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Upon Realizing I Have Lived Abroad for Over a Year

Fifteen months ago, I left a job that I loved in a city that I loved and a relationship with a man I loved to move to Rwanda. I could not name the thing I was looking for that would prompt me to uproot my comfortable life and embark on this new one that I had only vaguely identified as a necessity for reasons I could not clearly articulate to myself, let alone others.

At fifteen months in, I have been on some rather lavish vacations that allowed me the privilege of experiencing the beauty and ugliness of Africa in all its unapologetic extra-ness. I have had to repeatedly turn into Ugly Keturah, complete with raised voice and unholy language, to put a shockingly sexist man in his place and I have stopped speaking in mid-sentence to gawk at the overwhelming beauty of rolling hill upon rolling hill as the sun set over the most lush, green terrain I have ever seen.

I find myself contemplating what exactly I have gained from this year. Why exactly am I certain that I will not be returning to the states anytime soon even though I have had just as many moments of sadness as I have had moments of joy in this land where the people look like me, but I can not claim any more authentic ownership of it than the foreigners who self-consciously roam through the streets uncomfortably aware of their white skin for the first time in their lives.

My biggest take away thus far? It is me and only me. No other than me.

I do not love Rwanda. Depending on the day you ask me, I might not even claim to like it very much. There is a disturbing quiet to Kigali that should not exist in any modern-day city. There is a distance, a misleading “politeness” of the people that feels like a shield, a mask that I am not allowed to mention, much less reach out to touch or remove. I know the history, and more importantly, I know my place. It is not for me to question why these people carefully display only one emotion in any given situation nor is it within my pay grade to even semi-adequately critique how well their ways of coping with their pain actually accomplish the goal of healing what hurts. All I know is something feels superficial about this place. Like just bubbling beneath the surface is a deep, throaty wail waiting to be released. A lost of composure long overdue that might go on for too long and frighten too many people.

Kigali is too small. It breeds a small mindedness. A non-stop silent analysis of my every move and motive.

And yet, I have been and remain happy here. Because it is not Kigali’s responsibility to make me happy. It is mine.

I took a teaching job at a school that has no idea what it wants to be. There are people at this school who are earnest and hard working, but who are not quite sure what a school is supposed to be. As often happens in international schools, the student body is just as transient as the faculty. Yesterday, a 9th grade student returned his copy of Things Fall Apart to me, casually mentioning he would not be coming back to school on Monday. “My dad’s job is moving us back to Wisconsin; I think we leave on the 18th.” This young man showed up to our school last May. Just as abruptly. Just as casually. We accept students who speak absolutely no English who have spent their entire lives in French-speaking schools and/or being taught under a wildly different curriculum and hope everything will work out. (We have not really defined what “work out” means, either.)

And yet, I lam still grateful to have been given the opportunity to begin my career as an international teacher at this school. I still devote shameful amounts of my head space to  figuring out how to master this unmasterable art of teaching. How to be compassionate and influential to students who might well be the future assholes of the world without even trying. I still want to hug my students and my colleagues as much as I want to strangle them.

It is not my school’s responsibility to make me a better educator. It is not my students’ duty to inspire me to love them. Both of those jobs belong to me. And only me.

So, here is what I am left with when I think about what I have gained from this year abroad.

I have gained more of me.

 

When A Communicator Can’t Communicate: The Struggle

Being a nerd can be quite burdensome. Because we love learning so much, nerds tend to turn every moment into a chance to stuff our overflowing brains with just one more nugget of information. Knowledge is to nerds what a six figure salary is to most other people. Therefore, many nerds tend to relish the opportunity to flaunt their intellectual prowess to anyone who is polite enough to humor us as we quote literary authors (the more esoteric, the better!) and wax poetic about our brilliant, simple solutions to the world’s complex social issues. And like the owner of a six-bedroom mansion quietly seeths with absolute rage when those pretentious neighbors down the street build a ten-bedroom mansion, we nerds are none too pleased when we are exposed for what we truly are: regular human beings who, in the learning process, actually fail several times before we succeed.

I have been repping Black nerds since 1975. I have had four decades to place almost all of my currency in my intellectual stock.

