The World is a Book: A Page in Rwanda

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine Lydia Hsu comes from the 10-square mile patch of green in upstate New York that calls itself home to Cornell University – otherwise known as Ithaca, New York. Since middle school, she has wanted to pursue a career in teaching English, but after taking her first class on Africa at Northwestern with Professor Glassman, she decided to major in both English Literature and African Studies and pursue a Secondary Teaching Certification through SESP. Outside of classes, she divides her time between work, student groups, and play. She is a teaching assistant for the Center for Talent Development and a Jumpstart Corps Member at Howard Area Community Center. She serves as the Events Coordinator for the African Students Association, the leader of the Undergraduate Africa Seminar, the African Studies Representative on the Weinberg Student Advisory Board, and the Publicity Chair for TOMCats. Outside of all of this, she enjoys nighttime walks on the lake fill, Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances, days spent at the Art Institute, and spontaneous Red Mango runs. This summer, she will turn another page and go to Rwanda to teach English at Network for Africa’s Learning Centre in Kigali. This project unites all three of her academic interests – English, African Studies, and Secondary Education – in the goal of creating and implementing an ELL curriculum for students at the school. She will not only have the opportunity to take what she has learned about Rwanda and English education to develop an ELL curriculum, but she will also have the chance to challenge and supplement what she has learned to enrich her understanding of Rwanda and expand her experience as an English teacher – both of which she hopes will give her a glimpse of what she eventually plans to do for the long-term. GRANT: Lydia is travelling on an Immersion Experience Grant given by the Office of the Provost. This grant offers $2,000 of support for students engaged in intensive summer experiences, whether based domestically or internationally. For more information about the grant, go to: http://www.northwestern.edu/immersion/who.html

Waiting

Every end has a beginning.

Every beginning has an end.


We often associate endings in life with great pain and heartbreak, but sometimes it’s the moments that are neither ending nor beginning that are the most agonizing.

For the past few months, I’ve meandered along a familiar path. Even when the road became rocky and the potholes forebode a dangerous end ahead, I persisted. Occasionally, I hesitated and wondered whether I should take heed of the warnings, but the moments of sunshine or occasional flock of butterflies kept me to the trodden path.

Sometimes our fear of the unknown leads us to embrace the comfort of familiarity – even when that familiarity is toxic. However, as the path continues it becomes more and more apparent that the promises of novelty and excitement from the beginning do not lie ahead. The longer I remained on the path the more I regretted not abandoning it long ago when I could at least have left with sunny memories of beauty and warmth.

By the time I reached the cliff, it was too late to go back. I stood on the precipice like a fool with only doubts and regrets to keep me company. Why did I ever take the path? Were the moments of sun and happiness worth it? Or even worse – was there ever happiness or sun, or were those just constructs of my wishful mind?


Senior year thus far has seemed to either align with long stretches of aimless monotony or unexpected loss.

The periods of limbo – periods of doubts and uncertainties about people, purpose, and existence – seem to be prevailing themes. I am stuck in the middle of spring quarter senior year with no clue about what comes next. Or rather, I have clues but I’m not sure that they are the clues that I want. I have been waiting for months and I’ve taken many paths that have led to closed doors and others that have led to open ones, but I’m wary and hesitant about the options currently available.

So, I’m still waiting.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the open doors are amazing opportunities – how could I forget to mention:

I GOT A GRANT TO GO BACK TO RWANDA THIS SUMMER!

I will be returning to the Rwanda Multi-Learning Centre to start “Vocation for Education” – a program that will pair students at the school with part-time internships. The hope is that if students accompany learning in the classroom with experiential learning, they will accumulate the work experience necessary to find jobs to support the continuation of their education.

I’m still waiting to hear back from another grant before I officially launch the project. But can you believe it was only a year ago when I started this blog and prepared for my first trip to Rwanda?

I digress…

I guess I am currently more concerned with what comes after summer and where I’m ultimately going with my life – what happens next?

In addition to confusion, the sense of loss, too, has grown more acute in the past few weeks. Last quarter, it was the loss of a kindred spirit – a confidante and beloved friend. It was a loss that defied comprehension in its unexpectedness and tragedy.

This quarter, the loss is even less tangible. It is the loss of silly puckered faces, of barley soup, missing hairpins and earrings, undesired vegetables, a warm gray scarf, and half-watched movies. It is the loss of carefree laughter and spontaneity. Five months can disappear into flashes of memories. The most mundane moments become the most memorable. Small gestures – pinkie promises on sunny days, broken promises on dark days, laughter during tragedy, tears during hilarity – become the character of what once was.

But can you really lose something you never had?

Whispers lead to doubt. Perhaps more difficult than loss is the acknowledgment of questions that will never be answered. Was it painful? What does this mean? Why did it happen? What if…?

Sometimes these questions find answers after time, but more often than not, they remain unaddressed and we must accept the lack of resolution.

I guess the good thing is that we never end up exactly where we started. Each time we fall, we learn new lessons on how to avoid another fall. Sometimes this means that we take a longer time to get up and sometimes we even tell ourselves that we will never try again, but so much of who we are as people is defined by the bruises, scars, and broken bones we have sustained in the messy race we call life.

The scrapes from the most recent fall still sting.

I’ve had worse injuries, but it has still been difficult to get back up and remember how to walk again. Sometimes I still look back at the path and I wonder how its natural turns and slopes led to this. However, I’m starting to realize that while the destination was not ideal, the sun-drenched warmth and random rainbows along the journey still outweigh the ultimate denouement.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Vitality shows not only in the ability to persist but the ability to start over.”

Here’s to endings and new beginnings.

“Never Waste Your Grief”

A voice message from my sister on Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 05:30:15 PM. “Hi. Lydia? [pause] It’s me. I think you should know … that an hour ago a policeman came to Joseph’s house … and asked him to go to Cayuga Medical to identify a dead body. [pause, heavy breathing] Which they think is Victoria. It’s all the information we’ve got. When you get this message, you have to pray, okay? That hopefully it’s a miracle. Hopefully, it’s not Victoria.”

A text message on Saturday at 05:51:17 PM: “Body is confirmed to be victorias. No more details now. Kat is going to prayer meeting and will tell me more after


On Saturday, I pulled my easel out from behind the heater.

It has been two years since I sat in the same corner of the room and scripted, blotted, and splotched my pain onto canvas. Then, the absence of meaning drowned words with Twombly-inspired pink carnations. I pressed the pink and watched black rivers run down white. Once-precious words rewritten by that red fountain pen and then distorted by carnations in bloom, words washed into meaningless rivulets of ink. I saw love run black as promises and dreams flowed off the page into a pool of discarded liquid.

And yet, when I pull out the canvas two years later, I find that the messages are still there – pressed into the canvas by the metal tip, absent of substance but impressioned remains just as haunting.

Since Saturday, I have been painting on a new canvas.

I am trying to find the right colors, lines, and shapes to communicate loss. I’ve had trouble breathing as of late. Memories choke me, and my strokes strike the page with desperation, slashing slices of blue, burnt orange, and red across the white – as if the turmoil within can be released through violent color. But sometimes, when I dwell on your gentleness and I remember the sun, I begin to make sense of the mess and I start to find shapes within the disorder. I follow the guidance of grief to discover an embrace, my final message and ode to you. Instead of words, I have your scarf draped over my easel – an inspiration of bright purple infused with memories of a Christmas not too long ago.

God, why was there nobody to walk you home?


