happy (spring) holidays

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For the record. I love Michael Jackson. But not for reasons you might think. 

Uber talented? Yes. Revolutionary in the limitations (and stretching those limitations) of music? Of course. Singer of the Free Willy hit “Will You Be There”? YES. That’s when I fell for MJ’s music.

I remember as a young girl–maybe 10, 11, 16–I would dig for this old rickety black tape we had thrown aside in some household dresser. On it contained two landmark films from the 90′s (or was it 80′s?): Homeward Bound  and yes, Free Willy. I often watched these movies on repeat, back to back, totally taken by the animals’ plights in each respective film. Free Willy, especially, was my favorite. That scene where the large whale is doing some neat flip in the air and going back home to the ocean, simultaneously to “Will You Be There” is pretty emotional. Don’t believe me? Watch it again! I tell you, you might surprise yourself. Anyway, it’s the song that makes that scene so utterly fantastic, and since then, have a special place in my heart for that song. 

So, it was fitting that at the start of our school holiday I found myself running the back roads of Nyaraturama in Kigali (by the Peace Corps office and hostel) when three Michael Jackson songs came on in a row (I have an IPOD shuffle so it stands to be a strange occurrence with 400 total songs available to choose from). Michael jams always just makes you feel good, you know? I was in an upbeat, light mood and jammin’ to the beat as my feet hit the pavement through Kigali roads (the songs were “Bad”, “The Way You Make Me Feel”, and the mecca of Jackson, “Will You Be There”). I had finished visiting my headmaster at his Kigali home the day before (he commutes as a headmaster for my school but also as a pastor at a Kigali Christian church) and was about to head out to Western Rwanda—to a lake town called Kibuye—with my friend Sara to visit another friend, Saara (we were all together in our Kinyarwanda language groups back in training). Of course, I wanted to squeeze in a quick run before vacation; no matter where you are in the world, somehow, vacations always bring out unlimited refills of Coke, a gorging in delicious food, and a carefree attitude—which is great!

Strangely enough, these back roads I ran before leaving for the bus station were lined with homes that could have come out of a blended mix of posh San Diego and uppity Aspen. I ran open-mouthed as I saw seemingly Southern inspired columns forming massive archways and perfectly manicured lawns every which direction. These were very wealthy homes (the Real Houswives of Kigali, anyone?) and formed a vision a far cry from my rural village just an hour and a half away. I could not have been more self-aware—of who I was and where—nearby, clustered pockets of poverty sat on the outskirts. Against the backdrop of immense wealth, I saw thatches for homes, compounds squished together, and I was reminded that like many parts of the world, visual reminders of both extreme wealth and poverty sometimes become compounded together and gaining a real picture of what society is like can prove difficult. Immediately, I thought to myself how Rwandans would see me running and associate me with this image of money; they would see me as a person that belonged in this kind of neighborhood. I mean, what else would I be doing there running around? I ran faster, afraid of such an implication. I realized in that moment that my notions of wealth and perception of the role I (and all of us) play in the dynamics of society’s rich and poor has been irrevocably changed (and I’m not really sure how yet). In a year and a half down the road, when I come home as a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer), well, America certainly will be interesting.

Sara and I guzzled down some liquids on the bus (her a bottle of water, for me, passion fruit juice) along with some chocolate biscuits in preparation for the 3ish hour bus ride to the West. Eating in public is generally taboo in Rwanda, but bus stations and buses seem to get a free pass as I see Rwandans eating in the realm of public transport all the time. The ride was relatively uneventful; however, the views were mesmerizing. I told Rachel over the phone that where I live (also very beautiful—Rwanda doesn’t have a bad spot in the country) would be like living in the Appalachians back home. The West in Rwanda, by comparison, is like seeing the Rocky Mountains thrown in with a little Hawaii for good measure—completely consuming in terrain and full of stunning colors and depth. I was thrilled to be starting the holiday in such a gorgeous place. We spent about three full days exploring the Karongi District. We stayed at Saara’s (we shared a mattress in true Peace Corps-roughin’ it style), and one of the neatest things about being a volunteer here is seeing first hand other Rwandan communities and living situations for other volunteers. Each of us have something different; and each of us is having our very own, unique experience. Place matters that much. Saara has running water and electricity and even has “sitemates” (other PCVs or NGO workers) and yet with all of this comes different sets of challenges. For example, Saara lives near the District center, and while that brings amenities, it certainly can be harder to meet people and find a smaller, close knit community.

