It’s rainy season and so you have to play the game: the rain rules. When you see the clouds forming in a perfect synchronization against all your plans for the day, run. And, run fast. The rain is coming. Just a few weeks ago, I recall facing the ultimate decision in my short Peace Corps life: to bathe or to drink? (I chose to drink). Water was short and so it was a precious commodity. Now, we can’t get enough of it. Need water? Wait an hour. Like an annoying tick that just won’t go away, the rain sticks close by these days. Oh—and to be sure, when it rains, don’t be fooled. It will be cold. Your to-do list will take 1 week longer than you originally planned. The road will turn into a swampy pit waiting for its next victim (likely you). And, it could rain for 2-3 hours at a time. Or 24 hours straight like it did last week.
Like I said, you play by the rains’ rules. And so, in efforts to do so, we had our first official sports practice today—at 12:30, yes in the middle of the school day—hoping to finish right before the coming of the daily rain. No matter my perfectly planned out English lessons—it was time to play ball. And you guessed it, I was ready to finally coach and jump on in.
I raced home (which took all of 53 seconds since I live a hop and a skip away) and grabbed my gear that I nerdily already had set out: my running shoes (laid out on newspaper due to the mud from yesterday’s run), my hot pink shorts, black leggings (gotta keep up with the conservatism), my black Nike running shirt, my handy (and lucky—I’ve had this baby for a few years now) pink bandana, and finally, best of all, the whistle mom and Randy sent in a package. Coach Heather: ready for action!
I was earnestly surprised that practice had come so quickly after envisioning this whole thing at the end of last term in early April. However, working within the system is absolutely the way to go, and I have some Rwandan counterparts equally eager to see our school sports more organized. Beforehand, the structures existed, but I’m hoping to instill a sense of organization and ownership: where the students come to really value the teams they are on and make practice and everything that comes with that a regular part of the week. I suppose practices were getting in full swing too because sector officials said the sector needed a team representative to represent at a national tournament coming up? The details seemed a bit frayed, but whatever, we were playing and that is what really matters, right?
Lesson #1: We have a very. very. long way to go. The first day of practice, indeed, was not an aspiring Disney sports movie in the making.
Lesson #2: As expected, it’s going to be extra difficult with girls as opposed to boys.
Lesson #3: Even though sports do transcend a helluva lot of boundaries, cultural and language barriers will persist. What does this mean for organized drills? CHAOS.
Practice went a little something like this:
We walked down to the pitch to begin. The boys’ coach was preoccupied and so Alphonse, an upper level student, was leading their football team to start (apparently it was a football-practice-only day?). As for the girls? 100% entirely in my hands.
We split the field (half for us, half for the boys) and I tried to lead the half-committal/half non-committal groups in a team run. We had many curious student onlookers; earlier in the week we had made somewhat of an official roster, but in this moment that felt like a thing of the past. The girls said over and over again, “Teacher! Heather! The sun! our heads…No…no teacher…”
Wow. I really got myself into this?
After a failed run attempt, a botched circle passing game, and a less than impressive shuttle drill, the girls pressed for a real scrimmage. I looked at my watch. Surely we could a scrimmage at this point, surely it had been at least 45 minutes of a good effort to have some semblance of a practice that I had envisioned. Since the start, 20 minutes had passed. 20. Minutes.
I thought about leaving. It didn’t help when I glanced over at the boys’ practice. There they were, conditioning, doing perfectly coordinated stretches. Organization! I told my girls to take a look and I continued to tell them that they were not “being serious.” To not be “serious” is the ultimate Rwandan sin; it basically means to be actin’ a fool. I told them we could do a full-field play, but we needed to get it together. Granted, I was trying to tell them all of this in Kinyarwanda, so who knows what I was actually saying. Probably something like, “we are together! Please try…girls! Yes. Let’s practice! We are together…” (I can’t imagine it was very pretty sounding…)
15 minutes later, after dividing the teams (somehow, this took forever) I blew the whistle to begin. I suppose I maybe contributed to the length of time it took to start: I chose team captains, and to decide possession, I had them guess which number I was holding behind my back.
Heather: “okay girls, choose a number between 1-10.”
Heather: “Okay, no. Between 1-10. 1…2…3…4…”
Jeannine: (translates to Solange in Kinyarwanda) “1.”
