They Named me Ingabire (My Path to the Peace Corps)
“You should have a Rwandan name” Noella mused. Noella, Toni, and I stood near the front of the ballroom in the Seafront Marriott Hotel in Boston. There was still an hour or two before the main event was scheduled to begin so we were taking advantage of the calm to catch up with one another, seek out familiar faces, and become acquainted with new ones. Toni and I had just been introduced to the Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs who favored me with a hug by way of greeting. Her presence was qualified by the awaited guest of honor, His Excellency the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. Perhaps this embrace from a prominent political figure prompted my companions to initiate my adoption into Rwandan culture by bestowing me with a name from their mother tongue. “Ingabire?” Toni proffered. Noella mulled it over as I glanced between the two of them unsure of the meaning of the name though instantly taken with the rhythm of the word. “Ingabire”, Noella agreed. And just like that, I had a new name.
The events preceding and following my naming ceremony have coalesced to bring me to the place where I am now, that is a mere 10 days from departing for my 27 month service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda. I’ve reached the point in this process where everything in my relatively short life is beginning to fall into two mental categories; before and after I decided to join the Peace Corps. Let’s start with the before. Three years prior to that day in the ballroom, I was a second semester junior at the University of Central Arkansas (go bears!) preparing for my first international experience: a service learning trip to Rwanda. Despite my origins in a small town in Northeast Arkansas, I had always nourished a desire to explore new places and experience other cultures. As a college student, study abroad seemed like the perfect opportunity to extend that exploration beyond the borders of the continental United States. But why Rwanda? I must credit my enterprising and extroverted older sister, Ariana, for the particular choice of country. Her penchant for making new friends on behalf of the both of us was invaluable. Thanks to her influence our circle of friends grew rapidly and began to resemble a sort of hybrid of the African Union and a general assembly of the United Nations. We became friends with students from The Gambia, Niger, Honduras, Ghana, Malaysia, China, and of course, Rwanda. There was something catching about a group of students from that latter country that made us particularly inclined to participate when one of them worked with the faculty to develop a study abroad trip to his home country. So, while many of my college counterparts were preparing for months abroad in London or Beijing, I was packing for 30 days in a country I likely couldn’t have found on a map a year before. There was a certain thrill in those preparations due to the novelty of the experience. I acquired my first passport, applied for my first visa, and started my first online fundraiser. Even the vaccinations held some excitement; at least, the bragging rights associated with the soreness and swelling from yellow fever, typhoid and an alphabet soup of HEP shots. I digress. The night before we left, I was filled with such nervous excitement I don’t recall sleeping more than two hours at most. I can vividly picture the moment when my iPhone countdown app ran out showing all zeroes. 0 weeks, 0 days, 0 hours. We were off. From Little Rock to Chicago to Amsterdam to Entebbe to Kigali. After 30 plus hours of travel, we were so overjoyed to have reached our destination the airport staff in Kigali thought my sister and I were Rwandan nationals thrilled to be back home. The next month flew by as we explored every region of the country soaking in the history, geography, and culture. “There are only two rules while you’re here” our designated country guide, Gaby, informed us. “Do not ride the moto-taxis and…” Well, the intermediary five years have obscured rule number two but if we adhered to it as well as we did to rule number one than it was likely broken within the first week. Those forbidden moto-taxis had the dual attraction of being the fastest and cheapest form of transportation. Everyone in our cohort was zipping up and down the streets of the capital before too long. Our faculty leaders required that we journal during our trip and I’ve recently been re-reading my dozens of pages of reflections from that month in Rwanda. There was no single moment of ‘revelation’ during which I was hit with how that time would begin to shape my life. It was more of a gradual recognition that the land of a thousand hills would transform my life in a thousand ways.
