Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Experience: check

During last Monday’s staff meeting, after announcing that the CCHIPs Thanksgiving would be celebrated on Friday, Celestin (see side Dictionary) announced that Kabere would be having a “thanksgiving” for him at 10am on Wednesday. This sounded interesting, and I was impressed that America had penetrated Rwanda to the point of Rwandans celebrating Thanksgiving as well. (We already have the same Independence Day and Nathalie once got very defensive when I called Canada our 51st state. “No it’s not! Rwanda is!” she exclaimed.)
So on Wednesday morning, as I sauntered into the office and Jeanne d’Arc asked me if I was going to Celestin’s ceremony, I, of course, said yes. (Also because I tend to say yes to everything…generally, in life, I should probably learn to say no every once in a while.)

Two hours later, I was in a car with Jeanne d’Arc and Elie, wondering why nobody else decided to come along. Only along the 30 minute car-ride did I learn that we were not going to “Thanksgiving,” but to a mass to give thanks – in Kinyrwanda. Not entirely what I thought I had signed up for.

In classic Rwandan fashion, we arrived late (thank God) and quickly found seats on these miniscule little benches. They literally came up only to my mid-calf, and made my already questionably short skirt (covered only half the knees) entirely inappropriate when I sat down and my knees came up to my chest, essentially showing off my butt unless I help my skirt up to under my knees.

Not surprisingly, I proved to be more interesting than the service, and quickly became the center of attention in my section of the church. This proved to be most awkward during the songs – because I, in fact, cannot sing, or dance, or carry a rhythm. Rwandans can do all of these – at the same time. It took me about 2 minutes to get the clap down for each song – I swear that this was no easy clap – clapclap – clap – clapclap that you would come across in the US. Each pattern was 10 claps at least, and seemed to change the beat after I felt confident in what was coming next.

The next awkwardness came when Celestin was making a speech at the end of the service. He seemed to be thanking people and having them stand up. (The more alert readers might know where this story is going already...it caught me by surprise.) At one point, a lot of people turned to stare behind me. I turned to follow their stares, but I was sitting in the back row, so there was only a wall and a door. I tried to look out the door to see what they might be looking at. (Less alert readers should know by now where this story is going…seriously…at this point…I was still confused.) But then I heard the magic word: “CCHIPs” and I immediately turned around. Oh! Look! They were all looking at ME! Elie and Jeanne d’Arc were already standing and Jeanne d’Arc was violently pulling me to stand up, so we could wave and accept our applause. I’m not sure exactly what I was thanked for, but it was nice to be stared at for a reason besides being a muzungu.

Something that appears to span cultures is my awkwardness at Catholic services. As the congregation said the Lord’s Prayer, I tried to follow along in English, only to find myself rushing and in shock at the end at how quickly they finished it – only to 1 minute later remember that Catholics take a 1 minute break halfway through the Lord’s Prayer. I’m also accustomed to politely clasping my hands and looking down during the Lord’s Prayer; forgot about the whole hand-holding thing, and had an awkward second when Jeanne d’Arc grabbed my hand and pulled it up.

After the service, there was still no Thanksgiving. But Jeanne d’Arc and Elie started socializing with all of their friends, leaving me to awkwardly stare back at the children that were all awkwardly staring at me. After a full minute of awkward silence, I decided that my morning had already been too awkward, and that I needed to do something about it. To appease the situation, I started to drill the kids in English:

“Good morning” I said to them.

They stared back at me. I know that all Rwandan children know English to some degree. Technically, it’s the only language their teachers are allowed to use in school. In reality, the teachers all received one month of English training before this law was put in place.

“Good morning” I tried again, and then pointed at one of the children.

“Good morning teacher” he shyly said back to me.

“Oya oya – I am not your teacher – you just say ‘good morning’ back to me. For example: ‘Good morning’” I said to the group, I then pointed to an empty spot, sat down in the spot, pretended to be a child and said “good morning” again. “Okay so now let’s try: good morning” I pointed to the same boy.

He stared at me and ran away. At which point another child started crying. Awkwardness multiplied. At this point, I finally decided to just cut my losses and sit in the car as I waited for Jeanne d’Arc and Elie, hoping to pretend this morning did not happen.

Unluckily for my awkwardness, Celestin decided he wanted to start introducing me to people, so Jeanne d’Arc dragged me out of the sanctuary of the car and forced me to meet more people. In case you’re interested, my language skills have not progressed past the “how are you?” “good” that I learned before coming. Result: lots of staring, lots of laughing (because that make sense), and lots of “how are you?”s and “good”s “very good”s.

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