“You aren’t going to change the world, so just be nice.”

That sentiment was delivered by a Regional English Language Officer at the end of my first day of training as a English Language Fellow, a program funded through the U.S. State Department that sends English instructors abroad to teach, train, and help improve language and education programs in developing nations. In other words, soft-core diplomats.

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I’ve been to a training similar to this, almost five years ago for Fulbright, just that one was conducted on the leafy grounds of the Embassy in Warsaw. I was so jetlagged and disorientated that the only take-away advice I could recall was from an ex-commando just returned from Iraqi. His words for staying safe in a new and different land? “Trust your spidey sense.” Department of State envoys, at least those I have encountered, always seem to approach the world with a wry humor and an almost British sensibility.

Today marked the first day of a week in Washington, D.C., with more than a hundred of my ilk gathered at the Omni Shoreham, a historic venue settled on a vast swath of green acreage not far from Dupont Circle and Georgetown, famous for hosting inaugural balls and a 1964 visit from the Beatles. It also might be haunted, but they don’t seem to put that one in the promotional literature. It’s the stuff of Downton Abbey- sweeping ceilings, crystal chandeliers, silent white-gloved waiters who remove dirty hors d’oeuvres plates so quickly and discreetly that I wonder if they spent time in ninja training.

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I arrived last night, disheveled by Potomic humidity and wearing my very unclassy backpacker rucksack. All travelers know the feeling: when all you want to do is curl up in a corner and fall asleep/die/cry. I reached a similar point on my marathon journey home from Windhoek, Namibia, when boarding a plane in Dallas, my final leg in a thirty hour journey. My iPod fell out of my pocket and hit the floor of the plane and I thought to myself, I don’t really need that, anyways; it can just stay there. Last night, after hours of babies and airplanes that ran out of food before getting to my row, I nearly collapsed on the polished counter at the Omni and the posh receptionist raised a brow at me. It all made sense as soon as she checked my reservation: with the English Language Programs Pre-Departure Orientation. Of course. A grubby English teacher.

IMG_3509The training itself, beyond all of the introductions and referring to each other by their host countries (“Oh, have you met Uganda yet? She’s over there.”), isn’t much more fun than a typical job orientation: today was paperwork and how to submit expense reports and what happens if you terminate early. The rest of the week gets juicier: how not to die from diseases, uprisings, or saying something stupid at the wrong place/time. For the evening, though, we ended with a few more introductions and that DOS envoy’s immortal words to a group of fresh-faced teachers, ready to meet their students and tackle their challenges. “You aren’t going to change the world,” she said with a sincere smile, “so just be nice.” My internal pessimist agrees, while my internal optimist looks for some light- maybe the two are so far from each other. A hundred people, leaving this fancy hotel for much more meager dwellings, being nice- and hammering proper verb usage- to start new lives in day-to-day, dusty diplomacy.

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Rwanda Reading List

Six Weeks from Departure: Since finding out that I’m heading for Rwanda, I’ve been asked by a few people how I prepare for such a move. I’ve made similar (though not as drastic) moves before: Namibia in 2006, Russia in 2009, Poland later in 2009. I prepare the only way that I know how: read. And here’s my current list to prepare myself, and reassure the information-driven side of my INTP personality that I’m properly completing my homework.

I promise I’ll stop writing about books (someday). Ha!

Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda by Rosemary Halsey Carr (Viking, 1999)

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Carr describes her life in both pre- and post-colonial (or post colonial or postcolonial, depending on which school of literary criticism one adheres to) Congo and Rwanda, providing the perspective of an outsider to the political shifts that occur from the early 1950s until post genocide. Carr is a fascinating mix of new world colonial, dingy white lady, and detail-oriented story teller. Plus, she falls in love with a gay Swedish colonial, wards off rebel attacks, and befriends gorilla whisperer Dian Fossey (of Gorillas in the Mist fame).

A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power (Harper Perennial, 2002) 

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Last year I went through a period of reading whatever I could find about genocide studies (doesn’t everyone go through that?), and Power’s book was a standout. I’ve read enough in my life about the 1994 genocide (and it is inevitably all anyone knows about Rwanda, just as people always mentioned World War II when I was planning to go to Poland) but her review of the events provides a clear background while focusing also on the lack of external intervention- and how the West and the United Nations ultimately failed to prevent this horrific event from occurring and even prevented it from ending faster. It’s the only genocide-oriented book I will add here; I don’t want to revisit it again until I’m on the ground in the place where more than 500,000 (estimates are 500,000 to more than a million) were massacred in a matter of months.

