So last week, Peace Corps Rwanda finally decided relocate me to another work site where, hopefully, there will be students and/or faculty with whom I can work. I don’t think that they realized that the college where I was assigned was not accredited, and I don’t think people at the college expected students to suddenly stop enrolling until it got accreditation. Clearly, things that needed to be made explicit by members of this high context culture were not shared with all the appropriate concerned parties. And, for the Americans, as members of the low context culture part of the cross-cultural equation, many important questions were not asked that probably should have been. I don’t actually know what guided PC Rwanda’s final decision. I only know that Peace Corps has certain expectations of partner organizations with regards to both housing and work assignments. Presumably, if these are not upheld, and they cannot find a way to negotiate with a partner to ensure that they will be, then volunteer reassignment is inevitable.
For me, the molasses is changing in color. It is no longer dark muddy brown. It seems somehow lighter, perhaps amber in color, more like maple syrup than black strap molasses. It also seems thinner, more fluid, better able to respond to changes, even if the changes require deviation from policy. I still don’t know where I am going, both physically and metaphorically, but I now I have the sense that I am going somewhere.
The PC Rwanda management team doesn’t know where I am going yet. But they too know that I am going somewhere. Just I am committed to serving, they are committed to finding me a place where I can serve. I think that the decision to relocate me was a difficult decision for them, for many reasons, one being that policy dictates that people are never to be relocated except under the most extraordinary circumstances. Apparently, mine fit the bill. Usually, in Peace Corps, work site challenges are considered to be part and parcel of the experience, that it is in learning how to navigate through them that the volunteer becomes more adaptable and creative. Volunteers are encouraged to stay at their sites no matter what in order to discover for themselves the what it means to truly serve.
I have mixed feelings about the decision. I know it is the right one, but I also realize that it represents a final admission on all our parts that I will not get to experience one of the most important aspects of Peace Corps service — the opportunity to stay long enough in one community to become part of it. I have learned a lot in my four months, about how to create meaning in a context that is confusing and unstable, how to resource myself when there are no outside resources. How to ask for help from people I barely know because the people upon whom it was expected that I would be able to depend simply weren’t around. But in terms of the depth of connection through shared experience that occurs only with time, these four months, which will probably be five before I am relocated, have been lost. Even if I integrate easily into my next assignment, I will only be there for six months. The possibility of knowing and working with the same people for 12 months has been lost to me forever in this time and in this place. I could come back, and I might decide to do so. But, for the moment, I am only aware of the loss that my current misadventure represents.
Now, to be honest, the time I have spent here have not been without personal and professional benefit. I am not quite the same person I was when I first came to Rwanda. First of all, I love this tiny land of 1000 hills, the land, the people, and, of course, the beautiful and colorful ihene. I have survived the inevitable culture shock that occurs when learning to find oneself in a completely new social context. Africa is a very large continent, filled with cultures and peoples that are as different from one another as the people’s of the west are from one another. While living in Kenya and Tanzania, and speaking French and Swahili, did give me a bit of a head start, it was only on a superficial level. To truly be in a new culture, one has to hunker down and dig into what one finds in that particular setting. It is only by settling into the differences that they eventually become the familiar. I have come to see Rwanda as my home for the foreseeable future.
Secondly, I do know a little of the language. To be sure, my production is poor, since I have had few people to talk to, and my comprehension is virtually nonexistent. But I have have the language skills necessary to survive and to initiate interactions with new people. I find myself already wondering how I might make my way back here. As my language skills improve, I am able to meet people in a different way, and we are able to find a small slice of common ground upon which we can plant our feet long enough to allow the soil to nourish our nascent relationship.
Last, but not least, I have a new friend whom I believe will be a friend for life, and this is a rare find indeed. Already we are making plans for how she can visit me in my new home, wherever it may be. Given all of this, it might be reasonable to assume that I will be able to integrate more smoothly, perhaps even more quickly, in a new community. Especially if I can get people to speak buhoro buhoro cyane (very very slowly).
There is a saying in French: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. “The more things change, the more they are the same.” What strikes me about my situation is that, once again, I have had to recognize that I had certain expectations when I came here, that I was not truly open to all possibility. While I was ready to serve anywhere, and in whatever capacity I could that drew upon my experiences as an English language educator, I did expect that I would be in a place where there would be students. That is, my job title of educator presumed the presence of other people, specifically, students, and I happily donned it like a new coat, without ever considering the possibility that it might not actually fit me where I was going. I also expected to be in the same place for 12 months. It took me awhile to get my mind wrapped around the reality that the first wasn’t happening, and now I am coming to terms with the second.
In many spiritual traditions, it is said that we come into this life to learn what we need to learn to return to our inner source, our divinity. While I don’t know exactly why I am here, I most certainly know that it has something to do with learning how to live without expectations, to be truly open in the fullest sense of the word.
Something else that I have learned thus far is that dropping expectations does not necessarily mean that one is passive, i.e. that one loses his or her sense of personal agency. It has been quite the opposite for me. So, for example, as I let go of the expectation that there would be students, I was empowered to invite the people responsible for placing me in the situation to consider letting go of their expectation that I would stay at my site no matter what. Together we had to examine what no matter what actually looks like in practice. Together we discerned that Peace Corps service actually has a shape and, if that shape is not present, something needs to change. That is, if there is no one to serve, then there can be no service.
*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.