Bridging culture in Africa

Editor’s note: Addison Independent reporter Andrea Suozzo is in Rwanda for three weeks on a Vermont Folklife Center expedition that is teaching 18 American high school students to gather and tell the stories of people in that African nation. She is providing dispatches from Rwanda for the Independent online at addisonindependent.com. She and her group are learning from eyewitnesses about the genocide in Rwanda, and Andrea is quick to add that they are also learning about the richness of a culture different than their own. Here’s Andrea’s latest dispatch from 2 degrees south of the Equator.
On Tuesday we said goodbye to our host families and drove south through the Rwandan countryside on our way to Butare, where we’ll be until Sunday.
It was a sad moment for me. I had gone into our four-day homestay knowing that the two students and I would not be able to communicate very well with Mukamusoni, our host mother, since she only speaks Kinyarwanda and a little French.
But between four languages (French, Kiswahili, English and a very little Kinyarwanda on our part) and with the help of Mukamasone’s seven-year-old daughter, Jolie, and a rotating cast of friends and neighbors, we did manage to cobble together conversations. We found that humor was often the thing that bridged the gap, and spent a lot of time laughing at how difficult it was for us three Americans to do everyday Rwandan things.
For example, Rwandans do a hand-twisting move that splits the passion fruit neatly at the stem, then pulls it into two halves. The second night we were there, in my struggle to open a passion fruit like the locals, I managed to explode the seeds all over myself and my chair. After that, every time I tried to open a passion fruit we all began laughing.
Tubeho, where the whole group had homestays, is a young neighborhood. Many of the houses were built for those orphaned by the genocide, and some of the students were able to speak with their host families at length about their experiences during the genocide: about the family they’d lost, the time they’d spent hiding, the struggle to forgive.
Forgiveness has emerged as a major theme for our group of students, who have struggled to imagine how they would have reacted if they’d been Rwandans during and after the 1994 genocide.
As we come up on the halfway mark of the trip (when did that happen?) it’s becoming clear how frustrating a three-week trip is. It’s long enough that we’re able to begin exploring some pretty serious topics, speak with many Rwandans and learn key phrases in Kinyarwanda.
But as we travel from place to place, getting a whirlwind view of the country, it sometimes feels that we will never fully engage with any one place or group of people, and coming from the multimedia and ethnography angle, that’s a struggle.
All that aside, the terraced fields, the red brick houses perched on every hillside, the piercing green of the countryside and the way the haze across the mountains darkens with the rains is breathtaking. Where we’re staying now, at a Jesuit center in Butare, we can hear the call to prayer from a nearby mosque echoing over the rooftops at dusk each evening, a reminder that even in this highly unified Christian country, there are many viewpoints, many beliefs.
It’s staggering to think that Rwanda, a country not much larger than Vermont, houses 11 million people. Even outside of Kigali, a city of about 1 million, it seems that each acre is occupied by a house or a field, and the only forested areas I’ve seen are at the tops of mountains.
With eight days remaining, we will never be able to hear all of the stories that 11 million people have to share — nor would all of those people want to share their stories with us, an American school group that arrived just over a week ago and that will be heading home in another week.
But we can listen well to the people who do wish to speak with us, and we can bring their stories back home with us when we return to our everyday American lives, a little more aware of the world than we were when we left.

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