On our trip we ate pizza and salads lakeside, drank cold cokes and beers, watched Bridesmaids, made our own macaroni and cheese, and shared some of our experiences at site. After spending a good amount of time in Kigali, I came to realize that this was the epitome of a holiday. Kigali is nice because you can find that American niche relatively easily, but there is something much more special about being with new friends, exploring those friendships, and being in a beautiful place to boot. It always feels nice to be away from the hustle and bustle and focus on reflection, and more than anything, finding good, hard laughter. Don’t get me wrong, I laugh at home plenty. It’s often those moments where nobody is around that are the most hilarious (take for example, once when a mouse peed in my eye. This is, in fact, a true story…for another time of course…) but laughter is just so much better as a shared experience. I even saw Happy Feet for the first time which has to be one of the most adorable movies, and we shared many laughs over that and many other things.

It’s rainy season and so my 6 hour journey home was mostly in just that—lots and lots of rain. But, it felt good to be coming back to site—to home—and I was looking forward to settling in after staying busy the past few weeks with an assortment of obligations. I dumped by stuff at home and raced to market (Thursday is my only market day of the week!) so I could get there and back before dark. I bought cabbage, carrots, bananas, and onions to name a few and when I finally reached my large floor mat to do a short ab workout before bed, I thought the night would end without anything to crazy.

I was wrong.

As I turned my IPOD on, I heard a knock on my metal door gate that sits about 12 feet or so my front porch, with a yard in between. I asked who it was, and with the combination of my bad hearing and Rwandans tendency to speak far too softly, I heard nothing. Turns out, it was a woman from Kigali with her baby in tow. I thought she was here to visit Louise, my roommate, and so I had her come in through my door to take her back to the room that Louise and I share, as Louise was busy cooking her dinner. However, once Louise conversed with her in rapid fire Kinyarwanda and translated it back to me, well, this is what I got:

This woman says that Isamily—a seller at a Kigali market—told her to come here to our sector to get help with her baby. Her baby is poisoned. She says that she was told that you could help her find a place to stay and that you know this “doctor.” She even had your phone number but her phone was stolen on her bus ride here today.

Umm….? I sat there blankly and couldn’t help but gasp in frustration; who would tell her that? I don’t even know this person! What was I supposed to do? How in the world could I help this situation? In my head all I could think was, what.is.going.on.??? Luckily, Louise handled the situation like a rockstar, finding her a room to stay in that normally another teacher occupies, and got her settled with some food. In the midst of all of this, Suzi, one of my best friends here, called to tell me that with all the rain, her room at the convent (where she lives) had flooded and ruined many things. Oh Wanda.

Of course, the woman came back a couple days later after seeing the “poison doctor” (whatever that means) and requested to LIVE with me. Like, as in, stay here. I didn’t really fully understand her request and had called my headmaster for a translation. He gave a resounding ‘no’ which makes sense; I have two rooms only and certainly no space to house a mother and child. I just felt bad though; she said she didn’t want to go back to her “crazy and bad husband” who was apparently responsible for the poisoning of the child? I’m not really sure about the details, but it was obviously a bad home situation for her. But, ultimately, I couldn’t help her in that way, so I gave her a small amount of money for transportation and bid farewell. I don’t know if I’ll really ever know how she got my information, why she came to this small village, or exactly what her story was. Weird.

Anyway, soon after the whole situation with the woman had calmed a bit that night, I was intending to get back to my workout. Yet, just as quickly, there was another knock on my gate. This time, it was my friend Aline (a Kigali-chique 20 something year old) and her crew including her mother and some friends with a big Simba Supermarket bag for me—with a cat inside. Scratch that—not cat—kitten! I couldn’t be older than a week—it’s able to fit in my hand and can barely walk. It was a gift for me, and though I was excited, I was incredibly overwhelmed. I had no time to refuse; they practically ran out my door after delivering the ‘ipusi’ (cat in Kinyarwanda). While the kitten and I had a couple of nice days together, I gave it away to a friend of mine and her two young girls who live in Kigali at an Easter party I went to. They happened to be looking for one, and I could definitely fill the need. Though the cat seemed appealing at first, in terms of company as well as a way to catch mice, I just don’t have the energy to have a pet right now, and the kitten cried so much the first couple of days that I really didn’t sleep. Plus, I’m a bit allergic and Louise was mortified when she saw the kitten. I think it’s in better hands now, but I will miss that little guy (kind of). I also just think I’m more of a dog person, anyway.

