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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.

 

A Tale of Two in Their 20s

1.
I am standing over the biggest suitcase. The one I have stuffed with the few books I could NOT give away. The one I decided could also hold what I considered useful artifacts: the five journals in which I had sporadically written during my 20s. Those first few years after being released from what I felt were the confines of college and into what I naively fantasized as the unbridled freedoms of adulthood – laid out in its tedious suffering – now peek out from behind bra straps and copious pairs of socks.

“Uhm…even if I charged you for the overweight,” the lady behind the check in counter had apologized moments ago, “you STILL have too much stuff. I could lose my job if I sent this through.” She pondered this predicament as if it were she who could not purge enough of her worldly possessions before embarking on an international relocation and was now faced with an impossible dilemma.

I stand off to the side where the bizarrely patient Turkish Airlines attendant assigned me to “readjust and repack to see if you can fit some of your things in your carry on.”

I have readjusted and repacked twice. Each time I put my newly packed suitcase onto the scale, it is still overweight.

It is us, my journals suggest. We simply must go.

2.
“What 24 year old starts a school?”

I am staring at Mensiye in absolute awe.

“I mean, I can see volunteering at one or helping out in a needy community. But what made you think to start a school when you were barely out of school yourself?”

“Well, my background…” He pauses for a brief second. In that second, I contemplate asking him what he means by “my background.” I realize I don’t need to ask, though. I have only been in Rwanda for three months, but I have had enough conversations with its countrymen to know what Mensiye’s background is. When this young man was barely out of Kindergarten, a mob of machete-wielding rebels invaded his village and gang raped its women before brutally slaughtering them and anyone else who could not run away fast enough. His background is this: a traumatized orphan roaming around a destroyed village until one of those who survived finds him and becomes his family.

“Someone helped me,” Mensiye continues. “So, I must help other children who do not have what I had.”

3.
I make the decision quickly. And without as much internal conflict as I would have predicted.
I pull out the first journal. It is a nondescript hard cover notebook with simplistic renderings of flowers sprinkled across the cover. I remember picking it up from the clearance table outside of the Border’s on Veterans Blvd. Since my excitement about this, my GREATEST move, has resulted in my being at the airport four hours early, I decide to ceremoniously engage in what had become a ritual for me every few years. Before throwing these artifacts away, I decide my life as a young adult deserves one final perusal. I flip through the pages, stopping on a random day in 1998.

Apparently, I hated my job. As I read through the pages of complaints I had about it, I come to these conclusions:

1.My boss expected me to work even when the work I was assigned was stupid. I did not like this.
2.My job was boring. I did not like this.
3.I wasn’t paid enough. I did not like this.
4.In a related complaint, my car was old and frequently in need of repair. This meant I had to drive all the way from Uptown to Metairie to bring it to my father so he could fix it. I did not like this.

4.
“The nuns who take care of some of the street children up the road have asked us to teach their children once a week.” Mensiye looks uncertain for the first time since we pulled up to this modest building and he started unloading the furniture and school supplies that have been donated by his friends and co-workers who want to support what he is doing. “We already have 50 more students than we can handle. I want to be able to feed them more than once a week, but if we take on these extra children…”

I ask Mensiye if plans have been made to formalize this rather grassroots operation so there can be regular meals, full time, salaried teachers and maybe an infrastructure that will allow the school to function when he and his mother are not able to be there and make things work.

“I can ask my friends in the states for donations,” I try to wipe the worry from his eyes. “But, this can’t be your only way to keep the doors open.”

Mensiye nods his head and says he has applied for grants with varying degrees of success. Getting a sustainable support system is top priority for him and the board.

“I have been funding this with whatever money I have left over from my own salary at work.” He says this casually, as if this is what every man in his 20s does with an already modest pay check. “We have gotten too big and the work has become too important for that to be enough now.” As quickly as the uncertainty rested on his face, it has taken leave.

“I will find some other way.”

5.
In May of 1999, someone named Patrick did not return my phone call.

Although I did not know why Patrick stopped talking to me, I devoted three full paragraphs to all the possible reasons why he COULD have decided to not pick up his phone when I called HIM to see why he had not called me.

