Spending four weeks in another country is a long time to experience and contemplate the differences between that country and your home country. The four weeks I spent in Rwanda this summer gave me a new lens with which I could reexamine my life, and, by extension, Americans’ lives in general. During one of our reflection sessions, we were asked, “What’s something you’ve learned that you’ll take back to America with you?” I decided that the two things that I had been most impressed by
during my four-week glimpse into Rwandan lifestyle was how natural everything is and how resourceful the people are. Both of these qualities stand in stark contrast to the modern American way of life. Rwandans live with and on what they have around them and make do with what’s available, whereas Americans get almost everything from somewhere else and require a specific tool for every job.
After a week and a half of touring the country, our 11-member American group settled in a guest house in Musanze, a town roughly the size of Bloomington, located about 15 kilometers or nine miles away from Kabwende Primary School, where we would be hosting a two-week English literacy camp. We lived in a nice brick-and-concrete house with electricity and running water. We employed a house-person to clean, wash dishes and laundry, and cook while we were away at camp all day. There were times when the whole town had a blackout, there wasn’t any hot water to shower under, and when we ate nearly the same food every night of the week. We were getting used to it by the end, but we were excited by the prospect of returning home.
I think Americans in general – as we all realized – are “spoiled” and tend to take things for granted. We want to get in, get it over with, and get out. We want everything now. We want our lives to be easy. We stay at home when our car is at the mechanic. We complain when our fast food isn’t ready three minutes after we order it. We give up on a job if we don’t have the right tool on hand. Rwandans in general, as I saw them, are almost never in a hurry, work for everything they have, and make do when they don’t have something.
Few Rwandans own automobiles. Most of the cars we saw outside the capital city were either trucks full of goods or buses full of people. The most common vehicles on the roads are two-seat motorbikes used as cheap and efficient taxis. A good number of people seem to own bicycles, though, and they use them for carrying particularly large or heavy loads, such as pieces furniture or forty kilograms of Irish potatoes. However, the most common method of transportation is human feet. People walk everywhere in the country, uphill and down, for miles. One of the teachers at the school we taught at informed us one day that he walks fourteen kilometers, about 8.7 miles, to school and back every day, farther than our daily drive from our house to the school. He’s currently saving up to purchase a bicycle.
There is no concept in Rwanda of “fast” food in the American sense. It’s possible to go to a restaurant that serves a buffet with everything already prepared and waiting for you, but if you order something from the menu you should expect to wait
over half an hour to get your food, on average it’s more than an hour. At one busy place we visited, I waited an hour and twenty-five minutes for some crêpes, long enough that the candle on my table had melted down and burned out before my food arrived and I had to either ask for a new one or eat in the dark.
We saw one outstanding example of Rwandan ingenuity our second day in the country. When we were trying to get into the national art museum, we were unable to drive all the way to the entrance, as the road was under construction. We had to leave the bus and awkwardly walk around a team of workers laying new bricks on a bed of sand. They were using three different tools: a wheelbarrow to carry sand, some string to help guide their bricks in a straight line, and a piece of a log to pound the bricks down into place. I was amazed by their unorthodox approach to this process, but they obviously thought it was completely natural.
Then, a few weeks later, I was almost guilty myself of complaining that I didn’t have the right tool for a job. We needed to sharpen some colored pencils and the little pencil sharpener we borrowed from the headmaster wasn’t working properly. So I pulled out my scissors and went to work whittling the pencils by hand. My dull school scissors weren’t very effective, though, and were hurting my fingers, so I went off in search of perhaps a pocket knife or something sharper. But then I realized, “I’m being an American!” and returned sheepishly to my scissors.
Now back in the United States, I think back on what I learned from a different culture 7600 miles away. I hope I can keep in mind the things I learned and observed about ingenuity and making do with what you have, or else simply going without. This trip has shifted my perspective on life and privilege, and I feel like I’ll definitely be thinking twice about whether or not what I have to complain about is really worth it.