My favorite coffee shop for the past nine months rivaled any Seattle has to offer. The barista would describe tasting notes from the latest batch of beans (roasted a few days earlier in the rear of the shop) as he measured coffee grounds on a scale and meticulously brewed them with a shiny La Marzocco machine. Taylor Swift albums played in the background as I sipped my cappuccino or cortado and typed field notes on my laptop.
My favorite coffee shop was not in the US, though. It was in Kigali, Rwanda—a tiny, landlocked country in East Africa known internally as the “land of a thousand hills.” Externally, however, it’s known as the site of a genocide where 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic group—nearly 1/12 of the country’s population—were murdered over 100 days in 1994.
If you’re an evangelical Christian, you likely know Rwanda as a mission trip destination: a poor developing country that you visit expecting to go without toilet paper, running water, and internet for a few weeks while you dig a well or work at a vision clinic in a rural community. You might leave the country with no idea that my favorite coffee shop existed. And you might think of Rwanda simply as a country full of poverty-stricken people who lack basic needs.
If you did, you wouldn’t be alone. For most of my life, I thought more or less the same thing about many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and around the global South—even after I traveled to Niger, Zambia, and Uganda for short trips, mostly aimed at visiting humanitarian projects. That was before I spent most of this past year living in Rwanda and traveling around the region conducting research for my dissertation.
At an intellectual level, I knew that people with a diverse range of job titles and income levels lived in Niger, Zambia, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, but my lived experience told me that really, everyone in these countries was quite poor, lived in a rural village with no running water or electricity, and worked as a subsistence farmer. Despite my best intentions, I had absorbed a single, stereotypical story of people living in sub-Saharan Africa.
The problem with this stereotype—as with others—is not that it exists, necessarily, or that it’s untrue; there are many poor subsistence farmers living in remote rural areas in each of these countries. The real problem is that this one-sided experience creates a mental image that eclipses every other image of people living in these “mission trip destinations.”
This is the danger of a single story, to borrow Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s phrase. “I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person,” Adichie says. “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
In the world of short-term mission trips and humanitarian work, where we often hear and experience only stories of disaster and trauma, the so-called “single story” can cause more damage than good in host communities. Why? Because we make assumptions about the people we’re serving, and we also set ourselves up for an asymmetrical social dynamic based on a Western savior complex. Although we might be able to think our way to a broader appreciation of the diversity of lived experiences, for most of us—at least for me—it takes a real, lived experience to break the stereotypes.
This last year, the more and more I saw of Rwandan life, the less I could put “Rwanda” in a neat category in my head. By the time I left the country, I had visited bars, workplaces, and restaurants with local friends; taken a relaxing vacation weekend at Lake Kivu; spent the night near hippos at Akagera National Park; visited a rural church with my family; and watched local journalists cover election campaign events. I left after eight months with more humility and the feeling that it would be enormously difficult for me, an outsider, to understand how best to help a community access electricity, assist at a vision clinic, or lead a Bible study for locals. Getting to this broader conception of the country was time well spent.
After my time overseas, I now think everyone who goes on a mission trip should also take time to experience a country’s beautiful side, too. I’m not suggesting that we all spend a year’s salary on a two-week safari in the Serengeti; that might not be a good use of your resources. However, I am suggesting that spending a few nights at a lodge in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro or on the shores of Lake Kivu might be worthwhile. Stay at a nice hotel for a night, explore a community’s handicraft shop, and tip your taxi driver well. While you’re there, start conversations with a neighbor who may have an interesting job, travel experience, or language knowledge. These simple actions helped broaden my perspective of the world and see those around me as whole, multidimensional persons.
It’s hard to really care for those around us when we don’t even really know them. As Óscar Romero, archbishop of El Salvador, said, “The human progress that Christ wants to promote is that of whole persons in their transcendent dimension and their historical dimension, in their spiritual dimension and their bodily dimension. Whole persons must be saved—persons in their social relationships.”
For me, understanding firsthand the many sides of another country’s story has been a vital step toward fulfilling Christ’s command to “love my neighbor as myself.”
Ruth Moon is a PhD candidate in communication at the University of Washington and editor of Response magazine at Seattle Pacific University. She spent nine months conducting fieldwork in East Africa earlier this year.