Tag Archives: God

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

*

my village and home, Ruramira.

my village and home, Ruramira.

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.

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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).

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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)

born again

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I’ve been to my share of weddings, especially in Rwanda.
Okay, yeah, that is putting it mildly.

I’ve easily been to 15 weddings in this country. Which, really is out of control.

I’ve also attended engagement parties, church fundraising events, choir productions, and have now hosted two talent shows while in this land of a thousand hills. However, up until this weekend, I had yet to witness a baptism. This has stood out like a sore thumb on my Rwandan bucket list; baptisms and church and Imana (God) arguably sit at the top of cultural strongholds. These, of course, along with fanta, respect for authority, and at least where I live, bananas.

And so I eagerly accepted Eugenie’s request for me to attend her umubaptismo. Eugenie, a Senior 3 student and GLOW club leader (she’s vice president) is one of the sweetest girls I have. She is small, petite, quiet, witty, intelligent, and very kind. She’s really good at theatre, singing, and she loves praying at the Pentecost Church. Oh yeah, that’s important information. You see, I wasn’t just going to any kind of baptism. It was with the Pentecosts, y’all!

Eugenie invited me to her special day weeks ago in great anticipation, and when she provided the date (July 6th) I hesitated as I had considered traveling out West to visit Lake Kivu and hang-out beachside for America’s birthday, the 4th of July. Yet, my hesitation was small and short-lived. Certainly, I could find something else fun to do for the holiday, and supporting one of my friends was far more important. I remember the day I was baptized like it was yesterday, and next to committing my life as a Christian, it was having the most important people in my life in attendance that made it all the more special.

I was kept busy the morning of Eugenie’s baptism. Suzi and Olive, one of the neighborhood kids (and perhaps the most adorable child in the world) had spent the night before. We ate macaroni, watched Aladdin, played with photo booth, and Suzi and I even attempted to wash this young child in a basin. It was…well, it was an intriguing short experiment in parenthood. Babysitting is fun, however, it is somehow wonderful to hand the child back over in the morning. And I do say that with all of the love in the world.

Anyway, we cleaned up from our sleepover, Suzi headed back to her site, and I washed my body thoroughly as I didn’t want to be perceived as dirty for this important event. Eventually, Eugenie and Zahara (another GLOW girl) arrived and we headed out on motorcycles to the lake that the baptism was taking place. It was a treacherous ride; the lake is located in my district but it took over 40 minutes on motor bike to get there. The road was rocky, dusty, and full of strange grooves. The dry season is among us without any question; by the time we dismounted the motorcycleI was drenched in brown dust and had a sore butt to boot. So much for my long and comprehensive wash.

Immediately, I was taken aback by the sheer amount of people surrounding the water. Eugenie took this opportunity to explain that this was a special day for many people to be baptized in this particular lake. Everyone interested from my sector, for example, was allowed to come, get in line, be prayed over, dipped, and become born again. Nobody could be turned away. And so you can just imagine.

I slowly meandered on a path separating the rice fields and the base of this lake and heard shouts of “umuzungu!” or for the people from my sector, “Impano!”. I was wearing my turquoise skinny jeans and was able to look through my fake Ray Bans at nearly 500 people glancing my way. The camera man who had been assigned to take photographs of this life-changing experience stopped in the middle of his job to capture my arrival. People rushed to find their camera phones before I passed too quickly. Students from my school came rushing to give me a hug. I frequently feel like a celebrity in this country, but no more so than at this mass baptism. Plus, everyone was repeating over and over, “come! Be baptized by the Holy Spirit! Now is your time!” I smiled, nodded, but politely declined. Once I explained how I had already been baptized, that was good enough. Thank goodness.

Eventually, I made it down to the rim of the water with Eugenie and wished her well as she got in line. While Zahara and I waited for Eugenie’s turn, we watched as old women, young children, middle-aged men, and everyone and anyone prepare to be saved. A large choir was singing in between the lines, repeating imbaraga, imbaraga, imbaraga over and over (this means ‘power’ or ‘strength’). Two white-roped old men stood waist-length in the water welcoming people as they came to show their commitment to God. They closed their eyes sincerely, lifted their old, shaky hands, and almost violently placed their congregants neck, face, and upper-body in the water. Some people would come up with a nearly blank expression on their faces while others would be shaking violently, screaming, and in need of 3 or more other people to carry them out of the lake. Many times they would begin praying instantly and you couldn’t ignore their strong emotion and convictions as they finished to be baptized in the name of God. It was very powerful and intense- and I was just watching.

I witnessed at least 50 people wade in that water until it was time for Eugenie.

As always, she entered the water with grace, the corners of her mouth in the smallest smile. She’s an unassuming type, content and peaceful, but not showy. The pastor prayed over her, closed her nose with his hand, and she was under. After a second or two she came up for air, was grabbed by an elderly woman, and had a piece of African fabric on her face to dry off.

I, of course, confused this wonderful moment with a sporting match and had cheered her name like she had just scored a game-winning goal. Awkward.

You go girl! Yeah! Eugenie! Woooooo!

But, hey, like I said, it was a Pentecost oriented baptism experience, and so a little hooting and hollering was quickly forgotten. Eugenie changed her clothes and was glowing; she told Zahara and I that this was the most important day in her life.

After, us three took motorcycles back to Eugenie’s house for her baptism lunch and party. 4 of our other GLOW leaders – Yazina, Divine, Clemantine, and Maisara – joined us to support our friend. It was so fun to celebrate with all of the girls; it’s neat to see how they encourage each other outside of the classroom. That’s really what GLOW is all about.

The party started with prayer and singing from their hymnal. I even knew one of the songs – either a sign that I’m starting to fit in or that I’ve been in Rwanda a bit too long. True to Rwandan tradition, we heard speeches from Eugenie’s mother, her father, and Eugenie herself. Her speech was short and sweet. She mentioned again how this was a really important time for her and she was so grateful for what God has given in her life. And, at the end, she looked at me and said it was an honor to have me there so we could share something so important. I smiled with watery-eyes and was again grateful that I had decided to attend. We were served a huge plate of food (rice, isombe (a spinach-like dish), fried potatoes, and plantains). No alcohol was served (a big no-no for this denomination in Rwanda) but we did each get a warm cup of icyai (tea) and so I was thrilled. Untrue to Rwandan tradition, the party was only about an hour. I think this was because for baptisms, the party moves and circulates from house to house and culminates in dancing at the very end. However, the GLOW girls and I were tired and had a long way to walk, and so we said our goodbyes.

We walked home, hand in hand, discussing how proud of Eugenie we were, and how wonderful the last few days had been.

