Sunday, February 13, 2011

No Longer America, Not Quite Rwandan

There are many anniversaries taking place this month.
February 15th (last year): the day I left my family and friends on San Juan Island, my hometown, to begin my extended journey to Rwanda
February 22nd: the day my staging event began in Philadelphia, the beginning of my involvement in the Peace Corps
February 25th: the day I left the United States for Rwanda…the last day I had access to Starbucks and Subway, regular hot showers and flushing toilets, all the comforts of life in the developed world.
February 26th: the day I arrived in Rwanda and the start of our pre-service training… I have been in Rwanda for a full year (minus one week in Uganda) this month.
It is crazy how fast a year has passed.
A year into Peace Corps Service, I think it is a good time to talk about integration. Integration is the antiseptic in any Peace Corps wound. Ultimately, it does a good thing, prevent infection, but in the process, it hurts like a b****.
At this point in my service, I feel what we call “integrated” into my community, although in my opinion, integration is a process that will never be complete. No matter how long I live here, no matter how culturally sensitive I am, I will always be a little bit different. But, that is part of the reason and joy of my service here. I am here to introduce new and additional knowledge and qualities of American culture into Rwanda where there are gaps and room for improvement.
They say that one knows when he or she has truly learned a language when they start dreaming in that language. Language is one of the most important parts of integration. Without a common language, how does one expect to form meaningful bonds with other people? Although I have not started dreaming in Kinyarwanda, I am able to get by with my limited knowledge of the language- hold simple conversations, conduct daily activities and business, engage with people. Plus, I can not put enough emphasis on the importance of the smile, officially referred to as the international language-barrier breaker. As my Kinyarwanda name, Muhorakeye, suggests, I am the one who is always smiling (a partial meaning of my name, which actually means ‘the one who is always happy, smiling, laughing, smart). I have found that, no matter how much I butcher the language, people appreciate that I am trying, and when I have a smile on my face, they feel comfortable and are able to laugh at me, with me. Laugher is the greatest bond of all.
Language aside, there are other markers of integration. I can tell I am integrating because I have learned and embraced the way of life here. Sometimes, I feel like I am going a bit crazy, but that is because my brain is confused about my cultural orientation. Am I American? Or am I Rwandan? The answer is, I am no longer American, but I am not quite Rwandan. I am lost in the gray space between the two. Many aspects that marked my involvement in American culture no longer exist in my life in Rwanda. I am embracing aspects of my new culture and now, living a culturally correct life in Rwanda is second nature and no longer work. Isn’t it just common knowledge that, if I yawn, people will assume I am hungry, not tired? The most obvious signs of my integration in Rwanda come in work. I have learned how to function successfully in the Rwandan work environment. I know the proper channels I must go through in order to begin a new activity at the youth center. I write a letter, I sign and stamp it, and I travel to the sector and cell offices to inform the executive secretaries who approve, sign and stamp the letter. I know how to balance and manage my relationships with multiple organizations. I understand (despite my frustrations) the importance of hierarchy, bureaucracy, and administration. I also tailor my looks to the importance of first impressions and professional dress. Last, I know what questions to ask and what points to highlight to improve the local capacity of my coworkers and organizations in a cultural-sensitive way. That is probably the most important because, it is in these moments and situations where the greatest clash of culture occurs. By working within my current culture to introduce aspects of my previous culture, I am able to avoid a clash that turns to conflict and achieve my duty and goal of local capacity building. I experienced one of these moments yesterday, in a meeting to discuss the Voluntary Savings and Loans (VSL) Exhibition that will be taking place next week. The exhibition will officially launch the VSL project, inform the public, celebrate the graduation of 600 members, and introduce 2000 more to the group. There is a lot of work to be done to organize such a large event. I have been working with my organization to plan the event. At first, the organization expected me to take responsibility and plan the event by myself. But, I learned from my past mistake when I invested large amounts of my time and energy into a project that only lost my investment and mental stability when it failed. No, I would not do that again. Besides, how would they learn? We made a list of tasks and I delegated them among the team. Instead of working as a group on every task, an inefficient method of working that is common in Rwanda, each person would be responsible for completing a single task and we would meet again in a couple of hours to present what we had done and edit the drafts as a group. I did not have a task other than making myself available to help when people needed clarification or had questions.
