Updated: Oct 18, 2019
by Bryan T. Hixson
It is easy to value things over people and to depend on systems. Instead, we should prioritize people over things and recognize systems for what they are, tools.
I hate that moment you see a picture and realize that it doesn’t come close to reflecting what you saw in person. That is true for most pictures I take. The same can be true when trying to paint a picture in words. I found myself struggling to describe to my kids what I missed about America and yet I knew I missed much about it. With each trip to America I found myself in the fruitless task of trying to explain what it is I love so much about Rwanda. There are so many things in life that simply require seeing to believe or living it to truly understand it. That is how I feel about what I want to explain now and yet it is worthy of some form of explanation as it begins to explain part of what I love about Rwanda.
There are many things in life that require seeing to believe or living it to truly understand it.
During an incident leaving me in the hospital in Kigali, my mind captured what seemed profound with respect to my understanding one piece of what made me love living in Rwanda. As I sat and waited on assistance, I was doing everything possible not to vomit, which technically was nothing. Thoughts of all sorts were spinning in my head. They ranged from wondering what was wrong with me to wondering what the observing crowd was thinking and doing, to trying to convince would-be assistance that I had help on the way, and so on. I knew within a few seconds that I better call for assistance although I really had no idea what was happening or how long it would last. Had I been in America I might have called 911 but 911 in Rwanda is your contact list.
As I struggled to make a call due to the numbers spinning, along with everything else, I began to realize I wasn’t going to be able to identify a specific number and would have to call whoever’s number came up in the phone. For a brief second, there was concern. That concern left as quickly as it came because I realized that it would not matter what number I dialed, help would come in either the form of direct aid or the recipient of a potential call finding someone who could get there more quickly. I realized that had I reached someone up-country or a block away, the response would generally have been the same whether a national or expatriate. Someone would have come or started using his or her relationship network to get someone to me as quickly as possible. In a land where relationship trumps almost everything else it is nice to know that regardless where in the web, known or unknown, help would find its way.
As it turned out I had texted a friend and colleague a half-hour earlier and I realized that the message was probably still open on my phone and I could just press the top corner call button. If I had to choose one person in my contact list to call that is who it would have been and yet I knew that no matter whom I had reached that I lived in a place where there wouldn’t be thoughts of, “do I have time,” “I’ll be late for X,” “give me a few minutes,” “I’m too far away and wouldn’t be of much help.” I’m not saying that if I had been in another country that people wouldn’t have come to help or looked for ways to find me, but the first thought that may have worked its way through the mind would potentially have looked quite different unless it was a parent or very close friend. I know my thought process as the caller would have been different. This touches an aspect of America that is great. A passer-by would usually dial 911 and emergency personnel would be on their way in most places. In Rwanda, one can’t depend on such systems as they don’t exist or are ineffective. Instead, the "system" is your relationships.
I recognized that had I reached the President of Rwanda with access to anything and everything, to a friend from a slum with access to almost nothing, that help would have come. Whether I reached a colleague or an expatriate who might only know me in passing, help would have come. Whether it had been a Christian or an atheist, help would have come. Whether they owned a vehicle or had to call a taxi or beg a passer-by, help would have come. I felt blessed in the safety net called relationship. As I awaited my friend's arrival, one man tried repeatedly to help me. He found a driver who could drive me in my car. Then he stopped someone asking them to drive me to the hospital. He offered whatever he had which was himself and relationships he was building on the street at that moment.
I realize that the color of my skin and position in society gave me an advantage that someone living in a slum would not have. That saddens me, and yet I know that within their network the same efforts would be made because relationship matters.
I am thankful for the relationship network and willingness of people in Rwanda, national and expatriate, to drop anything on a dime and help. I am thankful that meetings, ballgames, TV programs, concerts and any number of other things will usually take back seat to relationship and helping others. I know that I could have called almost any number in my contact list and gotten immediate assistance regardless of what they were doing because in most cases, nothing trumps relationship.
I am thankful that in America the systems are in place to aid the citizenry. I am thankful that most will make that call. I am thankful to be from America where I believe you will always find the most generous people in the world, whatever form that takes.
For both, there are lessons to be learned. For Rwanda - systems, institutions, and good governance of them matter. They save lives. The vast improvements since 1994 are encouraging. For America, the lesson might be that relationships matter in all directions from all people and relationship is more important than time. Relationships save lives. Thankfully, the number dialed was to an American who grew up in Africa bridging the best of both worlds. My life was not in danger, but if it had been I am thankful that relationship mattered.