Monday, March 21, 2011

Closer to the Kingdom

Before I left for Rwanda, almost 15 months ago, I remember talking with a close friend, John Varga, about cultures and Christianity. He offered a thoughtful question to think about when traveling: "How is this culture closer to the kingdom of God?" I've dwelled a lot on this question, I took it with me to Rwanda, and throughout the year I wrote down a list of how Rwandans are closer to the vision that God has for a transformed Christian life, society, and church. On the other hand, I also jotted down how I think they could improve, usually on the days that I came home frustrated or tired of being "culturally sensitive." Of course, it goes without saying that these are also generalizations that don't apply to everyone in Rwanda, but they make for good starting points...

***Closer to the Kingdom***
  1. Resourcefulness. Everything is fixed or reused for something else. Hardly anything is thrown away. Rwandans recycle rubber tires to resole shoes. Plastic bags are banned. I could probably fit all of my 14 months worth of trash in 4 garbage bags, and that's from my more "western" lifestyle.
  2. Friendship. Focus on friendship and the healthy/good obligations that come with it. Friendships are not about convenience like they often are in America.
  3. Focus on the present, not the past or future. They live more "in the moment," so they're more flexible and don't get stressed out easily.
  4. Community oriented "Umudugudu" (translates to "Village"). Not only is it fun to say, but it's extremely effective. Each umudugudu is made of about 50 families. It's the smallest unit of societal/governmental structure. They meet every month or so, usually under a tree, and talk about the issues and needs in their community and help each other out. Every few years they vote for new leaders by going to a field and standing behind their candidate of choice. This ties in nicely to Wendell Berry's idea of "community" as opposed to the widening separation of "public" and "private" life in America (see his essay titled, "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community").
  5. Responsibility. Students say that they have a responsibility to help disabled classmates. That is, they feel an obligation to step up and help, where without their help the disabled person would not be able to attend school. The responsibility was NOT the school's. The only thing the school does is to ensure that a student is available to help: like retrieving water for a girl who's missing a foot and on crutches. There's good and bad to this system, but I admire the hard work and community responsibility rather compared to a complicated school/budget/taxes/bureaucratic program.
  6. Reconciliation oriented: Gacaca courts (village courts where they dealt with genocide crimes that occurred locally and with the intention to restore peace and cooperation). Openness to state wrongdoings or disagreements with others in meetings.
  7. Generous: It wasn't uncommon for a cyclist to offer me a free 6km bike ride home on the back of his bike, and truckers always refused money when I hitchhiked. As I made friends with one particular shop owner, he would always be so glad to see me that he would give me free candy or bottled water.
  8. Energy. Rwanda's focusing on sustainable and renewable energy (geothermal, methane and hydroelectric projects).
  9. Healthier, more natural diet without a lot of (bad) fat, sugar, and salt. As long as they stay clear of the sugar cane, African's teeth are usually spectacular. Same can be said for their eyes. Maybe cuz they don't have TV or light in the nights; the need for glasses is smaller.
***Possible Improvements***
  1. Organization and communication. Do I need to elaborate? Poor organization leads to poor efficiency and lots of delays (lots). Poor communication leads to mistakes and wasted time, energy, and money.
  2. Stereotypes. Their stereotypes of Americans/whites. The word "Umuzungu" translates as "white man" and "rich man." They believe America and Americans hold the key to their success and America is an easy life, with money growing on trees.
  3. Saving money. When people were surprised that I could travel so much yet I owned the cheapest cell phone I told them it's because I would rather save my money and use it for traveling. Many people are used to just getting by, so when they get a surplus of cash, it's easy for them to just spend it on the cell phone with a camera, music player and internet. Of course, the added status symbol is an extra incentive.
  4. Status Lifestyles. Alcohol and food is also a status symbol. Stereotypically, poor men drink water while rich men drink alcohol and are fat. To be rich and important tends to imply a riskier lifestyle.
  5. Waste disposal: no garbage, littering, especially as more packaged products are being introduced. Human waste is all underground, not good for water table and not used for things like biomass to electricity. Also, many Rwandans don't compost their leftovers. We had a compost pile, but we never used it for fertilizer.
  6. Amusement and Water Parks. Hello? Anyone heard of splash lagoon or a lazy river? Yeah, I could've used some of that for hot boring days.
  7. Think! Critical and independent thinking is not always encouraged. Rote memorization and obedience to hierarchy is the norm. Historically, this limits productivity and business entrepreneurship and increases the chance of poor governance and blind acceptance (groundwork for the genocide).
  8. Globalization. According to the book "Ishmael," Rwanda is a Leaver society becoming more and more like the Takers. The director of Environment and Water repeatedly told me over a drink that, "this world is ours!!" Every bit of land is farmed, threatening population, diversity of crops, and deforestation. As the number of tea and coffee farmers increases, they are transitioning from subsistent local crops to a fluctuating global market economy, which also lowers the value of their crops and increases foreign dependence.
  9. Libraries. Few (or no?) public libraries outside of Kigali. Why not open the school libraries to communities?
I don't think the lists are complete and I don't claim that they're completely accurate or even biblical, but that's why I'm posting them here - to wrestle with these ideas and to hear your opinions too! Now that I'm back in America I am reminding myself that the experience is only half over...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sliding Glass Doors

I am in the Mumbai airport, listening to Chopin music over the loudspeakers and envying the people boarding the Kenyan airways flight to Nairobi. Fourteen months ago I was leaving all that was familiar for something new and completely different. And now, here I am doing the same thing. I'm not going "back"- that is, not much will be the same and most everything will be familiar in the most unfamiliar way. I will miss Rwanda. I will miss Africa. I will miss India. I will miss the freedom of roaming the planet and visiting the homes of amazing people in amazingly diverse cultures.

It's strange really, how, when sitting on a cold sterilized steel airport bench, the emotion and essence of places and personalities so quickly fades to deteriorating memories. How is it possible that I am sitting here typing on my iPod, the people around me reading their Kindles and watching movies on laptops, when an hour ago I was sitting on the floor of a slum eating curry, rice and cake in celebration of an Indian boy's first birthday? How can a wave goodbye and sliding glass door turn the world inside out so quickly and so easily?