Thursday, March 19, 2015

I'm still alive!

Hello, dear friends!  I’ve reached the middle of my year in Rukira.  The pace of life these last few months have been slow and simple as were the months before, and I love it that way.  Unlike my life in college where my activities quickly changed with the passing of deadlines and the arrivals of new semesters, my activities in the village remain pretty much the same.  With the passage of time, I have been delighted to catch glimpses of the impact of my “work” here: a few belt loops lost around Martin’s waist from our exercises (we started doing living room work-outs twice a day in January), my pre-school students mastering a few more English vocabulary words, my Kinyarwanda conversational skills blossoming.  But what I’m delightedly discovering these days is that, when I don’t catch glimpses of “progress,” I’m no less satisfied.   I’m slowly letting go of my dependency on the Tangibles to measure my “success” or “value” in this place, and ever-more content to consider my worth in this community in terms of my relationships.

Let me explain: Two months ago, I came up with a plan to re-vamp my Youth English Club and more effectively teach village youth how to speak English.  My first months of the English class had felt like a failure: attendance was frustratingly poor, with most people showing up two hours late or only coming once every two weeks.  It had been impossible for me to use a lesson plan, since I never knew who/how many people to expect.  I spent many afternoons sitting around with one determined little kid, practicing verb conjugations and drawing pictures to define English words to which I hadn’t learned the Kinyarwanda translation.  So at the beginning of January, I came up with a plan to improve attendance, to be prepared for any number or skill level of students who might show up, and to make lessons more effective.  I took a few weeks off from teaching the class (no one had been showing up in late December, and I chose not to revive it) so I could prepare attendance sheets, lists of vocabulary words and verb conjugations, and potential lesson plans for my big Round 2 plan of attack.  I was sure that, if I prepared well, I could make the most of any situation and make a real, tangible impact.

Then one day, I ran into Dusabe Philipe, our church’s smily and charismatic evangelist.  He studied English for a few years in school, but lacks confidence and speaks poorly.  I spontaneously asked when we could practice English together; and a few days later, we were sitting in the church office with a notebook and a Beginner’s Bible that my Mom sent to me.  I hadn’t made a “lesson plan” for this casual meeting, but it took only a few minutes to realize that anything I might have prepared wouldn’t have been nearly as good as plain-old conversation.  Soon we closed the Bible as the conversation moved to ports— yes, as in seaside stops for cargo ships.  I remembered that Philipe’s focus in Secondary School was geography.  As he started enthusiastically telling me about the imports that come to Rwanda from the Kenyan port of Mombasa, it suddenly hit me that there was no better way for him to practice English than to tell me about something he’s passionate about. (Duh.)

But the game-changing discovery I made as Philipe and I chatted about ports was that, all of a sudden, I was no longer so concerned about exactly how much progress Philipe would make in English through our lessons.  I realized that, whether or not he is a super-confident speaker by July when I fly home, we will be friends, and that will be enough for me.  My priorities had shifted from a notion of progress and development that I had brought with me, to a perspective which (I believe) is more in line with that of my companions in Rwanda: that building relationships is life’s first priority, and all other priorities are also channels for relationships.  This change inside of me has made all the difference.  It has liberated me from the disappointment I felt when the expectations with which I came to Rwanda weren’t realized.  And it has led me to find more and more fulfillment by centering my teaching and other activities around the relationships I’m building with playful pre-schoolers, vivacious youth, and generously kind adults.

I have lots of growing to do, of course (don’t we all?)  I still have moments of extreme frustration, impatience, urgency, and other ickies.  But I feel a peculiar combination of peace and excitement about the freedom I’m finding by finding my worth in Community instead of the Tangibles— especially as I think about what that freedom might mean when I return home to a culture so bound to “progress” and “results.”  Most of all, I feel grateful that, odd as it seems, the best people to teach me how I might live a fulfilling life in America (or elsewhere) has happened to be a village of Rwandans.