Tag Archives: rwanda

what I know for sure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

BE STILL AND KNOW I AM GOD.

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

*

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

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

Yeah, my life was strange here.

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

GOD NEVER LEAVES US.

That alone, is what I know for sure.

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

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

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

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

Rwanda has not always been kind to me.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

God never leaves us.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

my village and home, Ruramira.

my village and home, Ruramira.

little wonders

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

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

victory is sweet.

victory is sweet.

*

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

bus time songs.

bus time songs.

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

ruramira girls teaching during our GLOW day with another club.

ruramira girls teaching during our GLOW day with another club.

*

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

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

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

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

my sweet Eugenie.

my sweet Eugenie.

*

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

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

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

my dear students of senior 1 in their classroom.

my dear students of senior 1 in their classroom.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phew.

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

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

Here’s to sharing life.

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

coach heather.

coach heather.

welcome home.

welcome home.

 

opening and closing doors

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At our most recent Peace Corps Conference (dubbed COS: Close of Service) we met for three days to reflect on our service for the last two years, to have open discussions about both the successes and complications of development work, to begin the process of leaving the government, and to gain understanding on re-entering and adjusting to life back in the United States. The very last session we had is apparently something all Peace Corps Volunteers around the world do at the end of their service – a guided visualization.

Led by a Peace Corps staff member who has an innate ability to communicate well with anybody and has been in Peace Corps posts in various countries, he told us to “get comfortable” as we would be trying to cover a couple years of memories and emotions in just a few minutes.

I chose to move to the front of the large room and lie face down, my eyes buried between my two crossed arms. I closed my eyes. The lights dimmed and he put on a beautiful instrumental track of a piano star from England. It was immediately stirring; even before he started the visualization I knew I would be emotional. The music played for a few moments and my heart started to slow and I become more in tune with the moment.

In a soft yet steady voice, he told us to think back before our arrival in Rwanda in 2011.

Think about the moment you decided you wanted to do the Peace Corps.
You start the application.
Where were you? Who was the first person you told about starting the application process?
How did you feel?
You complete the interview and soon you have moved further in the process to become a volunteer. Maybe you question this path you have chosen for yourself. Maybe you think you are irrational. But for whatever reason, you continue to stick with it.
Months later, you get that notorious blue envelope with your official invitation to serve in the assigned country. What did you think as you opened it up? Who was with you?
You are invited to serve in Rwanda. Rwanda. What did you think?

He stops for a bit and lets us go through all of those feelings, times, and places. It feels very real – I remember it all clearly and so well. And me being me, I start to cry. I cry out of both happiness and sadness; as I think back to the seeds rooted in this experience, I can feel just how badly I wanted this to work and how deeply I longed for this dream. How so many small things fell into place so that my journey would take me to Rwanda. How long ago all of this was.

He continues.

You say goodbye to people you love. You say your farewell to America. Where do you visit before you leave? What do people tell you as you prepare to go? What went through your mind when you crossed the security point in the airport and you were alone, headed for something you really couldn’t envision?

You leave. You go to the staging process in Philadelphia. You are in a room with a group of people signed up for the exact thing you are to do: teach in Rwanda. Who did you talk to? What was the mood of the group? What did you do your first night together?

You arrive in-country. What did the weather feel like? What is the first thing you see outside of the airport?

It is the first morning after sleeping in the house of your host family. What do you hear in the morning? What do you smell?

After a long training, you move to your site permanently . You are new.
Who is the first person to befriend you? Is anyone waiting for you at your house?
What does your job feel like?
You do something extraordinary in your community. What was it? Who helped you?
At some point you travel with some Peace Corps friends. Where do you go? You see something together you will never forget – what is it?

Now it’s time to prepare to leave.

Who do you want to say goodbye to? Why is it so hard? Who will you hug? Who do you want to stay in touch with? What do you tell them? What do they tell you? What is the thing you will remember about your home for two years in your village?

You touch ground in your hometown or the place you are coming home to. People are waiting for you. People are cheering for you at the airport. You are home. Some you haven’t seen for a very long time.
Who is there? What is it like to be home again? What runs through your mind?

How will you talk about Rwanda? What will you say about your experience? What do you want them to know about your country?

All of this lasts around 25 minutes or so. He asks these questions slowly, with pauses in between so that we can go through this visualization little by little. By the end, I have cried so many tears that bags have formed under my eyes. I wasn’t the only one; all 20 of us were moved very deeply. My heart is bursting with a lot of things, but the biggest is gratitude. To so many people. Thinking back and reflecting made it so clear: these last 2 years have been the most difficult in my young life, but completely the most rewarding and the most life-changing. I’m 24 and I feel like I have had the experience of a life time.

My heart also hurt after that visualization because on a very fundamental, spiritual level, I knew my time was coming to an end and the idea of a third year extension that I had quite seriously considered was not the path I should take. I wanted it so badly and so I put my trust in God to make the best decision and in looking for an open door here, it ultimately didn’t come to fruition in the way I was hoping for. It was very close. In fact, a day prior to this visualization, I was all but ready to sign papers and take a job. But I didn’t, and I’m not going to.

Here’s why.

