He had a rainy day
I’m in a snake-backed situation
Here’s a pencil pack
I’m gonna spread some information.
You, making me happier, while I am snappier
While I’m with you
I, got to be having you, ‘cause I am happier
When I met you.
– Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
I have a mustache. I am wearing a white V-neck undershirt, and a pair of old Brown Lacrosse shorts, both of which are covered in the distinct red dirt of Rwanda and have holes in them. My shoes, a pair of faded blue Adidas running shoes that are well over 3 years old, are also covered in mud and are tattered at the heels, conspicuously displaying their overuse. Sweat is pouring off of my head like water flowing down an eroded hill. My dirty hands grip each respective hip, further soiling the bottom third of my shirt, and I squint at the crowd. I am gasping for air. My legs are burning. My arms are sore.
There are more kids this time, I think to myself. And indeed, it’s true. In the immediate foreground about 20 kids are within a 7 foot radius of me, staring at me intently, none of them saying a word of course. Further in the distance, adults are scattered up and down the hill, mainly mothers with their small children, but also some men coming back from work, who also stare at the crazy mustachioed foreigner. It looks like an alien movie when the protagonist realizes he’s on another planet and everyone freezes in their tracks to stop and look at him, ominously.
Wait, is this it? Is this the moment? It begins to dawn on me, slowly but surely. Despite the weirdness of it all, I suddenly I know what I must do. My training has prepared me for this moment. I have been in my village for over a month now, and there is no more delaying the inevitable. I have a duty as a member of the Peace Corps and as a member of this new community of mine.
Yes. It is time to give “The Speech”.
But oh, how woefully unprepared I am. How frazzled. What can I do though? I can’t just walk away from this golden opportunity. I have an audience, and a steadily growing one at that. Fine then, I will do it because I Must.
I hunch over to hold my knees, thinking that it will help me catch my breath. After looking at the ground for a moment, I pick up my head and signal with my pointer finger that I need a moment. “One minute, one minute”, I plead with them as rushed English spills out of my mouth. Their incomprehension and natural Rwandan silence oblige me unwittingly, and I gather my thoughts and my Kinyarwanda into something useable. Ok, here we go. Deep breath. Stand and deliver.
Hello very! I am called Alexi. Yes! Is it not true? Ahh-leeg-gzzeee…
A few of them giggle. Good start.
The importance of The Speech can’t be overstated. It’s more than just a loose jumble of memorized phrases and vocabulary from your new language that you can barely speak to your new neighbors. It’s more than your pained facial expression while you are doing it, delivering word after word with disregard for grammar and syntax. The Speech is a symbol of the work you do as a volunteer. It is the crux of your service. You are an American, in a African community, living side-by-side among the people in their village and you are delivering information to them about not only what American culture is like, but you are also relaying the extensive health training you’ve received – explaining good behaviors that will benefit their health and the health of their family.
The Speech lies at the nexus of everything that the Peace Corps believes in and wants you to do as a volunteer. It is an active demonstration of what makes Peace Corps service singularly unique. You are out in the community, showing the people what an American is like (and therefore, to them, what every single American that lives or has lived is like) and you are speaking to them in their own language to garner their trust and show them that you are making a good faith effort on their behalf. More than anything else, The Speech is living proof that you are doing that all-important thing that we heard about every single day during training: you are Integrating.
Peace Corps volunteers do their work on the ground. And when I say the ground, I mean the red, Rwandan, dusty ground. While I lucked out and am close to a regional city, there are those among my group who are over an hour away from any asphalt road. And when you are working on the ground, things can happen, and when they do, given your potential distance from modern amenities and the Peace Corps Rwandan Headquarters itself, it can make for a sticky situation. In your day to day life and dealings, you are unquestionably well beyond the timely resources of the Peace Corps and their benefits. So to protect each volunteer, what the Peace Corps has built into its mission for each person to seriously undertake is their concept of Integration.
Integration in the simplest sense, is getting your community to know you and like you. It’s having people slowly recognize you and wave, rather than give you a cold stare. It’s having the kids call your name instead of simply calling “foreigner!” out at you. It’s getting a fair price at the market instead of the American premium. It’s knowing what the fair prices are to begin with. It’s having your neighbors come to your house to visit you; it’s you going to your neighbors’ house to visit them. It’s improving your language skills to the point where you can reliably intimate what people are trying to communicate to you.
Integration to the Peace Corps as an organization is even more than what it is to the volunteer. It is not what they simply want you to do, it is what they need you to do. The premise that young people are living under their auspices in a developing country, yet are largely outside their reach, means that it is crucial for your safety, among many other things, to make friends within your community so that they will take care of you in their stead. It is a total reliance upon the human capacity for empathy, friendship and compassion – the assumption that being a part of a community will automatically confer on you its benefits. Indeed these are the very fundamentals of the Peace Corps mission in general. More than anything, however, it necessitates a reliance on each volunteer to make an effort to do it.
So then, beyond the acknowledgment that integration is a wonderful life experience of merging cultures and a forging of unlikely friendships, it is clear that there are tangible things at stake for the Peace Corps, namely their legal health. This is both entirely understandable and necessary. But as such, during training the idea of integration was bombarded at us with a ferocious and often hilarious frequency.