Upon returning to the United States, I settled back into the daily rituals of college life but with a new sense of fervor. I discovered that there was an entire field called international development in which people worked all over the world aspiring to initiate positive and lasting change. Thus my academic inspirations began to materialize around graduate programs in a previously unexplored region of the country, New England! Within three months of graduation, it was farewell Arkansas, hello Massachusetts. With some apprehension, I settled in for the next phase of my academic career as a Masters student at Boston University. In my first course on my first day, two or three students introducing themselves by referencing recently completed service in the Peace Corps. I felt under-qualified and overwhelmed in their presence. The next 18 months I was neck deep in papers, literature reviews, classroom debates, and student conferences. The days flew by with such speed that I really needed a focal point to give motive to my momentum. Rwanda was the perfect candidate. Whenever possible, I wrote about the place that had first turned me into an intercontinental traveler. I wrote about Rwanda’s mountain gorillas in a paper on ecotourism, Rwanda’s gacaca courts in a paper on transitional justice and when my professor asked us to write a profile piece on a developing country that had experienced successes in the past decade, you already know, I wrote about Rwanda again.
When the summer of 2015 rolled around, I applied for a foreign language scholarship to study Kinyarwanda (Rwanda’s national language). I know it’s starting to look like I had reached obsession level so perhaps it was for the best I ended up doing an internship in Ghana instead. Undaunted, I remained hopeful and watchful for an opportunity to return to Rwanda. It was during this period of living in Massachusetts that a friend invited me to a talk being given by Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, during one of a few stops he was making in Boston and Cambridge. I leapt at the opportunity and although most of the event was in Kinyarwanda (the national language of Rwanda), it was a great experience and perhaps the best takeaway was the acquisition of my new name.
Almost catching me by surprise, my grad program was over and I was fortunate to start working for an international education company in the neighboring city of Cambridge. Another year and a half went by all too quickly as I laid out teacher guides, wrote lesson plans, and coordinated the creation of English textbooks for students in East and West Africa all the while enjoying my work but not anticipating the potential value of this position not too much further down the line. Spring forward to March 2017 and I had reached a fork in the road needing to decide whether I would continue paving a path in the wide world of the workforce or skip back to the halls of academia for round three, the PhD As I started feeling out the latter option, the buzz of excitement I felt researching programs and scheduling interviews with PhD candidates felt like I sign I was moving in the right direction that is until I met with one faculty member who promptly pressed the pause button on my plans.
I showed up in Dr. Davidson’s office in April of 2017 eager to hear all of her advice on applying to and ultimately being accepted into the program of my choice. She listened kindly to my aspirations, asked a number of thoughtful questions, and informed me that there may be an intermediary element I hadn’t yet considered; living and working abroad preferably in the country in which I aspired to work during the course of my research. Can you say conundrum? I left her office fully conundrum-ized. My five year plan (okay, seven realistically; yay for humanities PhDs) had been thwarted or so I thought at the time. Can I indulge in a little cliché. That conversation was really like closing one door (or at least putting one of those little door jam things in it) and opening another one. Within 24 hours I was online researching options for working abroad. As I sorted through what was available I began mentally compiling a list of the pros and cons of what I came across. This mental list became a tangible one as I fleshed out what were the most desirable elements of moving across the world to work.
- 12+ months duration
- Community-based projects
- Language acquisition
- Cultural immersion
- Time to catalog the experience
- A program that didn’t require any fundraising
One prospect rose above all the others as the one that checked all of these boxes and more. But, I didn’t say it out loud. I whispered. I pondered. I made inquiries and sent emails and set up interviews with coworkers. Then almost without deliberate knowledge, I transitioned from a state of inquiry to a state of preparation. I was polishing up my resume and drafting an aspiration statement and researching countries. Because by then I had decided to do it; I had decided to apply for the Peace Corps.
Naturally, the first country I sought out on the list of available volunteer positions was Rwanda. This was late April of last year and at the time the only open positions were working on maternal health, in other words, nothing available for me. So off I went to the other side of the continent looking into positions in Cameroon and Benin both of which had the draw of being Francophone and the two most prominent countries on my genetic map. I held out hope that Rwanda might still be a possibility for me and that hope was rewarded when I was informed education openings would populate for Rwanda in a few months. August 2nd, I was sitting on my bed in Brookline, Massachusetts and I pulled up the volunteer posts for Rwanda. There it was. Secondary Education Teacher; departing September 2018. I applied the next day. And now, here I am; thirteen months later, sitting on my bed in Atlanta, Georgia just over a week away from what I fully expect will be one of the greatest adventures of my life. They tell me the closest English translation of "Ingabire" is "gift". I feel deeply that this opportunity to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda is an incredible gift and one that I intend to share.