Saturday, December 6, 2014

“Wait,” Part 1: Advent, International Development, and Giving Up Urgency

6th December 2014

            I had never really given much thought to why Christians celebrate the four weeks leading up to Christmas, much less give them a name.  But after my recent retreat and some reflecting with my fellow YAGM and our country coordinator Pastor Kate, I think Advent is pretty cool.  Dare I say it, I might like the concept of Advent more than Christmas itself, because it highlights and celebrates one of the most common and challenging experiences of life: waiting.

            My experiences in Rwanda (and the act of processing those experiences over the retreat) are helping me to re-conceive of what waiting in the Advent sense really means.  For most of my life in America, the only kind of waiting I did during Advent was what led up to tearing paper off a box and savoring five seconds of surprise over some gift.  Imagine a person at a fast-food drive-through: running late, totally impatient, snatching a grease-stained sack of cheap unhealthy food and hastily devouring it as s/he races down the road, thinking Im late, its the end of the world!!!!  My sense of waiting was like that.  In short, my waiting was rooted in and pressured by the anxiety which comes from fearing the worst (i.e. bad things will happen if Im late, what if I mess up?)

            But I think that the original sense of Advent waiting the waiting for a Messiah was totally different.  Because despite their desperate struggles with injustice (read: actual reasons to feel anxious or fearful), the Messiah-waiters did not feel the same sense of impatient urgency as the fast-food American.  Certainly, I think they longed deeply and expectantly, but with a profound sense of peace or trust not the fundamental fear or anger rooted in impatience and urgency. 

            This brings me to the first of two big things that Rwandans have been teaching me about Advent-waiting: the need to let go of my tendency towards fear- or anxiety- fueled urgency. Im learning this by living on so-called African time: if Im thirty minutes late for something because it rained and the road is muddy, no worries!  Everyone else is probably running behind for the same reason.  If Im thirty minutes late for no good reason at all still! no worries.  In the way that God says My grace is enough for you, people in the village seem to say, Time is our most abundant resource.  Theres no need to hurry: well have time enough.  This has taken getting used to, mostly because Ive been taught that time is money or that time is of the essence, and that therefore the pastor is disrespecting me and everyone else if he preaches for an hour or more without stopping.  But slowly Im realizing that everyone else in the church doesnt seem offended: their sense of time is such that they have the time to listen to someone for an hour without stopping.  Time is seen as abundant, and people are generous with it.  They are patient, and they are not urgent or anxious.

            There is another important sense in which Rwandans are teaching me to give up urgency: they are teaching me to give up my long-term urgency, even in the face of profound struggles.  I started thinking about this when a friend reflected with me that spending a long time on the ground in a developing country makes you lose your sense of urgency about fixing it.’”  Ive found that to be true, and Ive even begun to notice that every time I have an idea about how to fix something in Rwanda (If I teach like this then theyll be proficient in English very quickly! I must design such-and-such resources for teaching music, then the choir will sing in the same key as the keyboard is playing before I leave in July!) is rooted in a sense of urgency and a desire for a conclusive solution.  No matter how well I can recite the script in order for development to be sustainable and beneficial, it must take place over many years and with deep community participation and leadership, I always underestimate exactly what that means.  It means totally giving up the sense of urgency the idea that the clock is ticking, and that (game over!) everyone dies when it stops.

            Because despite the real poverty that many Rwandan villagers feel so acutely every day, theyre okay.  I dont mean to diminish the hunger and hardship and instability that some of these people regularly experience.  But I know them, and I see them smile and laugh and sing and walk slowly and stop to chat, and find help from their neighbors and friends.  Yes, if someone asked them if they wanted more financial security or easier access to medicine or the ability to get three gallons of water without walking four kilometers down and back up a mountain, theyd say yes.  But their lives are not utterly miserable.  And (my main point) they do not live with a sense of urgency about their struggles.  Instead, they wait.  They wait like the Israelites waited for a Messiah.  They are not complacent; they toil and sweat and pursue better lives as they wait.  But they do not hurry urgently or fearfully, as though life will end.  They have the courage to live suspended in the irresolution of pain and suffering, emboldened by the hopeful promise of a better future just like the promise of God coming to be among us emboldens Christians during Advent.

            These reflections have been making me re-think my notions about international development (Ill keep this as short as possible; but if it interests you, check out this excellent article which articulates better than I ever could.)  Simply put, having any sense of urgency in the action of helping a community (or saving the world, to use the hyperbole) gets in the way of actually doing so.  If, however, international development workers are able to relinquish their urgency to live without fear of the problems facing the communities where they work they can recognize thattheres no need to hurry; well have time enough. Having this attitude is essential, because 1. it celebrates the resilience of the people who are not debilitated by their hardship, and 2. it makes it possible to take time for the practices which lead to successful development projects: going slow, listening deeply and creating strategies with all the stakeholders in a community, and rigorously collecting data and hypothesizing why the program worked/failed in a very particular time and place.  Counterintuitive though it may be, one might say that ceasing to worry and hurry to reach the most ideal solution is exactly the way to reach that solution (although expecting a perfect solution in our naturally imperfect world.)  Or one might say that, one the other hand, doing projects with a sense of urgency usually ends up harming the community more than it helps. 