With all of this and that of the holiday, it’s good I am here in my village as I’ll be witnessing some extremely important things the next few days and weeks. Genocide Memorial Week is here. Clearly, I’ll be on the outside looking in, but as a PCV in Rwanda, it couldn’t be more important in trying to understand what happened in community during the 1994 Genocide. Already, I’ve lain in the grass under an expansive avocado tree as I listened along with my entire community to President Paul Kagame telling the country that Rwanda will continue to grow and learn from the past. Each day during the memorial week, there is a mandatory conversation that the whole village must attend. My headmaster is speaking one day; and the purpose is for a message to be given, but for people to reflect and remember as well.

So far, it hasn’t been as emotionally charged in an outward way that I was expecting, but I have been able to sense the very real emotion in the air. Even after 18 years of peace in Rwanda, I can’t even begin to imagine the memories that Rwandans harbor and how the terror that erupted in this country has forever changed the paths and direction of people’s lives. Yet, hope is a very real thing. I left one of these dialogues that I described today hand in hand with my good friend Jacqueline, and even though she was suffering from a headache, had just left a discussion on the Genocide, she just smiled as she always does, wished me a Happy Easter, and exuded a true sense of optimism. In many ways, this holiday will be challenging: how do I take part in the remembrance of something I had no part in? How do I even begin to sympathize? And still, how do I show that I care in the most appropriate and culturally sensitive way?

Still, because I have nearly 4 months of living here in my site, I am as prepared as I could be. I have good friends, a good community, and so I’m grateful to just be here. I was reading through the last few chapters of John from the Bible in church today (as it was Easter and I tend to only understand about 10% of the service, I thought it might be good to have some reflection about Jesus’ resurrection) when one of the pastors, Emmanuel, addressed me and wanted to make sure I was understanding the message and provided me with the appropriate scripture that he was discussing. After church, many of the community members wished me a blessed Easter and said Yesu, ashimye (God Bless You) countless times. And at the Easter party I attended at my friend Silas’ house (the same person who also had me come to his family Christmas party), his aunt, who I call Sole (meaning ‘sun’), talked at length about the importance of education and her work as an NGO worker with an Italian organization to help Congolese refugees.

These are just genuinely good people.

Towards the end of John, Jesus addresses his disciples (many times, actually, as He knows full what will soon happen to Him) and reminds them that the grief that they will feel when He returns to the Father (God) will turn to joy. He tells them: ‘You believe at last!’ Jesus answered. ‘But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet, I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16: 31-33)

Admittedly, I have felt alone here at times. Many times, even. But I’m realizing that its God’s heart in many of the people that I’ve met that has been the comfort, the support, and the answer to this isolation and loneliness that comes every now and then. I am scattered—in ways, all of us are—but Jesus overcame the world and in doing so, overcame all that was bad.

I’m scattered, yes, but I’m not alone. I have a community, I have friends and family (here and all over the place), and I have a sustaining, growing, and reaffirmed faith in God. That’s a really good thing to realize, particularly on a day like Easter. Here’s to the spring holiday: astoundingly beautiful places, good communities, remembrance, reflection, and a reminder of what’s good in—and out—of the world.

About heathermnewell

Hey y'all, I am a twenty-something (okay, I'll be honest, I'm just about 25) and I spent the last 2 years of my life working in the Peace Corps as an English teacher in Rwanda. Before that, I studied American Studies at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. I'm originally from Colorado and somehow I've managed to become a product of all of these environments: loud, weird, adventurous, and a southern-wanna-be. I love writing, eating burritos, being with family and friends, reading Oprah magazine, praying, and country music. I am re-adjusting back to life in America and I hope to carry with me all of the things I learned while in Rwanda. Here's a glimpse into that process as I find the endless blessings that God gives. It doesn't matter where you are: God gives. God is love.

One response »

  1. Hi Heather!

    I’m a PCV serving in eastern Uganda. Groovy blog! Your writing is fresh, fun and thankfully for a PCV, not too cynical or complaining. I came across your blog as I was researching travel in Rwanda. Do you have any tips you wouldn’t mind sharing? Must-sees, cheap stays, culture vulture stuff, great eats, etc. I’m heading to Kibuye, Butare (Gikongoro) and Kigali in July. I’m happy to share tips for Uganda in exchange!

    Keep rockin’ it,
    CLM

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