*
From the beginning, I knew if I did a 3rd year in Rwanda it would have to be what I called “very compelling”. I miss my family and friends and so another year so far from home had to warrant an irrefutable opportunity attached to it. But more than the job, it had to be the right situation in my life, with all things in place so that I could truly feel content and happy as I transitioned to something different. I would have loved to stay in Ruramira (my village) but I knew I didn’t want to formally teach another year, ruling out a site extension. Last month, I met with a director of an organization associated with Nike that acts as a “catalyst organization” to develop ideas for girls empowerment in Rwanda. However, an open job was not made clear and it served much more like an information interview where I was able to pick her brain about girls’ development but not really be offered a formal position within the organization. Not sure where to go next, I briefly considered extending as a PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader). I could work internally within Peace Corps, helping other volunteers, making site visits, and partnering with an NGO to gain some professional experience. I would even have access to drive a car! The drawbacks? Living in Kigali and not working as much in the field on a daily basis. Those were two pretty big strikes and praying to God for a sign I pursued yet another job posting sent via the Peace Corps. It was a job that looked like THE ONE.

It was a job based in the district where I already live now (called Kayonza), with a renowned organization, and operating under what is called the Women’s and Girls Initiative. I would work as a program intern, supervising girls’ clubs that were created to reach and help out-of-school girls. I would help improve their cooperatives (both artisan and agriculture), teach life skills, help develop the programming of the clubs, and work within the organization to do things like monitoring and evaluation. Rooted in field work with Rwandan girls, I could barely contain myself. IT’S PERFECT.

I made contact with the point person and had two “interviews”. The first one was initiated by a representative from Nike – she wanted to partner with this organization and wanted to see if I could serve as a link between the two, teaching their curriculum within this other initiative.

That particular interview (if you could call it that) was terrible, to be honest. It was filled with development oriented jargon, acronyms, and policy driven lingo. While these things are certainly interesting, I just sat there with my mouth wide open: my best friends are young Rwandan women, y’all. Do you want to hear a bit of what I have experienced with them? I don’t think I’m an expert or anything, but I’ve been working directly in the field for these past two years, have deep relationships with girls in my club, and these development workers seemed disinterested, at best. It was really disheartening. For nearly 3 hours I was talked at and I was not very happy about it. Two days later after some soul-searching, I sat down for a second interview. It went much better. It was with the leader of this initiative and her country director and they let me have free reign with what I wanted to talk about and what I wanted to say. I told my Peace Corps story. I bragged on my girls and we actually discussed the job at hand. I walked away much more at peace. And a bit sad – in a lot of ways I wanted this job. But I knew I couldn’t take it. It would be forcing an opportunity to work in my life when really, it should fit much more naturally.

It came down to the fact that they want someone to start working NOW and I’m not really ready to give up my time in my community. Also, they want all lessons taught in Kinyarwanda – 100%. Yeah, I can speak the language, as I have lived in the village for all of this time. But, in GLOW for example, I have girls who can translate and work between the two languages not remaining confined to only one. I appreciate and commend this organization for connecting with out of school girls, but at this point in my professional experience, I don’t feel qualified enough to deliver exactly what they are looking for. Truth be told, a Rwandan woman should really be offered that job.

And in this long, back and forth process, I was able to admit to myself how fearful I am of saying goodbye. But I can’t fight the reality of the situation anymore. I have to be strong, ready to feel that, and to trust in God to get all of us through it. Admitting this fear to myself made the choice much easier. In December, I will come home.

I sat on Divine’s bed yesterday and told her this story and my final decision. Telling Divine – more than any paper work, facebook status, or declaration – represented the finality of this decision. I told her slowly and carefully. And my heart broke all over again as I watched her process my words. She cried, sobbed, and it was my first time to see her so vulnerable and heart broken. I waited patiently as she grieved. The amazing thing is how understanding she was. She agreed, based on the opportunities at hand, that I had made the correct decision. The hard one, but the right one. I told her how much she means to me and that I am committed to helping her achieve a good future. I am going to support her final three years in secondary school and I will come back and visit her in Rwanda. My story and connection to this place has just begun, I think. I will call her as much as I can and I hope one day she can visit America. I’m a woman of my word and I will do everything I can to ensure she has a good life. There are things we are all meant to do in our own lives and this is one of them for me.

She told me between cries that losing me would be like losing a sister. She said that I was a miracle in her life.

I tried to convey amidst my own tears that all of these sentiments were the same for me. “It’s the start of our friendship, not the end,” I insisted. And I really do believe that. I know what distance can do to relationships, but it works both ways. Sometimes they fail because of distance, other times they remain. If for nothing else, because they were meant to be.
*
What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.
-Helen Keller

mr. newell’s geography class

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Dear Mr. Newell’s Geography Class,

Hi there! It’s me, Heather.

I am writing to you at 7:30 pm (that’s 10:30am for you back in the Rocky Mountain Time Zone) on a Saturday evening. Today I spent the day writing in my journal, running, washing my dishes (done by hand with a small basin and a jerry can of water), and best of all, going to a town called Kibungo to pick up my packages from the post office. Today I was a big winner; not only did I have a package from my dad (that’s Mr. Newell for you) but I also had a box waiting from my high school field hockey coach. I did a little dance outside the big yellow sign that says IPOSITA (meaning post office); with two boxes of America to take home.

The package from Mr. Newell (dad) was perfect. He’s somehow perfected the art of cramming as many things as possible into a US postal box. I imagine he’s rather notorious at the local post office as he has sent me nearly 13 packages since I have been in Rwanda. Impressive, right? I ran the scissors through the layers and layers of tape to find things such as: Velveeta cheese (queso blanco flavor), candles, hot sauce, a bag of macaroni and cheese mix, Sports Illustrated magazines, chocolate, flavored drink mix, other noodle mixes, and a manilla folder full of your letters. Dad always remembers to send these along. He knows I enjoy reading them, and it’s true, I do.

