Monthly Archives: December 2011

love never fails

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Grandma Mary Lou sent me a few house decorations to put up, and one of them is a little, cute sign that says ‘Love Never Fails’. It’s been my mantra over the past week as I am adjusting to my new life as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and more and more I’m believing it’s this very mantra that I will have to rely on as I go through the days, weeks, months, and yes, years, living in Rwanda. Love is the only thing I can really count on, and so I’m investing everything into it. Love has a lot to do with everything I’ve been doing so far: making friends in the community, relying on others to help me figure out how to make this place a home, and oh yes, even when I’ve been running. Which I’ve been doing a lot.

I’ve been trying to run every day that I have been at my new home. For a few reasons:

  1. It’s something to do.
  2. It’s a good way to greet and get to know my community.
  3. I need to train slowly for the half marathon in May.
  4. I feel good and accomplished afterwards and it’s a productive way of releasing stress.

I’ve tested out a couple paths/routes and it’s been fun to explore my area in Eastern Rwanda. The hills seem to be a little less steep that in Kamonyi; for that, I am glad. Yesterday I threw on my new pink and black pair of Asics (thanks dad and Gretchen) and started slowly past my school and down past the health center. A few kids joined my ranks which is always fun because it feels like being on a team again and I feel more pushed to run faster and longer. I took a turn at a road nearby because I wanted to see where it would lead. Eventually, around 5:30, I wanted to get home to bathe and get cooking on my charcoal stove. So, I told the kids I was running with to take me on the path to the school given that I live right across the street.

We began our trip back and I started thinking about how freeing this whole thing was and in true Heather fashion, I started to reaffirm in my head that people, in fact, are innately good. I thought about how being a good person is also a choice, one that we make freely, and that we can’t always blame the world for our problems. We can be in the world but not of it. I smiled to myself and noticed that we had moved quite a bit away from the road and were running by remote farms through the forest. My smile and positive thoughts about human nature left for a bit, and I soon found myself questioning the intentions of the children. Where were they taking me? Why were we traversing across rural farms and narrow paths? I said I wanted to go to the main road multiple times (okay, probably on 8 different occasions) and specified which school I wanted to go to. They didn’t seem phased and I scoffed in frustration. I was speaking in Kinyarwanda—didn’t they understand? Then, we hastily came upon a large plot of land with familiar blue roofed brick buildings. My school. Oops.

I apologized for my impatience and doubt and said I was thankful for their help. We ran through the school grounds and I brought all of them to my house to give them a candy cane.

Like I said, people are innately good. I don’t think personally  I would make it here while serving in the Peace Corps if I didn’t believe that.

PS. Here’s some pictures of my new home!!! :) :)

my living (and dining) room

a little bit of love and christmas in my home :)

my photo mural

the door to my bedroom

love never fails (the main door)

my minnie snowglobe (thanks mom and randy!) and candy canes (thanks grandpa and glenda!)

the front yard with my grass fence and gate

a view of my backyard

a peace corps christmas at Jen's house

YUMMY (merry christmas!)

the best is yet to come

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I am drinking some Rwandan coffee at Bourbon (the local coffee chain in Kigali) and it’s the first time all week that I feel like I’m taking a breath and processing everything.

And yet, I’m processing nothing. It’s been a blur, the last week, and once again, saying goodbye has proved difficult.

I MC’d the host family goodbye ceremony this past Sunday. Yeah. ME. Our training manager coerced me into it, and even though I was really nervous, I have to say, it went really well. I spoke in Kinyarwanda jokes and still managed to make fun of myself. I think the host families really appreciated it. Then, as my dad and I walked back to our house, he pulled an invitation out of his pocket. An invitation to the SWEARING IN CEREMONY!!!! He was one of the handful of representatives chosen to come to Kigali and represent the families of our training area. I was so proud. He gets to see me promise to serve Rwanda on behalf of my own country, and I’m just happy that he gets to see it. Without him, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it.

