Holding 'My Centre' In Rwanda
The blog on the 'joy' of feedback got me thinking about my own learnings about giving and receiving feedback in ways that promote transformation and connection rather than isolation and fragmentation. And how much that has informed my personal life, my activism, my work as an educator and psychotherapist. But then I got to thinking about my current experience, living in an environment where this kind of engaged sharing does not happen much. I've been in Rwanda the past eight months and, aside from rare moments, I've had to learn how to live without feedback.
I've had to learn to find my own balance and equanimity in situations where I have no idea of how I am being perceived. I've had to learn to manage situations in which I have no idea of the other person might be experiencing. I had to toughen up quickly. For example, I'd been here a couple of months when I fell on the street and people stood around and laughed. I was overcome with an intense vulnerability - sure that they were laughing at me - and I came home and bandaged my bleeding knee and burst into tears. I had to accept that I didn't know if the laughter was from shyness, or uncertainty, or glee at seeing a 'musungu' fall on her face. I've had to learn to live as 'other', as foreign, as outsider, from a place of relaxation rather than fear.
I had to step back from my self-centered concerns and accept that it would be a long time before I could even make a tentative beginning at understanding the world in which I found myself. Rwanda is full still of traumatized people and I sense a reticent quality, a carefulness not to say too much, a desire to hang onto the stable but so tentative balance that the country has managed to create over the sixteen years since the 1994 genocide.
I had to accept that relationships were hierarchical and rule-bound, and the people were mostly very uncomfortable with conflict of the mildest sort.
I had to accept that the people around me might not really be, well, all that interested in me.
I work at a genocide memorial site, supporting the development of education programs, and for the first months I had no idea about anything. Forget interpersonal feedback or discussion about models of genocide education, I couldn't even find out how to acquire a notebook or a stapler. Surrounded by young people, mostly genocide survivors, all of whom have English as a third language (after Kinyarwanda and French), I found their rapid talk in Kinyarwanda grating. English disappeared after the eight o'clock 'good morning' and handshake and as my language disappeared I felt increasingly invisible. My head hurt.
I had to wait. I had to be patient. I had to tell myself that relationships come slowly and that they might not look like the heart relationships that come from kind truth-telling and tough reflections. I had to remember every minute of the day that I was not the centre of the universe. It was hard.
I had to step outside of myself and listen carefully when I had the opportunity, and even when I didn't. I had to watch for small openings where I could ask a question or a reflection. My work was to be a witness, and to do that I had to rely on myself and hold my own centre without reflection or feedback.
For sure, those earlier experiences of having myself mirrored back to myself in constructive ways by others were one formative aspect of learning to hold the centre. As were long silent meditation retreats where in the stillness I could see myself with a startling clarity.
Here in Rwanda, with time, I got more clarity about where I needed to hold back and where I could take a risk to ask a difficult question and where I could take a risk to express an opinion. Where these could lead to dialogue rather than distance, confusion or incomprehension. I began to have conversations with my boss about difficult social and political issues and we began to develop a respect for each other.
I knew I was getting somewhere when I felt comfortable enough to ask him what thought of me when he first met me. And I was grateful that he felt comfortable enough to give me a genuine answer. And then, once again, I could rest for a moment in the 'joy' of feedback.