Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Jennifer and Charissa Confront the Psychotic Wall of Culture

You know what? We’re really different. All of us. For all the efforts of the anti-individualism campaigns of the last ten years, we are all, in fact, beautiful and unique snowflakes. Well, at the very least, we’re unique. Anyone who tries to say we’re all the same clearly hasn’t spent much time anywhere other than where they’ve always been. On that note, I would like to share some of my more recent experiences with conflicting cultural sensibilities.

The Fighting Irish

I’ve always held a warm place in my heart for the Irish. The time I spent I Ireland was fabulous. I felt that, as an American, I was exceptionally well received. Just about everyone I met went out of their way to be kind, had a wonderful sense of humor, and was eager to share a little bit of their lifestyle with me. Now, there are always bad apples in the bunch, but the woman I am about to tell you about was strictly poisonous.
Charissa and I took a day trip into Kigali in order to run some errands. We ended the day with a coffee at Bourbon (Muzungu Heaven), essentially just looking at e-mails and minding our own business. Shortly into our repose a rather unfortunate looking white woman wandered over to us and asked if our internet was working. When we acknowledged that it was and commiserated over the speed being less than what we had hoped for, she asked where we were from Stateside.
“Chicago,” answered Charissa.
“California.” I said.
“And how long are you going to be touring Rwanda?” She asked politely.
“Oh, we’re not tourists. We’re Peace Corps Volunteers. So we’ll be living here for the next two years.” Charissa said.
The woman’s oddly accented tone instantly transformed into utter disdain and hostility. “Puh’leeease tell me you are TRYING to learn Kinyarwanda.”
We both just stared at her.
“Bohoro, bohoro,” I finally said.
She ignored me. “I just HATE it when American’s come here and all they speak is English. They think everyone should speak English and don’t even try.”
At this point I disengaged. If I had never met anyone like her in my life I probably would have risen to the fight. “Now, do you always start off conversations with this much bile and hostility? Or just with perfect strangers?” But lucky for me, my year in France had dulled my temper a bit. It didn’t really matter what I said. She already knew everything about me, and probably every other American on the planet. What more could I do? Charissa wasn’t quite as willing to give up.
“You know, we are English Teachers. The government invited us here to teach English. And most people I meet really want to learn English. They’re trying really hard.”
“Not the elderly! The elderly don’t want to learn!” The woman contested.
Now, I know a few people over the age of 65 in my village that would have a thing or two to say about that sweeping generalization, but again, this lady already knew everything about everything. What could I say?
“…And in Jenn’s village they actually don’t even speak Kinyarwanda. They all speak a regional dialect that comes from Uganda.” Charissa tried to temper the conversation again.
The woman completely disregarded the point. “I love using my Kinyarwanda.”
She proceeded to call over a waitress and order in poorly accented and executed Kinyarwanda, claiming that she was using complex vocabulary and grammar when really she was just failing to grasp that Rwandans are culturally different from the Irish. The waitress’s confusion was more than enough to satisfy my ego. The Irish woman had insisted on using a conjugated form of the word “to beg” as a substitute for where “Please” would commonly go in English. Except for the fact that Rwandan’s don’t have a word for please. They don’t have it, because they don’t use it. Polite and formal speech by Western standards aren’t a part of Kinyarwanda. This is normal and culturally acceptable for the Rwandans, so when a strange Irish woman orders a coffee and follows the order up with “I beg of you” the waitress naturally stopped and turned around again thinking perhaps the woman wanted something else. After about five minutes of trying to explain in broken Kinyarwanda and English that she just liked using the word because it essentially made her feel special, the waitress just walked away. I couldn’t really blame her. I had more than half a mind to just tell the lady to make the world a better place and shut her mouth for twenty seconds.
Unfortunately, none of us were that lucky. She turned her attention to us once more, and went on to laud the Rwandan education system; going to far as to say that: “American teachers have a thing or two to learn from the teachers in Rwanda.”
“Yes, there are many really good teachers in Kigali,” replied Charissa politely. One day, I will be as patient as Charissa and maybe then I’ll understand how she manages to deal with the most insufferable people with a smile on her face.
“Not just in Kigali,” snapped the woman looking more irritated than before. “I mean in the villages. There are teachers in the villages here who are better than the ones at the best schools in Kigali.”
Here we go again.
“Really? What villages for example?” Charissa was still keeping an even tone.
“In Byumba there are some really amazing teachers. And in Rwamagana.”
I wanted to slam my head into the table. Villages? Those towns are what we commonly call District Capitals and they all have electricity, running water, and markets the size of Costco. It’s probably not this woman’s fault. Chauffeurs don’t usually like to drive on dirt roads which is probably why she’s never seen a real village, and you can be certain this lady has never seen the inside of a Mini-Bus.
There was even more after this, but I’ll spare you.

Rwandans and Food

Generally speaking I eat the same thing every night. It is rice, spaghetti, or boiled potatoes with the same mixture of tomato and peanut sauce over it. But evidently that doesn’t mean the Rwandan’s don’t have other options.
One night, when Jose and I were setting up the charcoal burner, I saw her snag something off the wall. I took a closer look and saw that she was pinching a grasshopper between her fingers. I imagined she was planning to throw it into the bushes or something, so I went back to trying to light the fire when I noticed she had actually leaned in and pretended to bite its head off.
“Jose!” I gasped.
She looked up at me quizzically.
“You’re not actually going to eat that are you?”
“This? Jenny, you know we can eat things like this.” She replied casually.
“Josephine, if you eat the bug right now it is going to ruin my night.” I said flatly, but then stopped to consider the situation. She was at home in all senses of the word. She was not only at her own house, but she was in her own country. Why was I telling her what was okay to eat or not eat?
“No no. I will not eat it. It is joke. Entre paranthese.” She tossed the grasshopper at the cliffside.
“ Right. Well, I mean. We are going to eat dinner in a little while.” I tried to backtrack, but it just sounded strange, so I changed the subject.

