There is no I in Umudugudu

Agnes and baby Ella, two of the many people who have made me feel right at home.
Feb. 27, 2024

After a whirlwind twelve weeks of Pre-Service Training, Peace Corps Rwanda staff drive every volunteer to their permanent home in a Land Cruiser packed to the brim with all of their worldly belongings.

Two suitcases from America, plus everything we were given upon arrival in Rwanda, plus everything we bought for ourselves in a frenzy in Kigali, plus a mattress. They help you unload all of your belongings into an empty house that is suddenly your own. They install your mosquito net and fire alarm using a sketchy ladder. And then… they drive away.

And then, for the first time since arriving in Rwanda, you’re alone. If you’re me, you’re relieved and overwhelmed and ecstatic and terrified. You’re relieved, because you made it through Pre-Service Training, and you’re officially a Peace Corps Volunteer. You’ve been both nervous and excited about transitioning to your permanent site for a long time now, and it’s finally here. You’re also relieved because your house is quiet, and between intensive training and coming home to a wonderful host family and their wonderful three year old, it’s been three months since your surroundings were last truly quiet.

You’re overwhelmed, because the quiet means that you are alone. You’re in a new community, in a new country, speaking a new language, and the safety nets that your host family and training provided are no longer there. Tomorrow, you’re expected to go to work and become a professional. You’re also overwhelmed because your house, which they just finished building a few days ago, still shows the signs of construction. The floor is dirty and the corners are spiderwebbed, and you don’t own a broom yet.

You’re ecstatic, because, finally, this is what you came here for! This is why you joined the Peace Corps, this is why you’re in Rwanda. You’re excited to learn to be a professional in this new environment, excited to turn your house into a home, and excited to turn your village into your family. You’re also ecstatic because tonight you can sit around in your underwear and eat peanut butter straight out of the jar for dinner and absolutely nobody will be around to tell you that you shouldn’t.

And you’re terrified, for many of the same reasons you are relieved and overwhelmed and ecstatic. It’s scary to learn to live without your fellow volunteers nearby, without your host family’s cooking, without your language instructor’s interpretation skills. You are alone, and you’re right to be terrified, but over time, the terror will fade.

Over the next few weeks and the next two years, you will learn that there’s no such thing as alone in Rwanda. “Turi Kumwe,” they say – we are together, and it is true.

The first night, you’ll venture out to go shopping for the things you need immediately: a bucket, a broom, a roll of toilet paper, and a Fanta to accompany your peanut butter. While purchasing the Fanta, you use your best (but still limited) Kinyarwanda to ask the shopkeeper where you can buy a broom. At first, he doesn’t understand, but after miming sweeping, he offers to take you to the shop that sells them. You try to resist, but he insists. You are not alone. Not only that, but you’ve made your first friend at site.

You’ll return home, proud of your purchases, and you’ll text your volunteer friends. Their respective independence meals are ramen boiled directly in their electric kettle, their last chocolate bar from America, and two mangoes peeled and then eaten like apples. You already miss seeing their faces every day, but thanks to WhatsApp, you’re not alone on this front, either.

The next day, there are more things to do and more things to buy. You visit the carpenter, but your counterpart must go with you, because without them you’ll pay double. You purchase vegetables, and another customer helps you bargain. You ask to borrow a screwdriver, and your landlord comes and assembles your things with you.

As you come to know your site, this happens over and over again. When you ask one shopkeeper where to buy something, you are escorted to another shop. When you walk into town, children and elders and everyone in between yell your name, and you learn to never go anywhere in a rush, because every outing is as much a social event as it is a shopping trip. When you walk home from town, neighbors and strangers alike offer to help you carry things. When you return to the carpenter to pick up your finished furniture, you’re prepared to guide them to your home, but the carpenter’s adult sons take off towards your home, no directions needed. Later, the same thing happens when you’re buying brochettes – you start to try to explain where you live, but they already know. At first, this is unnerving. It is also unnerving when you call out of work sick and your neighbors come knocking asking to visit you because they heard you’re sick even though you never told them. Slowly, though, your perspective changes. As much as you felt alone watching the Land Cruiser drive away, you’re realizing you are not alone. Even with language and cultural barriers that become lesser with time but never fully fade, you are never alone. Caring about others, and knowing their business, is part of Rwandan culture, especially in small towns and villages. The Kinyarwanda word for village is “umudugudu,” and there’s no “I” in umudugudu.

Despite its contrast with your prior feelings, this thought brings you relief and joy. Your village is a support system, and day by day, short conversation by short conversation, you’re building a community, and this is why you’re here. But it’s overwhelming again, too. People are always looking out for you, but they are also always looking at you, and the responsibility that comes with that can be exhausting. Speaking broadly, Rwandan culture is heavily collective and relationship-based, and American culture isn’t. Personally, I am honored and flattered and warmed by Rwandans’ willingness to help me, but their help can also be frustrating. I take pride in my independence, which means sometimes I want to ask for directions and then try to find the location by myself, even though I might get lost. Sometimes I want to carry both jerry cans, even though they’re really a little bit too heavy and my arms are still adjusting to my lack of a sink. When I’m ill, I don’t want visitors, and some days I don’t want visitors when I’m healthy, either.

It took me some time to understand this, but all of these feelings can coexist. I love the dance parties that occur at every celebration, but I also love coming home to silence. I love going to my neighbor’s house to learn to cook ubugali and practice my Kinyarwanda, but I also love occasionally eating plain peanut butter for dinner. There’s no “I” in umudugudu, but there is an I in my name, Bianca, and in “American.” Learning to embrace both my relationships with others and my sense of self in a foreign culture is difficult, but I’m learning that every day is a new opportunity to practice. For better or for worse, we are never alone. On average, though, I think it’s for the better.