Today I am Leaving the Land of a Thousand Hills*

As much as it pains me to say this, if I am honest, my time as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Rwanda has been a source of great disappointment to me.  I expected to become part of one community for a year, make a substantive and sustainable contribution in that setting, and, most importantly of all for me, find family and friends for a lifetime as I had in Kenya so many decades ago.  I deeply regret not having had this opportunity this year.  I’d give anything for a “do-over”.

On the other hand, I cannot ignore the reality that the Rwandan faculty with whom I worked at the university during the second half of my year have been extremely grateful for what we have done together and what we did together transformed my understanding of myself as a teacher, and as a person, in profound ways.   So I realize that it would be foolish of me to believe that I haven’t made a meaningful contribution, that I haven’t touched (some) people’s lives in a positive and meaningful fashion, or that they haven’t touch my life in ways that I will carry with me forever.  

One of my Rwandan colleagues recently asked me why I wasn’t staying in Rwanda for another year.  All I could say was that I never really found a place where I belonged, so there was no place where I really could stay.    My colleague, of course, did not understand what happened, and, to be frank, neither do I.  That is, I can’t figure out how, or why, my year of service turned out as it did.  I cannot understand how I applied for a position to teach English, came to a country in desperate need of English teachers, stayed for nearly a year, and never taught a single English class.  How is that even possible?

It is the distress that I experience when I ask myself this question that reminds me of one very simple truth about being a teacher:  Without students we — teachers — do not exist.  As a teacher, my identity  — my sense of who-I-am-ness  – is relationally constructed.   That is, I am defined by my relationship to a learner (and I only need one to come into being) and his or her engagement with what is being learned through our interactions with one another.   Without something to learn or someone to learn it, I am not a teacher.  I am still many other things, but I am not an educator.

I don’t know what I could have done to change the course of my year here, but I can’t escape feeling that I could have done something if I had been more prescient, perhaps more assertive.  But this may be an illusion, an attempt to convince myself that there must have been a way to avoid discomfort.  I am the first to admit that I do not like coming face-to-face with what I consider to be lost potential.   Feeling helpless to stem the tide of destiny when it moves in a direction I do not like is not my forté.   It never was and it probably never will be.  But despite the fact that not teaching  was was not on my  “to do” list when I signed up to teach English in Rwanda, fate had other plans for me.

From the day that I found out that I was not going to be placed in the position for which I had applied, I felt like an afterthought, someone that Peace Corps didn’t really know what to do with.  Perhaps this was why I was always placed on the periphery of English language teaching, first in a job where the partner wanted me to teach French, then on  a materials development project where the team wanted me to work on Swahili and, later, on French;  finally in a job to work with English teachers (getting closer to English, at least) but which clearly could not be successfully completed in six months.  But it was nothing more than a short-term “fix”, a job that they said had been created for me as a “favor” because I did not have anything else to do.  I felt like a street urchin, begging for work, and repeatedly being reminded that I was a thorn in everyone’s side.

To some extent, I think I am both a pragmatist and a dreamer, as odd as that may sound.  I love imagining new possibilities, different opportunities, for myself, and for others.  In this case, my visions were for hypothetical students whom I never met in several different contexts, a private teacher’s college, primary and secondary schools, and university undergraduates and graduates.  It certainly cannot be said that my visioning did not run the full gamut of the educational system in Rwanda.   In fact, I probably understand the challenges of the whole of Rwanda’s nascent Anglophone educational transition better than most.    But, if truth be told, all of my time here has been spent planning for  different “futures”, but never really stepping into time as it moved forward long enough to actually live in any one of them.

