I’ve always valued words above all other forms of communication. Living in Rwanda, however, has taught me that words are only one way to connect with others. Rwandans often speak quietly, and many times they will hold an entire conversation without facing one another. While they may not always hold eye-contact, they often physically hold one another.
I don’t think I ever realized how comforting it can be to receive a hug from someone who cares about me. The combination of my cultural context, living situation, and general social awkwardness means that sometimes I will go weeks without much more physical human contact than a handshake. You’d better believe that during the sharing of the peace at church on Sundays, I’m going in for the classic “hug and THEN a handshake” maneuver (emphasis on the hug).
Sometimes, though, I’m smothered with hugs and kisses and endless handholding. Greetings always include some sort of physical contact. Sometimes my Rwandan friends greet me with a handshake. Sometimes, if one of us is holding something in our right hand, we will just touch wrists. Sometimes they grab onto my arms, just above my elbows, in a sort of half-hug. Sometimes it is a real, two-arm hug. Sometimes they kiss me on the cheek once, and sometimes they kiss me on the cheek three times. I’d tell you the level of contact during the greeting is based on how well I know the person, but that simply isn’t true. Some of my best friends always greet me with a handshake, and often complete strangers greet me with multiple kisses.
The physical contact does not end during the greeting. Often, people hold my hand the entire time they speak to me (this can make the journey down the stairs from the chapel after morning devotions a little tricky). Many women I’m friends with love to play with my hair when I visit their homes. Children often greet me with a hug and then cling to my arms as I walk to town.
Before coming to Rwanda, I valued my personal space. In fact, in the United States, we will say that someone who gets too close to us is “violating” our personal space. In this culture of sharing, however, being close to another person is not a violation, but rather a sign of being in community. Sometimes I find myself sitting on a bus that is so crowded one of my shoulders is in front of one person and my other shoulder is behind another. Sometimes a woman will place her baby into my arms in the middle of the church service so she can sing in the choir.
I became acutely aware of the importance of touch earlier this year. In December, I became kind-of-really sick. I kind-of-really didn’t want to go to the local clinic. I tried to continue working and staying busy, but I found myself talking long naps between each scheduled activity. Eventually, I gave in, and allowed Gady to bring me to the doctor. Just as I feared, the nurse told me she needed to draw blood for a malaria test. Those of you know me know that I hate blood, and I hate needles, and I hate needles that are used to draw blood. I was in an unfamiliar place, my head and stomach hurt, and now the nurse was poking a huge needle into the crease of my elbow. Unable to reach a vein, she decided to take another approach. She took a rubber glove, tied it around my arm, sanitized my wrist, and began drawing blood from there.
It was too much – I couldn’t stop the downpour of hot tears. Gady immediately took my hand in his own and put his other arm around my shoulders. He had studied medicine before thelology, and I could see in his eyes that he didn’t understand why I was so upset by this standard, simple, blood-drawing procedure. But, he didn’t ask any questions. He just held me as I tried to pull myself together.
Being held is uncomfortable. It involves trust and vulnerability. It means letting go of some of the aspects of my home culture and embracing (literally and figuratively) aspects of my host culture. However, being held also signifies acceptance. It is more than an act of courtesy – it is an outward sign of compassion and care.
I think about all the times Mama Teta has taken my hand as we’ve walked around campus, squeezing a little tighter when she has exciting information to share and pulling down as if to share the weight of her burdens with me when she has sad news. I think about baby Promise, who loves to snuggle in my arms while her mom works on an assignment, reaching out to clutch one of my fingers. I think about Bénita, my favorite toddler in the world, who often wanders up to me during church and raises her arms – a signal that crosses all language barriers and means she wants me to pick her up so we can dance together. I think of my friend Solange who always greets me with a hug and three kisses – often leaving her arm wrapped around me as we catch up on the events of the past weeks. I am sitting in the library as I write this, and I’ve had to stop multiple times to greet and shake hands with students as they come in (it is common for them to enter a room in the library and individually greet everyone before settling into a table to study – quite the cultural difference!).
When the Beatles said, “I want to hold your hand,” they knew what they were talking about! At the end of the day, sometimes someone holding our hand is all we need to know that we are not alone. That we are part of something bigger than ourselves. That we are human. That we are connected. That we need each other.