A press release by theithacan.org:

Freshman Victoria Cheng was found dead outside an off-campus residence early Saturday afternoon. Residents of 380 Pennsylvania Ave. said they first noticed a body lying in the snow on the side of the house when they looked through an apartment window. Deputies responded to an unresponsive female report on Pennsylvania Avenue at approximately 12:40 p.m. Saturday, according to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department. The Ithaca City Fire Department and Bangs Ambulance soon followed to assist.Cheng, 17, was pronounced dead at the scene.



You were my mini-me.

A girl that I have known, played with, mentored, and loved for over ten years. I was eight and you were four when I moved to Ithaca. I can still see those bouncing pigtails and that poofy white dress you used to wear to church. Remember the games we used to play during those long Wednesday prayer meetings? We would get in so much trouble for creating them and leading all the kids to squeal and clamber over the floors and furniture to keep balls of paper in the air.

But it was so worth it.

As the years passed, you became less of a protege and more of a confidante. You were my partner in crime at church when we didn’t want to listen to the sermons and we spent our Sunday mornings doodling caricatures on church bulletins. You cut your bangs and taught me how; you also introduced me to Sun-in Spray. Ever since then, I’ve had bangs and brown hair. Just like you.

But most importantly, you loved me – and loved me without judgment.

When nobody else cared to listen, you did. You embraced me with all of my flaws and my weaknesses, and loved me despite them. We shared our guilty pleasures, our temptations, our disillusionment, our secrets, our frustrations, and our hopes. We were the ones who aspired to break the mold and explore all of the options and possibilities out there.

You understood me.

I didn’t always agree with what you did or how you handled situations, but I never held your actions against you. I wonder now whether I should have been harsher. I discouraged you in high school when you told me about your first encounter with alcohol, but you laughed off my rebuke and assured me that it was just a trivial experiment. I never thought that it would lead to this.

It was much too soon.

Someone once told me “Never waste your grief.” Black brings out the meaning in the painting – there is something pacifying about a tangible product of sadness.When I first heard the news, my heart froze and I was lost in the familiarity of my own apartment. I spoke matter-of-factly to others about your death – as if hearing the words aloud would make the reality hit. It wasn’t until I had finished the final black stroke at 4:00 AM Sunday morning that I broke down and wept long and hard.

I miss you so much, Vic.


Forty-eight juniors at Highland Park High School now know your name. I shared with them the history of our friendship and the circumstances of your passing. Through that lesson, I introduced to them the terms of argumentation and persuasion, but also gave them a window into my life and a message about responsibility to oneself and others. This is an excerpt of what I read aloud to them:

Life is about making choices. Sometimes we make good choices, sometimes we make bad ones. It’s all a part of being human. However, what I do want to communicate is that all of our choices have consequences – consequences that don’t just impact our lives, but also the lives of others. When we make decisions, we often only see the immediate implications in our own lives. I want to take this opportunity to remind you of how our decisions impact the lives of others.

I am not asking you to abstain from alcohol (although I sincerely hope that you will), but I am asking for you to be responsible – to know your limits, to make sure there are others there to take care of you. Not only for your sake, but for the sake of those who care about you – your family, your friends, your loved ones. Remember that your pain is not your own, but it is shared with those who care deeply about you.


This past weekend has taught me about the importance of faith, family, and friends. The Cheng family has been an emblem of resilience and inspiration of faith, lifting up others even when their own hearts are bleeding. From a distance, the family looks small and worn from the tragedy, but the words of comfort and hope that they offer to others and the warmth of their embrace demonstrate a capacity of love that is difficult to comprehend. Joseph did not waver once when he stood at the pulpit and entreated students not to “flirt with alcohol.” Sarah held me up when I felt I would splinter into pieces.

I hope you can see how much your parents love you and how much you have touched all of our lives.

Plato once said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

You lived by this philosophy, Victoria, and now I will try my best to follow.

Dreaming Within Reach

When I was little, I had this theory that “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me.”

It mostly applied to the monsters living underneath my bed, the murderers and robbers that might walk into the room, and the scary shadows of ghostly kings that the curtains left on the walls – but I applied the theory to everything in my life by day as well.

At night, it meant that I would “protect” myself by curling up into a little ball and tucking my blanket around me until I was completely encased in a comforter shell. Making these preparations against the night demons required very careful and thorough measures. One unsecured corner of the blanket and the tiniest monster would be able to peep in and see just one toe to know that I was there.

By day, the theory translated more into “If you can do something, I can do it better.” Time was the only limiting factor – nothing was beyond my grasp given enough time.

I still sleep curled up in a little ball, but over time my day-time theory has changed somewhat to “If you can do something, I can and will try to do it better.”

It never occurred to me that some things are beyond my reach. Or, more importantly, that perhaps some things are not worth pursuing even if they are within my reach.


Croissants and Bruschetta

He hates the word “Awesome” more than any other word in the [American] English vocabulary.

Do you realize that in our first conversation, you used the word “awesome” three times?” he asks me. When I laugh, he shakes his head disapprovingly. “You are such an American sometimes, you know.”

I remember that night.

It was my first evening back in Kigali, and the DJ had invited me out to dinner with friends. And, of course, where else would dinner be but at Papyrus? (Truly, in Kigali, all roads lead to Papyrus, not just on Friday and Saturday nights).

My friend G parked the car across from the bar. From the front seat, I could see Alex standing behind the counter of the newly relocated patisserie. He looked the same – he was wearing a white dress shirt I hadn’t seen during the summer, but still the same white Givova cap.

As G and the others headed into the restaurant, I told them I’d say hi to an old friend and join them soon. G glanced over at the patisserie and laughed. “A friend?” he said devilishly, “Hm hm.” I pushed him into the car and then ran off.

I stood breathless at the top of the stairs and watched Alex take an order from a customer. He turned to grab a pizza and when he turned back he finally saw me. I smiled and waved. He smiled his big smile and finished his customer’s order as I walked down and went through the back entrance into the patisserie.

How are you?” he said.

I’m good. How are you?”

Same same. Nothing change,” he said and laughs, “Papyrus – always the same.”

Well, it’s a new bakery,” I said. I peek over the new array of food displayed at the front. “You sell hamburgers now? And brochettes? And fried chicken?”

Yes, but you know, not good,” he said, using the tongs to prod one of the brochettes, “These people, they like meat when they drink, so – I make meat. Business.”

The croissants look different. And what happened to the cookies?”

Cookies are not good. All burned. You see, new staff, have to train. They get it all wrong.” He shakes his head and then laughs.

A lot can change in three months.

Few things in life are static – people least of all. People are constantly in motion, changing and tuning into the stimuli of experiences and circumstances around them. Nothing is stable. Nothing lasts forever. Change means that sometimes people grow closer, and other times, they grow farther apart.

I told Alex it was nice to see him and that I probably had to join G and my friends inside Papyrus. I think he understood. I left the patisserie and Hassan behind the counter, but not without wondering whether the croissants were still as sinfully sumptuous as before. Not sure if I’ll ever know, but it’s hard to ever match up to that incredible first time.

Back inside the Papyrus restaurant, slow laid-back service makes for long, laid-back meals. The candle barely lasts through the night, flickering and twinkling lower and lower as old friends reconnect and new friends meet in the midst of a crowd that cycles in and out even as it grows larger in the restaurant bar. Deep inside Papyrus in the new club, a girl displays her vocal prowess, crooning and belting out the lyrics of classic oldies.

Our food had just arrived when he walked in.

