>> Tuesday, August 30, 2011
I left Rwanda on the 27th of May, 2011. I practically danced my way across the runway and up the first leg of a 25+ hour flight. I sat in that seat, desperately excited, covered in bedbugs and dirty clothes, and leered over my unfortunate seat mate, trying to see Busanza village as we took off. I’ve seen hundreds of planes fly over us in the last year and a half. I couldn't see them, but I know they saw me.
I wanted to finally bring closure to my Peace Corps experience. I left about 3 months ago, and after a sufficient time recovering and relaxing back in the states, it seems about time to take that final bow. I'm actually really glad I slacked off these last few weeks, leaving me enough time to gather evidence and anecdotes to fill what will undoubtedly be, a disturbing insight into the Post-Service Experience. It's not all fuzzy and warm and full of longing. There are some days where I desperately miss the markets and temperament and the kids playing hide and seek in my yard. But those soft hazes are followed by the harshness that PC Rwanda wasn't a healthy living condition in the long run.
Living the Peace Corps life is great in theory, if only it were less damaging on the psyche once returned home. I'm sure non-PCVs don’t have the stress of a constant thread of words running through their heads and other linguistical evidence of a time spent detached. I have literally spent every moment of the day feeling like that guy in Lost [5 8 15 16 23 42] who loses his mind over his preoccupation with a string of numbers. Except my string of numbers is the lyrics to Meddy’s “Amayobera,” the daily formalities of greeting neighbors, or instantly translating current conversation into the kinyarwanda equivalent in my head.
Anyhow, one of the things they don’t tell you is that at some point, after your Peace Corps service, you’ll be sitting in a completely normal setting [be it in bed or out to dinner] and have the sudden urge to break out in a monumental panick attack. Yes, we have been prepped that the transition home is sometimes the hardest part of the whole service. And then we get home, and we wait for a reaction.. For me, I finally go to the supermarket. I have one tiny freakout over the price of avocados and think whew, glad that’s over.
But as the weeks go by, the real reaction, it builds up in you, that this default setting is actually really hard, that this familiar slide back into Americanism is actually pushing against the grain and you react, suddenly, and it sucks. You panick that the last chunk of your meaningful youth might as well have never happened for as much as you can celebrate it here. The truth is, people don’t care, and as soon as you’re home they keep moving along as if you’ve always been there, gliding alongside them. Your little mud house might as well be imaginary for all the attention it gets. And that’s what’s upsetting; how do you pay tribute to the invisible? Such a statement probably sounds familiar. While you sit watching TV, you see the occasional ad for helping the “invisible children” of Africa, and not just the children. Think of the number of all African people with HIV or malaria. Where are the people behind the number? Who’s taking that big stamp and bringing it down over Africa to say, 22.5 million. Where is he living and who are his neighbors? It's nothing but statistics and numbers until you can pin-point your own house in your own village in your own country in your own part of Africa on Google Earth [coordinates: 1 degree 59' 41" S, 30 degrees 8' 47" E]. Which in itself is great, awesome, and the experience is something you’ll never find elsewhere, but I don't expect everyone to make that commitment of living in a foreign world. Just a little effort to educate yourself would be nice [she says, with an effort at not sounding condescending].
Walden Syndrome is the term I’ve coined to describe the confusing sense of reality I’ve stumbled upon since being home. Did I say stumbled? I mean fallen into. More like I walk down a dark hallway and am suddenly faced with the confusing question of, real, or in my head? Not many people can say they understand this so-called reality dilemma. There are probably a handful of Peace Corps Volunteers, a good chunk of US veterans or military folk, and a hunchback locked in a bell tower. It’s like... it’s like that space in between dreaming and waking when you wonder whether the alarm really did go off, or if the sound of a buzzer was only related to a dream about class ending, a car honking, or the start of a race. I place this blame on many hours of solitude, sitting in my yard on a stool just watching the minutes pass by when I’m not only with myself but in my head with dozens of authors, millions of thoughts, and thousands of letters home. I blame it on staring at the wall for countless hours, and the fact that the times between waking and sleeping were becoming too similar to sleeping and waking. I blame it on the blending of realities, when one’s own reality doesn’t rely on others.
