My birthday, which falls a day short of Independence Day (July 1), was this week. Every year around this time I get nostalgic, reflective, and almost obsessive about the past year of my life and how much I’ve grown, if at all, since my last birthday.
This year, the reoccurring theme seems to be transformation. I think about how much I’ve evolved not only in the last year but also how much change has taken place since I was in my early 20’s till today.
Only just a few years ago was my life compass governed by black and white. Either it was right or it was wrong, the in between was for people who didn’t want to take ownership of their actions, morals and values. Fast forward a few years later and I live in the grey area. Everything seems to be relative or subjective depending on which lens you look at it from, nevertheless, both, at times, have gotten me into sticky situations.
I am learning that somewhere in the middle lies the magic.
In 2014 I landed at Kigali International Airport with a blonde bob (obviously inspired by Beyoncé’s self-titled album), four suitcases and a heart filled with hope. It was the first time I’d be living in my home country since 2000. You can imagine, I had a romanticised idea of where I was going, how I’d be received and, most importantly, how much impact I was going to have on the motherland’s future. In other words – you couldn’t tell me nothing!
What I found was a slap in the face from reality. Suddenly, I didn’t fit into the picture that I painted for myself. Who I was, and who society expected me to be seemed to be polar opposite beings. The friction between what I wanted to accomplish and what was actually possible began to weigh heavily on my livelihood. Had I created a lie in my head about where I was from, what my heritage meant to me and how I saw myself fitting into the Rwandan dream?
My hair colour wasn’t right. The way I dressed? Borderline appalling. My Kinyarwanda was impressive for someone who barely lived in Rwanda but still warranted ridicule. My English was too American but was often responded to with respect and urgency over my native tongue when I needed service. In formal spaces, I was told I was too opinionated, too expressive for a woman yet the most popular rhetoric in our country is for women to be just that – vocal and present – popularly referred to as woman empowerment. My life was spinning in a whirlwind of platitudes about what a Rwandan was supposed to be like, something I nowhere close to resembled. My defence? Rebel, rebel, rebel. The more I was shunned, the more I embraced the “other” qualities about myself.
Three years later, four jobs, and a heart still full of hope, my biggest lesson has been the space between past and future – the best of both worlds. In many ways, my personal walk very much reminds me of Rwanda’s journey as a country – a transformative experience shaped by who we were, who we are and who we are evolving into. Both wresting with the challenge to preserve the pillars of our foundation culturally and traditionally while simultaneously building our future on refined values and norms.
It is only after years of feeling like the culture I was influenced by and the one I hold dear to my heart were juxtaposed ideals of who I should be that I am starting to let go of wanting to be understood and starting to seek understanding others more. My first reaction when someone resists my opinion on matters that are dear to my heart is to dismiss their thinking to enemies of progress. The ramifications of this pattern have yet to prove fruitful. I’ve come to terms with the idea that to want change, I must be the change. If I am to be heard, I need to lend a listening ear first. Not to change who I am, but to strengthen and expand my opinions and to understand the reasons that mold them. Sometimes I have tunnel vision, other times, I’m solid, and more times than not, I’m dead wrong. This new found truth is expanding the space between who I was and who I’m becoming and is drawing me closer to balance, ergo, change.
Truth is, the world is changing and Rwanda is not exempt from it. The yearn for change is what made the revolutionaries before us be bold enough to fight for the right of Rwandan generations to live and thrive in their home country. It is what drives our leaders to combat a cacophony of low expectation from the rest of the world and it is change that will continue to propel us to achieve our goals. If it weren’t for the burning desire to change the way things were, we wouldn’t have anything to celebrate every July 4.
Change continues to be one of the most resisted forces in the history of man, but it is attainable. Andrew Breton best framed the audacity to pursue it as “reaching for the impossible while standing on possible ground.”
The writer is an observer currently based in Kigali.