This led me to lamenting why I did not take someone named Darion seriously when he showed interest in me. I weighed the pros and cons of maybe finding some way to let Darion know that I could like him, now. Perhaps. Why not? A page and a half later, I have decided to neither pursue Darion nor call Patrick ever again.

6.
“I decided my mother and sister should leave Kigali and come back to Nyamata.”

Back at Mensiye’s mother’s house, I have been given tea and a slice of the banana bread our mutual friend baked as a gift for his family. I offer my few phrases in Kinyarwanda as my own gift in hopes that these people will see them for what they are: my attempt to connect with them and let them know I value who they are.

When Mensiye explains to me why he lives in the city and his family in the village, he has just come in from overseeing the building of an additional home on this small plot of land right outside the house where I and two other friends are currently fellowshipping.

“So, your mom and sister moved back, but you didn’t?” I wonder out loud if he really likes living in the city that much.

“Kigali is very expensive,” he explains. “Here, food is cheaper and so is land. I stay there because the work brings more money. When I send it back here, it goes farther.” He points out they would not have been able to build an extra house in Kigali, which means they would not have the benefit of rental income. “It is better for us this way.”

I find myself staring at Mensiye again. I do not know where these types of 27 year olds come from?

Before I can ask him to clarify if he really does support the school AND his family from one salary, Mensiye has excused himself from the table again to go into the yard and talk to the men who are working on the additional house.

I observe him give a series of directions in several different languages. He waits until the men have begun work again before coming back into the house to finish his tea.

7.
At some point, my own words became insufficient to voice my discontent. An entire journal entry is filled with Lauryn Hill lyrics. The only contribution from me is: Lauryn speaks my heart.

I throw my last artifact into the garbage can when the Turkish Airlines lady comes over to see if I am ready to re-check in.

“What are you doing,” she almost gasps. “Are you really throwing your stuff out? You couldn’t just fit it in your carry on?”

“Some things could be repacked, but I still kept going over the limit. Without these, I am right at the weight requirement.”

The check in lady looks truly sad for me. “But, those were books, weren’t they? You shouldn’t throw away books.”

I explain to her that they were just old diaries from when I was young and confused. They were nice to have around when I wanted to reflect on my growth, but essentially were just reminders that youth is wasted on the young.

She seems less sad now. “I hear ya on that,” she smiles as she picks up one of the littlest suitcases and wheels it toward her counter. “Boy, all the nonsense I got into when I was younger. Such a waste of time and energy I wish I could get back now”

“Yes,” I nod my head. “Don’t we all.”

Beautiful Women Hurt More Than Murder

As someone who has always been interested in people, it is little wonder I have also been unable to lay to rest my wanderlust. When I have spoken about countries I have wanted to visit or have visited, I have occasionally gotten the curious: “Why there?” The most organic answer I have always been able to come up with is: “Well, because there are people there.” Aside from eating my way through the region, my main reason for visiting most countries is to talk (as much as my limited knowledge of their local language allows) to people who likely had different experiences than my own, but essentially wanted the same things for themselves and their loved ones as I did.

This relocation to Rwanda is unique in that for the first time, I will be in a country for an extended period of time and I have come here with no knowledge of or addiction to its native cuisine. So, my desire to connect with people, to engage in sincere dialogue with them is less likely to take a back seat to eating my way across this lovely country like a ravenous dog.

Ironically, the one topic in which most would want to engage is officially off limits here in Rwanda.

For those of you who find it hard not to block out images of Don Cheadle defending his family and neighbors from machete-wielding rebels whenever you read the word Rwanda, you should know that if you visit here, talking about the genocide is taboo. Calling the genocide a war is taboo. Using words like Hutu and Tutsi is downright offensive. The official party line is the genocide happened two decades ago. We are no longer tribes; We are RWANDANS. We have rebuilt and will continue to do so. We remember and mourn as a nation during April, when there are memorials and ceremonies. Then, we promptly move on.

I have no burning desire to force potential friends to relive their pain just to satisfy my own curiosity, but it strikes me as odd that a defining moment in the history of a country that happens to have been the catalyst to the great country it is now becoming can not be spoken of in polite conversation. Nevertheless, I follow the protocol that has been laid out to me by my employer and the many blogs I have read since accepting this position. Do. Not. Bring. Up. The. Genocide. Keep your theories and opinions about who is to blame and the ramifications of the tragedy to yourself, bsese.

