Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Power of Being Crazy

            During Peace Corps’ Pre-Service Training (PST), several hours every week are devoted to integration and learning about Rwandan culture. You learn what things are big no-no’s in Rwanda, like having dirty shoes, women whistling, eating in public, or asking what ethnic group someone belong(ed) to. Peace Corps staff practically beat you over the head with the message of integrate! Integrate! Integrate! And for the first few months of my service, I tried to avoid every possible cultural faux pas. I was determined to blend in, to become one with Rwandan culture. I painstakingly cleaned my shoes every day, for maybe the first few weeks at my site. Okay, maybe the first few days. As a woman, I avoided drinking at any public events. I was basically terrified of ever showing my knees in public, and I never wore makeup.

            And then, after a few months, I started to realize two things: one, that no matter how hard I try to integrate, no matter what level of fluency I attain in kinyarwanda, no matter how much I dot the cultural I’s and cross the cultural T’s, I’m always going to stick out like a sore thumb here. And two, that there are times when you should listen to cultural mores (for real, don’t ask Rwandans about their personal history during the genocide unless they bring it up. That means you, tourists), and other times you should just be yourself, cultural integration be damned.

            For example, I’ve kind of given up on keeping my shoes impeccably clean, since it seems like pretty much the biggest waste of my time ever. In the rainy season, it’s impossible to walk anywhere without a solid caking of mud on your shoes, and in the dry season, they’re coated with an inch of dust. My shoes are never filthy, but I don’t wash them two or three times a day like most Rwandans seem to. I wear pants in my village, despite the jokes about how I’m a man because I wear ipantalo. The joke is just as unfunny the one-hundredth time, but I’m over it. I finally understand that no matter how many times I tell people my name isn’t “white person”, there will always be some people who rush into their house, yelling to have all their family members come out and see the muzungu pass by, even after I’ve been here sixteen months.  I guess the excitement never gets old.

rainy season blues...
I think there are even some cultural stereotypes that are, dare I say it, good to break. I’ve ridden a bike in my village before (to the utter shock of the villagers that saw me), an activity almost exclusively reserved for men. I have yet to see a Rwandan female bike rider, or a female driving a car except in Kigali. The first Rwandan female pilot is actually forbidden from making flight announcements, lest some sexist passengers become terrified that a female is flying the plane. Some of the women watching me pedal around our football field told me they didn’t even think it was physically possible for a woman to ride a bike. Take that, dumb gender stereotypes!

            I’ve come to realize that since day one, a lot of people in my village already thought I was crazy. And there’s a hidden power in being seen as the crazy American. Short of going streaking through my village, there are few things that I could do that could make me stand out anymore than I already do. It’s kind of like, well, I’m already crazy, so why not go big or go home?

So a couple of Sundays ago, after a long day of studying for the GRE, I decided to take a run. I need to explain that running and I have had an on-and-off relationship my entire life. I’ll go through passionate periods of running every day in preparation for a half-marathon, and then once it’s over, I won’t run for months. And I almost always like to run alone, for two reasons. First, I find I can clear the frantic thoughts from my head a little easier when I’m by myself, and secondly, I am the world’s slowest runner. If I were an antelope, the lion would definitely eat me first. No question. I’ll take occasional runs in my village, but often, the combination of intense staring, forty kids all trying to run with me and yelling my name the whole time, and those infamous Rwandan hills are enough to keep me doing workouts in the privacy of my own room. The urge to swat a few kids running right in front of me or trying to touch my skin also needs to be kept under control.

But that day, my need to get outside and take a run was greater than the shiver that went down my spine when I thought of all the people gaping at the crazy muzungu running down the dirt paths of my village. I stepped outside the convent door, and almost immediately turned back into the comfort of my own home. There was a soccer game happening on the field right outside my door, and a few hundred Rwandans were watching the match taking place. After a slight panic attack and a deep breath, I just decided to go for it. Who cares?! Embrace it! Be the crazy lady! Ride the lightning!

            It was just like a movie: all three hundred Rwandans turned their attention from the field to the muzungu in a weird outfit and headphones unsuccessfully trying to creep out of her house without being seen. I’m pretty sure the soccer game actually stopped while the entire crowd silently stared at me running by. But I kept going. My legs felt fresh, and I turned the music up load enough to block out the calls of “white person!” and “helloIamfinethankyouteacher!” It wasn’t a long run, since it’s the rainy season and it started pouring after thirty minutes. But it was exactly what I needed.

            I think in the future, I’ll be running a lot more in Rwanda. I’m going to fully embrace being the crazy lady. But I’ll also breathe a huge sigh of relief the day I can go on a blissful, completely anonymous run back in the U.S. next summer. Although still equally crazy :)

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