In addition to this baptism experience, our friend Suzi (I say our because Suzi is definitely no longer just my friend; the girls love her) came out for a 4th of July visit. Suzi and I had a relaxing and long lunch (complete with a cold beer and chicken) at a lakeside restaurant in my district’s main town to celebrate our country’s birthday. The next day, after a morning of watching The Mindy Project we attended our GLOW club’s talent show. The girls had put together a series of dancing, singing, and skits to show their talents and it was totally hilarious. The GLOW girls really are a different breed and they danced, sang, and acted with all of the enthusiasm in the world. Like I told Suzi, it’s just wonderful beyond words to see them let loose and have fun. That, again, is what GLOW is all about.

So you see, the past few days have been interwoven with dancing, baptisms, good food, friends, and relaxation. I even crossed off some things from the Rwandan bucket list – namely, the baptism.

The girls basked in the good fortune that has come our way recently and I couldn’t help but whole-heartedly agree.

Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is a strange, weird, often extraordinarily frustrating, sometimes utterly ridiculous, but also mostly wonderful life. It’s an odd mix and it’s even harder to keep up with (the love/hate relationship with Rwanda is consistently changing and moving up and down). But above all, I realize more than ever that it’s a once in a lifetime sort of thing. I’m lucky to have been doing it this long, and as time slowly starts to wind down, I am becoming more aware and conscious of the importance of making every day count.

And so, what’s left on this so-called bucket list?
See for yourself.

Heather’s Peace Corps Bucket List

*created December 2011, updated December 2012*
(things with a * are left to be done)

See a Rwandan wedding
Be in a Rwandan wedding
Attend a baptism
Try banana beer
Take a bicycle taxi instead of a motorcycle taxi
Attend a football match in Kigali*
Sing karaoke in Kigali*
Take a boat on Lake Kivu*
Visit the gorillas
Stay at Akagera National Park
Visit the Nyamata Memorial
Visit the Nyarabuye Memorial*
Cook cassava bread by myself
Go to an ex-pat party*
Pray at a Rwandan mosque
Visit South-west Rwanda; namely Cyangugu
Start a GLOW club
Cook grilled cheese for my host family
Pray aloud in Kinyarwanda at the Catholic Church*
Go on a date
Hike a volcano
Ride a bike in my village
Fetch water on my head
Run in the Kigali Marathon
Teach about the “I Have a Dream” speech in class
Visit every district in Rwanda*
Visit every province in Rwanda
Visit the US Embassy*
Take holiday in Uganda and Tanzania
Eat a burrito in Rwanda
Take Divine to Kigali*
Score a goal in a football match
Join a girls’ football team
Buy Rwandan handicrafts and art
Raft in Uganda
Get on Rwandan TV
Master how to properly hand-wash clothes*
Cook with a charcoal stove
Find a female bus driver
Take Kinyarwanda lessons*
Teach lyrics to American songs
Coach baseball
See fireworks in Rwanda*
Attempt to cultivate something*
Learn to do the Rwandan cow dance (the traditional style)
Have a 30 minute conversation in Kinyarwanda only
Walk from Kayonza town to my house (a total of around 20 km)
Find a temporary Rwandan mama
Cut bananas from a tree*
Play blackjack at the casino in Kigali
See an elephant
Start writing a book
Read at least 60 books while in Peace Corps
Visit Gisenyi to see the Congo border
See the National University in Butare
Host a party at my house
Finish the INSANITY workout series*
Go to GUMA GUMA Superstar Concert*
Successfully make porridge

Will I do it all?

Meh. Maybe. Perhaps. I hope so.

I have about 5 months left of this adventure and so we’ll see what happens.

always one more time

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Have you ever had that sinking feeling that comes with knowing things you shouldn’t know? It’s that drop in your gut when you are let in on a secret that threatens all of the notions you have built to help you believe the good in all things. Secrets. They’re dangerous. They are close cousins to lies and distant relatives to gossip. Gossip, lies, secrets.

I’m in my second year of living and teaching in my community and I’m a bit aghast. I assumed things would be “easy” at this point. I have friends, people understand that I’m not some Kigali woman (yes, I actually live here), and I speak enough Kinyarwanda to get by. Not to mention, I don’t even think twice about using a latrine or a headlamp at night or a bucket as a bathtub or using internet once every week or two. This is my new normal.

But, I’ll warn you. My start to my second year has been lacking of fluff, ease, and light-heartedness. Like a horse right out of the gate, I’m pushing forward with all of the strength I can muster, but I’m just kicking dust into thin air as I try to go forward. I’m being a bit more exposed to the darker side of things. I’ll get to that. But I can tell you this much: in my first week back from my England holiday, I spent an inordinate amount of time considering leaving. Yes, leaving Peace Corps. The days haven’t been bad, actually. I just have questioned to the core if I can really do this anymore. You’ll see why.

Perhaps, I’ll start with gossip. There are rumors swirling around my “mission” here. People are being told I came to choose two Rwandans to “American-ize”–that is to bring them to the U.S. to give them financial support in all aspects of their lives, oh hey! And even to build them a house! I’m not kidding. That’s just the beginning. People gossip not only about me and my choices (what I eat, who I hang out with, who I am or am not dating, and why in the hell I don’t have children as a 24-year old woman) but also about everyone else. People I love, even. Divine told me that people don’t understand why she goes to study (she’s 19, so they presume that a woman her age should just skip studying all together and get a husband and do what everyone else is doing) or why Yazina, her BFFL, is friends with her because Divine is “too dark” and “does not have a good face”. I scoff. What? Divine? UGLY? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Which brings me to lies. Read my past blogs. If you don’t get the vibe that I really like Rwandan culture then you’re not reading closely enough. I love it here–and I have for quite some time. But, I’m going to go ahead and be real. I’ve had it, absolutely had it with one part of Rwandan culture–that is, the culture of lying. Suzi told me once of a conversation she had with a Rwandan man at a writing workshop that she attended. She expressed how she felt guilty about lying in a situation and this man assured her immediately. Feel guilty? No, no, no! Embrace it! He said lying is simply what people do. They don’t want to offend others (which is why some Rwandans move houses at night as to not show the belongings you have; which is why you carry the goods you buy from a shop in a brown bag so that people don’t see what you have purchased; and which is why when you are eating food you close the door so people don’t catch a glimpse of the meal you are putting in your body) so they lie. The other people usually know they are lying. But they don’t call them on it–they just accept it, as is. Divine put it most simply, “Ah! Heather. To lie in Rwanda, that is the culture. Bibaho (it happens).”

Mmkay. Good luck trusting anybody.

Imagine what it’s like to operate in this environment. Anything could be true, anything could be a lie. Sometimes, it’s a small lie, such as “I will visit you” or it’s something much, much bigger like, “that man killed people in the Genocide.” Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. To be an outsider, ahem, me, leaves no other option than to accept the most realistic truth I can find: I’ll never know for sure.

