The following content is comprised of personal opinions, and in no way reflects the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. Government.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Shades of Gray

A while back (as I'm sure most of you will recall as it's come up
several times now), I wrote a blog entitled 'The Dark Side of Peace
Corps'. Admittedly, that blog was, well… dark. In reality, Peace Corps
Service isn't 'dark,' but neither is it 'light.'

One of the best word I feel could be applied to being a Volunteer
is 'ambiguous.' We come into a culture that we have almost no ties to,
that we have to attempt to understand and comprehend at the same time
as we try to learn a new language, develop technical skills,
rationalize our life choices, and generally stay sane. But let's be
honest, that last one is questionable.

My point here is that we are (quite literally) on our own. Yes, we
have Rwandan counterparts and co-workers. Yes, we have other
Volunteers. Yes, we have Peace Corps. There used to be a time when
Peace Corps literally dropped you off in a remote village with a
2-year supply of anti-malaria meds and a pat on the head (actually,
they still do this, but now they only give us a 3 month supply). While
Peace Corps does provide support, Volunteers are generally left to
their own devices when it comes to our projects (so long as we
actually try at our primary jobs). In the realm of other people, our
counterparts and coworkers are simply not equipped culturally to help
us define our roles here. Peace Corps usually gets invited into a
country to help facilitate behavior change and capacity building.
While it is possible that some Rwandans (like my Headmaster) will give
me project ideas, most of them either see themselves as not part of
the flaw in the system or see no way to fix the flaw, and therefor
simply do not worry about it. While we can have fun and work with our
co-workers, the improvement techniques usually need to come from the
Volunteers, rendering the Counterpart relatively useless in the realm
of determining our roles.

While other Volunteers have the capacity to understand us culturally,
they are also going through the same ambiguity. Of course, we share
our jackpot ideas and best practices. And yes, this can and usually
does help us to define our role in our community. However, every
Volunteer, every community, every village, every school, every
hospital, and every Peace Corps experience is different. Just because
my school wants me to build a recording study (sidenote: telling
students who live in a country literally obsessed with Justin Bieber,
pop music, and AutoTune that you used to help produce music is a
horrible idea) doesn't mean it would be a good/applicable idea for
another volunteers. Just because one Volunteer is asked to only teach
8 hours per week doesn't mean we all will. Just because I have to deal
with one cultural burden doesn't mean that another has to.
Some days you find yourself accompanied on your 45 minute walk to the
market by a gaggle (I believe that's the appropriate term) of school
children who speak Kinyarwanda you can actually understand. Other days
you find yourself crammed into a mini bus with 20 drunk people, none
of whom speak English and all of whom are curious as to how your hair
feels, if your skin will rub off, why your teeth are so straight, or
why you do not seem to understand the difference between 'gusura' and
'gusuura' (they're actually spelled the same, just with different
lengths of the second 'U'). Some days your students are rays of
sunshine; answering your questions, doing their work, passing their
exams. Other days you find out your neighbor was never married. The
father of her only child, who didn't die in the War (as you expected)
but was actually a local officials and she, in her words not mine,
"was required to sleep with him.' Some days, this country, these
experiences, make you feel like the world is coming together, that we
finally have hope, that you are being productive. Then some days the
experiences make you want to hurl. To curl up in a ball and just...
let it all go. To fight back. But this is the Peace Corps. We all
signed up for this knowing it would be the furthest thing from easy
we'd ever done or been through. Some days you're the dog...

These are the physical ambiguities. If you ask Peace Corps what we
should be doing, they will simply stare at your, puzzled, and ask what
we see as potential projects in your communities. And perhaps
rightfully so. After all, we are the ones who live here. We are the
ones who eat, play, live, work, and drink with these people. We are
the ones who will have to do the projects and have the talents. It
isn't the Peace Corps Office that is making changes in this country,
it's the Volunteers.

The problem most of us run into is that we are relatively
inexperienced. I had never taught a class before. I had never led
training sessions on SMART objectives. I've never built a computer lab
or written a textbook. But here, we are called to do these things. I
fell it's a little absurd that we're sent here to 'build capacity' in
the education sector when we can barely teach ourselves. That
withstanding, I think it breaks down to culture on issues like this.
I'm not a licensed teacher. I don't have a degree or a Ph.D. in this.
Damn near the only training I do have is 16 years in Western schools.
But it more so boils down to how we see things. It never occurs to my
teachers that lesson plans can be re-used. Or to relate your new
material to something that the students have already learned (or,
ideally, are currently leaning or just have learned). In that realm,
maybe I have a leg up on my co-workers. Not because our way of
education is better, but because Rwandan education is trying so hard
to be western and I have that down pat.

