One of the things about traveling is that when the trip is over and you return home, full of exciting tales, few people outside of your immediate family and closest friends give you the time of day to share them. People may ask you, “Oh, you were just in ---, how was it?” Your mind wanders back your travels, remembering all the good times and unforgettable experiences, and as you begin to dive into the tale, you read the look on their face and the tale comes to a screaming halt as you try to find the one word to describe something so different and unconceivable. You end by replying, “It was… good,” realizing that the short sentence does not do justice to what you have experienced, but settled to know that the short sentence was all the person wanted to hear. You are not content though, because all those memories and experiences are bubbling out from inside you and you long for someone to share them with who will find the same enjoyment in your telling as you had in experiencing them. That person does not exist. There is no one who was not there who can relive your experiences with you in the same enthusiasm as you have. In the end, you find yourself talking to the furniture in your bedroom, telling your chair the tales of adventures in far-off lands and your chair listens, content and unchanged. In the end, you are quite unsatisfied, but realize that it is just the way it is, even if it was a hard lesson for you to learn.
Sometimes, there are a few people who want to hear more and you try to sum up your trip into a couple words and a few stories. These sorts of conversations require preparation, and you must come loaded with a few stories you have strategically picked from the archives of your travels. For a Peace Corper, there are a few stories that make it into the Peace Corps Experience Hall of Fame. These are the stories that when you are old and reliving your life, you look back on your Peace Corps experience and remember these highlights. When you have kids, these are the stories you tell your children as you sit around the fireplace on a cold night. On that occasion, this is what I would say.
“When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda…” Okay, all that introductory stuff that you already know. But then I would get into the meat of the story, the good part, the fatty part, the savory part. Let me share.
It was a day like any other day. I woke up early, did some chores, got ready for work, and rode my bike down the dirt road from my house to town, shouting greetings to all the people I passed. I arrived at work and sat down at my desk to make my plan for the day. It looked like it was going to be another day consumed with duties for the youth center. As I began the work that lay before me, Faustin showed up. Even that was not out of the ordinary, as Faustin typically visits my office on mornings he is going into the field to say hello and share his current activities and plan for the day. Sometimes, he asks if I would like to join him on his field visit, but most of the time, I refuse because I have work to do and can not spare the time. I do enjoy going on field visits with Faustin, but most of the time, my presence is to gain the experience and see something new, instead of being something that is necessarily productive for the youth center. But that day, Faustin told me it was an exciting day. He was heading over to the town of Gatsibo (I know, a little confusing as the town of Gatsibo is also in the district of Gatsibo) to check on the progress of the hospital that Plan Rwanda was building. A doctor from Germany was visiting to check on the progress, make suggestions, and report back to the hospital in Germany that was helping to fund the project. And… and this is the really good bite (Bite? Did I say bite? I meant bit.) The Minister of Health was coming, too. And he finished by asking, “Do you want to come?”
I looked down at the work before me and weighed my options. Going with Faustin would mean that I had to work over the weekend to get everything I needed to do done. Not going with Faustin would mean I would miss out on an exciting opportunity. The final selling point was the Minister of Health. If I went, I would get to meet a person who plays and important role for me as a community health volunteer in Rwanda. Sometimes, you can plan your life away, but when an opportunity like this presents itself, you must throw all those plans up in the air (Hopefully, it is a windy day so they are taken far away), and embrace the new, unplanned plan. “Yes!” I said, “Yes, yes, yes. I will go. Just take me to my house so I can grab some things.” I run inside, fill up my water bottle, change my shoes, grab a jacket, and we are off, motoring down the road to a day filled with, well, I don’t know what to be honest.
One of the crucial lessons I have learned about living life in Africa is to always go with the flow. There is a certain skill associated with living your life in this way. First, one must learn not to adhere too closely to plans or get frustrated when plans change. That I have demonstrated. Check. Then, one must learn to aimlessly float on the breeze, allowing it to take you wherever it so chooses, while at the same time pretending that you always knew it was going to take you there. That one is a little more difficult.
We showed up at the hospital. Some of the staff from Plan Rwanda had already arrived with the doctor and are touring the facilities. They hand me a hard hat that I place on my head as I make my way into the construction site. There is a lot of discussion about hospitals and equipment and procedure that goes right over my head. With the hard hat on, I am protected and no damage is done. Then, we stand outside discussing as we wait for the Minister of Health to arrive. I engage the doctor in all the typical conversations- who he is, where he is from, what he is doing, how long he is here, what does he think of Rwanda- and he responds back and asks- who I am, where I am from, what I am doing, how long am I here, what do I think. Suddenly, we are talking about the youth center and I am giving an informal presentation of the project off the top of my head (no more hard hat) on the steps of the hospital that is being constructed. I have given enough of these informal presentations on the youth center to have developed a strong informal speech to give. No one would guess that the unplanned is actually planned for. Lesson number two. Check.
Suddenly, over the sound of my voice, we hear shouting and clapping. “What is going on?” I think. And in a very Rwandan manner, we make our way towards the noise. The rule of Rwandan life in the countryside is that any event is everybody’s event. We travel down the road in town and arrive at a clearing. On the grass, tents have been set up around the borders of an open-air, grass stage. People sit on the ground in the sun or huddle under the tents. They are wearing matching t-shirts, paired with skirts and pants sewn from colorful African fabric. “What is going on here?” I wonder.
