Learning about life in foreign lands brings us closer to our homes

Editor’s note: Addison Independent reporter Andrea Suozzo is in Rwanda wrapping up three weeks on a Vermont Folklife Center expedition that is teaching 18 American high school students to gather and tell the stories of people in that African nation. She is providing dispatches from Rwanda for the Independent and online at addisonindependent.com. She and her group are learning from eyewitnesses about the struggles and joys of life in Rwanda, while also gaining a new perspective on their lives back in the United States. They are also learning a smattering of Kinyarwandan, a dialect of the language spoken in Rwanda.

 

On Wednesday morning I was up at 6 a.m. and attempting to check up on results from Town Meeting Day in Vermont.

On a bench looking over Lake Kivu toward the Democratic Republic of Congo, I just barely got the addisonindependent.com homepage to load, but although I could tell the whole crew was still in the office at what was 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the connection was too slow to load the live blog. I didn’t have my hopes up for it. While mobile Internet is fairly stable in Kigali and a bit slower in Butare, it’s spotty at most out there on the far western edge of the country, just miles from the DRC border.

The headlines on our homepage and the little I could load of The New York Times website brought me back to U.S. news after two weeks only catching brief glimpses of Mitt Romney on French or Kinyarwandan television news shows (though we’ve also spied pictures of President Obama on some of the brightly colored fabrics people wear here). Looking out on the dim outlines of mountains across the lake, I knew I cared about what was happening locally and nationally back home, but it was hard to feel connected to things happening half a world away.

During our stay in Butare, we visited Butare Secondary School (G.S.O.B.), one of the top-ranked high schools in the country. It’s a science and math school, and it was clear that the students had access to many more resources than at other schools in the country. The ample library and the full computer lab looked much like those in any U.S. high school.

There, we spent some time talking to students in the English club. Students there had as many questions for us as we had for them. How do American schools compare with Rwandan schools? Is it true that only old people go to church in America? What is the literacy rate in the U.S.? Do people like President Obama? How are you dealing with overpopulation in the U.S.? What are American politics like right now?

After two weeks of immersion in another country — scrambling to take in as much of its culture, its politics, its landscape, its people as possible — I found myself struggling to answer questions about America. Standing in the sun in an open-air high school courtyard, with students playing basketball and chatting in Kinyarwanda all around us, I realized how little I know about the country where I’ve lived all my life. Mallory, another multimedia instructor on the trip, went to college with me in Vermont but has worked with students in New Orleans ever since. Our answers to many of the questions were very different, just by virtue of the different areas of the country where we live.

It’s experiences like these, where I’m forced to look at my own reality through the lens of another person, that give perspective. On this trip, I’m not only learning about Rwanda. I’m also learning about my relationship with the rest of the world, and how we — as a group of Americans 7,000 miles away from home — fit in.

Over the course of this trip, we’ve talked and thought a great deal about how, exactly, media can help us to understand the stories of individual people and to express our own experiences.

But we’ve also had conversations about the limitations of media, and the limitations to understanding a country on a three-week trip. As we’ve worked with students to create ethical media using the audio, photographs and video that they’ve collected on this trip, the limitations are a thought I keep coming back to. The more we learn about this country, about our own country and about our individual experiences, the more questions we can ask. The more we see, the fewer universals there are, and the less we really know.

This is all to say that, as we draw near the end of our journey and look back on the people we’ve met, the towns and cities and mountain roads we’ve traveled, the interviews we’ve done, the genocide memorials where we’ve cried and the coffee plantation where we helped, just a little, with cultivation, it’s tempting to look back on the trip as entirely separate from our daily lives back home. It’s easy to view the thinking and learning we did here in a vacuum.

It’s harder to bring the wonder and awe that comes with a new place back to our own lives. Around each corner here in Rwanda there are new people and places to photograph, and each person we meet has a fascinating, heart-wrenching, beautiful story to tell. The same is true back home, though sometimes it’s difficult to preserve that sense while walking the same route and driving the same roads day in and day out.

I came to Rwanda to ask questions about the place, but when we wrench ourselves away from this country on Friday for the day-long trip back home, I’ll be leaving with even more questions about the place where I’m from.

That, for me, is what travel is all about.


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