He attached a letter of his own, written on a piece of notebook paper. I smiled as I read the beginning of the letter,

6-11-13
Dear Heather,
So how is my little punkin? I hope that you are well and happy! I’m now on summer break and enjoying a little down time – so to speak. Overall, I’m about the same, except now I’m 49! Oh well – it’s just a number. Can you believe that I just finished my 26th year of teaching (25 at Overland)? I do truly love my job, in spite some of the bad days. It is a hope of mine that whatever you are doing in life that it makes you happy.

That’s right, guys. I’m still his little punkin. That’s been my nickname since I can remember and I thought it was sweet that he started his letter that way even though I am 24. He’s right – age really is just a number. I wanted to highlight this part to gloat for just a second. I am certain my dad probably mentioned it to you (he loves repeating the same things over again) but in this case, he has every right to. The man has been teaching for a quarter of a century! He loves his job and so I just hope as his students you realize how lucky you are to have a teacher that cares so much about what he is doing.

He continues:

I often talk to people about my trip to Rwanda. If you don’t know I had a GREAT time. It gave me needed perspective on what kind of life my daughter is living. What you do is so cool – don’t know how to explain but Heather you are special. About your blogs, many of my students really dig your stuff. Some of what I have read from particular students has floored me. Just to give you a heads up, I told my students that “when” you come home you will come to Overland and meet them. Like I said, I think you have made a connection with some students – and that is what it is all about.

Well time to go. I will talk to you many times before you get this, so there you go.
Keep safe and fighting the good fight.
Love,
Dad
PS: You should write about the blog responses my students have sent you and how it made you think/feel/respond/etc. Just a thought.

I folded his letter and added it to the multitude of other cards, papers, and pictures that I have received since becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda.
And then, I decided to write this letter to you.

You have been sending me responses to my blog since its conception and for that, I want to thank you. Maybe you read for pure enjoyment, maybe for the extra credit, or maybe for both, but either way, I am just happy to have blog readers and to be able to read your own ideas about what I have been writing. I am sorry I have not written you back – but this one is for you, and I hope I am able to answer some of your questions, add to your perspective, and enrich what you have already learned and discussed about Rwanda.

My blog is very important to me. Describing and explaining what it’s like to live, work, and be a part of another country is really really difficult. I have found that providing the right amount of detail in a conversation is actually more challenging than when I have put pen to paper. And thus, I have exerted a lot of time and effort to paint a picture for those of you back home. I don’t know if I have done the most accurate job, but I have been completely honest to what I have experienced and particularly to how I have felt. This is all the more important, I think, when studying something like geography. When you study social sciences you can look at maps, read case studies, and learn about cultural traditions. All of these are crucial; but your best learning experiences are often those that you can relate to. And so maybe you don’t know that much about me, but I am a young American girl. I went to school in the Cherry Creek School District just like you (Grandview High School, Class of 2007), I love cheeseburgers as much as anyone, I enjoy sports, and Colorado has always been my home no matter where my adventures and trips have taken me. So, if nothing else, you can try to learn about another country, culture, and life by way of my blog, knowing that we might have had some similar life experiences. That’s the most I can hope for, anyway.

I presume that Mr. Newell has shown you THE Rwandan Power Point Presentation at least twice now. Or, at least he’s shown the video of some of my village kids racing each other after we had finished a big family lunch for my dad’s visit. He loves that video, and he loves that power point presentation. We made the same kind of thing for when I was studying in Ghana, and you know what, I’m sure you have seen that too. I moaned and groaned at the time when Dad and I worked on making that presentation, but looking back, I’m so glad we did. What a way to remember such wonderful memories.

I don’t remember everything that that powerpoint has in it, but I can start by telling you that yes, Rwanda is a beautiful country. In your letters, one student wrote “you make Africa seem like a paradise.” In a lot of ways, it really is. It’s one of those places that cannot be captured completely in a photograph. If you see a beautiful sunset, for example, you can go and grab your camera, get a snapshot, and while it’s a nice photo, it doesn’t completely show what it’s like to be there in person. Still, there are a lot of problems in Rwanda. It’s a very poor country. Water can be difficult to find, many people live on less than $2 per day, and a lot of students drop out of school regularly because they can’t afford school fees. But, if it was all about cool animals and gorgeous forests, Peace Corps wouldn’t have sent me here. They sent me here because this is a country that is rising – and rising fast – but needs help to develop in certain areas. One of the most important areas is in English. The country adopted English as an official language a few years ago, but it takes a long time for a standard like that to be achieved, and so here you have me attempting to teach English in a small village. Rwanda is interesting because while a lot of people speak French and English is on the rise, nearly everyone speaks Kinyarwanda. Which made language training easy in that way – no matter where I would be working, everyone would speak the same language. That was when the “easy” part ended. I think Kinyarwanda is actually a very difficult language. I studied intensively for the first three months when I was training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, which included some days of 6 hour lessons. At this point, I can understand quite a bit. I know a lot of unique phrases and verbs, but speaking grammatically correct was a long-lost dream. I do try, however, and my girls (the ones I often write about) try to correct and teach me something new every day. My favorite Kinyarwanda word? It would probably have to be kajugugugu (meaning “helicopter” – hello, it’s so fun to say!) or for sentimental reasons, komera, which is a command that means “be strong”.