Heather: “You sure? You can choose any number between 1-10. 1…2…3…maybe even 8, for example.”
The number was 3. Sometimes, I don’t know why I do the things I do.
But, alas, we started and I could finally settle back in this coaching thing. I was undeniably happy, but also found myself wondering if my presence really mattered. They didn’t seem to really care about any minute sense of authority that I had…maybe I just needed a different approach?…Maybe I just needed to remember that the sports background I come from looks a lot different than what these girls are used to. Maybe I just need to focus on the little things first…
It was then that I watched the following happen in about a 7 second timeframe:
3 girls kicked the ball into each other’s stomach (on accident), at least 6 pairs of shoes were flying in the air from kicking the ball, and Ange fell flat on her face from the pot hole where I sprained my ankle back in January, nearly 6 months ago. She came up laughing hysterically and that was when I just let go. I laughed so hard I could barely stand—in fact, I was holding myself up by my hands, nearly rolling in laughter. It just struck me as completely comical to watch that series of unfortunate events unfold.
I decided then and there to relax. This whole Peace Corps thing is all about letting go of control, so why would this be any different? I have a vision for this team, absolutely, and I believe in it. But more than anything, it’s important the girls are playing at all—I don’t want to lose sight of that.
Plus, there were some very impressionable players out there today. Jeannine, for example, captain of team 1, is a rock! She comes from nowhere and finds her way to every ball. Sylvie is deceptive, a girl who doesn’t look the part, and yet somehow can slick through a slew of defenders. Maybe my favorite was a young woman who I don’t even know the name of, but she’s seriously fierce. I can tell she loves being out there, loves being a leader, and refuses to give up even if she misses a pass or a header. She wants it—and you can’t coach that.
The girls told me after 30 or so minutes that the rain was coming. I told them we would go another 5 minutes and then come together to stretch it out before heading home. A minute later, they insisted. The rain is coming. I tried for a hasty last minute huddle, but they were already gone. I opened my mouth to yell out when in the very same moment, the sky opened and the rain came. And it sure came hard. My goodness, Rwandans really can read the sky.
We had a sports meeting once we took shelter back at the school and the boys coach, Nkusi, gave the athletes their “motivation”.
What was this so called motivation?
No. Oh good gracious no. The motivation, I kid you not, was sugar. SUGAR. Straight, brown sugar, right from the bag.
And there I was, again, laughing, barely containing myself. This was really happening. Each of the players tore out a piece of notebook paper, shaped it like a cone from your run of the mill county fair, and awaited for the bag to come so they could dump the sugar contents right on in for their own little treat. You could not have asked this scene to be more Rwandan. I knew they loved sugar (hence the minimal 4 scoops into each cup of tea) but this? Really?
Coaching here is going to be…an adventure. But, despite everything, it feels so right. Being in your element, you just know it when you are, and I really feel good about the possibilities this has for everyone: the girls, me, the school, even our community.
Before I left school, after practice, I was pulled aside by a couple of my younger students who stuck behind to do some extra studying. They were alone in an empty, dirty classroom with extra chalk they had managed to scrape up, writing on the board. I stayed late to help them for about an hour; they had question after question about English. Mostly, it was words they didn’t understand (probably from the days’ lectures in other classes), but it was also grammar, verbs, and even things like the meaning of human rights, and my personal favorite: the meaning and definition of heavenly bodies. As I was explaining how this could potentially refer to the idea of angels, I realized exactly what they were asking. Heavenly bodies? Oh my. As in telling someone they have the most perfect, absolutely stunning body? Yeah, I just kept going with the angel thing and mumbled a comment that some people use that phrase if someone is very beautiful?
After that, and quite the practice, I slowly walked home (in the rain of course), past the goats and the cows, on the small dirt path next to the Pastor’s house, greeted Baraka (my three year old best friend) and smiled to myself. I smiled even wider as I thought about the experiences I had had in the previous couple of hours.
My goodness, my life is weird.
Later that week, we had a set of matches at home and a set of matches away at the only other secondary school in my sector. The boys and girls each played two matches for each sport: volleyball and football. The girls finished 3-1 (losing only the away football match) and the boys finished 2-2 (winning both volleyball matches but falling in both football matches rather decisively).
