I don’t know if it’s the incorrigible, independent, efficiency-minded nature that comes with being American, or maybe just ingrained white privilege that needs to be dealt with, but I feel like I often approach things in my overseas life with a mentality of “why is this being done this way?” — which, of course carries with it the implication “I know the way to do this better.”
Even after most of a life spent overseas and being pretty good at flexibility and adaptability (not to mention being an Enneagram 9), I find myself still often tending towards annoyance and frustration and even, though it’s tough to admit, superiority towards the multitude of things that come with cross-cultural living. The ridiculous traffic tangles that are inevitably caused by someone doing something stupid, for example. Or the ridiculously inefficient system of lines and stamps that are never actually explained.
I confess that I have a lot of heart work still to do in these areas.
But it’s times like this week that remind my of my place in this country: I am an outsider and a guest here. And as such, I have no right to come bustling in with my own very cultural expectations of how things should be and then get frustrated when they aren’t met.
Today marks twenty-five years since the beginning of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis, ushering in a season of mourning and remembrance, called Kwibuka (meaning “to remember”). This morning, our local community leader, called the umudugudu, went up and down the streets of our neighborhood speaking words I can’t understand over a loudspeaker. This week, all schools are off and businesses work half days in order to hold community meetings in the afternoons. The rest of April continues to be a quiet time of remembrance (weddings and other celebrations aren’t held during this month) and really, the season lasts the 100 days of the genocide, into early July, with different families claiming different days of grieving throughout, depending on their own stories.
Rwandans are a beautiful, strong, resilient people. And they are also deeply reserved, holding their stories an their histories of hurt close. I cannot even pretend to know what it’s like to have lived with the experiences they have. It is sobering to look around and realize that everyone who is my age or older has firsthand experience with genocide. In reality, many people who live here now grew up as refugees in Uganda or the DRC or Burundi – or beyond – and have since returned, but even so there is not a single person who does not have a family story of trauma.
And as a guest in this country (who, at the same time, is making it home), what is my role in all of this? I admit that I am in a little bit of a funny position: we are here working at an international school, and as such the demographic we interact with are international students – and the ones who are Rwandan are unique in this country as the most wealthy and privileged, the ones who were born or raised in Europe or North America because a lot of their families were gone during the time of genocide, and have since returned. And, as middle and high schoolers, they were born after 1994 (after 2000, even, if you can believe it). As such, I don’t really have deep Rwandan friends — just acquaintances, which is not a deep enough relationship of trust to expect to hear people’s stories firsthand.
So, as an outsider, I think it’s just my role to be present, to watch, and to listen. To seek to learn more where I can, but to be respectful and stay out of things that are not my place to barge into. To remember that it is this resilient people who make up this country, not the little things that I tend to find frustrating so quickly — and to let those surface annoyances go in favor of seeking to know and understand more deeply.
One way I am seeking to learn is through reading: last year I read the memoir Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza during memorial week, and I would like to continue reading memoirs like this each year. (I just checked out the memoir My Name is Life by Karen Bugingo from our school library to read this week.) Beyond that, I need to practice checking my instincts towards frustration or annoyance as they come up and trying to choose instead a posture of seeking to see, to understand, to appreciate.
I know I have so much left to learn in so many ways, but I think the beauty that can come from living cross-culturally with an attitude of humility is worth it, and so I’m going to keep trying.