Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Site Visit from Luke and Caitlan, My Replacements

In Peace Corps Rwanda, all trainees participate in site visits shortly after learning where they will be stationed. They take a week off from their cross-culture and language courses and go live at their future home. I suppose the purpose of site visits is to give trainees the initial shock of being relatively alone in a strange place in order to lessen that shock when they move into their sites for good. Earlier this month, my replacements, Luke and Caitlan, came to visit Mibirizi.

For Luke and Caitlan, as well as for me, this visit started with a daunting and nauseating six hour bus ride through Nyungwe Forest. But aside from the bus ride, our visits were very different, and introducing them to people I've known since my site visit reminded me of that.

We met Moise, a boy who brings me water from the local taps. He addressed Luke as 'Papa,' as he does me, and Caitlan as 'Mama,' and proceeded to beg for a 'bon bon' of 20 francs. I hate the begging behavior, but have come to expect it whenever Moise meets a new foreigner. We continued along our way to school without much other disruption.

I met Moise for the first time during my own site visit. I was staying with my previous headmaster. Because he was pretty busy and didn't know what to do with me, I found myself with a lot of downtime throughout the days. By chance, I learned that the market was open one day, and decided to take the half hour walk there. If I had known the experience that lay in store for me, I probably would have stayed in, but retrospectively, I'm glad I didn't.

I, a white man, wandering into the market and speaking very little Kinyarwanda, was enough to cause a stir. Then Moise found me. He grabbed my hand and shook it and bowed, greeting me with what I learned was his usual effusive manner - giggling, constantly bowing, and drooling a little. He would not let go of my hand. People began to crowd around to watch the spectacle. By the time I decided to forsake politeness and pull his hand off of mine, he had begun to recite all of the English he knows, a routine I will forever know by heart: "PAPA GOOD MORNING HOW ARE YOU I LOVE AND THANK YOU GOODBYE." This got laughs, which made Moise laugh even harder.

I wanted to get away, realizing I had met my first umusazi, crazy person, but I found that I couldn't. Amused bystanders had crowded so tightly around me that I couldn't get out.  I looked out on a sea of laughing faces that made escape through this unfamiliar market seem hopeless. So I stood there, boxed in, while Moise repeated the English routine for a time that seemed endless. For my first time in Rwanda, I felt myself lightheaded and reeling from too much unsolicited attention.

Someone grabbed my arm and pulled me away, parting the sea of faces that Moise (Moses, in English) had enclosed upon me. He spoke English, asked me what I wanted to find at the market and after some discussion, we set about finding the safety razor holder I had come to look for. Better yet, we even found it and people began to drift back to their own business. My new companion, we'll call him D, was a tremendous improvement over the previous one, but was still a little unsavory. For one thing, he wouldn't stop hanging onto my arm, and for the other, he begged me to buy him a fanta (slang for soda) as we left the market.

In my second experience of Deus ex Machina in the hour, my phone started ringing. It was my headmaster calling me and he was in the bar that D and I had just walked past. I quickly excused myself to go meet him, and started toward the bar with D trailing behind me. Apparently, D and the headmaster held grudges toward each other, and a shouting match ensued as my headmaster told D that he was being disrespectful. Well, that he called D disrespectful was what the headmaster told me later, but a lot of words were exchanged, none of which I understood, of course. My headmaster sat me and himself down in chairs while he and D, who stood in the doorway, continued to shout until the veins bulged on D's neck and forehead and the whites of his eyes became terrifyingly large. I sat there and wondered if everyone in Rwanda is out of their mind.

They aren't, of course. I soon learned that, for foreigners in Africa, undesirable attention tends to seek you out, while more positive relationships must be sought after. And upon returning to my site, I learned that D and Moise aren't bad people at all.

I brushed D off for a long time, thinking he had bad manners and was needy and emotionally unstable. It didn't help that my headmaster, then my roommate, disliked him. D and I talked whenever he found me on the street and he would tell me that he wanted to be my friend and that he missed talking to me, then I would escape him, citing eternal busyness as a reason we didn't spend more time together. Eventually I started my school English club and soon found I was in way over my head. I needed a Rwandan counterpart to help me, and D offered when all others politely declined or accepted and then rudely flaked. I knew D wanted my friendship, so I offered it in exchange for his help.

While we got off on the wrong foot, eventually I came around and started to like D. By then I had learned that holding onto your friend as you walk is a cultural norm in Rwanda, and also knew how to communicate that this is not the same in American culture. I learned that D was very active and helpful within the community. He spent a lot of his time tutoring the children of fellow churchgoers, even though he was already working full time as a primary school teacher. I respect him for how seriously he took his job and how giving he is with his time. Last year, he got a position as the headmaster of a primary school in Kamembe.

Moise, while considered crazy by some, is actually not. He is an orphan from the Congo who suffers from epilepsy. Because of his lack of education, he can only communicate with Rwandans by mixing broken Kinyarwanda and French with his Congolese Swahili. I expect he speaks Lingala too, but wouldn't even know how to ask. Because of his epilepsy and the stigma associated with it, he has difficulty finding even menial work. His goofiness and laughter, I've seen, is almost always part of a sort of jester act (a la Shakespeare) he plays to win over favor and handouts, which he relies on in his vulnerable position. At the market that day of my site visit, he asked me for a 'bon bon' of 20 francs (about 3 cents), but after that he mostly begged for work, so I ask him to bring water.

Luke and Caitlan's visit  went a lot more smoothly than my own. They had the advantages of meeting the headmistress before leaving and journeying to Kamembe with her and of having another volunteer, me, to show them around. I took them to the schools of Mary Queen and APEMI and tried to introduce them to all of the people I interact and work with on a regular basis. Everywhere we went, there was a lot of excitement and anticipation for the new volunteers. Getting two new volunteers to replace one is only a small part of it.

Another, possibly bigger, cause for excitement was that Luke and Caitlan are married. In Rwanda, married people have a higher status than bachelors, regardless of age. When you marry, you are seen as a man or a woman, but before marrying, you can't be expected to have the same good judgement or character as someone who's settled down. I think Rwandans like to see people in love, too. So the people of Mibirizi thoroughly enjoyed meeting them, though I may have overloaded Luke and Caitlan with names and faces.

For their part, Luke and Caitlan seem to really like Mibirizi. I admit that I've got a great site and a great house, probably too great for a Peace Corps volunteer to live alone in as I have since my old headmaster moved out. When I realized it was too big for one volunteer, I recommended that Peace Corps use this house as a residence for one of the married couple of trainees, and that they did. With electricity, a butchery, pork, cold beer, a good house, reliable internet, and a functional school to work in, I think Luke and Caitlan have a lot to look forward to. I also think they are going to do great work here in Mibirizi, and there's enough to do here that they will never lack something to do.

You can follow Luke and Caitlan's blog, as I will be doing, here at Smith Life Abroad.


  1. See you in 2 months!

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