This is one of the first words I heard come out of the mouths of children running down dusty, bumpy roads as I traveled to home visits for my sponsored children when visiting Rwanda the first time. Extracting exactly what it meant depended on whom I spoke with. Some mentioned it meant a person with “white skin.” Others responded the word references a person “spinning around in the same spot,” which evidently is how many Westerners are perceived to behave when visiting African countries. Literally, it means, “someone who roams around; a wanderer.”It is a word I have heard countless times during my seven journeys serving with an organization that is near to my heart, Africa New Life Ministries (ANLM).
While the focus of each visit to Rwanda has been different, opportunities to build relationships through mutual understanding and trust are ever present. My last two trips have been spent teaching a two-week course on spiritual disciplines to some of the brightest young women in the country. These women have been awarded a full scholarship for their university education through ANLM’s Esther Scholarship Program. Since the academic calendar year varies between secondary and university institutions, these women have a “gap year” where they participate in mini sessions covering everything from practical life skills, to leadership and biblical studies, over the span of six-month.
Though I had visited Rwanda numerous times, I knew in my mind that I was underprepared to fully understand the cultural nuances of a classroom setting. That element, combined with the fact I had never actually taught in a classroom setting, compelled me to reach out to a local pastor who had taught often at ANLM’s Africa College of Theology on a consistent basis. He shared insights on what to expect and how to navigate teaching in a culture that is so very different than my American context. I also gathered information from a friend of mine who had lived in Rwanda and had worked with college students for two years. Their guidance was invaluable.
Reflecting on my experiences in relation with Erin Meyer’s shared expertise in The Culture Map has been enlightening, challenging, and affirming. Relative to the United States, Rwanda is highly contextual in their communication style. Spoken and un-spoken language predominates in this developing nation, where written resources were once scarce. Story infuses most conversations and creates “visual” pictures through verbal imagery. Traditional song and dance also aid in communicating cultural values and norms. I learned very early on to speak slowly (not patronizingly so, though), use minimal personally contextual metaphors, and allow considerable time for listening and discussion, so that the students and I have space to navigate our different communication styles.
In regard to evaluations, I am uncertain where Rwanda falls on The Culture Map spectrum. I am careful to give feedback in a positive and constructive way, though I’m not sure how that feedback has been received. At the end of each course, the students complete an evaluation form on each instructor. The evaluations I have received have been positive, with very little constructive criticisms. I’m not sure if this is because I am amazing, or if this is an established cultural norm. I will definitely follow up with the program supervisor to discern how best to interpret the evaluation feedback.
When it comes to leading, Rwandans value education and experience, and seem to embrace a more hierarchical leadership model. As a person who possesses a master’s degree, I am treated with respect and honor. True to my American form, I leverage this position in the classroom by graciously inviting the students to try new spiritual practices and highly encouraging dialogue around each topic. I encourage open and honest feedback after each teaching and activity time. After a couple days together, some students feel comfortable enough to share their honest opinions; others simply sit quiet. The ones who give me their negative thoughts are my favorite, because I know on some level I have earned their trust and they feel safe to verbalize contrary beliefs. I know in other academic settings, such disagreement would likely not happen.
Because my leadership style is also more egalitarian, I am able to connect quickly with Rwandans propensity of developing trust through relationship building. I learned early on from Pastor Charles Mugisha that Rwandans love hosting others in their country. If given the choice between people sending financial aid or coming to visit their land, Rwandans prefer people come visit their land. Their generous spirit and hospitable heart make most visitors feel welcome. This is clearly demonstrated in their “It’s no problem” disposition, which reveals their desire to avoid confrontation; if a “No” is required, it usually takes substantial conversation and reading between the lines to determine that information. Knowing this, I am very careful about requests I make, because I know they will go out of their way most every time to make something happen.
One of the starkest contrasts between Rwanda and the US is in their scheduling styles. In my class, each time I share the quote, “Americans have watches, but Rwandans have time,” I hear giggles from the women. This quote embodies all that is Muzungu: a rushed disposition focused on task-oriented relationships built through goal-oriented activities that are conducted in an efficient and timely manner.
Whew. Now take a breath.
But that is the complete opposite of how Rwandans operate. Instead, schedules are held loosely. Things may or may not happen, though they usually do…eventually. In fact, when teaching I plan the three-hour course outline for each day, then remove 45 minutes to an hour of content for late arrivals and extended morning teatime. Arrivals are late because transportation is unpredictable, as is health and other unforeseen circumstances. Tea time is often 30-40 minutes long, simply because the tea and breads may not be ready when scheduled, and if they are, the partaking of this breakfast happens over time, conversation, and much laughter.
Relationship trumps schedules. Always.
For me, being able to go to Rwanda is a gift from God that I never knew I needed. What I’ve learned from my Rwandan friends is that I need the slower pace, the different perspectives, and the beauty that is revealed when listening in between the lines for the heart that beats underneath. I need the joy and laughter that comes from relaxed meals, casual conversations, and hope-filled hospitality. I need the love that unfolds slowly, with no other agenda that to know and be known. I need to return to the sweet, smoky-smelling land where, if I am paying close attention, I see divine miracles happen around every corner. And lastly, Rwanda has gifted me with the experience that becoming less and less muzungu is a fabulously good thing, and one I hope, over time, becomes more evident in my disposition within the American context where I reside most of my days.