Shadow and Light

In the past eight years, I have done seven homestays.

I did the math with my scholars yesterday.

This is not just seven places and seven dynamic experiences, but seven families.

The lengths of these varied, as did the extent of my connection to said families. But from all of this, I am still in contact with only two (although, to be fair, am currently living with a third).

I have returned to visit zero.

I mentioned in my post about language that I chose Rwanda for a diverse experience. Yet, as I reflect on these things and prepare to embark on a journey to six new countries around the world, I pause.

You see, if things go well with TBB, I can do their program for a second year. And the thought has occurred to me that, if I do, if they have an itinerary with different countries, maybe I could do that one.

This thought now reminds me of a poem I wrote while in Florida:

Five pelicans soared above me today,
I smiled at the sight.
And wished there had been seven.

I’ll take your gifts and with a sweet smile,
paint them black with dissatisfaction and greed.
And romance.

And I wonder if my thirst for new experiences, my love of travel, is not just a new form of consumerism?

While I may practice the art of simplicity by living rurally and out of a backpack, am I not merely embracing the same “more, more” attitude, but with people and places instead of material goods?

When my obsession is not brand-names, but culture, does that excuse the excess?

I must ask: at what point is my intention to immerse and connect exploitative, as I accumulate experiences without sustaining and investing in relationships?

With this, I think that if I do have the opportunity and decide to do a second year of TBB, maybe the same itinerary is just what I need. Perhaps my next trip should be to see some friends I’ve already made. Or maybe the next step I take will place me somewhere for longer than two years.

All of these questions bring me back to a dialogue I facilitated during my MA program about the privilege and implicit dominance of social justice work. A theme of our dialogue was the reality that, for those of us whose work involves travel or work with communities outside of our own, we are the ones in the position to leave. As we spoke about this tension, one brilliant faculty member said, “we don’t leave- the people, the places- they never leave us.”

In my reflection now, I am comforted by how true this is in my experience.

Seven families. And I carry each of them with me, both their faces and my learning etching themselves upon the crevices of my heart, split open with every “hello” and “goodbye.”

This does not resolve the conflict I feel, nor negate the validity of my questions above. When my travels become about accumulation and not connection, I must re-orient myself. Close my eyes. Smell the tortillas forming as the flour on my hands cracks with moisture. See the smiling faces of children chasing the car as we return from excursion. Hear the chorus of voices filling every sanctuary, the hum of oms echoing throughout the temples. Feel the caress of mothers and grandmothers and papas and aunts welcome me into their homes, their lives.

Bienvenidos. Karibu. Sadarayen piligannawa.

And I welcome the memories just as they opened wide their doors.

I remember in Mexico the cool hard bench of the church and seeing, for the first time, someone slain by the Spirit. Their life of joy and fulfillment follow me, reminding me of the Important Things.

The confusion and stress of urban living in Tanzania returns to me quickly, along with the stories from that action-filled weekend. Above all, the patients’ faces of the psychiatric ward we visited to meet a sibling remain sealed in my mind, prompting questions of dignity, healthcare, and systems.

I revisit often my futile attempts to help my family farm in the rural fields of Tanzania, remembering those hard lessons of my own culture’s shortcomings. With them, I remember the children and our worship-filled dancing.

My final family in Tanzania sticks out for their inspiration and passion. From their own experience of adoption, they began a children center which they run brilliantly. Challenging notions of local capacity, they stand strong in my mind as a testament to home-based development.

The community of Guarjilla’s strength and resiliency prods me towards hope, as El Salvador’s story burns fires in my eyes. The stratification I experienced, even as a homestay guest, continues to teach me about my own resource-guilt.

My time in Sri Lanka- though among the shortest- may be my brightest memories. From our dancing circle, to our playful games, the strength of human connection came alive to me in their jungle abode. My host sister’s tears the day we left flow from the frames in my mind to my own cheeks at the shear recollection.

I arrived home late tonight to my seventh homestay family, with this post half-written and the rest swirling in my head. After a long day of work in the city, my house was already sleeping as I slipped in the door. Slowly, my arrival stirred them and, one by one, siblings came to greet me.

Perfectly, my sister Weneza finished writing for me. Peeking her head around the door of my room, her eyes shining with the nervous excitement of trying new words out on her tongue, she proclaimed:

“I will remember you, my heart.”

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As dust settles

For me, nothing rivals the feeling of belonging when it is newly acquired. As I walked down the long path towards the view of Lake Muhazi that never ceases to take my breath and the neighborhood children ran to greet me with hugs, high fives, and a chorus of greetings, I smiled at our settling into this new routine together. There is something magical about feeling at home where it was once unfamiliar, at communicating across culture and beyond language (my Kinyarwanda is still limited), and at having a sense of knowing that brings deep peace.

And this is what I feel at my home in Nkomangwa. When Gabby, my five year old friend with special needs, greets me with our dance, I feel like we’ve had this way together for years. When we arrive at my house, my many siblings join the group of children that I accumulated on my walk and we play futbol or dance. When I tire, we play cards (slap jack or go fish), or teach one another our respective languages until dinner.

All parts of my day feel this way- worn before- like your favorite tee that is soft from use with balls of cotton gathering from the many washes. My morning has a similar comfort when I awaken and throw on clothes to meet scholars for our 6AM workout and my sister frantically joins me to walk together (her to school and me to exercise). I return from exercise to bucket bathe (everyday- I have never been so clean) and have breakfast with my mama.

On the mornings I don’t have munama (meetings), I share chores with my siblings and we sing together as we peel potatoes, wash dishes, and do laundry. But, as my sister says, “I have weakness,” and I am not allowed to do many chores.  When I “help” cook, it so far entails being permitted to watch them cook and carry prepared dishes to the house.

The bed I sleep in is normally two sisters’, my presence displacing them and shifting rooms all throughout the homestead.

When children fight for who will hold my hand, sit beside me, or carry my water bottle, I cringe at the status- not simply the status of a guest, but that of a westerner.

So, as I rejoice in our new routines, I am aware that they are those of an outsider. While I enjoy life here, I continue to question the cultural imperialism I contribute to by my presence in their home and community.

Sitting in this paradox, I seek to posit myself as a learner- interested and invested in their culture, respecting, celebrating, and loving all I come to know, and enjoying my walk home along the way.