“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.”
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.