I was recently informed that the terms ’1st world’ and ’3rd world’ are outdated and incorrect, but they made for a catchy title, so I’m using them anyway. I apologize for any and all political incorrectness exhibited in this blog entry because of it.
With that out of the way…
Being an American volunteer in Rwanda is strange. We try to live on the same level as our community members, and yet we hoard American stuff in our houses like Y2K is about to happen all over again. We tell people we don’t have any money, but really we’ve either spent it all on trips out of our sites or we’re saving up for a new phone. Sometimes if we know our electricity is going to be off for awhile (or if we don’t have electricity to begin with), we ration out our computer time so that we can watch as many T.V. episodes and play as many games of Spider Solitaire as possible.
Hoarding has actually been a major past time of mine lately; to the point where I’ve begun to feel a little uneasy about it. I hoard stuff from care packages, and letters, and all my notebooks from last year. Before our Peace Corps hostel closed down, I hoarded books and magazines, clothes, and decks of cards from volunteers who didn’t want them anymore. I even caught myself being upset when my water guy only filled up one of my jerrycans as opposed to filling up them both—the nerve!
It seems that although in some ways I’ve become much more Rwandan over the past 18 months, I’ve also become a lot more American in others. Which is odd, because one of the reasons why I joined up with Peace Corps in the first place was so I wouldn’t be so focused on material things anymore.
Too many times to count, I’ve told people here that I am not ‘umuzungu’. I am not rich, I am not foreign. And each time I say it these days, I feel more and more like a hypocrite, claiming to have no money while carrying around a very expensive REI backpack on my back. Claiming to be ‘Rwandan’ while I tell people over and over again that “I do not understand Kinyarwanda”. I AM foreign, and I DO have money, and that is something that (arguably) every Peace Corps volunteer eventually has to come to terms with.
No matter how many times we claim not to be the ‘other’, we are.
But with that in mind, there’s also something that sets us apart from all the other tourists and ex-pats. Something small, seemingly insignificant, and maybe fruitless. One little idea that saves a small shred of dignity for us even when we’ve just spent the last three hours agonizing over our last scoop of peanut butter.
That one little idea that is just two very little words: we try.
We try (and in my case, fail) to learn the local language. We try to adapt to the local culture and customs, and we try to really get to know our neighbors and coworkers. We try to cook Rwandan food and join choirs and start clubs and inspire kids. We try to change the world (a lofty goal), and most of the time, we fail. But it’s the trying that counts—the trying that makes Peace Corps such a weird-awesome-horrible-wonderful experience. It’s trying that makes all of our material problems (like the last jar of peanut butter) not quite so bad. We still have those 1st world problems, and I will probably continue to hoard until my close of service next December, but being a Peace Corps volunteer is all about balance. Balance between living ‘on the level’ and maintaining sanity. Balance between alone time and social time. Balance between the values that we grew up with and the values we’ve had to painstakingly learn over the course of our service—balance between our American lives and our Rwandan ones.
So while my house has more useless things in it than most of my neighbors’ houses, and while I shamelessly eat a whole entire bag of chocolate chips in two days flat, I can still have that little shred of dignity—that little voice that says “eh. You try.”