…BEES! Covered, just covered, really swarming with BEES! It was very frightening. The Rwandans were laughing at me because I thought I might die of anaphylactic shock just looking at the crawling buzzing pile of fruit. They assured me that the bees were not, in fact, interested in the muzungu just because the Rwandans were. They only wanted the fruit. Rwandans are smart, first of all, but they also have a real sense of humor. And…it's ok if it's at a muzungu’s expense (even mine…I think I’m hilarious (otherwise I might cry at being afraid of so many things at this age)).
OK, back to the lecture at hand. Some background on the more personal, and not so sociological but leading into the sociological, endeavor that is Rwanda for me:
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in Rwanda. This cannot mean that I was interested from a very young age because I know that I became interested in 1994 when it was on the news.
Let me back up. As a child, I was uber sensitive. I could have been the one voted, in my kindergarten class, most likely to pursue aid work or start an animal shelter or something. One time, I was sitting of a melancholy autumn day in my underwear at about the age of five staring out the window at the leaves blowing and feeling the ever-crisping breeze blowing after such a hot Texas summer. I was trying to imagine what it was like to be the proverbial “child starving in china” or as it became later from my, at the time, more news following mother, “child starving in Ethiopia”. I started to feel what it was like to be hungry and to be alone. I started to think of all the food I had thrown away and how cheap food was and about the pear tree in the back yard. I thought, why can’t I just give it to them? Why is that so hard? I was feeling so frustrated at the “powers that be” – that is, the adults, as I so often felt – for not being able to figure out such a simple problem. What is wrong with adults? I have to admit, I have never stopped wondering this. This critique is something along the lines of the Breakfast Club quote, “When you get older, your heart dies…” Here is a clip if your memory is rusty:
Anyway, this was the point at which I began to cry. My mother came in and asked me what I was so upset about. I told her it was the starving children. She laughed kindly and thought her daughter the best of all possible daughters as parents do.
Later on, I couldn’t stay away from trauma. I have other and more personal reasons, as in, someone very close to me suffered a tragic event that shaped their life in every traumatic way since and this affected me tremendously and shaped most things about my life. If you are interested to know exactly what this is like, and not that I mean to compare myself to the world’s worst hate crime survivors or their children, but if you want to know something about it, read this:
There are more academic and also more accessible articles on the subject, but this is the most perfect marriage of the two that I have found thus far. Young people raised by those surviving trauma are in no way protected by that trauma. They are swaddled in it as if by the loving hands of an overwhelmingly personal and yet a collective and cultural memory of tragedy.
I was taught empathy even as I began to understand language and foods that I like. I, first and foremost, look for the human face behind actions and find it very difficult to resort to “black and white” thinking about the always grey (and usually brown of different shades) face of trauma, whether perpetrator or victim.
I am not sad that I am aware and care about the emotions of others. In fact, apart from driving in Rwanda and being in small planes surrounded by clouds experiencing turbulence, I can't think of anything more anxiety causing than being unable to read the emotions of the person I am near. I am happy with who I am and the contributions of those that raised and helped to raise me. I like me. And more than that, I like so many of those who have chosen to tie their wagons to me.
Apart from that description, there is also the silly story where one day, waiting for my mother to open the door to our house when we were arriving home after dark, I began to empathize with moths. We went inside and shut the door and my mother switched off the porch light. I began to absolutely freak out. It never occurred to me that she would switch it off. I began to cry. She asked why and what and how can she help! I wouldn’t tell her until she turned the light back on. Once she did, I explained to her that the moths wouldn’t be able to find their way. That they spend their entire short lives searching for lights in the dark and find one only for it to be shut off. My mother, very reasonably, explains to me that, first, lights cost money and we can't afford to keep the light on. Second, the moths will see the next porch light.
I, then, explain, equally reasonably, that moths have small eyes and they probably can't see the next porch light. Next, that maybe everyone is trying to save money and turns theirs off and then the moth wanders around in the dark for what for it, with such a small and short life, would be an eternity of fear and doubt and pain and searching. Last, 8 hours of one light bulb being on shouldn’t cost that much. I demand to know how much it was and suggest that my allowance should be enough to cover it at a whopping two dollars per week (paid for chores of course).
I don’t remember when I gave up on the moths, but the next thing was a plastic bag and straw protest, but that is another story.
My first book report was on Hitler, because I wanted to understand what is explained as the total mastermind of the Holocaust to a 7 year old. It turns out that it's amazing just how many 17 and 27 and 57 year olds still thing that Hitler was the “cause” of the holocaust (do we just kill all extremists then? Modify the first amendment? How do you deal with that?)
Fast forward to 1994. I was 13 years old and extraordinarily unhappy. Basically, without getting too personal, here are my reasons in list format, as any good Capricorn would want to do:
1. Extreme trauma, not of guns and bureaucracy but of your neighbor chopping you up with a machete
2. Extremely different experience from me, already undeveloped, with malaria, starving, dirty, authoritarian regime, etc etc and then chopped up with a machete
3. Nobody seemed to care in the USA at ALL. I heard the same thing over and over again…tribal warfare, going on for centuries, nothing you can do, will fight no matter what, choose machetes over guns for cultural reasons. And all of this was deadly, DEADLY wrong wrong wrong. (Remember the earlier post? “Americans don’t know anything”)
4. I was desperately unhappy and found it soothing to study other people’s trauma. I often felt like I could not survive. And yet they survived (another earlier quote, “a broken heart keeps beating”). How can I complain about my small and otherwise privileged life when these people are surviving that?
5. 20 years later next April, Rwanda, like me, is simply getting better all the time. It seems like every year is better than the year before. And that means that every year is the best year of my life. I think Rwanda is experiencing something similar. I want to pay absolute attention and just enjoy and study every kernel of these “best years of our lives” (Rwanda and me) because the experience will plateau into bickering about details as routine stability always does. I just received a notification that there were two attempted kidnappings at knife point on my campus back home. Kigali is safer than the USA. I just have to worry about my iphone here. It's a miracle. Are you really listening? A bona fide MIRACLE, the peace in Rwanda. Sociology tells me that there is nothing more special about this people over that people. So, there must be something in the heart of people more generally (peoples is peoples) – immaculate strength, strength and beauty passing understanding and time and death and, yeah Americans, even taxes. And Rwanda was an experiment in this basic human nature. That human survival is already always SOCIAL and not individual. I believe that Horatio Alger can get nowhere when being chased by a machete wielding 12 year old who hates Alger because someone said all Algers were smarter than the kid and that therefore you should hate all Horatios.
Just because I am married with a dog and great roommates achieving all of my career dreams, however later than I wanted, with lot's of people who love me with a garden and lot's of friends and with a job that I want and with lot's of nice amenities living in the richest country in the world…doesn’t mean that I don’t carry the trauma inside of me still. This is the basis for all curiosity, for all wanderlust, and, most importantly, for all empathy. Durkheim believed that god was society. I argue the following syllogism, if you can follow: understanding = love, love = god, god = society, society = solidarity/cooperation, and solidarity/cooperation comes from understanding. Therefore, empathy = god in my most holy of “books” – the ethics of my life.