Trainees, what is your safety mechanism? Integration. How do you deal with religious conflicts? Integration. If you’re sad? Integrate. If you’re happy? Keep doing it. No water? Integration will bind hydrogen and oxygen for you. If you’re hungry, integration will raise a cow, slaughter it and cook it for you so you shall never go wanting again. By the end of the ten weeks we were broken husks of ourselves, bobbing back and forth in unison: “Integration, integration, integraaaaaation jooooin uuuusss”.
Harder Than it Looks
But it is all difficult. Quite difficult. There is an idea that, to learn a language or truly know a culture, you have to “immerse” yourself in it. Oh you know, you just immerse yourself that’s all. Like the deep end of a pool, you just jump right in, and the cells of culture mechanically begin to practice their osmosis upon you, passing back and forth through the barrier, and you just learn with no effort. I used to subscribe to the same idea, perhaps because the imagery of it is so satisfying and easy to grasp. Ah yes, the refreshing waters of culture are ready to wash over you; all you have to do is jump on in.
But I think immersion has exposed itself to me to be somewhat of a myth, at least as it pertains to its ease of use. Yes, I have indeed jumped into the deep end of the pool. But instead of sinking to the bottom with the other happy swimmers, I am stuck on the surface, buoyed by a bubble-boy suit that I didn’t even know I was wearing. The way I walk, quickly and with my head down, is a patch on this suit. My American-ness is another large patch. The clothes I wear, the things I have, the way I look at everything wide-eyed and incredulous, my Peace Corps salary, the fact that I am largely trapped in my house by domestic duties – all of these things comprise the bubble. And the cellophane airtight seal that wraps itself all the way around it is my lack of language. I alone am in the bubble. Everyone else stares at me in it, from below.
But over time, things start to get better. With conscious effort, you can start to poke holes in the bubble, letting the culture water trickle in. Recognizing the guy on the street that sells you food. One poke. Negotiating successfully in the market, another poke. Recognizing the mothers and children who come to the health center, yet another. Music has been a big help for me, insofar as people pass by my house and hear me listening to or playing it. Kids show up to my house and we’ll listen to rap at their request, or I will play some guitar for them and try to teach them. It has transformed some stares into pleasant waves as I walk to work.
My biggest coup de gras on the Bubble, however, has been “Siporo”. Because I am a crazy person who can’t let go of my sports-playing past, I spent the first week in my town walking around to scout out the best places to work out. I liked the idea of exercising at this high altitude of over 5,500 feet so that I would be in top shape – you know, just in case The League were to call me out of retirement, or I had to take The Big Fight on short notice, all of which in my mind are very apparent possibilities.
Eventually I found the place – a large hill that was right around the corner from my house. I figured that in terms of accessibility, simplicity of exercise and efficiency of workout, this was by far my best bet. After that first week of sorting out a diet that would even allow me to have the requisite among of energy needed to exercise, one weekend evening I set out on my first expedition.
Even that first day, as I stood at the base of the hill, eyeing my path, people knew that something odd was about to happen. I was wearing my full athletic gear: Baltimore Orioles dry-fit shirt, black Nike shorts and long black socks. Considering that the Rwandan dress standard dictates that men should wear pants at almost all times, my workout uniform was highly unordinary. The houses that lined the upward and rocky path featured their residents sitting on their stoops, looking down to see the show unfold.
Aware of the staring, but unaffected by it, I took off running. The exhilaration of working out again after such a long hiatus pushed me at a pace that I found, after making it only halfway up the hill, was entirely unsustainable. Before I made it to the top on the very first lap, I was hunched over so far that my motion could be described as somewhere between speed-walking and crawling, though I was still comically trying to pump my arms to keep my form.
In that weakened state I gained my first couple recruits – kids who lived in houses along the hill. Seeing me clearly struggling, they must have assumed that they could beat me to the top and they joined the run. They greatly enjoyed this weird activity with this foreign person, and they laughed and screamed in the pleasant way that only young kids can. What they didn’t seem to notice was that my pained and sweating face, along with my disturbingly labored breath, indicated that I was not having quite as much fun. The second time I went to run, I began to acclimate slightly, and on each lap, more recruits came out to join. The third time I took to the hill, there were even more still.
By the fifth time I did Siporo, this past Sunday evening, I stood at the bottom of the hill, and over 20 kids had already been waiting for me to get there. The news of the new foreigner’s insanity had seemed to precede me. Also, earlier in the day as I walked back from getting food, I told a few kids that I recognized, “What’s up friends? Today, there is sport. Evening. We have sport”. I saw their eyes light up, I knew they would spread the word but I wasn’t prepared for the turnout.
I had unwittingly become the coach of a Team. This was Alexi’s Siporo Team. I surveyed my players. There was a healthy mix of boys and girls, although boys seemed to win out at first glance. Some girls were in loose dresses, and some kids were wearing their school uniform despite the fact that it was the weekend. Some kids, indicative of their socioeconomic status, showed up with dirty shirts that looked like they were disintegrating off their bodies. The youngest kids were probably around four and the oldest around thirteen. Out of the 50 feet, not one proper sneaker could be found enclosing them, only flip flops – most of which were entirely tattered and broken. No matter. If you’re on the team, you’re on the team.
