BY AARON ’08 AND DEANNE WITZKE ’08
Reflecting on our experiences in the Peace Corps, and who we were in 2012 compared to who we are today, seems less daunting than it might have been back then. We can look back, remember the Peace Corps application questions and see a desire to explore and help those in need. Behind the scenes, we knew a longer-term commitment would maximize our chances of making an impact in the community. There was some continued uncertainty of the job market, the need to build a stronger foundation of skills and experience in alignment with a yet-to-be-determined career path. For both of us, confidence that service abroad would be safest under the structure provided by the U.S. Government gave us the extra push we needed to accept our invitation to serve in the Peace Corps. From 2010-12, we would learn and live as transplants in a foreign country. A notorious question for returned Peace Corps volunteers is: “How was your experience?” Our answer has changed since we returned, and we suspect that it will continue to change, particularly as we discover new ways the lessons (both good and bad) learned “in country” influence us today.
The Peace Corps selection process had a strong reputation in 2009 of being long and intensive. After jumping through some hoops designed to test our motivation, we rolled the dice on location and were assigned to be among the second group of education volunteers in Rwanda since the program was discontinued there 16 years earlier. By the time the wheels went up on the plane from New York to hitting the tarmac in Kigali, it had been almost a year since we applied.
Kigali, the capital city, is located in the center of the country well-known as an emerald “land of 1,000 hills,” where banana trees and evergreens coexist majestically due to the country’s position on the equator, but roughly the elevation of Colorado’s front range. Our new home allowed us to walk with mountain gorillas, giraffes, elephants, monkeys, zebras, hippos and more beautiful birds than we knew existed. It allowed us to learn a new language, opening a new space in our minds–one that required constant logic and multi-level thought. That language allowed us to meet people we had very little in common with, and to laugh and cry for hours with them. Our experience also allowed us to become teachers. We taught English in classrooms of more than 60 students, and we supported after school clubs exploring topics such as gender equality, girl’s leadership, debate, theatre and athletics.
In addition to those corporeal experiences, our service allowed us to live within another culture and learn more about ourselves and our own culture by contrast. One thing the Rwandan people showcase through their culture is perseverance in face of adversity. We learned this through observation and were fortunate enough to come away with strengths of our own.
We observed women and men farming in the fields seven days a week, carrying water jugs atop their heads for miles, walking up mountain terrain barefooted, washing clothes by hand, cooking dinner over a charcoal fire and bathing twice daily using a bucket. Being Rwandan is not for the faint of heart.
Our challenges were much different, though our creature comforts were noticeably reduced. Lack of electricity, running water, carpet, a flushing toilet, refrigeration, internet and box springs were things we adjusted to relatively quickly. The truest challenges for us were more interpersonal and cultural. We experienced the challenge of communicating in another language with people who have different life experiences, and the assumptions we make about each other seem insurmountable to understand. The perspective we gained from these challenges was different than expected, though much richer than we could have imagined.
These lessons have brought more questions than answers, as many of the best lessons do. Some things we see as quite positive, such as a heightened drive to continue in public service. We both now work for nonprofit agencies and are fortunate to have daily experiences learning from underserved communities here in the states. However, our time in Rwanda revealed some weak spaces that we are still working to understand and ease. Our capacities for kindness, empathy, trust and forgiveness were challenged. We lived in a country healing from a severely traumatic history. Our Rwandan friends, colleagues and neighbors have all fought tirelessly to restore safety and order in their communities, but the aftermath exists and is palpable.
One of those friends we gained is Jerome Ndayambaje, a soul we met on our first day and spent a little more than two years learning from. He was born into poverty to two hardworking farmers. Jerome achieved a scholarship to university through his intellect and diligence in school. He has used this privilege to support his extended
family and to build a nonprofit agency in rural communities promoting gender equality, health and safety. He is someone we admire, and is a loyal and true friend. Two years ago, he sent us an email announcing his new baby daughter, Deanne Cyuzuzo. He wrote this soon after his daughter was born:
“Cyuzuzo means that Valentine (his wife) completes me and “Deanne” comes from the inspiring couple that were Peace Corps volunteers. This serves also as a memory from Peace Corps. If the baby was a boy, he should be named Aaron.”
Amidst the world’s complexities, one lesson learned endures: relationship building is our worthiest cause. To know and to be known, to love and to be loved. In any community, the ability to create authentic relationships makes an experience fruitful instead of lonesome. As we continue to process our experience and the challenging experiences of our neighbors across the world, our commitment to our global community remains strong, and our desire to acknowledge and wrestle with the inevitable complexities of such work remains unbroken.