I remember the sharp taste of mozzarella on the bruschetta as vividly as the fitted gray suit and crisp British accent. Serge, the owner of Papyrus, had just joined our table and two others walked in with him, but I don’t recall their names. Then, my friend nudged me and I looked up.

Daddy, this is Lydia,” she said, “Lydia, this is Daddy.”

We shake hands. “Call me Kivu,” he says. His poise and demeanor are very polished, and his smile short and curt.

Oh, okay. Kivu, nice to meet you.”

He bows his head slightly and walks into the restaurant. I lean toward my friend and whisper, “Did you really say his name was ‘Daddy’?”

Yeah, but apparently he wants you to call him Kivu. Not sure what’s going on there,” she said with a shrug, and returned to her pasta.

If someone had told me that two weeks later Kivu and I would be friends, I would have laughed in disbelief. He was the first Rwandan I had met who seemed so cold and disinterested in conversing. Most Rwandans seem warm and friendly, hospitable, easy to know, easy to talk to – he seemed not only disinterested, but also not thrilled that I was sitting with his friends.

I’d already proven my childhood theory wrong at this point, but somehow still forgot that just because I “saw” something, it didn’t mean that it was truly the case. A week later, when we met at my housemate’s warehouse party, we’d realize how much was miscommunciated.

As I was to learn, Kivu is a writer and filmmaker. But not just any writer and filmmaker.

Kivu dropped out of school when he was little because he felt it was a waste of time. He hated being told what to do and what to learn, and felt that his time was better spent learning things on his own. He taught himself to be fluent in French and English … and his English is better than mine. Even now, he is opposed to formalized education and refuses to work for anyone. He tells me that he “works” 30 days out of the year to make enough money to do what he wants. Apparently, he is the liaison for BBC, CNN, National Geographic, and whatever film companies that want to come in to produce something on Rwanda. They pay him the big bucks to do all the logistical planning. After one or two gigs like that, he’s set for the rest of the year.

He travels around the world, finding studios in which to reflect, create, and write. For the holidays this year, he’s staying at a monastery in the south of Rwanda.

He is a paradox.

He lives his life from moment to moment and describes himself as “impulsive and spontaneous.” We will be sitting and having a deep conversation in a cafe, and suddenly he will spring up and ask me if I want to take a stroll to Serena Hotel. At midnight. Or he will randomly decide that he wants to spend the months of February and March in Cambodia and Thailand. He gets bored easily and likes to try new things, but at the same time, only wears white dress shirts (he says he has fifty in his closet) and is determined to order the same thing every time that he goes to Bourbon “for health reasons” (he always orders salad “with extra anchovies”).

His is the life I have always dreamed of living, but have never dared to embark. I’ve had small moments of rebellion against organized education – skipping class to spend a day walking through the entire Art Institute, lying on the lake fill and listening to all of Rach. 2 instead of writing a looming ten-page paper due the next day. I grumble all the time about school work and will declare about a class, “My time would be better spent oil painting in a field!”

I often tell people that “In the grand scheme of these things, grades don’t matter. When you’re eighty years old and you look back on your life, you’re not going to remember the hours you spent studying for orgo or the lectures you attended – you’re going to remember the times you spent doing absolutely nothing, breathing, reflecting on life, laughing with friends, building relationships.”

Still, I can’t help but obsess over grades and fall into the mentality that if I spend X amount of time doing A, then sometime down the line, I will have Z amount of time to do what I really want. I push myself to do things so that I can later do other things. And I find that this is the mentality that so many of my peers have – that if they force themselves to labor through med school or do consulting or investment banking – that their hard work will pay off and they will achieve “success” or finally open up the door to the life that they hope to have. One of my friends recently told me that she has always been told that life must be lived in thirds – one third spent working relentlessly in order to enjoy the other two thirds.

This makes sense to me. But at the same time, I wonder whether we – or let’s just say, I – would be so much happier if I just pursued what I wanted from the get-go. What if I had really spent a quarter oil-painting in a meadow instead of attending classes? It disheartens me to ride the metra every morning to work and see so many tired, drawn faces. Why do we force ourselves to do things that we do not enjoy?

Perhaps it is because we believe that the dream is worth it. Or perhaps it is because we do not know what we want so we aim for the dream of comfort, financial security, and stability, thinking that these things will make us happy.

I’m not sure.

But when I look at Kivu, I envy him. I envy his ability to throw everything into the air – commitments, responsibilities, obligations, the heavy weight of the future – to not be obliged to anyone or anything, to be a free spirit drifting around the world exploring, meeting, experiencing.

To be done with doing, to just focus on living.

However, a part of me still believes that we each have a purpose for living, that each one of us has a responsibility to humanity that is greater than our individual needs and desires. Finding that purpose and uniting it with our strengths and passions seems to be the challenge. Perhaps one day I will have the opportunity to oil paint in a meadow, or write in a cottage in the south of France, or publish a novel that leaves a lasting legacy – but have I truly lived if I have not maximized what I have been given to give back to the world?

My hope is that teaching will balance out this responsibility while still engaging me in doing what I love. It may not be the most glamorous occupation filled with luxury, extravagance, and comfort – and, at this point, I know that if I truly want to pursue these paths, they are within my reach. But teaching, as one of my professors once said, is “sacred work.”

To be honest, at this point there is nothing that I want to do more. I’m not sure where teaching will take me, but I am more excited than anything else to see where I will embark!

Thank you for following me on this adventure 🙂

The Meaning of Life

On my first morning in Kigali this summer, I woke up to Jason Derulo singing “Whatcha Say.”

I had one of those surreal moments where I panicked, forgot where I was, remembered I was in Rwanda, and then promptly wondered whether I was sure it wasn’t a dream because Derulo was definitely playing outside my window. When I finally untangled myself from the mosquito net and confirmed that I hadn’t left my iPod on, I opened the curtains and saw the answer. There, on the dewy lawn beneath the faint pink rays of a Kigali sunrise, was Alphonse (our security guard) sweeping leaves into a pile while jamming to “Watcha Say.” I looked on for a moment, watching Alphonse step and sway to the beat while humming the radio lyrics under a warming golden sky.

Here was my first lesson: Don’t assume that just because you’re in Rwanda, you’re on a different planet.

As I would quickly realize, everywhere you go in Kigali – the supermarkets, the taxis, hotels, even just walking down the street – you’ll hear radios playing top-forty American hits, African pop and sometimes even jazz. Often, the songs that are played are mash-ups and remixes of American pop with African artists. However, out of all the familiar songs and music genres that I heard around me, I missed the one that was dearest to my heart: Classical.

As far as I know, there are only two pianos in Kigali. One is missing a third of its keys and sits in a cobwebbed corner of the church at One Love. The other sits on the second floor lobby of Kigali’s most luxurious hotel, Serena, where it functions more as a piece of art than an instrument. It took me over a month to discover the Serena baby grand, but once I did, we were inseparable. Whenever I had time outside of teaching, lesson-planning, research, meetings, etc – I grabbed my Rach. 2 and Liszt’s “Un Sospiro,” hailed a taxi-moto and seated myself on the cushioned bench at Serena for at least the next three hours.

On my first day with the baby grand, I almost choked on the dust that flew from beneath my fingertips into my nose and lungs. But as we got to know each other and I downloaded more of my favorite pieces – by Chopin, Debussy, Brahms, Mozart – we also started to make more friends at Serena. Classical seemed to be a novelty in Rwanda, and a person who played it was considered even more of an oddity.

