This is long overdue. These are my final thoughts on Rwanda and being a Peace Corps Volunteer:
When I think about Rwanda now, I think about the colors. The bright, yellow sun, shining down from a clear blue sky, hitting a dusty, dirt road or black pavement, amidst the brilliant green of the banana farms. I see the women, dressed in vibrant blues, purples, reds, oranges – their multi-colored fabrics, called igitenge. I see the neon orange or green of the children’s sandals. The plump, or in some cases, very, very tiny red tomatoes sold at market.
I see my village. I see myself, getting off a bus or walking to the town center. I see the lady selling bananas, everyday on the side of the road. I see my bus guy, Mustafa. The village is a challenging place to live. There are no modern-day amenities. Out of my two cell phones, one did not have internet capabilities, or talking capabilities at the end, and the other took at least 10 minutes to load Facebook. I was not plugged-in or connected by Bluetooth to anything wireless.
Most people were very nice and more hospitable toward me than anyone I’ve ever met. Some people accepted me as a member of their family as soon as I entered their house. Some people called me munzugu, stared, pointed and asked me for money or asked me to be their wife. But with every day, I built my life there, and with every day, I slowly lost the life I left in the States.
The challenges of the village pushed me to accomplish things I never thought I could. I taught five classes of 40+ students. I spoke a language most people can’t pronounce the name of. I helped a cooperative expand and grow. I ran faster and farther. I tried to understand a complicated culture, and shared my own. I drank the “beer of men.” And I gave a few young girls more courage and more hope for their own futures. The challenges are, in many ways, what kept me there. I knew my presence was felt, whether or not it was always appreciated.
Now, I am home and rebuilding a new life for myself. I wish I was asked more questions about Rwanda, about what I did with the past two years. I seldom talk about it. My favorite question so far about Rwanda was “how was your trip?” It was much more than a trip, and a much bigger achievement than simply boarding a flight, seeing a few sights and returning safely home again. The kids shouted “Sala,” the old mamas greeted me as “Uwela,” the students called me “teacher” – my trip was my life for more than two years. It was a surreal immersion into one place, one village, which shaped me as a person and gave me so much to be grateful for.
But most questions seem to be about what I plan to do, and I have few answers. I do have a plan, but putting the plan into action is proving to be more difficult than I thought it would be. And everything about America is much more confusing, even though I actually understand all the words people say.
I remember the day I left America to start my journey across the ocean with 37 other Americans I didn’t know. Chris dropped me off at the airport, with all four of my giant bags. The baggage claim man took them, and I turned to say goodbye to Chris and hug one last time before he drove away. I was terrified, but the only place I could go was inside the airport and board my flight. While I didn’t know where I was going really, I had a name of a country and the next few steps planned out for me. And if I did decide to turn around, Chris would have been there for me.
The night before I left my village, a good friend of mine came to spend the night at my house. We visited Mama Pasi. We ate a dinner of ibitoche, meat and rice. We drank Amarula and watched a show about the Chinese New Year celebration in Kigali on Rwanda TV. As we left her house, it was nighttime. The town center was quiet and only a few lights were on outside of the main shops. As per Rwandan custom, Mama Pasi accompanied myself and my friend from her house to the main road. We hugged; she looked at me, tilted her head, and gave one last Rwandan “yoooo” with a slight smile as I turned to walk down the deserted road. In front of me was simply a dark road framed by arching banana leaves. There is no turning around and I have no idea what is at the end.
At our last Peace Corps conference in August, the Close of Service Conference, my group of 37 had dwindled to 21. For three days we talked about the next steps and where to go from here. We were also asked to write a six-word memoir trying to capture our experiences in just six-words. I knew mine had to involve bananas, as my village was one of the biggest banana exporters in all of Rwanda. It also turned out to be the perfect way to describe my service.
Hidden in banana trees, beautiful lives.