            So, this Advent, Im learning (trying) to wait in a new way, and to forgo my urgency.  Not to wait fearfully, but to wait hopefully in a way that enables people to live with a peaceful mind amidst the chronic uncertainty and irresolution and instability and pain and brokenness of our world.  Im trying to imagine how, if I pursue a career in international development, I might learn to work without urgency like the people Id be helping, and in so doing make a lasting difference.  And Im excited for the sudden moments when the Messiah will appear”— when in little ways every day, the pains and uncertainties and afflictions of life begin to fall away.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Lutheran Church of Rwanda

Nov 22, 2014

Time for a little history lesson on an organization that flavors my experience of Rwanda in a big way, and the institution which invited me to serve in their country: the Lutheran Church of Rwanda.  In no small way, it is also Martin’s history: he was one of the founders of the LCR.

The history begins in the 1950s, when violent anti-Tutsi massacres caused many Rwandans to flee to the neighboring countries of Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and— most pertinent to our story— Tanzania.  As it happens, Tanzania has more Lutherans than any other country in the world (or, at least, it’s near the top of the list).  Martin has described the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania as being “like a state religion”: it has power and wealth, and a huge percentage of membership.  (Kinda like Minnesota, maybe; but without any of the Scandinavian ethnic stuff we often associate with American Lutherans, and with a lot more high-energy dancing choirs.)

Among those who fled to Tanzania was Martin, then a teenage boy.  He and many other Rwandans began to worship at Lutheran churches.  They became part of the social fabric of Tanzania.  For the next forty years, they tilled the land, bled, sweat, made love, raised families, lived, and died in Tanzania.  But always, they looked back to Rwanda, waiting for the day when it would be safe to return.  Kiswahili could never quite replace Kinyarwanda; the country next-door would never quite pass for home.  Never has a Biblical term like “exile” seemed to me so befitting of real people in the 20th century as it did for so many Rwandans.

Of course, looking homewards was a gloomy sight.  The violence of the 1950s escalated until its culmination in the 1994 genocide.  Over the course of a few short months, the entire nation was all but destroyed.  It finally ended when an army of mainly Tutsi refugees, called the Rwandan Patriotic Front, captured the capital of Kigali and overpowered the genocidaires.  Almost immediately, tens of thousands of Rwandan exiles flocked back into the country, eager to return home— despite the lingering danger, chaos, and destruction.  

Re-enter Martin et al.  Like many other bright young male Rwandan exiles in Tanzania, Martin decided to attend seminary and become a Lutheran pastor.  He attended Makumera Theological College in Arusha, was ordained, and served for nearly thirty years as a pastor in Tanzania. He was content there.  But when the genocide finally ended in 1994, a small group of other Tanzanian Rwandan pastors asked him to return with them to minister in a country with a deep need for healing and grace.  Martin reluctantly agreed, largely to heed the requests of his wife.  In November 1994, Martin and six other pastors founded the Lutheran Church in Rwanda.

This week marked the 20th anniversary of the LCR (and, I’m told, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation).  For the occasion, all the Lutheran pastors in the country— perhaps thirty or forty of them (one of them is a woman)— assembled in Kirehe, a town near the Tanzanian border where the first congregation was founded.  I attended.  There was a festive six- or seven-hour service, complete with choirs, lots of prayers, speeches about the history of the LCR, and the main event: the planting of two trees.  I was tired by the end, but it was special to be there— especially to see Martin and the other living founders of the Church, witnesses of God’s enduring power and faithfulness to God’s people in the most despairing of times and places. 

Today, the LCR is very small, and has very little institutional power.  All but three of its congregations are in the eastern side of the country, close to Tanzania.  Many people seem to see it as a “Church for Tanzanian exiles,” and not especially welcoming to anyone outside of the particular shared history of its founders.  It has problems retaining youth.  It is criticized by the growing East-African Pentacostal movement for its liturgy and songs as being “boring” and “uninspired,” and for its use of theology as evidence of “relying on the head instead of the heart to have faith in Jesus.”  (The Anglican and Catholic churches face similar criticism.)  The biggest difficulty that the pastors express, though, is financial.  The LCR is unable to offer any kind of salary to its pastors, and the weekly offering monies are typically so meager each week that the small percentage which is given to the pastor usually equal less than a dollar.  For this reason, pastors are usually unable to minister anywhere except their ancestral hometown, where they have inherited land for growing enough food to subsist— precisely the reason why most of the churches are close to Tanzania.

Living with Martin, and having met and spoken with many of the LCR pastors, I often wonder how I can help them build a stronger institution.  I have done some little things I know how: I teach child and adult English classes at the church.  I teach guitar, piano, and music skills to church choir members.  I typed up a digital copy of the Kinyarwanda liturgy for the pastors to cheaply print for their members (instead of buying expensive hymnals).  But as for how to solve the bigger problems they face, I can only listen and offer my ideas and foreign perspectives with a few grains of salt.  It is one of the ways that my year as a Young Adult in Global Mission has been an exercise in “living the questions.”  It can be frustrating, but it’s also somehow liberating to admit that I don’t have any answers.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Church Choir

8th November 2014

Several weeks ago I wrote about my first week at church.  Since then, I’ve had many more weeks to figure out a few things about the way things work in the church.  Of particular interest to me has been the music.  (Watch out: I’m about to get nerdy about music.  If that’s not your thing, you might skip this post.)

