I never shared why I decided to pursue a year of service in Rwanda. Truthfully I wasn’t ready for graduate school, a fulltime job, or any commitment that required all of my time. For the first time in my adulthood I was making a decision for me and I was happy about that. It was a decision that wasn’t influenced by anyone but myself. I had spent my last academic year of undergrad serving in a highly esteemed leadership position. While it was one of the most fulfilling jobs I had, it also brought on a lot of stress and sacrifice. I enjoyed my job so much, but like any other work-alcoholic I faced burn out by the end of my term. On graduation day I actually felt the consequences of my work ethic. Hours after walking across the stage I found myself curled up on my friend’s couch trying to fight a cold and sleeping the remainder of the day away. I spent 3 weeks after graduation traveling the east coast and nursing myself back to health before returning to my hometown of Chicago. So in the next season of my life I promised myself I would do what I wanted for me. The only thing I was committing to was me. And prayed that whatever I was looking for I would find it and whatever I was broken from would be healed. This was my version of self-care. So here I am in Rwanda…expecting God to show me what I’ve unconditionally showed people for the last year…. LOVE.
Additionally two years ago, January 2014 to be exact, I purchased my MacBook. I made the desktop a picture of a mountain and told God this symbolized my desire to go to Africa. Two years later, April 2016 God delivered on his word and told me I was going to Africa. Great is thy faithfulness. So you see, it was all-apart of the divine plan.
Learning a language has been really tough. It has provided me with a different perspective. The official language of Rwanda is Kinyarwanda. In my opinion it shares no similarities with English. For example, it consists of sounds we don’t have in the English language causing your tongue to make unfamiliar movements when pronouncing words. Learning the language has felt as if I am tackling an impossible mission. Yet my relationship with Kinyarwanda has provided me with a greater sense of patience for those who are learning or have learned English as a second language. When learning a new language it takes a lot of work to retain vocab, construct a sentence, and be confident enough to engage in a conversation. After three weeks of intensive Kinyarwanda training, I am heading to Kayonza this Friday to immerse myself in a community that will become home. I’m super nervous because I know I sound like an infant producing his or her first words. However I am grateful for the community of Rwandans who are patient with my Kinyarwanda and encourage me to keep speaking.
Rwanda is by far one of the most beautiful places I have seen. It is a country wrapped in breathtaking sunsets that are a resting place for it’s “thousands of hills”. The food, the culture of family, the community all feels so familiar to me as African-American woman. Although I know little Kinyarwanda the music and the dances ministered at the weekly Rwandan Lutheran Service are also fulfilling. Within these past three weeks I’ve met some of the sweetest Rwandan women who have loved me like sisters or their very own daughters. They’ve embraced me with hugs that have reconciled those initial uncomfortable feelings of anxiousness. I love Rwanda and the Rwandan people!
I am also grateful for Kate, our country coordinator who simply goes above and beyond, Robin & John (Community Organizers), Veronica (local Tanzanian Pastor), Mama Fred, Monica, Frank, Fred, and the staff at Bethany Retreat Center. Each of them has showered me with what we needed most—Love.
By the way, I love the food! It’s literally one of the best places for vegetarians.
“The motherland doesn’t always feel so motherly….”
These were my initial thoughts after being in Rwanda for one week. I was discouraged by the stares I received while traveling with my other sisters/cohort members. It was hard for me in my black skin… to process that in Africa whiteness is highly regarded. I somehow forgot that colonialism didn’t just affect America but touched all parts of the world. Here I was feeling as if I was too black to be American in America and not white enough to be valued by Africans in Africa. It was hard to walk to the streets of Kigali and see people respond to my cohort members with such reverence while I and another black volunteer faded into the background.
Now, not all of the stares were bad. Until I opened my mouth, most Rwandans assumed I was one of them so they embraced me with the traditional warm greeting. “Mwaramuste. Amakuru?” This means, “Good Morning. How are you?” While this made me feel good a times, it still didn’t replace the initial feelings of inadequacy I had as I compared my experiences to my cohort members. My time here has taught me that Rwandans have had very little interaction and exposure to Black Americans, which makes my existence here a little more complex.
These racial scenarios put me in what Pastor Kate calls “liminal space”. How could I be feeling so uncomfortable in Africa? I’m “home” right. I’m supposed to be “home’” but I don’t feel at home.
I’m not sharing these experiences to paint ill pictures of my time here in Rwanda. I did a lot of reflecting before finalizing my decision to post this. The experiences I choose to share will shape some of your perceptions about African countries and I carry that responsibility with me daily. I decided to share these personal stories because we don’t hear or see the stories of Black Missionaries. As much as I didn’t want to identify myself as such, that is what I am. I am a black missionary . When we think of missionaries, we often visualize white christian women. I am not a white christian woman so in essence, I am dismantling the perceptions of what missionaries look like. Although I am very uncomfortable in this identity, I have chosen to be intentional about building relationships with Rwandans so they can see there are black americans who also believe in mission work. Although trailblazing is hard, I am grateful to be called by God to open doors for other black missionaries and black non-religious volunteers.
I have to give a huge shout out to three of my women college professors: Drs. Mclucas, Bookman, and VJ. These three introduced me to global citizenship my sophomore year in college and it wasn’t until I recently started living in Rwanda that I understood this concept. What does it mean to be a global citizen? How do your actions affect others around the world? There’s a difference between vacationing in a place and living in a place. Once you begin to live somewhere you think about your actions differently. You think about how you navigate the space differently. I want to say far in advance that this is not a vacation. This is a year of service work. It is a year that will present its own version of “living.” This is a year of being vs. doing. Much of my time in Rwanda will be spent building relationships with Rwandans (being) and completing small tasks (doing). This will definitely create tension for my American values. We are a culture of busyness and Rwandans do not use that core value the same way Americans do.
Lastly, I’m grateful for my cohort/ country group. We are only the third group of YAGM volunteers to serve in Rwanda and this year we happen to be a group of 6 diverse women. Our walks of life are overwhelmingly different but we all have a common love for Christ. Grateful for our stories and our commitment to walk this journey together no matter how uncomfortable it can feel. Keep us all in prayers as we accompany those we have been called to serve. Our struggles are different, but we are all struggling in some way to make this place home.
So is it possible to love a place and still struggle with navigating it? Absolutely.
Rwanda is now home.
Until next time.