During the first couple of weeks of returning to my home country after spending eight years abroad, I realized that I had no idea how to get attention from strangers that I met on the streets. There would be moments where a passerby drops their wallet and I wouldn’t know how to call him/her out to hand it back to her/him. Or how should I call on the street vendor?  “Garçon” seemed culturally inappropriate yet I did not know the names of each vendors. Through observation, I learned that there is a single word used by most people to get attention from those around them. That word, or expression, is “Umva!”

Umva in Kinyarwanda literally means “Listen!” This word has no gender, no class, no race—just the perfect word I needed. But more importantly, this word reflects a very important cultural value: listening. Over the past few months spent in Rwanda as a Global Health Corps fellow, I’ve learned many ways in which to practice “Umva!”

During the first couple of weeks in my placement organization, I learned that listening is the best tool in getting settled.  Through listening, I learned about the lives of my co-workers, was able to relate to them on a deeper level and work effectively with them. Through my work I listened to Health Center directors tell me ways in which they were trying to cope with lack of running water during the five months-long dry season and learned about the resilience and sacrifice of health care administrators in rural areas. I listened to Community Health Workers explain how they proactively search for potentially pregnant women in their catchment village to provide them with advice on antenatal care. I listened to health insurance recruiters talk about challenges they face in mobilizing villagers to enroll the health insurance system. In all these times, listening was an integral part of my growth experience.

As a 22-year old, I acknowledge that I do not have the answers to all the world’s [global health] problems. But listening, practicing Umva, provides me guidance to be able to contribute better in the betterment of my life and that of those around me.

Being paired with an American fellow has also challenged me to think of listening beyond just hearing. In rural Rwanda, most people speak Kinyarwanda so this creates a language barrier for English-speakers trying to work in those communities. There would be moments of confusion and misunderstanding but these would always be diffused by laughter or a gentle pad on the back. Umva overcomes language barriers.

So every once in a while when I come across big challenges, I’m reminded of Umva. I’m reminded to listen and be guided.