Choral music is a major component of church in Rwanda.  I’ve visited a number of churches around the eastern part of Rwanda with Martin, and every single one— even the tiny one that meets under a tattered tarp hanging from tree poles on a grassy hillside— has not one, but two choirs: one for the adults and “youth” (people ages 18-35) and one for the kids.  The size of the choir depends on the size of the church, and also on the time time of the year.  (For example, our choir in Rukira swelled in size a week ago, when several youth returned home after National Exams in their final year of secondary school, the Rwandan equivalent of an ACT or SAT test.)  The Rukira Lutheran Choir, known as “New Life Choir,” has about twenty or thirty members.  Most choirs have only a couple of men, but New Life has five or six on a good day. 

Each choir sings an average of two songs during the church service, each of which have approximately twenty-eight verses.  Or, at least it seems like twenty-eight, because they all have the exact same simple melody around four chords.  It gets a little tedious to listen to, especially when I haven’t mastered Kinyarwanda well enough to catch the lyrics.  As they sing, they step together in simple patterns, and use a handful of different hand gestures with the lyrics: raising their open palms as if pleading to God, waving their pointer fingers so as to say “no,” and waving in praise. 

What’s truly remarkable is that nearly every number has original lyrics.  Yes, that means that the choir members somehow memorize two-dozen verses of lyrics which were written by their peers.  (I’ve been trying to fathom how they do it, but I don’t have the slightest clue just yet.)  Sometimes they forget and awkwardly pause to re-group mid-“performance,” but it works out.

I think I subconsciously expected that there would be rich four-part harmonies and elaborate drum beats in African choirs— probably from my experiences singing choral arrangements of African songs in high school and college choir. But in my church, the choir is accompanied by an Yamaha electric keyboard, played by a hip twenty-year-old dude called Umunezero (“Happiness”); and with the keyboard behind, the singers seem to prefer not to harmonize (a huge pity, I think!)   Umunezero is an expert at navigating the settings of his instrument, laying down bombastic synthetic drumbeats and heinous synthesized instrumental voices, and rapidly firing through the successive inversions of I, IV, and V chords with the occasional vi and surprise I7 leading to IV, all in complicated rhythms.  But most of the time, his chord changes and rhythms are completely out of sync with the choir, making for a confusing (sometimes painful) aural experience.  What is most agonizing for me is the process of selecting the settings at the beginning of each song: as a soloist leads off a song (without having pre-determined a starting pitch), the keyboardist shamelessly bangs on one key as he transposes the keyboard into a key he can easily play (i.e. Middle C sounds an E-flat), and then messes around with drumbeats as the singer continues.  Almost every time, the singers suddenly stop after one or two verses as their leader strolls over to the keyboardist, explaining that the rhythm or key he chose aren’t what they were looking for.  (I’d like to suggest they just plan out their settings before starting.)

Having been deeply embedded in American choirs, where we read music and plan out our starting pitch and definitely do not dance and use cheesy synthesizers, my understanding of music is not the same as that of the New Life Choir.  But I’ve realized that the singing isn’t really the point of the choir here.  You’ve probably already guessed: it’s the community.  Which is lucky for me, because I have no better opportunity to make friends with the church youth.  I attend choir rehearsals on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, not because I can actually sing along with their twenty-eight verses (although I do get a kick out of standing in the group to do the dance moves and make the kids laugh).  I do it for friendship.

Monday, November 3, 2014

100 American Shirts

3rd Nov 2014

One of the most bizarre and sobering things I’ve observed in Rwanda is the endless supply of American shirts.  Every day, everywhere I go, I see familiar images and distinctly American names and slogans on people’s clothing.  Those shirts which don’t have logos or text or pictures are probably also from America.

It is evidence of an economic cycle in our globalized world, where Americans (and probably not Europeans, as far as I’ve observed) buy new clothes in American stores or on vacations, get tired of them, and take them to the thrift store, from which they are soon shipped on palettes on barges to poor countries, where people find them in the most remote of villages and buy them for a very low price.  In the sense that poor people are able to clothe themselves at very little cost, it may seem a very positive thing.  But, on the other hand, a constant supply of unwanted clothes from the States also inhibits the possibility for Rwandans to produce and sell textiles in Rwanda: they can’t compete with free clothes from the States!  This causes problems for Rwanda’s economy at large: some studies claim that it is nearly impossible for a country to build a strong economy without a strong domestic textile industry.

It’s a complex global issue, and there’s not necessarily a right way to feel about it.  You can think it’s morally right or wrong, or “intellectually stimulating,” or funny.  But I’ll tell you how I feel: I’m sickened.  I think that Americans need to be less wasteful.  Read the list, and decide for yourself!