To give you a bit of perspective, Rwanda is about the size of Maryland – a pretty small state out East. However, Rwanda has around 11 million people which makes it one of the most densely populated African countries. You can be in the most rural of rural areas and you will still find people. People are everywhere. Dad noticed this right away on his visit – there are paths upon paths that lead to more and more villages. They are remote and rural, yes, but there are just a lot of people in this country. The biggest city is Kigali, which has around 1 million people. It’s a progressively developed city, especially in Africa. It’s very clean and a lot of NGO (Non-Government Organizations) are based here. I’ve been to a handful of large Africa cities (in Ghana, Togo, Benin, Tanzania, and Uganda) and Kigali is by far the most organized and aesthetically clean. That being said, in my experience, it’s still building a night life and a sense of city culture and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that Rwandan culture is a lot different from other African cultures that I have been immersed in. In general, Rwandans tend to be more reserved and won’t always speak their minds. Which is funny, because they say obvious things like, you are white, and it’s like, “um. Yes. Thank you, because I totally wasn’t aware of my skin color.” Yet, if you ask them about emotions or their opinions on some things, they can be evasive.

As you may have read in my blog, the Genocide of 1994 has played a major role in the culture and history of the Rwandan people. Next year, in 2014, this country will commemorate 20 years since this horrific event took place. In the span of 100 days, anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million people died at the hands of their neighbors, family, friends, and fellow Rwandans. This has created an interesting and hard-to-explain cultural dynamic. It’s one of the reasons making friends in Rwanda can be quite hard – when you experience something like that, moving forward becomes difficult. But, Rwandans sure are trying.

The Peace Corps left Rwanda during this upheaval and didn’t return until 2008. Currently, the Peace Corps has two different programs in this country: education and health. The education sector has volunteers working in school and the health sector has volunteers working in health centers. All of us create “secondary projects” to fill the rest of our time. You sign up for two years, train for three months, move to a village, and kind of just figure it out. Integration is the buzz word as a Peace Corps Volunteer and the way you achieve something like this is through conversation, walking around, greeting people, taking part in cultural events, and just trying to become a part of the community at large. I’ve been at it for two years, and in some ways I feel very successful, and a large part of me feels like I could live here forever and still wouldn’t have it all figured out.

A lot of your letters asked why did you join the Peace Corps?

I joined Peace Corps because I love helping people. I don’t mean this in a super altruistic, Mother Theresa sort-of-way (though she’s awesome). I just mean it like it is. There are people that are good at math, there are people who can put together computers and build rocket ships, and there are people that organize like nobody’s business. For me, I’ve always loved making connections with other people and building friendships. I’m 100% a people person and though Peace Corps has helped me appreciate alone time, I will always choose to be with family or friends because I like engaging other people in conversation, asking questions, and learning about different ways to approach life. Peace Corps seemed particularly appealing after spending a semester abroad in Ghana. I also didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with my life in the long term, and so I felt like I might as well challenge myself and do something crazy. There are a lot of reasons I chose to do this job for two years and those skim the surface of some of them. But when you boil it all down, it’s just about doing something you love. I am sure you aren’t looking for advice from a girl who chose to live with spotty electricity, in an environment that very little English is spoken, and who has mice wars, but I will tell you this: you will be successful in life when you are simultaneously living out your passions and helping other people. Helping other people looks very different in a lot of different contexts – heck no, it’s not always about going to Africa and helping the poor. It’s not even about going to a soup kitchen or giving change to a homeless man. It’s just living and existing consciously aware of the people around you. Say thank you, hold the door open, ask someone how their family is. These are the things that make a difference.

I actually found a lot of your letters really inspiring.

Sometimes, no matter where you are in life, you can find yourself in a grind so to speak – am I right? Things just become normal (which is a wonderful thing, of course) but when this happens, we tend to take things for granted. We forget what is so special about our daily lives and we lose touch with what’s so beautiful about actually living. Anyway, in your letters, a lot of you wrote about your own experiences. One of you wrote about your own Peace Corps dreams: I am speechless right now and just dreaming the way you did when you got your packet of acceptance. In response to my blog about filling the role as a mother-figure and about my own mother, one of you wrote in-depth about your personal relationships about your mom and what she means to you. When I read these sort of things, I remember how much we all have to share and it makes me happy that I have the job that I do.

I appreciated all of your questions about Rwanda because they made me realize an important universal truth: we all have a lot to learn about the world.

For example, some of you asked questions about music in Rwanda, about my house, and about the food I eat. There is a lot of music here in Rwanda – traditional and modern – but there is also a lot of American music as well. American culture pervades a lot of countries in the world, and my students’ favorite music artists are people like Chris Brown, Jordin Sparks, and Bruno Mars. I live in a green house that has bricks and a cement exterior. I have cement floors, paint, and a nicer house than most people in my village. Most of my neighbors live in mud houses with tin roofs. And as for food, in Rwanda there are some important staple dishes: cassava bread, peanut sauce, potatoes and plantains, goat and cow meats, corn on the cob, and beans, to name a few. You see, while life IS very different here, it’s not as crazy and far-fetched as you might think. People are born here, grow up, fall in love, experience heartbreak, try to make the best lives for their families, go to church, have jobs, put food on the table, and play football. I don’t want to downplay all of the cultural and economic disparities, but ultimately the human experience is more uniting if we let it be, I think.

So, sometimes, it’s hard to answer your questions because I forget that American high-schoolers might not generally have a picture of what Africa or what Rwanda is like. And believe me, that’s more than okay. But I encourage you to read as many books as you can and learn about new places. This world is changing fast and the more you know about other places, the more you can relate to people at large.

And believe me, the same goes for my own students. It’s challenging because they are in the same general phase of life as you. They are secondary school students (what you would call high-schoolers). But their conception of America is a vision that is built based on movies they have seen, rumors they have heard, and perhaps Americans they have met. They think everyone in America has unlimited amounts of money, doesn’t know how to do manual labor, and that we’re all acquainted with celebrities like 50 Cent or Rihanna.

