Monthly Archives: April 2012

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. 

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friendship, love, or something like that

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

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

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

*pause*

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

*even longer pause* *laughter* *pause*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Friendship, love. It’s all relative sometimes. 

happy (spring) holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are just genuinely good people.

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

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

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