It has officially been two months since I exited the plane at Kigali’s International Airport. Life since then has been what I imagine life to be like if staring inside a tornado from a grounded bathtub – calm at the base with a whirlwind of disorganized familiarities spinning chaotically above. The best part about sitting in the bathtub, though, has been the view of observing each bit of life swirling around me. And unlike the tornado, I’ve been able to choose which pieces to bring back down to Earth and which to send sailing with the wind.
This post is a pause…a time of closing my eyes to the swirling gusts to absorb the joys and learn from the hardships. I have not loved all moments here – whether spinning or still, but I have enjoyed most. And, when I pause I also consider: isn’t this what makes up every stage of life – the chaotic and calm, the loving and not loving of moments?
Even though I get restless in Kigali, it has reminded me of the importance of stillness. Those moments when I do not have working Internet, electricity at night or enough cash to buy airtime for my phone, I have no choice but to simply exist in the dark. I’ve always been a reflective person, but it forces me to inch a bit further toward finding myself a flashlight and navigating my way alone.
Sometimes I get confused about who lives poorer lives – the villagers who eat food off their own land, but only afford to spend five cents a day, or the jobless Americans like me who live off education loans and carry what could be a lifetime worth of financial debt. Regardless, of the wealth comparison, I remember that money does not make lives rich. Maybe we are all, in fact, made up of a little rich and a little poor.
I get frustrated when I listen to how compliant Rwandans can be. I crave local opinion, as it does not often come loudly or without fear of criticism. While I do not always agree with the way systems run in the United States, I respect our opportunities for education, advancement and hope. I mostly treasure our freedom of speech – and all the eccentric crazies who fight loudly for change and justice no matter how ridiculous it makes them look. I appreciate that while not all of us use our voices, we as Americans can consider it an option.
I pretend I can’t hear each time I walk outside. I am like the fat, ugly, zit-faced teenager who draws attention from every crowd-infested middle school locker purely because looks mean everything in her environment. I arrived in Rwanda with thick skin, but I’ve grown armor while here. I am pointed at, stereotyped by skin color and assumed unintelligent for not knowing the local language. I feel the stresses of being an outsider, but a new sense of comfort over hearing a simple hello. This walk in a minority’s shoes will make me a good social worker. It also reminds me how far warm gestures can carry the day of a complete stranger.
I feel exhausted battling language barriers daily. Slow, delicate speech and nonverbal communication can carry conversations, but sometimes not far enough. This motivates me to become bilingual. It makes me realize how many gestures are universal. It pushes two people from two different cultures and bipolar upbringings to think creatively about navigating the path toward common understanding. And, when I think about how far this could take us with even the largest global issues, I cherish the exercise as beautiful.
It enrages me that my Internet only sometimes works well. This has not taught me patience, like many wise and calm philosophers might suggest. Instead, it has showed me one amenity I greatly appreciate from advanced society. Communication is important to me, and I like being able to access other regions of my world. Give me a hut and a basin of water to survive on for the night. I can live without a lot of fancy things. But, one of my next big purchases will be an iPad.
I do not enjoy sleeping under mosquito nets. The process of tucking the net under my mattress each night and crawling out of it in the dark when having to use the bathroom annoys me. I feel trapped in a netted canopy. But, each night I sleep in the open air, I awake surrounded by buzzing bugs and bites on my face. My swollen, puffy skin has made me appreciate these nets in Rwanda. It also makes me more excited about plopping down in the states with a full view of my bedroom ceiling. Even the small fabrics of life, I have learned, can make me feel free.
There is a benefit to sitting confused in a pipe-rooted bathtub during life’s twisters. To emerge from periods of struggle also means we’ve tackled a great challenge. We feel pride, understanding and a new sense of what we’re capable of. Rwanda has given me a better understanding of my breaking points. I now also have a greater awareness of my strengths.