We played at home on Wednesday and I found myself completely wrapped up and enamored with the surge of school spirit. Classes were stopped for the matches, a drum was played during the games, and the students were into it! In volleyball, for example, the students would scream out the students’ names each time they struck the ball, for example,
You get the idea. It was fun. And my, how it was stressful! I suppose I didn’t fully realize the emotion that goes into being a coach—you have to stand by and watch everything happen, hoping that your team pulls through.
On Friday, we played our matches away, in a village called Bugambira. It’s about an hour and a half walk from my house and so I rode Whitney, my bike, along the muddy dirt roads. It was fine for a while, but of course, about 20 minutes into my journey, it started to rain. My bike’s name, an ode to the late diva, behaved much like the singer herself. Whitney is fantastic when she’s properly working, but wow, when she’s down, she is down. I was flying all over the place before I sort-of-kind-of fell into a bunch of mud. Mud had already splattered all over my face and clothes; old women headed to the farmer’s bank just laughed and I heard a plane in the sky above me. In that moment, I thought a plane to America would suit me just fine.
Yet, when I finally did make it to the other secondary school, I saw my girls and all of that dissipated entirely. They wiped dirt off my face and I think were genuinely surprised that I made the journey given the weather. Oh please, I thought. Like rain could keep me away from this!
We headed into a newly built classroom (this school is in its first year) and with the help of the other coaches, we laid out a relatively thrown together game plan. We decided positions for both volleyball and football, and when asked to give a speech (not just because its sports culture; oh no, it’s Rwandan culture), I fumbled to the front of the classroom, unsure of what to say. The boys were all in there with us, and so I figured it would be best to keep it relatively general.
On the top of my head, I remembered the phrase dig deep, a phrase I personally found motivating before big games, and so I told them all what this meant. To dig is a well-known verb (hello, everyone and their mom—literally—are farmers) and so when I explained that they had to keep pushing and going even if they were tired, somehow, I think they got it. We set a goal (referring back to my goal-setting lessons for the week) and our goal was pretty straight-forward and direct: our goal is to be the winners. Good. Whatever works.
And like I have all my students do in my classroom, I had them cheer for themselves. It sounds a bit like, “wooohooo….oooooo” and it makes my heart smile.
I could not have been prouder of my girls, most especially during the volleyball match. They won the first set easily, but got pretty destroyed in the second set. That left the outcome of the game to the very last set, and like in true sports glory, it came down to the very last serve. I winced as the ball was set, and though I wanted to close my eyes (like I said, this whole coaching thing is quite stressful), I forced myself to watch. The ball hit the opponent’s ground after a bungled pass and I let myself close my eyes for an instant. I heard screams, cheers, and happiness. The girls bounded towards each other, without any care for the mud lining their skin and clothes, and jumped up and down. This was the girls match mind you, but I would suggest that this victory attracted more attention and vigor than the boys’ were able to produce that very same day. My girls—Zahara, Slvian, Tuyisenge, Olive, Maisara, to name a few—hugged me without abandon and kept repeating, “we are the winners! We are the winners!”
Yes, yes, yes we are.
There aren’t really a whole lot of words to describe just how cool it is to be involved with something like this.
The world keeps moving, you know. People—the families of these girls, even—continue to deal with day-to-day issues of poverty and rural life in a developing country. One of my players, Jeannine, even told me the other day that her mother is sick; so sick, that it’s a question of life and death. I know very well that many of these girls can barely afford to be at school, they go home most days and fetch water, cook food, clean the house, or do whatever else they can to help their families. I’ve somehow become numbed by it (simply in that it is a part of my life and community every single day) but the poverty really is staggering. It really isn’t okay.
And yet, for these moments of success and happiness….it’s so clear in my mind that there is nowhere else I would rather be. This is why I am here as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and after just a little time out there on the pitch, the ground, the field…whatever you want to call it…I’ve found a love that I knew existed, I just didn’t know to what extent. I don’t want to paint a picture like some sappy sports inspirational movie. I don’t want to pretend that kicking a ball around makes everything okay and that it will solve every single problem my students have. But in my heart of hearts, it has more value than we can even know. It’s an absolutely beautiful thing to witness, which in all actuality is the very best part. It’s the girls doing what they are doing, not me. It’s them. It’s always been them, and it will always be them. This, in essence, is the development of believing in themselves. In who they are, and what they can do.
Peace Corps wants sustainability? Well, here you go. Here’s sustainability served on a silver platter.