“You look like the kind of person that would wear a tie.”
Tony was looking at me from the other side of the table, half frowning, half smiling. He seemed like someone trying to make sense of a strange creature seen for the first time.
Small beads of sweat were forming on his dark forehead, as I took a sip of Fanta, trying to decode what he had just said to me.
At that point I had known Tony for about 10 minutes. We had just met at the radio station where I was interning in Kigali, and he was taking his new co-host out to lunch.
During my eight weeks in Rwanda, I was to work as a reporter for the Radio 10 station, and on the side, co-host “The Tony Show,” a popular entertainment program that played hip-hop and took calls from the audience – a very typical radio formula in Rwanda, as it turns out.
Before leaving Canada, colleagues who had been to Rwanda before briefed me on the country’s culture, giving me tips on things like how to dress appropriately for work (dressy clothes, shoulders covered and a skirt long enough to cover the knees).
I knew about the importance of keeping one’s shoes dust-free, even though the streets there were covered with fine red sand that crept up everywhere.
I had even learned how to properly greet people, either with three kisses on the cheeks, a handshake with the right hand or a chummy hug (this one I never quite mastered).
On my first day on the job, I had done all these things. Yet there I was, eating fried bananas and rice in an outdoor restaurant, sitting in front of the six-foot-two Tony from “The Tony Show,” feeling utterly unequipped and self-conscious.
Then, I finally understood what the tie reference meant. Tony was trying to tell me I looked too serious. He was right.
I was in Africa for the first time in my life, on a particularly gorgeous day, and instead of enjoying my first lunch with my new co-host, I was stressing about the news story I had to file for the evening newscast, which was broadcasted in the local language, which I didn’t speak (one of the many technical challenges I would come to face during my stay).
In just 10 minutes, Tony had sized me up pretty accurately. I was a serious student intern, a polite perfectionist in a white blouse and green skirt that covered my knees. The only thing that was missing was the tie.
I hadn’t really realized how serious my life had become, but six years of university studies had somehow denaturalized me. I had become a machine; a productive one. Focusing on the task at hand, at the expense of appreciating the moment and the people in it.
“So, should we meet at some point to prepare material for the show?” I asked Tony. He chuckled. “I tend not to prepare anything in advance really. I kind of wing it, you know?”
No, I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine myself going live on the air – on Rwandan radio heard across the country, in people’s homes and on city buses – and just winging it.
But that’s the kind of adjustment I eventually made in Rwanda. To survive in this country and keep my sanity, I had to get used to a whole new pace. I had to stop taking myself so seriously and seize the opportunity when it presented itself. And that opportunity would always come by, if you had enough patience to wait for it.
This is not to say that my Rwandan co-workers didn’t take their work seriously. They worked tremendously hard. Some reporters in my newsroom would come in at 6 a.m. to do the morning newscast, work through the day and attend night school in the evening.
I think the main difference between us though was in the stress we individually decided to impose on ourselves.
I had been brought up in a world where there’s no room for mistakes. A world where you simply can’t hand in your assignment late; you just CAN’T. A world where a meeting starts at 9 a.m., not 9:15, and where it would be unthinkable for a reporter to come back to the newsroom empty-handed at the end of the day because the story hadn’t worked out as planned.
But in Rwanda, these things happened and no one had a stroke about it. Life was just too short for that.
If the minister never returned our phone call in time for the newscast, it wasn’t the end of the world. If Kim had a stomach ache in the morning, he would take the day off to rest. If one of our two working computers’ sound card was broken, the show would go on.
And despite these hurdles, we would still find the time to take a nice relaxing lunch, drink Fantas and enjoy each other’s company.
Baptism by fire
Co-hosting “The Tony Show” was baptism by fire. On our first show, Tony put me on the spot, asking me, live on the air, whether I believed in God or not (there’s no easy way to answer no to this one in Rwanda), and if I liked Céline Dion (again, no easy answer).
I had to take in calls from the audience and interact with people – even though I only understood about half of what they were saying through the staticky cell phone lines – and pretend I knew everything about American hip-hop.
The experience was surreal, to say the least. There I was sitting in front of the notorious Tony, in our fourth-floor radio studio overlooking Kigali and the night sky, forced to abandon all inhibitions with some thousand listeners bearing witness.
Co-hosting “The Tony Show” turned out to be a blast. By the end of my internship, I felt so at ease, kicking back old-school hip-hop songs from my early teens, recounting anecdotes on the air and even taking charge of the mixing board once in awhile, as Tony watched, sweating and smiling.
My time in Rwanda was an eye-opener that got me to rethink my priorities and values. I fell in love with the country’s way of life, which seemed to put people first, and the work, second. Back in Canada now, I struggle daily to maintain that perspective and slow down the pace, enjoy life’s moments and focus a bit more on the journey instead of obsessing on the end results.