And so this is what has led me to a point of exhaustion, calling into question my entire passion and drive for being here. I’m tired of not knowing who to trust. This can and could be a problem anywhere in the world, but it certainly is magnified when you stack together this kind of culture, with a devastating history, and with my position on the outside-looking-in. It’s not like I haven’t struggled with this (heck, I’ve been struggling with this my entire service) it’s just now it feels like everything is compounding together.

And then, there are secrets. Everyone has them, I’m no fool, but learning about them is rocking my already shaky solid ground. Divine (who apparently I use as a source for all knowledge as I’ve cited her for nearly everything) told me some of hers. For example, she lives with her uncle currently because her mother’s house is in a community where the school fees are too expensive. Her uncle helps her with nothing. He provides housing of sorts and food to eat, but in exchange Divine has a ridiculous amount of jobs she has to do for her family. Fetch water, cook multiple times per day, search for fire wood, cultivate….I could go on. She told me that finding leisure time is extraordinarily difficult. But, she also told me that this has to be a secret. Why? Because speaking ill of her family is bad culture. It just can’t be done. So, she confides to her BFFl, Yazina and myself only.

Secrets, secrets, secrets. They make me think that sometimes, after all, ignorance is bliss.

Worst of all, Divine recently let me in on a secret that Yazina has been holding close to her heart. She didn’t share in a malicious-gossipy sort of way; Divine was sincerely trying to seek help for her friend. This secret. It’s bad. It’s disturbing. I don’t feel comfortable writing publicly about it. But, I’ll say that on top of EVERYTHING that my girls and my students have to deal with (poverty, excelling in school, being good family members, helping with an endless amount of chores) it’s unfair that their challenges can soar to new heights. It’s totally. completely. utterly. unfair. Her secret is safe with me but it’s making me sick. I think about it and I literally want to throw up. I want to help her, but literally, I CAN’T.

Gossip, lies, and secrets. That, when you boil it all down, is why I have been struggling as I’ve settled back into my life here.

When I was writing all of this furiously in my journal this morning during my off-hour, downing my 3rd cup of coffee, jamming the Rwandan equivalent of a doughnut in my mouth (they are called amandazi), I would have stopped there. Full stop. End of story. There is no bright spot this time, I thought to myself.

However, as it just so happens, I just finished reading this incredible book by the great Rob Bell. It’s called What We Talk About When We Talk About God.
He discusses a lot of things. Seriously. He talks about atoms, quantum physics, good Einstein quotes, anecdotes from small-town America, food, and between all of this references scripture to demonstrate his belief that God is with us, for us, and ahead of us.

"what we talk about when we talk about God"

“what we talk about when we talk about God”

He ends his book this way:

Back once more to that table with the bread and wine on it. There’s a reason why people have been taking bread and wine and remembering Jesus’s life and death and resurrection for the past two thousand years.

We need reminders of who we are and how things actually are.
And so we come to the table exactly as we are, some days on top of the world, other days barely getting by. Some days we feel like a number, like a machine, like a mere cog in a machine, severed and separated from the depth of things, this day feeling like all others. Other days we come feeling tuned in to the song, fully alive, hyperaware of the God who is all in all. The point of the experience isn’t to create special space where God is, over and against the rest of life where God isn’t. The power is in the striking ability of this experience to open our eyes all over again (and again and again) to the holiness and sacred nature of all of life, from family to friends to neighbors to money and breath and sex and work and play and food and wine.

That’s God all in all, bringing together all of our bodies and our minds and our souls and our spirits and all the parts and pieces that make us us, as our eyes are opened in the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the inspiring, and the gut-wrenching to the presence in all of life of the God who is with us, for us, and ahead of us.

Rob Bell is right, you know. We see again, again, and once more again that LIFE is sacred.

Maya Angelous says something along these lines too, in her own poetic way, “have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.” (love.her.)

Mom has good ideas too.
I told mom about what was pulling on my heart–namely Yazina’s secret–and she gave me the advice I needed more than anything to hear. First of all, pray. God can help in every situation. And then you just need to continue to be her friend. Be there for her. Just. be. her. friend. You have a purpose, Heather.

Oh, and God speaks for Himself quite often as well. I went on a slow run today, on one of my favorite loops, passing old mamas and young children screaming my name as I passed. I smiled and waved. And it was a good day today. But my heart still ached deeply for Yazina. It will continue to ache for Yazina. But, God is here. That’s all I heard in my mind.

The sun was setting perfectly over the booming clouds, meeting in the middle of the sky with the banana trees, and I smiled, remembering how much I really do love this place. It’s beautiful. I thought about my students, my girls, about Divine. This is a girl who is 19 but has in all honesty, turned my life upside-down. She’s inspired me; she has shown me strength in its very raw form; and she’s funny as hell. I wish I could describe her accurately, but words don’t do her justice. She gave me one of her most precious belongings the other day. She gave me her necklace that she uses to pray. It has Jesus on it. It’s scratched and worn but she wanted me to have it–to “wear it every day”–so that our prayers could be together. So that Jesus will always hear me. “He is always ready to hear your ideas and questions, Heather.” I have worn it every day since.

There are days where I just don’t understand. I don’t understand the gossip, or the lies, or the secrets. I don’t understand the pain that some people in my community–in the world, really–have to go through. But, I did understand, to a greater degree that even with 6 months left in Peace Corps, my community is far more than the sum of its secrets and that on a personal level, I have just as strong of a purpose. It may not be the sports project, the library, the English, or the integration after all. When I pack up all of my things and tell people what I did here…it may not really be any of those things that matter.

I was a friend. Sometimes this feels so small. Like it can bring nothing. But, when you see through the lense of God, when you have eyes to see, somehow this is enough. Even in the worst of circumstances. It is enough, you are enough, and this life, it’s enough.

Please pray for my friend Yazina. Please pray that she can find strength on her own terms, that she knows how much value she has, and that she is not alone. Please pray for my community. Pray that the good will always win. Please pray for me and other volunteers as we struggle in this season. Things, it seems all across the board, are very difficult right now. Please pray that we recognize God’s grace right before us and that we embrace this grace in order to forgive the mistakes we make as well as the mistakes of others. May this grace also propel us into a mindfulness for just how blessed we are and that this can in turn, affect positvely the work we do in our communities. Pray for those harboring doubts, fears, and loneliness. Pray that a friend is always there for them. Let us pray for the problems we see every day: be it stress, hunger, loss, poverty, uncertainty, and anxiety.

Most of all, let us all pray that we will trust God in all things, in all times, and under all circumstances, for we can know that He is here.

some leaving, some coming home

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You should be warned that as I write this, I am LUIDW. That is, Living Under the Influence of the Developed World.

