Tag Archives: Genocide

the genocideaire’s daughter

Standard

Sometimes in mid-February if you look around for just a second you see that the sunflowers are dying.

They rise to the sky with a beaming yellow in America’s winter—December—but by the time the rain is ready to control the road, crops, and sleeping habits of our people (we call this our rainy season), they are wilting, no longer glowing, no longer living. They are dying. The petals look sad, the leaves become holey from bug infestations, and their backs arch in a curve, much like my grandmother’s back as she climbs up our dirt road with her right hand holding herself up, and her left hand clutching tightly to her walking stick. Every umuchechuru (‘old woman’) has one. How else could you get around the land of 1000 hills? It’s Rwanda, after all.

Life is a mixture (invyange) of reliable beauty (like the height and shine of our sunflowers) and of inevitable difficulty, like when they die to give way to sorghum, a significantly less appealing crop. It’s brown, you know. Why would you want a field of brown staring at you if you could have fields of green banana and yellow sunflowers? At least sorghum makes for good porridge, I suppose.

Sometimes I drink this in the morning before I leave for school. My pot may have a scratched, old, and black surface from everyday use over the fire, but it sure does make good porridge (igikoma). The sugar laces itself between the sorghum grains and slowly you can mix in grounded up corn. Slowly, that’s the secret. If you put it all together at once you don’t give it a chance to exist as separate elements—you don’t honor their identities. If you go slowly, they thrive, and with time, unite, to become a somehow delicious combination of many things that are good in Rwanda. It’s a wonderful way to start my mornings.

I say sometimes because sometimes I have to fetch water before the sun cracks in the sky and gives us light. I say sometimes because if the rain has come and we have caught God’s tears in my cracked, old basin, then there is often something else to do. Occasionally, I’ll find the grass (the food for cow) for Mama Sifa’s calf (a present last year from Sifa’s new husband’s family; it was the gift for our family at the dowry ceremony) or maybe I’ll help Zahara study for a quiz she has that morning. When I arrive to school after my usual 47 minute walk you can be sure that I’ve already had a decently productive day. But, porridge or not, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I help my family because that’s what we do. It’s not my job, really. It’s just my life.

My family is Zahara (my sister), my mother, my grandmother, my brother, my younger sister, my cousins, my aunts, my uncle, my great-aunt, and that’s just the beginning. My family is big. Some of us are Christians, some of us are Muslims. Some of us live in bigger cities, but most of us, like me, live in the village. I like the rural area, though. It would be better if my house had electricity, but we do the best we can. It’s hard to study, but if we have enough money, my mother buys me a candle that I use after the sun has left the Earth. This is usually a special occasion—the candle, I mean. But no matter. I’ve learned in my life that some days are more difficult than others. I try to smile every day because I have power in my heart. If I study, I can find knowledge, and maybe my future will be full of open doors. At school, I often look across the field, across the campus, and notice how most of the classroom doors are open, even if teachers are in the middle of teaching. I think that maybe my future could be like that. Should be like that. Full of open doors. If I have the chance, maybe I can even choose which one I enter. I try to not think about this too much (paying attention during the lesson is very important and good culture) but I remind myself every day why I come to school in the first place.

My family is good. My mother has a strong will and I’m pretty confident that my grandmother can do anything. I wouldn’t just say that, either. It’s true.

But you remember, don’t you? Life is a mixture of things that you know will be beautiful each and every time (like mother, for example) with some things that are evil. Evil, like the way the mud permeates the lines in my shoes after rainfall and can find its way into anything. Even if you’re careful, some things are just bad in the world. That’s why we need God. That’s why I pray every day. Because even some people. They can be evil.

My family is good.

But my family is no exception to this rule.

My father is evil.

I’m 18 years old. Nearly 19 years ago my country fell victim to itself. I was a small baby then. Zahara, my little sister, would be later born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. But, my mother was a woman in her prime. My father was there too. Mother doesn’t always say exactly how, when, or why (when we talk about it, her eyes become misty and heavy and it’s like she goes to visit another place while I sit there waiting for some kind of explanation) but I know what he did. My father was a Genocidaire. Which makes me the Genocidaire’s daughter. My father killed people. My father killed our people.

Last week in biology, we studied about what happens when a mother has her baby. We drew a diagram of where the baby comes from, but what I remember most is studying how that little, tiny baby is able to breathe from its mother’s own breath. More than that, it’s a mixture of the ones who created it. It has that blood of both mother and father.

