Monday, May 21, 2012

Q&A Time!

One year ago today, I walked across the Lehigh University Commencement stage for the third time. I made a wish that day that I would be afforded the opportunity to live and work in sub-Saharan Africa, and low and behold, here I am!
henever I speak with someone outside the confines of the Rwandan border, I often get asked a lot of questions about my life in Rwanda. What is it like? Have you joined a tribe? How many white people are there? What do you do? … The questions are endless. Within Rwanda, the questions I get asked are quite a bit different. The first question I ALWAYS get is, “How do you see Rwanda.” I hate that question. When I was first asked it, I didn’t quite understand what the person wanted to know from me. After learning about the culture, I discovered that a positive and/or na├»ve answer is always a good answer. “It’s very beautiful, with such vibrant colors across its many hills” was a common response from me. Now I simply prefer not to answer it and encourage the inquirer to rephrase their question, or ask me something a bit more specific. A few months into my stint, I turned the question around and asked Rwandans how they see Rwanda. They all seem stymied and stupefied as to why I would ask them such a question. I suppose I feel strongly about the being able to answer a question if you are going to ask it to someone else. As for other questions I generally hear from Rwandans, well they often relate to Obama, my knowledge of the Literati Movement, how much something I have costs, what I do career-wise in America, what color we wear to funerals, and what I appreciate about Rwanda.

Now it’s time for some answers.

First things first – the questions from abroad:

What is it like?

Climate: Currently, it’s rainy and damp, as the rainy season comes to a close. Drying clothes is a bear, and generally takes up to 5 days. Within those 5 days, you have to make sure you get fresh air circulating around your damp clothes so they don’t start to smell like mildew. There are seasons, and I’ve experienced 2 of them – the short dry and the long rain. Next up: the long dry, where I am told all the lush, green vegetation turns brown, the sky doesn’t even appear blue, and the dust is unbearable. Ahhh, sounds enticing…can’t wait!

Race: I stick out like a sore thumb, but honestly don’t notice my skin color within the confines of the Village. As soon as I step foot outside the walls of the Village however, I feel like a foreigner and I am quickly reminded that being white is something of an anomaly around here. Little kids follow me like I’m Forrest Gump, people touch me to see if my skin color will wipe off, people stare, laugh, giggle with delight, and my freckles are routinely scrutinized and regarded as a disease (I tell them I’ve eaten too many beans and the beans have made my skin spot).

People: I have found that Rwandan people are generally low-key and keep to themselves. The people in the cities are a bit pushy, and if I’m trying to buy something, whether it’s a cabbage or a moto ride, the price will nearly double at first go…then I negotiate in Kinyarwanda and they realize I’m not such a foreigner, and after they laugh, they usually bargain with me. Although unassuming, Rwandan people are incredibly observant. They will notice a pillow crease on your cheek and know that you woke from a nap 10 minutes prior. They will look into your eyes and know when you are tired. They will study every facet of every person (especially outsiders) and note minute details about that person, down to chipped nail polish on one of your toes. They detect and take in EVERYTHING.

Safety: Do I feel safe? The short answer is yes, without a doubt. The Village operates in a bit of a bubble, but even outside the fenced-in area, I feel safe. After adapting to the sight of people caring around machetes and other sharp objects out in the open, and military and police officials carrying machine guns along the side of the road, my guard droped a bit. Even after becoming accustomed to that which would not be "normal" in America, I feel as though I am hyper-aware of my surroundings and quite focused on staying in the loop with the news regarding any recent grenade attacks, as well as the uprisings in Congo.

The Country: Rwanda is the size of the state of Maryland in America. The country itself is incredibly forested, very hilly, and blanketed with many lakes. All but a handful of roads are nicely paved, most places have electricity, and nearly the whole country has access to the internet. Given all of those advancements however, it is still uncanny to me that most of the country does not have easy access to clean, drinkable water. Indoor plumbing is hard to find, and hot water is unimaginable in many parts.

Have I Joined A Tribe? – Short answer, no. There actually aren’t really “tribes” in Rwanda, which is unlike neighboring countries like Tanzania and Uganda. After the Genocide Against the Tutsi People in 1994, there was a strong movement toward a unified Rwanda. People here are Rwandan. I am American.

