I was dropped off at site (Peace Corps parlance for the village where I will be serving for the next two years) on December 8th. I will start my job here, teaching at a secondary school, at the beginning of the next school year, on January 7th. So, I’ve got a solid month in which my only task is the nebulous one of “integration.”
Integration means meeting people and making connections, getting to know the people in your village and being known by them. The idea is that, after a while, when you go walking down the street, people won’t yell “muzungu” (“white person”) but will greet you by name and, ideally, know where you work and why you are in Rwanda.
For me, the process of integration has been less a science than an art, with a fair bit of luck thrown in. An example of how it works: on my third day in site I rode the bus to my regional town to do some shopping. A guy sat next to me and started speaking to me in English. Surprised by his high level in the language, I started asking questions and found out that he is a local secondary school teaching and friends with all the other volunteers in the area.
When we got into town he went with me to buy a charcoal stove, advised me where to get chickens and introduced me to a reliable moto driver. The next day, following his advice, I went to the bar in town to ask about chickens. At the bar I met a farmer, the woman who runs the bar and, most importantly, the head priest. My town is mostly owned and largely dominated by the Catholic church so becoming friends with the priests is like getting in good with a mob boss, a sure shortcut to influence and networking.
So, from one coincidental meeting on the bus, I met five other people who I can greet by name on the street and who can do the same for me. Sometimes integration is just that easy.
Sometimes, though, integration is just a burden. I spent all day today at home — doing laundry, sewing potholders, working in the garden and watching a movie. Now, I feel somewhat guilty that I wasn’t actively integrating.
What’s more, we were reminded time and again during training that the people in our villages will be judging and forming their opinion of us during these first weeks and months. Surveilling and scrutinizing would accruately describe what they’re doing, I think. So, whenever I do go out to the market, say, or pay a visit to the health center, I’m very aware that people are looking at what I’m wearing, where I’m going, who I talk to, what I buy and so on. I am, of course, anxious to integrate well so I want all those things to be acceptable to Rwandans but I also want to be able to go about my day with a sense of normality.
So, integration is a balancing act, and a mix of pleasant and unpleasant elements. No doubt,too, my experience of it, and my village, will change and evolve the longer I’m here. In the meantime, I’m just trying to enjoy my integration vacation.