Ready to Fly

Miss the previous reflection about my year living in Africa? Read it here.

Traveling to Rwanda in 2009 and working with orphan students who survived the 1994 Rwandan Genocide was responsible in many ways for the direction my life has headed in since, and is why it felt like a blessing to be able to return again to conclude the journey of the past couple of years.

This trip was markedly different from previous visits, in that I was here on my own for several months and without a set agenda. In previous visits, I was part of a team that came for no more than two weeks, which had a daily program of carefully prepared activity.

I mentioned in a previous reflection that without the heartfelt support of my partners in Kenya, all that happened there — the sewage project in the slum, the transformation at Brosis — would not have been possible.

It was precisely that support missing in Rwanda. It’s not that I don’t get along with my partner, the principal of the secondary school I was working at, it’s that the culture of the school is much different, say than the culture of Brosis and wasn't the best match for my personality and style.

For one, the principal is not around during the week, and his role is almost purely administrative. The school itself is very formal and academic in nature and the teachers are quite hands off with the students when not in the classroom. I also encountered what I suspect was religiously based intolerance because of the traditional Indian dress I adopted.

My sense was people were expecting me to show up with a lot of money and start fixing up the school vs. work in a process oriented manner with the students.

I did have forthright conversations with the principal that if there is that kind of expectation, the school needs to be doing much more on its side—besides the heartbreaking stories of the genocide survivors who are more or less stable now 18 years later, the school does not inspire one to give, as Brosis does.

So the challenges continued, but hit in an even more personal way than they did in Nairobi because I was really on my own with what I was doing, and did have moments where I doubted myself because of how little acceptance and understanding I received.

During that time, I was able to realize what was going on though and saw that the invitation was to continue to serve lovingly, regardless if people were getting me or not, regardless if people were snickering behind my back.

It’s funny in a way. In previous trips, I was told repeatedly this school is the poorest in Kigali, and how desperate the poverty is with the students. I didn’t have Brosis or Kitui Ndogo as a reference point at the time. Arriving at the school with new eyes and seeing the brick structures, paved floors, etc. and being told all the students pay fairly significant school fees and are eating three good meals a day, my opinion of the poverty level altered significantly.

It’s why I was shocked and terribly dismayed when I was told by one of the teachers that I basically had to bribe the students with snacks and tea to participate in the entrepreneurship program I developed, some students even wondered if they would get paid for their participation.

Out of all the kids I taught in India and Kenya, who were in relatively more challenged circumstances, never before had I met any such kind of resistance. Consider the irony! Not only did I have to pay a teacher significantly to help teach the course, I also had to, in a way, pay for the students’ attention!

Part of this had to do with the students’ age (all older in teens and early 20s) but mostly it was a symptom of the lack of a strong school culture I mentioned before—if teachers aren’t caring so much about the students outside of class and are there just to do a job, why should the students care about anything extracurricular, especially from a guest teacher?

Regardless, I was pleased with how both of the programs turned out. The time I spent with the group of genocide survivors still struggling academically, sharing about the value of "living well," was wonderful. And the experimental leadership and entrepreneurship course where graduating seniors learned through real life project management, was one of the best I’ve designed.

Project work and time with the students made up for only half of the trip.

School ended on the 21st of July, and since then for about six weeks, I have been spending time on this beautiful mountain, alone, mostly in silence, and in the soothing presence of Mother Nature.

This turned out to be a process in itself, like the equivalent of an extended silent retreat. I had no idea I needed to unwind in the way that I did, to clear out my head, and to digest (through these writings mostly) what has been a heavy duty experience. It was an unplanned for and needed gift.

As I come to the end of this reflection and trip, only a day away before heading to the United States for a little while, I can now officially close the book that was written in India, Kenya, and Rwanda from 2011 to 2012.

On the one hand, nothing has changed. On the other, a lot has. I feel wiser, more grounded in who I am, and ready to embark on grander, even more expansive and challenging journeys.

C's JournalC. LowmanComment