I am the blood of my mother and father. If I press hard on my arm for more than 5 seconds, let go, and watch my skin, it quickly becomes white and changes back to the light brown skin that I have. I can try and navigate the blue veins in my body and then I remember again: it’s that blood. This blood is evil, isn’t it? What if it goes into my heart, and evil spills out from my nose, mouth, and eyes? What if I’m my father’s daughter but I don’t want to be?

My father killed people in 1994. My father killed people in our family in 1994. After it was all over, he was in prison for 12 years. He served his sentence, they say. He came back. But he was not okay. He was never okay.

He always liked the machete. I was happy that when came back he chose other objects to beat us with. He would hit mother. I would close my ears, praying it would go away. The beatings continued. Once, he threw a basin at me as I was getting ready to go to school. I told you already, I like to help my family, even if it is early in the morning. But if I did something that was wrong in the eyes of my father, I would pay. I went to school, running, forgetting my favorite blue pen, because I wanted to escape as fast as I could. School was my safe place. He came there once too. Drunk, I’m sure. He wanted to report to our school administration that Zahara and I were bad children. They took him away. But I knew I would have to answer to him later. There would be no escape when the lessons finished.

Did I tell you mother is strong? Well, she is. My mother, who lost 6 of her siblings during the Genocide, decided we couldn’t stay. We left our village to go and live with my grandmother. It wasn’t very far from our home, but it was a change. And it represented so much more, perhaps. She was leaving my father. Women don’t usually do this. But she did.

We changed our homes, our villages, and our places to fetch water so that we could be safe.

Our walk to school was shortened even, a little anyway. From grandmother’s home we walk about 38 minutes as opposed to 47, a small but sizeable change. Plus, we saw more sunflowers on the way to school. They are tucked neatly between large plantations of banana trees and immediately, I fell in love with those small, secret trails. The crisp smell of morning was best under those trees. Maybe that’s where I am most happy. Perhaps. I love laughing, by the way. That, and smiling. Every day, I remember to do these things. I remember because I know if I can enjoy my life, even under difficult circumstances, then maybe I can do anything.

It’s not like this is easy. On top of the upheaval of changing homes and finding temporary safety, my father found ways to continue to bring fear into my family. At night at maybe 7:00, right around the time the stars and moon would rule the sky, we would hear banging on our door. His scuffled steps were heard easily because we have to cook outside. The smoke from the fire wood is far too intense and dirty to even think of bringing our kitchen indoors. But I heard him. Mother knows this sound and she moves quickly to grab grandmother’s stick. We try not to be afraid. Don’t fear. No fear. I say this over. And over. And over. I don’t want to forget.

He occasionally brings a machete. He threatens us. He hits us. He tries to find us. If I can, I hide. Mother is our front line of protection, and so far, it’s worked out okay for us. He hasn’t killed us yet. He hasn’t even beaten us yet since the big move. I told you. Mother is strong. But he comes, he wants us, and Mother stops him. I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know if I really want to know. I know he hits grandmother. At night, I lie awake thinking that if someone can hurt an old person, than surely, their heart is dark. Where is God in this person?, I wonder.

It’s like the sunflowers; my family is strong and close and I love them. They are beautiful. But for every flower that shines and becomes one with the booming clouds, there is one that wilts, dies, and wallows in the soil back to the deep edges of Earth. In our wonderful, good family we have a man that is bad. He’s like a dying sunflower, with no life, no compassion, and certainly no brightness. Maybe it was there, once, a long time ago, but I have never seen it. This man is my very own father.

I’m the blending of two people—mother and father. And of course, I like to think there’s a bit of God’s love in me too. But, maybe the influence of my father ended the minute I came into Earth. My mother and grandmother took over, and so maybe biology is important because while it’s the study of life and how things work, when it comes to humans and who we are, you have the biological factors yes, but you also have the soul. The soul has nothing to do with who impregnated who. The soul is about your human experience and the way you contribute and take from the world. I want to be like a growing sunflower; shining, growing from the good roots of mother, sharing the joys of life with my friends and family. I am a daughter of a Genocidaire, but this does not define me. In fact, it has nothing to do with me. It’s my history, but I take the active choice to separate, to be me, on my very own terms.

I’m Maisara. I’m beautiful, I’m confident, I’m intelligent, and I will be somebody someday. I want to be a journalist, I want to help my family, and no matter what, I love to play football. Love is the most important thing in the world and though I’m a young woman I’ve been able to figure out that much. Most importantly, nothing is impossible. No fear. In all things, no fear.

