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Personal Inspiration

I’m never sure of Jeanine’s age. Some days I think she’s twenty-eight, but ask me next week and I’ll guess thirty-seven. When Jeanine listens closely to someone, her expression is severe; she looks close to tears. But then she’ll suddenly grin this huge, huge smile. Or she’ll open her mouth to explain something to you, and her whole face will animate. You’ll look into her eyes and think: Wow, all I want is to be best friends with this woman.

Jeanine is one of the team leaders of “Build a Family,” a Global Grassroots project fighting domestic violence (and people’s mindset about it) within their community in Rwanda’s Nyarugenge District.

But this blog is not about Jeanine. Well, it is, but not in the way you and I might think. It doesn’t fit inside that invisible little bubble of “the personal” that I grew up drawing around each person I met. These are the things that must have really touched you; those are the stories you tell but don’t feel. You were in a bad car accident as a kid? That can fit in the bubble. You witness accidents on your commute to work? Not in the bubble. That guy down the block, the one with the howling dog, was nearly killed by a drunk driver? Probably still not in the bubble.

I interviewed Jeanine recently; Marlene translated and Caitlin took on the role (and all-black outfit) of camerawoman.

Jeanine told me lots about her childhood, her children, and why she believes that Build a Family’s work is important for her community, where abuse (especially of domestic workers) is both widespread and often accepted.  But why is this project important to her? Why did she choose to get involved with this particular issue?  Were she and the other team leaders inspired by particular moments or personal experiences?

No matter how many different ways I asked, Jeanine was confused by this question. What did I mean? she said. I was just willing to help people. We know this is a big problem for our community. All my neighbors know it’s a problem, with many consequences. I just wanted to help people.

In the States, when we ask, “Why did you get involved in this work?” we expect one of the following answers: “I suffered from X myself. My sister was diagnosed with Y. My daughter was a victim of Z.”

In Rwanda, I’m finding that this idea of personal motivation is often wholly irrelevant.

The correct term in Kinyarwanda for your mother’s sister’s daughter is: your sister. Not your cousin. Rwandans are family people. Big, inclusive, extended family people. Maybe this is part of why Jeanine’s concept of “we” is larger than mine. Most of our team members seem to care more broadly – more generously – than I do.   “I got involved in this work because I saw that X was a problem for my community.  My neighbors suffer from Y.  My society is a victim of Z.”

Should I feel ashamed of my contained heart?  Or should I place less trust in our teams’ dedication, because their motivation comes from the plight of sisters eight-times removed?

Neither, is my conclusion. Look wherever you like for drive, for passion. How you come upon an inspiration makes it no more or less real. But do find something to care about, and then act, and base your actions in that place.


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