Like I said, we all have a lot more to learn about the world, don’t we?

Many of you mentioned how difficult it would be to live without comforts and friends and family for this long. And Lord knows, it is! I appreciate my life back in America more than ever, since leaving for Rwanda. But as my time here is drawing to an end, I’m realizing more and more that I didn’t necessarily leave a life behind. In fact, life has just kept on going and going. I realize this because I’ve made INCREDIBLE friendships here. I’ve built a life. I’ve adapted. And so yes, without my parents and family and best friends, it’s been so hard. Nothing could replace those relationships or the kind of love I feel for them. But in return, I’ve continually grown as a young woman and have experienced such a rich and full life here. It’s been very hard and there are have been downright horrible days, but the same would be true even if I lived in America. Moving to another country isn’t so much about “leaving a life”. I didn’t leave anything behind, because those people have been with me my entire time here. Moving to another country is more about being open, being willing to be vulnerable, and if you find yourself just in the right place, you’ll find a new family to help support and love you. Those relationships don’t replace one another; they build one another. That’s how I have managed to be away from my loved ones for so long. I miss them dearly, however.

Tomorrow, I am going to pray at the Catholic Church in the morning (the service is only about 2 hours) and after I am cooking a traditional Rwandan dish, ubugali (cassava bread), for Divine, my best friend in Rwanda. This next week at school is full of exams for the students and so I will be busy with supervising exams and grading the English tests. Soon my mother will be here, and I look forward to posting photographs of her visit.

I know you students are now in summer break. So, maybe none of you will even read or see this. But I hope you do! I keep all of your letters and I frequently look back on them to understand better what you want to know about Rwanda. Your encouragement is helpful, well-received, and much appreciated. Thank you again for all of the support and response to my blog. I definitely plan on answering more of your questions again. And, like my dad said in his letter to me, when I do come home from Rwanda, I will absolutely visit Overland and your class to meet you face-to-face.

Before I go, I just want to share my favorite pieces of Rwanda. Rwanda can be an extraordinarily challenging place to live (being white does not make this easy) but it has some of the most redeeming qualities. In my village, I can get free hugs from the cutest and most adorable old women in the world. Small children often run after me screaming my name (a nightmare perhaps for some, but a joy for me). If I walk for just 10 minutes, I can be on the cliff of a large mountain, breathing in what just has to be a creation from God. It’s home now. And while America is upon me later this year, I will be really sad to leave this place. Rwandans can be nosy, evasive, and secretive. But they will always open their home for you. They will take care of you. And I think we Americans could learn a lot from people who live life a lot differently than we do. I don’t mean to romanticize the problems here, but my neighbors, friends, and students have taught me things that I never could have never learned otherwise. That, my friends, is really why I wanted to do something like this.

I look forward to your next batch of letters. Until then, enjoy summer, the sun, and a break from school. It’s been great.

All my love,

Heather
Peace Corps Volunteer, Rwanda
Mr. Newell’s daughter

getting a package = america in a box = a very happy heather.

getting a package = america in a box = a very happy heather.

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visiting some of Divine’s family in Eastern Rwanda. And yes, that’s a stuffed animal on my back. I promise I really am 24.

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This is a large shot of our community men’s team playing football (known as ‘soccer’ in America). There are ALWAYS teams playing on the fields. It’s awesome.

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As part of my sports development project, the community gave its contribution by making field renovations and making the field a better place to play. Here is me and some of my neighbors after they finished their day of service.

enjoy your apple pie

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Does 4 cups of de-caffeinated coffee cancel out the whole won’t-hype-you-up-at-night thing?

It’s 9:30 at night and on any given night at this time I would be at home doing one of four things:

1)      Sleeping.

2)      Watching Gossip Girl (that’s my MO these days, anyway).

3)      Doing some sort of yoga-weights (with condensed milk cans, I should note)-zumba wannabe workout. 

4)      My getting ready for bed routine. This is as follows: turn off Christmas lights, brush teeth, throw trash down latrine, use latrine to go to the bathroom, wash my hands, moisturize my face, pick out clothes for the next day, floss, set alarm, make sure my petrol stove is off and put away, check alarm one more time for good measure, and enter the wonderful world of my mosquito net.)

Instead, I’m at the coffee shop in Kigali (Bourbon Coffee—my home away from home away from home—that’s right, it’s my home outside my Rwandan home which is still further away from good ole America) on a Thursday evening. Soon, I’ll be heading to the hostel that Suzi so kindly made a reservation for me at. I’m eating a beautiful slice of cinnamon flavored apple pie with peanut butter ice cream alongside my coffee. Sometimes, this is really what taking a break is all about. The pie. 

I was supposed to leave my village tomorrow morning in order to attend our Peer Support Network Meeting (we are a group of volunteers that acts a sort of support system for volunteers in Rwanda) but impulsively, I decided to leave earlier this evening. I was tutoring a girl in my village, Solange, who has been nothing but kind to me. Her family is amazing. And yet, somehow, I was still getting worked up, frustrated, and felt suffocated being in her home. I think it was probably in part to the fact it was raining outside and so I had no choice but to be there. And I was force fed approximately seven pieces of meat. Just another instance of having very little control of my life.

Anyway, I finished teaching her about some phrases to use at the market (in English, of course) and after walking home barefoot (in the mud; my shoes broke on the way there) I made a strong stride straight to my backpack and packed recklessly. I threw a few shirts in, some deodorant, and my IPOD. The travel essentials. I called my moto driver, Emile, and he came within the hour. I just wanted out. Something in me ticked and it was like all of the things that have upset me lately came spilling out. I cried half of the moto ride. That must of just been a beautiful, capture-me moment. White girl rides moto with stained mascara and a blotchy red face.