The rest of the week was full of final interviews and exams (I passed without any problems! My feedback was all very positive, and I was very relieved). I also found out that my housing situation is a little different than I expected. I will get the nicer house that I wanted (YES! …. still no electricity, but no worries, we’ll make do) and I’ll have a female roomate who is another teacher at the school. I’ll know more this weekend when I make the big move.

However, right now, reflecting on this last week, and the last 3 months really, is hard. It’s been an intensely emotional last 24 hours in saying goodbye to people who have shaped my path here, and who I truly will never forget.

Last night, we had a little going away get together with my family and some of my friends (fellow trainees). My host mom cooked a beautiful meal, and my dad gave a wonderful, heartfelt speech. It, as everything else, was in Kinyarwanda but my language teacher, Franciose, translated it for me and for the rest of us.

He wished us well on our journey and wherever life takes us.

He said our connections and kindness have meant a great deal to him.

He thanked me personally for my kindness and for living with him and his family, and for sharing a part of myself.

And when it came time for him to present the gift, he first told us that he had little to give. They have little money…and not much to provide…but he said him and my mom had the idea for my gift after something that happened a couple of nights ago.

My mom was singing ‘Silent Night’ and I recognized it instantly. I told her I knew the song, and we sang together, I in English, her in Kinyarwanda. I’m not perfectly clear on what happened next, as when Franciose went to translate she  broke down in the middle of repeating back his story in English. However, from what I gathered, they had a dream a couple nights back about me singing ‘Silent Night’ in Kinyarwanda. After the dream, they decided to give my one of their own Kinyarwanda song books, included in it, the Kinyarwanda version of ‘Silent Night’. I was so overwhelmed with emotion….here I was, in the middle of Rwanda, with the most perfect of gifts. Coming from a family, who said they had very little to give.

They have given me so much. I told them that. They gave me hope, safety, confidence, love….they made me believe in myself without ever saying one word in English. They gave me a home here in Rwanda. What better gift can you receive?

It’s the holiday season, and I have found myself here in Kigali, about to swear in and get this journey really started, I’m about to move, and it also so happens to be the season of giving, love, and hope. I’m feeling all of these things (and more) even though I’m halfway around the world from my family and friends. Leaving our host families today left me a little heartbroken. I cried more today than I’ve cried the whole time I have been here. But, I know the best is yet to come.

I’ll be thinking of my host family tomorrow when we become official volunteers (and I’ll see my host dad since he gets to attend!) but I’ll be thinking of many people around the world too. It’s been a long journey here. But, I genuinely and whole-heartedly believe in this. I’m becoming a better human, a better woman, and I’m realizing what Christmas, the holidays, and family is all about. Thanks everybody.

 

the impano

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Impano in Kinyarwanda is translated as ‘gift’ (not to be confused for ‘Imana’ which means God…sometimes I think kids here get a little confused). It also so happens to be my name in Kinyarwanda, as given to me by my language teacher and as sometimes annoyingly (and yet lovingly) translated back into English by my friend Alyssa as ‘gifty’.

 Anyway, I jokingly told my family this morning after our family photo shoot that I was going to Kigali to get gifts and therefore, Impano was going to buy impano. Haha. I know. Hilarious. If you know anything about my humor, well, you can imagine that I thought this was quite funny.

 So, I ventured back into the city with my friends, grabbed a nice cup of coffee (okay, and a burger. And a grilled cheese. Don’t judge) and did some shopping. I returned home and told my family we would do gifts after dinner. I first gave them a card from the awesome glittery-pink-flower stationary that Rachel sent me that was written in Kinyarwanda. My mom read it aloud to the family. I am sure there were some blatant grammatical mistakes, but I think they got the idea.

