I had the most difficult night in Rwanda so far a couple of weeks ago. My scholars were feeling frustrated and I sort of picked up their emotions during our reflection session and carried them home with me. I was physically exhausted from a more intense morning workout, impromptu hike across the village, and carrying a 25 liter water jug from my home to one of my scholar’s homesteads earlier that day.
With aching muscles and a critical attitude I could not shake, I was relieved to sit down to dinner, knowing sleep would come shortly. As I ate with my sister, things only worsened as she leaned over and whispered, “you are…. lazy!” and burst into a fit of laughter.
I was absolutely distraught. Fears, anxieties, and questions overwhelmed me. Was I really perpetuating the stereotype of the lazy American? Was I not helping out enough around the house? Did I read too much? Shoud I wake up earlier than my usual 5:30? I tried to remind myself of the good work I was doing while also acknowledge the differences in culture and lifestyle that we both faced.
After some translation and clarification the next day, I learned that my sister did not mean lazy, but sick. She was expressing concern since I did not have my usual level of energy and cheer.
Though we cleared this up, I have been slightly self-conscious about my participation in chores ever since. The reality is, though I am far from lazy, my aptitude for this lifestyle is subpar at best. As I write, my hands are screaming in discomfort, rubbed raw from a morning of washing clothes. Their soft, uncalloused surfaces are ill-equipped to handle the most mundane of tasks here.
Yesterday, I decided to be more assertive in my desire to help. I plopped myself in their cooking area- a brick room behind the house with two rings of fire surrounded by rocks- and said, “Nchaka kwiga guteka kama mama” (I want to learn to cook like mama). To my surprise, mama did not discourage me or placate me with a menial task like normal, but handed me the spoon.
I suspect the kids ran up and down the street announcing this, because soon neighbors crowded the door of the kitchen, craning their necks to see the mzungu at work.
We fried plantains and sauteed cabbage with other vegetables mixed in. I resumed my role as observor as mama prepared the chai.
We did all of this with a single pot, which rests on the edges of the rocks around the fire. When it grew dark, mama and I alternated holding a burning piece of wood from the fire above our work for light. I worked with caution, for every misstep sent food flying into the dirt. As I peeled potatoes, I was painfully aware of my waste each time I cut deeper than the skin.
I am amazed at their utilization of resources and impressive conservation. Water begins to wash clothes and, as it dirties, the basin that was for rinsing moves to washing, and the dirtier water is transferred to clean the floors. Very little trash is accumulated because everything is reused. I see few paper goods and the plastic bags we use for groceries in the States are illegal here.
This is such a contrast to life at home- to the immediate gratification of a stove burner and faucet, the convenience of electricity, and the waste that piles high.
I know that if mama came home with me, she would be equally overwhelmed by my life- even kitchen- with its plethora of tools for each disparate task. And perhaps I would ask her a question in Kinyarwanda and mix up my words, offering an insult instead of concern.
With a growing understanding of this complexity, I am seeking to move to a pace of seeing these things as mere differences, placing no label of “better” or “worse” on either.
Even with this intention, I struggle not to judge myself for my smooth hands and over-resourced life. As I look out and see my many clothes splash a rainbow of color across the bushes while they hang to dry, I wonder if I brought too much, own too much. And I hope that I will learn from this other way.