I was the only one in my yard or in my bed or in my house for over a year. And that bright consistent surrounding would fade into my thoughts or imagination. And because it’s so familiar, in the first few weeks of being home, I would find myself alone, and wonder, scared, whether I was not still in my house in bed, about to wake up and be staring at the same mud walls, or in my yard on top of my mountain, alone, but in an elaborate, self-indulgent dream. You can be sure that for the first few weeks stateside, I was never alone. This being such a natural transition [since everyone wants to see you anyway] that one might not even notice the struggle of homecoming. Until, perhaps like me, you find yourself in the hallway at night, with the rain gently pattering on the windows and the trees tapping outside [in my head, remembering, much like the beginning of Poltergeist the movie], and can’t help but feel that the completely familiar nonchalant situation is a little too smooth, a little too cinematic, and I start second-guessing where I am. Am i just making this up? God please don’t let me still be in Rwanda dreaming up this dull but typical “home” situation. And to anyone else that would walk by, I’m standing frozen in the hallway, like a deer, looking around as if a distant TV is suddenly going to turn on to static. But then again, no one is walking by, which is the whole point. It’s quiet and calm and the only reality is my own and who knows if this is real or not. How can it be real unless a completely independent person walks by and acts independently of my thoughts and worries, provoking the idea that this IS the real world, that I AM really here. I needed someone to ground me, for fear of my imagination and Pavlovian conditioning to take over and leave me questioning, where am I?
Reading it back it sounds like a case study for PTSD, but it’s simply shock [I hope]. The more I’m home the more it fades but to be honest, I still don’t like being completely alone. But how is anyone ever completely alone in this society? Theres always Facebook, Skype, TV, family, roommates, dogs, friends. But when that door closes and the light goes out and it’s nothing but me and the dark air around me, I can’t pretend I don’t worry that the next time my eyes opened they’d open on a mosquito net and mud walls, that I can’t still hear the chickens and cocks and cows and kids of the morning and night. That the heat of the tin roof doesn’t still press in on me between interrupted conversations. Because when I close my eyes, it’s still there.
[I shared a bed with a fellow PCV one night when we were in the city for a conference. When we woke up in the morning she told me that i patted her butt in my sleep. I what?? I actually wasn't that surprised. I did it all the time when I wanted to make sure Jay was in bed next to me, both when I knew he was, and when I just wasn't sure if I was dreaming him in or not. It made me laugh that I managed, in my sleep, to reach back and pat a friend's butt, unconsciously looking for that reassuring feel of another person nearby.] It's hard to tell when you're dreaming sometimes, in these places.
There are of course other contributing factors to the fun box of anxiety reactions I have. The stress of being thrown back in normal life, the fact that no one can relate to what you’ve been through, and having to move on to the next big adventure. A huge one for me is the fact that my external hard drive died about a week before I left Rwanda, and since then, I’ve had two different tech professionals try to get anything off of it, and it’s completely lost, all my photos. And for anyone who knows me, that’s really hard. Naturally, I’m mourning it like a death. I know that I don’t have the memory to stand the test of time. Honestly, I’m already forgetting and it’s terrifying, to think that in 5 or 10 years, I won’t even be able to remember what it was like. Not just the photos I put online for others, but the photos I took for me, that I kept tight to my chest to help me remember the daily rigors and trials. Even all the photos my kids took everyday, seeing it from their view and knowing all the inside details that you only know when you’re in the snow globe, instead of shaking it from the outside. How can I be expected to want to move on when I don’t even have that safety net to keep me warm in the future? For all I’ll know in 50 years, I’ll have imagined half of it. And the language! The language will be the old gibberish grandma mumbles while the grandkids look at each other nervously. I thought that over time it would fade, the language, but honest to god if I’m not getting 8 hours of study every night in my dreams. It’s like my mind doesn’t want to let it go, or maybe it doesn’t know how to. And I wake up mouthing these words over and over to myself like I belong under a bridge somewhere. Komeza [continue] is a frequent offender. I know that should be poetic, but it’s exhausting and they never stop playing. Coming back to the states was suppose to be a recovery period. Instead I’ve just been discovering ways in which PC Rwanda dented me.