I lost all my photos from a computer virus. My students continually keep getting screwed over by our horribly disorganized administration. My exam got the short end of the stick when most students didn’t have an appropriate amount of time to do it—what am I supposed to do, give them zeroes? I have been extraordinarily short on money.

And yet, those are specific, identifiable things that have been upsetting me and I’m not sure that’s why I was even crying in the first place.

I need a break. That much I was able to see. When I’m with people that usually remind me of why I love this place and I’m still feeling aggressive and upset—that’s a red flag. For me, anyway.

But also, in the back of my mind, I keep asking, what’s going on here? I have enjoyed this experience far more than I could ever describe. And when you peel the layers back, there is the solid base of people that I have relationships with that have unquestionably made my life better. Not this experience—my life. Why isn’t that enough? Why is it harder than just reassuring yourself that everything is going to be okay, and I don’t know, just getting on with it?

Because y’all, this is life.

That’s really the best way to summarize all of this. This stopped being a job for me a long time ago. And when it did, the sensible, structured, and easy-explanation stuff came to a halt. Sometimes, we just feel what we feel, and we have to deal with.

Unfortunately, for you, my loyal blog readers, I feel like a great deal of my blogs deal with this not-so-uncommon phenomenon of how we deal with emotions (you’re probably like–“um. I kind of wanted to read about Rwanda.”) But hey, that’s part of the story, you know? I write about it a lot because it really is a beast out here in between the banana trees and the unrelenting sun (or these days, as it is now rainy season, the unrelenting rain).

I’m taking a break, and I’m really glad I am. And this break is a lot more than just a couple days in Kigali, sipping delicious coffee and having dinner dates with friends.

No, I’m literally leaving in less than a week for a journey to not only Uganda, but to England. Could this have come at a better time? Um. No. I need to completely relax. I need someone who knows me from before. I need to recharge my batteries. I need to share my stories to someone. I just need to take a hot bath, darnit!

I’m reminding myself over (and over) again that just because I need a break and just because I’m tired and just because I’m upset doesn’t take away from what has happened here and what I really do feel for my village and my life as an education volunteer. At the end of the day, I have the ability to take a break. People in my village—well, they don’t, really. And so if I’m really that fed up, I’m doing myself a much better service to leave, catch my breath, and come back fresh. I might not like feeling weak, but being vulnerable actually lets you win in the end. You actually experience truth and that’s much more powerful in the end.

And you really don’t have to worry about me too much.

Before I go on a three-week-Rwanda-hiatus, I’m going to spend the last week finishing up some school reports, having Bobby visit me for several days, visit Kigali with Divine and Yazina, and host a little get-together at my house (beer included, apparently) with Maisara and Zahara’s mom and grandmother.

Plus, things like this happen:

Sunday afternoon: Yazina brings over a rice sack FULL of plantains. A gift from her grandmother.

Later that Sunday: Divine brings over a small yellow jug of banana beer to share. “Heather it’s been many days since you had the banana beer. Me, I think that I want to bring this gift to you.”

Monday: Solange brings me sweet banana (these would be the yellow kinds). Yum!

Tuesday: Solange’s mom gives me money to help buy electricity (an incredibly moving and sweet gesture).

Wednesday: Jean brings me a small bag full of plantains to add to my collection.

Thursday: Yazina, Divine, and I discuss American Culture over some Crystal Light before making bets on the weather. This is quite typical. It’s what we do.

Most of these things have to do with hospitality, friendship, and bananas.

Luckily for me, after a long, 4-month period of LOATHING anything banana related, I’m back in the saddle again. I sipped that beer and have been cooking up those bananas (awesome in a curry like paste) after hours and hours of supervising final exams.

And maybe just like bananas, I’ll eventually get through this difficult period and be back in the saddle again too.

Our former country director warned us. She told us several times actually how our service in the Peace Corps is full of innumerable amounts of ups and downs and that a lot of times you will feel like you are riding a roller coaster.

There’s been a dip. But there’s reason to believe that things will get better, because they always do. They have before, and they will again. With a ridiculous supply of bananas, rest time, and a holiday coming up, I have no doubts about that.

the Rwanda we know

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

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

2500 people died here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad: How long have you lived in this house?

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

Dad: How many kids do you have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

living your best life (or at least trying).

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Come August—just when deep summer heat strikes the US and it will simply be just another 75 degree Rwandan month (here it’s not about the temperature as much as it is about rainfall: rain? Or no rain? That’s the real marker for seasons…)—I’ll be helping to lead GLOW. GLOW sounds like a new perfume scent recently released from J.LO or Beyonce but instead it’s a summer girls’ camp with the mission of instilling self-confidence in young women, discussing gender equality, and even creating a comfortable atmosphere to discuss HIV/AIDS.  GLOW: Girls Leading Our World. In addition to assisting in creating the schedule and curriculum, I’ll also be a cabin leader for 10 young ladies. (!!)

Maybe even more exciting (probably for me than anyone else) is that each cabin leader chooses a strong woman from any country—a “hero”—if you will, and the cabin leader is responsible for creating a cabin theme surrounding this person or figure. True to form, my friend Sara has chosen J.K. Rowling (she, Sara, is indeed cooler than me) and as for me? Well it’s a pretty obvious choice: OPRAH. Hello. I can see my girls now…cheering live your best life!…In fact, when submitting Oprah’s bio that I put together to our camp director for approval, Caitlyn, the director, applauded my detail, but gently reminded me that these young Rwandan girls would have to understand everything in the biography. And, it has to fit on a relatively small piece of paper. In essence, cut it down sister.

