Author Archives: heathermnewell

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.

what I know for sure

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Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.
The Lord is near.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with Thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4: 4 – 9  

with Divine and kiddos from my host family at my original training site.

with Divine and kiddos from my host family at my original training site.

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Divine’s mama, and one of many mamas for me who I will always love and remember. This was taken right before we said goodbye.

Our small prayer group leader read these words slowly and intentionally. He read in Kinyarwanda, of course, and so I sat resolutely on a small brown bench trying to understand. He read these words on behalf of our Tuesday prayer group; he read this scripture as a representation of God’s bread. He shared this verse for me. It was my final day to pray in Ruramira, my home for the past two years. When I read the verse later in English as Divine and I finished eating my favorite food (plantains) in my living room, tears and gratitude filled my heart. What wonderful words to encapsulate my life here. What a beautiful piece of the Bible to send me off with. When we finished our prayers that last Tuesday, the old mamas huddles around me. Their old skin touched me as they set their walking sticks aside and they let out soft sounds of sadness.

“Uzagaruka ryari?” (When will you come back?)
“Simbizi.” (I don’t know.)
“Eh baba we. Imana yanjye! Turababaye pe.” (Oh my God, we are so very sad.)
“Ariko niba Imana ashobora kwerekana inzira, nzagaruka.” (But, if God shows me the way, I will return.)

I muttered something about these women being wonderful abakekurus (old women) but I completely lost words to speak when I saw one of these women grasping her mouth and holding back tears. Rwandans are stoic; never before had I seen an older Rwandan woman cry. Kinyarwanda, English….I don’t know. Finding the right words is impossible with goodbyes like this. Which is why that scripture means so much to me; where our words and understanding fails, God comes.

*

I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda somewhere around 820 days. For 27 months. The end always seemed like an idea formed in some intangible myth. We’d talk about America but it didn’t seem real. Of course I knew Rwanda would come to an end – eventually – but even now it feels impossible to look at my ticket and know it is really happening. To say I’m struggling to process all of this barely covers it, despite knowing from the very beginning that Peace Corps was never permanent. I remember in the first days of training how we always joked that “today is forever” because of the long days of Kinyarwanda lessons, cultural training, walks to our training site, and integration attempts with our families. I was convinced that if “real Peace Corps life” (that is, the time after training) was like that then there was no way I would survive two years in this country.

*

“Real Peace Corps life” is not like that. If you approach the experience not as a job but wholly the life you have, then time moves, life happens, and sooner than you really understand, it’s over. My life for the last 820-ish days has been full. It’s been some of the best and worst days of my 24 years. In this time as a resident of Rwanda, I’ve had two birthdays, learnt a language, lost around 20 pounds, and was called “umuzungu” every single day. I found one of the best friends I will ever have, prayed regularly at the Catholic Church, was harassed, coached football, had rocks thrown at me by our village “crazy”, was lied to frequently, ate amazing home-made Rwandan food on student visits, helped establish a library, learned to use charcoal, somehow became a teacher, and lived in a village full of many people who had never seen an American before.

I became a friend, a family member, visited 4 other countries, went on 3 safaris, and showed my parents this beautiful country. I became a fan of waking up at 5:00am, read books, watched a lot of TV shows, and journaled almost every day. I have completed over 12 journals to prove it. Using a latrine became normal, I dealt with a nasty staph infection, and I was sick a few times. The most serious episode is now rumored to be an act of “poison” among my community members but I think I just ate a bad batch of meat. I drank banana beer in secret, wrote letters, and spent a lot of time on crowded buses. Once, I danced in front of 3,000 people at a church revival. Many times I prayed for over 5 hours on Sundays. I learnt far more about grace, love, and humility than I can even begin to say. I saw the good and bad of Rwandan culture and absorbed a lot of it in my own personality. My Peace Corps superlative at our going-away party was “most likely to return and live in Rwanda” and in a letter from Yazina, she commended the “miracle” it was to see an American woman also become a Rwandan woman. The lines certainly are blurred for me.

I have only told a few people this, but last year I heard voices in my house when I tried to sleep. I called out my grandmother’s name and I felt something on my back and neck. This all happened for a span of about a week in early 2012. I never knew what it was for sure, but I lost several nights of sleep before going to Kigali to see the doctor. Was I going crazy? Our doctor drained my ears and I only heard the voices once more after and so who knows.

In one of the most defining moments of my life, Rwanda served as the place I first heard the voice of God. I’ll never forget it. I was in a motorcycle accident one spring evening, around 6:00 at night. My motorcycle driver had come to take me, while another driver took Yazina and Divine from a restaurant we were visiting. It was dark, rainy, and not a good time to be in the road on a motorcycle. My motorcycle collided head-on with an old man and his bicycle as the road veered slightly to the left. Time stood completely still as my driver braked harshly and I was ejected forward from the back. I wore a measily helmet but it managed to stay on as I met the road with the back of my head and body and rolled once into a ditch. However, it’s what I heard when I spent milliseconds in the air, completely free in the body, that has changed my life. My legs dangled and I heard nothing but complete silence. I was screaming, but I didn’t hear it. The screeching of the brakes didn’t enter my ears. All I heard was,

BE STILL AND KNOW I AM GOD.

I processed be still and was sure to keep my body strong so I could absorb the impact on the pavement safely. Bruises, a cut lip, and shock aside, I was fine. In the next few minutes, I called Suzi completely panicked, and then was able to call the girls to come back. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I saw Divine on the other side of the road waiting for me, arms wide open. It was raining heavily at this point, and all I could do was sob. She held me tight, repeating that God loves you over and over. In light of all of these events, I know that was God. I know it.

*

So you can perhaps see the difficulty in understanding how this is over. Somewhere along the way it became a reality (for good and bad) and life continued. I learnt a lot of things in these months of residing in a small village surrounded by forests and banana trees. I learned how to communicate using multiple languages and many times, using the body as well. I learned the difference between being a “good” teacher and a “fun” teacher – because you can be both. I learned how to cook – a skill I’m very excited about.

I learned things I never imagined I would need; things like, using oil on the outside of a pot to prevent smoke leaving black stains, the best way to run when 5 children desperately want to hold onto you, how to kill a snake with a mop, and how to overcome fear with a woman who is insane and trying to remove all of her clothes in front of you.

Yeah, my life was strange here.

Of everything though, the one constant, transcending life lesson that was evident during my time in Rwanda was this:

GOD NEVER LEAVES US.

That alone, is what I know for sure.

Oprah Winfrey always ends her issues of O! Magazine with a few inspiring paragraphs about her most recent life insights. What I Know For Sure, is what she calls them.

Well for me, I can only spend endless paragraphs trying to adequately describe a truth I can barely fathom. God. Never. Leaves. Us.

It’s the only sentiment that explains the relationships I have made. And it’s the truth that held me together on the more challenging and trying days here.

What I know for sure is that God is the reason I was able to move my life, to leave my family, and to find pure, untainted joy in a place that like anywhere else has a plethora of issues.

Rwanda has not always been kind to me.

But in the midst of dark times, there was always light.

When my grandmother died, I had my host family to console me.
When I saw students beat others, there was a belief that things could change.
When I was lonely, someone always appeared or called. Or, I had Velveeta cheese from dad tucked away somewhere.
When I felt like a failure, GLOW club shined.
When I was afraid, living in my house without power, I found contentment in going to sleep early and peacefully in the night.
When I ran on these rural roads and people sometimes mocked me, I was able to run faster.

I’m a very lucky woman though. Most of the time, I loved Rwanda. Deeply, intensely – I loved it here.

And it isn’t very hard to figure out why. This last weekend, on a final visit to my host family, we gathered around the table after a delicious meal of meat, fries, rice, and fanta to pray. Divine had come with me and my family was so happy to meet her. Mama started to pray and she prayed long and hard. For 10 minutes she spoke to God. For 10 minutes she also struggled to find the words to speak – tears were stuck in her throat as she prayed for my journey, for the continued strength in my relationships, and for the time I had in Rwanda. When she finished the only thing I could tell her was that I believe that their family and Divine are direct blessings from God. God is the reason I was able to love this place like I do. His hand was in everything.

*

My last month here was one long goodbye. First to school, then to my students, then to teachers, then to my community, then to families, then to my students, then to my friends, then to my host family, and my last goodbye – in a sense, my goodbye to Rwanda – to Divine.

It was one of my favorite months here. I traveled around freely – to around 5 different districts – and to prevent being alone in my house while in my village, Divine moved in with me to support me for my last weeks. We spent our days truly enjoying each other’s company. She taught me how to properly wash clothes, I taught her how to use “home row” while using a computer. We even made her a facebook and email on a trip into town. We cooked. We listened to the radio. We took naps. We just lived life.

In one of my final days in Rwanda, we, along with 3 other of my girls, enjoyed a trip to Akagera National Park so they could experience a safari and see incredible animals and physical scenery. They loved it. They squealed at the sight of giraffes and upon seeing a large elephant in the road just 15 feet away, believed the elephant would come to eat us. Our 6 hour game park drive thrilled them and they repeatedly acknowledged how unbelievable it all was. I sat next to a quiet Divine on the way home. But our friendship is so comfortable that silences don’t bother me – a testament to our closeness because I love chatting! Finally she looked at me and spoke with conviction and clarity.

“Heather, the reason I am quiet is because I just feel this action you have made is so uncountable. It’s above my head – I don’t have words to say. It’s just amazing.”

I told her, “no problem Shu, there is no problem. I am just so happy you could see that place.”

“Thank you so much. But Heather. It’s more than this action of today. It’s all actions you have shown for me and others in the 2 years to share life. You are the first person in my life to speaking something and shoe the action – always. I have friends and family to support me, but what you have done for me…I don’t understand. Birarenze (to be at a loss for words)…I don’t have the words. All of this, it comes from God, and…wow. I don’t understand.”

Divine and I have had a slow goodbye and so we have had many conversations that try to pinpoint how we can have the friendship we do, but it always comes back to our lack of understanding – namely that it comes from God and how can we begin to grasp the intricacies of friendship that he works within?

