13 September 2014
For our first two weeks in Rwanda, my fellow Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) and I stayed at a guest house in Kigali studying Kinyarwanda, the national language. Though we certainly took time to explore the city— to glide around the winding switchbacks of the city’s hillside roads on public buses, to search for the tastiest samosas in local shops, to visit historic sites and genocide memorials— we spent most of our days struggling through unfamiliar sounds and confusing grammar rules, and drilling lists of vocabulary words.
Our teacher, a youthful and goofy 33-year-old Rwandan called Peter, could usually sense when we were overwhelmed by the messy lists of words and grammar taped to the walls of our classroom. In those moments he would say “Let us relax!” and lead us outside to the lawn, where we would do more language practice. (We told him that we did not understand the word “relax” the same way he did.) We would stand in a circle, rehearsing our greetings in Kinyarwanda or reciting vocabulary or basic math problems with hand motions (“Rimwe! Guteranyaho! Rimwe! Bingana! KABIRI!” “One! Plus! One! Equals! TWO!”)
Best of all (though I thought it least practical), Peter taught us a few simple songs. The first was “Ujire Umunsi Mwisa,” the Kinyarwanda version of the tune “Happy Birthday” (the literal meaning is more general: “Have a good day.”) Later we learned “Nzakagendana” and “Tuzataha,” two simple one-verse hymns well-known to children; and finally “Mbega ukwe mwiza cyane,” a slightly longer and more complicated song. Eventually, when I or any of my fellow YAGM was starting to lose focus or become exhausted during a lesson, we would spontaneously break into song. If they would serve no other purpose, these songs would make for an effective de-compressor.
Little did I know, these silly songs would quickly become the most important nuggets of knowledge I have acquired so far: they have helped me connect with children!
On Wednesday, I arrived in Rukera, a remote village nestled in the thick banana tree fields of the Eastern Province of Rwanda, where I will spend the rest of the year. Each day when I go for a walk with Pastor Martin, my 71-year-old host father, we are swarmed by scores of little kiddos who have just finished school. Feeling no rush to return home, the kids follow us (or walk in front of us), staring at me and whispering to each other and giggling. They call me “muzungu,” which loosely translates to “white man.” Some brave kids come forward to shake my hand; others sneak close to poke me and run away. It has happened the same way each day, and I have found it to be a bit uncomfortable.
But yesterday, as the children gathered around me and Martin, I realized that they were the best people to help me practice my elementary Kinyarwanda. I started reciting things I knew how to say: “Ufite umupira, na ijipo, na inkweto” (“You have a t-shirt, a skirt, and shoes”); “Ukunda imineke?” (“Do you like bananas?”) I have never been so pleased to have been understood as when they responded, “Yes, we do like bananas.”
And then we started to sing. I began: “Nzakagendana, nzakagendana, agakiza k’Imana we, nzakagendana!” (“I will go with the salvation of God.”) Before I’d finished the second word, all the children joyfully joined in, clapping and singing. Their songs shimmered with delight, with some element that signaled to me a connection somehow deeper than the words of the songs, deeper than any eloquent phrase I could memorize in their language. I was overwhelmed, and happy. It was the first time since arriving that I felt like I really shared something important with other people that wasn’t in my own language, own familiar terrain. I am certainly excited to be able to communicate through Kinyarwanda; but thankfully, I know that meaning can be shared in simpler, more profound ways than spoken word, if only in short, unpredictable moments.