In doing so, I got to thinking, what’s so great about Oprah anyway?

I just read a fantastic article entitled, “The Glory of Oprah: Why the ‘talkinest’ Child Understands Women and the Power of Television Better than Anyone Else” (by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic). A good portion of the piece is devoted to examining exactly how Oprah came out of a deep poverty in the Jim Crow South and was able to make something of herself. The article is good though, because while acknowledging and celebrating Oprah’s connection to women, it also is unequivocally fair and doesn’t shy away from issues regarding her celebrity and the controversy surrounding her almost religious (no—I take that back—her very religious) elements within her pomp and circumstance.

Anyway, that really has nothing to do with this. I just try to keep up on my Oprah reading and this writing piece was particularly riveting.

My reasons that I chose Oprah as my ‘hero’ and why the slogan Live Your Best Life appears as my ‘about me’ on my twitter account are quite simple.

I first watched Oprah in my grandma’s kitchen: newspapers scattered on the coffee table, plants creeping in from the garden outside, and often full of the irreplaceable smell of a darn good grilled cheese sandwich.

I was probably in like second grade or something, but I remember watching her speak, eating away at slices of cheese grandma had prepared for me (with a fresh apple of course), and thinking that this woman was very cool. Plus, grandma liked her, so she had to be good. Lance would be there with us sometimes (or he’d go play Oregon Trail on the big hunker of a machine that was the computer in the 1990’s) but somehow, Lance or not, it became a tradition.

Wednesdays in elementary school, grandma drove her proverbial big boat (the maroon Chevy Lumina) to school and waited for us with open arms. Sometimes we’d mix our routine up with fro-yo (YUM), the library, or a quick spin past my dad and uncles’ childhood home nearby. However, two things were constants in our visits with grandma: walking to feed the ducks at the park and Oprah viewing sessions.

Whatever episode we watched, even as a young girl, I deciphered the shows and the long, sometimes arduous lectures from Oprah with a true sense of positivity. Oprah’s message, when you really boiled it down, was about taking a problem,  our life, because that’s pretty hard too, and pushing forward. Cry, scream, smile, whatever. But do your best because you can do it. And life’s too short not to. Yeah, it’s the gospel of self-help books and maybe grandma read too many of those too (she wasn’t the cleanliest of folks and I remember these books littered around her 4 (or was it 5?) story townhouse) because as I grew up, grandma carried and shared the very same message. I don’t really know who said it first—Oprah or grandma—but it didn’t matter. Grandma’s echoes of positivity and believing in yourself, I know, came from her own life experiences. And, I believed it. And, I still do.

I don’t think my relationship with Oprah is unhealthy. I joke—often, especially with my friends—that it is, but I promise, I have my head on straight (most of the time). Oprah is not God, is not my grandma, is not the world’s perfect person or idol, however, she went to hell and back when she was young, took life by full force and followed a dream. I admire that. Plus, she’s pretty funny to boot and has about three million inspirational quotes to draw from. I. LOVE. Inspirational quotes.

The trick with all of this rhetoric about ‘living your best life’ is that’s hard. Really really really hard.

For nearly 8 months I have been living and breathing Rwanda.

8 whole months.

That’s a long time.

I think it’s possible that I’ve spent some of my very best days and very worst days here. That’s how this goes, I suppose.

I love what I do. Through and through. Even on the tough days. And it’s really coming together—my first football and volleyball practice (with me coaching!) is tomorrow. Our first matches? THIS weekend. On top of that, I have wonderful neighbors and can’t speak enough about the transformative experience of integrating into something completely unfamiliar. It’s unreal how blessed I am to have this. Yes, I love my job. That’s 110% true.

But the other truth is this: like anywhere or anytime in life, we’re human, and with that comes beautiful happiness, but also sometimes, intense sadness. Lately, I’ve been feeling sad. And there’s all kinds of sadness: sometimes I’m sad about the intense poverty here, sometimes I’m sad because every day, at some point, I am called umuzungu. Sometimes I’m sad because I wonder about how much of a reach I really have.

Am I able to do this?

Is my presence here really actually doing anything?

Yeah, self-doubt is not very fun.

But more recently, I’m sad because I’m alone. No matter how you slice or dice that, it remains true.

People are here, yes, and some I’m growing to really appreciate. I have friends here in the village, and I couldn’t even ask for more support than I’m already getting from them.

Yet, at the end of the day, the story is mine, isn’t it? How do I begin to share what life is like here? And how do I share life with these people I am beginning to know?

What a weird feeling, indeed. I think that’s one of the things that made studying abroad in Ghana my junior year so special. Amidst volunteering, studying (sometimes), and travel, my best friend, Rachel, and I were doing it together.

But here, it’s me.

For nearly 18ish more months I will continue to teach,  help, listen, motivate, share, and reflect as a Peace Corps Volunteer, out in the village, trying to figure out what this journey—this story—actually is.

For a few days now, this has saddened me. I’ve felt unmotivated, restless, and tired. I’ve cried just a couple of times and getting out of bed has felt…challenging. It feels good to be honest about all of this. It was at Rachel’s encouraging that I share this, because yes, emotional challenges have a place in this story too. I was afraid of singing my own sad sorry song, because I fully and completely realize that there is much, MUCH more in the world than my temporary loneliness. But again, it’s what I’m going through. It exists. So I recognize it, I feel it, and I deal with it. Certainly doing this—living this life—is taking a lot more strength than I imagined, particularly because some days just feel so easy and effortless. Peace Corps warned me this would happen. I can’t blame them. They told me, time and time again, that I would miss things from back home. I would miss weddings, funerals, graduations, engagements, and I would be here, away from it all. I listened. I knew it would be hard. So, this really should come as no surprise, right?