My question is answered. A staff member from Plan Rwanda explains that these people are community health workers and they have gathered here because the Minister of Health is coming to distribute cell phones so that they may have better communication and access to services. “Ah!” I say. “I understand.” In my head, I am thinking, “I’m not sure if this is what Faustin meant when he said that the Minister of Health would be here, but like me, they are going where the wind takes them and trying to pretend like they knew this is where they were headed all along.” When he is done explaining, he says, “Come.”
I follow him, through the crowd and into the cleared stage where speakers have been set up and chairs covered in white material have been placed under a tent. He leads us to the chairs and we sit down facing the hundreds of community health workers who have gathered here. They are loud and vibrant as they wait for the Minister of Health to arrive. The doctor, who is as clueless as I am, asks when the Minister will arrive. “He will be here soon,” is the response he receives. Whether that soon is a Rwandan soon, translated to mean it might be a while, or our interpretation of soon, which is he is just down the street, is unclear. No better way to pass the time than to observe the crowd and enter into thought.
I think about this moment in my life and I have to laugh. It is so cliché of Africa. Gatherings out in the open air. People in colorful fabric blending together in the crowd like a mural. The hot sun and humid air seeping into the cool shade to warm you. Even the wait. And finally, the Minister of Health’s vehicle screaming down the road and coming to an abrupt stop outside the tents. His entrance with his hands raised above his head to the screams of the waiting crowd. And then the most exciting part of the day. The moment when he travels down the line, greeting and shaking hands with every person seated on the white chairs, me included. In fact, I am seated three chairs down from him, next to the Mayor of Gatsibo’s assistant.
Rwandan culture is speech-oriented. At every event, speeches are a very important part of the program. And not even one big speech. You have the speeches introducing the speeches that introduce the main speech. The first speech begins, in Kinyarwandan of course, so I only understand a couple words. There is a lot of mention of ubuzima (health). A lot of HOs! And a lot of cheering and clapping. During the first speech, we are introduced as the guests of honor. What I did to deserve this position besides just being present and being a foreigner, I do not know.
Rwandan culture is also dance-oriented. When the first speech ends, the drumming begins and everybody moves from the sidelines onto the stage for five minutes of dancing. In the first few minutes, only a few dancers are on the floor, dressed in flowing fabric of a variety of colors. By the end of the five minutes, almost everybody in the crowd is dancing. That is how they do it here. First, the crowd settles down in the hot sun to listen to a long speech, and when people’s minds begin to wander and their eyes begin to droop from the boredom and heat, they are called up to energize themselves with a moment of dancing.
I have been informally learning Rwandan dance during these brief moments between speeches. I have attended enough Rwandan gatherings to have a small idea about what I am supposed to do. As I move onto the stage to participate in the dancing, which is many times the most enjoyable part of attending a ceremony of speeches in a language I don’t understand, there is always at least one woman who takes my hands and dances with me, surprised and happy to see a muzungo. Most of the time, I am staring down at her feet, copying her movements, while she is smiling and laughing at my lost attempt to imitate the uncomfortable positions to a strange Africa beat. Her friends gather around her, also smiling and laughing at the helpless muzungo. Each woman takes her turn dancing with the muzungo, and I am passed around the group like a hot potato until the call sounds, the music stops, and everyone takes their seats as if the brief moment of dancing were only a mirage in the hot sun.
Speech number 2, followed by another round of dancing. Then, the Minister of Health himself stands up to give a speech and distribute cell phones. About twenty community health workers are called on stage to receive cell phones. A huge grin spreads across each workers face as they are handed a cell phone and shake hands with the Minister of Health. Some even pull the Minister close for a hug. Cheers erupt from the crowd. And then, about ten minutes later, they are seated again, and I can’t help but think, “All this to give out 20 cell phones.” Don’t get me wrong, I think the “mobuzima” (mobile and ubuzima (health) combined) movement is positive, but hours in the hot sun and numerous speeches not to mention the preparation that went into the ceremony seemed like a lot of effort to which the climax was not comparable. Oh well, I got to meet the Minister of Health and dance. More of which I am going to do right now.
The ceremony ends and we all take our positions on stage for the final round of celebratory dancing. I notice the camera from the national television hovering above the crowd, trying to catch their movement and exhilaration on film for broadcasting. As the camera turns on me, I do my best imitation of Rwandan dance, knowing my performance is going to be seen by many people around the country.
On the ride back to home, I am not riding on the back of Faustin’s motorcycle, but on the high that today’s experience gave me. I think about how I woke up this morning thinking that the day was going to bring me more work on the youth center, only to be headed home at the end of the day after experiencing an event so unique, unplanned for, and characteristic and characterizing my African experience. I knew then that this experience would be one that I would always remember, cherish, and share with all those who ask about my volunteer service in Rwanda. As many of the other experiences of living life in Rwanda fade into the background, this experience will be relived on numerous occasions, always fresh and light. That is why, one day, I will be sitting down with my family, friends, speculative children to tell them about the day I woke up to meet the Minister of Health and dance Rwandan-style on national television during my Peace Corps service.