Imagine how humbling these last few weeks have been as I try to use the few Kinyarwanda phrases I have learned with actual Rwandans. Months before coming to Rwanda, I spent a few hours a week with my nifty Utalk app, listening to an overly friendly female voice slowly repeat numbers, greetings and simple sentences that promised to get me through my “settling in” phase in my new country. I came armed with “Muraho” (Hello!), “Murabeho” (Goodbye!), Simbyunva (I don’t understand) and Simbizi (I don’t know). If I ever needed to borrow a pen, use someone’s phone or ask how much something cost, I was fully prepared to articulate my need with precision and confidence.

So, the trouble with knowing only a few key phrases in any language is the people who are responding to those phrases don’t know that you only know a few key phrases. Added to this complication is the blessing and curse of being a Black woman in Africa. Particularly when I am out with non-Black people, the locals here assume I am one of them when I proudly slam one of my kinyarwandan phrases on the table. In such situations, the blessing of being in a country where I can more easily blend in turns into a curse.

It is a curse I inflict on myself. No one requires me to speak in Kinyarwanda. Since I am an Ex-Pat, I often find myself in environments where Ex Pats frequent. Therefore, any locals who also happen to be in these places automatically slip into English because they assume that the people with whom they are communicating likely do not know Kinyarwanda.

I could just speak English.

I could just make my life easier. Actually engage in a successful conversation.

Yes, I could do that. And most times I do.

But as for those other times…

Please enjoy the below transcript of what often happens when I do not settle for the okey doke and speak boring ole English here on the exciting continent of AFRICA. It is a sadly accurate depiction of what normally happens when I feel compelled to make it known that, yes, I can speak me some Kinyarwanda. If not to garner the respect of the locals, to at least instill a tiny bit of jealousy in the Ex-Pats within ear shot of these terribly inadequate conversations.

Scenario 1:

Me: (as I pass someone on the street) Muraho! Maramutse!!

Someone on the Street: “SOMETHING WITH A LOT OF WORDS THAT I DON’T UNDERSTAND AND THAT DON’T REALLY SOUND LIKE ANYTHING FROM MY UTALK APP”

Me: (Blank stare)

Someone on the Street: “MORE WORDS THAT DON’T SOUND LIKE ANYTHING ON MY APP.”

Me: (confidently, as if I have recently finished my dissertation on the etymology of Kinyarwanda) Simbuynva. Lo siento, I mean “mbabalira”…I think?

S.O.S. chuckles. And repeats all his confusing words again. But slower. With hand gestures and some broken up English words.

Me: (getting nervous because S.O.S is speaking to me like I am a pre schooler and I still have no damn idea what he is saying.) Sim…buyn…va?

(I add a sheepish smile and shrug my shoulders. I even put my hands up as if to say: Yeah, I am lost here and isn’t this quite an awkward moment in which we have found ourselves? My INNER NERD taunts me, suggesting that instead of looking like that cute, confused kid from the picture on the Utalk app, I look like a mentally challenged person with this abrupt, too-wide grin and the inability to respond to what is most likely a simple greeting.)

Scenario 2:

Me: (to my waitress who has spoken impeccable English the entire time I have sat at her table) Ese n’angahe?
Waitress: Awwwww…very good! You know Kinyarwanda?!

Me: (like a kindergartner whose teacher has just put the biggest, goldest star next to her name in front of the entire class) YES! I have been practicing for weeks now. I know how to say other things besides, “Can I get the check?”

Waitress: Really? No?

Me: Oh yes! Yes. Wait…just wait. (I think really hard) Ufite ikalamu?

Waitress: (feigning admiration surprisingly well) Wow. That is good. Do you really need a pen, however?

Me: No, not really. That is just what I remembered with confidence. Do you want me to ask you where the bank is, too?

Waitress: No, that will not be necessary.

(Here, I try not to be agitated with my lovely waitress. I remember that she, at least, applauded my success and even encouraged it. Last week, I reached back into the recesses of my mind to summon up the Kinyarwandan phrase for the ladies room, which is a mouthful. When I slowly, carefully, painstakingly managed “umasarani wabagole,” this heifer looked at me indifferently and said: “The toilet? You need the toilet?” I still have not forgiven that bathroom attendant lady for not humoring or applauding me like this waitress has.)

As you can imagine, I’d much rather Scenario #2 happened more than Scenario #1. However, we all know which one does happen more often.