How Many White People Are There? – Short answer, not many in comparison to how many people are not white. In my Village, there are 9 of us. In the neighboring town of Rubona, there are zero (although supposedly there used to be, and may still be a white Peace Corps Volunteer…tbd). In Kigali, there are many more white people, but I have no idea how many. 100? 200? In the grand scheme of things, in a country with over 11 million people, there still aren’t many.

What Do You Do? – My title is International Coordinator, but my job encompasses many things. My position description has the following excerpt

The International Coordinator (IC) serves as the link between the Village, the New York office, and most visitors. He or she will give tours and arrange daily schedules of activities for visitors passing through. The IC will coordinate with appropriate staff within the Village and collaborate with staff-members in the New York office to plan and facilitate short-term service trips from ten days to two weeks. This may include creating and justifying budgets, creating or revising itineraries, communicating with trip leaders, making logistical arrangements, and acting as the primary host for visiting groups. The IC should be prepared to create and conduct educational sessions and facilitate debriefing meetings. Finally, the IC will oversee the Kigali House and the Village guesthouses and the preparation of rooms for visitors. The International Coordinator will conduct all duties with an eye toward creating opportunities for Village youth to participate as part of vocational training in hospitality studies.

In addition to the above-mentioned duties, I also serve as co-Director of the Guest Club, which is consists of 34 Senior 5 and Senior 6 (11th and 12th grade) students who serve as Ambassadors for the Youth Village and help make each guest and visitor experience special and truly memorable. Aside from my “position,” I am also a cousin to 16 first-year students. I serve in essence as a big sister to them, and you can often find me eating meals with them, helping them with homework, attending family meetings with them, and just offering them a hand to hold as we walk through the Village.

Questions from Rwandans:

Do You Like Obama? – Short Answer: Personally, I think he seems like a pretty easy-going, intelligent guy. I end the conversation there because it’s never a good idea to enter into political debates when abroad. I like to stay nice and neutral :)

How Much Do Those Shoes Cost? – Easy Answer: I got them as a gift. As of yet, nobody has noticed that everything I brought with me was a “gift.”

What Do You Do For Your Career? – First, I laugh. Then I say, “I currently volunteer for a living.” That stumped the passport official last time I entered the country, and many people don’t quite know how to react. I DO NOT say that if I am on public transportation, as most Rwandans do not understand the notion of walking away from a career to earn $0, no matter if you are helping the world or not.

What Will You Do When Your Year of Service Is Over? – Oh please, you didn’t think I was going to divulge that information via my blog, did you? You’ll just have to wait and see…December is just around the corner.

What Do You Know About The Illuminati? - Before I came to Rwanda, I had no idea what the Illuminati referred to, and quite honestly I am still a bit mystified by both the concept and the fact that everyone here talks about it. What is it you ask? It has something to do with select members of the Hollywood elite, and their supposed plan to take over the world. Google it.

What Color Do You Wear At Funerals? – Death is omnipresent in this country, and that has been difficult for me to digest. I suppose that is the logical reason why this topic often arises during conversation. People wear the color purple here to commemorate the Genocide, so my girls were a little surprised and perplexed when I told them that black is the common color to wear during funerals in America. When they asked me why, I simply said that black depicts how you feel inside when someone you love dies – you feel like you’ve been swallowed up into a big, black hole.

What Are the Biggest Challenges Living in Rwanda? -
  • No vacuum, yet endless amounts of dust and dirt
  • Cold showers on cold nights
  • The language - kinyarwanda is NOT easy to learn
  • The lack of time management (if a meeting is to begin at 8am, it will likely start between 10 and 10:30am)
  • Miscommunication, or lack of communication altogether
  • The lack of protein and nutrients in my diet
  • The lack of silence. Although Rwandans speak very softly to one another and to me, when they are on the phone, it's as if they are yelling to their friend across the country. That coupled with their inability to close doors quietly makes for a very noisy living environment.
  • Not being able to sleep in, as the country wakes up when the sun wakes up, meaning 6am. Cue loud cell phone conversations and the slamming of doors :)
  • Being so far away from family and friends...there are days when it is gut-wrenching