What exactly, you might ask, does this entail?

It means, most importantly, that I can take a hot bath whenever I want. Bubble bath included. 1, 2, 3 times if I so please. Number two, I can drink clean water from the tap. Unlimited clean water, bring it on. LUIDW has also propelled and compelled me to at times whilst in England drink 5 cups of coffee in one day, not because I need it, but because I want it (and I can!). Cappachinos? Lattes? I’m sorry, you can add flavored syrup? Where have you been all of my life? (and by life, I of course mean the past 20 months or so, I haven’t completely forgotten the magical powers of America in my first 23 years.)

LUIDW can provide great joy. Not because of all the STUFF (this tends to actually make decisions difficult and results in a sort of sensory overload) but because you can be easily impressed. The electricity works! The dishwasher is readily available! The tea cooks in 3 minutes! Wow, this internet is fast! Hey girl, look at all of these kinds of apples!

Getting around is a lot smoother too. Cars, trains, whatever, it comes on time. The roads are for the most part quite nice and maintained.

Oh! And the toliets….don’t even get me started.

LUIDW = a very easily entertained, pleased, happy, and grateful Heather.

Certainly, the added benefits of traveling while a Peace Corps Volunteer has reaped me significant reprieve also because I’m NIR.

(Perhaps Peace Corps is rubbing off on me a bit much with all my acronyms here, as they are notorious for all of their own acronyms; for example, PCMO (that mean Peace Corps Medical Officer, our doctor), MSC (Mid-Service Conference, the conference we do at the mid-point in our service), and CD (Country Director, the leader in charge of all operations in a given country that Peace Corps works in). Believe me, that’s just the beginning of a very long list that acts very much so as its own language and lingo.)

But like I was saying, I am NIR and this refers to Not In Rwanda.

This brings about special breaks and pleasures that are unique to the Rwandan Peace Corps experience.

For all the joys in LUIDW, I have also been able to go walking on the street–any street–and move about completely unnoticed. Nobody cares who I am, nobody cares where I am going.

Maybe best of all, nobody screams out the English translation of “White person! White person! White person!” as if I already didn’t know my skin color.

I don’t have to speak Kinyarwanda 24/7 and I don’t hear people whispering (good or bad) about me when I pass by.

I can eat in public, I don’t have to carry everything in a bag upon purchase and I can wear a dress that reaches above my knees and not feel a single twinge of guilt.

If I got asked for spare change it wasn’t just because I’m a white person, people appeared to make few assumptions about me, and moving around in general was significantly much easier.

The state of NIR is both relieving and weird; unfamiliar and welcome; relaxing and strange. I mentioned the positive sides of NIR above, but of course, after 20 months of constantly trying to integrate into Rwandan culture, it struck me as odd that not every single person says hello to each other, that people don’t care where I pray (because the assumption is that all people do), and of course, why people just move so much quicker than I remember! Just because I’m NIR doesn’t mean I don’t love Rwanda, you know.

The developed world isn’t perfect– I’m not that misguided, y’all–but I sure can appreciate the conveniences a lot more, that’s for sure.

But I’m going to be real here.

The hot baths and tap water withstanding, I don’t credit LUIDW or NIR for providing the kind of peace that I’ve found in my 12 days in England. Absolutley, it’s been amazing, and it’s helped, but “recharging your batteries”, so to speak, isn’t enough to mend a frazzled and frayed spirit.

Moreover, all of the things that I did while visiting–a spur of the moment trip to Paris, walking through parks, having tea parties, ending my pub-virginity, hitting the gym, watching Rob Bell speak live, getting a hair-cut, perusing Oxford, and exploring the historic sites of London, to name a few–are now incredible memories that helped me feel alive, light-hearted, and free. They allowed me to feel, I dont know, normal? If there is such a thing. But, these activities alone wouldn’t have been enough either.

More than anything, it was being able to do all of the things that I listed above with one of the most important people in my life, Michelle.

Michelle and I were fast friends at Hendrix and after graduation with her wedding and move to England and my move to Rwanda for the Peace Corps, our lives, quite literally, went in separate directions.

But, the best thing about friendship, I think, is that no matter time or distance, you are always binded together. At least with the really, really good ones.

So, when I saw Michelle (for the first time in a year and a half) at the waiting area at Heathrow after my flight from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (Michelle and I say “Addis A-bo0-boo”; classy, I know), I could have been in any country, state, or county in the world and I would have been happy.

Michelle and Jon, her Manchester City-golf-ice pop-lovin’ husband opened their home to me for nearly two weeks. They gave me free reign to “make myself at home” and I usually have no fear in doing so, and with them, it felt completely natural. I was jogging pretty English roads, trying to learn street names, and always trying to learn new English lingo (“chav” and “cheeky” are my most recent acquisitions). Staying at the home of really great people, and in the home of your best friend is definitely the way to travel.

Last night, as we prepared to watch Julie & Julia, I hunkered down on the uber-comfortable red couch with the comforter from the guest bedroom along with a glass of sparkling water and my PJs.

“This is why you are here,” Michelle said with a contented smile.
“Oh you know girl, whatever I can do to provide entertainment,” I laughed back, thinking she meant I was being a goober having removed the comforter completely from the upstairs bed.
She chuckled for a second and then quickly corrected my misinterpretation,
“Um. No. I mean because you live in Rwanda, Heather!”

Oh. Rightttt. I’m here, to chill out and to enjoy the comforts that come with a cozy home.

Michelle was right, that was one of the reasons why I came.

The best moments weren’t necessarily the big sights and beautiful views; it was driving around with Michelle in her car, seeing her life first-hand. It was reminiscing about the past, explaining our present lives, and contemplating the future. It was going on a “picnic” (it was freezing, y’all), sleeping in, sharing breakfast in the morning, skyping our friends, playing Monopoly, drinking wine, and visiting local coffee shops. It often is the simple things you know, and what usually matters most is who you are with.

So many of our conversations were interlaced with our experiences living in an entirely new culture. There were some similarities, some differences, but we certainly both had stories to share about the cultures we had arrived in.

Both of us found solace in what it’s like living in places heavily rooted in tradition. It’s how we have always done things is something we have both had to face head on as newbies.

In England, at a pub, Michelle tells me it is common for one person to buy a round. Then, another person will pitch in, and this continues through the evening. You should also remain quiet on the train station (if you are loud, you could be a dead give away as a potential American). The English value football, tea, and who doesn’t love the Queen?

I told Michelle about the complexity of Rwandan culture; of how getting to know people is a difficult (but entirely rewardable and beautiful) process. I tried giving examples from the families I have become a part of. I noted what it’s like being a celebrity of sorts in my tiny village. And of course had to highlight the importance of church. Praying, it’s just what you do.

