community made up of people who I don’t have to know to defend.” – Gloriosa Uwimpuhwe

Allyship looks different here than you might expect. We find it in unexpected places and at unexpected times, and not always in just PCVs.

I find it in the lady at the market who shields me from unwanted attention. In another single woman who tells me it’s okay not to be married. In a teacher who accepts that my dog and cat are my family here and always asks how they’re doing. In a neighbour who tells others not to ask me for money. In my headmaster who tells the teachers and students my name and asks them not to call me muzungu. In Peace Corps staff who acknowledge how difficult it can be to integrate and who remind me to take time for my own mental health.

“Before taking action, we need to listen to the problem, understand the problem, and accept that a problem is there.” – Esperance Munganyinka

In some ways, each one of us has it easier than the others. In some ways, each one of us has it harder. We find it essential to stand for each other—to join together for a cause.

My time in Rwanda has taught me many things, but this is one that I’m just now realising—the value of allies. The inevitability of each person having some unique aspect of identity that puts them in need of someone to stand with them.

The simple yet elusive truth that each of us needs allyship in a different way.

“What people want is for other people to not be afraid of their diversity (but not be stupid). . . to walk into the world with them.” – Claire Pennington

For many, it is political. For many others, it is personal. For all of us—no matter our identities, no matter our diversities, whether in Rwanda or America or anywhere else—it is vital.

So today, stand with someone. Stand for someone. And maybe find someone who stands with you and tell them thank you.

To Work Well

Gukora neza

To work well

I used to believe that anything worth doing is worth doing well until I realised that it’s a lie. The truth is that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, and anything worth trying has to be worth failing.*

I have now been in Rwanda for six months and at site for three, and my first term of teaching is over.

I have done many things, and I have done many of them badly. In many instances, I have tried and failed.

And I think that the things I have done and the things I have tried were worth making a muddle of, and here is why: Something is always better than nothing.

I tell myself this when I go to market with a shopping list and leave with half of the items because anxiety made it impossible for me to face one more vendor. If I have a single item of food that can tide me over until tomorrow, it is enough. Something is better than nothing.

I tell myself this when I walk into a classroom feeling inadequate and inexperienced. Even if my students learn nothing, hearing English spoken by a native speaker is more than they would have otherwise. Something is better than nothing.

During staging, we were asked to list things we feared. Our lists included:

  • Host families hating us
  • Parasites
  • Having to ET (Early Termination**) because we couldn’t handle the pressure
  • Failing to learn the language
  • Food poisoning

We could all think of an endless stream of specific ways we might fail.

Then we were asked to list our expectations for success. Suddenly our stream of ideas dried up.

We wound up with vague ideas like, “We want our students to learn,” or, “We want to make friends in the village.” In fact, I can only remember one specific, measureable goal on our list of successes—“I want to become a regular patron at a local coffee shop.”

We gave ourselves a clear picture of failure, but we had hazy ideas of success. We left ourselves no way to see the something, and that left us facing the idea of nothing.

So I resolved to give myself reasonable goals and to pay attention to those moments when I moved toward them. I began a list of somethings—a list of good moments, of steps that did not in themselves achieve my goals but that were not nothings.

I want you to know that at the end of one term, I have not achieved any of my big goals.

And this is okay, because I have not let that paralyse me into doing nothing.

I want to share with you some items off my list of somethings.

  • Held a small conversation in Kinyarwanda
  • Had a student understand that I wanted ideas and opinions, no matter whether right or wrong, without my saying so, and offering to translate that concept to the class without my asking
  • Navigated Kigali by myself for the first time and didn’t get lost
  • Retaught an entire lesson—this is a success because I realised that the initial lesson had been a failure and I took the time to do it again instead of pushing them to move on to the next idea
  • Had students ask me to explain English words they’ve come across outside my classes
  • Made friends with the bank teller
  • Started weekly film showings in English for neighbourhood kids (using “started” pretty loosely—kids show up a lot asking for movies, and I tell them they can come back for one on Monday)

  • Had a student start calling me out on minor inconsistencies between the questions I asked and the answers I accepted
  • Lit my imbabura with a single match without using a candle
  • Got the number of a reliable umumotari (moto driver)
  • Had a student with particularly low English abilities give a solid answer when I told her I was coming back to her for the next question
  • Went to an English Club meeting
  • Adopted a puppy and possibly increased integration due to everyone visiting to see her (in Rwanda, that’s a serious consideration—most Rwandans dislike and/or fear dogs, in part due to dogs’ having been used to hunt people down during the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, and PC rules state that we may only get a dog with the permission of our village and with the provision that it does not inhibit our integration)
  • Had a student make inferences about culture in literature without being told to
  • Paid my rent
  • Made students laugh by standing on a desk to reach the window latch to demonstrate the difference between closed and locked
  • Got invited to a wedding
  • Wrote final exams
  • Visited a teacher and genuinely enjoyed it

I’m sharing these things because I want you to know the kinds of experiences that feel significant to me here in this place and these circumstances—and to encourage you to be aware of the small things that feel significant to you in your place and your circumstances.

