In the frenzied 24 hours after my last School of Information final and before my flight to Kigali, Rwanda last May in which I also managed to move out of my house – a friend of mine spent the day chauffeuring me around greater Ann Arbor, tending to all of the loose ends I needed to tie up or cut off before showing my CDC-stamped yellow card and heading to Brussels.
Waiting for my prescription of anti-malarials to be filled, we drove to Dexter to buy a replacement part for my camera. Still driving conservatively, counting gazebos on the way in, my friend confessed:
“I hate to admit it, but when you said you were going to Rwanda – I had to look it up on a map.”
Staring ahead, plotting what I would get from Dairy Queen on the way home, I said: “I hate to admit it – so did I.”
For everyone’s reference, Rwanda is here. ^
Four weeks earlier, my professor Joyojeet Pal – a person so tall I don’t come up to his shoulder – pitched a month-long field research field trip to Rwanda on the 2nd of April. My other internship didn’t start until June. There were no good reasons to say no. I agreed on the 5th, told my parents on the 6th, and would board a plane less than a month later.
When I first started planning my trip to Kigali last April – it was at one point my impulse to type: “Rwanda Hotel” into Google.
It turns out when you type “Rwanda Hotel” into Google, all you’re going to get are largely favorable ratings and reviews for the 2004 Don Cheadle film.
I settled on getting my research assistant – an infinitely resourceful 33-year old Rwandan named Cyprien Sebushi – to find me a place to live, with nuns, for 9 USD a night outside of Kigali’s main roundabout.
Armed with anti-malarias, a place to stay upon arrival, a CDC stamped yellow card the Detroit-based TSA agent looked genuinely perplexed by, and a healthy amount of vegan survival food, I set off to Rwanda.
I arrived at the the tail-end of the rainy season – lots of water falling on tin rooftops. It was also the end of a month-long remembrance period of the genocide, which occurred 19 years earlier – lots of signs noting: “We will learn from history to build tomorrow.” With the rainy season, and the genocide remembrance month coming to an end, we set to work.
Bus rides with Michael Chabon.
We rode harrowing bus rides throughout the country and met many frustrated visually impaired people with university degrees, languishing in unemployment and working under a public perception that as at non-seeing individuals, they were useless.
In particular, we met with visually impaired women who felt an acute kind of dual-invisibility in society – an inability to move forward in their lives because of a kind of double burden a vision impairment, and a lack of resources granted to them as women.
Field research is not unlike journalism in that you ask for someone’s time, and their story and they sometimes give it to you in startling amounts and detail. It is not uncommon for people to ask you to advocate for them. A few interviewees asked if I could help them get into school in the United States.
My answer was always be the same: Thanks for your time, and no, and probably this won’t change anything for you even a little, and have a good day. And I’d grab a bottled water on my way back to my hostel and know I’d be settling into an internship at Harvard in a few weeks.
A week before leaving Rwanda, we held one of our last interviews at the only place our interviewee would meet us – a bar next to his place of work in the Eastern Province. We drank Primus, the big bottles. The lights periodically powered off which phased everyone except our interviewee, who continued to flirt with the waitstaff. At the end of our interview, Cyprien turned to me and said:
"I can’t believe you’ll be back in the United States in a week?"
"I have to admit, I can’t either."
A week later, I boarded a plane and shuffled back to the United States to begin a research internship at Harvard. I arrived on campus just as Oprah, the 2013 commencement speaker left.
I spent the first week ultimately baffled that Cambridge, MA and Kigali, Rwanda exist in the same place at all.
Then, I began to settle into my new project. I snapped back to America like a rubber band worn thin.
I spent summer lunches sitting on HLS garden rooftops — and getting froyo or drinking beers with intellectual, academic (and actual) rockstars. And other Harvard things.
But – what was that, that happened in Rwanda?
Alone, I thought about how to navigate the difference between university-sponsored socio-economic tourism, and something meaningful. There’s an impulse to call yourself a change-agent and wrap yourself in the comfort with the idea that you created knowledge where it did not exist before. And that’s how you figure out the difference. But, mostly, that’s all you get. It’s not always convincing. There are no earth-shattering policy changes.
So then the challenge lies in moving onto whatever the next project is, and there will always be a next project – and to obtain a comfort in projects that don’t end in resolution, but are still valuable for the process, the output, and for one’s hope in the long game that continues without you.