It’s time to go, and of course, I’m sad, but there is so much comfort in having a friend who understands what it’s like to try and fit in such a radically different place. What’s better, is that sometimes in these exchanges of cross-culture, you realize that as crazy different as the world is, we’re all humans, right? And so, we’re different, but we’re linked too.

My favorite example is being at the pub with Michelle and two of her girl friends, Venetia, and Becky, both of who are in a study group with Michelle. Best of all, they are reading through “Bad Girls in the Bible” (what’s not to love about this?) and yet when we all met up, the time was spent discussing practical ways to clean the bathroom, what work has been like, and the latest hubby tales.

I sat there in awe. Because y’all, the women in my village meet up for Women’s Council every Monday afternoon for nearly 3 hours and discuss these very things. Of course, it’s not the same, but in a way, it is. And that’s maybe the most enlightening thing to take away from the way our world works. There’s so much we don’t understand, but when you try, you find micro examples of how God has connected us all.

It’s time to go, but there’s a reason to be brave and the reason is that we’re all held together, by some sort of grace, with God. He loves us and He will see us through everything; whether it’s coming or going, leaving or staying.

 

streams of mercy

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If one hundred people represented the world’s population, fifty-three of those would live on less than $2 a day. Do you realize that if you make $4000 a month, you automatically make ONE HUNDRED TIMES more than the average person on this planet?

Which is more messed up—that we have so much compared to everyone else, or that we don’t think we’re rich? That on any given day, we might flippantly call ourselves “broke” or “poor.” We are neither of these things.

Crazy Love, by Francis Chan

You know, I’ve learned a lot here. I’ve slowly built an arsenal of useful Kinyarwanda phrases (chore—to express surprise in a negative way; reka—kind of like, “you’ve got to be kidding me” or literally translated, “don’t touch me!”; and Imana yanjye—“oh my God!”), I’ve managed to understand how to put together a cohesive lesson plan, and if you needed a play-by-play of a Rwandan wedding, I’m your girl.

There’s a lot to master—to understand—but with each passing day I’m finding the most complex, disturbing, and heart wrenching question is that related to poverty. I get these beautifully supportive emails, messages, calls, and letters from loved ones that encourage and commend the job I am doing. More than I can say, I appreciate these. But what I don’t often talk about, explain, or try to put into words is the guilt, hypocrisy, and embarrassment I feel by living in a world surrounded by extreme poverty and being the RICH one.

It’s easier to tell funny stories about my students (like when Yazina commented on my blisters from my shoes: “teacher, the shoes for you eat your foot”), to share anecdotes about living in the village, or even what I’m doing on this or that weekend. These things are important but to share this experience fully, it has to be addressed on what it’s like to be a blatantly rich person in a place full of subsistence farmers, one-or-two room houses made from wood and mud, and with children, students, and young adults who are barely able to pay for school. My father saw this all first hand.

I saw the look (and shock) on his face when he saw my house. So. You live HERE. But as we went deeper into my community, into the homes’ of families and friends, he too realized that I live above the rest. I have paint, cement floors, electricity, and multiple rooms for only me. Pictures, knick knacks, and letters line my walls. Clothes are bursting at the seams of my makeshift dresser. I use a mosquito net, and now have two mattresses stacked together to keep me comfortable at night. And when people see all of this, they are only getting a small taste of where I come from.

From the American perspective and life experience that I am coming from, I suspect that many people might think that how I live (and where I live) is a life on the margins. My, what you have given up! And so, I feel like I straddle the line of two extremes.

My past is full of a university education, vacations to stunningly gorgeous places, multiple cars at different times, weekly trips to Starbucks, gym memberships, camps, my own room and space, microwaves and toasters, and summer jobs that gave me money to help with school, car insurance, or a few extra bucks to hit the cinema. I am so grateful to have had these things. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them. And, it’s not like I haven’t had to work hard for these things. More than anything, I’ve just so happened to have a great deal of blessings in my life: incredible parents, good neighborhoods, and a sound education system. But, these blessings are not to be taken for granted, I’m learning. Because it’s more than just the things, really. It’s the opportunity; it’s the way that I have been able to move through life.

I’m not trying to say that America doesn’t have poor people. God, no. Nearly every day, I have to explain to Rwandans that America indeed has poverty, poor people, and a lot of problems with homelessness, mental illness, and abuse. America is a rich country, absolutely. But, like I tell people, rich countries have poor people and poor countries also have rich people. Americans don’t have a free pass from economic hardship. But, let me be clear. Despite my experience working in homeless shelters, community centers, and transitional housing, I, myself, never had to wonder if I could go to school. I never had to question if food would be on the table. And, I never had to question if my basic needs would be met.

It’s just hard to reconcile my life with my current situation.

If I’m going to be completely honest here, a lot of times I get really pissed. At me? At the world? At God? Truthfully, I’m not quite sure.

I’ll talk to a student who can’t afford the 10 US dollars to pay school fees. I’ll talk to another student with this problem. And another. And another. And another. It really is never ending.

I’ll visit a Rwandan home with no belongings in sight.

I’ll be running with my IPOD plugged in and passing old women who are walking slowly with a stick, returning from market or from praying. Maybe they’re headed home—to cook, to fetch water, to clean. Maybe all three. I hope the water is clean today, I think.

I’ll give back a brown paper bag to my student who brought it to me because their family wanted to give me tomatoes for the week. I give it back after putting those ripe, red tomatoes in my food box because she needs it. Nothing is disposable here for many people, even a brown paper bag.

I’ll see a woman pay 100 RWF (Rwandan Francs; this amount is equal to about 15 cents or so) to buy phone credit immediately after I have just paid 2000 RWF just so I can chat up my friends for the evening.

A woman will tell me how their country is poor. And the best thing I can come up with to say is something along the lines of, “well, you have really good people.” Really, Heather? Really?

I get pissed because I just keep asking, WHY DOES THE WORLD WORK THIS WAY?

Maybe before you can probe this question, you have to first ask, why don’t people know?

And like I already noted, Americans aren’t immune. Poverty exists, thrives, and persists in America too. So why is it that if you happen to be comfortably getting by you can comfortably turn on the IPOD speakers at dinner time and tune it all out?

Why do I get to come home, even in my little village, and get on my computer and watch whatever TV show I want? All the while, my neighbors cook late into the evening, with the harvest from that day, with a small, fidgety petrol candle by their side.

I’m not free of these questions just because I happen to live in Rwanda. I’m 24 and afforded privilege, wealth, and education and I’m living in the midst of this problem and still feel like I’m doing nothing. Maybe that’s why I feel so darn guilty—I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what to do.