I am not thinking about the genocide or Don Cheadle when I call Eric, the taxi driver who my boss assured me would give me a good price to take me downtown. I am only thinking about an iron. Although I unpacked my suitcases quite some time ago, I have yet to actually iron any of the wrinkled dresses haphazardly thrown onto hangers in my closet. I need an iron and likely an ironing board. And also, a mop, which means I should get a broom. Which ultimately means I need a ride downtown and back.

Eric is such a friendly man. He not only drives me to T-2000, Kigali’s version of Dollar General, but he also helps me shop. When my few poorly pronounced phrases in Kinyarwanda do not result in any of the workers helping me find what I am looking for, he says things to them and then items that I need magically appear. Eric even encourages me to pursue my insane goal of meeting President Kagame by randomly showing up to his office one day and introducing myself. (“You should make an appointment first. He is a nice man. You might not get arrested.”) Eric even asks me how much certain items I am purchasing would cost in America, especially “New York City where you come from. I know it is quite expensive.”

Perhaps it is because our errand has turned into a friendly getting-to-know-you chat that I forget a key piece of advice new teachers were given during our recent orientation. “Be careful asking people about their families,” an Ex-Pat who has been here for over five years cautioned. “You could involuntarily bring up some horrific memory that the person may have preferred to stay buried.”

At some point in our shopping spree, Eric asks me why I chose to come to Rwanda. After I explain my reason for relocating, I ask him what seems like the most logical follow up question: “Are you originally from here or are you an Ex-Pat like me, too.” When he answers that he is originally from Rwanda, but spent some of his childhood in South Africa, I logically reply, “Oh, is your family still living in South Africa or have they managed to move back to Rwanda like you?”

The nonchalant ease in which Eric responds has a bizarre way of alerting me that I may have caused my first international incident.

“My family was murdered in 1994.”

There is no discernible change in Eric’s disposition. He is neither visibly angry nor does he appear to be on the verge of an emotional meltdown. He reveals he is alone in this world after his entire family was killed during a three-month massacre just as casually as he revealed the difficulty he has with saving money because he has a “huge problem” that comes in the form of beautiful women who expect beautiful things.

I quickly decide I will not turn Eric’s tragedy into my own campaign of guilt and pity. I do not get flustered and try to convince him that I am really a good person who does not intend to open wounds that have never fully healed. I simply say to him: “That sounds incredibly hard. I am sorry you loss your family and I apologize if I have made you think about something that you’d rather forget.”

Somehow, those words grant me a brief entry into the post-genocide pain of Rwandans who I am told don’t share much with the Ex-Pats who have invaded their country these last 20 years. “It used to be hard,” Eric muses, his disposition still remaining calm, assured. “I am sure you wonder how someone like me – someone who lost his mother and father at the age of 7 is not crazy. And you should know that some people are, by the way. Some might be yelling at you right now and just tell you to shut up.” Eric goes on to explain that he doesn’t see the sense in falling apart. He has had a good life. His life now is better than some of his friends who were already living overseas when the chaos started not so long ago.

“I drive a Mercedes and make a good living here in my country,” he tells me proudly. His chest protrudes at least 3 inches as he pronounces, “One day soon, I will buy a plot of land and build a house.”

“Why, aren’t you fancy,” I tease him. “I won’t be able to afford you soon.”

He chuckles and assures me, “You still have some time to get good prices with me. It will take me two more years to save before I have enough.”

I remember the problem he shared with me earlier. “Well, if you don’t do something about this dating beautiful women business, it might take you a bit longer.”

And THIS is when Eric looks truly beleaguered. Tired. Worn down even.

“I know,” he sighs. “But, it is hard. These women in Kigali nowadays…”

Then, his voice trails off and I see on his face the universal look of every man every where remembering the beautiful women they have captured as well as the ones they couldn’t convince to stay. I do not need an orientation to tell me I should leave well enough alone.

Much to my relief, the cashier finally summons Eric and me to the register.

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