Around me, students skip up and down the steep hill, but I move slowly, eyes fixed on every sandy step, plotting my course with intense precision.
Walking with crutches seemed easy in America, with its smooth sidewalks and even floors. Here, on steep inclines covered in loose sand and cut by deep water-carved gashes, it demands concentration, physical coordination, and patience.
This enforced patience separates a continuous string of experiences into individual moments as my focus narrows on the earth in front of me.
One moment, ten years ago:
Water closes over my head, cold with the frozen ghosts of the ice it once was. I had found a rhythm, fingers clutching rough rope, feet pushing off firm stone, body arcing above the deep water, pausing a moment against all the forces of gravity, and then dropping back—but I missed a beat, lost momentum, came to a dead stop hanging above the river, too far to reach land.
And I dropped.
For an eternal heartbeat, my body hangs suspended in a thrumming blue world, muscles petrified in the sudden cold, mind caught between thoughts.
Then I surge to the surface.
One moment, two months ago:
Electric buzzing fills my ears. Strange new discomfort inches down my back—a rough, oddly isolated scratching that occasionally sparks into sharp pain before subsiding. The apex of the table’s hard cushion presses against my chin as the needle deposits a word in extreme slow motion between the layers of my skin:
Be patient. Endure.
Rwandans say this when expressing sympathy. If your grandmother dies, if you slip on the gravel (if tendonitis and an unstable patella make themselves known in a painful burst and require the use of a crutch for a couple weeks) this is word you are given.
In English, they say to me, Sorry, but in Kinyarwanda, they tell me Komera—Be strong—and Ihangane—endure.
One moment, a day ago, a week ago, every day:
A deep breath fills my lungs before I step out my door and the world closes over me. I thought Peace Corps would make me brave, but under the harsh light of high yet vague expectations and the close scrutiny of friendly or indifferent or judgmental Rwandan eyes, my fears are magnified.
A chronic sense of uncertainty has become overwhelming self-doubt.
A mild social anxiety has become gut-wrenching terror.
The sun is drying the rain-soaked dirt road, but I am frozen, paralysed by the gaze of my neighbours. I am walking to the bus stop, to the market, to the school, but my projects hang suspended, caught between ideas and reality.
Every day, I fight toward the surface, and my mind spins an endless mantra:
Take one more breath.
Take another step.
I finish my journey, I buy my food, I teach my students.
I close my door behind me.
One moment, an hour ago:
Simple words leave my mouth slowly, pronounced with painstaking clarity. My student listens, eyebrows drawn in the concentration needed to keep every word in his mind long enough to understand it and connect it with the others, to catch the meaning in my short sentences. I draw him a diagram, blue ink on a scrap page of a notebook:
I tell him tendons and ligaments are like strings holding the bones and muscles together. He knows “string” because we learned it last year.
Understanding lifts his features. His eyes widen, his eyebrows rise, and his mouth relaxes.
“In our culture, when someone is sick, we go to visit them,” he says, nodding, “to say, be sorry.”
This student has a courage I lack: he plunges into the water and fights to swim. He strings words together until he can make meaning, even when half the words are wrong, when the grammar is a tangle, when it takes multiple repetitions for me to catch the words or to guess at the ideas they outline.
This student reminds me why I walk out into the current of stares and whispers and giggles every day, why I hobble up steep hills and pick my way across dirt with a crutch.
There’s no glamour in Peace Corps. There’s no saving the world.
Before I came, I said, At worst I’ll spend two years doing something I hate to help someone else.
But it’s not that, either.
It’s limping to keep moving. It’s swimming upward despite the cold paralysis of fear. And once in a while, it’s breaking the surface long enough to see a student’s eyes widen in understanding.