IMG_8698

IMG_8685 (2)

the Rwanda we know

Standard

My senses are consumed. The smell of death permeates the air. I feel sick. I literally feel like I’m going to throw up. My mind is racing. I don’t really know what to feel, what to think, or what to say. Yet, the guide is explaining everything and I have to translate to dad what she is saying.

I may be translating the words but I can’t really process the heavy weight that they carry:

2500 people died here.

The Interhamwe clubbed people to death, sliced them with machetes, threw children against the wall, and raped women.

People in 1994 came here, to church, to be safe. They were deceived. Many of the church leaders had a direct hand in the killings that happened here in April 1994.

Our guides’ family has its remains in the tomb to our left. Her mother, two sisters, and brother.

Families’ bones were attempted to be kept together in the mass graves. They tried. Sometimes it was difficult, as the way these people were killed left it hard to determine who was who. However, many individuals left their clothing on the pews so that survivors would recognize their identity from that particular hat, shirt, or pair of shoes.

Here, in the Bugesera District (about 30 minutes south of Kigali), 65,000 people lived here in 1994. 2,000 survived the Genocide. 2,000 only.

Each person had to carry an identity card indicating their ethnicity: Tutsi, Twa, Hutu, or Naturalist. We are told that we can hold the card, look closely, and see that the cards do in fact, identify each person by their ethnicity. I take that worn, pea green card in my hand, and I can feel the evil. As I do this, dad tells me again, the hairs on his neck are standing.

Our guide, Josiane, survived because she ran. She was able to run away from the church, find security in the woods, and wait. Meanwhile, her entire family was murdered. She is the only one that remains.

                I asked her in Kinyarwanda, “isn’t it hard to work her everyday? To see the memory and remains of your family each time you step in here (in the underground area where the mass graves are kept)?”

                She replied, with tears in her eyes,  “yes, but it’s important to remember. It hurts a lot, but I carry them with me in my heart. We must remember.”

I look over at Dad and he’s visibly shaken. It’s unbelievable that here we are, standing beneath the beautiful statue of Mary, above so-called ‘holy ground’, and yet this is what happened here. Unbelievable, unbelievable, dad repeats over and over again. He’s touching the blood-stained clothes that fill the sanctuary, looking at the left behind rosaries that many of these victims likely prayed on, and I see that he too, feels deeply disturbed.

I’m a Christian woman. And yet, in this place thick with pain and agony, I don’t understand. I don’t understand how a refuge like this could be hijacked, how people could be so deceived, and how church leaders could turn on their people because of a sick, heavy load of propoganda, fueled by a long history of tension, the mingling of colonial powers, and resentment. Still, thousands of people were killed HERE, in a CHURCH. The international community, well, they mostly did nothing. Here, on this property, at the Nyamata Genocide Memorial Site, there is an Italian woman who is buried here. She was one of the few international community members that stood up and said something. She found out what was happening in this community and tried to gather support from abroad. She tried, but to no avail. She was killed in the years before the Genocide, because she was known to be a trouble-seeker, you could say. She is honored here, because she is remembered as an ally, a friend, an example of someone who said that this was not okay. No matter that Rwanda has few minerals to contribute to the world; Rwanda is turning on itself, people are dying, and this is Genocide. Few listened.

The Nyamata Memorial Site is an important place to visit. It’s arguably THE most intense thing that I have seen or experienced since I’ve been in Rwanda for nearly 16 months. We had visited the Kigali Memorial Site days earlier, and though it’s also deeply moving, it acts more like a museum, to inform people on what happened in Rwanda. In Nyamata, however, this is ground zero. This is where events actually took place, and so I left this memorial profoundly more impacted, and with one lingering, powerful question. WHY?

I think what leaves me most shaken is that now I have a growing and deepening relationship with Rwanda–the people, the country, and the culture. While I take the time, thoughts, and prayers to mourn the people that were killed in this church, my mind can’t help but wonder and return back to my own little village and think about what the people there must have seen, felt, and been through. I’ve been there for awhile now, and still, I don’t know most of their stories and their histories. It’s heartbreaking really, because this history is still so fresh, and most people I come into contact with, were and still are affected. Many of my students have only one parent. I’ve talked to people who were actively involved in harming other people at that time–to what degree, I don’t know, but they have told me that they did “bad things”. Dad and I had lunch with a couple of my girls and their family (one of a few families that have become my Rwandan family while living here) and it was amazing! They set out the meat, rice, peas, and the special china–just for dad and I. We laughed, talked, and dad told me he was extremely humbled by this obvious display of hospitality and happiness. It all hit home for dad when we had the following conversation (which I translated for both the grandmother and my dad):

Dad: How long have you lived in this house?

