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.
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.