I sigh and quickly code these words from Divine into my memory. I don’t want to forget. Her words soothe my soul and it’s in that moment that despite the pain in moving on, I can do it – one, because I have humbly succeeded in what I set out to do (help the world just a little bit) and two, God’s given me an incredible friend who has taught me about life in ways only explainable by God’s divine touch.

Her English is a second language and yet I know her heart more deeply than people I have known for years. Her love for God is unchanging in all things – she showed me what it means to be a strong Christian woman.

We laughed everyday, shared meals, went on walks, studied, explained our histories, and did it all from two very different walks of life.

What I know for sure is that God never leaves us because in the time I needed friendship He gave me one of His most devoted followers.

*

Today is just like every other day. The Kigali sun is starting to reach the peak in the sky, birds are bustling around in the trees, and I’m ready for a buzz of caffeine from a cup of coffee. It’s just like any other day, except that it’s my last day in Rwanda and that in just 9 short hours, I will be on a plane headed for America. Headed for home.

I left my village on a moto, tears streaming down my face, as a group of my closest friends waved goodbye. They had come early in the morning to give letters, hug me, sip coffee, and say some parting words. Some of the congregation at the Catholic church were working the fields as my motorcycle zoomed past and I wistfully placed my hands in the air to wish them peace. I was leaving. Leaving. I remember the first time I came to Ruramira, by way of motorcycle, and I was leaving much in the same way. Only this time, there were kids screaming “Impano! Impano!” and I could look around, knowing where most of the paths lead. The difference was that I was leaving a home.

I went back to the very place I started – my host family – so I could give them final hugs. The goodbye was prayerful, full of gifts, and amazing, inspiring words. I told them what Divine has done for me in my time as a volunteer, and they commended her greatly, wishing her to come back and visit. They repeatedly told me how much appreciation they have for the work I have done and even more so, my attempts to live and work within Rwandan culture. Mama could barely believe the things I have learned to cook (cassava bread, bananas, and good sauce) and when she heard some of the new Kinyarwanda phrases I have acquired she stood back in shock. Somehow you have become Rwandan, she told me. From a strong Rwandan woman, that’s about the biggest compliment you could ask for.

Divine and I came back to Kigali following our visit to the host family to enjoy one more night together. We had tea and bread and we listened to the Catholic radio station. We talked. A lot. And we cried, a lot. When morning came, after few hours of sleep, we prayed together. Tears fell fast, quickly, and fiercly. How had this day finally arrived? How is it possible that I will not see this girl every day? Divine prayed so beautifully, asking God to protect our journeys, and praising Him over and over for the way He has worked in our lives. She asked for God to help us “have no fear” in separation and to keep us strong. I accompanied her to the bus station and helped her find a bus to go back home. It will be her first time to back at home in quite some time as she spent the last month living with me. I think her family will be happy to have her back. I hugged her once more, shook her hand and watched her sit in the bus. Immediately, she buried her face in her lap. She later told me she stayed like that for the entire journey. I went to the office for Peace Corps, found a quiet place in the garden and cried holding my Bible for 30 minutes. It was one of the saddest days I have had in my life. To say goodbye is already difficult, but when there is no certainty about the time you will see that person again, your heart hurts. And hurts a lot. I know Divine will be in my life forever. And I know I’ll see her again. It’s just a matter of accepting where life has taken us now. Our connection is one of the strongest I have felt in another human being. She’s a young, Rwandan student who comes from a poor village in East Africa. I’m a young wanna-be American teacher from a country and family where all of my needs have been met on a consistent basis. And yet, our conversations were perceptive, deep, and open. I know this girl. And she knows me. To walk away from Peace Corps with that kind of relationship is a resounding success.

*

God never leaves us.

Of everything I have learned, this is the most important.

There’s so much I could say and so much I want to try to explain; and yet, I’m losing the words.

I have an inexpressible amount of gratitude for my friends and family back home. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for sending letters. Thank you for sending American food. Thank you for your encouragement. I like to think of this blog as some sort of time capsule and so I’ll be starting a new blog once I get back stateside. In case you haven’t noticed, I love blogging, and so I look forward to writing about the next phase of my life back home. This blog will forever be the pieces of writing and experiences about Rwanda and I appreciate everybody who took the time to read and try to understand some of the things I experienced while working in this country.

A special thank you to my parents. Each and every time I want to do something, you are the first people to figure out HOW to make it happen. When I wanted to come to do Peace Corps you didn‘t think I was crazy. Too crazy, anyway. And when I found out it was Rwanda, you started planning the time you were going to come to visit – and you came. I want you to know how much that meant to me – and what that meant to my friends in Rwanda. The most important thing I have wanted to show in Rwanda is that love is far more than words (it’s an action) and you, my parents, have demonstrated that beautifully.

I’m indebted forever to the kind people in Ruramira. The reason I was able to have a positive and successful experience was because my community was welcoming, kind, and ready. They were open to have conversations, willing to take me in their home, and waved at me when I passed through on my daily runs. I will love that village forever. And a piece of me will always be there.

*

Today when my plane finally takes off, I’m not sure what will be running through my mind. I imagine I’ll be consumed with what it’s going to feel like to finally be home but also I’ll reflect on the people and places that have worked within my life for the last couple of years. I’ll remember Godriva, an old mama who gave me a couple of dollars as a going away gift, and I’ll remember Divine’s mother who frequently would break out into dancing just for the hell of it. I’ll remember the life I had there – even if for a short while – and know that no matter where life takes me, I’ll always have that.

I’ll think to myself that the most amazing thing of all is that though the Peace Corps experience is deeply personal, it’s also so much more than about yourself. It’s about the community you worked, the friends you make, and the people back home that are waiting to hear and understand all of the stories. My life is profoundly changed forever. And for that, I give all thanks to God.

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my village and home, Ruramira.

my village and home, Ruramira.

full circle

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A few days ago it rained for five hours straight. And y’all, it didn’t just rain, it really rained. It was relentless; the clouds were a mixture of dark gray and purple and they moved as if they were making landfall from the heavens above. It was about time. It is technically rainy season but we haven’t seen rain for a couple of weeks. I have been able to see the nervous expressions of the farmers at market and as they walk the banana plantations en route to cultivate each morning. Currently, it is harvest season for the beans. No rain, no beans. I could almost feel the smiling faces, joy, and ardent relief from everybody when the rain came. Finally.

I enjoy the rains, most of the time. I don’t really care for how the roads become muddy pits (and thus altering my run schedule immensely), but at least a water source is ensured for a short time anyway. My house – like many – has a make-shift rain catching system. Rain falls on my roof and falls into a hanging tin. If you place a bucket below this tin, voila! You have water. You can be sure that when water is pouring from this magical piece of tin, I place every basin and bucket I can find under so that I have water in as many places as possible. When this successfully happens I unreservedly can say that it’s been a good day.

If rain is absent I have no other alternative than to fetch.

Alphonsine (the school groundskeeper who also washes my clothes and helps with other household chores when I need the assistance) comes by, grabs the 20-liter yellow jerry can, and goes on a water hunt. In this case, I give her 100 Rwandan Francs (the equivalent to around 20 US cents). There is a water tap source about 200 yards from my house, but is not reliable all of the time. If water is missing there, we can check at the pastor’s house across the street. They have recently built a tank system that stores an incredible amount of water. However, if you are in the midst of an intense dry season, like this past summer, then the only other water alternative is to head to a small lake south of my house. It is an hour-long trip and it’s largely uphill on the way back. It sure ain’t easy.

Alphonsine fetches for me around 3 times a week. If I need more then I take it upon myself to find water (amazi). Luckily, it’s almost always been present at the pastor’s house. However, a few times I have been unsuccessful in finding water and so I am forced to make fun decisions such as:

Should I wash my body or use the water to drink?
Should I use this water to cook or clean my floor?
Do I have enough water to at least wash my feet?

It gives you a hell of a lot of perspective when these are things you have to think about.

What I’ve noticed about myself and this whole water thing and really, life here in general, is just how…dare I say iteasy it has become?

In the beginning, about two years ago, finding water was a scary thought. Cooking with charcoal was a mystery. Washing my feet seemed stupid. Wearing igitenge (African fabric) to respect the more conservative culture felt strange – especially if I was just going out on the road for a couple of minutes! I was intimidated to walk into one of our shops to buy sugar, batteries, salt, or some necessary material I needed at home. Walking the roads was foreign; this was not my home.

But this is where life is a bit crazy.

I’m 100% coming full-circle.

The school holiday has arrived and so I’m no longer teaching. Just like the way I started, my work-load is well…next to nothing. Free time is the name of my game. I’ve switched back to cooking with charcoal, leaving behind my finnicky petrol stove. When I moved here that was my cooking source and I abandoned it about a year ago in lieu of something less messy. I chose petrol, but the reason I am back to charcoal is because it is significantly less expensive. In this final month in Rwanda, I am with Divine and we decided that charcoal would be our preferred method in cooking our meals. I am seeking out people to visit again – just for the hell of it – and I’m cleaning my house because I enjoy it.

My life is currently composed of all of the foundations that were present in the beginning. Only now, I’m so in my element.

I can have a hot, fiery charcoal stove ready in 5 minutes.
I embrace the free time; my house is sparkling clean. Mopping, sweeping, organizing? I barely have to think about it.
I wash my body at least two times (sometimes three!) per day. Being clean is important. It’s good culture.
These roads are ours now; I know the grooves and indentations in the soil (I have fallen enough times), and I know the back roads to take me to the forest, churches, or the never-ending plots of farm-land.

Life is slowing down. A lot. Which is good, because the last part of my service here is closing things up, saying goodbye, and soaking up the best parts of Rwanda before I head home. That’s why I am staying, you know. Most of my group leaves in less than a week, but I elected to stick around an extra month so that I could slowly phase out of this. I’m so glad I have.

Yazina and Divine, two of my girls, are living with me for the next week as they take their national examinations. They live far from the exam location and so we arranged for them to stay at my house so that they could focus on studying and not on the difficulty of commuting to sit for their exams. It’s been lovely, wonderful, and so much fun.

I have really realized how much I love taking care of people in this process.