100 American Shirts

1.   Maple Grove T-Ball
2.   Wauwautosa Parks and Recreation
3.   picture of animals from Madagascar wearing Santa Claus hats
4.   John Cena (photograph and text)
5.   Phineas and Ferb (picture and text)
6.  American flag (girl’s dress)
7.   picture of American football, text: “Don’t Give Up Ground”
8.   One Tough Cookie (picture of Cookie Monster)
9.   Flight Squad Ace demolition pilot
10. Cleveland Clinic Police Safety Fair
11.  West Pine Middle School presents Mulan
12.  The Sushi Room (blue waiter’s polo)
13.  LOVE
14.  picture of Sonic the Hedgehog covers entire shirt
15.  Brooklyn
16.  picture of USA map on top of an American flag
17.  San Francisco (text above a tye-dye peace sign)
18.  Little Rock CTC (picture of dueling guitars)
19.  Union Catholic Alumni (polo shirt)
20.  Kelloggs (polo, picture of Tony the Tiger)
21.  FISD physical education
22.  Mountain Dew (vintage logo)
23.  Practically Perfect (pictures of small butterflies and tropical flowers surround text)
24.  Sweater: “When will I be famous?”
25.  Holiday Park Zoo
26.  A baby romper covered in UK flags
27.  full-shirt picture of Superman, Flash, and Green Lantern
28.  IBM
29.  Reading Road summer reading program (picture of a mouse in a care, USA flag behind)
30.  LSU Tigers
31.   Chicago Blackhawks (jersey)
32.  US Coast Guard (button-up shirt)
33.  picture of the Grinch and his dog Max
34.  “Life is a game, TWIRLING is serious”
35.  I always give 100% at work (pictures below, probably with a joking message)
36.  ARMY
37.  Pike Place Market
38.  Mexico
39.  Smithsonian National Zoo
40.  San Pedro Racing Hand-Grooved Wheels
41.  University of Michigan College of Engineering
42.  Athens Middle School Blue Hornet Band
43.  Noah’s Ark Summer Camp 2010
45.  American Eagle (gray polo)
46.  ProTec Safety First (fleece vest)
47.  GAP (90’s-style half-zip fleece)
48.  Polo Ralph Lauren (red polo)
49.  Newcastle Brown Ale (striped referee style jersey)
50.  Samsung
51.  Irish Whiskey
52.  Spongebob Squarepants
53.  Life’s a Game; Hunting is Serious (pictures of hunting weapons behind text)
54.  Mickey Mouse
55.  Dolce & Gabanna
56.  GAP
57.  Mark Zhen Designs Spokes
58.  “The Drums” (hoodie with picture of trapset)
59.  Crown only a king wears (zip-up sweater)
60.  RVCA
61.  The Avengers (animated comic book characters)
62.  Your Brain in the Game (basketball silhouette)
63.  BMX Motorcross (motorbike exploding from shirt)
64.  J├Ągermeister (worn by little girl)
65.  Pretty Little Cowgirl (cheesy cartoon)
66.  Biscuit Shop (cartoon pictures of baked goods)
67.  Abercrombie (below text, a winged shoe bearing the number ’72)
68.  USPA (giant logo)
69.  Basketball (silhouette of a male athlete)
70.  Full Speed Sport
71.  The Avengers (picture from the recent movie)
72. Yu-Gi-Oh (picture of one of the main characters)
73.  TROY (picture of a boyish Zac Efron from High School Musical)
74.  Time to Sleep (pajama shirt?)
75.  Animatrix 06.03 (advertising a movie release)
76.  Kauai (picture of flip flops)
77.  Pembina Trails School Division
78.  FOX (brand name with a fox head silhouette in place of the letter O)
79.  Crestview Schools
80.  Imperial Valley College
81.  Jersey: Urlacher, Chicago Bears
82.  “Stop pretending you don’t want me”
83.  “Punk Princess Rocks the Future” (pictures of various punk-style things, like plaid hearts with wings)
84.  Alvarez Harvesting— Wimoma, Florida (snap-button jacket)
85.  Shaun of the Dead
86.  Batman (seal)
87.  Obama-Biden (their faces imposed over stars and stripes)
88.  Bart Simpson
89.  Forever Love (punk hearts)
90.  Amherst soccer
91.  Bart Simpson on a skateboard
92.  Snoopy and Woodstock
93.  Alaska Adventure ’86 (fleece jacket)
94.  Levi Strauss & Co.
95.  Iowa State
96.  MN Vikings jersey: #84 Randy Moss
97.  Solid Rock Christian Summer Camp
98.  “I’m Bad, Meaning Good”
99.  Hello Kitty (at least three)
100.  Spider-Man (at least five or ten unique shirts)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Guitar lessons

25th Oct 2014

As soon as I accepted the call to a year of service in Rwanda, I decided I would bring my guitar, if possible.  I figured it wasn’t worth the risk to transport my precious cello in the airplane, on a public bus across Rwanda and up a bumpy dirt road to a remote village; but I couldn’t stomach the thought of going a year without an instrument.  So, guitar it was!  And, I’m happy to report, it turned out to be a great decision: the instrument is undamaged, and it’s super nice to have.

