Something no one warned us about when we joined Peace Corps is guilt. My wife and I have found that we constantly feel guilty about the ways that we have been blessed while living around and constantly seeing extreme poverty. One thing in particular was our process of buying a house.
Since we have been married, we have always enjoyed browsing through houses on the internet. One day when we were in Kigali and had free internet, we found our dream house in St. Louis. Not only was it the perfect house, but it is in Old North, a neighborhood we have looked at and love. We were mostly joking when we requested more information about the house. But through a crazy process which involved very detailed budgets, lots of emails to banks and realtors, and going to the American Embassy to notarize a document giving our friend power of attorney, we were able to get a mortgage and buy the house last September. We have owned the house for a year now, and have never seen it in person. Since we moved to Rwanda in 2013, we have not been back to America.
We knew that we wanted the house, but we felt very guilty just thinking about the amount of money involved in buying a house in America. My painting for the month of September is a painting of the roof of a student’s house. It is a tin roof with holes and rust. It is held up by a frame of trees that would never pass inspection in America. What you can’t see are the dirt floors and walls which become mud when it rains, or the complete lack of furniture. Every Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda has seen a roof just like this in the house of a neighbor, friend, or student.
We began to debate whether or not it was ethical for us to buy a house in America. Even though we knew we were doing more for Rwanda than the average American, it still felt like we were taking something from them by buying something for ourselves. Some friends of ours also recently bought a house in St. Louis. We know they don’t feel this guilt, and they shouldn’t. The difference is that we see people every day who have nothing. We find it ironic that we are sacrificing two years working in Rwanda so we feel guilty about what we have, but most Americans live their normal lives without feeling guilty at all.
With that said, I don’t believe that guilt is a good or appropriate motivator. I don’t think everyone who has an intact roof and a good meal should feel guilty. So there in lies the problem. What feeling should we have? When Kirsten and I discussed buying the house, we kept coming back to the realization that when we return we will have to pay for a place to live. The mortgage on the house is less than we would pay for a two-bedroom apartment in a similar area. We know, in our heads, that simply living in America is just different than living in Rwanda, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. But how, when we go back to our normal lives, can we cure the ache in our hearts knowing that so much of the world lives with so little?
Perhaps there is no solution. But at the very least, we hope to turn this guilt into something purposeful and encouraging so that we can continue to live a life of service. And maybe, at this point, that’s the best we can do.