Emily – Borrowed Words

I’ve fallen into a new routine. Every night, I take my malaria pill, brush my teeth, then sit on my bed and stare blankly at the empty pages of my journal, trying to figure out how to write about Rwanda.

Because we spend the bulk of our days working with the community in Gashora center, it’s easy to forget that this trip is also a study abroad. Our class sessions are permeated with a sense of surrealism I can’t shake; we discuss literary craft elements and analyze essays by Earnest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin in the shade of a thatched, open-air pavilion, our notebooks bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun, every break in conversation punctuated by the calls of unfamiliar birds.

A large part of our course is dedicated to studying the pitfalls of travel literature; how easily it falls victim to dated tropes and stereotypes, the dangers of exoticization, the glorification of an ethnographic past, and the inherent privilege of many (if not all) travel writers.

It feels slightly disingenuous, tearing apart these anachronistic conventions while reclining amidst the lush grounds of what is essentially a resort hotel (spotty availability of electricity and running water notwithstanding). We have a foot in two parallel worlds here in Gashora; several times a day, we step from our verdant enclave of plentiful food, flushing toilets, and available WiFi to the dusty paths of the village proper, where meat is seen by many as a once-a-year delicacy and children often spend the better part of their day hauling water up from the lake in yellow jerry cans. It’s hard enough to try and process this disturbing duality in my thoughts; how am I supposed to write about it, and the rest of my experiences here, without succumbing to cliché or the many hazards of my own privilege?

In class, Lee suggested we try writing in the style of different great literary figures identify our own voice. I decide to give it a shot; if I can’t come up with my own words, why not try to channel someone else’s? Trying to evoke the backdrop for our daily routine, I start with Hemingway:

Then there was the dry heat. It would come in one day when the rainy season was over. We would have to open the windows in the day to let the warmth out, and the faint breeze would stir the leaves on the banana trees in Gashora Centre. We walked to town on the road, and there was red dust on the road, and we left footprints in the dust as we passed through groves of cassava…

It’s a bit of a stretch, adapting a piece written about the cafes of Paris in wintertime to describe July in rural East Africa – and Ernest’s spare prose doesn’t feel curvaceous enough to accurately evoke the rolling, feminine hills of Bugesera district. Never mind. And what I really want to talk about are the relationships I’m building with people. I try Chatwin on for size:

As a species we are intended for communal living. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “underdeveloped” societies of the Global South, where the absence of the many isolating high-tech innovations of the industrialized world means people must actually pay attention to each other. We are social from birth. Our mad obsession with technological progress is a response to barriers in the way of our progress forming interpersonal relationships. In Rwanda, where the one-two punch of genocide and post-colonial poverty has left much of the population scraping to get by, banding together in close-knit community groups can be literally life-sustaining. “The worst thing that can happen to a person in Rwanda” writes former Peace Corps volunteer David Burleson, “is to be left alone.”

But I don’t feel educated, wise, or well-travelled enough to articulate any sweeping, philosophical truths about the nature of humanity. And I don’t have the internet access or the willpower to look up a multitude of quotes from ancient Chinese poets and anthropological studies about the brain development of people living communal societies.

I think about the experiences I want to convey, and I realize that the biggest impressions are made by the smallest details. The dust rising from the packed earthen floor of my friend Gilbert’s church as the entire congregation leapt up to dance; teaming with my English student Dancilla to argue down the price of fabric in three jumbled languages; Claude, our gentle giant of a translator, teaching me how to drink the sugary nectar from the heart-shaped blossom of a banana tree. And it suddenly seems foolish, trying to capture a country between the lined pages of notebook.

Maybe I shouldn’t be trying to capture this experience at all. Each new day is dynamic and utterly different from the next, a compendium of a thousand little instances that I could never hope to pin down with words. Maybe writing about Rwanda, in the broader sense, isn’t possible. I haven’t spent the past four weeks trying to take the measure of a country; I’ve spent them making friends, struggling with Kinyarwanda, laughing and crying and watching the dry red dirt permanently stain the soles of my feet. I may never know how to write about Rwanda, but I’m learning how to write about life. And whatever ends up on the page, it will be in a voice that is completely and truly my own.

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2 Responses to Emily – Borrowed Words

  1. Jan Nevler says:

    When the bats emerged at twilight, she began her story, and it was good.

  2. Mark Hanna says:

    Well, in spite of his mysoginistic (is that a word?) ways, I happen to like Heminway’s writing…
    Beautiful piece Emmy. You capture the spirit of the place and your voice is very recognizable to those of us who have read your work over the past several years. Nicely done! I loved it.

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