The best I’ve been able to muster is to treat my community members as equals. I try not to bring wealth into the equation. Often, the word poor isn’t even a descriptor I think of when I am describing the community I live among. I help where the outlets have been made known: through teaching, coaching, and friendship. But, is it enough? I do think we all have the power to change the world. But, what does that even look like? Am I doing enough? In a few years will all of this really matter to people who spend most of their hours in a day just making sure they can eat, bathe, and clean?

The rain has come and gone. I’m cozied up in a blanket, with my tea, computer, and pillow to rest my back as I sit on my treasured mat. I think the rain is probably going to come back. The thunder is rumbling treacherously, and somehow, I think that the storm has yet to clear. But, that’s okay by me. Two of my candles are flickering at a nearby table and I’m intentionally closing myself off. From the world, from these dark questions of why the world can be so messed up, from my job, from my stresses, from my doubts, from the mistakes that I make, and even from the probing mosquitos. Let the rain come. I’ll still be here.

A couple of hours ago, I realized after some journaling and chatting on the phone recapping my day that I needed space. But not the kind of space where I shut my door, throw on the latest episode of a TV show that I’m watching (these days, it’s Weeds), and zone out. I need to think but also rest my heart and mind.

I don’t need to ask if I’m doing enough because I can’t single-handedly figure out, process, or give the answer to the poverty in my village (or in the world, for that matter).

I have to say that, to write that, because I really need to believe that.

It still hurts all the same. I turned on one of my favorite songs that always brings my heart back to God and tried praying for a little while. I let the images of my friends, of my students, flash in my mind and tears came. What could they do if they weren’t poor?

And in a very beautiful way, in a very beautiful personal sort-of way I should say, I also came to realize that these very heartaches and questions are directly connected to WHY I believe in God. Here on Earth, there are all sorts of disparities, pain, diseases, issues, and inequalities. As humans, I think, it’s our job to do the best we can to minimize these, to support each other, and fit our strengths with the weaknesses of others (and vice versa) so that we are the best we can possibly be. We won’t be perfect. That’s just not going to happen. With God though, there’s more. With God, there’s grace. And there’s a deep love that He has for ALL PEOPLE. EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what color you are, who you love, or the mistakes that you have made.

We’re equal in the eyes of God. And for all of those questions, for all the discomfort I feel, and for all the what ifs I ask when it comes to who has what, I believe that I have to continue to do what I can to help, but also to trust that our lives are in the hands of God.

At the Catholic Church this last Sunday, I watched a lot of women pray as the service ended. I’ve talked about this before, but it never fails to be splendidly moving. They pray with fervor, with conviction, with hope. And it helps me believe again. And to remember this equality that God so perfectly provides. He is the great provider. For now, that is enough. I can rest in that. No, the answer is that I’m not enough. But, He is.

Come to the water

You who thirst and you’ll thirst no more

Come to the Father

You who work and you’ll work no more

And all you labor in vain

And to the broken and shamed

Love is here, love is now, love is pouring from His hands from His brow

Love is near, it satisfies

Streams of mercy flowing from his side, because love is here

Come to the treasure

You who search and you’ll search no more

Come to the lover

You who want and you’ll want no more

And all you labor in vain

And to the broken and shamed

And to the bruised and fallen

Captives bound and broken hearted

He is the Lord

“Love is Here” –Tenth Avenue North

 

oh sweet mary

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Sow your seed in the morning

And at evening let not your hands be idle,

For you do not know which will succeed,

Whether this or that,

Or whether both will do equally well.

Ecclesiastes 11:6

 I don’t know how to pray the saints, use a rosary, or follow the procedure for kneeling and praying during worship (years ago, I once nearly fell over myself trying to kneel appropriately at a Catholic funeral), but I sure do love praying on Sundays in the Rwandan Catholic Church.

Admittedly, the appeal could initially lie in the fact that the service is half as long as the sometimes 4, 5, or 6 hour Protestant service I often attend. However, I also find the Catholic service far more soothing, peaceful, and beautiful. ADEPR (that’s French for some Protestant acronym) is fun, loud, and dusty (from all the jumping and dancing around) and on some days it is utterly wonderful to be a part of. But I feel more in-tune with God when I worship at our sectors only (but very sizable and denoted by the many red bricks and blue paint) Catholic Church. I feel more comfortable, and though this was rather unexpected for me, I’ll take what I can get.

 On a simultaneously serious and light-hearted note: the Catholics also know how to party. Seriously. On New Year’s, I visited Suzi at her home (which is a convent complete with a sizable amount of nuns) and not only was I presented with a plate full of deliciously prepared food, there was ample amounts of beer and wine available. What? Oh, and not to be outdone, I recently went to a Catholic “wedding” for the mother of one my students. Wedding may be a tricky term as it was a ceremony celebrating the woman’s commitment to her new and lifelong husband: God. That’s right, she had a wedding to marry God. I’m not being tongue-in-cheek here; she couldn’t become a nun because she has already birthed like 4 children, and so she did the next best thing and became some kind of special sister in the church. Something like that. Anyway, I went to this wedding and there was not a dull moment. Dancing, drinking, eating. Repeat. I spent the night at the family’s home way out East in Rwanda, and slept very little. I eventually caved in to partaking in some classic fermented banana drink (that would be banana beer, my friends) to in some bizarre way prove myself to the skeptical and judgmental men, and well, I had a lot. The bus ride the next day was not fun. At all.

 Anyway, I digress.

 This does in no way instate a Catholic conversion; oh good gracious, no! I’m not Catholic. But, I do happen to believe that in some mysterious, un-knowing way (understanding God is far beyond any of our capacities) we are all worshipping, honoring, and loving the same God on Sunday and it’s best to go where you find Him most strongly.

 Most days, I don’t try too hard to translate the Kinyarwanda services in my head at church (and that assumes that I’m even adept enough in the language to do so). It’s just too much of a headache. I let my time at church be more free flowing than that. If I understand, fantastic. But, like soil adrift in the air from a cool breeze, I let the prayers, thoughts, and questions come and go with little restraint. I confess: sometimes, I day dream. If you are at church for 5 hours, well, I find this somehow inevitable. Because remember, you are sitting there, on a hard bench (your butt will go numb), for this long period of time, listening to a language that even after a year, you still can’t understand when spoken that quickly. Believe me, your mind wanders. But on the days that I feel connected with God, church feels really really good. Today was one of those days.

 It sure came at an important time; lately with all of my questions, doubts, and fears about the intentions behind my relationships in my community, I have felt my heart harden. My patience, like an old candle wick, has worn thin. The genuine kindness that is central to who I try to be has been difficult to maintain. I need God.

