ten words

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This one time at college (how many stories start that way? Oh so many…) my friends and I were sitting around, chatting, laughing, hanging out likely until the wee hours of the morning. I think a lot of college stories start this way. Well, at least with my friends and I. We’re talkers. And thinkers.

In fact, one of our great thinkers, Michelle, once posed the ever-present question in one of those long-winded dialogues that I really never wanted to end. You see, talking with friends about anything and everything is, I think, one of the best things that friendship brings us. Often and ideally, friendship gives you the freedom and space to talk about whatever is on your heart, on your mind, or frankly, what’s in your belly (who doesn’t love talking about the intricacies of food?). Michelle was my very first friend at college (and has remained like a sister since). Not counting my roommate, anyway. And let me tell you, the “friendship” I had with my first roommate was essentially non-existent. Awkward, if you will. Actually, it was my roomate’s ex-best friend that would eventually become one of my very best friends. Are you lost yet?  That’s another story entirely.

Like I was saying. It was Michelle—the Texas born, cowboy boot wearin’ woman—that said something in one of our long discussions that has stuck with us ever since. We were probably laughing or something (laughing was of the upmost importance in our friendship; the first time Michelle and I hung out on our freshman orientation trip we laughed. The entire time. I was laughing at her laugh…and she just laughed…and so the cycle continued. People thought we were legitimately crazy. They were right.) when we were perusing Michelle’s writing in one of her many classy journals. As she flipped through the pages, she read aloud one of her entries that asked, “what is time?” I can’t remember exactly, but I am certain we laughed for a very long time. After all, this particular entry was of the existential sort, exploring the conundrum of how time passes so quickly. In fact, I think she even asked something along the lines of whether or not we move through time or whether time moves through us. Like I told y’all, Michelle’s a thinker.

The what is time joke-catchphrase-thing is something we continue to say, even today, though I’m finding these days, we’re taking Michelle’s words a lot more seriously. The thing is, Michelle was right.

Because somehow, it’s 2013, I’m 24, and I’ve lived in Rwanda for 16 months.

Somehow, in 365 days, I’ve become a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a community member, a traveler, a bi-lingual woman, and a volunteer.

But, where exactly, did the time go? Like we always say, what is time?

A friend of mine told me that a fun little exercise to remember the year can be done when you try to summarize your year in 10 words. I probably took him too seriously (because I love these sorts of things) and so I thought about this exercise for hours. What exactly could I say about this year?

This year, in 2012, I started teaching secondary students in Rwanda. Some days, I earnestly tried to teach grammar. But often, we did things like sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, or went outside to observe nature, practiced dialogues, and looked at photos from my life. Some days, I think I might have had a break though. For example, before last term, I decided I was sick and tired of having the following conversation:

Me: “Hello students!”

Students: “Hello teacher!”

Me: “How are you?”

Students: “We are fine!”

You may look at this and think, well, what’s the problem? Let me explain. Every single student says the same thing. I am fine, they say. I am fine. I am fine. I am fine. It could drive one crazy. And it did. I decided enough was enough. These kiddos were going to learn different things to say upon being greeted in English. And so the I am fine days became the days of I am fantastic! I am wonderful! I am SUPERRRR!! (they love that last one). I taught them negative ones too, and I just MELT when a student tells me they are grumpy. Mostly because they say it like, “gra-mp-ie”. It’s too cute.

And so, I tried teaching. I don’t really know what they learned. Who knows. But for the most part, I showed up, and so did they, and we tried to speak English in the best way we could. I shared my phone number (not necessarily kosher in America, but let me just emphasize that Rwanda is quite different and I have been very open in my own personal boundaries here) and so every day I get anywhere from 3-12 calls from students wanting to greet me. And most of the time, they do this in English, and so in some small way, I find this to be a success.

We had three terms this year, and I finished all three. Phew. Teaching is hard work.

But I was much more than a teacher this year. I also ma friends—both in and outside of Peace Corps. To have a friend in Peace Corps is of the upmost importance; they, more than anyone, understand this experience, and so they offer an invaluable amount of support. My friend Suzi and I talked nearly every day. Maybe it was for a quick 1 minute funny story of our awkward lives, but more often, it was 10 or 20 minute conversation sharing our struggles and victories, supporting each other, and to be honest, ensuring that each of us could continue to stay here. Suzi and I have an uncanny amount of similarities. We’re different though, and so it works. It’s a blossoming friendship and without her and my other Peace Corps friends, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be here.

My friends in my village are a special brand. For one, most are my students. I know, I know, I know. Super un-traditional. But the best part is, I don’t really feel a need to defend it. The truth is, I connect with them in a very special way (mind you, I’m not talking about ALL my students here, how could I have that strong of a connection with over 350 students?). I’ve blogged, journaled, and talked about it and still I can’t capture what it feels like to be a role model, a friend, and an admirer all at once. What I mean is that while the students have been very clear that they see me as someone to look up to, I feel the very same way about them, and so this beautiful ebb-and-flow friendship has been created. I am in awe when I see what they give and do for their families; they ask question after question about my culture and why I believe what I do.