Of course, my guitar has not only been a source of entertainment for me; it very quickly became a way to connect with Rwandans.  During in-country orientation in late August, I played guitar in Sunday worship at the Kigali parish alongside my friend Emily.  On the last day of orientation, when I brought my luggage to the parish to meet Pastor Emmanuel for the journey to Rukira, I again whipped out my guitar upon request to accompany some singing.  And seeing that I had a guitar and the ability to use it, Emmanuel asked me as soon as we boarded the bus if I’d teach lessons.  I agreed.

Fast-forward about two weeks.  I’m still getting acquainted with Rukira, my new home.  Martin and I go for our routinely evening walk at dusk, and return home to find a young man patiently perched on the couch of our sitting room.  I had the sense enough to know that it’s not uncommon for people to just show up in your house (on the contrary, it’s very polite to pay others a visit to their home), and even to guess that this young man might be hear to greet me.  But I had no idea that this mild-mannered sixteen-year-old, John Paul, had shown up to have a guitar lesson.

I retrieved my guitar from under my bed; and in my very-limited broken Kinyarwanda, I struggled to explain the basics to John Paul.  The word for “strings” refers to yarn, so what can I say instead?   And how could I translate or explain guitar-specific terminology like “strum” or “fret” or “pick,” for which there are probably not words in Kinyarwanda?  And— most agonizing of all— could I explain that, when a string doesn’t ring, you need to wiggle and adjust your left-hand fingers until you hear a clean sound?

It turned out that, like so many instances in life, I was seeking too much control over the situation.  Yes, I did learn some vocabulary words which help me explain things: guitar strings are called imirya, and clumsy phrases like “Gufata kumirya ibiri n’ikosa; ugomba k’umurya umwe” (“To touch two strings [with one finger] is bad; you must touch one.”) sometimes get ideas across.  But what has really worked is time, presence, living by example, and listening.  

Now, only a few weeks later— and with almost no real substantive speaking or direction on my part— John Paul is playing quite well.  All I really do on lesson days (twice a week) is to show up, listen, adjust his fingers now and then, maybe demonstrate what he can work on.  The rest happens apart from me.  John Paul is deeply perceptive and hardworking; at each lesson I’m delighted to see that he has clearly been practicing (I leave the guitar at the pastor’s house by the church so he can practice anytime) and that, despite our many inhibitions in communication, good things still come.

This all reminds me of a very important thing I learned during my training for this year as a “missionary,”— in fact, a theological idea which has everything to do with that baggage-ridden title of “missionary” and the program’s name, Young Adults in Global Mission.  The idea (shall I say a truth?) is that God’s mission in Rwanda, and my life, and in the world, is unknown to me and outside of my control.  Rather, God is working with and through me and John Paul and everyone else in this dusty little village in ways that we can’t necessarily identify— even when that work is occasionally made real by our hands.  It means that that title “missionary” loses its heavy baggage, because I no longer have to pretend I have the ability to consciously work towards “God’s mission.”  It means that I can trust that God will enact God’s mission through me when I simply show up, offer myself to others, listen, and love.  It means that I don’t have to worry about the outcome: no matter what, good things still come.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Day I Learned to Read

18th Oct 2014

During my free time in Rwanda— when I’m not teaching, playing with kiddos, greeting my neighbors, or drinking copious amounts of fresh milk and tea (which is about one part tea and ninety-nine parts fresh milk)— I often read.  Actually, I’ve been reading obsessively.  I made a pact with myself that, upon college graduation, I would immediately trade my textbooks for the literature I’d never found time to read, that I would breed myself into a well-read adult, that I would not let my reading muscle go unused and get flabby.  

So far, I’ve held fast to my promise with force.  First of all, I packed far more books than I should have; my carry-on suitcase is a portable library of about thirty books, and I’ll use a Kindle for more.  I’ve made lists of hundreds of classic books to read, and lists of recommendations from professors and well-read friends.  And I’ve been reading every morning when I wake up, most evenings before I sleep, and usually some long chunk in between.  Certainly, reading has been an escape from the exhaustion of teaching around eighty toddlers and from stumbling through the simplest of conversations with townsfolk and from being the object of endless staring.  But to say that it is only an escape is a poor excuse for my habits.  Here’s my public confession: I’m unhealthily addicted to reading.

I say my addiction is unhealthy because I’ve reflected that most times when I sit down at my desk to read, it’s not been so much because I’m deeply immersed in the book; but because I’m eager for the satisfaction of checking another book of the list, of saying I’ve read such-and-such book, of adding to my list of conquests and silly little achievements— of slowly constructing, for my own dignity’s sake, another element of an Identity to make myself feel accomplished.  And ironically, the result is that I sometimes don’t truly read the books: I exhaust hours as my eyes scan over the words, but my mind is not fully open to savor them.  I often catch myself and correct myself, but it’s a whole lot more trouble than it would be if it weren’t for two of my general personal flaws (or qualities that sometimes harm me): 
1. my tendency to towards the checklists of achievements (Examples: having been to so many countries, read so many books, seen so many good movies, tasted so many weird foods, climbed so many mountains); and
2. my concern for time and pace, and a tendency to hurry (Examples: knowing exactly how long I spend reading and how pages I’ve read, and devouring meals in five or ten minutes).

