reverse culture shock – part one: what is rwanda like?

i once met a guy in hungary who kept asking me what america was like.  how is it different from hungary? he’d ask.  how do you begin to answer a question like that?  things are bigger in america – roads, cars, supermarkets, meals, value paks.   people aren’t concentrated into towns and cities like they are in europe.  they live in suburbs and drive everywhere.  people are more ambitious and more private.  i don’t know.  you can’t answer a question like that without generalizing.  in rwanda i’d get the same question.  and because i never knew what to say, sometimes i’d throw it back at them: what do YOU think america is like?  ‘everyone is rich.’  ‘everyone has a tv and a car and a computer and they eat meat every day.’  how true.  and the streets are paved with gold too.  i’d try to dispel the stereotype, saying there are plenty of poor people in america – we have one of the highest poverty rates among developed nations.  but i felt a little silly saying it in rwanda, where 90+% live on less than a dollar a day. 

what is america like?  the question gets easier if you make it more specific.  i can talk about the differences in the health care systems, the education systems, the personality of the people, religion, transportation, commerce, the landscape, the climate, so many differences.  give me a place to start and i’ll go all day.

so now that i’m back in america, what do i get from the americans?  ‘rwanda? really? what was rwanda like?’  and i don’t know what to say.  i don’t know where to start.  i look at them quizzically, trying to weed out whether this one really wants to know or is just being polite.  in the end i say, with a smile and a slight shake of the head and a throw-up-your-hands kind of overwhelmed look ‘it was… amazing… yeah.’ and they nod and smile and look amazed and say ‘yeah… i’ll bet.’  the conversation ends before it’s begun.  they’ve learned nothing about rwanda, and i’ve shared nothing, and neither of us feels like the other cares.  so if you ask me what is rwanda like and i tell you to be more specific, don’t take it the wrong way.  i’m just  trying to take an unanswerable question and make a conversation out of it.

if it gets that far, it will be a conversation of generalizations.  i don’t know if i can tell you what rwanda is like any more than i can tell you what america is like.  rwanda is overwhelmingly catholic, but i met a lot of protestants and muslims, and while most people i met were very religious, i also met a lot of people who bent the rules just like we do, if not more so.  but on the whole, i’d say rwanda is more religious than america.  of course, i live in new york, not kansas.  i see fundamentalist christians on tv and it’s hard to believe we’re the same nationality.  how can i make generalizations about a country as huge as america when i’ve only experienced a small part of it?  (i have actually been to kansas, but we never left the highway and all i remember is a lot of corn and a lot of billboards for triple-x movies and strip joints – not what i had expected.)

those of you who’ve been reading this blog have (i hope) a pretty good sense of what rwanda was like for me.  i tried to answer the question slowly, story by story, and limit my comments to my own experience.  as i begin this new adventure, this time here in new york, i’ll try to do the same.  where my experiences don’t jive with your own, i hope you’ll say so.  makes the conversation more interesting.

~ by aliciawolcott on April 27, 2009.

4 Responses to “reverse culture shock – part one: what is rwanda like?”

  1. Are you sure you were in Kansas ? Fundamentalists – check, although less so when I grew up there … still, the term “bible belt” has meaning. More churches than strip malls, even to this day. XXX and strip joints … really ? We had the latter, but no advertising. You had to “know” where they were. Perhaps this has changed, or you just “got lucky” (pun intended).

    Corn. Now, there’s the rub. You didn’t see corn in Kansas. There is more corn in NY than in Kansas, by far. Kansas is the “America’s breadbasket”. It’s nearly all wheat. Either you were not in Kansas, or you saw wheat as far as the eye could see. Yea, it can be boring … but when it ripens and the wind blows over the golden ocean … well, that’s why we sing about “amber waves of grain”.

    Now that I’ve defended the honor of my home state (although, it pains me to say it … I’ve lived well over half my life in NY now) … I just want to say “Thanks”. I’ve read every one of your Rwanda entries. Countless days, usually at lunch, I’d check for a new post and be thrilled when one showed up. I know, I was too quiet … you never knew I was here (unless Kelley told you). Until a few years ago, I’d never ventured out of North America. Now, I can’t wait to see other parts of the world, including Africa. You’ve given us Rwanda. Even an old white guy would be thrilled to visit her, and hopefully will someday. After all, I “know” people there !

    So thanks, and good luck in your next adventure. It doesn’t have to be Abroad … we’ll keep reading.


  2. now this is what i was hoping for – a little conversation. it’s good to be called out on my generalizations, particularly if i’m wrong.
    i believe you on the wheat/corn debate. i could easily have mixed memories and be thinking of eastern colorado or even nebraska. i’m sure there was corn in nebraska because my brother and i decided to pick a few ears and bring them for dinner at our cousin’s fiancee’s mother’s house in omaha. we pulled off the side of a country highway a few hours west of the city, looked both ways, and made a sneaky dash into the corn field. when we showed up triumphantly with our stolen corn in omaha, both erin and her mother just laughed. you can’t eat that corn. it’s for cows and chickens. it’s field corn, not sweet corn.
    (down the road from my parents’ house in ny is a field of sweet corn . at the roadside is a bucket where you can buy it on the honor system – take some corn, put your money in a box. it’s delicious.)
    incidentally, people eat field corn in rwanda. i had it myself more than a few times. we grew it in our backyard. it’s kinda mealy and tough, but considered eating well in a country where many go hungry. one day at lunch in the teacher’s room at school, the geo teacher shamed me by saying that americans were so rich that they grow corn just to feed their chickens. i tried arguing, but he then pointed out that we americans also feed our dogs meat, something the rwandan students get once a year as a celebration. so i stopped arguing.
    i’ve gone off on a corn tangent. where was i? billboards for strip joints. this i distinctly remember as being in the bible belt because i found it so hypocritical. that said, it could have been missouri and not kansas. thank you for pointing out that my yankee mind has snobbishly lumped much of the vast expanse of the middle of our country into one. i sincerely apologize and sincerely reiterate my invitation to future criticism on any future mistakes i might make here.
    thank you for reading, and i hope you’ll visit rwanda someday. you do know people there: jean claude and jean bosco and eric would be more than thrilled to meet you. your support made it possible for them to finish secondary school and for eric to get a scholarship to university. they’ll forever be thankful.
    p.s. as long as you’re reading, i’ll keep writing 🙂

  3. Did you find it difficult to teach English in Rwanda? Were there a many instances where you felt you either weren’t getting your point across or the students lacked interest? Was there any cure-all you found for those sorts of situations?

  4. As a group Promoting Music and Television from Rwanda, I find your blog pretty interesting, “Rwanda Traditional Dance Rwanda Cinema Centre” I will keep checking for additions.
    Well written, thank you 🙂

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