 I gave two new flower mugs to my parents (because they gave me chai every morning), one of my Ghana bracelets to my mom (she’s complimented them several times), juice to my dad (he loves juice!), a coloring and work book to Dani, a toy plane to Simon Pierre, and a stuffed animal—my stuffed elephant Boo Boo, actually—to Grace. I love Boo Boo, so trust me, it was tough, but I love Grace more. She’s eyed Boo Boo every time she has come to my room so I knew it would mean a lot to her. When has she ever had a stuffed animal? Most likely, never. Thinking about it that way, well, it was easy to give away Boo Boo….and well, I mean, I am 22 (going on 23 next month!). Then, I gave some pepper hot sauce to my parents’ niece who has been a big help with Kinyarwanda and communicating with my family (she knows a TINY bit of English), and crayons, a box of 50 pens, and notebooks for everyone so that they can keep studying even after I am gone. I’ll be getting about 20 or so pictures developed from our photo shoot today which will be my final gift to my family. I think it will be the most important, as photos in Rwandan culture are very important. After all, one of the first things I ever did with my family here was look at my parents’ wedding pictures.

 As my family took in everything, it was strangely silent. Believe it or not, I initially thought that maybe they didn’t like the gifts. Should I have done something different? Then, when I saw my dad’s eyes I realized that there were tears. And then, my mom was sniffling…they were both crying. This act of giving – merely to say a HUGE thanks to my family for dealing with me, housing me, feeding me, laughing with me, and loving me –had moved them. I was uncomfortable at first as the reality of the situation struck me bit by bit…and then I took a breathe and remembered that this gesture meant so much to them that I should receive their gratitude and tell them that it was their love and kindness in the first place that really kept me here. For minutes it was silent but maybe being in the Peace Corps is what this is all about; it’s about having the capacity to understand and feel human emotion, and to share gifts, whether they be love, laughter, and food, or stuffed elephants and hot sauce. It’s about being kind and being open to receiving kindness back.

 In our little home on a rainy Sunday night, I too had tears in my eyes, knowing that this journey is young, but knowing too that my stay with my Rwandan family is slowly coming to an end. 

(mis)adventures: “turi kumwe”

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With a good crowd of people looking on, maybe about 15 or so bystanders, Suzi and I danced to her IPOD (attached to a small but loud speaker) with a handful of the kids that live near her house on the hill. Suzi’s house, for one, is really pretty. Her home has African themed decorations; the walls are white; and it reminds me of a home back in the states. It even has a nice manicured front yard. Her father talks like Earl Jones and is full of wisdom, kindness, and this undeniable aura of knowledge and strength. Everytime I have visited Suzi (even when we made dinner together for her family late into the evening – mac and cheese, big surprise) he wears a perfectly tailored suit.

This story isn’t really about him, or her host mother who is equally wonderful, but it’s a small part of the people we are around day to day. It’s pleasant and extraordinarily nice to be around people who are genuinely good people, because it’s a reminder that a) all the stresses we go through are completely worth it and b) we aren’t all that different. I mean of course, there are the obvious differences in wealth, dress, culture, and language, but when you strip a lot of that away you just have people with good hearts. It makes me feel good, and it makes me feel like teaching here is going to change and impact me as much as it will impact the people around me.

So anyway, we were dancing to all sorts of wonderful hits, such as “Baby” by Justin Bieber (which, I should note, I have seen a Justin Bieber themed bus around Kigali. There are Justin Bieber stickers on the back…his photo on the side of the bus…you get the idea) as well as songs like “Stronger” by Kanye West and the Cupid shuffle. Rwandans love to dance, and Suzi thought it would be fun to have a dance party in the front of her house with the nearby children. So we did, and it made my day absolutely wonderful. I know it made the kids happy too.