They are not same as mine, but they are just as valid, and just as important.

Because no matter where you are or what you’re doing, this much is true: anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Anything worth trying is worth failing.

And something is always better than nothing.

*Message me sometime if you want to discuss whether I am or should be including in that generalisation things like skydiving, in which you die if you fail.

**I know that’s a noun, but we use it as a verb

Why? 

​Kubera iki?

Why?

Lately I’ve had some discouraging days. I’ve looked at other volunteers’ work and felt insufficient beside their accomplishments. I’ve looked at the tasks ahead of me and felt incompetent to complete them. I’ve looked at the students before me and felt incapable of teaching them. 

I’ve had to sit myself down and remind myself of the reasons I’m here—and, more importantly, of the reasons not to be here. I had to hold up a lot of expectations and desires, consider them, and then throw them out.

So without further ado, here are some reasons not to join the Peace Corps:

  • You want to save the world

Joining the Peace Corps sounds so heroic. It carries a connotation of sacrifices made for the good of others. It’s used in movies whenever a character needs a generic Good Thing in their past. It seems like a way to really make a difference. And honestly the stats showing PC’s impact on the world are impressive. But you won’t see those numbers. You’ll be inside the situation, one person facing billions, and the problems even just in your village will be too numerous and expansive for you to tackle on their entirety, never mind fixing the whole world’s issues. You can give important-sounding labels to your work—developing capacity maybe, or spreading literacy, or increasing gender equality—but really much of your service will come down to the everyday tedium of small, unheroic tasks done well. Cleaning your floor, or talking to a neighbour, or going to the bank, or getting to work on time. Don’t get me wrong: you will make a difference. But you will not save the world. 

Here’s what my world looks like at the moment. Observe that I have not saved it.
  • You need immediate affirmation in your job

If you need someone to tell you you’re doing things right as soon as you do them, this is not the job for you. While there are plenty of short-term accomplishments, PC jobs work toward long-term improvement. You may only see your triumphs in retrospect. You may feel like a failure in the moment. You may go a long time without anyone telling you you’re doing well, and you have to keep working, keep watching for the tiny successes that tell you you’re getting there, and keep trusting that one day you’ll look back and see that something you did somewhere along the line made some kind of a difference. 

  •  You need to feel competent

It doesn’t matter how much training you have in the sector you work in, getting thrown into a brand new culture and a brand new way of doing things and a brand new language will leave you feeling out of your depth. If, like a lot of PCVs, you have training related to your sector but not directly in the job you’re doing, it’s even worse. And even if you feel competent in your specific job, you’re likely to feel incompetent in a hundred other ways. Trying to start secondary projects. Trying to hold simple conversations. Trying to buy food. Some days I feel incompetent just walking next door. 

  • You can’t stand discomfort

PCVs joke about “Posh Core,” but it doesn’t matter if you got lucky and have running water, or electricity, or a real toilet—you will still be uncomfortable. You will be uncomfortable talking to strangers in a new language, or bargaining in the market, or refusing to hand out money on the streets. You will be uncomfortable on your mattress on the floor the first night, and in the latrine the first time you get food poisoning, and in your job on the first day when you don’t know the people and you don’t know the routine and you don’t know the work. You’ll be uncomfortable on busses, you’ll be uncomfortable interviewing local officials, you’ll be uncomfortable attending religious services or social functions. Every time you get comfortable, you’ll be pushed on to something else hard or scary or awkward. Peace Corps is a lot of things—rewarding, interesting, challenging—but comfortable is not one of them.

Also uncomfortable: having children stare in the window while I teach.
  • You don’t want to work outside your career path

It doesn’t matter if you specifically trained for the job you’re doing in PC, you’ll be doing something outside your career path. Trained as a teacher? Great. You’re set for your primary assignment, but you’ll probably also write grants for a new basketball court or have to study up on microfinance to help local women for your secondary project. Peace Corps isn’t a normal nine-to-five where you have a set job description and you do the thing you’re told to do and then go home. Your job description in PC is to do whatever your village needs, and to learn how to do it if you don’t know already.

