Emotions in Rwanda are different. They aren't deemed negative, but rather aren't acknowledged much at all. For a country with such a deep, dark history, for the most part emotions are kept at bay, and there are rarely open expressions of any extreme - anger, happiness, sadness, etc. Every once in a while I will even see a student quickly covering his/her mouth with a hand to disguise an unexpected smile. Tears are never shed out in the open, raised voices are not heard, and squeals of delight catch people off-guard. I have found that it isn't so much that people don't "feel," it is just that they process their feelings more inwardly than what I am accustomed to, and that has taken some adjustment on my part.
I have come to understand that each of us have a past which is filled with events that have unfolded in various ways, and those unique events bring about emotions in us that can, at times, catch us off-guard. Oftentimes I find that it isn't until later that I uncover the truth behind the emotions that have built up inside me, and realize that it is my history that has shaped me and that makes me react to situations and circumstances in various ways. We are not robots, and we are not meant to be robots, so I struggle with environments that are emotionless, and I am intrigued by the typical Rwandan response of "I'm fine" when asked how they are doing. In fact in many English-Kinyarwanda dictionaries, the basic conversational exchange that is taught goes as follows:
- Good Morning - Mwaramutse
- How Are You - Amakuru
- I'm Fine - Ni Meza
Last weekend one of my friends in the Village, a fellow American, received horrific news that her father had suddenly and unexpectedly fallen gravely ill. He passed away this past Monday, nearly 24 hours after she arrived back in the States to say goodbye. I can not describe the emotions that I felt when I heard the news and when I saw her in the airport to bid her farewell. Not only was I sickened for her and her family, but my mind and memories immediately jumped back to the morning when I received a similar phone call about my brother, and in an instant the gut-wrenching, hollow pain in the pit of my stomach returned. The rush of emotions that have been surfacing within me since last weekend have been a bit unexpected and startling. I understand that my feelings are not irrational or incorrect, but they are different on so many levels from what other people around me feel, and it is impossible for anyone to understand or relate to what is going on within me. I am surrounded each day by people in the Village who harbor such sadness, but with such limited outward expression of emotion, it is not possible to "heal" in an open way. That realization and feeling of isolation have been my greatest challenges this week.
Ironically enough, the evening before my friend's father's accident, I had a conversation with another friend about untimely death and trying to process the pain and seemingly lack of understanding that I have regarding a life being cut so short. Most people don't know that after my brother's death, I looked into going to India for a bit to spend time meditating at an Ashram. As you know by now, I ended up in Rwanda, but in a roundabout way, a message from an Ashram reached me. During the above-mentioned conversation, my friend told me a story that he learned while living at an Ashram several years ago. He told me about a talented artist who lived at the Ashram. She painted incredibly intricate paintings and once they were finished, she would place them in a body of water and watch as they disappeared out of sight forever. Someone asked her how she could destroy such works of art after spending so many hours creating them. She explained that what is important is to memorialize not the piece of art itself, but rather how it made you feel while you were creating it, and how it made you feel while you spent time with it. THAT feeling will stay alive and with you forever, living in your mind and in your heart.
Looking back on being called "emotional" and being looked down upon for having that trait, I have to say that I have now learned to put aside judgments like those which prevented me for so long from looking inward and understanding my own individualistic way of understanding myself and the world around me. I have emerged as someone who is not ashamed to feel, who can both outwardly express and inwardly process my feelings, without feeling the need to validate or legitimize them. My life has provided me with events, interactions and experiences which have made me a unique individual. How each of us responds to the world and its inner workings is a result of our individual histories. My emotional complexity is something to be valued, and for all those naysayers out there who beg to differ with that opinion, well, I just look at them as being simplistic and dense, and are far too fearful to examine the inner workings of who they really are and why they are that way. Having emotions, whether internal ones like the Rwandans, or more raw emotions like I have is something to be valued, as it makes us complete human versions of our true selves.
Dorea, I miss you more than words can express...sending you hugs from Rwanda xoxo