It’s amazing how much more I feel like I can do, even just here in training, when I’m positive and open to opportunities to connect with people. It’s been hard lately to want to take the extra energy and say that extra hello, but I found that today, when I moved past being tired and having a long day at our HIV/AIDS conference, I really enjoyed it. Like, today was awesome. At dinner I was laughing with my parents over one of my favorite dishes (peas and plaintains with a big hit of Louisiana hot sauce sent from Rachel…YUM!) and over the radio the hit from America, “The Club Can’t Even Handle Me Right Now” (or something like that) came on and I sang it for my parents and got really excited to a hear a familiar (and super awesome) jam. I need more of that. I need to let loose, and dance a little bit with children, and just be here. It’s something that I’m learning right in time for site, and for that I am grateful.

What I’m also learning as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda is that moments, feelings, and moods in particular can change instantly and unexpectedly. I don’t inherently think this is a bad thing, but it’s something to be mindful of when I am alone trying to make my way into my own community at site (which, is about to happen in like two weeks!). Case and point: the other day Alyssa and I were walking home feeling really good about the way things had been going and where they were going in the next weeks and months (I mean, our swearing in ceremony is at the Ambassador’s house with free American food! Naturally, we are pretty darn happy about this). We had a nice small banter about the possibilities and opportunities of being here, and so I found myself smiling quite a bit after we reached the water tower where the road splits and she turns off towards her home, and I continue down the road to my home at the far end of Taba. As continued to promenade (as they say in French), I saw a short woman with a royal blue shirt holding her hands in the air. I came closer to her and she was speaking loudly in Kinyarwanda. I wasn’t sure exactly what she was saying (sometimes older people are harder to understand because they speak much more formally) and she grabbed me hastily for a somewhat awkward Rwandan hug. You often can find yourself hugging people when you greet them, especially for the first time, so this wasn’t particularly strange, except that little by little I began to piece together that this woman was not mentally okay. I looked into her eyes and I swear, all I saw was brown in each of them. I don’t know if that was from catarax or something….but she just didn’t seem right. She continued to talk in Kinyarwanda very quickly and I looked toward her friend (whom the lady remarked was her mother) and we exchanged a glance. She looked apologetic and I didn’t want her to be; I could certainly handle the situation. This woman was definitely mad, in the sense of being mentally unsound, and it was surprisingly unsettling. The woman herself did not upset me, I was able to release her grip and reassure her in Kinyarwanda that I had to leave for my house and I wanted to her to have a good evening. I felt more unsettled when I began to walk away. What had that woman been through? What is she suffering from? Of course there are “crazy” people everywhere, but the context in Rwanda is just different. It has to be when you are in a place that went through something like the 1994 Genocide, and so under these circumstances you can’t help but wonder what this person might have been through and if they are even close to getting the support and help they need. It leaves you a little helpless, and so even after feeling almost euphoric from a great day in training, you can just as quickly be reminded that things aren’t so simple here, and that under the surface there’s a lot to do, with a limited set of resources. I went to bed that night tossing and turning about what it must be like to possibly be dealing with something like Post Traumatic Stress in this country and how much it will affect the people I meet during my service. Just some food for thought.

