One unique thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer is that we get to witness change over a long period of time. Many volunteers work in countries for short periods of time and establish a static picture of the place in their minds. In addition, our understanding of what is under the surface, the underlying situation, is small in the beginning. Now, I have a deeper and dynamic understanding of Rwanda, one that has changed over the past year and will continue to change and develop over the next. Plus, the longer we are here, the more we realize that the “deeper understanding” is really that we don‘t know anything at all. The longer we are here, the more we realize what we don’t know and that things are so complicated and incomprehensible that we won’t be able to understand no matter how long we stay.
First, let’s give development a cheer. Despite all the issues and frustrations with development, I can tell that Rwanda is developing, and moving forward quickly! Progress is being made and quite fast! How do I know this? Let’s take Kigali. When I first arrived in Rwanda, Kigali was a city of villages, meaning it was a bigger version of my village. Sure, it had nice restaurants, “muzungu hang-outs,” but it also had dirty streets and slums in the middle of town. Now, Kigali is a (relatively) modern place, with high-rises going up all over the city, streets with checkered borders, beautiful greenery and gardens, and more nice cars everywhere. It might be a subtle change, but it is change, development all the same.
Then, let’s look at the cooperative stores in Kigali. When I first arrived in Rwanda, the cooperatives sold goods made from items that were cheap, available, and would otherwise be considered trash. For example, recycled bead jewelry (the beads made from cuts of magazines rolled up), earrings from carved metal bottoms of soda cans, and earrings woven from banana leaves could be found everywhere. Although beautiful, no one could argue that these handicrafts required expensive or difficult to find material. And of course, the price of the goods reflected that.
Now, the stores contain more… advanced handicrafts. The old ones have not disappeared, no, they are still there, but now one can find jewelry made from real glass beads next to the recycled ones. What has happened? Development, good positive change. The cooperatives made enough profit on the simple handicrafts they began selling that they were able to expand and explore new, more expensive, materials. And the price, of course, reflects that. The cooperatives are changing, progressing, developing.
I see positive changes taking place all over Rwanda and that is exciting and encouraging. There is so much building going on in my town, I sometimes wonder if I have taken a wrong turn in the trail home because I do not recognize a building. In the last year, my village has seen new roads and sidewalks. I was shocked when I visited two other African countries, because they were not nearly as advanced as Rwanda. I realized that I had no right to complain about Rwanda, because what I was complaining about was inevitably worst somewhere else. But, Peace Corps Volunteers are not only witnesses to great changes, we also experience changes that are not so positive.
Change has two sides. On the one hand, change implies improvement, moving forward, and yes, development, embracing the new. On the other, change can be a loss, leaving behind the old. I think back on the year and a half I have spent here, and I realize, I have lost so much in order to continue in my service. Many people have somehow been left behind to the dusty (everything in Africa during the dry season is dusty) cabinets of my memory.
First, Nepo. I used to work with Nepo, an employee of PAJER, everyday at the youth center. But, suddenly, he moved on and I have not seen him in almost a year. I don’t know where he is. And if we are on that note, Aaron, another employee of PAJER, left. Aaron spoke amazing English and helped me during the difficult period of adjustment and learning. I think about these two men and I wonder, where are they, what are they doing, if I will ever see them again. Time and change have taken them away from me.
On the home front, I have been in the midst of a turmoil of change. When I moved into my new house, I met my neighbor’s umucozi, Diane, with her baby strapped with fabric to her back. She didn’t speak a word of English, and my Kinyarwanda was poor and easily exhausted. However, over the next four months, we established a sort of friendship, a friendship based on mutual acknowledgement, laughing, hand gestures and acting, and sharing. In fact, I became closer to Diane than my neighbors, simply because we spent hours in the courtyard doing chores together. We were together everyday, unlike my neighbors who spent time inside the house and who I rarely saw except for the typical hello and brief conversation as we passed on our way to work or school and in the evenings. My relationship with my neighbors felt forced because they were unsure how to act around me and couldn’t let it just be. With Diane, our friendship was natural, born without expectations and allowed to grow at its own pace. One day, she told me that she and her baby were leaving to return home. She was going to stay with her family and farm. I was incredibly sad. She introduced me to the umucozi who would replace her, Chantal. At first, I was so upset about Diane leaving that I couldn’t open up to this new umucozi, who couldn‘t possibly be as good a friend as Diane. Then, I began to think positively. Chantal was younger, a city girl, had no baby, we had a lot more in common than Diane and I. We could be great friends. Alas, our friendship began to bloom, but it was terminated unexpectedly. Chantal did not get along with my neighbor. In my opinion, Chantal was too strong to be content working as an umucozi, slaving away all day every day for someone else. When Mama bossed her around or yelled at her, she got angry. One day, she packed her things and left, without telling anyone she was leaving or where she was going. I came home to find my neighbor and her child locked out of their house, wondering where Chantal had gone. Finally, they realized that Chantal was gone and had left the keys in a pot in the outside kitchen. They called Chantal all sorts of names. I couldn’t help but think, “She’s smart, she got away, she knew this wasn’t what she wanted to do, I hope she does something else, good for her.” But, again, that meant I had lost yet another friend to the changes of time. My neighbor found a new umucozi, but we are still tiptoeing around each other. She is shy and doesn’t know what it means to live in compound opposite to a muzungu. For that reason, she stares at me constantly as I go about my daily housework, and I get annoyed about being constantly on display, even in my home. Hopefully, time will change that, too.
Even if people are not completely lost in the changes that have occurred over the past year, in some ways they are further away. Our friendships have developed and deepened, however, I am no longer the child that everyone needed to baby sit. I have a lot more independence and freedom in my day-to-day activities. Now, I am working on my own projects instead of coordinating on coworkers’ project. I no longer go on long motorbike rides into the hilltop villages with Faustin to do work for the child sponsorship project. I rarely help the VSL team or visit VSL groups, except on special occasions. Our friendships are still strong, stronger than they were because we understand each other on a new level now, but the adjustments that have happened in the work place over time mean that we no longer have those opportunities of being and working together. We see each other less frequently and in our spare time. We have new ways of spending time together and sharing, and although this can be interpreted as evidence of our growing, maturing, deeper friendships, I still miss the connection we had those first days when my coworkers were my lifeline in Rwanda.
Graduations, babies, new faces, these are all the markers of time passing, change happening, my service progressing. Change has two sides; it is a double-edged sword, each side sharp enough to inflict pain. And the feeling is bittersweet. For some reasons, the new is welcomed. For other reasons, the old is longed for. But to look back on the old, makes me realize just how much time has passed, how much change has taken place. The old lets me put the current, the new, into perspective, and appreciate just how far I have come. But change is inevitable, especially for a volunteer who spends years in a country, and as much as we look longingly on the old we have left behind, the new is unknown and for that reason intriguing. It may not always be positive, it may sometimes be negative, but change is exciting. Since change can’t be stopped, we might as well accept it and enjoy the ride.