On Saturday I was walking back to my hotel with Charissa in Kibuye. It was a really beautiful stroll on a road that ran parallel to the lake, and was mostly deserted. We passed one or two people every few minutes, but only one really stuck out in my mind. A fisherwoman was standing on the side of the street looking like she wasn’t actually doing much of anything until we passed her. Instantly, her hands shot out in front of our faces and she started saying, “Amafi, amafi, amafi” (fish, fish fish)! Sure enough in her cupped hands were maybe ten or fifteen sardines she had likely caught a few minutes before, and she was trying to sell them to us. Genuinely. They may or may not have still been moving. Out of instinct I almost recoiled, but again I had to remind myself that she had to think this was normal. She had to think this kind of thing was so normal that there was no way anyone from anywhere else would think it wasn’t.”
We politely declined and kept walking.
“… Weird.” I said.
“Seriously,” replied Charissa.

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Strange

One of the reasons for my presence in Kibuye was to celebrate Mark’s birthday, but the other was the fact that the World Cup had started and the USA was playing the UK. A group of us crowded into a bar to drink, watch the game, and be generally slanderous towards anyone from Britain. This managed to work out fairly well because there ended up being a couple of people form the UK who made the unfortunate mistake of wandering into our bar. At the opening of each game they bring out each country’s flag and the teams sings their national anthem. Throughout the entire salute to the English flag the bar was silent. Not even the Brits stood up. Then it was the State’s turn and the bar was filled with the sound of sliding chairs as about 14 of us shot up, put our hands over our hearts and started belting “the Star Spangled Banner”. At the end of the anthem we all burst into successive cheers and applause. Shortly after a few high fives and fist bumps, it occurred to me that every Rwandan in the room was staring at us like we had completely lost our minds. And I suppose we really must have looked a bit odd, but I know at home no one would have bat an eye. Culture, man. It’s a strange thing.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Wednesday morning I woke up to a knock on the hotel room door. Charissa answered it, which was good because I had no intention of moving in any event. “Yeah, she’s fine I think,” I heard her say. “She’s still sleeping. I’m just going to let her sleep until lunch. She’s gotta eat something eventually.”
I went back to sleep only to be roused what seemed to be minutes later by a much louder knock. “B-F-F”. “B-F-F, AR’HE YOU SLEEPEEN?”
“Not anymore… Good Morning.”
“It is Noon.”
“B-F-F, I think you are sick.” He said.
“No, I’m not sick. I’m just very tired.”
He lumbered over and laid horizontally across the foot of my bed.
I was still half asleep and it took a moment to register whether or not I was actually conscious. Am I dreaming, or is there really a large black man laying on my bed? No, no. I’m awake. Felicien is trying to talk to me.
“B-F-F, I think you are very sad”.
“Yes, I am very sad.” I replied.
“I think someone at home has told you a bad story.”
“Well… It wasn’t great.”
“Yes, someone at home told me something sad.”
He picked up my hand and squeezed it. “Komera”.
Be strong. I always feel bad when Rwandans tell me to be strong. Yeah, like I need to be strong. You survived a holocaust and go through each day like nothing was ever wrong, and here I am acting like the world is ending because of a relationship.
Charissa walked in shortly afterwards and shoo’ed him out of the room. Saved by the Peace Corps Mom. I went back to sleep until dinner.

IST passed pretty uneventfully. I had some emotional ups and downs but I went to the rest of the sessions and tried to be as attentive as possible. We passed through Kigali for a day to recollect before going back to site. I thought it was going to be a deal breaker. How am I going to commute back to the Dark Ages while I’m dealing with all of this? The answer? It’s not what I thought it would be. I asked my doctor for some anti-anxiety medication to help me through the week, but it turned out that the best Xanax was just being back at my site. Coming home was more cathartic than I could have imagined. Everyone was asking about me and wondering when the next classes at the factory would begin, and my kids… Wow. I never thought it would be such an ordeal to come back to the school.
I walked into my Senior 2 class to have a 5 minute standing ovation complete with cheers.
“I told you I would be back today. Why are you all so surprised?”
“We are just very happy to see you, teacher.”
+10 life points right there.
In my Senior 1 class one of my favorite students actually began to cry when I walked in and demanded where I had been.
“I told you. I had a conference I had to attend in Gisenyi and I was going to be back today, so here I am. Honey, why are you so upset?”
“Someone told her a bad story.” An older student explained.
Ouch. The memory of my conversation with Felicien was triggered for a minute but I shook it off.
“What kind of bad story?” I hugged the girl and tried to console her a bit.
“Well, a student in upper levels said that when Muzungus say they go on vacation it means they are not come back.”
Double Ouch. Is this about the genocide? Is this because all of the white people left before? Is that what they really expect me to do?
“Well, I am not a Muzungu. I am Umuyarwandan and I will not ever go on ‘vacation’ and never come back. When I leave, I will tell you and you will always have a way to contact me if you need me. Rahira.”
[Insert victory music here] Umutoni, Jennifer has leveled up.
The immediate rush of determination that completely flooded my soul was more than enough to force all doubts from my mind. I’m not leaving you. I’m never going to abandon you. I’ll always be here for you whenever you need me.

Take THAT crappy month of May.