Grandmother: *thinks and hesitates for a moment* 17 years. We came here after the war ended.

Dad: How many kids do you have?

Grandmother: I had 10. Now, I have 2. 8 died.

I looked into her eyes and she seemed to be in a different place entirely. She was remembering something from long ago, with a forlorn glance in her eyes. It disappeared as quickly as it came, but my heart sank deeply as she relieved whatever she was relieving. It’s interesting to note that she referred to the Genocide period as “war”–which can sometimes indicate which side of the conflict they were on. Of course, you never want to read too much into anything when it comes to this sort of thing, but you definitely do wonder. Whether a “war” or a “genocide” to my community members, a lot of people died, a lot of people turned on each other, and it makes for the present-day communities still very difficult to sort through. I don’t know what one of my many Rwandan grandmothers has been through (believe me, I’ve been temporarily adopted by quite a few old mamas, and they all are, in perfect honesty, bad ass) but an 80-something year old mama in Rwanda, with little money and little belongings, has certainly been through a lot. She carries a lot of memories and also a lot of love. She’s a shining example of all that’s good in Rwanda, despite the unfathomable history traced within her past.

More than anything, I hope that I (and now my dad, as he has been here and seen what Rwanda has to offer) can tell people back home and the world that Rwanda is a really really good place. The Nyamata Genocide Memorial is a sobering experience; the Genocide really did happen and it was really that horrible. But, as someone who has lived here, not in Kigali, but in the village, I think I can offer a vision and a picture for how far this country has come and where it is going.

I’m trying really hard not to pretend that I know everything–because how could I? I am, in fact, NOT Rwandan (as hard as I try to be). The Nyamata Memorial helped me remember that; as integrated as I may be, I was not here for that divisive, horrific, and bloody piece of history, and so I will never ever understand. Arguably, most Rwandans will never understand it either. But I’m telling y’all, this place is amazing. I thank God that my dad came when he did, because I feel like I can see this place with a new set of eyes and a new vigor of energy. And what I’m seeing, well, it’s really really good. People in Rwanda want good things to exist in this country. Aside from their being a lot to do (gorillas, safaris, National Parks, hikes, volcanoes, cultural tours, historical sites, etc.) the people are wonderful here. They like visitors, and in my experience with my dad, they welcome them with open arms. For Christmas, we’ve found ourselves lake-side, at this beautiful, quaint, and small little hotel. They have the best customer service I have experienced in Rwanda, and they know exactly how to make people feel at home. Plus, their coffee and African tea rocks.

I guess what I’m really trying to say when it’s all said and done, is that when I went through that horrific memorial (and let me repeat, as horrible as it is, it’s 100% necessary to do), I was aghast with what happened in this country. Mostly, I think, because it doesn’t really match up with what I’ve experienced in this country, nearly 20 years later. I see remanants of maybe why things could have happened here (for example, the sometimes blinding and absolute devotion to authority figures) but overall, I see a peaceful country that is safe, completely gorgeous, and with a lot of potential. Like any country, there are a lot of issues, but I think the potential far outweighs the concerns. I hope that Rwanda will always remember what happened here. I hope they use the wounds and pain for good. I hope that people will continue to visit places like Nyamata in order to reflect, cry, pray, and remember the many many lives that were lost here so violently and unfairly. I hope that things will continue to always get better.

I remember a notorious professor at my small liberal arts college, Hendrix, asked our class once about progress. I was a little baby freshman, taking this class called Journeys which has Hendrix students explore “basic” ideas like free-thinking, civilization, and the philosophic approaches of various thinkers and shakers like Plato, Confucius, and Jane Addams. He told us early on, one day, with a condescending smile that progress was a myth, something that really can’t be achieved.

Maybe I wear rose-rimmed glasses too much, but I really think he’s wrong. Because progress doesn’t always have to be represented by more buildings, more money, more people, or more materials. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you have more technology or infastructure.

