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.