I mentioned before that when I first came to Rwanda, the thing I missed most was playing piano. Funny thing is that my search for a piano in Kigali and the subsequent hours of playing Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt brought me in touch with some of the most important contacts I made in Rwanda. I’ve spent hours at Bourbon Coffee over cups of steaming African tea discussing classical music with future sponsors, NGO workers, foreign diplomats, and Rwandan government officials who had heard me play the piano at Serena Hotel.

Most were completely unfamiliar with classical repertoire and asked me why I played music, how I came to play music, and what I thought about while I played.

They may as well have asked me, “What is the meaning of life?”

To which I would respond, “That’s easy. It’s Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.”

You may disagree – which is fine – but what we can agree on is that the answer cannot be easily expressed in words. Which is why it is through music and art that I have developed my “philosophy of life,” if you will. Words are finite. For any given language, there are a limited number of ways that we can describe our experiences and express how we feel. As George Orwell says, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” We are simultaneously limited and enabled in our thinking by our grasp of words.

Music is a language.

You’ve heard the old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Music, like art, is more expansive and powerful of a language than words. Unlike the language of words, music and art have an infinite vocabulary. The possible combinations of notes, chords, harmonies, and colors are endless – which means that the amount of experiences and emotions that both mediums can express is also infinite.

Individually, each note on the keyboard may not stimulate a response – just like each alphabetic letter has no meaning when it stands alone – but combined with others, we can create meaning. Infinite meanings.

However, “meaning” is still complex because with an infinite number of combinations comes an infinite number of perspectives and interpretations. We may both look at red and agree that it is “red” but I may see your “green” and you may see my “purple.” Neither of us is more right or wrong than the other, but the point is that we have looked at the same thing and come away with two very different meanings.

We live our lives constantly striving to find meaning in what we do, trying to find a purpose for our existence. Just as there is one history and many “stories” of that history, there is one world and many different experiences of that world. Within each person is an entirely different “world,” and within communities and societies, entire “universes” to be discovered.

My philosophy of life is to hear as many stories and live in as many worlds as possible, in order to enrich and expand my own “world” to more closely approximate meaning and truth. As a corollary to this philosophy is a desire to expand and enrich the worlds of others by facilitating an exchange of stories and worlds to promote understanding.

I find that music gives me a medium through which to express and communicate greater meanings across language and cultural barriers. More than just sharing and expressing my experiences and feelings through playing the piano, music allows me to process experiences in a way that words cannot.

Only through sharing, learning, and trying to understand other perspectives can we work towards making the world a better place for everyone – wouldn’t you agree?

In any case, food for thought. Give Rach. 2 a listen – I promise it won’t disappoint!

Happy holidays.

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.

“YOU WILL FALL”: A Lesson on Limitations and Perspective

Before I get too carried away with telling you another miserable story of traveling woes, I would like to say: Even in the hell that is Washington Dulles International Airport, there are so many angels.

I was hoping that my next blog post would be titled: “SURPRISE! I MADE IT BACK TO RWANDA!” Instead, I’m sitting shivering in Terminal D4, alternating between typing a few lines of text on a rapidly dying netbook and warming my hands on a cup of green tea purchased from a nearby Dunkin Donuts – the only store that is open 24/7 in my airport terminal. Thank God I decided to pack an extra Northface fleece in my carry-on suitcase.

Apparently this is the hardest charger to procure in the world...

When I first arrived at O’Hare and realized that I forgot my netbook charger, one of my friends texted me something along the lines of “Well at least you learned a lesson.” At the time (before things were that bad), I was already miffed by how unhelpful that statement was. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve necessarily learned a lesson from this, but I’ve certainly suffered from the consequences of my actions. Now, fourteen hours later, I have paid more heavily for my failure than I had originally anticipated, and have learned a very painful lesson – not about the importance of packing thoroughly, but about recognizing my limitations.

This has, indeed, been a quarter of realizing my limitations.

I have a very vivid image in my mind right now of my family and friends rolling their eyes and sighing, but before all of you open your mouths to utter those dreaded four words, “I-told-you-so,” let me just say that I know that all of you have “told-me-so” but I am finally starting to actually understand what one of my friends meant when he told me “Be careful. You think that you can get away with doing everything now, but the higher you climb, the harder you fall. And eventually, you will fall.”

I laughed then. I am certainly not laughing now.

History does have a funny way of repeating itself. The last time that I tried to go to Rwanda, I also got stuck in DC, but at least then it wasn’t my fault, and I got a lovely voucher from United Airlines to stay overnight at a resort and enjoy $50 worth of airport restaurant fare. No such thing this time around.

So as I relate to you the story of my (mis)adventures thus far, I hope that I am not only sharing with you stories but also conveying to you at least a bit of the lesson I have finally learned after a long career of trying to over-achieve. Not that I have necessarily retired from this post, but I think I will certainly tone it down a notch after this…

On Limitations

I am one of those kids who has never needed my parents to tell me to boost my grades or work harder to succeed. Instead of pushing me to do more like many Asian parents – to take more AP classes and join more extracurriculars – my parents were the ones who actively sought to hold me back. They enforced a 10 PM curfew so that I would sleep, and established specific times for meals so that I would eat. They tried to limit my extracurriculars, warned me not to reach too high on certain goals, and discouraged me from attaining the perfection that I sought. I didn’t appreciate it then, but I finally see and understand the love and caring behind it now. In high school, over-achieving meant packing my class schedule to get rid of lunch, taking unnecessary AP classes, spending every possible hour doing community service, and taking on Rachmaninoff pieces that were almost impossible for small hands like my own. In college, it has meant course-overloading with seven classes a quarter, working three jobs, taking advantage of every academic opportunity, and being involved with anything I deemed “meaningful.” My definition of “success” came first, and everything else – sleep, nutrition, mental/social/emotional/spiritual health, family, and even friendships – came second. Maybe it was the exhilaration of taking on challenges, or the pride that came with success, or maybe it was the thrill of living on the edge – I’m not sure, but my family and friends told me over and over that I was over-committed and spreading myself too thin. I knew they were right, but I would only laugh and tell them that success was only a couple sleepless nights and meal-less days away. I plowed forward, adding another class here, another job there, compromising my health and my relationships with others for a dream of success that I’ve never quite defined.

My friend warned me that I would fall.

Well, I finally fell this quarter. And I fell hard.

Somewhere between my teaching practicum, senior thesis papers, classes, leadership positions, job applications, and other commitments and responsibilities, I began to compromise quality for quantity. It used to take just a couple all-nighters to pull myself through the most stressful periods, but this quarter, I’ve been forced to make some very hard decisions and pick and choose where I would not fail. My practicum coordinator told me that student teaching would require 110%. At the place that I was this quarter, I could only afford to offer 70%. I ended up disappointing many people which culminated in poor-quality work and a stern request for me to “reflect on whether you are truly committed to teaching.”

When this whole flight fiasco happened and I called my parents for help, I was surprised and dismayed when my dad told me that this was the product of being over-committed. “How can you focus on the essentials when you have so many things to do?” he said. My dad was right. My past week is a complete blur of all-nighters and frantic-runningaround-interviewsmeetingsfinalspaperspackingetcetc.