On a much lighter note, my weekend was full of learning experiences at completely different ends of the spectrum. Ever since Peace Corps authorized us being able to travel to Kigali on Sundays during training, weekends have felt rather incongruent; one day I’ll be walking along a dirt road forever in the village, the next I’ll be choosing whether I want a burger or a panini in the clean urban metropolis of Kigali. It’s weird, but I also have embraced it. I’ve welcomed the break in the city with my friends and good food, and it’s done wonders for my stress levels. Before heading to Kigali on Sunday, I spent Saturday at Umuganda, doing my laundry, and watching Harry Potter with my language and cross cultural facilitator (called our LCF, pretty much my Kinyarwanda teacher), Francoise. In a word, it was really good day. Umuganda which I have mentioned previously, is the Rwandan tradition where one Saturday a month, the community comes together and works on community service projects together. I’ve only been once (the first month we were here) because last month there was a death in our community of a young man and the community decided to hold a service and memorial for him in lieu of Umuganda. So, Saturday came and it was that time of the month to take a hoe, put your work clothes on, and find a job to do with everyone else in the community. I arrived to our work site in tow with about 6 other trainees who live near me: Catie, Zach, Alyssa, Sara, Saara, and Chinelo. For the first 30 minutes or so we stood awkwardly around everyone else who of course, were awkwardly standing around, watching us do the same thing. The project for this month was to work on the building of a new district office in our area, but it was pretty unclear to which capacity we would be working on the project, and what we could do to help. To escape the quiet awkwardness, we decided to play chicken limbo using one of our shovels. We had some of the kids join in and soon, everyone was watching us, the weird Americans, lead the kids in a full out chicken limbo game. It didn’t last too long, but it passed what seemed like an hour. Of course, in the true Rwandan way, only 20 minutes were gone. And we still had our shovels and hoes and no set of directions in what to do for Umuganda. Finally, one of our teachers started moving soil which we would eventually find out was done in order to make a place to garden around the office. So, we sifted through the fertile Rwanda soil, creating a solid plot of land, and called it a morning. Umuganda for the month of November was in the books. In theory, it’s a wonderful community building exercise and draws upon the principles of what community is all about; yet, it seems to be plagued with disorganization and so I think the amount of work is relatively limited. However, at the end of the day, most people are out in the community, together, working on something to benefit the place they live, so it’s certainly a step in the right direction, I think.

I came home from Umuganda and hand washed my clothes like every Saturday. The last couple weeks in order to fight the bed bug problem in our group I have been emptying my room (taking a part my bed, for example, and then putting it in the sun for the day) and washing my clothes inside my room. I use the water from washing my clothes to then mop my floor three times over. Sometimes, well, most times, somebody will walk by and probably become aghast that I’m doing it wrong and so they’ll take over, but I can usually hold my own. Once I’ve mopped, I usually read for fun while I wait for my clothes and room to dry. Yeah, cleaning and chores work a little differently here. I made sure I bleached my entire floor, put my stuff back in the room, ate my lunch that my mom made me, and then headed off to enjoy an afternoon of Harry Potter. In that way, some things are exactly the same. 

Far from the banana and avocado trees in Kamonyi, Sunday was Kigali day! However, it was an even more special day as all of the trainees were invited to a Rwandan wedding—one of the most important traditions in Rwandan culture. We were invited to Kassim’s wedding (Kassim is one of our ESL trainers who helps us learn about how teach English in a classroom) that would be in Kigali on Sunday at 10:30am. I should note that the wedding DID start on time…but of course all of us, the Americans, were about an hour early. Go figure. Anyway, about 11 of us decided to go, and we all were able to load an empty ‘twege’ (squeeze bus) around 8:00am to make the hour ride to Kigali. If you do the math you can figure out that a large portion of the bus was full of our group, which made for an entertaining ride down the mountain. It kind of felt like summer camp? We sang some Journey and “Ole!” came on the radio repeatedly so we had fun with that too. I was wearing my Rwandan dress that I had made here. It’s red and turquoise and so fun! The dress comes down way past my knees (I have to follow the Rwanda conservative dress code!) and has a fun Rwanda/American 80’s look to it in the shoulders. It’s hard to describe, but I will say my family was thrilled that I was wearing my dress to a Rwandan wedding. If they approve, well, I’m happy.

