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

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No Problem

Ntakibazo. 

No problem. 

It’s the unofficial slogan of Peace  Corps Rwanda. The number of things that are not a problem in this country constantly amazes me. 

Transportation is ntakibazo. 

When the bus takes us to the wrong place, when we spend three hours looking for a ride home, when a friend can’t find a bus to her site and needs to stay with me for the second unplanned night, when a four hour trip turns into an eight hour trip… Ntakibazo. 

 Integration is ntakibazo. 

When I’m alone in a new village without matches or charcoal, when strangers come to the door and I understand only a few of their words, when I cannot find the market for two weeks, when anxiety paralyses me in my house until my neighbour comes to my rescue… Ntakibazo. 

Teaching is ntakibazo. 

When I don’t know what classes to plan for until after the first day, when I can’t understand my students and they can’t understand me, when there are no textbooks, when I don’t know the rules, when my timetable changes for the fifth time in three days… Ntakibazo. 


I’ve come to understand that the reason so many things are ntakibazo is that no matter where I am or what predicament I find myself in, someone will help me. This is a culture that believes in fostering community, in supporting one another, in cultivating a strength that comes only from unity. 
Transportation is ntakibazo because when I cannot find my bus, a stranger will walk me across the bus park. Because when I don’t know my stop, the driver will point it out for me. Because when I need to be somewhere and the bus schedule is off, two competing bus companies will collaborate to get me to the right place at the right time. 

Integration is ntakibazo because when I cannot find the market, my neighbour will take her morning to help me shop. Because when I stop by the umudozi—seamstress—for cushion covers, she will introduce me to her whole compound. Because when I feel like a stranger, the little girls next door will teach my name to every child on our street. 

Teaching is ntakibazo because when I am lost, someone will show me to my classes. Because when one day the students are terrified and refuse to answer questions, the next day a few brave ones will speak up. Because I feel out of my depth at every moment, but together we will grow and learn. 

The day before school began, our Ed8 group chat exploded with texts about our fears, our doubts, our incredulity at the total lack of communication and the total impossibility of our job, and my friend Claire spoke up:

Y’all, we can do this. It’s no more absurd than the first day of model school, or the way they rewrote the TPI the day before, or when PC told us we were responsible for making our way back from site visit with barely any language training about transportation. This is not even the most ambiguous, stressful thing we’ve been asked to do in this country. We’re all gonna be alright.

And she was right. 

Because Rwanda has taught me that no matter whatnot gets thrown our way, when you support one another, everything is ntakibazo. 

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. 

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.

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.

Defining Ourselves

“We live in a culture where we define ourselves by our weaknesses.”

My mother said it in passing recently, and for a moment I couldn’t breathe because it struck me so hard and true. We define ourselves by our weaknesses—by the things we haven’t accomplished or the lifestyle we don’t have, by our disorders or our deficiencies.

I see it in myself. I see it everywhere, in fact, once I begin to look for it.

I define myself by my social anxiety and lack of financial security. Even when I acknowledge my strengths, I find a way to turn them into weaknesses: I am a mediocre musician and an aspiring novelist.

You probably do it too—undermine yourself, maybe out of a sense of false modesty, or maybe out of fear. You’re successful, but…

But what?

It’s smart in some ways, finding our weak points, learning to compensate for our deficiencies, protecting our vulnerabilities. But in a world full of impossible standards, where failure is magnified and our best is never quite good enough, we have enough negative voices cutting us down; we don’t need to make ourselves feel worse.

So why do we do it? Maybe it’s self-preservation. We’re terrified of being insignificant and insufficient, so we cut ourselves down before someone else can do it for us. Being told we’re worthless hurts less if we’ve already told it to ourselves. When someone says, “You’re not good enough,” we can respond with, “I never said I was.”

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We try to protect ourselves by reducing our value to the lowest common denominator. We’re afraid to be knocked down if we stand too tall. Weaknesses are impervious to attack, invulnerable to comparison. In a competitive culture, someone else’s strengths always feel like a threat to mine, but someone else’s weaknesses feel like companionship.

But what if we defined ourselves by our strengths? What if we turned the model on its head and saw every drawback as a gift? What if I stopped saying, “I am anxious” and began saying, “I am brave enough to function despite my anxiety”?

Suddenly we’re not petrified by fear, not shackled by the limitations we’ve set. We’re free to try, fail, and try again. We’re free to take ownership of our wins as well as our losses. We’re strong enough to stand for ourselves, to acknowledge ourselves as being more than the sum of our shortcomings.

We are not defined in terms of other people. I don’t have to see myself in competition. I can own my abilities no matter where they fall in relation to you. We don’t have to be strong versus stronger—we can all be strong. We don’t have to be successful versus more successful—we can all be successful.

We are all good enough, if we’ll only stop looking for reasons not to be.

On Spending Time

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There should be a Writers Anonymous club: “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and it’s been three weeks since I handed someone a half-baked draft for feedback.”

See, I suffer from something I like to call Supportive Audience Deficiency (SAD). I get SAD when I spend hours crafting beautiful words, flowing sentences, and snappy dialogue and have nobody to assure me it’s all worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’ve misdiagnosed myself—maybe instead of SAD I’ve got egocentrism problems. I’ve had the argument with myself before:

“I just want someone to reassure me that I’m not wasting my life.”

“You mean you want someone to compliment you.”

“No, I mean if this isn’t going to work out, I want someone to tell me now, before I waste my life on it.”