I had literally just passed airport security at O’Hare when I realized that I forgot the charger for my netbook. Without the charger, it would be impossible for me to do my research. I had two options at this point: to ask one of my friends to drive it over and risk missing my flight, or to suck it up and buy a new one at one of the airport electronics stores. I chose the latter and ran around until I found a vendor that looked at my netbook and said he had the charger for $50. I bought it, took it out of the box to fit in my purse, and ran to my flight on the other side of the airport, so immensely relieved that I had avoided a near scare.

I arrived at Dulles and went to Moe’s for dinner, relishing the fact that this time around, I wasn’t going to be stranded in DC because I was on time for my Ethiopian Airlines departure at 8:30 PM. Major pat-on-the-back for Lydia.

Now, imagine my consternation when I discovered that the charger was incompatible with my netbook.


Yes, just like that except with more horror and freaking out.

With two hours remaining before boarding, I had to evaluate my options … except I did not have very many. If I got on the flight – no, I couldn’t get on the flight because I needed my charger to do research and 1) they don’t sell my netbook, much less the charger, in Rwanda, 2) shipping is unreliable and would take far too long, even with the fastest rate. If I rebooked my flight for $100, what were my options then? I would have to first run around this airport to see if they carried my charger. If that failed, I could call a cab and search DC for a charger. Or Johnny, my friend in Evanston, suggested that he would bring my charger to O’Hare and pay someone who was going to Dulles to bring it to me. The latter option seemed far too risky.

So I frantically ran around the Dulles airport until I determined that no one sold my charger, and then I tearfully returned to the Ethiopian Airlines counter and delayed my flight for $100. I sat in the terminal and made phone calls to electronics stores as I watched everyone board the flight to Ethiopia – my flight – and leave. One store, Best Buy, claimed that they carried a limited stock of chargers that would be compatible with my netbook, but at this point they were closing, and would reopen in the morning at 9 AM.

What to do?

NOTE: Netbook dies here, conveniently marking a new section of this post.

 

On Perspective

This was when things started looking up. (P.S. I’m currently still sitting in Terminal D4 crossing my fingers that this is going to work out because I still don’t have a charger. Explanation to come). One of the Ethiopian Airlines workers who had noted my distress came to me to say that he had spoken with his boss and waived the $100 fee. A small hint of a smile? Yes, I should say so!

Then, as I continued to sit in D4, another employee who was a vendor at one of the small food chains came to me and asked how he could help. After listening to my story, he suggested that instead of taking a cab to Best Buy in the morning and having to reenter security and pay for an expensive cab ride, he could pick up the charger for me and have it to me by 9:30 AM the next morning.

Full smile, now.

A little more relieved that this might actually work out, I accepted his offer and spent the remainder of my evening wandering around Dulles in search of warm terminals to sleep in. I finally settled on D4 and went into another small convenience store to pick up a snack. Aisha, the woman who worked there, must have seen how tired I looked and soon she learned my story as well.

Honey,” she said, “I always tell both my sons that when bad things happen, you can’t focus on them and worry so much! If you worry, worry, worry, then something else happens and you are still worrying about this one thing and then you have another problem.”

I nodded and sighed. Then, all of a sudden, tears started forming in her eyes.

My sister – my baby – had to have lung surgery and just yesterday, the hospital finally dispatched her,” she told me, wiping away tears, “I am driving on the highway, driving, driving, and thinking about my sister and then all of a sudden [she gestured a collision with her hands] – my car ppshttt – done! Gone!”

Yesterday????

Yes,” she said and nodded, “And this car – oh, the most beautiful car, beautiful seats and doors, with GPS [she shook her head] – I spent three years making payments for this car, I work forty hours every week for this car, and now – gone! Gone, gone!”

I didn’t know what to say.

Thank God, I am okay,” she continued. She showed me her scalp where there was a slight cut, and the cuts and bruises on her legs and her arms. “I lose three years of work, but you know, those three years – nothing – is worth as much as my baby sister. So you lose a charger, you delay a flight one day, two days. Life is still okay. You are still here, so don’t worry, okay?”

I nodded, tried not to cry as well, and we hugged.

That was the best gift that I could have received from anybody.

As I made a cozy nest out of my Northface fleece and peacoat on the seats in D4, I felt better even though nothing had changed. I’ll admit it wasn’t the best night of sleep that I’ve had in my life, but learning not to worry and to put things in perspective definitely helped me not to panic.

This morning, more good news! After the vendor came by with the supposed Best Buy charger, which unfortunately turned out to be incompatible as well (at this point, I have completely lost faith in the expertise of electronics store employees), another Dulles employee joined the growing ranks of people trying to help me sort through this mess. This employee booked a pseudo-flight from O’Hare to Dulles so that instead of trusting a passenger with my charger, my friend Johnny could directly check it in in a large box.

In the meantime, a random passenger in D4 (who is currently sitting across from me) overheard the whole ordeal, and revealed that he has the exact same netbook. So my netbook is back to life for at least the next ten hours, and I’m crossing my fingers that this whole pseudo-flight check-in-large-box-with-tiny-charger thing will work!

Hopefully, I’ll be able to post good news in the next few hours. Otherwise, I will likely start freaking out at 5 PM because I am out of ideas on how else to procure this elusive charger…but I’ll try my best to keep things in perspective and not worry too much.

WOW. WHAT AN ADVENTURE ALREADY.

But I am so grateful to Johnny and my family, the friends who have called and comforted (SML, LR, NT, BR – you know who you are!) and the many angels that have come into my life in the past 24 hours.

Thank you.

UPDATE 4:30 PM: I GOT MY CHARGER!!! THANK YOU, JOHNNY! PLUS, I get to stay in a hotel in Ethiopia, which means another stamp on my passport! Wooooooooo 🙂

Reverse Culture Shock, or, Learning How to Make Lemonade

I’m not going to lie – coming back to the States has not been easy.

I haven’t written for a long time because I’ve been overwhelmed. Overwhelmed not just with classes starting the day after I landed, but also with the commitments and responsibilities I’d already set up for senior year, unfinished drama and tensions with family and friends, and that unpleasant, gnawing gut-feeling shared by job-searching seniors of the looming Real World ahead. As if adjusting to life weren’t difficult enough, returning to a world where the stressful and unpleasant things I had so eagerly left behind suddenly reemerged made it that much harder.

It’s difficult to acknowledge that it is the same world – my world – which I’ve known all my life. In fact, the most overwhelming factor hasn’t been the stress of resuming my post-Rwanda life. It isn’t the papers, the research, the interviews, the meetings, etc., etc. No, the most stressful factor has been coming to terms with the fact that this is my world.

I am rather behind in uploading all the remaining posts I have left over from Rwanda, but I wanted to pause for a moment and reflect on the question that everybody keeps asking me, “What has been most difficult to adjust to since coming back?”

I’ve given a variety of responses. Sometimes I say, “I really miss my friends in Rwanda.” Or, “I’m having trouble being a student after teaching for two months.” Or even, “I really miss writing.”

But when I really reflect on what it is that has been nagging me and causing me to be home-sick for Rwanda, it comes down to this: I miss the sense of purpose.

I never met a single person who was bored in Kigali. It seemed that there was always something to do – friends to visit, people to meet, events to attend. I saw people stroll – not walk briskly with a destination in mind – but stroll, with no purpose other than life itself. I learned to not run after the mini-bus and not to dash through the streets when I was two minutes late to a meeting. It wasn’t that I learned to tolerate tardiness, but I learned that if I run too quickly through life, I will miss out on some of its best parts. You never know what life will hand you, and instead of sulking over the lemons – the traffic jams, the missed opportunities, the conflicts – enjoy and take advantage of the new opportunities that open up – the new friends, the impromptu trips, the refreshing discoveries. MAKE LEMONADE. So many of the fascinating people I met and the friendships I forged in Kigali would not have happened without some initial disappointment.

