Since a new group of education volunteers will arrive in September the Peace Corps staff is busy making site visits to see who they want to replace with new volunteers when our group leaves in December. Two staff members came to visit me on Wednesday. Kassim, one of the program managers, got out of the car and, before even greeting me, promptly said, “Suzanna, you look so tired.” Mind you I had just bathed, washed my hair, and dressed up for this meeting. I was feeling rather peevish and kindly informed him that even though Rwandans use that line all the time (and I mean all the time) Americans don’t really care for it so much. It is kind of the feeling you get when you lie about being sick (or exaggerate the gravity of your illness) and then someone sees you and says, “Wow, you must be really sick, you look awful.” So after this lovely moment Kassim and Nicole, the HIV/AIDS coordinator, went to meet with my headmistress. There was a line of students waiting to meet with her but she ushered the important people in and told the students to go away. Turns out they needed the key to get into the library where they meet for drum club. During their meeting I watched with great amusement as the students tried to break into the library and eventually sent some people in through the windows. The meeting was finished in ten minutes. I have NEVER, in my entire service, witnessed a meeting this short in Rwanda. If you want to discuss the weather it takes longer than ten minutes.
Nicole and Kassim came to meet me in the teacher’s room and we awkwardly sat and stared at each other for a few minutes to get things started. Finally Kassim told me that I would not be replaced and went as far to say that he already knew this information, my headmistress had told him on the phone that she didn’t want another volunteer, but he needed to come out as a formality. Let me tell you that all of this felt really great. After two years of hard work and sacrifice my headmistress was refusing another volunteer and Peace Corps was visiting me out of a sense of obligation. Wonderful. My headmistress listed two reasons to support her decision. The first was that we now have an English mentor from Kenya so the school doesn’t need a volunteer. This is a pretty empty defense considering he and I have radically different jobs but Kassim thinks she may have been confused by government officials telling her she can’t have a mentor and a volunteer. I am pretty sure she just doesn’t like me anymore since I left the convent and refuse to follow all of her insane rules so now she is finished with Peace Corps. Her second reason was that the school couldn’t financially support another volunteer because their budget was cut. I know that money doesn’t just grow on trees but they will have spent 240,000 RWF (375 USD) on me for the entire two years I am here. Less than $400 for a free English teacher who also helps tutor the teachers, works in the community, and runs a volleyball and English club. I am pretty sure if they actually wanted a volunteer they could find the money.
So there I was, listening to Kassim tell me all this, and I was oddly sad. I took a lot of the situation personally. It felt like I had failed as a volunteer and now my community would suffer because of it. Then I was just frustrated, angry with my headmistress that she would turn down this opportunity. But in the end it is not my decision and she has the final say- she doesn’t want a volunteer. I spent a day sulking about this, ranting to other volunteers about my headmistress, and then I woke up the next morning and didn’t really care anymore.
I know the work I am doing here is important. I may not change policies or give heaps of money to those in need, but I am here. I live in the community and try my best to love everyone around me and share whatever skills I can with my friends and students. I have learned the language, can tie a baby on my back with a piece of fabric, and travel everywhere in tiny vans with six sweaty people crammed into a row designed for three . I have learned that just being here and living my life in a new community, offering love and friendship, is more powerful than any grant I could write or building or I could construct. And, most importantly, I have learned so much from all of my friends here, and whatever I give to them they have given me so much more. At the end of the day I can’t let one person’s decision about my replacement make me feel like my service was a failure. It has not been a perfect journey but I am grateful for everything I have experienced and all the lessons learned over the past two years. Even though I am sad that my community will not get another volunteer it is nice, in a selfish way, to know that I was the one and only. 🙂
Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.