Progress, in my young, idealistic opinion, is about ideas. Here in Rwanda, the ideas of the people are slowly developing and changing. Steeped deeply in traditional culture, I hope that the youth of Rwanda can keep their beautiful traditions and values (family, cows, praying, fanta, God, banana beer, dancing, etc) while embracing peace, gender equality, education, and innovation. Things like this don’t happen quickly, believe me. There are plenty of my ‘mamas’ that would be abhorred to see a man in the kitchen cooking or using that extra money to send another girl to school. However, there are people that are trying to become entrepenuers, that are bringing women into leadership, and that are believing in themselves to change their country. The commonality is that most Rwandans, in my experience, never want anything like the Genocide to happen again. As long as that remains center in these ideas of progress, I think many people will be happy, surprised even, at what Rwanda can do in the world. 

bon appetite

Standard

My crossover and full immersion into Rwandan culture seemed somehow complete at dinner the other night when I visited some neighbors. It wasn’t upon some magical-breaking down boundaries conversation; rather when given the choice of cold, clean water or Rwandan tea, I hardly hesitated and chose the tea. I realize this sounds completely irrelevant but for people who know me well (or just know me at all—I advertise it pretty loudly by having a water bottle by my side 24/7) I love water. And yet, I wanted tea, and lately, that’s all I really go for.

A minimal blip on the radar? Yes. But, it’s often our food choices, how we share a meal, and what exactly we eat that reveals much more into our cultural context and the lives we are leading.

Wow. Reading that over, I realize I sound like I’m about to write a sociological analysis regarding food culture, but really, it’s just me thinking about food in Rwanda.

What’s interesting about Rwandan food (which generally, I really like) is that it’s essentially the same wherever you go. Often, you are guaranteed to find some combination or assortment of the following:

-plantains

-beans

-potatoes (sweet or regular—called Irish potatoes here?)

-meat

-sauce

-rice

-vegetables

Sometimes, “salad” will be served (especially on special occasions) which for all intents and purposes is a pile of cabbage, topped with a sliced red tomato, and a dollop of mayonnaise.

For snacks you can opt for the greasy ‘amadazi’ (fried bread, essentially) or my much preferred ‘cheke’ (like sweet cornbread).

Food availability depends on the region, of course, and so in the East with the plentiful (and never ending) vision of banana trees, eating plantains (‘igitoche’) can be assumed at nearly every meal. I’ve noticed that one Rwandan traditional dish called ‘ubugari’ (cassava bread) was available much more in the West. Fine by me. Ew. I was not a fan, but in an attempt to win over the host family, pretended to enjoy it, and as punishment, had it at least once per week during training. Not only is the taste less than appealing (reminiscent of uncooked flour? Maybe?) the texture is weird and you eat by hand and so you’ll get cassava under your nails for the evening. Enticing, right? Interestingly, a similar dish was available when I was in Ghana (called ‘banku’) and I actually liked it! I don’t know what gives in regards to the distaste I have for ubugari, but my best guess is that West African food DEFINITELY has more flavor and so maybe the sauces accompanied with the flour like substance cancelled out the weirdness? Who knows.

Yet, don’t count out all traditional dishes! In fact, my favorite thing to eat here is called ‘isombe’ which is essentially mashed up cassava leaves. It’s like spinach; it’s green and can be eaten with rice or plantains as a soup-like dish. I lack the Rwandan capacity to cook it, but when I eat it at the homes of Rwandans and it is a part of the meal, I get really excited.

Which reminds me: often, I forget how wonderful it is to share a meal with others. I enjoy cooking on my charcoal stove and I enjoy even more eating my creations after. Usually, I’ll eat later in the afternoon after a full day of work, and I’m finally able to relax. My roomie, Louise, likes to eat later at night, so typically, we don’t eat together.

Last night, I visited the health center director, Ernestine, and her husband, Emmanuel (a lab technician at the Rwandan Military Hospital, a pastor, a member of Gideon’s International, and a former soldier during the Genocide—a jack of all trades) for dinner. We ate a dining table (a rarity out here in the village) and as we passed the pots around I remembered the joy in eating together. Rwandans are good about that—though there is some strange hierarchy to it (typical) where kids and servants will eat separately. It’s like my family holidays every day of the week—there is the adult table and the kids table (man, wasn’t that such a good feeling when I finally moved up with the adults!). Yet, meals are important, no question about that. It’s at these tables full of pots designed to keep heat on the food (as cooking often takes forever) that you learn and share.

I glanced at their kids, Hope and Prince, as they played after they finished eating, and it was like watching me and my brother, Lance, as little kids. I got a little choked up and told the parents what I was thinking: we are so different…and yet, not really at all.

“My brother and I…we did the exact same things. We played the exact same games,” I told them.

Interestingly, it was earlier in the same day that I shared lunch with a couple of students on home visits I decided to do during the holiday when a neighbor began to tell me about how he was a teacher before the Genocide.

 “What happened? Why did you stop teaching?” I asked innocently

“I went to prison. Me and my wife. For 12 years. After…well it was all new after that.”