What Do You Appreciate About Rwanda? – This is a newer question that I was asked just a few weeks ago at dinner, and I have heard it a few times since (I’m guessing since I’ve been here nearly 6 months, by now I should appreciate something). After pausing for a few minutes, the following came to mind:

· Within the Village, I appreciate the fact that despite the absence of rules and regulations, things run with such order and without incident. With 500 15-22 year olds living, studying and playing within the same shared space, you’d think that that would be a recipe for a disaster – but it’s not. For example: the doors to each house in the Village (including mine) don’t lock, and yet there is never a problem with people invading others’ privacy; 500+ of us eat at the same time three times each day and there are never any incidences of misbehavior or insubordination (ie. food fights, wasting of food, being aggressive with serving the food, etc.); shared space is respected and if there are a limited number of soccer balls, those not playing will wait their turn. It is an incredible system where the students hold each other accountable, call each other out when they see someone not respecting the core values of the Village, appreciate the opportunity they have before them at the Village, and take advantage of everything the Village has to offer.

· I appreciate the aspect of sharing that is alive and well in the Rwandan culture. In America, so often people are selfish and take ownership of what they have. “What is mine is mine” so to speak. In Rwanda, it’s the opposite. What one person is wearing today will gladly be given to another to wear another day. The same rule applies for shoes, notebooks, jewelry … everything. Nothing belongs to just one person. Everything is shared, and it’s lovely to see!

· I appreciate the concept of being inquisitive. People here want to know about the world outside of the Rwandan bubble. It is so refreshing to share my worldly experiences with others and paint a picture of what it is like on the “outside.”

· I appreciate the Village students’ desire to learn. There is such a thirst for knowledge and longing to expand their knowledge-base. They realize that they are the future of their country, and they are in control of making their futures brighter. They want to know everything and anything, and it is so delightful and inspirational.

· I appreciate the simplicity of life. Seeing a child gleefully playing with an old, rubber tire and rolling it down the street with a stick makes me smile. Life is tough here, there is no question, but there is joy in the simple things. There is time to just sit in peace and read a book. The outside noise of the developed world doesn’t cloud your mind here. Don’t get me wrong, I read the news from 3 different sources each morning online, but without tv or radio, without a car or bicycle, things slow down and suddenly your mind gets less overwhelmed.

· I appreciate the fact that I walk 4 miles once or twice a week to get a cabbage, a bunch of bananas, a bowl of tomatoes, and a loaf of bread. If you would have told me that I would be doing that without complaint a year ago, I would have scoffed at the notion. Now, it’s just part of what I do.

I mostly appreciate the small things - one of the students holding my hand as we walk through the Village; a student putting her head on my shoulder during a movie; a student inviting me to watch his class presentation; a student sharing his personal Genocide story; a closed-off student opening up and engaging me in conversation for the first time; a student asking me to help him get into University; a student telling me that she thinks that "the sun has gone and died" because it's been cloudy and rainy for so many days in a row ... these are what keep me going and what get me out of bed each day. The students are what make this Village magical.

I sat in the dining hall the other day thinking about how I have just under 6 months left to my contract. It really made me appreciate that I have this year.

Now that I’ve provided you with a few Q&As, it’s your turn. What questions do you have for me? C’mon, don’t be shy :)


  1. Just one question: want to stay for a 2nd year? ;) --Mara

  2. Have you been proposed to yet?
    - Nathanael

  3. Want to own any chickens when you get back to the US? :P hehe.

    What do you miss the most about American culture? Or "extras" that we do have - other than hot water of course :) Bug spray?

    So glad you are having a fulfilling experience. Proud of you and miss you.

  4. Love this post, Barre! Loved living your experience through you, and can't wait to hear more when you get back:)

  5. Barrett, I really love your blog! You are a great writer, and it is so interesting to learn more and more about your life in Rwanda. I am often asked the same or very similar questions in Ukriane! Is there something special you are looking forward to in the next 6 months?