Perhaps it seems a silly problem, but I think it has sometimes inhibited me from living fully into the community here— which, to me, is a big problem.  But yesterday, as I was struggling through the middle chapters of Walden by Henry David Thoreau and counting the pages until I’d finish the chapter, I found a solution.  

I decided, after spending too much time for one day reading by myself, to go outside.  My neighbor kids (ages two through four) charged at me and we played in the grass.  We were then surrounded by one hundred kids (not exaggerating) walking home from the Catholic school across the street, and we performed Head Shoulders Knees and Toes.  Then I retreated to the more private backside of the house, where I chatted with Martin and several neighbors as the sun set.  In none of those experiences did I really “do” or “accomplish” anything, in the sense that we seem to depend on in America; rather, I just was.  I was, with people— an action that is not means to an end, but rather an end in and of itself.  

The solution was to join the rhythm of Rukira— the rhythm of being together.  It is a rhythm without concern for the time that has passed; and a rhythm with no aim or purpose but to enjoy the time together, the blue of the sky, and the softness of the grass.  It’s the same rhythm by which Thoreau spent entire days watching the sun rising and observing interlacing streams of melted snow and ants battling in the dirt and listening to the moonlight serenades of loons and owls, and reveling in every little bit of it.  It’s a rhythm that comes so naturally to these people, but which I must practice; and a rhythm that, when I can follow it, becomes a catharsis— the peace which comes from the experienced promise that the good stuff in life can’t be checked off a list or completed in hours and minutes.

I returned to Walden after I’d stayed a while with the neighbors behind Martin’s house, with my mind newly clear and relaxed.  I wasn’t concerned with the time, or the last page, or the list of Books I’ve Read.  And I really read the ending— comprehended it, savored it, enjoyed it.  Once I’d finished, I looked at the watch, and discovered I’d also read at a faster pace.  In all ways, I read more effectively.  

Who would have thought that a group of toddlers and adults who can’t afford books would teach me to read?  I have discovered once more how very much more I have to learn from these people than I could ever teach them.  Moreover, I have experienced that, when I’m struggling with a problem privately (i.e. reading), the remedy is often as simple as re-entering community.   That is not to say that I will give up alone time and reading time altogether (moderation is key); rather, I think that time spent together, rich in and of itself, also enriches time spent alone.

I’m going to change the sub-caption of my blog: “Where Luke can’t help but turn every experience into introspection! TA-DAAAA!”  I think it fits nicely.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

My living situation

11th October, 2014

From the other side of the world, it’s really difficult to picture what my living situation is like here in Rukira.  Let me describe my home life in more detail— where I live, but especially the people I live with.

At the center of my living situation is my host-grandfather, Martin Habiyakare.  (Habiyakare roughly translates “God was there,” and his first name refers to Martin Luther.)  He is about five foot three, with shiny dark skin, a big belly, and a hearty laugh.  His furrowed brow suggests his wisdom and experience, as do the thin rings of mysterious blue which surround the brown irises of his eyes; yet these qualities in him are tempered by a jolly attitude.  I may have said before that he is retired, but he rejects that label.  “I am soon to retire,” he says, “and I am resting from having worked hard as a pastor.  But I am still the leader of our parish, and the overseer of the churches in our region.”  He has too much love for the Church to stop working.  

Martin has had many relationships with Americans before, and has thus known well how I might feel more comfortable in his home.  He has given me my own small room with a desk, and is usually happy to give me alone time when I need it.  He is non-judgmental and accepting of my many American oddities— for example, that I wear shorts, and that I have long hair and a beard, and that I read and write a lot.  He encourages me in all things to “feel free,” by which he means “Be yourself, (and I’ll tell you if you accidentally do something unacceptably rude.”)  There is, however, one behavior of mine which he enjoys to relentlessly challenge: my eating habits.  After every meal, without exception, Martin looks at my plate, disappointedly saying, “You have finished?”  He sighs, and proceeds to unleash a number of different rhetorical attacks to make me “Put more!”  The same happens every time we have tea or porridge.  I have gotten better at resisting, having verbally sparred with him at least half a dozen times a day.

Martin and I are not the only two who live in this house: there is also a very shy young woman named Patricia, who does all the cooking (in the kitchen, a dark edifice between the house with a handmade wood-burning stove and some other basic equipment) and the house cleaning and clothes washing (done by hand in plastic tubs and hung on wire lines behind the house).  She works hard— very hard— but never shows a trace of discontent.  She usually sings or listens to upbeat Kinyarwanda church choir music on her cell phone while she works.  Martin also employs a man named Josephat, a 30-year-old with muscular arms and a lazy eye, to care for his two cows and bring water to the house.  (There is no plumbing in the house, so Josephat carries heavy jerry cans of water on his bicycle, and fills them at a water tank behind our church.)  It was initially strange to accept that Patricia and Josephat should do all of the work in the house; but it is a part of Rwandan culture, not even exclusively among the rich.  So, I have usually not helped with the chores, but have made it a habit to thank them many times a day.