Everything is ambiguous. If you ever find yourself in Rwanda and wish
to test this, just try to get a straight answer out of a Rwandan. It's
not that they won't tell you definitively, it's that you can ask 10
different people and get 10 different answers when they really should
all be on the same page. For instance, I asked around to find out when
exam week would starts. My Headmaster says October 17th. The Dean of
Studies says the 10th. My Counterpart, Anatole, says somewhere in the
middle. When I point out the discrepancy to the Dean of Studies, he
rescinds and says the Headmaster must be right. When I say something
to the Headmaster, he says the Dean of Studies must be right. I've
just decided that no one actually knows. But of course, as figures of
authority, they MUST know the correct answer to every question I pose.

On top of all this, there is a general emotional ambiguity. I could
talk and talk about how we have emotion swings strong enough to rival
McGuire and Sosa, but I think I already did that once. We know we have
ups and downs. However, one thing that perhaps isn't obvious is what
happens when you couple this with serving in a post-conflict country.
How am I supposed to feel about Rwanda, the government, and its people
when my best Rwandan friend says he cannot finish University because
of the 'ethnicity' of his father? Or how he describes to me the day
they came and 'cut down' his cousins because of whom their father was
(the 'they' he is referring to is the INTERAHAMWE, which is
Kinyarwanda for 'those who fight/work/kill together' and was the main
militia force used during the Genocide). How am I supposed to feel
about this? How are we supposed to reason that away and do our jobs
when our Counterparts have been trying to do this for 17 years and
still face the difficulties of it every day? I've been in the country
for a year and am still reduced to tears when I walk through my
church, running my hands over the bullet holes in the brick left over
from a 4 day, 3,000 person massacre.

Yet every day I see the hope in the eyes of my students. I asked one
of my Senior 4 students (about 10th grade) why he decided to continue
school. You should remember here that Rwanda is currently a 9-year
basic education system, meaning that Senior 4, 5, and 6 are not
considered 'basic' and therefor rather expensive to attend. He told me
that he knew he will be nothing even if he finishes Senior 6, but he
would be even less if he stopped at Senior 3. What drove him, he said,
is the simple hope that he will find something, anything, to support
him and his family. And he will not stop learning until he is on top
or out of money. Unfortunately, the latter is much, much more common.

My emotional connection to this country, culture, and these people is
torn. On one hand, I see them smile through adversity, I see them take
what they're given and be happy with it. I see them deal with
corruption, discrimination, ageism, and sexism and still proclaim that
they are proud to be Rwandan. And then I remember what happened. What
still happens. I remember what happened the last time a large group of
Rwandans unified and declared that they were proud of who they were.
How in the world can a people come back from a million-person
massacre? How can they trust their leaders when the last ones twisted
and distorted one group into systematically destroying another out of
pure hatred? How do they rationalize these emotions? How to they carry
their grief, doubt, shame, honor? How? How? How?

I tell my students that I love Rwanda. That I came here because I love
the people and want to help. I can never explain the pure bewilderment
in the eyes when I tell them this. It's almost like many Rwandans are
ashamed to be Rwandan. Give them an opportunity to leave and live
somewhere outside Rwandan and they'd be gone. Don't get me wrong,
there's nothing wrong with going to the States or to Europe if your
Rwandan, and I would definitely encourage any of my students to get to
the best University they can get into regardless of where it is. What
bothers me is Rwandans who 'jump ship.' This is your country and you
should be proud of what you are, especially considering where the
country was 17 years ago. Rwanda has made remarkable strides in
thrusting itself into the world community despite the War, despite
it's overwhelming lack of resources, despite the general lack of
education options, despite the poverty levels. Kigali and Rwanda were
once compared to Mogadishu and Somalia. No one who has ever been to
either would make that comparison now.

Things are not black and white in Peace Corps. Nor are they in Rwanda.
The ambiguity, the open-endedness, the flip flopping and the back and
forth can easily destroy any semblance of consistency and normality we
are used to in American life. Yes, on the surface everything seems
clear-cut, straight-forward, and obvious. And then you start trying to
learn Kinyarwanda….

But the ambiguity, the duality, and often monotony of it all is well
worth it. We are not here to feel good about ourselves. Trust me when
I say there are much better ways to do that then join Peace Corps. No,
we are not here for us (as much as we actually are in the end). Our
time here is about moving forward. America and the West do not need
people like me just yet. The most productive I can be in the States is
to help get burgers to your plate faster (that's mostly a joke). But
Rwandan can really benefit from us. Not only can we bring our
educations, but we can start to condition Rwandans to see America and
the West for what it really is. America is not its military force. It
is not the democratic foundation or its politicians. Believe it or
not, America is not Barack Obama or 'Yes We Can.' America is its
people; you and I. Furthermore, America is and will be its Youth. If
the only thing I show these kids, these students, is that I am just
like them, then we all win.

I'll leave you with this quote that was in the Peace Corps/Rwanda
Volunteer newsletter that I think is pretty fitting for this post.
"Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing
opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new
structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit
must go on.'
-President John F. Kennedy, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, 1963


1 comment:

  1. Hi AShawn,

    I look forward to your blog postings. You have a marvelous way with words. I so admire your courage and sense of adventure. God be with you.