Culture Shock

27 Jun

Aside from getting over my fear of squat toilets and that first isolating night at my homestay I haven’t really experienced culture shock. It has been relatively easy to settle into a routine during the training which I think has contributed to the ease of transition.

During my site visit it became apparent to me that I can expect to go through culture shock when I move there. In my training area they’ve had two different volunteers who worked at the hospital up the road from where I live. As a result, the number of people here yelling ‘muzungu’ asking for money, pointing, and trying to touch me have been relatively few. I could most likely count them on my hands.

That was not the case during my site visit. While greeting a woman on a walk around site when I asked how she was instead of the customary, ‘I’m good’ I got a monologue about her sick leg along with a slew of other things I didn’t understand which concluded with a request for money. It happened quite a few times, not to mention that I got into several conversations with women where they became quite animated, raising their voices as I continued to explain to them that I didn’t understand what they were saying. I interpreted their escalations and grabbing of my writs/arm as hostile because I didn’t know what else to make of it.

As a result of these experiences I realized that when I moved to site I have to begin the process of integration all over again. Only I have to do it alone and without the benefit of having other PCVs living there previously. This filled me with a dread and I’m still trying to figure out how to prepare emotionally and mentally for this process. Currently in my community I seldom go anywhere without the company of at least one other trainee and if I do, it’s never very long until I see a Rwandan I know who could ‘rescue’ me from any potential harassers.

At my site they have a very different relationship with foreigners (abazungu). Around my community there are signs for a USAID project , my health center was built by the Methodist Church and I noticed that some of the educational materials the community health workers use were from World Vision and another religious agency. That means that people at my site are used to abazungu sweeping in and giving them stuff or dumping money into projects then leaving. Very different from the Peace Corps approach of placing volunteers in a community where they integrate, lend their time and build capacity.

If anyone has experience with how they’ve dealt with a similar situation or some self-care strategies I would love to hear them.

What is culture shock anyway? During one of our tech training sessions we discussed it. For me I couldn’t find the words to quantify it but have found it’s a sour feeling that is a knee jerk reaction to an experience that differs from previous experiences. I was surprised to find that I had such strong feelings about my training site, that the people here were friendlier than at site. I guess the grass really is greener sometimes.

Hopefully having work to dive into will provide some relief from this challenge. Being able to interact with small groups of patients at the health center should help get the word out in the community of what I’m about. I also plan to attend several services at each of the churches in the community. At most services guests are asked to introduce themselves which is a great opportunity to make myself known in the community. To do it in Kinyarwanda will dazzle folks even more. The best part is that many of my coworkers invited me to go to church with them so I will have someone to go with and get to bond with coworkers.

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