When Scenario #2 has occurred, though, I have shamelessly latched on to the poor, defenseless Rwandan who has then pacified my desire to prove that I know more than I really do. And those poor fools who are slaves to their politeness have had to sit there as I threw out random words and phrases that mean absolutely nothing in the context in which I am using them. (Sometimes, I have suggested my captives clap!) I justify my language bullying by telling myself that I have entertained countless numbers of taxi drivers, shop keepers, neighbors and random strangers each and every time I have found myself in some version of Scenario #1. Therefore, my thirst for applause when Scenario #2 occurs is sort of like the laws of language and communication being balanced somehow. The world must have balance. If I am the one to do such balancing, so be it.

Electricity is a Real, Live Thing

My father was one of those people who adamantly conserved energy. Lights were turned off sometimes while children were in their bedrooms reading. “Costs too much damn money,” he would bulk. “Read during the daytime.” Nowadays such strict conservation is generally upheld by new millennium hippies who have become cognizant of Earth’s depleting resources and think it only logical to curtail the culture of mindless consumption. For children of people like my father, however, the ideal to conserve has always been more linked to saving money than saving humanity.

I have been in Kigali, Rwanda for less than a week and have found the link between conservation and cost has been all the more clear to me than it has been in the past. Many modern day necessities are pay as you go. Electricity is one of those things. Outside my apartment is a meter that very clearly shows numerically how much electricity “lives” here. On my first day here the meter read 2950. (I don’t know what the unit of measurement is, but it seemed like a whole lot of electricity.) I was told to simply monitor the meter and when it gets low, head down to almost any grocery store and buy more electricity. If I allowed the meter to make it to zero, I would be in the dark. “I usually take a photo of the code here on the meter, show it to the clerk and buy more units,” my boss explained to me after he had gotten me settled into the place. “The clerk will give you a code to plug into the meter, which will immediately reflect how much more electricity you now have.”

It is not unusual for westerners to monitor their electricity. Most people can relate to getting an electric bill in the mail that seemed exorbitant and immediately adapting how often they used air conditioning or buying more energy-efficient light bulbs. (Or turning off the lights on their nerdy child while she read her favorite book.) However, SEEING the visual representation of this suddenly animate object right in front of you puts this idea of smart consumption in hard to ignore reality.

Today, my meter dipped into the 1900s.

It has only been three days. Two of those days, I was in the apartment alone awaiting the arrival of my colleagues who will be teaching with me this school year. I had been very conscientious of the meter. Suddenly, leaving the kitchen light on even when I walked back to my bedroom for a few minutes seemed not so smart. Each day, as I left the apartment, I gave the meter a quick look to gage how much electricity I used daily. It was not like getting a monthly utility bill, when the damage had already been done. Here, in front of me was a daily reminder that every single lighted room, every single charged cell phone, chipped away at what I had imagined as an invisible privilege that simply existed somewhere in a magical fairy land.

My roommates ate up my electricity. They are nice ladies and I enjoy talking to them, but my meter was still in the 2000s before they arrived with their insatiable need for illuminated meals and immediately dry hair.

Cellular service is also pay as you go. I gave an amused Rwandan at the the cell phone place what felt like a whole lot of money (but, once I did the Math was really only about 16 American dollars) and bought what should have been a lot of cell phone service. I was told I got voice and data. And I could again monitor the usage as I went. Once the money ran out, I would have no phone service until I came back in the store and bought more.

It is funny how I no longer have an obsessive need to check Facebook several times an hour. How insignificant it seems to read and respond to every single email that comes to my phone within minutes of its arrival.

Do I really need to send this text?

Do I really need to post this photo?

Do I really need to google “What happened to K.C. from Jodeci?”

Do I need to even have the data feature on my phone turned on all day?

These are questions I find myself asking much more frequently. In a sense, I have turned the beginning of my new life into a game. How long can I stretch out this electricity? Can I make 1900 units last TWO ENTIRE WEEKS? Can I ride out these 16 bucks of cell service until the end of the month?

“Back in the 80s,” my boss mused, “they had this thing where every family got one 40 watt light bulb for an allotted amount of time. They were expected to screw it in whenever they needed it in different rooms and if it didn’t last until the next time they were given their light bulb, then…oh well…”

My boss is a British Canadian who, although he has been the director of several international schools in African countries, has only been in Rwanda for a year. Who knows how much truth there is to his one light bulb story. It sounds like an urban legend if I ever heard one. I thought for a moment about goggling it, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth my data usage. And the “internet stick” that someone loaned me for my laptop only has a week’s worth of internet on it. I am confident I can stretch it out to at least a week and a half.

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