Never Enough

Standard

One of the biggest frustrations I have encountered during the past 21 months of living in Rwanda is the idea that nothing I do is ever enough. Some of this pressure I place on myself. Despite my best intentions I often compare myself to other volunteers and the idealistic standards that I wrote for myself before I even accepted my position in the Peace Corps. A decent amount of this pressure also comes from community members in my village and my colleagues at school. When I arrived a lot of people saw my pasty white complexion and that was it- they only needed a few seconds to decide what I could and could not do for them. Sometimes I feel like I work so hard on a project and then the response is not one of thanks but asking for more or even pointing out flaws in my work. I really do love my life here and I am happy to serve my community, but on a bad day when you are searching for the real purpose you are here, living in a country so far from your own and isolated from friends and family, the thankless attitude of people you are helping can really make you question your decisions.

Sometimes it is something small. My school has started rationing chalk to save money so the head teacher keeps it locked up and you have to request it- super annoying. I went to a supermarket in Kigali and bought a box of white chalk and a box of colored to store in my cubby in the teacher’s room. The idea of having to beg an authority figure for chalk to write my notes every day just really bothered me. So on Thursday I was talking with the chemistry teacher before class and she was complaining that she needed more chalk. Since she was my friend I decided to share my personal chalk with her and handed over a couple of white pieces and even a few colored pieces- a hot commodity at my school. Instead of offering any type of appreciation she held the chalk in the air to examine it, compared it to a small piece in her box, and declared mine to be of inferior quality. She made a face like I had filled her chalk box with dirt and I really wanted to reach over and snap her new chalk into a thousand little pieces and drop them into her box. Of course I didn’t, I just smiled and told her it was fine, she shrugged her shoulders and we parted ways.

Sometimes it is a bigger event. My school wanted to help me with building a basketball court at the school. I love all sports so I was on board right away and offered to write a grant for the money. My headmistress informed me that she already had an estimate from a company in Kigali and I was shocked when I converted the money from Rwandan Francs to dollars and realized that they wanted almost $8,000 dollars to build a basketball court! I explained to my headmistress that the highest grant I could apply for would be $5,000 and even then it requires a 25% contribution from the community. I went on the meet with the grant coordinator from Peace Corps and started the grant writing process but I knew I lost their support when they realized that I wasn’t simply an ATM and the area we once designated for a court is now full of crops. People expect me to magically produce money and materials and when I fail them they make no effort to hide their disappointment. After 21 months of constantly failing to meet the unrealistic standards imposed on me it is really starting to alter my attitude and sense of optimism and joy that made this experience a joyful one.

When I give a teacher a picture of their baby everyone else in the room demands to know why I don’t have a picture for them. If I visit one family another will stop me on the road to ask why I hate them since they know I visited their neighbors and not them. If I refuse to stay for a meal or pay for their child’s medical bills then I am suddenly less of a friend. If I teach one English class for the community and it doesn’t work for all the participants they demand I teach multiple classes on different days despite the fact that I have conflicts. When I reward my students for great test scores with a piece of candy from Kigali they want to know why they can’t have two, or three, or the whole bag. It is never enough. On the darker days these interactions can propel me to ponder thoughts of what it would be like to just go home. Pack up my house, call Peace Corps, and they would have me on a plane in 36 hours. I imagine what it would be like to see my family at the airport and to sleep in my own bed. To live in a country where I could have a car and not walk 30 minutes from my house to wait (sometimes for hours) for a cramped and smelly bus to pick me up so I can go somewhere else. To live in a country where men don’t continuously stare at me and make my skin crawl with their blatant invitations to return to their house for sex and attempts to hold and stroke my hand despite the fake wedding ring on my finger. On the bad days America seems like a shinning light and the end of miserable tunnel, a light calling me home, and I will admit there have been days when it has really sounded great.

There are thousands of wonderful aspects about this country and their culture. I have amazing friends here and people I truly love. I don’t especially love teaching but I do love my students. I was talking with another volunteer who was expressing her desires to maybe go home as well and we discussed the idea of how do you know when you have had enough. When do you decide to actually make the call and get on that plane? I guess that is different for every person but through a lot of reflection I have decided I am not at that point in my service. I have enough good days to trump the bad ones. Enough people I love and respect to counteract the ones who try my patience and break my confidence. And of course there is my baby boy Remy, a shinning light in my life who never fails to make me smile. I was nervous to see him after returning from America in case he forgot me but he came straight to me with his arms in the air and a big smile on his face. We spent the day playing outside and I was able to feed him his dinner, give him a bath, and rock him to sleep under a pitch-black African sky. Here are some cute pictures of the Remster from our most recent day together:

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I do believe he is one of the cutest babies in the entire world. Hands down. I brought him some new winter hats (since rainy season is their version of winter) and he looked so cute with his new puppy hat on!

So I think that is all for now. I apologize if this entry isn’t a super positive one (I tried to offset the negative tone with pictures of Remy) but I want this blog to accurately depict my service and the truth is that some days I really do just want to come home. I am working on keeping a positive attitude and hopefully I can have a productive and positive finish to my service during the last six months! Thanks for all of the love and support from back home- it really means a lot to me!

2 responses »

  1. I am very proud of you for hanging in there. The dark times give you a gauge to measure the delights- not just now, but throughout your life. You will reflect back on your successes and misses and know what a difference you made in the lives you touched in Rwanda. I love you and applaud your preserverence….everything happens for a reason…

  2. Suzi, you’re my honest hero! You cannot please everyone, but your care and courage are making a difference in the lives of your students and friends. Better yet, they will keep making a difference long after you have turned to the next chapter in your life. That’s the amazing thing about teaching: once you plant a seed of curiosity, a learning attitude, a habit, once you encourage someone who has never dared value their work, it stays with people. You’ve planted a garden in Rwanda already. It sounds like there’re too many needy people around you. But you also have those who sustain you with love, creativity, curiosity. Hold on to them tightly. And this blog journal — it’s priceless. I wish I could swing by your school in person to give you a hand and give that headmistress a talking to. I can’t, but on this Commencement weekend, I’m thinking fondly of this brave Cornellian who is changing the world, one baby, student, parent, adult learner at a time. Hugs!

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