My Sweet Baby Sister got married last night.
When I left the country, I told everyone that sadly, I wasn’t going to be able to make it. This was hard for me– I love my sister more than anything in the world. We are the best of friends, incredibly close siblings, but despite this bond, the scheduling just didn’t make sense.
I had made plans to be in Rwanda starting in April, long before she had a date in mind for the wedding. She asked if I could postpone, and for a time, I was arranging things so that I could fly to the land of a thousand hills right after her wedding in June– but then June became July, and I just couldn’t justify that long of a delay. There were a lot of logistical concerns in play, and it wasn’t feasible. I was pretty bummed that I wasn’t going to be able to attend, but it was heartening that she understood. She gets me, and she’s proud of what I’m doing. Still, it was a let down all around.
Ever since I arrived in Rwanda, people have been telling me that I need to go. I tried to explain that I wanted to, it just wasn’t possible. No one in Rwanda really understood. “Family comes first.” Papa said. “When it is family, you do not have a choice.” When Sarah came to visit, she offered the same advice.
Then I got a message from my sister, expressing her disappointment that I wouldn’t be there, and informing me that I’d better come out to Colorado once I get back, so I can visit with her and her future husband. I was so torn. I promised I would visit. And then… I realized it wasn’t as insurmountable a problem as I had thought. I scraped the money together for a ticket on the same flight that Sarah would be taking back from Kenya.
Long story short, I made the wedding! And I certainly traveled the furthest to be there. After our Kenya trip, we flew from Nairobi to Addis Ababa; from there to Rome; to Toronto; and finally back to San Francisco! Sarah’s sister drove us home, and dropped me off on my family’s doorstep. They were so surprised when they answered the doorbell!
Needless to say, my Sweet Baby Sister was absolutely thrilled that I could make it, and it was such a joy to be there on her special day. She was a gorgeous bride! It was a beautiful service, an emotional and fun reception, and I could not be happier to welcome Aric to the family!
I wish them the best as we part ways for the next few years.
(Photo credits to me, Sarah, and Jessie)
Jane was the very model of a Peace Corps Volunteer. She loved her site, her community, and her host family. She was extremely proficient in the local language, and familiar with the lay of the land, both within Kwa Kolumba as many other villages within her region. She was hardworking, dedicated, passionate, and left a lot of love behind. She was everything you want in a PCV. It was obvious that she had touched a lot of people’s lives.
The second picture is Jane posing by a well-project she helped work on while she was serving. Though she has COS’ed and is returning to the United States, this well will service its community long, long after. How awesome to leave something physical behind! I wish I had undertaken a project like this back in Kagogo, before my own service closed.
Jane is all-around a fantastic lady, and it was such a treat to be hosted by her while I visited. What an honor to get a glimpse into the world of her Peace Corps experience!
(Photos courtesy of Sarah)
While we were in Kenya, Sarah took some sweet pictures of me and Jane!
Face paint! Jane has some art supplies like paints and pens and colored pencils which she shares with her host-siblings. We went over to have dinner with the family and the kids realized that watercolors can be used as face-paints if you get a higher concentration of them on your brush or finger. They had a blast decorating themselves, each other, and us! What artists.
Photos courtesy of Sarah!
Jane brought Sarah and me to a school for the deaf located not too far from Kwa Kolumba. We were warmly greeted by the headmaster and other teachers, who talked a lot about the school’s present and intended future while taking us on a tour.
Classrooms were similar in size to those in Rwanda but partitioned with wooden panels to create the number of learning spaces the school needed, since the school accommodated both primary and secondary students. A new classroom had recently been [mostly] completed, and stood proudly in the grass, its cement drying as it awaited doors and windows. The headmaster dreamed big, and spoke of adding a second story to the classroom bloc, as well as additional buildings as the school’s population continued to increase.
After the tour, Jane got all the students into a circle and they introduced themselves in Kenyan sign-language: first with a “sign name” and then spelling their name out letter by letter. As Sarah and I were new to them, each of us got our own sign name, picked out by the kids. To show mine, the students put their hands at the side of their heads, looking like they were holding on to something. This was due to the fact that I was wearing my cowboy hat– but the sign was very close to the one used for “condom”, simply minus the pulling-down motion.
We did a basically silent-version of the hokey-pokey, led by Jane; then broke into big-kids and little-kids circles and played sort of an improv game where you “throw” an invisible object at someone else and they have to catch it and then throw it to someone else. It was kind of cute to see the older kids imagining the object to be various things, but Sarah reported that they younger kids were cuter.
After that, we played football. Mostly the teams were boys versus girls, but some of the oldest boys joined the girls’ team in an effort to even out the skill. No one took the game all that seriously (see the picture above with eight young girls simultaneously playing goalie) but it was still a lot of fun. I even scored my first goal in twenty-three years! “Yeah, off of a deaf girl’s head!” Jane admonished jokingly. She was fine. I swear.
It was a lot of fun spending time with the students at this school. I couldn’t communicate through sign-language, but luckily I’ve gotten pretty good at communicating wordlessly throughout my time in Rwanda. Before we left, everyone took a group picture, but unfortunately it wasn’t on my camera. I’ll post it later if I wind up with a copy.
Back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, I bought a lot of ibitenge cloth and had shirts and pants made up for my in-country wardrobe. I rocked the look (lots of “Obama New Style” safari-style shirts), and when I came back to the United States and went off to graduate school, I brought some of these along. Mostly I got a lot of compliments for my outfits, but some students at my school felt that this was offensive. They had a dirty name for it– cultural appropriation. I wasn’t super familiar with this term, but the gist seemed to be the adoption of a specific part of one culture by another cultural group. I didn’t even know how to respond to this critique; this was a new concept, and I was admittedly pretty ignorant about the issue. I wasn’t in a position at the time to speak up for myself, but I feel like I am now prepared to reply with some clarity.