We are in the second day of exams and so the girls have been with me now for a few days. I rise with them early in the morning and immediately put the kettle on to make some tea. I organize the sugar, the cups, and the bananas as they continue to read from their worn books. When it’s time to drink, we pray, consume, and Divine and I share the imigati (the proverbial “bread” that is, scripture from our Jesus Calling devotional). They then go to wash, kwisiga yo amavuta (put on lotion), and beautify themselves to go take their examinations. During exam week, they have two exams per day, and so when they leave in the morning I won’t see them again until around 4:00 or 5:00pm.

Once they leave, I take time to myself to journal, drink coffee, and listen to music (currently I am obsessed with a group called Imagine Dragons). I start cooking mid-morning, and I cook a lot. Divine advised that to save time, I should cook once per day, but cook enough to make two meals. Brilliant and sound advice! I’ve been cooking macaroni, beans, rice, vegetables, and plantains. I put the food in warming containers so it will stay relatively hot throughout the day. When I finish to prepare food for the girls, I clean. I add to my growing pile of things to take back to America and also add to the growing pile of give as gifts to my Rwandan friends. Eventually, I run. This week I have also been teaching a woman in my village who has recently been accepted with refugee status to come to America. I don’t quite know the ins-and-outs of her story, but she is a Rwandan woman who has lived in Congo, Rwanda, and Kenya. All of her family will come to the United States in December and she doesn’t know any English. She practically grabbed me as I was running last week and begged for some emergency lessons. With all this free time as I wait for the girls to finish their exams, I figured, oh, why not? Afterwards, I come home, paint my nails, write more of “thank you/goodbye letters” until I hear the sounds of the girls on the road (they are easy to listen for). I go out, greet them, bring them inside, and we do it all over again.

So many moments this week have been filled with déjà vu. Only this time, it’s just different. It’s like I belong, or something?

And it’s better. So so so much better.

Life on the roads and in the village isn’t necessarily a cake-walk. No, getting called umuzungu or being asked for money still presents all of the issues that exist when in the situation I am in. The lying, issues of trust, and all the layered difficulties that I have discovered over the months are still present too. None of that goes away – ever. But, that’s life, isn’t it? No matter where you are there is always going to be some sort of challenge. And so maybe it’s more important to embrace and thrive in what feels natural, easy, and normal. My daily life here feels normal y’all. Fetching water, using a latrine, sleeping in a mosquito net, shopping at market, putting hot water for tea later in my thermos, wearing a bandana “African style”, and washing my dishes in a basin feels utterly and completely…standard. I don’t even think about it anymore. And now that I’m doing all of this and somehow playing “mom” for the next week is honestly, like, super fun. I like checking in with the girls to make sure they get some sleep, I like cooking for them, I like making them tea, and I like providing water and soap so they can wash all the times they want. Maybe it feels extra good because so much of my time here has been me getting taken care of; now, I’m finally able to hold my own when it comes to living a semi-Rwandan life.

The girls have been staying up late to study and I have been an old woman and retiring to bed well before they do. They have been sharing a mattress in my living room and I’ve been sleeping as per usual, in my bed. To go outside they must pass through my bedroom and last night I woke around 4:00am to them slipping through, failing in their attempts to whisper. I followed them outside and low and behold, they were crouched on the ground ferociously trying to gather these flying insects that look a lot like fireflies.

Um. What are y’all doing? I asked them. Minus the y’all, of course.

Turns out, sometimes after big rains, these particular insects increase and fly around, particularly in areas of light (they were hanging around my light bulb outside my house). The girls, and almost all of the neighborhood, were collecting these bugs into a bowl so they could cook them later. Yep, cook them and EAT them later. I bowled over in laughter, is this seriously my life?

I crawled back into my bed with a smile on my face.
How is it that this life is so much a part of me now? How is it that I feel totally and completely a part of things? How is it that I can be completely myself with these girls? That I can take care of them (as they have taken care of me) and it feels like we’ve been in each other’s lives all along?

For this time though, I don’t think about making the adjustment from this kind of life to life back in America.
I don’t think about what it will feel like to say goodbye.
I don’t think about what it will be like when the comfortable part of this is over.
I don’t think about any of this.
Instead, I pray.
I thank God, over and over again, for making this place my home.

I’m realizing more now than ever, I somehow, somehow belong. I’m a far cry from being a Rwandan or a true villager, but in my efforts to try and try try again, it worked.

I’m coming full-circle only this time instead of making a place a home, I’m just existing in the home that I have already built. I’m blessed enough to have my Rwandan family members alongside me. Maybe sentimentality is starting to take over or something, but with each passing day that I keep house, easing into the day, waiting for the girls to come back home, I keep thinking of how right it all feels. I’m glad my ending will be like this. It will be about being home.

Who would have thought?

my girls and my Rwandan family; Divine and Yazina

my girls and my Rwandan family; Divine and Yazina

slow goodbyes

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*
Fidele reads from a short-handed list of the things he has interpreted as my successes while in Ruramira as a teacher, Peace Corps volunteer, and community member. I nervously smile, nod my head when appropriate, and listen as he describes to our student body, teachers, and administration what my two years have added up to.

He touches on the tangible things: he talks about the improvement of students’ ability to speak the English language (or at least try), he gives great gratitude for the sports project, and he commends the objectives and achievements of Ruramira Secondary School’s GLOW Club. He continues to describe what he feels are my most laudable personality traits: I am a umunyaukuri (a person of truth), a hard-worker, punctual (Lord knows any American could be in this culture), and he says that he can see that everything I do comes from the fact that I love people. He chuckles and proceeds to tell the student body that I actually know more about the inter-workings of families in our community than most due in large part to the many home-visits I have completed.

I’m humbled and proud of his assessment; if this is what he can take-away after two years, then I certainly have demonstrated the values and characters in which I try to live my life. Moreover, Fidele, perhaps more than any other co-worker of mine, has seen me at my worst. He has seen me when I have been angry and unforgiving to Rwanda. He has seen me act cold and distant when I’ve been unable to culturally adjust. He’s seen me cry a handful of times when I lose words – either in English or Kinyarwanda – to describe the frustrations I feel. And yet, he can still say such nice and warm things.

I smile and also sigh heavily; I really don’t know how to do this.

We are at my goodbye “party” which is taking place on the last day of term III and thus the last day of the 2013 school year. The students have moved a great number of desks to one of the school’s large, open rooms, and they are smushed together – so they can listen to the speeches that are an ever-present part of any Rwandan gathering. The program is relatively simple: Fidele speaks, some of the girls sing and dance for me (traditional music, of course), Headmaster commands each class takes a photograph with me, Headmaster speaks, and finally, I take 5 minutes to speak the last words I will speak in front of these students.

I had written my speech the night before. It was simultaneously easy and difficult. The ideas came easily but the words did not. How do you begin to thank a group of people for giving me what I have been given? For two years, I was shown a particular way of life; I was provided a purpose; and I was opened up to numerous special relationships. And so I was glad I had prepared the words below the night before. It gave me the time I needed to sort everything out the way I wanted to say it in the most concise way possible. I also made the conscious decision to speak in King-lish (an uninterrupted combination of both English and Kinyarwanda; my most common way of communicating while in the village and with my students). These were my words when it came time to speak and say goodbye:

Hello my dear headmaster, DOS, Jessica, and all the wonderful teachers.
Hello my super students – ugire amahoro (peace be with you)!

Today I am happy because we are together. Ariko (but), I am also sad because today will be our final day as a group – it is our last warning.

In a short time I will go back to America. In America I will see my beautiful family, my dog, and my home but I will miss Ruramira greatly.

Nzakumbura imisozi, nzakumbura abakekuru, nzakumbura ibitoki kandi ubugari cyane pe, nzakumbura umuco mu Rwanda, ariko nzakumbura i Ruramira cyane cyane cyane. (I will miss the mountains, I will miss the old mamas, I will miss bananas and cassava bread a lot, I will miss the culture of Rwanda, but I will miss Ruramira the most).

Namukunze cyane. Namukunze kandi nzakomeza kugira urukundo kubera mwese mufite umuco mwiza. Mufite umutima mwiza. (I have loved you greatly. I have loved you all and will continue to have love because all of you have a good culture. You all have good hearts).

You have the motivation to increase the life for you, your family, and your country.

To be a teacher in Ruramira was difficult in the beginning ariko now kumererwa neza (it is very comfortable). Noneha (at this time), Ruramira ni wacu (Ruramira is the home for all of us).

My favorite time in Ruramira was at this school. The best days were teaching songs from America, watching you students show theatre, helping GLOW club, and coaching football. I will never forget those times and all of you.

Sinshobora kwibagirwa (I could never forget).

Mfite imyizerere ko Imana ateguye kuzana mwese mu ubuzima banjye. Kubera wowe na kubera Imana nagize amahirwe. Nabonnye amahoro, nabonnye umuhati, nabonnye ubucuti. Murakoze cyane. (I have the belief that God planned to bring all of you in my life. Because of you and because of God I have had an incredible opportunity and chance. I have seen peace, I have seen courage, and I have seen friendship. Thank you very much.)

I hope in my 2 years I was able to help you do something. Birashoboka (perhaps), the English for you has increased. Birashoboka, you had the improved opportunity to play sport. But most importantly, I hope I helped you to find icyizere (confidence) and the belief that yego washoboye (yes you can)!

My goal as a teacher was also to be a friend, an umujyanama (counselor), and a supporter for you.

All of you students have the ability and power to have a good future – but it starts with you.

Thank you for sharing your hearts, your ideas, your love, and your home. Thank you for helping me to be an umunyarwandaikazi (Rwandan women). Ushaka inka aryama ntayo (Rwandan proverb: if you want a cow, you must lie like it). Thank you for making Rwanda a special part of my life forever. I will always remember this excellent place. One day I hope to come back and visit and see you students as leaders for this country – because yes you can.

I am sad to go.

Ndababaye cyane kubera umutima wanjye iri i Rwanda na Amerika. Ntakobwa ariko kubera Imana. (I am really sad because my heart is in two places; Rwanda and America. I don’t have fear though, because we have God).

Turi (we are) together in the spirit.

Imana ikomeze kubaha umugisha. (May God continue to bless all of you).