So like I said, we showed up an hour early which gave us time to figure out where to go. Admittably, we got dropped off and weren’t quite sure where to go. However, we knew the wedding would be a Muslim wedding because Kassim is Muslim, so we literally followed the first man we saw who was dressed clearly as a Muslim man and we were able to find the wedding. Crazy, right? I should probably back track and note that because it was a Muslim ceremony, the actual celebration was more like a dowry ceremony than the wedding. It still hasn’t been confirmed, but I’m pretty certain that we just saw the families exchange gifts, kind words, and became one family from what we got to witness. I think the official wedding occurred in a mosque, and well, since I’m not Muslim, I didn’t get to see that part. From what we did get to see though, the wedding was stunning. For a good portion of the first hour or so, the family exchanged laughs, photographs, and customary traditions. At one point a coke was shared between the two fathers? I tried to follow along as best as I could, but I can definitely admit that I was distracted by many things: for starters, the fashion of all the women in attendance (there were gorgeous outfits!), the decorations, and the entire set up of the wedding and day as compared to what we are used to back in the United States. Eventually, a contingency of the bride came out. First about 8 of what we would think of as bridesmaids decked out in green and gold (the wedding colors) and finally, the bride. She was stunning! She wore a forest green outfit, emboldened by gold everywhere. I could definitely hear people gasp upon her entrance. Kassim did put a ring on her hand, they did exchange hugs, and they greeted certain members of each family in a formal and seemingly traditional way. Soon the ceremony was over, and it was time for some food! It was Rwandan food, but it was pleasantly surprising. It had somewhat of an Indian kick and so we were happy we decided to stay. Oh, and we got two rounds of fanta for free, so that was also a bonus!

We presented Kassim with a financial gift from the trainees that attended and what do you know, of course I somehow was coerced to say something in Kinyarwanda. As we were telling Kassim how beautiful his wedding was and how we all wished him lots of congratulations and love…the master of ceremonies looked at me and simply said, “speak Kinyarwanda.” I fumbled for a minute and then said, “Mwiriwe! Nkunda ubukwe. Turi Kumwe.” I pretty much lost all Kinyarwanda skills that I had up to that point and so mumbling this seemed good enough. Literally translated, this means “Good afternoon, hello! I like weddings. We are together.” Yeah. Oh, and it’s going to be on his wedding tape forever. That’s great.

We headed into town to grab some coffee (and okay, I had to have some real American food) and were lucky enough to get a ride in a real car from the deputy ambassador of the United States. Not too shabby, eh? We ate, caught a bus home, and I managed to not blow all my money on cheese. Success.

The last couple of weeks have been spent at weddings, digging in dirt, and meeting all kinds of people. Today, I even had to teach about 10 students with a couple other trainees about romantic relationships, which included questions such as, “what do you expect in a romantic relationship?” and “how does a romantic relationship differ from a friendship?” Yeah, I was pretty awkward, but it was also light hearted and fun, and good practice in order to talk about AIDS and life skills issues with my students later down the road. Anyway, it’s nowhere close to normal, but somehow, it feels like it is. However, my normalcy is about to get rocked once again. I’m moving!!! In two weeks. Two short weeks. We have to pass about 4 tests (a test in each of the following areas: medical, safety and security, administrative, and of course LANGUAGE) and we then have to be recommended by the training staff. Assuming this all goes off without a hitch, well, then soon I’ll be an OFFICIAL Peace Corps Volunteer. Training will be over, we will swear in, have a couple nights in Kigali to relax and celebrate, and then beginning December 17th (the day I move!) it’s going to be time to head out and begin the next part of this journey. It will be hard to say goodbye to my family in Kamonyi and the other trainees, but I am also anticipating the excitement of what lies ahead. For the first time, I’m more excited than I am scared; I’m more prepared than I am uncertain; I’m ready. I’m Peace Corps VOLUNTEER bound.

PS—I know there are a lot of jam packed stories here, but I also wanted to say that Thanksgiving was wonderful this year! I was sad to be away from loved ones, but I made the best of it! The highlights? Well, we killed turkeys (which I did not take part in…but I did watch…) and plucked them (yes!) and cooked them. It sounds disgusting but I will say it’s certainly more organic than I am sure I have had any other Thanksgiving. We played football (it was quite legit, in the rain and all) and ate our delicious creations, including macaroni and cheese! I hope y’all all had a wonderful holiday and are getting excited for the Christmas spirit!