For readers unfamiliar with the Peace Corps, here’s how it works: Governments ask the United States to provide them with volunteers to help in tackling country-specific issues. Assuming the request can be honored, Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) arrive in their countries of service for, you guessed it– training. And Peace Corps doesn’t skimp. Training sessions cover language, culture, and history of the country; technical training; medical concerns; safety and security; and any other programmatic concerns that are necessary to assist in successful service. This training transpires over ten weeks or so, within a training community in which volunteers are traditionally placed with host families. These placements help educate PCTs about how to speak, cook, and keep house the way their host families do, and are instrumental in helping to prepare PCTs for their next two years in their communities. At the end of Pre-Service Training volunteers are sworn in as official Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and are dispersed all over their country to begin their work.
That may have been a bit overly-simplistic, but my point is that Peace Corps training is pretty involved, and they never really shut up about it: three months into service there’s a supplemental In-Service Training; a year in, there’s Mid-Service Conference. Peace Corps wants us to be the most effective volunteers that we can be, and the education we receive from training helps to prepare us for the challenges which lay in store. But the rest of the time we’re learning too. A major component of successful Peace Corps service is community integration– it’s hard to serve in a community if you’re not a part of the community. Peace Corps works hard to equip up with the skills we’ll need to integrate, but it’s something we continue to build upon throughout our entire service.
Maybe this means eating ubugali with your neighbors, tearing off chunks of the starchy cassava-bread with your [right] hand. It could mean attending community events, or honoring a holiday you’ve never heard of; greeting someone and telling a joke in the local language, or spending time with the mamas selling tomatoes at the open-air market. It could be anything and everything; you’ll know if you’re doing it right. It might even take the form of [shock and horror!] wearing clothes made from ibitenge.
So. I’m visiting my host mom and she gives me a gift: a new shirt! But– oh, it’s made from one of those cloths you can buy at the markets or in town. Do I thank her for the gift and then never wear it, knowing to do so would be utterly offensive? Do I thank her for thinking of me but decline her present, taking the time to explain to her that Americans can’t wear clothing from cultures outside of our own? That last one sounds heinously paternalistic: “Oh, Mom. Don’t you know? That’s offensive to… [you]?” Umm… but it was her gift. If you read my blog while I was a volunteer, you’ve read this story before; you know that I gladly accepted the shirt and rocked it throughout training, as well as my service. I still have it, and I treasure that shirt (it’s a gift from my mom). I don’t think I need to feel guilty about it.
Everyone who has told me that this is appropriative has so far been American. No Rwandan has ever voiced contention, and generally I get a lot of compliments when I wear the shirts (and especially so when I wear matching pants). One of my students wrote “nice shirt” at the bottom of one of his exams, where students usually write little messages for their teacher, such as “nice day” or “thank you” or “God bless you”. Why is this is offensive to Americans?
My shirts aren’t the only Rwandan thing that draw ire– I’ve had a number of people tell me that they think it’s offensive when I use my Kinyarwanda name, Ntwari. It means “hero”. In the states I don’t really use it, apart from listing it as my nickname on facebook. In Rwanda… that’s another story. My host mom was a social butterfly: she had many friends, and she liked to talk to them about her new muzungu son whom she was so excited to have. Pretty much everyone knew about me, whether because my mom and I had gone to visit them, or because of word of mouth. When I returned to Nyanza a few months ago, all of our neighbors still remembered me, and I was immediately barraged by choruses of “Ntwari! Ntwari!” It’s the name most teachers at my school call me, and it’s the name my family generally uses for me. I don’t really see a reason to abandon a name that so many people use, when the only people who seem to have an issue with it are on the other side of the world.
Peace Corps names, as I have come to understand, are kind of a rite of passage during training. Most(?) but not all PCVs will get one at some point in their service, and in Rwanda a lot of us had them. Many of us still refer to each other by those names, and on facebook, many of us have them on display. That’s also the name that many of our host-country national friends will use for us when they write. Ultimately, names can be a way of integrating– “you’re Ntwari too? no way!” And afterward it’s become kind of a part of you; that’s what I answered to while I was abroad. What’s in a name? More than you might think.
The list can probably go on. I rubbed off on Rwanda, and Rwanda rubbed off on me. Peace Corps’ third goal is to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. I suppose I could carry around stacks of photos, but I’m not the same Allister I was when I left for my service. “Readjustment” is a formidable challenge for RPCVs and some of us go in kicking and screaming. I’m not going to just default back to who I was before I left– I’m a different person now, and Rwanda shall forever be a part of me. I’m not mocking Rwandan culture (far from it), but missing it. I wish that didn’t have to threaten anyone.
I think there’s a major difference between integration and appropriation, and I hope that someday that will be acknowledged. It’s hard leaving the place you called home and returning to a place that you know no longer is. And it’s frustrating that most of the people who complain have not really traveled– there’s no substitute for such experience. Without context, I get that people who haven’t really been out of the country might not understand what it’s like to live in a foreign land for years. And even people who travel to foreign countries for casual vacations may not fully grasp it. I can understand that confusion.
Peace Corps isn’t just another way to be a “voluntourist”. It’s not a vacation or something you can do part-time. It’s a serious commitment (the toughest job you’ll ever love), and it changes you. When my friend Sarah came to visit me in Rwanda I had difficulty speaking to her in English; Kinyarwanda had become that engrained. Similarly, our lives during Peace Corps service are just that– our lives– and we don’t just leave that part of ourselves at the customs desk when we return.