*
After I finish, my goodbye is over. It’s that simple. The school has a plan to continue to distribute the students’ reports and because we are over 2 hours late, we must move quickly. The top students in each class are announced and the class teachers call the names of their students so that they can see the results of how they performed for the entire year. Disorder creeps into the school day and so it makes a long-drawn out goodbye impossible. Students are everywhere. Some still need to pay school fees. Some want the village photographer to take a photo with myself and them. Some just want to return back home. I loiter for a while, but eventually, I resign myself to the small bar not too far away from school. Our headmaster has arranged for school sponsored fanta, beer, and goat meat (brochettes).

It feels weird that that was the goodbye. The speeches were wonderful and it was really kind for my school to organize something just for the sake of giving appreciation. Yet, it just ended. Like that. It felt weird that it could be over, after so many months, days, and hours spent at my school. I was perfectly okay with a goodbye that wasn’t full of tears and drama, but it just felt strange. That’s all. I drank a turbo king (one of the few beer brands available in-country) along with my teachers that afternoon and fully recognized my inability to process the movement of time. It wasn’t until a few days later when I actually thought about it:

um hello. That was the last time you will see most of those students. Ever.

As usual, I was on a run when this thought finally made some connection in my head and heart and I had to stop running for a few moments.

My students were the ones who taught me. My students were the ones who became my friends. We had our ups and downs, my students and I, but I could never relegate their influence in my life.

Many of them live in conditions that some of the world could never understand. I will never ever be able to reconcile why does the world work this way? when it comes to piecing together the circumstances that life has dealt them.

My students were the best thing about living in Rwanda.

And maybe what I dislike the most about goodbyes is that there are never enough words. And the words you use don’t necessarily convey exactly what you want to say. You try to explain further in detail, but it’s almost as if the more words you use, the less expressive you feel. So that speech above? Yeah, I think it covered most of what I wanted to say. It hit the right mixture of the two languages I have been speaking for two years. But, I wasn’t sure if my students walked away knowing just how grateful I am for their presence in my life.

*

The school goodbye marks a final transition and shift regarding my Peace Corps service. Now, my primary assignment is officially completed. I’m done.

As November nears, I am more and more aware of the time remaining. I have 6 weeks left in Rwanda.

This phased goodbye process is great in that you feel relatively stable as it goes. Yes, goodbyes are difficult, but slow by slow you can build the closure you need to really bring things to an end.

That’s essentially what I am doing the last 6 weeks I am here; slowly saying goodbye.

I have to admit, I am a little afraid of what it will feel like in the final hour, when it really is all over. I’m afraid because the down-side of spacing out goodbyes as such is that when you’re finished, that’s it. You are forced to look at life change in the face and accept it without question, hesitation, or delay.

Divine recently moved in with me for the next month in order to be better located for the national exam she will take, to help me pack, and to accompany me on what I have dubbed my Goodbye Tour. Nearly all of the Peace Corps Volunteers in my group will leave in early November and so Divine was adamant that my last days are not spent alone in my house. I am so grateful for this decision as it’s been like having a sleepover each and every night; we talk late into the night and wake early in the morning to drink tea and coffee. I then read from the Jesus Calling devotional (thanks Grandpa and Glenda!). At the end of the small devotional blurb, she reads the provided scripture in Kinyarwanda, I follow by reading from my English bible. Most of all, after living relatively alone for two years, it’s an amazing thing to have someone else around – to share meals, to chat, and just to have the company. The routine of her presence has provided a level of comfort that I never knew I could have in a country so far from my own.

It’s this, I think, that scares me the most about saying the REAL goodbye in over a month. I can say goodbye to my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I can muster a teary farewell to my village, and as I have already done, I can make peace with having finished my job as a teacher. But, say goodbye to that kind of friend? Say goodbye to the intangibles that a friendship like that brings?

I don’t know.

We both are aware it is coming and we touch on it from time to time, but never too long. Perhaps it’s a state of denial, again, I don’t know, but I figure it’s okay because it’s making my last days enjoyable, memorable, and a fun part of this journey in Rwanda.

This is all mutually exclusive from the joy and excitement in returning home, obviously. That feeling and anticipation is 100% present throughout the process of goodbyes as I remember that I’m lucky to have something so wonderful to go home to (namely, family and friends).

And so, it’s a matter of clinging strongly to our beliefs, our relationships, and the experiences we know to be true that make goodbyes bearable. I personally believe that God’s hand and love are most visible in times of transition and change; if He got us there in the first place, then surely He will put us right where we need to be. And, if he has continually put amazing people in our lives then that is forever. You may not get the people you want in the physical sense, but they change your lives for the better and you keep that always, no matter where you go. It’s not easy, it’s not always ideal, but it’s the reality.

When you become best friends with a person you don’t always know what they will bring. In foresight, I could never have known what Rwanda, Peace Corps, my school, or Divine was going to do for my life. Now, I’m starting to get an idea and I’m humbled, grateful, and happy with what I see and feel. I’m continually blown away. Hindsight is a beautiful thing. You see God’s hands in all that He has touched and orchestrated and you are unable to fathom at just how awesome it all is.

Here’s to one last, final month.

May it be full of laughter, memories, and a solid foundation to say a necessary goodbye. It’s these goodbyes that will lead me into the next chapter, a chapter that is waiting back home with more incredible people that God has so infinitely blessed me with.

Here we go.

*

during headmaster's goodbye speech.

during headmaster’s goodbye speech.

 

giving my speech.

giving my speech.

 

bananas outside the ceremony. i am going to miss the banana trees. so much.

bananas outside the ceremony. i am going to miss the banana trees. so much.

 

kubera imana

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Divine sparked my interest in visiting Kibeho, Rwanda a few weeks back when she translated the church announcement that our congregation would bring a group there for an annual and ridiculously large Catholic gathering.

What’s Kibeho?

Well, it turns out it’s incredibly important, especially in the Catholic world. Not just in Rwanda, I repeat, the world.

Kibeho is in the Southern Province and is located in the Nyaraguru District. From where I live, it takes about 6 or 7 hours to get there one way by car. This small Rwandan town is known primarily from historical incidents that took place in November of 1981. According to everything I could find from a simple “google” search, Mary (as in the Virgin Mary) appeared to a group of students that year. This appearance is accepted as truth and “official” by the Pope and the church and so it’s a major deal. The sighting happened on this large, beautiful, green mountain and not only did Mary allegedly come and appear before this group of young students, but the sighting was accompanied by visions of intense fighting and death. Specifically, these Rwandans saw bloody bodies all over. This was well before the concentrated, high-intensity killings during the 1994 Genocide, and so many interpret these visions of religious relevance as precursors and warnings to Rwanda and its people.

Believe what you will, but no matter what, the importance of a place like this in Rwanda is absolutely undeniable. Consider the history and also consider the fact that an extraordinary amount of Rwandans identify as Catholic. And they sure do love the Virgin Mary.

All that to say, I was happy Divine and I signed on to take part in our church group’s pilgrimage to visit this place.

We left my village on a Saturday afternoon at 2:00 (two hours late and therefore right on time for Rwanda). We crammed into two small white and green “tweges” which are small vans that fit 18 people each and are the most common form of transport around here. We traveled with all older people; Divine and I were the only ones under the age of 50. But no matter, they were all a joy to journey with as they sang old Catholic Kinyarwanda hymns which matched the hum and rhythm of our car as it drove against the force of rocky, dirt roads. Plus, any time I made a small comment in Kinyarwanda they would cackle with delight and when they watched Divine and I speak comfortably in English, they were in awe of her communication ability. They called me “ntwari” for making the journey with them. That means hero, y’all. I love old people.

It was my first time to this particular district and it’s a mountain heavy district. The steep mountains were a far cry from our smaller hills out East. We arrived at 9:00pm. Hungry, sore, and tired. Awaiting us was Kibeho Church property and what I saw as I exited the vehicle caused my eyes to widen. Thousands of men and women covered in their individual African fabrics (igitenge) were loitering in and out of the Cathedral, singing on the vast green lawns, and fighting for a place to settle down for the night. The actual program that all of us were visiting for wouldn’t begin until the next day and so it was mostly a matter of finding a comfortable place to relax. And comfortable isn’t even an apt word. Comfort went completely out the window. For a short time after our arrival, Divine and I managed to get a place to sit in the church sanctuary but it was stuffy and there was no room to lay down – sitting room only, quite literally. After 45 minutes of feeling claustrophobic and needing to pee, we headed outside. We didn’t sleep that night.

What did we do, exactly?

Well. For starters, at around 2:00 in the morning, we fetched holy water. This process is completed by walking 20 minutes down into a valley at a source that is considered “holy” by the church. On a normal day it might take only 5 minutes to take water from the well, but as we were fetching alongside hundreds of others, it took nearly an hour. Divine made her way through the crowds, for-going any sense of a line, and managed to get the holy water in a 1-liter water bottle I had brought along to stay hydrated. This was an important process to do before the Sunday program because it would be officially blessed by the priest. More on that later.

After fetching this water, Divine and I walked around for a bit until our legs were tired. We then found a small slab of cold concrete to sit as we waited for morning. My head rested on her shoulder and we listened to my IPOD and tried to stay warm while outside in the windy wee hours of the morning. People only realized I was a young white girl when night finished. It had been easy to hide in the night because I had wrapped most of my body in any piece of clothing that Divine and I could find. Now it was quite obvious that I was the one umuzungu who had come to this gathering. Lord, help me.

Noooo! My secret is out!” I lamented as I opened my eyes to a group of small children staring at me. She laughed and slapped my arm lightly.

The church has running water so Divine and I took part in one of the most important Rwandan rituals: washing our feet. Before finding a place to eat amandazi (doughnuts) and tea, she bought a few souvenirs from a couple of vendors: rosaries and a large poster of Jesus and Pope Paul Francis. Our early morning was spent visiting the site of Mary’s sighting and a museum of sorts that highlights the Pope’s visit to Rwanda in 1990. Finally, around 11:00am it was time for the church service. It followed the protocol for just about every other Catholic service I have attended in Rwanda (the Catholic church is one of the most organized institutions I have ever witnessed) and despite feeling light-headed (I hadn’t eaten a real meal in over 24 hours) I could follow along relatively well. It was tangibly weird being the only white girl. While my village is used to random white girl walking around, most of these attendants are not. I was gawked at, laughed at, stared at, and consistently heard whispers about theories about why I was there. People always find it impossible to believe that Divine and I could be such good friends; and it’s amusing for us to watch people, especially other students, to see how comfortable we are around each other. Seeing a white and black person interact the way we do just doesn’t happen often. Luckily, when it came to the service I didn’t draw extra attention to myself because I knew when to kneel and when to bow and I was happy that all my time praying in small group every Tuesday prepped me well for this big outing.