  • You want to live a private life

There’s nothing private about PCV life. Everyone knows you’re a foreigner. People discuss you and stare at you and ask you invasive questions and watch you to see how you handle life. I’ve had people in awe because I knew how much to pay for a twege ride that I take every few weeks. I’ve had people ask me if the reason I’m single is that I don’t have “a functional body.” People in the street comment on my wardrobe and talk about me whether or not they know I can understand them, and when I brought home my puppy, ten different people appeared to see it, marvel that I want an animal, and ask me to describe her diet in detail. 

  • You want to do something you already know how to do

You don’t know how to be a PCV. It doesn’t matter what your previous training or experience is, because every site, every job, every service is different. There will be things you didn’t anticipate and things you have no idea how to handle. You’ll get really good at shouting out for answers from other PCVs or begging your neighbours for help. You’ll learn to improvise, to be flexible, to make it up as you go along, to take criticism, and to recognise indirect feedback from the people around you. You will spend enormous amounts of time doing things you’re not sure how to do, and you’ll discover you can do them.  

  • You want all-or-nothing results

I already said you can’t save the world. But life isn’t an all-or-nothing proposal. You can’t save the world. But you can make a tiny corner of it a tiny bit better for a tiny number of people. For the one student who really takes off, or for the one woman who learns how to keep her new baby healthy, or for the one group that benefits from your secondary project. If you join the Peace Corps, you won’t end poverty. You won’t singlehandedly educate a nation. You won’t change an economy in two years. But you will open up opportunities for a few kids. You will bring awareness of different cultures to people in your village and to people back home. You will be privileged to see incredible instances of hard work and determination and compassion and teamwork winning out over circumstances. And you will find that it’s an exchange—that for everything you give, the people around you give back in ways you never expected.

These kids excited about books despite being totally unable to understand them is one of those tiny ways I’m moving forward. Maybe someday these kids will be able to sit down with a book, read it, understand it, and enjoy it.

So yeah, sometimes I’m discouraged. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing anything important. But the truth is I’m not here to do something important. I’m here to do a lot of little things well and to trust that some of those little things will make a difference. 

In America… 

​“Mur’Amerika…”

“In America…”

Sometimes we PCVs say to each other things like, “Do you remember in America when we had hot water?” or, “Do you remember in America how berries existed?” It’s partly us missing the conveniences, culture, and cuisine, and partly reminding each other that we’re in a place we never really thought we would be.

We’re so immersed in life here that sometimes we have to sit back and make ourselves consciously notice all the things that are unique to this place, all the details of our settings and experiences that tangibly mark our adventure here as patently different from where we were before.

I could write you a blow-by-blow description of my daily life, but perhaps you will have a better holistic understanding of my situation if I tell you about the things that have happened in the past few weeks that would not happen in America.

In America, opening conversations with strangers would not include the following questions: 

  • “How old are you?” (followed directly by “You’re just a child!”)
  • “Are you married?” (followed directly by “Why not?” or 
  • “When will you get married?”) 
  • “Do you still have both parents?”

In America, my white skin would not cause ripples of whispers and hisses and whistles and shouts, and nobody would immediately assume that I speak French. I would not be hugged by random toddlers in the street, mothers would not point me out to their children, and babies would not burst into terrified tears at the sight of me. 

In America, I would not walk into the third day of school and hear that the administration still has not made an academic calendar or official timetable. I would not try to find the curriculum for my classes three days after beginning teaching, and I would not have the subjects I teach changed a week into the schoolyear.
In America I would not walk home for lunch surrounded by fifty or so unsupervised three- to ten-year-olds.

In America, I would not see a man carrying three stools on his head, and if I did, I would not cross the road to ask if they were for sale. He would not then tell me a price higher than the going rate, and I would not then counter with a lower price. He would not unbind the chairs and have me sit in each of them right there on the side of the road. I would not then walk home carrying a chair.

In America, I would not consider taking a bus to the nearest large city just to get internet, and I would not hoard my non-burnable rubbish to carry to that city—the nearest place with receptacles for waste disposal.
In America, I would not wake to roosters cackling, cows bellowing, and goats shrieking in the streets, nor to the distinctive sound of magpies fighting for prime perches on my roof.

In America, I would not stay home from work because it was raining.

In America, I would not walk to an open-air market several times a week for basic groceries, and I would not carry those groceries home in a backpack.

In America, I would not coax charcoal into flame in order to cook. I would not pay close attention to my protein intake, and I would not eat cabbage in nearly every meal. I would not—along with about a dozen other PCVs—nearly burst into tears at the sight of homemade chocolate-chip cookies.