I met Alex when my friend didn’t show up at Papyrus and I heard Alex’s life story over croissants. I met N, now a sponsor for the Learning Centre, when a Papyrus waiter spilled an entire bottle of Primus over my dress. N brought me some napkins and we started talking business. I met M, now an employer of one of my students, through my love of ice cream at the 2010 Business Expo.

You never know what will happen or who you’ll meet.

Perhaps that is what I miss most – the energy, the optimism, the excitement. Every morning when I went to work, I could see visible signs of change – a new street paved, a new building constructed, new lights along the roads, new faces at Papyrus, new guests at Novotel. Perhaps it is because Rwanda is a developing country and it is moving at such a fast pace right now. But I like to think it is also part of the culture. People have a zest for life that I find lacking here. It isn’t the sort of zest that sends people rushing about in a hurry. It’s the zest that comes with every breath, resounds in every step – an appreciation of life and all that life has to offer.

When I returned here, even the air at O’Hare tasted stale and stressed. People are so busy. They run about Chicago rushing to work, window-shopping, running errands, meeting in coffee shops. On campus, they go to classes, attend meetings, study for hours on end, and party to music that throbs with the same senseless desperation until they wake up moments later to repeat it all over again. The days blur together in an unsteady haze punctuated by occasional birthdays, deadlines, concerts, romance, fiascoes. Why are we busy? Why are we rushed? What are we running towards? Or from what are we running away?

As seniors, we begin to feel the heaviness of the haze and finally, we start to see it. But for most of us, it’s too late. Or at least it feels that way. For three years, we ran around campus eagerly lapping up the opportunities – it began with free food, classes, frat parties, and attention. Over time, it shifted to double-majors, course overloads, internships, boy friends, and recognition. Now, we start to question where we are going, and often, that leads us to question where we have been: What have we been doing this whole time?

And after that, we wonder: Was it worth it?

We are nervous, excited, and anxious – but also, weary. Very weary. Even after we have achieved all that we ever hoped for and we stand at the pinnacle of our success surveying the magnificent structures we have constructed, and the wealth of opportunities before us, we feel emptiness. And fear. What comes next? What was the meaning of all of this?

Is this it?

The clarity with which I viewed my day-to-day activities in Kigali is completely obscured by the haze of Chicago. I feel listless and mechanical, my life waning in fading shades of gray drained by the loud, glittering, brass hues of everything around me. The life here is exciting and flashy but a completely contrast from the rich, vibrant hues of my life in Kigali, where I absorbed the light and vitality of the air I breathed. There was something real about everything, as if life had returned to its fundamentals without all the unnecessary embellishments and adornments.

Perhaps that is a little dramatic. But I’m not sure how else to describe the disconnect that I feel here.

It is hard to realize that this is my world, but I am uplifted by the fact that Rwanda is my world too. The daily phone calls, facebook posts, messages, and emails that I continue to receive from my friends and students in Kigali, remind me of the life that is still waiting for me an ocean away. I don’t know how long it will be – maybe half a year, five years, even two months – before I return, but this I know for sure: I am coming back, Rwanda, and it won’t be long before you will see me at your doorstep with a kiss for both your cheeks and a smiling “Amakuru.”

On Croissants and Business Success

It all began with one croissant.

The best in Kigali,” declared my roommate as she opened the tin foil and handed me one of the light, flaky morsels, “You have to try one.”

I hold the small creation between my two fingers. It crinkles ever so slightly and little flakes drift down to the kitchen floor. It is still warm. I take a bite. My Kenyan friend would later describe the experience the following way, “Take one bite – just one bite – of Hassan’s croissant and you will cry. I promise you: tears will fall from your eyes.”

I encounter Hassan’s croissants several more times before I meet Hassan himself a couple weeks later at Papyrus. I never noticed the small patisserie adjoining the bar until the day I sought refuge within its quiet yellow walls to answer a phone call. When I hung up, I saw the Masaka Farms shop for the first time – the shelves of baguettes and rounded loaves of bread (called campagnes, as I would later learn) on the back wall, the rows of strawberry and vanilla yogurt, the arrangement of samosas, meatballs, mini-pizzas, croissants, lemon cakes, and cookies beneath the lighted glass fixture, the display of cigars in the corner, and the suspended chalkboard listing the prices of “sambousa,” “gateau,” “yogurt,” etc. completely disregarding any consistency in language with its use of English, French, and Kinyarwanda.

As I approach and bend down to peer at the croissants behind the glass, I suddenly hear a movement and look up to see a man behind the counter.

Hello, how are you?”

He is an umuzungu. Tufts of thick black hair stick out from beneath the white Givova cap on his head and when he leans in to smile, I see the dimples and triangle of hair on his chin. “You want croissant?” he asks.

Oh. No, it’s fine. I was just looking,” I say hastily, backing away from the counter.

He laughs. “Here, I take one and warm it for you,” he says. Before I can say anything, he plucks up a croissant with a napkin and throws it in the microwave. I see the green dragon tattoo snaking up the length of his right forearm.

Ah thank you, but I don’t have any money – ” I start to say as the microwave starts to hum.

It’s okay. I give it you for free,” he says and smiles again.

I smile back this time. “Thank you,” I say, reaching out my hand, “My name is Lydia.”

Alex,” he says. We shake hands.

I’m not sure why he decided that he would be “Alex” to me, while the rest of Kigali knows him as “Hassan,” but the name stuck and Hassan became Alex for me for the remainder of my stay in Rwanda.

Two croissants and one week later, it’s Friday and I am back at Papyrus waiting for my friend to arrive. The dance floor is packed and the DJ is playing “Love the way you lie.” I desperately want to dance, and I tap my foot impatiently and hum with Rihanna Just gonna stand there and watch you burn… but I don’t want to enter the bar. Since it is only my third week in Rwanda, I haven’t yet met all my Papyrus friends and, just like in the United States, it really isn’t “safe” to dance alone unless you want to be grabbed or danced on. I decide to stop by the patisserie and wait there instead.

There, Alex is standing behind the counter, shoveling meatballs into a plastic container for one customer. Another customer in line points at a lemon cake while another person asks “Samosas, ca coute combien?”, an umuzungu behind me calls out, “How much are the sandwiches?” Alex hands his current customer change, then without even looking up, directs answers to the others: “Bibili.” “Trois cents.” “One thousand francs.” He doesn’t see me until he has helped the two customers in front of me. When it is my turn, I walk up to the counter and smile. “Comment dit-on five hundred in kinyarwanda?” I ask.

Alex laughs and throws one of the croissants in the microwave. “Cinq cents is maganatanu.”

As I gingerly shift the hot croissant between my fingers and peel off layers of steamy fluffy goodness, I sit for the first time on the cushioned stool that would become my designated perch behind the counter at Masaka Farms patisserie for the next month and a half.

