NO MATTER where I am or what I’m doing, even on the really good days of my life, when it’s the end of October, there’s no where I’d rather be than Rome, Ga.
Today I find myself in Musanze, Rwanda, sitting in my little cinder block house with the doors and windows open to the beans and vegetables growing in my yard. I just returned from participating in the cultural tradition of Umuganda with my Rwandan neighbors. The last Saturday of each month everyone is required to participate in community work. The projects vary month-to-month, but everyone meets in the morning and works together. Usually, men and women do separate projects.
I spent the last hour and a half bent at the waist pulling up weeds with some old women discussing community service activities in America and why I’m not married. And it’s just now 8:45 a.m. We get started early around here. The weather is such that it’s comfortable to wear a hooded sweatshirt and flip-flops.
That, the sliced tomatoes I’m eating, and the Zac Brown band playing on my laptop brings my thoughts back home... to Rome.
THIS TIME OF YEAR, and when the weather here matches the weather there, I can’t help but remember how much I love things like Mountain Day at my beautiful alma mater and the Chiaha Harvest Fair where it used to be, down by the river at Heritage Park.
I remember Heritage Holidays where each year of middle and high school I would stand on risers downtown, singing with my school choir, while my Nana stood in the audience clapping her hands to the music. And I think of the trail ride that stops traffic all through town and then leaves smelly surprises that we’d find all over our school playground on Monday morning.
Mom would always tell us the story of how one time she was riding in that “wagon train” and her hand got caught in a rope that was tied to a spooked horse.
I always cherish my memories of the Coosa Valley Fair and feeling anxious, excited, and so very proud to represent my school at the cheerleading exhibition. I say exhibition with emphasis because we were always reminded it wasn’t a competition, but we knew better.
IT WAS THE PREMIER of our competition season where, after a long summer, we could finally see the routines of the other squads we rivaled so much. There were no trophies, but nobody forgot how each team performed at the fair.
Then there’s trips to Burt’s Pumpkin Farm, getting apples in Ellijay, hayrides with church youth groups, trick-or-treating in Sherwood Forest and Maple Wood and Celanese, football games, hiking and camping, eating dinner outside, bonfires, chilly mornings, flannel and jeans, and much, much more with smells, tastes, and feelings that can’t always be captured in words or photos.
There’s no adequate way to describe the sound of the marching band cadence, the feel of crisp air, and the smell of popcorn and nachos at a high school football game. You know what I’m talking about.
But, back to my little Rwandan village. Soon today the equatorial sun will climb higher and higher and the temperature with it.
My thoughts of my home will ease to rest in the back of my mind while I visit friends in the village, hike to a waterfall, spend time at the health center where I work, and cook dinner over a hot plate on the floor, all the while speaking Kinyarwanda and trying to understand a way of life that still, after almost 5 months is quite foreign to me.
NO MATTER how much I long for home while looking at pictures and listening to country music, right now, at least, I am here. In Rwanda. Serving this country and my own as a Peace Corps Volunteer. And for that I am grateful.
If there’s anything I’ve learned thus far in my service its that community and local culture are vitally important. Nobody was created for or understanding of your own community quite like yourself. Every day I walk past toddlers working in fields alongside their parents wielding machetes and I think of how we are molded and taught to function in our respective cultures. Were I in America, I’d run up and snatch that machete out of said toddlers hands and call the police (I can’t help it, I used to work for DFCS). I often feel so lonely and like such an outsider when I’m the only one who shows up on time to work at 7 each morning or I don’t get the joke, I wear the wrong shoes, I find the local traditions tedious and boring, or they laugh at how in America, the work they do by hand we do with machines. This happens all the time. My Rwandan friends get such a kick out of asking, “In America, you have a machine for this?” about everything.
SO, I ENCOURAGE everyone to travel, volunteer, serve in another culture, welcome foreigners to our own culture, and see as much of the world as you can. I also very heartily encourage you to appreciate your community and your home culture. If you find yourself at home this beautiful season, going to the same old football games, watching the same old parade, building the same old bonfire, or simply raking and burning the same old leaves that won’t stop falling, look on it with gratefulness.
People all over the world are doing their traditions in this specific season. Hold tightly to yours when you get to do them, whether that be planting beans and praying for rain, or taking your kids to the fair.
THESE ARE the only days we get. We are who we are and we live where we live. There’s beauty in that. Let’s look for it.
Roman Amanda Highfield is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda, where she works at a rural health center in Kabere Village. She is the daughter of Rhonda (Barton) Rayburn and Rick Highfield. She attended Floyd County Schools and is a 2005 graduate of Berry College.