Planning is not a part of Rwandan culture. Planning is something that has been introduced recently from the Western world and not without its struggles and gaps. My organization prided itself on its timely planning, a week before the event. I smiled along with my coworkers, but gave a knowing smile that meant, there is a lot of work to be done so you should be ready. We began the meeting to discuss the logistics of the event. One coworker was responsible for writing the words that would be used on the banner and poster for the event. The sentences she created were good, informative. But, the sentence for the catch phrase, the hook, was almost as long as a book. Instead of correcting her work, I explained the purpose of the catch phrase and the characteristics of a good phrase. She asked what I would suggest. I said, “Ask your teammates.” Together, we edited the sentence to something that fulfilled the purpose of the catch phrase and pleased the team. Then, we went through the invitation letter that was written by another coworker. I corrected his English grammar, teaching some simple English rules and the format of a formal letter in the process. The same for the agenda for the event. When we came to the list of attendees, I was able to remind them about a few important local officials and organizational representatives whom they forgot. While going over the budget created by another one of my coworkers, I noticed that a lot of gaps existed. For example, the team was planning to have a sound system, tents, and chairs delivered to the event venue. Although they budgeted for these items, they did not budget for the cost of transportation to and from the venue. How are you going to transport the sound system, tents, and chairs to and from the venue? In addition, they wanted to serve soda and maize (a local dish) to the attendees. Who is going to prepare 2000 pieces of maize? Who is going to serve the soda and maize to 2000 people? I asked these questions, and my coworkers immediately realized their oversight and began discussing the logistics in greater detail, sometimes coming up with additional, necessary items, such as the cost of costumes for the five people hired to seat and serve the VIPs in attendance. I walked away from our meeting, satisfied and relieved that the planning process had gone so smoothly.
While walking home in the evening after the meeting, to my usual chorus of “Muhorakeye, Muhorakeye!” I heard one name I haven’t in a while, “Arielle,” and it shocked me, reminding me of my origin in America and confirming my embrace of a new culture, and a new name. I looked up and finally registered the familiar face before me, a coworker from Plan Rwanda. He was visiting a friend in Kiramuruzi. Apparently, he had asked people in my village where the muzungu lived and followed their directions to the doorstep of my home. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, I was at work on a Sunday. He approached my neighbor’s umukozi, housekeeper, who was busy doing her daily tasks in our front yard and asked, “Where is Arielle?” “Arielle?” she answered, “I don’t know an Arielle.” She looked at him, a puzzled expression on her face. “Oh, Muhorakeye, then?” he mustered. “Muhorakeye. Ah!” Her face brightened. “She is at work.” Her realization is not unique in my village. Most people, with the exception of my coworkers and close friends, don’t know my muzungu name. It is not because they don’t care, but because “Arielle” is very difficult for Kinyarwandan speakers to say so I have become accustomed to relying on my Kinyarwanda name, often introducing myself as “Muhorakeye” and using it in my daily village life. I think this explains most clearly the position I find myself in, my brain’s confusion about my cultural orientation. In a way, I am two people who live two lives. In America, I am Arielle, a recent graduate of university with an interest in development and developing countries, someone who is close to her family and friends, enjoys clothes and dressing up, is a city-girl, is sportive, has traveled extensively, and the list goes on. In Rwanda, I am Muhorakeye, someone who is always smiling, approachable, different (strange), wears jeans, t-shirts, and a headscarf most days, spends her time doing hobbies, reading, and the list goes on. Although the two descriptions of me share some things in common, fully or partially, they are different. Me in a different light, a different environment, a different context. Makes a strong case for environmental determinism. But my brain is not quite ready to accept either fully and is instead lost somewhere in the gray space between. No longer American, not quite Rwandan.

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