Before coming to Rwanda, I actively tried to not think too deeply about what my experience here would be like. I wanted to arrive in the country with absolutely no expectations. Maybe I was afraid to be disappointed, that the image I would construct in my head would be so far off from reality. Maybe I truly wanted to live in the moment, seek discomfort, and experience the fullness of life as a muzungu (white foreigner) in Rwanda. Maybe it was both.
Our first day of orientation in Huye was long. We listened to the humble origins of Kuzamura Ubuzima (KU), the Rwandan NGO we work for, and their growth from providing food for just a handful of breastfeeding mothers to now feeding over 110 patients two meals every day, maintaining a five hectare organic farm, and teaching classes on nutrition, health, agriculture, and wellness. The KU staff are people of utmost integrity and their devotion to others is inspiring. “We get paid very little, but our passion is to help out our own poor people. That is our motivation, especially after our country’s history.”
After, we toured the hospital grounds and visited KU’s farm for the first time. As we passed by more and more patients in the wards, I thought that I didn’t belong here. I would lock eyes with them, but I’m clearly a muzungu; I can’t relate to them. At the same time, previous Rwandan medical students, who are now pediatric residents and attendings, would see my program leader and immediately embrace, reuniting and bringing back fond, nostalgic memories they shared from years ago.
Our guest house is located a few streets off of the main road, down a hill, and overlooks a luscious, green valley of farmland. The entrance feeds onto wide dirt road, wide enough to let cars pass by, and connects a few of the houses situated above the valley. This dirt road then turns into just a small footpath that cuts through a little bit of greenery and runs the rest of the valley.
The one thing I did expect before coming to Rwanda was that I wanted to run because I knew our program leader was an avid runner. At our pre-departure meetings, she spoke highly about the abundance of trails and the never-ending views. So, I packed a new pair of running shoes and made sure to have enough workout clothes in my 144 pounds of luggage (don’t ask, and yes, you read that right).
I remember that after our orientation I felt like I needed to run to clear my head. I thought that nothing could go wrong, given my program leader’s praise. I put on a pair of shorts, Nike mid-calf socks, a t-shirt, a pair of headphones, and slipped into my brightly colored shoes, and set out. I looked like a complete muzungu.
This was my first time being alone outside of the guesthouse in Huye, and I didn’t think twice about it because I had been alone before in a few other countries. After I reached the top of the hill and covered some distance the dirt path, I felt fine. I definitely got a few stares, but nothing that I couldn’t handle. I had been stared at before when I was walking with the group in the hospital and around town. I just didn’t know if or how I should acknowledge the people staring at me, so, I tried to focus on the music and my stride and not make eye contact.
Once I reached the point where my route turned into a foot path, everything changed. I began my run at 5:00pm, which turned out to be quite poor timing for my first experience here. The children were out of school and congregated along the foot path, hanging out before actually going home. I could see the kids from a distance, and I thought that they would move out of the way when I got there. I tried my hardest to look straight ahead and ignore them, but as soon as I got close, they immediately started to shout and acted as if they were going to block me. As a split though them, their hands reached out, grazing my arms and tugging my shirt. Their screams quickly faded. After I made it past, I knew that I had to be prepared for round two. I didn’t know my way around Huye yet and the trail I was planning to run was a semi-circle, so I had to run by them again.
I didn’t have a new plan. I tried to keep my head straight and act as if they weren’t there. The screams were louder now, and they started to chase after me. I felt my heart rate go up and had no idea what to do. I remember telling myself that I had to outrun these kids and make it home to the guesthouse. Looking back, I don’t know why I was so flustered. Maybe it was because of the overwhelming day. Maybe I had false expectations of a peaceful run with a gorgeous view. Regardless, I should have known that as a muzungu, I would draw attention.
I got back to the guesthouse and was honestly a little bit traumatized from my first experience alone in Huye. I told my program leader about it the next morning at work and she reassured me that it was normal and encouraged me to go out for another run.
The next time, I realized that I didn’t want to have any headphones in. I wanted to hear the people around me and acknowledge them when I passed by. I didn’t want to ignore them anymore. I didn’t want our differences to separate us.
Ever since, the miles have been adding up and I can’t even begin to think about the number of hello’s (muraho’s), good mornings’s (mwaramutse’s), and good afternoon’s (miriwe’s) I’ve said during my runs. People will now jokingly clap when pass by and tell me to “sprint, sprint!” It’s even gotten to the point that when I run by these two specific houses, I always look to see if the farmers are out working the land because we’ll smile, wave hello, and recognize each other’s faces.
If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that despite your expectations, a simple hello will do the trick. No matter where you are, what the culture is, what language the people there speak, make an effort to be the first person to say something. It’s completely changed my experience here and I encourage you to try it.