Culture and Customs of Rwanda by Julius O. Adekunle (Greenwood Press, 2007)

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Often the most interesting (and important) information to learn before landing is how to avoid a) offending people, b) more seriously, pissing off people, c) far more seriously, endangering your life through idiotic behavior, and/or d) ending up in an inhospitable foreign jail where your only friends are rats and dysentary. This kind of book helps to avoid all of the above (one can only hope). From it, I’ve learned that Rwanda is a country with many taboos, many of which have disappeared in the modern era. Of course, the traditional taboos were oriented around women (of course): they are prohibited from whistling (that’s man’s work) and are also not allowed to construct buildings or fences (more man’s work).

Rwanda, Inc. by Patricia Crisafulli and Andrea Redmond (Palgrave, 2014)

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I haven’t read this one yet, but it promises to be scintillating, as nearly all developing nation economics-focused nonfiction proves itself to be (I’m looking at you, William Easterly and your White Man’s Burden). Here’s the Amazon blurb to give the overview: “Nearly two decades after Rwanda’s horrific  genocide, the country has been transformed. High rises are going up in the capital city of Kigali; a newly established stock  exchange is attracting investors; and the economy is transitioning from subsistence agriculture to information and communication technology. In pursuit of the alchemy that made Rwanda such an unlikely success story, Patricia Crisafulli and Andrea Redmond interviewed Rwandan government officials, including current president Paul  Kagame, as well as business leaders, foreign  investors, NGOs, and everyday civilians.”

Any other suggestions?

The World Teaches Humility

Fittingly, I discovered the Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński while in a small Polish town, starved for English books and enjoying the cold canned air of a mall bookstore. I had been in Europe for nearly three months, teaching first in Italy and then Poland, existing in a world without smartphones with quick access to English articles and news. I bought two English books in Italy and read them three times each. I ran across Kapuściński’s later work, Travels with Herodotus, crammed in between the usual shelves of Penguin silver spines, and wondered where he had been all of my life.

Travels with HerodotusKapuściński traveled throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, writing for the Polish Press Agency and filing reports from nearly every conflict zone on the planet. In the throws of the Cold War, there were plenty of options: Iran, Honduras, Angola, Senegal, Ethiopia … the list goes on. He wrote throughout his years abroad, covering four decades of coups and wars and revolutions, resulting in articles and books like The Soccer War, Another Day of Life, and The Emperor. Perhaps his best work is Imperium, a book about his journey around the Soviet Union as the arcane communist system edged toward collapse, his observations of the cracks in the system written with wisdom and alacrity.

I appreciated his work because as he traveled, he thought. He measured himself against the environment, forever seeking to dip beneath the surface of culture to understand the values and motivations, ultimately finding commonalities between the people of disparate nations. He wanted to understand, to drown his ignorance through experience, to learn and to grow. “The world teaches humility,” he wrote in Travels with Herodotus (p. 39). Those words described so much that I have experienced through traveling- and continue to experience with each new trip. Only travel can give you both the high of experiencing and learning so much, then dropping you into the abyss of knowing that you have only begun to scratch the surface of the globe. It teaches you that what you know is simply what you’ve seen; what you haven’t seen remains. There are miles to go, hills to climb, people to meet, sunrises to remember, soccer balls to kick. With every moment I collect, I am reminded that there are thousands- millions- more to experience, learn, live.

I’m now preparing for my next foray into humility: in six weeks, I will leave the fair United States to fly off to Rwanda, landlocked in the heart of Africa, for a year-long teaching fellowship. In contrast to Kapuściński, I won’t have wars to witness and dictators to interview (one only hopes), but the thought of immersing ones self in a wholly new culture, where I am clearly and markedly an outside, leaves me already operating in a state of nervous excitement. So I have begun this blog, titled “A Thousand Hills from Home,” as a way to keep track of these moments, to share with others, and to maybe spread some of the humility, if possible. And now, let this next journey begin.