It is a funny phenomenon about love, love of a place that is. When we initially decide to travel to a place, we have reasons. But those reasons are not the same as why we decide we like or dislike a place. Overtime, you see what the real importances are.
When I received my country placement for Peace Corps, I was excited. Rwanda sounded like a great country. I began reading and researching about Rwanda. Many sources described it as beautiful, the Switzerland of Africa, with its lush, rolling green hills. Yes, it had a difficult past, but the country had overcome that and was developing. Change was happening quickly. The country was full of energy. Rwanda was emerging as a beacon of light and hope in Africa. All that was interesting and exciting for me to be working in. In other places around the world, it was the food, the reputation, the landscape, and other such superficial things that initially lured me there. I rarely asked or worried about the culture or national psyche.
Now, after being in Rwanda for a year and a half, I realize that while these things are important, perhaps only initially, they are not what really makes or breaks a place. The thing I miss most about America is the culture, not the specifics of it, but the fact that it is alive, flourishing, and abundant. Rwanda has a culture of it’s own, sure, but it is weak. Most of it was destroyed along with the rest of the country during the war. The little that survived is impaired. There is some singing and dancing and drumming that occurs, but not often enough to make me feel like the culture in Rwanda is existing and vibrant.
I like the idea of culture as the ocean you swim in, imperceptible around you until you emerge from it into dry space. Rwanda is culturally dry. What I took for granted in America, a culture that is nourishing and sustaining, does not exist here. Therefore, I have stepped from a wet ocean of culture environment, into one that is as desiccate as the desert sands that Africa is better known for than green hills.
I miss going out to restaurants with friends. I miss live music. I miss theatre performances. I miss visiting museums. I miss festivals. I miss events. I miss sports games. I miss any of those value-added activities. I miss choice. I miss being able to do what I want to do.
The most obvious hindrance to a vibrant culture in Rwanda is the lack of community that exists here. Any sense of community was destroyed alongside their culture and the rest of the country during the war. Community is the backbone that supports culture- without it, a culture can not exist, let alone flourish. Perhaps it is not so much that I miss those specific cultural activities more than I just miss the sense of community and trust that encircled them. It didn’t matter what I was doing, as long as that sense of community was there.
The second obstacle is poverty. Here, the mindset is all survival and little pleasure. Rwandans are some of the most hardworking , motivated, and serious people I know. In fact, one of the biggest insults you can give in Rwanda is to tell someone that they are not serious. One of the biggest compliments is “You are smart.” Rwandans who are working hard to survive have little time or patience for non-serious pleasure. The importance we place on culture depends on the pleasure we, as a society, derive from it. If you are struggling to make enough to support your family, you will probably be quick to point out that a singing, dancing, and drum circle is going to do little to help. Plus, it’s just not serious, therefore Rwandans place little effort on reviving their culture, especially compared to the energy they exert on developing the economy of their country.
I take a different view on the culture question. Culture is important- very, very, very important- and for this reason, may be serious it another way. It is not separate from economics and the overall development and stability of a country. It is greatly integrated. The sense of community and trust that is built and nourished by a shared culture and cultural activities is one of the greatest promoters of peace, and a peaceful nation is one more likely to develop, economically and in numerous other ways. Culture is important to the development process and not exclusive from economic development.
I have come to realize the importance of community, trust, and culture in determining the overall happiness and greatness of a place, over the terrain, food, and other initial lures. After a year and a half in Rwanda, these initial lures seem trivial, even my missing of cheese has been replaced by that of culture! The initial superficial attraction has been replaced by something emotional, and the feeling, whether positive or negative, is what determines whether we like or dislike a place. Dare I say, does it sound, like love? And like all love, it is much more difficult than lust.