It was after the main service that I had just about the weirdest and most interesting Catholic-related experience to date.

We all moved outside and listened patiently as all 10 priests, from all over the country, said a prayer for all of us and officially blessed the water that was fetched by people the night before. Using a soft broom, he dipped the water along the bristles and then flicked the ends into the throngs of people so that drops of the blessed water would touch everybody. People raised their rosaries, hands, and just about anything they had in possession so it could make contact with the water. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I held Divine’s rosary and her Bible and waited for the holy water to touch my skin and these items. When it finally did I just smiled at Divine and said “warakoze Imana!” (thanks, God!)

On our 7-hour ride home, Divine and I drank our fanta of choice, Coke, as the driver had purchased a crate of 24 bottles for all of our group. The sugar and sweet taste of one of the world’s greatest drinks satisfied my thirst, and I was just so happy to be where I was, in that moment in time, in that place. I love when life feels like that.

Divine told me how grateful she was to have made this journey. It was a beautiful thing to see someone so committed to their beliefs to have such a powerful religious experience. She then tried expressing how important our friendship has been for her. She commented that while the love her family as for her is very real and very strong, I am the first person in her life who has been able to provide for these kinds of opportunities. I’m the first person who has opened the door for some new ideas, ways of thinking, and a broader understanding of her country. I was humbled deeply in that moment. I have helped Divine go on several church trips and the reason is this: if you are able to visit new places, meet new people, and share new things, your ability to process life on a larger level is far easier and much more possible. If I can come to Rwanda and broaden my own perspective, I think it is important that other people have similar chances.

I simply said, “somehow we have had this time together and I do these things because I love you and also because God gives me the ability.

She broke into a smile and asked the rhetorical question she asks at least 10 times a day, “kubera iki?” (why?).

I grin because I know the answer, as I’m the one who answers this at least 10 times a day, “kubera Imana” (because of God).

7%

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I could delve in and out of the small, gritty details but hashing them out doesn’t really change what has happened. I started writing this by giving a synopsis of the facts (and what I know for sure) but I deleted it because that isn’t what I want to focus on. Playing cop and tracking down the guilty is exhausting. After 5 days of running through a thousand scenarios in my head and leading some kind of “investigation”, I just can’t do it anymore.

I will tell you this:

Money was stolen from me last week. From my bag. From my bag that was sitting on my table in the front room of my house.

I sold my small computer to a colleague after our GLOW party. He purchased my small, used computer for about the US equivalent of 60 bucks. The thief took a third of that, close to 25 US dollars. The thief took the money sometime between the end of the celebration and the next morning. However, I have reason to believe it occurred just before dark as girls headed home post-party. Moreover, I have compelling evidence to believe it was a GLOW girl – yes, one of my own – to do that action. You can imagine how that felt. On one hand, I was so mad at myself. How could I be reckless by leaving my bag vulnerable? And once your start chastising yourself, it can be hard to stop.

Have I been an idiot to be as open as I have?
Are these girls REALLY my friends?
Is my Peace Corps service tarnished by the role of money in some of my projects and relationships?
Have I been getting used this entire time?

And on the other hand, I just felt pure betrayal. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small amount of money, but it’s hard to ignore the layers rooted in this problem. I can deal with the loss of money (even though I was counting on having all of it for my impending travels around Rwanda) but I am not okay with stealing. Not from my girls.

Fidele, our director of studies, and one of my good friends from the very beginning of my time as a volunteer, has been working with me on how to approach this issue. He’s insightful and often gives good advice when it comes to these sort of things. “We must search and investigate slowly. Slowly by slowly, “ he told me. He called a meeting with all the girls who had entered my house and asked where and what they did in the time the theft happened. While it was a good meeting in terms of getting things on the table, so to speak, it added even more stress because tensions arose quickly. Nothing is ever simple here. Working with young women is amazing 98% of the time. But when drama arises, it is absolutely miserable.

I started to take stock of past behaviors and tendencies in the relationships I have with each girl that could have taken the money. Those continual and consistent home visits really paid off in this situation; I know a lot more than the community might realize. I know where these girls come from, the challenges they face, and their family dynamics. I KNOW THEM and that may be the most powerful tool I have in trying to sort all of this out. I carefully considered the things each girl has told me. I thought about the times each girl has tried to create issues or conflict with other girls. Because believe it or not, this problem became a lot more than just about an incident of theft.

Cries of “jealousy” surfaced and I wanted to know their roots. Basically, one girl was accused early on as being the thief and she completely freaked out and said that it was just another example of a lie in order to “make separation between us.” “Us” refers to myself and her.

She is one of two of my girls that have frequently discussed about having “enemies” and that people in the community have tried to spread “bad ideas” so that my relationship with them would suffer. However, one skill that I have keenly developed over the past 2 years while serving in Rwanda is the ability to understand people and why they do the things they do. And as I contemplated these claims, these stories didn’t make sense in light of the behavior of the other girls involved. The girls that said rumors were being spread about them are actually the ones harboring jealousy. They are creating enemies and conflict in their head and manipulating these kind of events to hide their own insecurities . They regularly see themselves as victims. I was close with these two girls very early in my service, but as my life here has continued, my relationships with other girls have become strong as well. For whatever reason, this does not sit well with them.

And it’s these two girls where money has played a very questionable role in our relationship. There have been far too many incidents where it has been highlighted in a problem between us and slowly it’s chipped away at my level of trust for them.

I of course also considered the feasible probability of each girl involved. What kind of opportunity did they have?

Following the meeting with Fidele, I also tried to see if any of their stories had “holes”. And on an early morning run a couple days following the incident, I was able to find a small gap in one girls’ story. Her story almost made perfect sense. Almost. But I found a small lie in her explanation that could point her out as the one who stole my money from my bag.

Finally, I consulted my headmaster and we discussed the psychology of this whole thing. He studied psychology for a long time in higher education. That, in addition to his extensive experience working with students as an administrator, makes him a pretty qualified person to work with on something like this. After providing more background information, we felt pretty confident in who the thief was. However, we are committed to moving slowly. Without a confession you can never know for sure. We don’t need to come down on this girl right away, we can wait and see what happens.

It was quite painful to think critically about the inter-workings of these relationships formed over the time I lived in my village. After 2 years, it’s not always enjoyable to be honest with yourself about why people “love” you. That being said, it was simultaneously an empowering experience, because it made me more resolute and totally sure about other relationships that I have. While there are people motivated by extrinsic things (namely, money) there are still some people who love me for me. They may not be many here, but they exist. And they are (and will continue to be) some of the most loyal friendships I have had.

Fidele told me without reservation, “don’t trust anybody. Don’t trust me, don’t trust that girl, this girl, or anyone. Don’t trust.”

Though I am certainly far too giving of my trust, I am also human. And I absolutely believe that in order to have full relationships, you must learn to trust people. But he is right in that if you trust everybody you are a fool. I must trust, it’s just about knowing who it goes to.

As I said, despite having a pretty strong idea of who stole from me, there exists a tiny sliver of doubt. That’s enough; and so honestly, I’m ready to just let all of this go.

I escaped this overbearing issue for a couple of days by visiting my friend Sarah at her wonderful site, a couple hours away.

We drank a beer in public at a bar in her village – a sign we are definitely old time 2-year volunteers who are ready to let go of some inhibitions that we’ve maintained during our services – and ate some seriously good food. Perhaps best of all, she has running water AND wonderfully strong water pressure from her shower! Y’all, a shower. I’ve been taking bucket baths every night and so a shower is a beautiful reprieve and is a gem of a find in rural Rwanda. Post-shower I was clean as I have been in months. I relaxed in my blue sarong, clean, listening to “This American Life”, and happy I took a couple of days outside Ruramira and outside the stress this problem has put on my heart.

I reflected delicately over what the last few weeks has brought in my life:

  • I officially closed all paperwork for my sports grant project.
  • Margaux, the new volunteer who will be replacing me in my village for her two year Peace Corps service, visited me for three days to learn the ropes and basics of our village.
  • I finished my last leg of teaching, grading, and obligations surrounding my primary assignment of being an educator.
  • I met with my friends and their respective replacements at one of our favorite regional towns and talked a lot of about the future.
  • The GLOW girls put on an amazing party to honor our accomplishments and achievements from 2012 until now. They did me proud. It was our last time together as a group.
  • And yes, money was stolen from me and a witch-hunt ensued.

In the midst of all these doubts and disappointments considering which one of my girls could have stolen from me, I kept coming back to the most obvious fact of all:

THIS IS THE END.

It’s a matter of fact, and it’s coming. Without any regard to how my days are filled. And when I become engaged with how the days are moving along, it’s very easy to see that the transition period is in full swing. And so, the ever-present (and stressful) issues of trust (really, more about mistrust), deception, and lies will not be removed from this inevitably up and down experience. But, I’ve prayed and asked God to help me forgive and to also be more aware of the way I am trusting people. I want to accept what has happened without it defining the greater part of my service. I don’t want to leave with a sour taste in my mouth.

I recognize fully that I’ve made mistakes in my service. I didn’t do the PEACE CORPS THING perfectly. Other volunteers could perhaps look at some parts of my actions here and say that I had something like a theft coming for me. But, let’s be real, there isn’t a right way to do this.

MOVE AWAY FROM YOUR FAMILY. CRY. LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE. CRY SOME MORE. ADAPT TO A NEW CULTURE. LIVE AMONG SOME OF THE WORLD’S POOREST. MAKE FRIENDS. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS. HELP. LIVE WITHOUT EXCESS. BE SICK. WATCH MOVIES. EAT BANANAS, OR WHATEVER THE LOCAL FAVORITE DISH MIGHT BE. MAKE BEST FRIENDS WITH YOUR HEADLAMP. TRY AND DO SOMETHING GOOD. TEACH. LEARN. CHANGE. SHARE ABOUT AMERICA. AND TELL YOUR AMERICAN FRIENDS ABOUT THE PLACE YOU CALLED HOME FOR A COUPLE YEARS IN YOUR LIFE.