Our food lacks the variety that Americans enjoy, but is tasty and plentiful.  Many of the things we eat every day come directly from Martin’s fields, or those of others in Rukira: cooked bananas (the local equivalent of potatoes), beans and rice, ground nut sauce (delicious), African tea (which is mostly milk from Martin’s cow, very little actual tea), and cooked cabbage or cassava.  We drink thin porridge made of maize flour, soy, and sorghum every morning; and we buy beef and fish at the market every Thursday, which we then eat at each meal until it’s gone.  We also buy vegetables and some fruit.  (We eat much less fruit than I had expected we would, particularly sweet bananas.)  In another ultra-kind gesture of hospitality to me, Martin regularly buys spaghetti (which is called “amakaroni” here) and delicious sweet breads once a week or so.

Our home has electricity, though we only use it to charge cell phones and laptops during the day, and for light and television in the evening.  We don’t have a refrigerator (very few Rwandans use one).  Martin and I watch Rwandan Television News at 8:00 every evening over dinner, and often watch it again at 9:00 in English.  Martin has a laptop, which I have been teaching him to use.  (I helped him download a free typing software program, and his elation at slightly-higher marks of accuracy has been priceless.)  We have excellent cell phone access and 2G Internet via USB modems.  

Clearly, there are many differences between my life here and life in America; but many of the stereotypes I had (consciously and sub-consciously) have been dispelled.  Of course, Martin’s home is just one point on a spectrum of living situations in Rukira.  I hope to develop a much broader picture of life here as the year unfolds.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Civic Engagement in Development

4th Oct 2014

On the day after I arrived, Martin told me the latest news which was buzzing around the town: the annual development report from the National Government was in, and out of 30 Districts, our District (Ngoma) had come in 2nd Place!  (A District is the political sub-division of a Province; it is divided into two lower levels of government, the Sector and the Cell.)  

This is one peculiar sort of news which one does not find in a so-called “1st world” or “developed” country like the United States.  But as far as I can tell, it’s also not the kind of news one would hear in most “developing countries,” either.  It demonstrates something very special about today’s Rwanda: its determination and diligence in pursuing better lives for its people, and, most remarkably, the participation of its citizens in that endeavor.

Let me put in perspective what a big deal this development stuff is to Rwandans.  This past Monday, Martin and I left the house after lunch and walked up to the soccer (erm, football) field near the Cell office.  There was a small crowd lounging on the lawn under a large leafy tree, and a group of men setting up a wide white tent shelter and chairs beneath.  One hour later, the gathering grew to a mass of hundreds, perhaps one or two thousand people, dressed in traditional and otherwise formal clothes.  They had arrived for a ceremony to celebrate the 2nd Place Award.  We waited for another hour, as the District leaders made the rounds to all the other Sectors under their authority and their celebrations.  We sang and chanted as we waited, of course— song after song, chant after chant.  Charismatic figures emerged from the sea of people to receive the microphone and lead the songs, shouting into it and causing the same fuzzy unpleasantries from the amplifier that I suffer at church every Sunday.  It was delightful.  To me, their joy and singing makes American culture of community gatherings (practically devoid of such inhibited shared excitement) seem impoverished.

Finally, the government leaders arrived in a sleek silver automobile, and triumphantly marched through the teeming mass brandishing an impressive trophy towards the sky.  They situated themselves in the middle, making speeches of congratulations on the achievements of the year, encouraging the efforts for the coming year, and ceremoniously signing contracts of new development goals.  

All the pomp and circumstance of this event was only a microcosm of the widespread participation that goes into the tireless pursuit of development in Rwanda.  I learned from Martin and my friends Edward and Emmanuel that, at President Kagame’s request in 2010, every family keeps a notebook in which they record their ambitions for their own home (i.e. closer access to water, electricity) and their ability to progress towards the goal (i.e. how much money or labor they can put towards the project).  The representatives of the Cell government then visit each family, either in their home or in well-attended town hall meetings, and aggregate the ambitions and progress information from every family.  The Cells report to the Sectors, the Sectors to the Districts, and the Districts make proposals of District-wide projects to the National Government.  The national government allocates its budget to support these projects (i.e. building roads, electricity lines, water projects) according to its limited budget, the greatest priorities, and the self-reliance of the localities in question.  The National and District Government leaders develop a set of specific, measurable targets to achieve by the following July.  The districts with the highest percentage of progress towards their goal are rewarded, as Ngoma District was this week.

What’s really remarkable to me is not the government process, though: it’s the visible and passionate grassroots participation of humble, regular, neighborly people, and how they use their government as a facilitator.  Edward and Emmanuel explained offered a personal example: the people living on their road had no electricity, and so held a neighborhood meeting to discuss the costs and how much each person could contribute.  Their money was insufficient, but they went to the Sector government with their proposal anyway.  The government agreed to finance the rest of the project, and constructed the power lines within the week. It’s a rather rose-colored anecdote (and I intend to keep my ears open for less savory stories), but at the very least it demonstrates the Rwandan public’s deep sense of trust in the government.