I’ve noticed other tidbits of change. One example is when Jay and I walked to the supermarket one day and on the way out, we passed a table where a War Veteran sat, raising money for the Disabled Veterans of America. I felt confused by my reaction at first, which was to cry. I never would have reacted that way before. I more or less asked Jay to empty his pockets and ran back in to donate the money. I just started crying in the parking lot, and if I hadn’t already ran back in once like a fool, I’d have done it again to hug him. I’m not sure exactly where most of the chips lie, but I think there’s a camaraderie there, of feeling like I understand what he’s been through. Now, obviously, I haven’t been through a war, but I have seen some terrible things, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a horror story or a machete wound. And maybe that war camaraderie, that empathy of knowing that no one knows what you’ve been through or what you’ve seen, made me break down. In a backwards way it made me want to appreciate that man for what he’s put not only his body through, but his emotional health, too. I also think that it broke my heart that in this country, a place where all people are expected to be taken care of and given opportunity above any other countries, especially one’s considered “Third World,” that we are no farther along. I saw him and I saw all the war victims of Rwanda, begging for money at the bus stop, no legs, one arm, obvious war wounds that, in such a place, completely inhibit them from living. And here we are in the strongest, most desired country in the world, and this little old wrinkly man has to sit alone behind a plastic fold out table, handing out paper flowers to anyone that donates 50 cents to the Disabled Veterans of America. Because that’s what his prospects have come to. What the hell, America. [As I write I know I’m going off on a rant here but I just can’t make myself stop...]
I loved Rwanda, I did, but in a very tortured way, the way that makes you understand where Stockholm Syndrome came from. It was a beautiful land, filled with some beautiful people, who also happen to be very scarred, understandably, by their past. It makes them very abrasive, and resistant to foreigners. I can honestly say I didn’t even notice this until my last month in Rwanda, when I took a trip to Zanzibar, Tanzania. People who visited other parts of Africa had always said how cold and uninviting Rwandans were. And I never understood this because Rwanda was my only frame of reference. For all I knew, all of Africa and Africans were this way. They were inviting enough. Sure they didn’t trust us, and didn’t seem to particularly like us if we were strangers, but how did I know that was exclusive to Rwanda? And also, who could blame them? Leaving the country for vacation was the best thing I did for myself. It let me see the African world outside of a post-conflict shell, a shell I never knew cased every person there, even my closest friends.
I want to give examples but I fear I'll give only a negative impression and not all Rwandans are this way, and this is, of course, my experience and mine alone, although I think there are others who would agree. I do have neighbors and friends and kids I’m extremely fond of, who it broke my heart to leave.
Anyhow, my experience with men in Rwanda was extremely.. unpleasant. Almost every interaction with a man was aggressive, unwanted and unwarranted. Aside from actually getting assaulted by a man on my mountain [an experience that definitely defined my not feeling safe], even ordinary interactions felt wrong. As I explained to someone after visiting Tanzania, we sat up all night and talked and had real conversations with these men in Tanzania, without feeling inappropriate or unsafe and actually enjoying the company, whereas in Rwanda, a man says hello to me in broad daylight and I feel dirty. It's disgusting. Another PCV described this as men being sexually charged and women [white or in general, I'm not sure] as the sexual object.
Another example is that in Rwanda, when a person is trying to scam you [steal your money, rip you off, take things out of your bag] other people aid the thief. They distract you, or agree with false prices, in order to allow you to be taken advantage of. Maybe they feel we as foreigners owe it to them, or it's just a general dislike. In Tanzania, we saw the opposite. It was amazing to see this, when I'm so used to being taken advantage of.
Another interesting note about the culture is that Rwanda doesn't seem to want to be Rwandan. Rwanda wants to be American. or Western. I noticed this throughout the majority of my service, that Rwandans don't take pride in their country. I don't know if this is a residue of the genocide, but they seem to want to move on and out and have picked up a lot of western attributes that cloud Rwandan culture. I don't just mean in the way that they want to be developed. Lots of places are developed without compromising their culture. They work their lives to get out of the village, to look and act like an American [insert any Jay-Z video here for all young women], and if they're rich enough or have a willing job, they get on a plane to America [and Europe], and they flee. And that's the reason it's so hard to get a visa for up and coming students to study abroad. Meddy, the most popular musical artist in all of Rwanda [who was REALLY good!] got a music gig in the states last year, and 2 days before his flight back to Rwanda, he fled to Canada. Why not take that power and influence and contribute to your home? Most people don't care about the state of Rwanda as long as they can escape from it themselves. I understand the desire to have all your needs met, but this is something different. I struggled to see Rwandan culture in all the layers of westernization.