I’m 25 months in. When you break it down mathematically, I have finished 93% of my service. That leaves 7%.

Can I fix and correct my mistakes with 7% left of my Peace Corps life?

No.

But, I can adapt. I will be devoted to what has always been right and good for me during my time in Rwanda. I will learn from all of these experiences. And I will make my last 7% – my last 6 weeks – great. I can do this, because that’s what Peace Corps Volunteers (and really, people in general) do. Sometimes crappy things happen.

So what exactly are you going to do about it?

And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know…
My weakness, I feel, I must finally show…
The way you invest your love, you invest your life
Awake my soul.
- Mumford & Sons “Awake My Soul”

america on the horizon

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At 5:00am this morning (my usual waking time) I rolled out of bed to a thick coldness, brought on by night rains and dense fog. The moist atmosphere smeared my skin as I entered my backyard. I raced to my latrine, about 20 yards away, and then back into the comforting cement walls of my home. The BBC radio station was buzzing about the latest of the first government shutdown in 17 years. The back and forth finger pointing of our political parties droned on and so I took my steaming tin cup of coffee outside back near the edge of a blistery Rwandan morning. I had been unable to find REAL coffee in my regional town and so I had been drinking the severely subordinate instant Nescafe brand sold in Rwandan towns for nearly 2 weeks. A small miracle had happened the previous day, however, as I found the much desired bag of Rwandan coffee (complete with an amazing aroma) in my package town out East. HALLELUJAH. 4000 RWF (Rwandan Francs). That’s about 6 bucks. Well worth the cost.

I held my coffee as if it was a precious jewel and wrapped my neck and arms with my pink Ugandan scarf. At 5:25am, the sun had barely crested the sky and so I could see the moon, stars, and small glimmers of sunshine mixing together. The bitterness of the cold reminded me of how I will be coming home in December, to a deep Colorado winter. The smell of my coffee integrating with the cool breeze brings a smile to my face; somehow it smells exactly like winter, Christmas, and home. The hum of Taylor Swift’s song, “The Best Day”, drifts from the other room where my radio is playing. I stand there in the doorway and I think about the soon-to-come holidays with my family. I remember the soothing feeling of a wool sweater as you awake Christmas morning, the way Buddy always played vigorously in the snow, and comforting way we all sit together on couches and chairs as we laugh and open presents. I let myself drift for a few minutes in these memories and senses and I have to hold back small tears of anticipation and joy. Two years is a really long time to be away from home.

*

What day will I reunite with the good ole USA?

My flight from Rwanda is on December 10, just before 9:00pm. I have a total travel time of around 24 hours in which I will pass through Nairobi, Kenya, Belgium, New York City, and finally back to Denver, Colorado. It’s nearly the same route I took on the way here. And when my travels finish, it will be the first time I’ll have been back on American soil in 27 months. WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 11. 7:50pm: I’m home, y’all.

What will you eat first?

I love Rwandan food, no doubt about that. Ask any volunteer: I’m the weird one who cooks bananas and cassava bread for FUN. Because I like it! I’m kind of crazy. But that being said, I’m excited to be back in our wonderful country that has a ridiculous variety of food choices. I plan to consume all of the following as soon as possible upon arrival:

burritos, dad’s enchiladas, mom’s enchilada casserole, mom’s tuna noodle casserole, queso, cereal, fresh salad, smoothies, blocks of cheese, cafe lattes, panninis, quiche, lasagna, cheeseburgers, pizza, macaroni and cheese, quesadillas, salmon, huevos rancheros, blue moon complete with a fresh orange, and a big strawberry daiquiri.

What will you do first?

HUG MY FAMILY. SLEEP IN MY BIG BED. PLAY WITH MY DOG. EAT. REPEAT.

Okay but seriously.

This whole coming back to America thing is exciting. Crazy. And BIG! It’s a big life transition that I’m approaching and so my goal is to take it slow. Enjoy the moments of readjustment. Be patient with the more difficult things. Celebrate the joys of being home.

In doing so, the first things I want to do are to focus on spending time with my family and friends while reconnecting with my loved ones. Sure, for the past couple of years I have missed weddings, births, deaths, and graduations. Those things are hard to miss, but it’s also equally hard to miss out on the day-to-day stuff that we often take for granted.

I can’t wait to go out to lunch with my mom, to paint nails with my friends, to drive on the beautiful American highway system, to go on walks, to talk sports with my dad, and to find a good gym to frequent. I am excited to see my brother, to text my friends, and to read the newspaper. Maybe the best part of all of this is that I will have a totally fresh and renewed appreciation for these things.

Logistically, I will have to get a phone, purchase a new computer, and get resettled. That will take time, but like I said, I’m ready to do all of this, but to take my time doing so.

Will you travel upon returning home?

Absolutely! Because of my late decision to not extend another year in Rwanda, I declined to receive my Peace Corps stipend before leaving the country. Because of that, I will initially be coming straight home. But no worries: I want to explore our beautiful homeland anyway! For New Year’s, 5 of my best friends in the world will be visiting Colorado. We will spend the holiday in gorgeous Estes Park and I imagine it will be one of the most epic reunions you could envision! I would also love to visit my grandparents in Oklahoma, see The Lion King on Broadway in New York (a long time dream of mine), and try and catch my cousin playing college basketball (she’s a freshman basketball player in Alaska). I have a lot of ideas and so we’ll see what happens. There’s a lot to see in this world and doing Peace Corps only started the travel bug, I am sure.

That’s so neat. Except, um, what about reality? Don’t you need a job or something?

You bet! It’s a bit stressful to think about in my current state (what can I really do out in the middle of the village boonies?) but I repeatedly tell myself that it will be just fine. Perhaps I’ll find a temporary job for the first 6 or so months of being back in the states. With my committed love for coffee, I’m thinking a barista job or something. In the meantime, I hope to begin graduate school applications. I am planning to try to do a graduate program associated with Peace Corps (there are scholarships for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers available) and that would focus on social work. I would love to integrate my interests in international development, girls’ empowerment, and the general “people” skill that I think I have come to appreciate most in myself. Peace Corps has opened a lot of doors and one of those has been coming to know what I am most passionate about and how I can utilize this for the rest of my life. Working with girls and helping them develop relationship skills, personal growth, and confidence has brought the greatest joy throughout my entire service.

But who knows, right? There are also potential career opportunities in Peace Corps that I could explore. Or even work with another international development agency. Or shoot, I would also love to coach some field hockey! While I know what I care about, it’s still hard to understand how that practically plays out in my life. Long term, I’m open to living anywhere. But, for the meantime, I’ll likely have to find a way to get a car (or a damn good public transport system) while re-establishing myself with my parents for awhile. I have no qualms about this; sure, I’m 24 and will be living with my parents, but I see it as an opportunity to grow and deepen those relationships.

So, is that what’s NEXT?

As mentioned, I want to study as to enhance my qualifications as a social worker. I want to travel more. Someday, I want to get married. I want a family. I want helping others to be the center of my professional and personal life. I want my girls in Rwanda to finish their education in secondary school. These are the ideas and values that I have boiled it all down to; if I’m able to achieve these things, well, I think I can handle the constant (and usually uncertain) question of WHAT’S NEXT?

As of now, the next thing is closing out my time in Rwanda exactly as it fits, coming home, and enjoying what I have waiting. Scratch that, what God has waiting. I don’t really know what is next. But, I think God will help me along the way, and in the end, I’ll end up in the right place.If the past is any kind of indicator, I know this to be true.

It’s hard to imagine my future life without afternoons of dusty football practices, Voice of America radio shows, and GLOW club sessions that last for hours. I am going to miss my girls more than anything. I’ll also miss my other students, the cheap avocados, the pace of life in the village, the old mamas, the dancing, and the goofy girl I have been able to be the last couple of years. I love being Impano, you know, and I think I’m a little scared of having to say goodbye to that part of myself. When you leave a place, you not only say goodbye to the things and the people, but you say goodbye to who you were for that part of time.

But, luckily, you can take the best pieces with you. I try to remember that.

And hey! Besides the familiarity of home, I no longer will have to continually become drained everyday from being different. Lying and secrets won’t always be at the foreground of a lot of relationships, and I’ll live in a country that values time and making lines. Awesome. Maybe my Impano life will be finished, but so will be being the umuzungu (the white girl foreigner). I will be just like anyone else.

BBQ, family dinners, take-out, road trips, American accents, the NFL, mountains, church in English, movie theaters, reunions, and girls’ nights out are on the horizon for my life. America, YOU are on the horizon.

See you soon, red, white, and blue.

 

little wonders

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our lives are made in these small hours
these little wonders
these twists and turns of fate
time falls away
but these small hours
still remain.
- “little wonders” by rob thomas

*

The boys run, skip, and jump as they exit the holey, grassy, and worn field. Many are holding hands and many are fist bumping anything that moves. They’ve just defeated an “Academy team” – a premier regional team that draws from richer, private secondary schools to create an all-star esque sort of combination. Our team – Ruramira Secondary School – beat them 3-2 on a Saturday afternoon of football. Our team. You know, the boys who come from the village. The boys who help their families and cultivate on the weekends. My boys, many who cannot afford the 8 dollar fee for school each term. We won. I’ve always loved a good underdog story. You can imagine the mountains of food they created when we followed the match with a team dinner courtesy of the remaining funds from the sports grant I received earlier this year. It was buffet style, and my, how those boys (and girls) can eat!

victory is sweet.

victory is sweet.

