What I’ve Learned About Life While Volunteering in a Rwandan Youth Village

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” ~Maya Angelou

Have you ever been in a situation where your thoughts and beliefs are put to test and you have to reconsider who you are? Do you adapt to a new environment or hold on to the values and cultural norms of your past?

I’m living in Rwanda for the next year, volunteering at a youth village that also serves as a boarding school for over 500 vulnerable youths.

All our students are orphans and they are some of the most vulnerable youth in Rwanda. I chose to volunteer at the village because I wanted to better understand how I could make a sustainable difference for those I saw as less fortunate than myself.

On many levels I went into this year with a somewhat warped aim of what I could accomplish. To start, the idea of “having an impact” can be seen as a very ego-driven perspective. I think the real impact has been on me. Every minute of every day—both the good and bad—plays a role in how I perceive the world and how I behave.

For a fast-paced American, it’s easy to get frustrated in Rwanda. “Africa Time,” the slow-paced lifestyle that many attribute to cultures throughout Africa, is very real, and Rwanda is no exception. Tasks take long, people are less straightforward, and you say “hello”’ to every person you pass on the street. Do you know how many “hellos” that is in a village of 650 people?

People who know me, know I embody a lot of the qualities we associate with a typical American. I speak my mind, I’m hyper-productive, and I prefer to skip the niceties and jump straight into a meeting. Clearly this cultural clash would create a struggle.

Not only that, but life in Rwanda is difficult. I see things and feel things I never have before. As someone who does not like to feel emotions too deeply, this has proved challenging.

My life here is different than what I am used to, and it requires great patience, questioning, and self-awareness. But I have begun to ask myself the question: “Does that make it a bad thing?”

Lately I have been contemplating if my American capitalistic mindset of “go, go, go” and “get, get, get” is actually the best one to have.

While I do not expect any insights I mention here to be unheard of, I do think they are unique when you consider them through the context of the vulnerable Rwandan youth at the village where I work.

Slow down.

The slower pace of life in Rwanda is a gift. It allows me time to be present and concentrate on living in the moment. Every moment I am reminded that life is a gift that I shouldn’t take for granted. If we rush through our day, we miss the chance of really enjoying it. Why do I need to walk at record speed to the dining hall? Why pass someone on the street and decide not to say hello? I have no idea.

Body perception is just that—perception.

The other day a few girls in my Rwandan family told me I have big legs. While this is not revolutionary to me, it still stung a bit.

I told the girls that it’s mean to say that and they replied, “Are you kidding? I want your legs.” Cultural differences anyone? Accepting your body isn’t the lesson here. The lesson, to me, is understanding that the way we think about ourselves is totally dictated by societal norms. And, when you step into a different culture, that norm changes.

While I am still conscientious of being seen as fat, I now give myself a break and embrace that one culture’s obsession with being stick thin is another culture’s version of extreme poverty.

Human touch is a gift.

Typically Americans embrace upon introduction in a formal handshake. Rwandans first greet each other with a warm two-armed hug lasting a good five seconds, followed by a handshake. Then they’ll hold your hand (men and women), sit on your lap, rub your back, etc. And, the benefits of all this touching are real.

I didn’t want to believe it because I am a self-proclaimed “anti-hugger,” but I couldn’t be more wrong on this one. Human contact makes you happier, improves how you feel, changes how you behave toward others, and allows you to express yourself in new ways. I’m an addict now. (Watch out!)

Sharing feels good.

I’m still experimenting with this one. In a communal society (especially within our village), sharing is the go-to way to do pretty much anything.

The other day I had a little donut left. I gave it to one girl in my family and she split it up into six pieces! Every girl got a little tiny piece of this donut instead of the girl just finishing the bite herself. How awesome is that!

I struggle with this one because I do have the scarcity mentality that can exist in Western culture. But, I strive to make small improvements. Yesterday I brought my hot sauce to share at lunch. Seeing the kids get excited when I pulled out the little bottle was pretty great. I guess it’s a muscle I will just need to stretch.

Death—it’s just part of the life cycle.

This insight has been one of the more shocking and harder for me to grasp. Last week I saw a dead body. This week I saw a girl get hit by a car and break both legs. (I pray she is not paralyzed.)

I’ve seen more car accidents in the last four months than in my whole life thus far. Understanding death from the Rwandan culture, where death rates are higher and life risks are so much greater, gives me strength in my ability to just live and not let my fears shatter everything that I can achieve within my life.

And, while these events were deeply upsetting for me, more than anything they have made me realize how truly grateful I should be for the life I have been given, and they’ve reminded me to live life to the fullest. In addition, these experiences have taught me how much I can give to those around me in helping them bring more meaning and happiness into their own lives.

Don’t get me wrong; I still very much believe that some of my best qualities are those I have gained from my American upbringing. But it is so refreshing to stop fighting against those behaviors that separate the Westerners here from Rwandans, and instead embrace them.

Not only does it make it easier to do my job and live here, but just maybe, there will be some long-lasting effects which will improve the quality of life way beyond my experience in Rwanda.

About Lauren Gross

Lauren Gross is the Communication and Partnerships Fellow at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV). She is focused on the empowerment of vulnerable youth, concentrating on leadership development through doing good. Alongside her mom, Lauren runs Flames of Giving, a gift-giving program for the needy. You can find out more about her experiences on her blog, Rwanda: Through My Eyes.

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