My friend never shows up at Papyrus, but over the course of the next three hours, I learn about the patisserie and hear Alex’s life story between the waves of customers that float into the shop. He is from Lebanon, and he is half-Lebanese, half-Turkish. He came to Rwanda for the first time in 1999 when he was thirteen years old with a three-month contract with a Lebanese cookie-making company. Even though the cooking school in Lebanon only accepts students eighteen years or older, Alex started sneaking in for cooking lessons when he was ten years old. Between attending regular school classes, he also took classes to become a chef. In 2001, when he was fifteen years old, his father abruptly passed away. Alex dropped out of school to support his mother and two younger brothers. That was also when he started smoking. He got a contract in Uganda and started managing a bakery and a restaurant at a supermarket. At sixteen years old, he had over sixty employees working under him. There was one month when he had to wire $300 every day to his family in Lebanon. When the situation at home finally stabilized, he left his position in Uganda, sold the restaurant, and moved to Rwanda to start his own business. He was eighteen years old. He worked in a variety of places all over Kigali before opening the shop at Papyrus where he feeds hungry dancers on the weekends and spends the weekdays in the kitchen mass-producing cookies, cakes, baguettes, etc to supply to supermarkets all over the capital. The supermarkets that he does not supply – for instance, the Kenyan-owned Nakumatt Supermarket at the Union Trade Center – has bakery workers that he trained. Even my favorite internet hub spot, Bourbon Coffee, has workers that he trained to make pastries and ice cream for the cafe.

Although he dropped out of school at 15, he is quicker and better at math than anyone I know. In addition, he has taught himself to be fluent in five languages: Arabic, Swahili, English, French, and Kinyarwanda – he can read, write, comprehend, and speak in all five!

Now, he is thinking of opening a fast food restaurant in Kigali with 24/7 delivery service – it would be the first of its kind in Rwanda. Aside from the relatively new Nakumatt supermarket, all other food businesses in Kigali generally close shop around 11:00 PM. If he were to provide 24/7 delivery, he would have an entire market of hungry customers after midnight, especially the many party-goers that stay up until six or seven in the morning.

However, there are several obstacles to the creation of this business. First of all, there’s the problem of government taxes. At the Papyrus patisserie, Alex only has five or six workers at a time even though he can certainly expand his business to have over one hundred. Why?

If you want to find rampant corruption in Rwanda, just look at the police force and the tax collectors. Hungry for money, the police have the power to pull over just about anybody and give fines for just about anything. To survive, you either need to be rich enough to bribe your way out, attractive enough to flirt your way out, or able to name names of other police officers you know (or have previously bribed) who will guarantee that you can drive away fine-free.

Similarly, the tax collectors in Rwanda are hungry for money. “Must keep the business small,” says Alex, shaking his head. The larger and more blatantly successful your business is, the more unwanted attention you will draw from government hyenas. Since no standard tax rule is set or enforced, the collectors can dictate any amount they wish to obtain from you. In other words, they have the power to make or break your business. During the elections, you hear many stories of wealthy businessmen who parade about in FPR scarves, caps, and Kagame shirts at all the campaign rallies in order to guarantee the security of their businesses. In essence, if you demonstrate your strong support and utility to the government, the government will ensure that your business is not targeted for taxes.

Part of the reason for this is because the government owns almost all of the successful products in Rwanda. From Fantas to Primus beers, Bourbon Coffee, Inyange yogurt and juices – the government sets its price just below the price of its competitors. However, when a competitor successful threatens the government’s market throne, either with quantity or quality, the government occasionally exercises its ability to ensure the elimination of such a threat through taxes. A successful business, therefore, has to be deceptively small in operation in order to survive within such a system.

This means that running a thriving business requires a lot of work. Alex often forgets to eat for days, smokes dozens of packets of cigarettes (even though he always says, “I am trying to reduce”), and sleeps only three or four hours a day – or often, not at all. He says with a laugh, “If my mom, she see how small my face right now, she never let me come back to Rwanda.”

I tell him he’ll die before he reaches thirty. He says that he only needs to do this for four or five more years to establish himself and then he will stop. He wants to be able to travel all over the world and he is starting to be more receptive to his mother’s demands for him to settle down and start a family.

Life isn’t easy, but Rwanda is moving at such a fast-pace right now that many businessmen like Alex are taking advantage of the many opportunities for investment. Rwanda is becoming more and more of a melting pot as investors pour in from all over the world, especially China, to help with the burgeoning economy and thriving infrastructure. In addition, since Rwanda is now part of the East African Community, investors from Kenya, DRC, Uganda, and Tanzania are increasing their presence in high-paying positions and starting their own businesses in Rwanda.

This, of course, has implications for many Rwandans, who are already struggling with the low employment rate and now have to compete with foreigners who are often more experienced and come from cultures that lay a greater emphasis on innovation and a stronger work ethic.

However, as Rwanda strives to invest in human capital through educating new generations of critical thinkers, Alex is an example of how all it takes is one delicious melt-in-your-mouth croissant to start a successful business.

12/22/2010 – Per the request of one astute commenter, I have tried to do some research to back up what I’ve been told by local Rwandans. I will add links and cite scholarly research as I go! Hopefully, this will shed additional light on economic freedom in Rwanda.

http://www.heritage.org/Index/Country/Rwanda – This page analyzes and evaluates economic freedom in Rwanda, breaking down the information into specific categories.

http://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Africa/Rwanda/economic-freedom/a – Another economic freedom rating based off of the same study by The Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. Rwanda is ranked as “Mostly Unfree.”

http://index-of-economic-freedom.findthebest.com/directory/d/Rwanda – Index of Economic Freedom. Rwandan’s overall score: 59.1. Business freedom (ability to start, operate and close a business) is 74.5. BUT Property Rights is 30, Financial Freedom is 40, and Freedom from Corruption is 30.

L’amour n’existe pas

I’ve met so many fascinating people and heard so many powerful stories during my stay here. I want to share some of them with you, not only so you can share my experiences but also so as to give voice to stories that may never be heard again otherwise.

Claire

I met Claire at a barbeque two days ago. She was introduced to me as the “orphan that Ronald sponsors – he pays for her education, her house, her food, everything.”

Ronald is an older man (I initially guessed his age to be around forty or fifty) contracted in Rwanda from the Philippines to work with construction. His square face is leathery and pock-marked, and he moves around slowly, shifting his bulk from one silent corner of the living room to another. While the other guests laugh and chat over Primus beers, Ronald sits in the shadows, occasionally reminding us of his presence with a low series of grunts. Perhaps it is the language barrier – he can barely speak English – but when the karaoke starts up, his entire countenance brightens. His sudden movements toward the microphone are startling, only to be outdone by the rich powerful tones of his voice when he breaks into song and belts out lyrics in perfect English.

Claire sits at the table with me and the rest of the guests, but she may as well be sitting in the shadows with Ronald. Her silence is quickly dismissed by the host who asks loudly, “Do you want to introduce yourself, Claire? INTRODUCE YOURSELF? Do you want to tell these nice people who you are?” When Claire quickly shakes her head, he laughs. “Do you want me to introduce you?” he says, and then turns to the guests as if she’s not there. “She doesn’t really speak English,” he explains. He then explains to the guests that Claire is “the orphan that Ronald sponsors – he pays for her education, her house, her food, everything.” A low grunt from the other side of the room affirms this statement.

We start eating. I pass the chicken to her and see the sudden anxiety that flits across her face. She takes the dish and quickly snatches two pieces of chicken, hesitates, and then takes one more before hurriedly passing it to the next woman. As everyone commences cutting their chicken and shoveling in forkfuls of rice and potatoes, I see Claire cautiously pick up both knife and fork and start sawing at her chicken. One piece falls off her plate and she glances up quickly before swiftly scooping up the fallen piece into her mouth. She finishes all three pieces of chicken before I even finish one, and I see her eying the chicken dish longingly. Her right hand draws circles on the tablecloth while the other fidgets with one of her braids.