The Rwandan government won’t hire war criminals as teachers, even if they serve their sentences in full, I was later told. So presumably, I was speaking with a former war criminal. And that wasn’t the last time it would happen (and due to my lack of knowledge about what happened in 1994 here and who did what, it has probably happened many many times previously). As I was given an omelette to eat from another pastor I knew while greeting him at his home today, I complimented his family.

 “Your family. They are good people.”

“No. My parents…they…during the Genocide…they were bad.”

So, in two days, I heard more about the Genocide in 1994 than I have in 7 months. Each time, while consuming food. Like I said, when you eat together, the conversation becomes much more wide open and you begin to maybe know and learn about the people you are eating with.

Though it’s not as if every meal in Rwanda is transformative; I had plenty of silent dinners with only the clattering of silverware with my host family. Simply, food is a starting point—especially when you are new and adjusting to a new community and life.

So far, my tricks of the trade to food culture in Rwanda are the following:

 -if someone offers you food, take it.

-a Fanta is a sign of friendship.

-leave a small amount of food on your plate when you are full—it shows you are satisfied.

-don’t eat before praying. Just don’t.

-if you have a visitor at home, offer them food. If you don’t have any, offer them tea. That’s good enough, sometimes even better.

-unless you are on a bus, don’t eat in public.

-if you find yourself living with a host family and you genuinely don’t like something TELL THEM. If you tell them the opposite, you will be eating it again. And again. And again.

-you are going to miss American food. That’s a given. Have the good stuff sent in packages.

-unless you are a vegetarian, if you are served meat, eat at least some. It’s expensive her for Rwandan families.

There’s still a lot to know in terms of eating in Rwanda. But as I master my own cooking and eating too, I’m realizing that food is right in the center of Rwandan culture—any culture, really—and so, as Rwandans say upon taking the first bite, enjoy. 

friendship, love, or something like that

Standard

Sara: “This land is totally and completely pre-historic looking.”

Heather: “You are so right! That’s like, the perfect way to describe this place.”

Sara: “Yeah—it’s like freakin’ right out of Land Before Time or something.”

*pause*

Heather: “You know, it’s crazy to think about dinosaurs and then roaming the Earth—like can you just imagine? They would have been as big as these mountains! Incredible.”

*even longer pause* *laughter* *pause*

Sara: “Um. Dinosaurs were big…but not THAT big. If that was the case, there would have been like 6 dinosaurs on the whole Earth.

Somehow, after the revelation ­that I had a pretty misguided conception of dinosaurs when gazing upon Lake Kivu in Western Rwanda, Sara still continues to be my friend. As Southerners would put tenderly, “bless her heart.”

Sara is one of my good PCV friends and I’m lucky to have her. Sara is quiet—not shy—and her humor is sharp as a brand-spanking new razor. She loves goats, cats, hails from the state of Pennsylvania, and has an equally deep appreciation for the mystical powers of cheese. Plus, her favorite Friends character is Ross which is good for two reasons:

1)      I’m a firm believer that your favorite character from that wonderfully made TV show definitely says something about you. And,

2)      My favorite character is also Ross. So it just works.

It’s been relatively easy to connect with PCVs and find a good niche of friends. I suppose the difficult part was realizing how special my college girls were (and are) and that the closeness and trust I had with them is not easily replicated—nor should it be! That’s what makes friendships so special in the first place. But, when you have chosen Peace Corps as your life for over two years (and, in fact, it is YOU wholly responsible for having to relieve yourself in a queasy-smelling latrine, live every night by candlelight because of the lack of electricity, and teach in a profoundly changing, disorganized, and transitional education system) well, there is certainly lots to talk about. It really does take a different kind of person to do this, and when you are here in country, it’s essential to have a support network of people who at the end of the day, they just get it. They get why you are here, they get what you are going through, and it’s easy to explain those awkward-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me moments that happen time to time (or more realistically, every day).

But, ultimately, this isn’t about them, because a good chunk of your time as an education volunteer is spent where it should be: in your village, at your site, at your school, and at your house where it is totally dependent on you to make your own friends. Like being back in elementary school, looking for some kind of connections on the playground, albeit the four-square domain or the monkey bars, it’s a new territory and you have no choice but to just put yourself out there.