 I prayed on and off, eyes open and closed today. I sat between two old Rwandan women and repeatedly asked God to sustain my heart, yes, but to help all of our people find healing. Because that’s the power of God: if He helps you, certainly I’m helped too. We’re that connected.

 Remember that people in this rural community are pieces and parts of You, I prayed.

Please help me love.

To love can be hard, but with God it becomes easier. And it’s also the most important thing we can do in our lives. So I’m always asking God to help me do this. Especially here, at this season of my life. Like I said, things have been hard lately. I have a more difficult time letting things go, and I’m worn from always having sets of eyes on me for every move I make. I know I chose this life; trust me, I love this life. It fits me and it works. I’m happy with it. But there are fragments that are so hard to describe, and because of that, it’s those very fragments that chip slowly away at my heart, bringing me down and down and down. Next thing you know, you are yelling at someone in your community and you don’t even know why. You can find yourself crying when you come home, because you have nowhere else to go. And you feel isolated, a warrior on your own, because you can’t really explain this to anyone. Not anybody in the village, and really, not anyone at home. This is just something you and God have to work through. And so you pray.

 My favorite part of church is the ending number.

The tithing for the church and the community is finished (collections are placed in the traditional ‘Agaseke’ woven basket) and all able rise and stand on their feet. This serene song plays. I’m not sure what it means (I repeat: my Kinyarwanda is still limited), but as the chorus kicks in, most women lift their hands and spread like a bird, they move their arms and bodies, giving all they have to God. This is a poor and inept description of something far more moving and beautiful to see in person. It’s just like watching people hand over doubts and fears, receiving peace and hope in exchange. It’s inspiring. Because often, in the world of Christianity and religion and God, we think we need instruments, audience numbers, and recent converts to equate fully to a relationship with God. That isn’t it and that isn’t enough. When I see and experience this, I feel hope. Hope in my village, for myself, and for the world. It sounds cheesy, I know that, but I suppose this is the mystery of God, isn’t it? Those really intangibly amazing moments are just so hard to put into words. But it’s at the end of the service, with those women dancing, that I am able to reaffirm all of my dreams and desires with God, ready to go back outside and do the best I can, because that’s all He really ever asks of us.

 Lifting your hands, giving thanks, and releasing the grit of fear, anxiety, and pain is where God meets man. It’s where God meets us. I love watching that. I love being a part of that. I love doing that. Who cares that it happens in a Catholic Church? A Protestant Church? Or hey, even outside in my very own backyard? What difference does it really make? To Him, none at all.

 Letting go and finding those moments of release refreshes my faith and reminds me that you’re never alone in life. Sometimes you just have to let love in, let God find you, and let your heart be open. Easier said than done, of course, but when you are a part of a community of believers sharing their hearts in the best ways they know how, well, it sure is easier.  

1 year later

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Isabella and Apolloknee (I am quite sure this is not how you spell her name, but it’s how I see it in my head, like Apollo—the space shuttle, and knee—a body part) arrived at my house earlier this week for dinner. I had just returned back from the boutique to buy a couple of rounds (no, not of beer, no way would I drink out here in the village) of Fanta and had just put the warm food in my heart themed serving set. On the menu were buttered noodles, brown-asian sautéed rice, and boiled vegetables. Nothing particularly special, but tasty enough to satisfy my guests. Both of these women are nurses at the nearby health center (where I’ll soon be teaching English) and to get a taste of their personalities, I can tell you that it was Isabella, when I first visited her home and asked if she had a boyfriend, who told me straight-faced (before laughing loud and unreservedly) that she did. She has three.

While I finished gathering utensils and checking on the boiling water to serve coffee (using my handy-dandy French press!) I threw my rather obnoxiously large red photo album on the table to keep them occupied. In Rwandan culture, photos are gold. You can’t go wrong.

When I came back to my dining room table (which is actually multi-purpose; I also use the dinky, wobbly table as a coffee table, sometimes as a desk, and always as a place to eat—it is in fact my only table and is courtesy of my school) they were gazing at one photo in particular.

I figured it was probably my favorite photograph of Cinderella’s castle at Disney World (I often have to tell people that no, I certainly do not live there) but instead it was a photo from Hendrix—my sophomore year—and it was one from Ali’s birthday. Jane, a former field hockey player, and I were holding Ali—one at each end—bracing to throw her in the fountain as per Hendrix birthday tradition. It’s the perfect picture to capture that Hendrix spirit: we each look perfectly poised to run as soon as we let Ali go (which we did) and Ali is wearing her Yankees navy blue t-shirt (an Ali classic) and even better, is wearing those questionable bright orange mesh hockey shorts that we were given our freshman year, the first year of the program. Everything about this photo screams Hendrix, and as I attempted to explain this college tradition to my friends with Kinyarwanda and dramatic hand gestures (using mostly gestures, I will admit) I nostalgically grasped that it had been just about a year since we graduated. We are now 1 year alumni.

Graduation Day 2011.

I woke up to my phone alarm (not to an annoying song ringtone like ‘Tattoo’ that I was famous for earlier in my college days), surrounded by boxes, clothes, and items strewn across my floor. I played “Wagon Wheel” (a Hendrix fave) as I started to get ready. Four years had come down to this? My eyes were puffy. Silly me, I read a beautiful letter from Jordana as I feel to sleep the night before and it brought me to tears (lots of them). I would like to look back on that day and say that I was feeling utterly invincible and completely, 100% happy—and at times I was—but in the way that it was a liberating and celebratory day with all of my loved ones having traveled from so far, it was also a major marker of the huge fork (as Robert Frost might say) in the road before us. I worked hard to feel the zest and pomp and circumstance. But, it was hard. I kept thinking about the goodbyes—oh! the dreaded goodbyes—and it was difficult to fathom what was happening. The ceremony was a blur, as huge life events can sometimes be, but I remember the cheers of the cafeteria ladies (especially from Ms. Debra. My god, that woman is loud), the contrast of the dimness of the room in Grove Gym and the look of brightness on professors’ faces as we boldly entered into our commencement ceremony, and mostly, I remember how proud I was not just when I stepped on that overbearing stage to accept my diploma, but more so when I looked on and smiled as my dear friends (well, most of them, Lauren is a 2012 graduate) did the same thing. We did it.

On that day some of us knew the directions ahead of us; certainly some more than others. I had a strong feeling that I’d end up here, in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I had also had the fun opportunity to have my life hang in balance as Peace Corps debated (for an entire year) if I was qualified for service. More would come that summer, I would soon discover, as I was finally invited into the Rwandan program mid-July, days after being told that the program I was nominated for had closed and I should expect to not be a volunteer in the near future. I found out just before an incredibly fun and jam-packed vacation to Disney World with Rachel, right before Michelle’s astoundingly beautiful wedding in the great metropolis of Moscow, Tennessee, and also right as I finished these two aforementioned events with one last visit to Hendrix to see Lauren and Ali. It was fitting to spend my last weeks in America with them, and then finally, my supportive and wonderful family. When it was time to go, I made my way through Philly, New York, Brussels, and finally, Kigali, Rwanda. It’s funny. Leaving for this felt surprisingly like it did to leave home for college in the first place, four years prior.