*

My girls are singing as we turn on the right-hand side of the black pavement to enter the dirt road that will take us home. We are 18 strong in a cramped blue bus and they are clapping their hands, slapping the side of the bus like a drum, and singing beautiful Kinyarwanda. Usually they sing all the GLOW songs I have brainwashed them with, but in this moment, it’s all them. It’s all their culture and it’s becoming one of my favorite moments in my 2 year service as the bus jangles further down the road. Divine is leading them in old school Rwandan rhythms which is perfect considering her role in our club. She’s “Mama GLOW” and so I found it fitting that she would be the one singing the more traditional songs, especially with her Catholic-style influence. She sings a verse and the girls repeat, and it changes each time. I try to catch the words, and I understand that she is singing about the good ideas the girls have and the journey we have traveled and that all thanks goes to God. As this is happening, Zahara looks at me wide-eyed and grinning, “Teacher! Look! The girls are so so very happy very high!” I do as told, and I see what she sees. Genuine happiness.

bus time songs.

bus time songs.

We are coming home from a GLOW field trip to visit another club, about an hour and a half away. We met the other club led by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer to “build friendships and share ideas.” Two members from each club (Divine and Yazina were our representatives) taught lessons and we also played games, made jewelry, and even blew bubbles. I watched as my girls interacted in their perfectly pressed uniforms, as they enthusiastically raised their hands to participate in all of the activities, and how they repeated our school name over and over again in their songs. It was pride, y’all, and how often have these girls been able to truly celebrate where they come from? We were at a much nicer school – a far cry from our crumbling classrooms and neglected toilets. And yet, time and time again, they prove it’s not those things that determine WHO WE ARE. They are just some of the best girls I know.

ruramira girls teaching during our GLOW day with another club.

ruramira girls teaching during our GLOW day with another club.

*

I’m sitting with Eugenie in her small room in her seemingly smaller village called Buhoro, which translates as ‘slowly’. A fitting name for your typical Rwandan village, because that really is the way things work. I’ve come for a visit after praying together for 4 hours at her Pentecost church, about an hours’ walk from where I live. We’ve been revising Geography and she comments on how the big national exam that all Senior 3 students in Rwanda will take is quickly approaching. She sucks in air quickly and gasps just a bit. Yeah girl, time is crazy, I tell her. She looks away for a moment and after a quiet pause she starts tenderly crying, with each tear waiting for the other to finish it’s journey down her petite face. I don’t even have to wait to hear why:

“As you know, my mother has birthed four girls. No boys. My father, he always asks my mother WHY? He thinks having girls is useless. He isn’t happy that my mother didn’t give him a boy. My mother just tells him about the sperm and that it is two people who make that baby, not just my mother. And she does not choose which sex she makes the baby.
I want to succeed in exam.
If I succeed maybe he can see that I have value.”

I rub her upper back and don’t know what to say. Sometimes knowing how to mentor my girls is easy and sometimes it is not. I’ve also become increasingly aware that often less is more. And so, I remind her that so many people believe in her – especially God – and I just sit with her as she finishes her tears. I tell her she is special. I tell her she is different from a lot of students – and this is all true. Eugenie is perfectly quaint, kind, and chirpy. If you need a friend, you will have one in Eugenie. Soon after my well-intentioned encouragement, she’s studying with even more intensity. Eugenie is a classic gentle soul, but she’s also quite determined. She is humbly aware of her intelligence and wants to “make it.” Desperately, I want the same thing too.

So the revision continues.
We are studying the methods of fish preservation.
Obviously, an area of expertise for me.
Not really, but I try to help in whatever way I can.

my sweet Eugenie.

my sweet Eugenie.

*

I had a two hour lesson block with one of my classes today, Senior 1A. It is currently the last week of lessons as quizzes start next week and so I wanted to do something fun, enjoyable, and relaxing for all of us. Enter Center Stage.

In the first hour, I relished in their expressions as they glimpsed at flashing images of frolicking ballerinas, a couple kissing and making out publicly, and images of New York City. When the first hour came to a close, it was time for the daily 10 minute break in which all of the students in the school either lie in the grass, walk around idly, or play football with a ball made from plastic bags. I usually take this opportunity to visit the girls’ toilet area as this is the prime place for socialization during school hours. Catching up and greeting some of the girls, I lose track of time and was late back to class. I’m clearly such a good role model.

When I entered, ALL of the students were sitting quietly and waiting to watch the film. They spit my usual (and I will openly admit, annoying) “time is time” mantra back in my face and I did the punishment I usually divy out to them: jumping jacks. This seemed all the more ironic considering last week I got really upset with them for being late and not taking my lesson seriously. Oops? We laughed and turned the movie back on. They huddled around as a group (same sex PDA is perfectly acceptable and encouraged in Rwanda; I actually love this because friends can very openly show their appreciation for each other) and gazed up at the small screen that I had set up by stacking a chair on two combined desks. For a short while we could journey elsewhere and it was a joy to watch them.

my dear students of senior 1 in their classroom.

my dear students of senior 1 in their classroom.

*

It’s these smaller day-to-day things that I will miss the most.
It’s these micro examples of my life here that ultimately, make it what it is.

Days and weeks pass and sure, I’m teaching, or working with the girls in GLOW, or running, or cooking my latest food preference, but what is my life actually full of? What and where is the substance?

These are the things I have been thinking about lately. Because I know when it’s time to pack up and come home, I will somehow have to explain 2 years of my life in a few sentences. The crux and core of my experience is the little wonders as Rob Thomas sings about; it’s the little things. Sometimes…actually, often, they come and go extraordinarily quickly. Perhaps you don’t know you are even having a “special moment” until you get home that night, put some tea on the kettle, and reflect on what has transpired.

I don’t know how to hold on to all of this.

I finally am admitting this to myself; quite frankly, I have to. Remembering and moving forward beyond my Peace Corps life is a lot more than fitting it in a perfect little box and expecting it will unfold naturally. There has been so much good, weird, bad, horrible, ridiculous, unbelievable, insane, extraordinary, inspiring, awful, amazing, disgusting, and normal things that have happened in the past two years that a wonderfully contained story doesn’t really exist. So, I’ve tried to take stock of all of the little things (yes, even the negative) and write as much as possible about those events and experiences as they have come.

August became September and now October has arrived and I’m not quite sure what to make of that. I made it my goal to live in the moment! and to enjoy each day as it comes!  or to YOLO: YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE for the last chunk of my service, but what happens when you take a step back and one, two, or three months have passed? Sure, it’s great, but it’s also like, um, excuse me, I’d like to figure out exactly what time is doing here…?

But I’m certain this is not a problem just because I’m in Peace Corps. Or because I’m coming up on a major life transition. Or because I’m also almost officially in my mid-20’s. I think that’s just life. I know full well that life has continued back home and so when I step back on American soil for the first time in a very long time, it won’t be just me that has had to wrestle with what time has brought and taken from us. My parents, my brother, my friends, and family at large all have been through things the past couple of years and my experience abroad can certainly fit into that, but it’s not the whole story.

I’ve mastered appreciating the small moments. I think in Peace Corps, you kind of have to. Because absolutely, some days those are all you have. Did you wash your dishes? Yes! Success! Did you make it to market and successfully find all of the vegetables you were hoping for? Congratulations! Did old mamas greet you enthusiastically and wish you to have a wonderful life forever? Excellent!

But the challenge – the next step – is being okay with what time has waiting for you. Appreciating the small moments isn’t enough; you have to appreciate them because you know they are fleeting. It’s not that they are just essentially great – it’s that you don’t have those people or those feelings or those situations forever. This is a big jump, especially for me. I don’t like letting go and though I thrive in change and adapting, I try picturing a life outside this village and that world seems strange now. I’m a little scared. And I’m majorly blown away of how fast time has passed.

But, fear doesn’t do anything for us. And as I’ve been teaching about fighting fear for the last two years with my GLOW girls, it’s time I take my own advice.

Maybe I can’t hold on to every single thing that has composed the past two years of my life, but I will be walking away with memories, life lessons, and professional experience. I have a lot of photographs. I have 7 volumes of my journals (I’m so serious). I have stories. And I know I’ve changed, mostly for the better. How could I not?

But as always, the best thing I will be walking away with are the friendships I have made. A Peace Corps Volunteer and I were recently discussing about friendships in Rwanda and about how it is impossible to build a true, solid, and trusting relationship in this country. I listened and laughed, but I couldn’t agree. I don’t have many, I’ll give you that, but I do have a lot of caring people that I have met. I have a community full of people who have shown kindness just because that’s what you do. And when it does come to friendships, I will manage to walk away with at least one best friend who has totally revolutionized the way I see the world. In the best way possible.

Phew.

That was a lot of tangents, ideas, and thoughts.

But that’s what has been on my mind and I wanted to share it. Because that’s how we are able to understand ourselves and other people better.

Here’s to sharing life.

2 months to go. I’m ready to enjoy all of the little wonders that I still have waiting for me. Time is on my side.

coach heather.

coach heather.

welcome home.

welcome home.

 

making good correction

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Oops I did it again.

I managed to not only attend two wedding ceremonies in one weekend, but for one of them, I didn’t even know it was a wedding until I arrived. Once I realized what was happening, I hurled over in laughter. OF COURSE. This would happen.
Oh! And it gets better.

Divine had outfitted me in a red bandana by tying it around my neck. This is the symbol for our church group and we were all wearing these to the ceremony because we were the choir for the day. Yes, I have participated in weddings as an attendant, a greeter, a brides maid, a maid of honor, and now, as a member of the choir. Just when I thought I had seen it all when it comes to Rwandan weddings.

It wasn’t that Divine had hidden this information, it’s just in the consistent cross-cultural communication I live among, you don’t know what is going on most of the time. This was a classic case.

No matter, we sang (well they did, I just moved my mouth to the rhythmic hymns and danced enthusiastically) and it all went on without a hitch.

*

This weekend was a long one for me; because with my two off days (Friday and Tuesday) and the parliamentary elections on Monday, I had 5 days free from teaching. It went by swiftly as if time was being poured like a fresh cup of steamed milk. I barely even noticed the passage of days.

In these days I have found myself entrenched in the Word of God more than I have been in the last few months. And believe me, that’s a good thing. The danger we risk in life is floating. I actually think it’s in this middle ground of feeling NOTHING, doing NOTHING, and becoming AMBIVALENT where we lose our way. I say this because that is how and where my heart has been for a couple of weeks. ABSENT.

People – my neighbors and friends – call my name and instead of a wide open smile and response, I have been raising my hand as a mere acknowledgement.