For me, it’s gone as well as I really think it could. I don’t mean that I’m on the verge of revolutionizing the Peace Corps experience and becoming volunteer of the year—believe me, far from it. By no means do I have a Rwanda BFFL quite yet (best friend for life for those who missed the 90’s craze of best friend bracelets) but I have a good group of what my friends and I call ‘mamas’ (older women who basically are superhuman in strength and energy) and some fellow teachers who I’ve been able to talk with at length in English, share meals, and play cards. I’ve been good about getting into my community (running, walking around aimlessly, going to market, visiting neighbors and students, praying at church, and even like today, carrying market goods on my head proclaiming loudly that indeed, I have become Rwandan—the trick to winning people over is acting like a complete loon, something that comes very natural for me). All of this has undoubtedly aided in my integration. But lately, I have wondered and contemplated about how so many of these people know me, but even after 2 years, will really not know me. You know what I mean?

I’m really not trying to be all existential here, instead, I’ve just tried to take stock of the limitations I have here when it comes to relationships. It’s an entirely new set of rules—a new cultural context—and with that, I find myself in the passenger seat. In many situations, despite being a teacher by profession here, it is me that is the learner and because of an incredibly complicated language, I can’t even fully (or adequately) express my emotions or ideas. To be frank, that’s hard. Really hard. I come from a culture of words and words are power. It’s that simple. I long for companionship and when the conversation is about potatoes or tea every day, how much of that intangible, magnetic, strong, and mutual longing to be together and share more can really grow?

All of this is one side of relationships for me as a 7-month Peace Corps Volunteer.

I suppose I didn’t mention a key element in the plight for friendship: given my role, and given the situation—friendship is exactly like a double edged sword. Stay with me. I promise it makes sense.

On one side is this unattainable longing to just be me and have people who know what that is and what that looks like, no questions asked. I’m talking about the little things that actually, when put together, make a person whole. It’s the little things, you see, that often make up who we are.

It would be oh so comforting to have a person here who gets that I don’t like sugar in my coffee (Rwandans are OBSESSED)—black coffee will be just fine, thank you. They would of course understand the good and bad about my tendency to want to keep everyone happy. That same person wouldn’t look twice if I was carrying around a water bottle 24/7, they would laugh off my quest to speak in a bagillion different accents simply for fun (which I admit, often all sound the same), and they would already know that I do everything intensely: I walk intensely, I write intensely, I laugh intensely…you get the idea.

It’s like doing these things, or acting a certain way—it just feels like home. And believe me; here I have few false pretenses (the only one I can really think of is when I lied to my host family about liking ‘ubugari’—a really strange traditional Rwandan dish—so that they would like me). I am who I am. But as I’ve been saying, in a new culture, well, somehow who you are doesn’t always translate directly.

Ah, yes, but like I told you this whole relationship thing? Well, it’s like a double-edged sword, right? The other side of the sword so to speak:

At the end of the day, culture plays a huge role in who we are. That’s undeniable. But even with a language and cultural barrier, it doesn’t mean you can’t know the very core of someone. It doesn’t make sense, does it? How can you possibly know the core of someone if you don’t really know what they are about? That’s the mystery of relationships, I suppose. That’s the bigger mystery of who we are as a people, how we relate to each other, but also how our lives can also signify something so much greater than ourselves. The old cliché (which, excuse the use of cliché’s here, but if you notice, they are often correct) seems to ring true: actions speak louder than words.

I’ve just returned from visiting my host family for the second time since I became an actual volunteer. It was uncanny how comfortable it felt. They’ll never know my middle name, they don’t know about my education history, they maybe won’t ever fully know the depth of my dorkiness tendencies, and explaining my family has proved difficult (‘divorce’ is a fairly uncommon concept in Rwandan culture). And yet, I feel at home with them. They know my pronounced preference of Coke to Fanta, my love of sport and desire to be outside whenever possible, and they get that I like to hug people. A lot. Moreover, after my travels back home, accompanied the whole way by my host dad (he wanted to know how to get to my house so he can bring the whole family next time—I KNOW HOW CUTE IS HE??) he told me over my coffee table that I was a woman with a good heart who loves people. It blew me away—what a wonderful, beautiful compliment from someone who I think knows me better than I even realize.

I felt honored. I thought back to times we’ve shared.

The first three months I was like a baby. I was scared, unsure, and quite literally, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even speak to them—my family. I can tell you this much, I was completely prepared to pack my bags and fly back home after the first couple of days in Rwanda. I was afraid that I was way in over my head; I made a vow to myself that I would give it a whirl with my family and see if maybe I was jumping the gun too early. Oh, and was I ever! I’m trying to stay on the cusp of not being overly dramatic, but seriously. They’re the reason I stayed. As my understanding and knowledge grew, so did my perception. These people—my new Rwandan family—they are good. They love people for the sake of loving others. They live in the middle of Rwanda, this family, they don’t’ have much, but they have hearts of complete gold. Maybe in the same way that they won’t completely know me, I can never fully know them. But, I’m learning to never underestimate the power of humans and reading each other. Sometimes, a good person is just that—good. You don’t even need words. It just is. It’s the truth.

