Monday, December 27, 2010

The Day an Alien Came to Town

Culture Shock - a phrase generally used to describe a person's adjustment to a new group of people and their customs. But, have you ever stopped to consider the culture shock experienced by the group of people who are welcoming the individual?

To anyone who's been abroad for an extended period of time, you know that people make a big deal about the phrase "culture shock." Entire books are written on the subject, organizations train their recruits about the new culture in advance to dispell any stereotypes and make the transition smoother. They inform them about the phases of the shock and how to cope with it. But think about a typical African boy who sees, for the first time, a white man walk into a local restaurant. I can only wonder what goes through his mind. He doesn't have any training about culture shock, no education about Amerians except for their stereotypes, and surely not even a heads up about the newcomer. Nah, the man just pops up one day and expects you not to be shocked at all.

No wonder they call a foreigner an "alien." It's a fitting analogy. imagine a Martian lands in your neighborhood. I'm not kidding, a real live Martian just moved into the house a few doors away from you. No way! You've heard rumors of them before, but you didn't know if they even existed. It could have all been a myth. Is he really green? He can't be; that's such a strange color of skin. What does he eat? what does he wear? If he has a flying saucer, and surely he does, then he can take me back to Mars for a visit. And if he can come all the way from Mars to my little neighborhood by himself, then he must have a lot to offer me.

This is why crowds gather 'round to stare at me. It's why some kids are overjoyed to greet me and others run away crying. I've learned to accept it: I am an alien.


Four weeks, 99 hours on a bus, three days on a cargo boat, and seven currencies later, I am home, in Rwanda. My travels have been exhilarating and refreshing, but right now it is good to be back where life is familiar. The people, the food, the culture, the language; it is all familiar.

Being away for a month and coming back to Rwanda has given me a chance to step back and reconsider my work this past year and think about the work that is most needed in Rwanda.

At the beginning of the year, when I first realized that I was going to have a surplus of donation money to spend in my community, I began asking myself how I could possibly use these funds. It seems strange, doesn't it? What does a shopping spree look like in a third world country? On one hand it seems obvious, but on the other it isn't. You would think there should be too many choices, yet when I tried to put pen to paper, I drew a blank. Why? Because I didn't know what the community really needed - I had only been there for a month or two! Maybe that sounds silly. After all, a straightforward cookie cutter solution should fit the bill: shoes, clothes, toiletries, and cans of tuna fish and beans to pass out, right? But poverty is a completely different beast in Rwanda than it is in downtown Cleveland, let alone in Uganda or Zambia. Poverty, entangled in economics, politics, cultural views, technology, climate, and geography, has many faces, countless causes, and elusive answers. So, to ask what a community needs is a challenging question.

Fortunately, through some wonderful counsel from a few leaders within our village, I am confident that we met a great deal of needs. This includes school supplies, school fees, textbooks, calculators, and sports equipment for my church as well as clothes, food, doors, mattresses, and Bibles for individuals in my congregation. Another generous gift from the states was specifically used to provide 200 mosquito nets for my school and a shipment of used textbooks is on the way from my university's TBP chapter. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity that people have displayed in helping my community. A great deal of admiration and gratefulness go out to you folks.

But now, after living here for a year, I want to return to that question: what does my community need? In particular, I want to consider non-monetary needs. As I look around I see countless opportunities to make practical and long-term differences in my community. Science labs need to be organized and teachers need to be trained how to perform and teach experiments. Electricians need to rewire my school so that every bulb and appliance does not run on when the electricity is switched on, and then teach the staff and students about power saving and the environment while they're at it. Agriculturalists need to teach Rwandan farmers how to compost and how to rotate a variety of crops using permaculture, which will not only improve soil and food quality and quantity, but will also contribute to an improved diet. Speaking of which, nutritionists could hold local seminars informing parents about healthy food/crop choices and diet-related health issues. Engineers can teach and help to install gravity fed water systems, local purification techniques and local energy, heating or electricity schemes. Librarians can organize our school's library and teach us how to increase student's access to books and perhaps open the library to the comjunity since no public library exists. Businessmen can teach graduates and young entrepreneurs how to develop business strategies and make the connection between their education and the job market, bringing in jobs and money to their local encomy. The opportunities are exciting and endless. It is not impossible by any means; the people in Rwanda are eager to learn and are ready for change. They just need the guidance and encouragement in the right directions.

In summary, if you have any skill or knowledge, as well as the creativity and guts, then pick yourself up, pack a duffel bag, hop on a plane, and fly to a small village somewhere in the world. You're guaranteed to find your niche.