When I’m home alone and taking the time to think intentionally, I don’t feel rooted in my joys. I drift off into a world of anxiety, fear, and questions. I become glazed over from too much. My presence in such an opportunity is weakened.

Even with Divine, my best friend, I have been overly sensitive to her attempts to “help me make good correction.” If I am being culturally inappropriate and she says something to me about it, I have been defensive, snappy, and for no good reason.

My patience in the classroom has run dry like an empty well and in moments that would usually warrant laughter on my part, I’ve felt myself skimming it over, ready to move to the next point in the lesson.

WHERE AM I?

In these days, in this long weekend, I’ve tried (and I think succeeded) to get back on track. I’ve allowed myself for a small time to disconnect but this is NOT how I live my life. But, being human, I’m unable to correct this myself. We MUST turn to God.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. (Isaiah 60: 1-2).

*

On Friday, representatives from Girl Hub (a part of the Nike Foundation) came to my school to film my GLOW girls reading statements and declarations about the future of girls in the world. These snipets will appear in a film for the United Nations on the International Day of the Girl next month.

On Saturday, I was lost in the banana trees on my morning run but I found a small path to guide me home.

In the evening, for the first time in our two-year friendship, Divine told me about her family’s experience during the Rwandan genocide. She told me what happened, as it was retold to her by her mother because Divine was only a small 1-year old child at the time. She spoke slowly and deliberately (as she always does) but took frequent pauses to control the tears trying to escape her eyes.

“Heather, people don’t discuss this topic not because of fear, but because it brings the pain. But, if you have the high friend, you can do it.”

On Sunday, the lesson at church was about the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son (all from Luke 15).

On Monday, election day, my students, old men and women, and everybody who was willing able, traveled to the primary school to vote.

And on Tuesday, my coffee was a perfect temperature after a completely solid night of sleep.

*

God rescues us, little by little, performing small miracles in such a way that we forget and lose sight of how miraculous it all really is. That’s exactly it: we disconnect when we forget. When we’re tired. When we’re lonely. When we fear. But everything beautiful – big or small – comes from Him. And we are able to take heart in the biggest miracle of all; in all of our mistakes, mishaps, and wrong-doings, we’re always loved because God forgives us every single day. He gave us Jesus, and Jesus embodies the sacrifice of humanity. I feel like I am absorbing how grand this is for the first time; I don’t want to sound preachy but I can’t help but want to say, Y’ALL! THIS IS A MIRACLE!

I thought about this as I replayed my weekend through memories, sounds, and experiences. This was the weekend I re-connected; this was the weekend I celebrated ubuntu (God’s grace). And this was the weekend that God helped me make the good correction. I feel alive again. I feel renewed.

Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin. In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15: 8-10)

we are beautiful, confident, and we are changing the world.

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Recently, our GLOW club spent a Friday afternoon studying CONFIDENCE, having a photoshoot, and hosting visitors from Ni Nyampinga (associated with the Nike Foundation) as my girls were being filmed declaring their vision for their future for a film to celebrate the INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE GIRL next month. This film will be screened for the United Nations. I am a proud mama.

welcome to my happy place.

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Ruramira GLOW club singing and being filmed for an upcoming film for the United Nations to celebrate the International Day of the Girl. (!!!)

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beautiful Jeannine

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Zahara showing her confidence on the catwalk.

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Divine handles my crazy-ness so well.

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reading the girls’ empowerment magazine of Rwanda, Ni Nyampinga.

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of course we painted our nails. of course.

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“no fear”

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Josiane, posing with the flowers. typical.

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Copying the ‘Maisara’ swag.

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show me that YES WE ARE BEAUTIFUL.

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:)

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the film crew. so proud.

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beautiful Yazina.

dusk run

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*5:00pm
I’ve waited nearly 2 and a half hours for my pasta and veggie stir-fry to settle smoothly in my stomach. Does that sound healthy? I should probably note that an extreme amount of cheese was used in this particular creation. I spent my afternoon looking up proverbs to teach, organizing my lessons, and marking an exercise where my students created their own flags to represent their class. I lie for a few minutes on my mat before a surge of energy finds my muscles and I pop up, ready to find my gear. I tie my frayed and faded laces on my pink Asics. I have a strange love affair with these shoes. They are dirty (an ultimate Rwandan no-no) and worn but we’ve gone lots of places together – all over Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and England – and so I don’t mind their gravel-infused look. I reach for a black sleeveless shirt (which prompts most of my neighbors to call me umusore – meaning a strong young man – as they seem intrigued by athletic looking arms, yes this is real life) and my Hendrix black pants. Like my shoes, these pants have been worn on at least 90% of my runs in Rwanda. Between the shoes, pants, and headband that I always run with, I realize how much a part of my routine and life this thing is – running, I mean. Yep, it’s time to run.

*5:21pm
I’m on the road, kicking dust right away. 20 minutes before, I wasn’t sure how I was going to force my body to move. But as with anything, once you get going you can find a rhythm and move along beautifully. This red-brown soil attaches to my skin much in the same way that children do here too. Fast and strong. After 5 minutes my ankles are caked with the remnants of the road. Welcome to dry season. I saw rain at my house last week though it was the first time I had seen imvura (rain) in months. I pass an old man tilling some small plots in the front of his mud-bricked house and I greet him with a small but chirpy “mukomere” – translated in English as you all be strong. Even though it’s late afternoon here the sun is still a force to be reckoned with. That, and like I said, dried out soil can be a pain to cultivate. Plus, “mukomere” is a common way to greet people around here (think hey y’all in Arkansas); it’s just what you do.

*5:34pm
Today I decide to forgo one of my planned routes (I have many; all of which I have given a special name so I can record that routes I choose daily) and run a spontaneous track in, out, and through banana fields in the cell next to mine, called Nkamba. Cell is an administrative term referring to a large neighborhood and community; Rwanda is broken down by country-province-district-sector-cell-village (for me, it would be Rwanda-East-Kayonza-Ruramira-Umubuga-Kajembe). First, I pass Nkamba center and wave as people watch me go by. Some are sitting in shade. A group of tailors are working on their old-time sewing machines. Goats are being led home from feeding in the open fields. Today I even see a man carrying materials for a tin roof on his bicycle. These materials had to be at least 12 feet long. It’s not that surprising to see this sort of thing but I am always boggled by the seemingly implausible strength of Rwandans. It appears they can push, carry, or pull anything. There’s a special spot in this road that brings the same children out to greet me every day, without fail. But it’s far more than as short “hello”. It goes like this:

Me: Mwiriwe abana! (Hello children!)
Children: IMPANO! IMPANO! IMPANO! Dore Impano! (Impano is my Kinyarwanda name; Look it’s Impano!
Me: Yambi. (Give me a hug)
Children: *hugs all around* Impano, tunga! (snap our fingers, Impano)
Me: *snapping fingers for all the children*
All of us together: YAYYYYY! (yes, I taught them this gem of an English expression)

It’s not a long interaction but it’s beyond enough to bring a smile to my face and brighten my day. I love those kiddos.

*5:48pm
I come to a clearing away from water fetching foot traffic (with the sun setting soon it’s last call to go and get water – be it from our small lake or a water pump source). On both sides of me all I can see is banana trees. Above, I lose my breathe as I see how the clouds have formed intricately around the sun. It’s perfectly golden at this time and the sky molds into one. Starting with baby blue hues to the East, the colors shift to murky purples and into a burning pink as you look closer to the sun’s domain. I keep running of course, but feel in awe as I absorb the scenery around me. The good. The bad. And many times, the beautiful.

*5:55pm
It’s Rwanda and to no surprise nothing goes as you initially plan. I really reach my stride as I pass the community football field and prepare to run a loop around the mosque. However, right as my legs are kicking into high gear, I run into (quite literally) one of my girls’ mothers. She greets me but is quick to mention the problems their family is having right now. This is not unusual. They are a family that I do genuinely love but struggle to trust. They’ve taken advantage on numerous occasions of the relationships I have built with their girls. And so she’s speaking and I’m praying. I pray I can listen without passing judgment. I pray fervently that I can show the love that I do have for her. We agree on a visit in a couple of days. Night is coming, after all, and I need to get home.

*6:05pm
Because I’m in the general vicinity, I decide to stop and greet Divine at her uncle’s home. I jog intently and call her name as I approach the front of her house and breathe heavily from the uphill incline. I see her smiling face appear in her small window and she delightfully says, “Yezu umukiza” – meaning “Jesus, the incomparable and perfect one.” It’s a Catholic term for excitement. I trek behind her uncle’s banana beer shop that is attached to their home and so inevitably I am welcomed by old men and women who have quite possibly been drinking for hours. They sit on the ubiquitous brown Rwandan benches. They are kind and warm drunks and so it’s not a big deal. Greet. Shake hands. Continue inside. Divine and I have a short conversation (unusual for us) in her 8×8 room. She expects me to prepare a prayer for our prayer group tomorrow (we go every Tuesday) at the Catholic Church. She’ll help me put it in Kinyarwanda after I write my ideas in English and I can share in front of the study group. No pressure. But I love that about her; she pushes me to try and do things for the sake of experience and living life fully. I tell her I will be ready. And I will.

*6:26pm
The rays of the sun have long gone and the sky is turning into a deep dark navy. I’m running among stars. If you look up for just a moment, you can truly become lost in it all. Nothing can beat a dark Rwandan sky. The stars and the moon provide small bits of light (along with the occasional motorcycle passing by or if the power is working, there is a string of streetlights near my house too). I am blaring one of my favorite songs on my IPOD shuffle- “Oceans from Rain” – and I’m trying not to stumble over small pivots and stones in the road. It’s my first time to run in the night. Going on walks, oh, I do that all the time (it’s always when Divine is walking me home). But running? Not until today. And it was calming, freeing, and fun. I was wearing my Lion King sweatshirt over my attire and so I was sweating substantially as I neared my adorable green house. I arrive home to no power but I don’t even mind. I do some exercises with some newly acquired resistance bands and heat the small water I have in my jerry can in order to take a bucket bath. My roommates are cooking, chatting, singing, and just existing. I get cozy in bed once I am clean with my headlamp, music, peppermint tea, and notebook.

I write.
*
I run so I can take it all in.
I write so I don’t forget.
*