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As our program in Huye, Rwanda comes to a close, I felt a need to reflect on my time here. Throughout our training and preparation for our trip, we focused on the concept of cultural immersion. Before our arrival, I was optimistic that true cultural immersion would be possible for us to achieve in our small area during our 2-month project. It might have been wishful thinking, but I really believed that our group was prepared with all the right techniques to allow us to connect with the people around us, despite our differences.
During our first few days here, however, I got the feeling that I could have been very wrong about this assumption. Although we are situated in one of the larger cities in Rwanda, I could immediately feel the stares that pointed out just how different we were from the people around us. Many of us were under the impression that most people would speak English or French, however, we couldn’t seem to find anyone who spoke more than a few words of anything other than Kinyarwanda. We tried to keep up in our language lessons to try to get by in the area, but we struggled to do more with Kinyarwanda than ask for prices of food in the market. I felt like we would never have the opportunity to make connections with others in the area, and I continued to feel more and more isolated from the general population.
As soon as we met the staff at the organization we would be working with over these two months, however, we all felt immediately welcomed and connected. We have grown closer and closer with them, and we enjoy spending time with them not only during our work days, but outside of work as well. The agriculture and wellness trainers at our organization, Em and Alex, also run a yoga and wellness company that teaches classes to a girls’ orphanage in our area on Sunday’s. When they asked us to help out and participate in the class one Sunday, I was anxious but excited. If our experiences walking down the street had told us anything, it was that we were definitely a spectacle for our local community. I didn’t want to distract these girls from their yoga session, and I certainly did not want to intrude upon a weekly time of peace for them.
Immediately upon our arrival at the orphanage, we were swarmed by little girls who were awestruck by our every word, move, and physical feature. They were not afraid to run their fingers through our hair, inspect every fingernail, or embrace each of us like we were old friends who had not met in years. Although overwhelming at first, our individual connections grew stronger just during that one session. We stayed for hours dancing, laughing, and getting pulled from girl to girl, each of whom wanted individual time with us.
It took me a while to realize that none of us had exchanged more than a few words. Although we practiced some of our Kinyarwanda and the girls knew a few words of English, our instant and most important connections had not come from these broken conversations. The smiles we exchanged when we would fall from a yoga pose at the same time, or when a girl would successfully teach us a new dance move meant more than not being able to fully communicate through speech.
As the weeks went by, we spent every Sunday we could at the orphanage. The girls would be waiting for us every week, running up to meet us and calling our names. Some of the days have been hot and long, but the dancing and singing that we conclude with always leaves a smile on every face. I am always sad to leave each week, especially as the girls walk us out and say goodbye to each of us individually, but I remind myself to be thankful for the experiences we shared. Despite our language barrier, the connections I made at the orphanage will continue to mean more to me than any short conversation I have with a foreigner or other English-speaker I happen to meet on the street, and I never would have felt as immersed here without them.