I haven’t finished my own, but I pick up the chicken dish, help myself to another piece and hand it to her. The relief that floods her face as she takes two more pieces is accompanied by a shy glance up at me. I smile. Then, I see a genuine smile break out on her face for the first time all evening.

After dinner, as all the other guests head outside, I stay inside with Claire and in a mixture of broken-French on my side, and broken-English on hers, we start communicating.

Desole, mais je ne peux pas parler tres bien en francais,” I say slowly.

She laughs. “And me, I speak no English.”

But we manage to understand each other and over the course of the evening, I learn her story. She is my age (twenty-one years old) and an orphan of the Genocide. She was five years old when soldiers broke into her house and chopped her father and two brothers with machetes. Her mother and sisters were in hiding, but she was there and she saw everything. She makes a chopping gesture at her neck when she says “ils ont tue Papa avec la machete.” One look at the mistiness that comes into her eyes and you know that she still remembers everything. Vividly. The soldiers then killed her younger brother who was also in the room.

But – mais – they didn’t do anything to you?” I ask, struggling to remember the French I learned in high school, “ils n’ont fait rien a toi?”

Non,” she says, shaking her head.

Why?”

I wish I could retain her response in French, but my handle on the language is too limited.

Her response, translated: My younger brother was too young to remember anything. But I was old enough to remember. So they killed him. And they left me alive.

Later, her mother was also killed.

Now, Claire lives with her sister, who is married and waitresses at a cafe. She met Ronald through her sister when he came to buy a cup of coffee. When he heard about Claire’s story and her “probleme,” he decided to “adopt” her and finance her education, pay for her house, and provide for all her needs. She tells me that he has given her “tout” – everything.

She tells me that she has tried to call Ronad for days because she ran out of money a couple weeks ago. I ask her what happens when she does not have money. She laughs. “When I have no money, I don’t eat.”

I ask if she still goes to school when she is hungry. She shakes her head.

Then, what do you do?” I ask.

When I hungry, I sleep!” she says, with another laugh, “What else can you do?”

She tells me that when she does not have money, all she can afford is one beignet per day.

No wonder she was so apprehensive about the food during dinner!

We continue talking and eventually the subject shifts to boys (of course). She tells me that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but she doesn’t want to be with a Rwandan boy.

Why?

She says that Rwandan boys only think about sex. She is Catholic, and she wants to save sex for after marriage. Rwandan boys only want sex, she says, and the moment any of them pressure her to sleep with them, “c’est fini” – it’s finished. They can tell you that they love you, but actions are more important than words. “True love does not exist without actions,” she tells me, and if a boy truly loves her, he will respect her decision not to have sex before marriage.

Mais pas tout les garcons Rwandans!” I laugh, “Je suis certain qu’il y a quelques garcons Rwandans qui sont bons?”

She shakes her head adamantly. “No. None. They are all bad.”

She tells me that she wants to marry a foreigner. “Ronald is good to me,” she says, peering over at the sullen man in the corner, “He has the actions.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Ronald?”

She laughs. “Yes. I tell him no. I tell him he come to my family. He talk to them. He ask marry. There is no problem. But before marry, no.”

I can’t believe my ears. “He likes you? Il t’aime? Did he try to sleep with you?”

She nods.

I have no words. Instead, I suddenly feel exhausted and nauseous.

But – mais – he is so old. Il est vieux,” I eventually say.

Ouais,” she says and smiles sweetly, “But I tell him no. He still helps me. He give me tout.”

How old is he?” I demand.

She blushes and twirls one of her braids around a finger.

Quel age a-t-il?” I repeat.

Il a quarante-deux ans.”

Forty-two years old. He is twenty one years older than her. Twice her age.

Do you love him?” I cannot help asking.

She laughs. “No. No no. But he is good to me. And if he come to my family. He ask to marry. There is no problem.”

I shake my head and she can see that I am upset. Immediately her brows furrow. “But you, you don’t say to him,” she says quickly, “No tell him. You say nothing.”

I nod, and smile – but barely.

At the end of the evening, we exchange numbers and email addresses. I tell her to contact me if she ever needs help and to stay in touch. She nods and gives me a parting hug. She tells me not to worry about my own future and she shares with me her ultimate conviction that “God will choose for me someone.”

My heart is so heavy.

Dear Readers…

As my final days in Rwanda wind down, I’ve been feeling a growing frenzy and desperation to document and write about the experiences I haven’t yet discussed. It isn’t just the end of my trip that is starting to sink in, it’s also the growing realization that the end of my stay in Rwanda will imply the death of this blog.

And I am not ready to let go of either.

Prior to this summer, I had never kept such a public forum for my thoughts, and – to be honest – I didn’t think anyone would read my writing. Two reasons: one, I doubted my stiff, English-major prose would appeal to the masses; two, my long hiatus from writing led me to think that I probably wouldn’t be writing too much this summer.

Clearly, I was wrong about both.

For the most part, I’ve refrained from talking too much about myself on this blog, and focused on documenting my experiences. However, over the past two months, I feel as if I’ve really gotten to know you, my Readers, to the point that I feel comfortable sharing with you a little of my own story. You see, I have a rather sensitive and strained relationship with writing. I used to write a lot – I kept a diary, a prayer journal, I wrote stories, poems, compositions, etc. Writing has always been a very personal and important medium of expression for me. Sophomore year, I seriously considered applying for the Major in Writing at Northwestern University. But then, last March, something unexpected happened that completely shook my identity and changed the course of my college career. Without knowing myself, I no longer had a voice; without a voice, I could no longer write. Except for formulaic English essays and research papers, I stopped writing entirely.

Until this summer.

Prompted by the Immersion Experience Grant and the encouragement of others, I started writing again. But it wasn’t easy. Look back at the beginning of my blog if you want to see the definition of awkward writing. I’d become so entrenched in composing English papers that I’d completely forgotten how to write. However, ever since I arrived in Rwanda and started living, breathing, absorbing – I’ve also started writing. And through writing, I’ve come to learn and realize a great deal about myself. Sounds cliché, I know, but it’s true.

Anyway, I know we don’t have much longer before we have to say good bye, so I wanted to take this opportunity to

THANK YOU. ALL OF YOU.

I never thought that I would have so many people reading my blog, and I am completely blown away by the sheer amount of support and encouragement I’ve received in the past two months. I originally wrote to share my experiences with family and friends, but I’ve come to realize that this blog has reached a much wider audience than I had anticipated and acquired the greater purpose of informing, teaching, and challenging perceptions on Rwanda and Africa as a whole. I am so encouraged whenever I see that someone has learned through my writing and has been touched by my experiences. Some of you have also offered very helpful advice for my teaching and lesson plans. Even though I don’t know 80% of you, I can’t tell you how much your comments have meant to me. Many times, I’ve wanted to respond, but I feel funny posting comments on my own blog … so hopefully, when I get time, I’ll respond to each of you individually through email.

So THANK YOU again.

I will write an official “Good bye” post later, but here are some final words for this one:

If you’ve taken anything from my blog, please…

*

Don’t forget about the students at the Learning Centre.

Don’t forget about the up-and-rising film industry.

Don’t forget about Rwanda.

*

Always question media presentations of Africa.

Don’t accept general perceptions. (They’re nearly always wrong).

Challenge yourself to be informed and to know the truth.

Don’t be satisfied otherwise.

*

LOVE,

Lydia