In America, I would not feel obliged to introduce visiting friends to all of my neighbours, and little old ladies in the market would not feel obliged to inform those friends that I am “muzungu wacyu”—“our foreigner.”
In America, a shopkeeper would not send me home with goods I have not paid for, saying, “You’ll come back tomorrow.”

In America, children would not show up at school on a Saturday armed with machetes and hoes and proceed to cut down all the coffee trees and dig a volleyball court out of the hill behind the nursery building, and in America, I would not join them if they did.

In America, a stranger would not meet me in the street, ask if I live alone, and then appear in the evening to visit with me because “it is not good to be alone.”
In America, my neighbour would not give me beans and milk purely because she has them and I do not. My neighbour would not check on me every few nights to ask if I’m doing alright, and she would not teach the neighbourhood my name. My boss would not consider it his duty to make sure that I “live well” in my neighbourhood.

When I stop to think about it, there’s very little of my life here that would happen in America. Some of it is hard. Some of it is so easy I almost don’t notice it. Sometimes the culture here feels like a puzzle I’ll never fit into, and sometimes it takes my breath away with its kindness and welcome.

The important thing isn’t what would be happening if I were in America right now; it’s that I’m not. I’m here, in Rwanda, living this life with these people, and I love it.

One Who Works Willingly

​Ndi umukorerabushake. 

I am a volunteer. 

Umukorerabushake” is perhaps the longest Kinyarwanda word I know, and I learned it early on by memorising its parts:

Umu: the singular prefix for a person

Korera, derived from gukora: to work

Ubushake: a will or desire

Put all together, it literally means “one who works willingly.”

This is something I understood when I applied to come to Rwanda, that I would be working willingly. 

I remember saying once, “In the worst case scenario, I find out it’s hard and I hate it, and I work really hard for two years to do something that helps someone else.” It sounded noble at the time, but more than that, it sounded feasible. 

Today I’m lying on my bed, alone in my house, the only American in my village (although I keep hearing about a French guy in town?), and the term umukorerabushake seems very far away. Work seems like an abstract concept. Until school starts in about three weeks, my only work is integrating—a small word that carries a big punch in the Peace Corps. 

On paper and in PST lectures, “integration” means walking every road in my village, meeting everyone I can, visiting houses, attending religious and social functions, asking questions, memorising names, learning everything I can about the village, it’s people, and my place in it. 

But in real life, integration is much less standardised and much more personal. 
For some of my friends, it has meant joining church choirs, playing sports, or hiring local kids to haul water. For me, it has often meant simply opening my front door every day. 

Some days, of course, it means more than others. Sometimes it means walking down the street to another teacher’s house and having a conversation on her couch. But sometimes I consider it successful integration if I manage to return my neighbour’s milk jug in the morning. 

On Tuesday it meant greeting everyone I passed on the way to the market and learning the name of the girl who helped me find garlic and potatoes. But then it meant not crying on the way home before I locked myself in the house for the evening. 

A sense of guilt hangs over me, a pressure to do more—to know more names, go more places, to ask more questions. Somehow the freeing idea of working willingly gets lost in this heavier idea of doing all the right things. 

But this isn’t about “all the right things.” Someone pointed out a while back that, “we are the resource Peace Corps sends,” and if they wanted to check off a box, they could ship in some materials, hold a week-long training, and walk away. But they don’t. They ship in us—individuals. Scared, excited, uncertain, hopeful people with a mediocre grasp on the language and a passion for some aspect of this job and a lot of quirks.

Some of us have convenient quirks, like enjoying visiting strangers. Some of us have inconvenient quirks, like anxiety. But we are all here to work willingly. 

In a few weeks, when school starts, that working will involve lesson plans, counterpart teachers, and classrooms full of students, and we will do that willingly. 

Right now, though, sometimes that work involves walking out the door and breathing at the same time. And that, too, we find a way to do willingly. 

In General

Muri rusange… 

In general… 

I haven’t posted in a few weeks. Everything I want to tell you seems obsolete by the time I get it written. 

I wanted to tell you about finishing PST—about how I thought by the end of training I would feel confident and prepared and not like myself anymore but how instead I felt like I did the time the lights went off while I was in the latrine, leaving me in the dark with my trousers down and a family of cockroach was watching me. 

I wanted to tell you about seeing Nirere again—about how I had thought my umukozi was gone forever but how I stepped in the gate one night to see her sitting on the ground holding her baby, how before I left Rwamagana I got a chance to say murabeho—the goodbye you use when you don’t expect to see someone again—and how she hugged me and said something I translated roughly as “go with God,” and how it didn’t matter that I couldn’t entirely understand the words, because we understood each other. 