Maybe it’s here where the real love and friendship exists. It’s the recognition of goodness in an often broken, messed up, and confusing world, and the commitment to care for that person in whatever way you can. With my best friend that could mean a 4 hour phone conversation in complete comfort and openness without holding anything back. Here in Rwanda, that could simply mean a clean and comfortable bed to sleep in for the night. A warm cup of tea. A home cooked meal. Laughter.

Even more beautifully, what I’m seeing is that good people, well, they are there when you need them the most.

My wonderful wonderful WONDERFUL (did I say wonderful?) friend Jackie lives in my sector, in the next village over. She’s a community health worker—which means she gives out medicine to people with malaria, AIDS, you name it. She’s probably around 34, maybe? She has 4 children, but no husband. Where the father of her last three children is, I’m not sure, but her first husband died in the Genocide in 1994. She didn’t go to secondary school, she doesn’t speak English, and my, how people love Jackie. People told me about her—they told me that it’s Jackie that has the greatest heart, and man, they were right. Jackie and I met through a mutual teacher friend and since then, I’ve visited her house a couple of times while she has also visited me. She’s given me plantains and vegetables, and I’ve given her macaroni and soup mix. But nothing compares to what she gave me the other day.

Last weekend, on Saturday, we had a 5 hour (that’s normal for any kind of ceremony) memorial service in my village. It was a time of remembrance (the whole week was spent remembering the Genocide, particularly at community meetings that we had every day that were mandatory for all people). Specifically, the community had found some remains in a nearby river from people that had died and were left in the water and were going to properly bury them in the village memorial. With my friend Philos translating, we heard from all sorts of officials—most notably the district mayor—and heard a couple stunning and moving songs from a popular music artist. We even heard a survivor story. The entire time, the emotion was thick and palpable. I could sense it. However, many kept their grief to themselves. Only once did I see one woman break down completely and moan as though pain was leaving her body and subsequently, had to leave the ceremony. That was, however, before the casket was brought into the memorial and when people were allowed to go inside and pay their respects.

I thought it would be good for me to go inside. And it was. I saw people finding their family members’ names on the new, updated tarp that was freshly printed for the service. I saw people leaving flowers, many marked with specific names of people who died 18 years ago. After a few minutes, I knew I needed to leave. Tears had continually lined my eye ducts for the entire 5 hours, but now I could feel them coming. And fast. I walked briskly away and became even more choked up when I was greeted by a couple of my students who looked somber and sad. I need to get out of here. That was when I saw Jackie. She was hugging her friend from behind and looked sad, but also resolute. She was not crying. I thought of her pain. I thought of her and what people had said about her: Genocide survivor. Survivor. SURVIVOR. I don’t know if I’ll ever know why, but as I shook her hand to greet her, I just burst into tears. I’m not a pretty crier—my friends and family can tell you that—and so I was grateful that she embraced me without any hesitation and let me cry right into her chest, on her perfectly tailored satin green dress. I couldn’t hold it anymore. I was just, so so sad. And then, when I realized  that HUNDREDS of people were watching this scene unfold, I cried more. I cried because I felt silly. Why am I crying? This isn’t even my story; I can’t even BEGIN to understand this kind of pain. But, I cried. What can you do? After being brushed away to another friend’s house for a nap (apparently in Rwanda, resting is the cure for everything…they may be on to something…) and dinner, Jackie told me that I couldn’t go home for the night—it was too dark, it was too late. She insisted I stay at her house. And so, that night, I slept in Jackie’s bed, right along with her, under a white mosquito net. It’s a twin bed—a tight squeeze—but I saw her sticking to the edge as much as she could; she wanted me to have as much space as possible. I coughed a lot that night (it’s gotten colder with it being rainy season and all) and I woke up to her making sure I was covered with the blanket.

This was all from a woman that though I have grown to deeply admire, I don’t really know her that much. And in the same way, she doesn’t really know me either. But it’s that double-edged sword, isn’t it? When you are a good person, it’s just who you are. No language can really express what that looks like anyway.

 Friendship, love. It’s all relative sometimes. 

happy (spring) holidays

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are just genuinely good people.

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

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

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