Upon arrival in Rwanda, I immediately realized I was in a whole new world. Granted, I knew that going in, but it was more of a conceptual idea until we landed – hearsay if you will. Just stepping off the plane, I noticed the faint smell of something burning like a campfire off in the distance. What was I to do, though…I still had to go through immigration and head to the Peace Corps office. Time to shrug that off and figure it out later, a new chapter was set to begin.
Motorbikes everywhere, people slowing down at intersections using their horns to alert others (yet minus the standard American salute that typically follows), winding decently lit paved roads through the hills, houses…with gates…where am I?? I thought I was supposed to be in Africa, yet there I was stopped at a traffic light. Clearly there must be some mistake. Coffee shops with wireless internet, a blend of Kinyarwanda, French, and English being spoken, all with views that belong in a magazine of beautiful places in the world – this is not real life.
As we pulled up to the gate to my new home in Muhanga, my counterpart, Philbert, was there to greet me. We unloaded my two bags (OK, three if you count the backpack) into a house that I would be more than happy to have in any country. Seriously, I have lived in an apartment the size of my main room; this place is nice. The floor is painted – not always the case – and I have two small storage rooms along with a bedroom and “full” bathroom.
As we were going through making sure I had everything I needed, one of the young boys who also live in our compound popped his head in. We greeted as well I could (one of about 10 words in Kinyarwanda I knew at that point), but it became obvious to me that everyone was a little curious. Who is this new guy who just moved in, what is he doing here, and why can’t he speak to us? Not going to lie, I would feel the exact same way.
On the walk to the office, I notice shopkeepers sitting outside with fresh produce for sale. Men are working on both bicycles and motorbikes, there is a shop grinding cassava down for use in flour, school kids are heading off for the day, and women are headed to the water source with their buckets to fill for the days usage. I may or may not have noticed a few actually stopping and turning around, though I doubt it is for my boyish good looks these days. Little kids stop, stare, and then yell “Muzungu!” (white person) wave or say “Good morning!”
I took the picture above on my first walk into town (could have used more sunscreen on the two hours it took there and back). I posted this to social media, but did not caption it correctly. I should have focused on what you cannot see: Just out of view, there are two little boys playing. It wasn’t until after I took the picture that I noticed them looking at me. I have no idea what was going through their minds. It was probably just curiosity about why this white man would stop to take a picture of their backyard or it could have been nothing.
It hit me, though, at that very moment: Our realities will never be the same – regardless of whether or not we are breathing the same air or walking on the same soil, living in the same country at the same time. As much as I think I understand what life is like for the people around me, I honestly have no idea what it is like from their perspective. This is not to say that it makes me happy or sad, just more aware. Here I am, admiring what they see on a daily basis and simultaneously they see a stranger, passing through their lives – one they might never see again.
In just a few weeks in Rwanda, it is already clear to me that I have no concept of what life is really like for people here, yet I am slowly learning. In our shared compound, I am the only one with a water source for private use. I clearly have the biggest house except for the owner, and I am pretty sure I’m the only other person with indoor electricity and a shower. I also learned the campfire smell is from people cooking dinner using charcoal as opposed to my gas stove.
It is easy to lose sight of one’s original motivation for being in the field of International Development and sometimes being overseas helps to redefine that. The past few years have shown me that by being active, supportive, and engaged, I have a better chance of having that impact so many of us seek. I certainly know that my perspective continues to grow.
A new perspective creates an understanding.
An understanding develops trust.
Trust carries you through when communications are imperfect.
Trust allows for change to happen.
It all comes down to perspective…
…time to go to work.