I wanted to tell you about leaving my host family—about how I never quite lost that anxiety that I was in the wrong place when I was around them but how saying goodbye felt impossibly hard anyway, how we exchanged gifts and hugs and promises to call, and how the little girls held onto me before I rode away in the back of a Peace Corps car. 

I wanted to tell you about swearing-in—about how solemn it felt with our right hands raised and phrases like defend the Constitution and Peace Corps legacy marching out of our mouths in unison but how the gravity of the situation dissipated immediately in selfies and conversations and overeating on the kind of food we won’t see again for months. 

I wanted to tell you about arriving at site—about how freeing it feels to have my own house but how terrifying it is to be alone in this beautiful little town full of staring eyes and muzungu-ing voices where I have yet to find the market or a tea shop. 

In general I wanted to tell you about everything. 

About how I spend my days in a house without furniture, slowly developing a routine, allowing myself to lie about reading or watching Friends if I’ve left the house at least once that day to talk to someone. 

About the first day here when it took me a box and a half of matches to light my imbabura for lunch and how I spent the rest of my matches without once seeing a successful flame that night. 

About the chicken that visits every day, appearing like magic in my backyard or livingroom—about how I followed it yesterday and discovered it squeezes through a drain hole in my compound wall. 

About how it doesn’t feel like Christmas here yet and might never, but that’s turning out to be okay. 

I wanted to tell you that some days I think I can’t do this—that it’s too much for me, that the feeling of suffocating every time I walk down the street is too strong and my communication skills are too weak and I don’t think I can actually help these people. 

But I also wanted to tell you that some days I think this is the best thing I’ve ever done, that my neighbour checks on me despite our language barrier, that a little boy named Gisa stops me at the end of the street to talk every time I go out. 

I’m general, I wanted to tell you that I’m still here and that right now here is hard, but it’s also good, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I’m Tired

​”Ndananiwe cyane.”

“I’m very tired.”

I find myself saying this often. Before I came to Rwanda, I envisioned myself surrounded by new friends, confidently exploring a new environment, eagerly practising a new language. 

What I didn’t take into account is that being in a new place with new people and a new language doesn’t make me a new person. I’m still me. 

Peace Corps doesn’t change that, and Rwanda doesn’t change that. 

But it does force me to act like a different person, pushing me out of my comfort zone a hundred times a day. And yet while it can force me to make small talk with strangers in a language I barely understand, it can’t take away the fear I feel while doing so, and that is exhausting. Every day I see more clearly the sharp discrepancy between who I am and who Peace Corps would like me to be. 

Peace Corps would like me to be bold and outgoing, ready to talk to anyone and everyone—but I’m not. Some days I think I’ll shatter if one more child yells at me from the side of the road. 

Peace Corps would like me to immerse myself in my host family’s daily routine–but sometimes I can’t. Some days the anxiety and feeling of being and outsider are so overwhelming that it’s all I can do to greet them politely before I lock myself in my room. 

This is not to say Peace Corps is too much for me. I can do the tasks required, but I pay a price for that functionality. 

Some days I pay that price in tears or headaches or trembling hands. Some days I pay that price with exhaustion or a petrified mind, unable to process information or form coherent answers. 

Every day is different. Sometimes I talk to people even though I’m shaking, and sometimes I laugh when everything in me wants to cry. But sometimes I stay on my bed all afternoon, and sometimes I walk away without answering so I can break down in private. 

I’ve spent the last month searching for ways to cope with this dichotomy between who I am and who I need to  be to succeed here in this new world.

Coping strategies are hard during PST. I have little to no control over things like my schedule or diet, extremely limited free time, and a timetable that changes frequently and often without warning. My private space is limited to my bed, and my activities are limited to things I can do there or that I don’t mind people watching (working out on my porch ended after five minutes when a handful of neighbours lined up to watch). To make it worse, I feel guilty if I spend more than a few minutes at a time in my bedroom—I should be integrating, right? 

I have to find the things I can control, the things that make me feel most like myself, and fit them like glue into the cracks of my life to hold myself together. 


Things like reading, posting on Instagram, watching movies. Things like texting friends and family, listening to familiar music, writing. 

Right now the thing holding me together is NaNoWriMo. Usually it feels like one more obligation in a busy schedule, but now it feels like a goal I’m actually competent to achieve, an outlet, a way to feel like myself while I’m stretching and bending to fit into the Peace Corps mould. 

Ndananiwe cyane—I’m very tired. 

But I’m also many other things, even if sometimes I forget them. I’m also strong and brave and curious and eager and truly glad to be here. 

Being in a new place doesn’t make me a new person, but it does add things to my essential self, and I think this change, this constant growth, this struggle to discover what is me and what I can change—this is also a beautiful process.

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.

stairs

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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