Indeed, Rwandans have so much faith in their government that (according to my friends) they willingly give money to the government, above and beyond their taxes.  Apparently, 30% of Rwanda’s national budget is gifted from its own citizens— even its poorest ones— in the form of 500RWF bills (less than $1USD) and even sacks of beans.  I’m still skeptical; but as I see endless evidence of a government that delivers (smooth paved roads nationwide, tin roofs on every single house, more and more electricity, a friendly environment for foreign and domestic businesses), the possibility seems ever more likely.

I don’t think Americans will ever trust their government as much as Rwandans seem to, but what if Americans were as inclined towards civic engagement?  What if we also had well-attended neighborhood meetings, pooled our money to get stuff done, and sand and chanted our hearts out on the soccer field?  How would life be different?  I, for one, think it’s worth finding out.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

My first week as a teacher

27 Sept 2014

As I mentioned in a previous post, Pastor Emmanuel asked me to teach English and music at the pre-school run by the Lutheran parish of Rukira once a week.  This was my first week.  I don’t believe I’d really paused to think about what I was in for, but it wouldn’t have made a difference if I had: I would inevitably be overwhelmed by the task at hand in some way or another.

I left Martin’s house on an ancient bicycle at 7:45 on Monday, my bag bound to a rack over the rear tire by a thick stretchy rubber band.  I wobbled along the dusty vermillion road that serves at the main thoroughfare in my neighborhood, greeting the usual stares, double-takes, and looks of amusement with a friendly “Mwaramutse!” Much like in my Mom’s hometown of Cottonwood, Minnesota, it is not only normal but almost expected to offer a friendly greeting to nearly everyone you encounter, no matter whether you know them or not.  The single gear and the thick slightly misaligned wheels of the bicycle make the gentlest uphill slope towards the church a challenge (or maybe I’m just out of shape).  For the most part the road is free of major bumps, the morning air is still brisk, and the atmosphere is somehow made more comfortable by the cool green of the banana trees.  It is a pleasant 2-kilometer ride.

As I reached the church, I was greeted by seventy children, ages 3-6, flocking around me as I stepped off my bike.  They never seem to tire of shouting my name (or “muzungu” if they haven’t learned it), reaching to touch me or shaking my hand.  I only wonder if in their eyes I am more like a superhero or a zoo animal; but, as my country coordinator suggested to me, both of those concepts are probably unfamiliar to them.  A lanky 24-year-old man with a pointy nose emerges and beckons the children to form four orderly lines to prepare for the classroom.  The man, Mabano, is one of the three teachers for these seventy kids (that is, including me); the other teacher is very ill, so for now it’s just the two of us.  Mabano led the children in some chants and sent them into two classrooms: one for the the 5-6 year-olds, and the other for the “baby class,” 3-4 years old.  The older group would be mine for the next forty-five minutes.

As the tots filed into their long desks (four to a desk), I wrote “Hello,” “How are you?,” “I am fine,” “Sit,” “Stand,” “Listen,” and a few other important words on the board with the Kinyarwanda translations— doubting they can read any of it, but wanting them to see the words.  Mabano enters the room, and commands them to shout in unison, “GOOD MORNING TEACHER,” and in response to my “How are you?,” “I AM FINE THANK YOU TEACHER.”  Mabano leaves the room to teach the other class, but somehow finds time to come back every five minutes or so on discipline patrol, occasionally using a footlong stick to swat a naughty child.  As much as I despised this technique of terror, I didn’t tell him to stop; instead, I opted for the non-violent approach as my own.  The students and I spent much of the first class (and the rest of the week) learning that when I say “Listen,” I mean kumva (“to listen/hear”), kwicara (“to sit”), ceceka, ntimukwiriye kuvuga (“silence, you must not talk”), and amabako hano (“arms here,” and I put my arms at my sides.)  When a child is still doing what pre-schoolers do— climbing on the chair, crawling under the chair, grabbing his/her neighbor, playing with his/her shoes, turning around to talk, playing with a scrap of garbage or a tiny shard of chalk— I simply walk to them and make the command at eye contact.  

The period seemed to move quickly as we practiced “listen,” “sit/stand,” and our greetings; but I was relieved when 8:45 arrived.  Then Mabano cheerily said, “Okay, now time for the baby class!”  He informed me that, although they had only told me one hour a week, they wanted me to teach 2-3 hours for four days a week.  In the moment as I walked to the next class for Round 2, I was livid; I felt that they were taken advantage of me.  But later, it struck me that, with the negative connotations of the phrase removed, “taking advantage of me” is exactly what they should do to me this year, and I them.  

Each class has been better than the last.  I’ve been singing the alphabet with them, drawing pictures and acting out Axes and Balls and Cats and Dogs and Ears and Fish to give some basic vocabulary words, and always reviewing “Listen.”  On Friday, we stood in a circle in the dirt courtyard singing “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes.”  I doubt they’ll remember any of the words come Monday; but at this point I’m more concerned that they know that I care.