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.