The pragmatist  in me has struggled, and she has suffered.  Dreams are never substantive, or sustainable.   A vision is a stepping stone for for eventually creating something real;   it is never an end in and of itself.   Dreams are ephemeral until someone takes the time to plant their feet firmly on the ground, reach up and pull them down out of the clouds, and then hold them tight against the earth until they take root in solid ground, and become a reality  that will endure.   I never had a chance to do this.   Even last week was spent preparing a grant proposal for an intensive English program (for students!!) which I will never see, and I spent yesterday  in a meeting with university faculty to discuss how they could do something that I had tried to tell Peace Corps back in January needed to be done, and that I had offered to extend my service to do, only to have my suggestion fall on deaf ears.   And so, at the end of my life in Rwanda, I feel unsettled and  incomplete, unfinished and invisible.  True, I had my moments, but a handful of moments midst months of waiting, and hoping, seems wasteful, if not frivolous.

And so it is with a heavy heart that I leave the land of a thousand hills.  I don’t feel that I ever had a chance to really get to know her, her texture, her inner life, her raison d’être.  I feel as though I spent almost a year wandering through an outdoor market like the one I love so much in Huye,  gazing with longing at all the different colorful treasures, but never finding anyone who would agree to sell me what I wanted, no matter how hard, or how well, I bargained for it.   Perhaps I was at the wrong market.  Perhaps my Kinyarwanda was just never good enough.  Perhaps I simply didn’t ask the right person.

On this quiet night, shining bright with the millions of tiny shimmering lights that watch over us as soon as the sun goes down, I am getting ready to board a plane that is to take me to do what I had hoped to do here somewhere else, on a completely different continent.  I can’t help but wonder whether, and if so how, answers to the many questions that I have about my time in Rwanda will ultimately be woven into the tapestry of my life as a whole.  Will future strands intertwine with these few fragile ones to ultimately give my fabric a durability and a flexibility that I do not now sense?   Will I eventually be able to to perceive a purposeful pattern that is invisible to me now because I am still on the loom?   Will I ever look back and not feel sadness and regret for lost hopes and dreams?   Will I ever understand why things happened as they did?  And, perhaps most poignantly, will I ever come back?  Will I ever get that “do over” for which I long?

Am I sorry I came?  I think not.   Am I sorry I stayed?   Not really.  A long as I stayed there was always the hope that something would change and I, as it turns out, am a hopeless romantic who believes that, if I just try hard enough, all that is good and just will prevail.  But I would be lying to say that it hasn’t been difficult watching the people charged with finding me meaningful work squander the time that I had to give because of what could only be described as mismanagement and an unwillingness to trust my judgement or my professional capabilities, or that it hasn’t been painful to be told that I was “too experienced” (Peace Corps) or that “my work was a waste of money” (University of Rwanda ).   My only consolation through all of this was that Georgetown University snatched me up to go to Nepal later this year in the U.S. Department of State’s Fellow program so quickly that it made my head spin and, of course, rendered Peace Corps speechless.  At least someone wanted me…

I suspect that being disappointed for a year has transformed me in far greater ways than would have been possible had everything gone “according to plan” for the simple reason that, no matter what, I stayed, allowing life to unfold as is was, rather than as I wanted it to be.  I hope that my experience of living with disappointment and regret has made me more compassionate, more accepting of  my failings, and those of others.   I hope that it has  made me wiser, and kinder.   I know that it has made me more patient.  To know that I can allow all of my experiences to wash over me,  that I can still stay afloat no matter how strong the undertow is,  to know that I can let life be the crucible in which all that I do not need is burned away, leaving me naked and ready to clothe myself in that which comes to me, rather than that which I seek, is what I think my year with Peace Corps has been all about.

As my taxi pulls away from the curb and heads towards the airport, I see in the rear view mirror two different groups of people whom I feel that I have disappointed fade into the distance.   The first is a group of nameless students and faculty standing at the door to their college waiting for the English teacher who said she would come, and who wanted to come, but who could not reach them, no matter how hard she tried.  The second is a group of university faculty whose names and faces I do know who are wondering why I am not staying.  As I leave the only world that I have known for the last year, I cannot shake the feeling that I have failed everyone in it, including myself.

*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.

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