A Tale of Two Cities

What is it about Rwanda that makes even ten days so intoxicating?

During the summer, I learned so much about life, about teaching, and about myself. I learned to breathe. I remembered how to stroll. I realized how vibrant and satiating life could be and I started to absorb that energy and vitality. I did things that I believed in and that I wanted to do.

My friend at the Art Institute

I love Chicago – really, I do. I spent my last few days paying a visit to the Thorne Rooms and my favorite friend in the Asian exhibit of the Art Institute, and attending the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Boulez/Glagolitic Mass concert. But Rwanda was still constantly on my mind and I desperately wanted to return.

The Undergraduate Research Grant opened up that possibility for me.

The past few weeks have been a blur of logistical preparations, post-grad job applications, interviews, classes, and other commitments. As I prepared for the trip, I also tried to lower my expectations and mentally prepare to be disappointed. I thought that the charm and excitement of the first trip might partially wear out with a second visit. I was prepared to see flaws that I hadn’t realized during my first trip, to be disappointed with the glorified vision of a surreal summer experience.

I won’t say that I didn’t experience any disappointments during my time here, but I was genuinely surprised by how much change I saw when I stepped out of the airport in Kigali. Rwanda is moving at such a fast pace right now that, even in three months, everything can seem completely different and virtually unrecognizable. It isn’t just the visible changes – the buildings that seem to pop out of the ground overnight, the paved roads (that have thankfully meant fewer injuries to my bottom when I take motos).

Learning Centre students who just graduated with English certificates!

A new school building in Gasabo District that leaves the old Learning Centre classrooms at Solace Ministries dark and empty. The addition of a club at Papyrus that has changed the warm, relaxed vibe of the old bar restaurant and brings an entirely different type of clientele on Friday nights. The relocation of Alex’s patisserie to the old Papyrus kitchen. The new shape of the croissants and sugar cookies, the addition of hamburgers, fried chicken, and meat pastries. The expanded menu and changed staff at Bourbon Coffee.

But most of all – the changes of people and in people.

Who is this old friend who has suddenly become a promising filmmaker featured in The New Timesand who interacts daily with Rwanda’s most prominent and powerful to promote his documentary on the diaspora? Who is the clean and polished gentleman offering his assistance and driving me around downtown who was so despairing and disillusioned during the summer? Who are all these bright-faced students who greet me confidently in English and stand beaming as they receive their graduation certificates?

Future famous filmmaker friend

On the surface, I see them and embrace them, but when I step back, I seriously wonder whether they are still the same individuals I knew during the summer. I can’t get over the changes, but then sometimes in the middle of a conversation, a little wink or sudden flash of a smile, brings it all back.

In some cases, I realize that it isn’t Rwanda that has changed on me, but that I am the one who has changed. Part of the brevity of this trip has meant that my two worlds – which had seemed infinitely far apart during the summer – have come closer together and, in some cases, even overlapped. Now that Rwanda is no longer foreign to me, I am not struggling to cast aside my preconceptions and my old lens of seeing the world to learn and try to understand a new culture. I have a bit of both in me, and this trip has been less about learning one perspective than trying to reconcile two lenses and two lifestyles that are both equally a part of my identity.

As I start to reexamine these experiences and write, I know that part of my reflection this time around will be negotiating my experiences in both worlds, and in the process, trying to figure out where I stand in both.