I am ready though, to take all of these emotions in stride: feel them, live them, but do not be defined by them. Most importantly, as alone as I feel, I am not.

Taped to my desk is a note from Philippians 3 that says this,

“Let us live up to what we have already attained.”

God has a hand in all of this. It’s not me achieving, accomplishing, and overcoming; it’s all possible because my strength comes from something much more than just myself.

And also, sometimes living your best life is just doing the best you can on any given day.

Some days, it’s just a smile, while other days it’s full of immersing yourself with everything you got.

Yesterday, in class, in one period mind you, I managed to teach my dear students how to ‘disco’ (and along with that, provided a completely inaccurate historical explanation of where the disco came from—I said it was because Americans wanted peace during the Vietnam War?…*) and also provided reinforcement with the verb ‘to win’. To do so, I demonstrated the power of T-Pain lyrics (an artist most of them, if not all, know) with the classic and memorable hit “All I Do Is Win.”

All I do is win win win, no matter what.

Let me just say. Watching students disco and singing T-Pain at the same time? As an educator, it doesn’t get much better. It’s quite possible my um, teaching methods, might be a little unsoud (even by American standards) but whatevs. Sometimes, you just have to have a little fun, right?

I did all of this—laughing hysterically of course—and also while dealing with this whole loneliness thing. Did I walk out of class completely cured and rejuvenated? No. Because human emotions often don’t work like that.

But, I did feel better. And I know that soon, this loneliness thing? Well, this too will pass.

 I can do it, I can do it, I can do it.

 Grandma’s mantra is fresh in my mind.

 How I miss her.

 Maybe it’s scary to know I’m doing this alone. But it can be empowering too: the stories, the experiences, everything—I have all of this to share for the rest of my life.

 Anything can be a miracle, a blessing, an opportunity if you choose to see it that way.

–Oprah

 *the history of disco is rather extensive after skimming some of the information provided on the ever-reliable Wikipedia. While some of the elements of the disco craze certainly are traced to the culture of the 70’s—largely shaped by the war—the dance itself was even considered a reaction against the domination of rock music. 

bon appetite

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

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

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

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

-plantains

-beans

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

-meat

-sauce

-rice

-vegetables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Your family. They are good people.”

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

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

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

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

 -if someone offers you food, take it.

-a Fanta is a sign of friendship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peace (corps), love, and Rwanda

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From the moment the BIG BLUE packet arrived on my front doorstep next to the milk box, I’ve been somewhere between a reflective, grateful, contemplative young woman to a girl who is running around like a chicken with their head cut off.

I think they are both natural responses to a BIG life change. How big? RWANDA big.

Finally, after almost a year (to the day) of waiting, I found out that I was in the Peace Corps. I would be leaving in September, and I would be teaching.

That was enough for about the first 2 hours upon finding out.

Then. it started.

What do I do next?

What forms do I have to turn in?

Do I need a passport?

When should I buy stuff that I need?

What all do I need to take?

Is teaching really right for me?

Am I going to do a good job?

Will I be able to communicate with my friends and family?

Where in Rwanda will I live?

Will I be safe?

You get the idea. The thing is, I ‘ve thought about all of these things before. 1 year in the PC application process will do that to you. But. Now, I have this letter. And it’s like “Congratulations! You are invited to begin training in Rwanda!” I guess that’s what they mean when they say it just got real.

I went backpacking with my mom and Randy this last weekend and I thought a lot about this opportunity. There were moments that I laid in the hammock wondering how my life got to this point…and I just smiled. And the answer is basically, I don’t know. But I’m glad, and grateful. So so grateful. I can’t even begin to imagine what this experience will be like, but I’m so thankful that I get a chance to do it, that I have this opportunity to pursue something I am so dearly passionate for.

What is right, is right. What will be, will be. This is something that it took me 4 years to learn in college, and I’m still learning it. But, I am believing it more and more. That’s what this is. Somehow, in all of the madness that this process brought, ultimately, it worked out. God’s hand was in this.

So, now I am moving forward appreciatively and a little crazily, but certainly very productively. To date, I have submitted my US passport to get approved for a special Peace Corps passport, I have submitted my aspiration statement and updated resume to PC, I have formally accepted the position (writing that email was probably one of the most insane/cool emails I have ever written), I have finished the paperwork for the media relations office, I have started this blog, I have read the Volunteer handbook, I have ordered a Kinyarwanda dictionary, and I am voraciously everything I can read about Rwanda. I am doing really well in this preparation process. Maybe as well as could be expected? I am working through the financial issues (banks, loans, etc.) but that too is getting worked out.

This is a special period in my life, I think. So, I’m going to do my best to enjoy it. The month of August will be one of the best…I don’t even doubt it. Michelle is coming to visit Colorado, I am going to Disney World with Rachel, I am helping Rachel move into her grad-school apartment in Murfreesboro, I am going to Michelle’s wedding in Moscow, TN, seeing all my friends (reunion!), and then hanging out at Hendrix for a week, capped off with seeing the first Hendrix field hockey game of the season. Indeed, it’s a special time in my life right now. I will come home from this trip and have ONE WEEK to get my things together, spend time with my family, and prepare to close the door on this part of my life for awhile.

Yet, a new one is opening, and goodness, I can just feel the excitement inside of me.