Wouldn’t life be easier if everything came with a clear designation? “This will take five hours a week and be vital in the long run,” or “This will take seven hours a week and be enjoyable, though you may regret it from time to time.”

Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. For years, my best alternative has been to hand someone a draft and judge by positive or negative feedback whether it’s worth the hours I might spend revising it.

And now I’m realising that I’ve gone about this all wrong. Life isn’t a budget to be balanced. Art isn’t a carefully calculated investment risk.

So I’m turning my back on the worrying and the second-guessing and the needing to know the outcome before I invest in the process. I’m doing what I love right now and letting the long run take care of itself. Instead of letting SAD symptoms dampen my enthusiasm, I’m enjoying the moments as they pass, living my life as it happens instead of waiting for the future.

Maybe the piece I’ve spent years on will never be read—so what? I enjoyed the process. I wrote for myself, not for some hypothetical audience years down the road. As I wrote, I learned self-discipline. I got to know myself better, faced dark parts of my own nature, confronted big questions, and did not surface with all the big answers. I let my imagination run wild and I lived in a new world created entirely at the crossroads of language and ideas. All of this may never be measurably relevant to my career, but it is immeasurably relevant to my being.

The most meaningful things in life may never give quantifiable returns on my time and effort, but perhaps that makes them more valuable, not less. I am shaped by the interests I pursue, the people I encounter, the ideas I entertain. I am formed by minuscule everyday experiences, not by some intangible ledger counting my time down to a bottom line. Every moment, I am growing and becoming. The most significant return on my time is not measured by what I do, what opportunities I have, or where I end up, but by who I am.

And for that, I need no supportive audience. I know the answer without asking—it is always worth my while to be.

Breathing

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I can’t breathe.

I find myself pacing, restless, needing to do something yet having nothing to do. I have no deadlines. I have no commitments. I have no classes, no job, no rehearsals.

Is this what it feels like to be an adult? I wonder.

It feels aimless.

To be fair, I’ve submitted eight freelance job proposals, attended a wedding, read a few books, revised twelve chapters of a novel, and unpacked and repacked almost constantly since arriving home from university. I’ve played poker and gone hiking napped on a mountain. I’ve washed dishes, made pizza, and come close to dying because I thought I was in shape and tried to sprint a mile.

It’s not like I’ve done nothing since graduation—and yet I find myself still with these terrifying pockets of undesignated time.

It’s an hour here and three hours there, ten minutes while the coffee perks in the mornings and fifteen minutes while I wait my turn for the bathroom at night.

And suddenly, without more homework than a human being can possibly get through, without work to rush to or emails to answer or events to attend, I find myself hemmed in by spare time.

I’ve dreamt of leisure for years—while I was working during high school, while I was reading textbooks during university, while I was job-hunting and tax-filing and internship-applying and apartment-cleaning and…

…and I’ve spent so much time wishing for freedom that now, with time on my hands, I feel restless. What do I do with the moments, the hours, the days? I feel lazy if I sit for a few minutes and do nothing. I sleep badly because I must be forgetting to do something.

I’m free, but I can’t enjoy it. Like a scared dog released from a small cage into a new environment, I huddle, immobile, terrified in my spare time, certain the appearance of freedom hides some trap.

And somehow, in the midst of newness and change, aimlessness and fear, I find myself breathing. I find that time is not, as I’ve been led to believe, a valuable commodity that I’m likely to fritter away.

I find it’s something bigger.

It’s the silence in which my heart beats and my eyes blink and a thousand thoughts race through my mind. It’s the chance to work, to invest, to learn, yes—but it’s also the chance to breathe. To look around me, to be caught up for minutes together in the beautiful flicker of leaves in the wind, to bond by lounging in aimless togetherness with my family, to sleep until I wake naturally and to marvel at the unfathomable interaction of my waking mind and my unconscious dreams.

Living, I see now, isn’t a matter of getting everything done before you die—it’s a matter of breathing.

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Today I Feel

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Today I feel numb. Or perhaps I feel so much that my capacity to feel is overridden and subsumed under a more urgent instinct—the instinct to hide. To curl into a ball tight enough to feel myself, to wrap my arms around my legs and feel that my body is solid, not flying apart in every direction, that it’s real, not an extension of my overactive mind. To pull in close until I think, maybe, I have some control.

A few years ago, on a day like today, I would have said, “I’m ill.” But over time I’ve learned to recognise this feeling and the seed of panic that comes with it, blooming somewhere at the base of my skull, spreading until it pounds through my mind. Today, I know to say, “I’m anxious.

A year ago if I were writing a blog post on a Thursday morning, I would have apologised for posting two days late. I would have said, “I was busy.” Today, I know the truth is not that I was busy but that I was anxious—so anxious that I opened my laptop to write, but instead found myself curled in a safe nest of blankets watching Emma for the hundredth time.

A month ago, I would have felt guilty for this—for letting my dysfunctional mind take over, for succumbing to the undercurrent of fear running through my life. But today, I recognise that anxiety is a spectrum, and living with anxiety is a journey.

Sharing my body with anxiety means some days I’m in complete control, and some days I fight for every step. And some days, the anxiety wins, and I watch from inside my head. And whereas a year ago or a month ago I might have seen a day like that as a failure, today I can see that day as a single step in a much longer walk—one moment that does not define me.

Whereas a year ago or a month ago I might have denied my own experience in light of the worse experiences around me, today I acknowledge that my experience is valid—that someone else’s greater pain does not lessen my own. And today I can focus on taking care of myself, whether that means staying in bed an extra hour or simply remembering to breathe as I walk through the snow to class.