To be clear, none of these really encompass why I left. They’re just passing reflections I considered while I detached myself from the country. It really came down to time I felt like I was wasting. I remember getting back on the plane after visiting England and being desperately upset. I mean, Jay and I leave each other all the time, we’re used to the airport-scenario. This was different, because I knew I had spent the whole first year trying to find work to do with my organization and failed. And I tried to get support and help from Peace Corps about my site, my organization, and my work, and failed, and was coming back to nothingness for another year. The Peace Corps program in Rwanda is so new and the trial and errors were so regular that we [my group] had been chalked up to a failed experiment in our placements, told to just “ride out” the remainder of our service. It was really frustrating.
I had finally reconciled my stubbornness in wanting to stay, when I realized I spent every day trying to stay one day more, and that’s not a healthy way to live. It’s validating, too, to know most other volunteers in Rwanda feel the same. As the weeks keep going by and more and more people leave early, I wonder at what point the Peace Corps staff will stop and think, hmm, this is a lot more than we normally lose...
I spent the last few months finishing my project, running the Kigali Half Marathon, and just spending time with the people who did make my staying worth the while [some amazing PCVs and the three families in my village I really felt close with]. And then, when the time started growing more bitter than sweet, I came home.
Since then, people keep asking me to weigh in on the experience [that’s the typical person’s extent of interest] and I really struggle to think of it in terms of white and black stones, so instead I dodge the headache of coming to an impossible conclusion, and tell them it was the most interesting experience I’ll ever have [which is true no matter where the stones lay]. No, I wouldn’t take the experience back now. But if I had known the day I got my Invitation to Serve in Rwanda, what I know now, maybe I would have declined it and served elsewhere. Maybe not. Rwanda and PC in Rwanda have got some baggage. I didn’t like being one of the guinea pigs for their program, but I can’t deny that I didn’t meet some amazing people, learn a really interesting language, and have an experience like no other. It may have been a longer experience elsewhere, perhaps with less emotional damage [debatable] but [struggling to end that sentence so I’m just not going to].
Even without my photos, I hope I'll still remember a little of what I came from. I've gotten used to conditioning my hair again, to sitting in air-controlled houses and cars, and I've thankfully lost half of the stress-weight I put on while serving [on that note, I can actually run again. My fitness was never something I thought I'd compromise by joining the Peace Corps; it was probably the biggest surprise].
I may have left most of my clothes in Busanza with my neighbors, but I did bring back the most pathetic pair of socks you'll ever see. It was the only pair I ran in, climbed the volcano in, walked up and down the mountain in, and they are the most disgraceful color of greyish brown, crumbling as you hold them. I keep them in the closet so that every now and then I pick them up, compare them to my Target-bought white running socks and marvel at what they've been through to be permanently molded to the shape and color of Africa. It reminds me how normal they were to me, how treasured they were and how any right-minded American would toss them in the trash and never look at them again. Another thing I brought back was a gift from a girl in my village. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her when I left the village and I was at the airport in the morning to find her waiting for me [4 miles from my village] to give me 3 glass bracelets, the total cost being close to 30 US Dollars. One of them slide off the dresser recently and smashed into bits of glass pieces. And I cried a lot, knowing how much it cost for her to give to me. Most people can’t pay the $2 a year for health insurance, but she gave me this gift. I promised her I’d come back and visit her some day when she opens up her orphanage. Giving is easy when you have a lot to give. It’s a lot harder when you have nothing. Glass bracelets and dirty socks. Of all the souvenirs I've brought back, I may treasure them the most. They define where I lived and what worth really is.
So for now, Murabeho, Rwanda. Goodbye for a long time [but not forever]. Thanks for the good, the bad, the scary, and the parasites. I treasure every day without them.
Thank you to everyone who read, wrote, or mailed me inspiration [or duck sauce, or books, or crafts or food]. Somedays it was the difference between feeling human and not.
For future endeavours you can find me and Jay at www.onceuponadong.blogspot.com as we will start our next adventure in Korea, teaching for the next year, together.