Eye of the Tiger
My players stood staring at me before I led them off in our workout. From experience, before the troops ride off into battle, the coach gives a speech to get them fired up. I wanted to tell them about the benefits of exercise, I wanted to tell them the origins of it, why I did it. I wanted to explain the inherent satisfaction in pushing yourself, although you do not have to, to accomplish something difficult. That there was pleasure to be found in watching yourself improve in something that you didn’t know you could even do in the first place. I wanted to tell them that, in fact, doing this wasn’t weird at all – that in America we are so overloaded by raw information, stress and obligations that people do stuff like run hills for no reason all the time.
But I can’t of course. What? Like I know the Kinyarwanda words for “inherent” or “internal” or “existential dread-inducing obligations”? I had to settle on more basic communication. After a long pause, I speak.
“Yes?”, as I raise a thumbs up. “Let’s go!”. And with a decisive pointer finger I indicate towards the brick post at the top of the hill.
The kids know the command. And, screaming and laughing, they take off ahead of me at a full tear. My competitive spirit in the early few days of Siporo compelled me to try to catch them in this early phase. But what I have learned is that of this large group, only a few of them are capable of making it all the way to the top even once, let alone for every round. I Tortoise their Hare every time up the hill, with no exceptions.
But the goal, they know, is to make to the top. Although few can reach the top, the reward for making it – the only one I have the language skills or the authority to give – is a slap of the brick post and a resounding high five with me, their Coach. When I make it up, after slowly clipping off each of the eager runners, they find me pointing at the post stoically. Huffing and puffing they lurch their way towards it, give it a hard slap then receive their high five.
Using nothing but my eyes, I try to convey my pride and my message: you pushed yourself hard, you did it, and when you complete your goal you get the recognition. Engaging in my own form of egalitarian empowerment, it doesn’t matter if you are a boy or girl, younger or older: if you make it, you get a high five, if you don’t, then you don’t. Though I am steadfast in my equal treatment, my personal favorite team-member, and most dedicated and committed of the bunch, is an 11 year old girl named Devine who, in Siporo terms, absolutely crushes it.
This is how I have decided to integrate. During Siporo, in my mind, I allow myself to go into full Coach mode, but I can hope that the kids are receiving my message through the language barrier. In my own way, am trying to draw on what I have always loved – sports and exercise – to illustrate the ideal principle of sport itself: that there is a one-to-one relationship between effort and reward. That, even though you don’t have to do it, exercising just makes you feel good and despite the work it is cause for happiness and laughter. That being part of a team is just fun. And, although in the end they may still just think I am the crazy foreigner who loves running up hills and high fiving, I will continue to go out there to teach one of the few things that I feel truly qualified to.
So at the end of my fifth round of Siporo, I found myself with the mustache, the sweaty head and the dirty clothes, addressing my Team. I had been growing a beard for the past month, and when I went to the barber and told him, in my broken Kinyarwanda, “Beard only, all beard”, he seemed to think that this meant I wanted to keep the mustache. So for that day, until I got a chance to shower up after working out I was stuck, addressing a large group of young children, with this signifier of creepiness on my upper lip.
Having already engaged in my own form of integration, with a significant number of kids and adults in the background looking, I knew it was time to put the cherry on top by giving The Speech itself. An attempt to lend some context to who I am, why I am doing this, and if I’m lucky, sprinkle in some health knowledge on top of all of it. Make Peace Corps proud, be a good volunteer. So off I went, in broken Kinyarwanda, laced with me talking out loud to myself in English that I knew they wouldn’t understand.
Hello very! I am called Alexi. Yes! Is it not true? Ahh-leeg-gzzeee. I am American. Also, I am a volunteer of health at the health center. I am here because I want to help people. Is it not true? I visit sports…no that’s not it, what’s the word? Oh yeah. I like sports very very! Uh, let’s see here…ok. I am American, and American in America also like sports very very. Sport is important for health very. After sport, is important to eat. Uh, what else here? In general, I like music, to play guitar and….yes. Yes? Ok Ok. Now I must go home. I must…wash. Why did I tell young children that I have to wash? I will see you tomorrow, is it not true? Goodbye!
For a moment I expected a rousing applause for my effort. After all, in that smoldering pile of broken language there was the illustrious Speech. But I’m not quite sure why I did; I got what I always get from kids – bemused stares. The team doesn’t break. Perhaps I mispronounced the word goodbye. So I just walk away, waving. And about half the team follows me, like ducklings behind their mother, all the way back to my house. At my doorstep I stopped and turned around, laughing and asking what they wanted. What? Sport, it is finished! Go play! They all stare. Some laugh.
When I finally opened the door to go in my house, it was official that Coach Alexi was retiring to his quarters and Siporo was truly over. The kids tried to make a move inside, giggling. I wagged my finger and kept them at the threshold. “No no no” I say as I close the door.
Integration only goes so far. “See you all tomorrow”.
This post originally appeared on the national Peace Corps website and can be viewed here.