And then there is my friends and family back home.  In 2012, I had friends start the path of finding their vocations, I had friends graduate college, I had friends continue to study, and I had friends have babies. I had family members decide to have weddings. I had a cousin get engaged. I missed out on the small, daily things with my mom and dad, which could be even harder to be away from (it’s often the small things that I miss the most). Two of my best friends from high school both got married, and it was heartbreaking to be absent. Being absent and distant was a common theme for my year because, well, hello, I live in the middle of a small, rural African village. But distance doesn’t always disconnect. In fact, it can bring you closer. While I’ve been absent for a lot of important things in my friends and family’s lives, I’ve put as much energy and love as I can, even so far away. I talk to both of my parents weekly. I email most of my friends, creating these wonderfully Oprah-esque (continuing our love for “life” conversations) chains of emails. I’ve managed a few amazing skype dates. I’ve developed an even stronger love for snail mail (as always, the packages have been unbelievably wonderful). None of these things make up for being absent. But you really can’t have it all at once. And eventually, you make peace with this, and just do the best you can. I hope all who are reading this know how much I do love you. And while I am doing this for me, I’m doing this whole entire thing because I believe in it too. If I didn’t, I would have left a long time ago. I want you to know that while I maybe did choose Africa and Rwanda for a time, this is also a season of life, and who knows where life goes next. Time moves just too damn quickly, as I’ve been saying, and so it’s best to just enjoy where you are and believe that things will fall into place as they should be. Being away is the hardest thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer, and to be honest, it’s often the source of a lot of sadness and dark times. But we keep moving, we keep persevering, because let’s be real, it’s the best way to live life. Recognize where you are. Feel what you feel. But take all of this, and go outside, and just work with you got. Because in the days, weeks, and months to come, it will be something different.

In 2012, I saw a lot of beautiful lands. Not only my little corner of Rwanda, I was blessed with an incredible journey of visiting the Northwestern part of the country with dad on his visit. We hiked around a volcano chain, saw gorillas, and spent Christmas lakeside on one of the most beautiful pieces of land I have ever seen. Y’all, I can’t say it enough. If life can bring you to Rwanda, whether now or 20 years down the road, come. It’s a great place, promise. I even went on an epic 32 hour bus ride across Tanzania, en route to Zanzibar. I was in the ocean when one ferry sank, and by the time I reached shore, the Aurora shooting was plaguing news headlines. It was a weird time. But, like Rwanda and yet in a very different way, Tanzania is gorgeous. I ran on those white sandy beaches, amazed that I was here in Africa. Travel is great that way; you can never really wrap your mind around just how big this world is.

And so as the year has closed and a new one has begun and I have now turned 24, I can’t help but do a bit of self-reflection (if you know me, you know I love doing this…I already have THREE FULL JOURNALS from my Peace Corps experience, and so you can just imagine.). Physically, I look a lot different. Blond highlights streak through my hair from the Rwandan sun. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight—last time I checked, I had lost 30 pounds. Though, from dad’s recent visit, I really think I put back on 10, but absolutely no regrets there. I ate like an American for two weeks and THAT was amazing. The physical changes are obvious, aren’t they? It’s easy to look at your reflection and find what’s different. But what about the other stuff?

Am I a better person? Am I kinder? Am I closer with God? Am I more mature?

I don’t know if I know the answer to those questions. I think about them, but it’s often hard to say. Because even those questions, they take time to understand. They take time to see. And really, I don’t think I’ll know what Rwanda has done to my heart and soul and mind until it’s all over later this year.

But I do know this. I am unequivocally grateful. I thank God every day for this—yes, even when I’m crying, upset, and unsure that I can go on. I thank God because between the people that I have met and the stories that I have heard, I know that in 2012, I have been bettered by the people I know. I know people who are so different from me. And yet, they have value. More value than the world would ever say, but they are some of the best people I know. My dad will tell you, the people he met, and the hospitality he experienced; it will literally change your heart. It will make you reconsider how you can treat people with more kindness and consideration in the world—not because you have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s life transforming, y’all.

And so I’ll put those questions of how I have changed on hold for a while. But I will say, that my capacity for love has grown, not because of me, but because of them. Just when you think you’ve given all you’ve got, God shows you that you have so much more. And He shows you through the people he brings in your life, short term or long term.

I thought about all of this as I tried to summarize my year in 10 words.

It took time, even a fitful night’s of sleep (once I get thinking, it’s hard to stop). Here’s what I came up with:

2012

Just when you think you can’t, you can.

For every time that I wanted to fly on a plane and get back to the people I love, God’s always shown me a reason to stay. Whether it was for Divine, for the girls’ football team, for my opportunity to grow, for a capacity to help, or for the undeniably delicious Coke, I stayed. And, honestly, I’m so glad I have.

team

IMG_0422 sara tanzy

family2

students

IMG_0204 village

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.

2 responses »

  1. Nice blog Heather, Your words are a guide to live by. HAPPY BIRTHDAY HONEY! We had a great several weeks together, and I observed that you live the words you believe in by your ACTIONS. Love Dad

  2. Hi Heather the journey you share in the blog is really insprirational. I really have respect for the things you do down there, not just for you but for the people there. I know it is hard being so far away from the people you love the most but i’m sure the people down there you’re helping really appreciate you for it, and so I would like to say to you stay stronge and keep pushing because its for a good cause. I’m glad you are able to find friends in Rwanda to help you through the ruff times but I would like to with you good luck on your journey and I hope you continue to grow.
    Dai’Jon Davis

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