Fall 2007.

The green Subaru moved further and further in the distance, away from the girls’ dorms and away from me! They left me. In Arkansas. What. WHAT. What was I doing? I grudgingly walked (as slow as I could) to the now old cafeteria—the Burrow to be precise—to meet the field hockey girls for the first time. I passed the immensely large trees and trudged my way through the grimy Southern heat (you know, around 108 degrees, no big deal) thinking that mom, Randy, and grandma couldn’t make it that far in one day back to Colorado. Maybe they could come back for me?

This would be the year of a now inexplicable and embarrassing High School Musical obsession, Chick-fil-A every Saturday night for dinner, a winless hockey season, an accident involving gold spray paint and shoes in the Veasey Hall bathtub, a regrettable boy crush, and lots and lots of weight gain courtesy of the ever present cafeteria food (Chicken a-la King, despite what the haters say, still rocks). More than all of this, my friendships began here. Crazy (and weird) do-it-yourself music videos, mission trips, Apples to Apples, “study” sessions, photo shoots (sometimes as late as 3 am?), and explorations onto the social scene (or lack thereof).

I didn’t know all of this, and so I was scared. I was hesitant; would I make any friends? I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. Somehow, everything usually does happen for a reason, we end up places and with people because we need them. I, honest-to-God, believe that.

It’s interesting how with time, you grow not only into yourself, but along with other people if you so let it. After leaving my host family this past December to brave the new life of a volunteer in a rural Rwandan village, I realized that to get through this—better yet, to thrive in this—I needed support. I’ve come to heavily rely on Peace Corps friends. Despite our own situations and site differences, it’s pretty uncanny in that when I’m having a bad day, usually Meredith, Suzi, Alyssa, or Sara are having one too. It’s like we’re on the same wavelength or something. We’re together and it’s comforting to have people who get at least some of this experience; if nothing else, they understand what it feels like to be outside of a culture 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I’m American. I can try to be Rwandan. I can get close. But, I can’t (nor will I) change entirely. I’m learning a lot about who I am—especially in regards to my own limitations—and my friends are doing the same. We’re leading a weird life, we know that, but it’s a meaningful one and so we do the best we can.

August 2010.

It was time to return.

I could not have been happier to cross the Arkansas state line coming through Oklahoma—senior year, baby! I had been in Ghana with Rachel the previous semester and so I hadn’t seen most of my friends in months, far too long at this point in our lives.

By this point, our group, the Hey Girl Hey Girls as some would say, were well established. They were the ones who were there when my heart was breaking hearing about my brothers’ struggles back home, who encouraged me to pursue a lovely liberal arts degree called American Studies, had been closely involved with the field hockey team (getting better each year, by the way), had come each week to our girls’ bible study, had been together as a group when Obama became the first black President, and would engage in deep ‘what is life?’ talks just for the hell of it, even if a huge paper was due the next day (these talks certainly encompass everything from what is time? to things like scouring wedding blogs and discussing the state of our world). Moreover, we had a lot to talk about as we each arrived back on campus that fall. Michelle had been in England; Ali, Jessica, and Lauren at Hendrix; Rachel and I in Ghana; Jordana in Belgium; Paige in Scotland; Angela in Finland; and Alison in Latin America for a full year abroad.

Ghana was a profound life experience in every way it could be. I found a passion to help, a need to see the world, an addiction to Coca-Cola, an exposure to issues in poverty and education on a global level, and the deep friendship I already had with Rachel grew leaps and bounds in those 4ish months abroad. I came back to the US a changed woman that summer after Ghana.

Senior year would be the year of grown up apartment living (kind of ) with Michelle and Ali, thesis writing on the relationship of recreational space and socio-economics in New Orleans (culminating in park research and other fun times in NOLA for Spring Break), our very own March Madness, Michelle’s engagement, live band karaoke with Rachel, singing ‘Super Freak’, major and important field hockey wins for my last season, Harry Potter marathons, snow days, grocery shopping and cooking (usually with me in the kitchen it was enchiladas), and towards the end, lots and lots of Yahtzee.

It was a fantastically fun year, but a hard one—on the brink of change and moving forward. Senior year of college stands as a crossroad for where I am now, because it was at that time where I realized my potential and ability to be here, teaching and integrating on a daily basis. Hendrix, like many other life experiences outside it, helped me grow as a woman and realize—fully realize—who I was and wanted to be. Hendrix helped me question and then recognize that that was entirely okay. It was there where I lost and found God again, where I got a full view of poverty in different places around the world, and understood better that though small, yes, one person can make a difference.

I learnt a lot, all four years, in and out of the classroom (maybe the exception being Robotics—Lauren can sympathize with me here). Looking back, all that I needed was there. Hendrix wasn’t the only thing that pushed me to pursue a life of service (my home and family did a large chunk of that), but it was a big part.

Michelle always has loved benedictions. So, as this reflection of time and seasons and life 1 year after Hendrix ends, I’ll close with what I hope makes her proud:

All of us, we are bits and pieces of what we were before, slowly letting room in for change, ideas, people, and experiences.

We have no choice but to embrace where we go. We long, we miss, we remember. It’s important to do so. But because life is a continuum, nothing really stays the same, does it?

Even as I’m here, writing by candlelight in Rwanda, tomorrow will not be today.

And so, take the past and the future, but live now.

Maybe it’s thousands of miles away like my family, like my friends, like my old college days, but it’s there because as for me, I’ve been changed because of where I’ve been. What matters tends to stick around. Maybe not in the ways we want or think it will, but if nothing else, we have beautifully poignant memories that remind us the power of relationships and people (and places) in our lives. I know, for example, that having all of the people I love in one place is nearly impossible. But, that’s okay too. Because they will come and they will go, but the people you love never really leave entirely.

I’m a year out from graduation, and I remember so many things about those wonderful (and at times, very difficult) four years of my life. More than anything, I am grateful for my friends there because without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am and am becoming. The best part is that I have them for life, and if that’s what you walk away with after the ending of some life experience, well, consider yourself immensely blessed.

I showed a few more photos to Isabella and Apolloknee before we got to the prayer and stuffing our faces part of our meal. They enjoyed my stories and the pictures that went with them. I explained my large family, my dogs, and my high school friends too. And when I say that after dinner, that very evening, I’ll talk to both dad and a friend from back home in America, they seem happy because they can see too, that what God generously provided, still remains.