It’s been a year living in Rwanda and as people say, the days move slowly but the weeks fly by. But I wondered why that was. Adjusting to a different pace of life, among other things, was the most challenging part. When you’re used to living a certain way, to a certain rhythm, changing that also changes you to the core.
What have I been doing for these past few months?
In village, time moves slowly, the days aren’t distinct and aren’t marked by events or by doing things. Trying to think of days like that is actually quite depressing. Of course there are weird days and off days, but life happens on a continuum, at least for me. I liken it to Our Town, a play that highlights the subtleties and banalities and predictability of what it means to be human. This commonality is the thread that shapes the human condition regardless of time and space. People are born, they get married, and they die.
The other day, I passed a few acquaintances of mine who were just staring into the distance as if there was something there, something of interest. I asked them what they were looking at, in a jovial way. The response, a direct translation, “We are watching the road,” followed by a giggle. A giggle that signified that they too saw the humor in what they had just said. And to clarify, the road they’re talking about, isn’t more than a sandy dirt path capable of accommodating a single car at best.
I still try my hardest to not be upset when people stare vacantly at me or call across mountains “muzungu” or “good morning,” even as the sun is setting. The elders in my village have told me kids and adults have a tendency to do this, but that there’s no problem in it. As someone from NYC, I learned from a very early age that staring and giving someone one second more of unwanted attention, it’s simply not done. Eye contact with anyone for more time that is necessary is taboo. But here, I can link eyes with someone and rarely win the staring contest.
In matters of work, there’s a lot to be done, and my counterpart Marie Jeanne and I have accurately identified that most of my job and the hardest part of her job is bringing about behavior change. If you grew up in a house where you were one of five, you knew that you were destined to be a farmer, and that you were almost certain you would be poor, it’s hard not to accept that you will have a very similar life, not to mention that all of your friends and peers, and generations before you have done the same. The cycle of poverty is as much psychological as it is material. Advocacy and education have proven to be the strongest tools in trying to change this mindset.
They (returned PCVS) say that it takes a year to feel acclimated, to get the rhythm of work, to feel some sort of productivity. Looking back, there were days in the beginning of my service in village when two years seemed absolutely undoable, that it was a grave mistake and that maybe there wouldn’t ever be a sense of normality, of acceptance, of routine. As I watched and shadowed nurses at my health center, trying to pick up the few words I could, my presence felt like more of a burden. But I am happy to report that this is no longer the case. Of course, as this roller coaster continues to have its ups and downs, there are always new things you realize about yourself, about what works and what doesn’t. And as my dad always said to me, “80% of success is showing up.” Even if the math isn’t entirely accurate, here I am. Still trying (hopefully not in vain) to show up for my community, the mothers with malnourished children, for the lifelong friends I have made, for my family and loved ones, and for myself as this is absolutely something I and my fellow volunteers are capable of doing, even through the ups and downs.