Monthly Archives: May 2012

10k

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As a recent running convert, I have never actually done any sort of “organized running” you might say. You know, 5K, 10K, and marathon races. However, there certainly is a first time for everything and why not raise the stakes when living in East Africa? Thus, I decided early on in my Peace Corps experience that I wanted to participate in the Kigali Peace Marathon.

The marathon itself draws a decent crowd, I would guess around 300ish runners—maybe even more? This year, 20 countries were represented (and shocking, Kenya dominated in all categories) and in the 8th edition of the race, the Ministry of Sports and Culture dubbed the theme as, “Sports as a tool to fight against youth drug use” (why it couldn’t simply have been “anti-drugs for youth” or something is beyond me). The course began and ended at the bright and bold green and yellow Amahoro (meaning ‘peace’) Stadium where football matches of high regard are often held. I have to say, in entering the stadium to get to the starting line, I let my imagination go a little wild, and felt a sliver of what it might feel like to enter the Olympic opening ceremony (that could also be a severe exaggeration). It was hard to not feel like a rock star, and I certainly wasn’t alone. Among me and my Peace Corps friends, we cheered for ourselves, pumped our fists, and did a little dancing. We’re weird. Nobody around barely turned a head (they were busy with the serious business of warming up) but hey, we were having fun. I really had to use the bathroom beforehand and I had to move quickly; the race was starting only 30 minutes after the scheduled start—that’s like being on time in this part of the world. Of course, toilet paper had yet to be provided in the stalls and well, let’s just say I had to improvise, Drastically. I found my way to the mass of adrenaline-induced runners with my small green IPOD shuffle in hand. It’s what I call a “special” IPOD because the part where I can change the song is broken and so though it still functions, I have to listen to whatever comes on the shuffle, whether it be Lady Gaga, the Dave Matthews Band, or a reggae inspired African jam. I wasn’t deterred; I was simply hopeful that I’d get some dynamite-pump up songs like My Time or Warrior as opposed to my inappropriately extensive Celine Dion collection. Celine is great…but not so much when trying to run miles and miles in the roads of Kigali among East African beast runners.

The muffled sound of the race MC was gargled and hard to understand, but as he counted down to 1, I realized that it was just about time to go! I fist-pumped with Nate, another Peace Corps Volunteer and we were off! My job was simple: I was the first runner of our four-man relay team. Our team consisted of me in the first spot, Jon, Sara, and finally, Meredith. I was hoping to set a good pace and a good time for my team to follow.

I started the race right around 7:23 am and came trotting back into the stadium, sleeves rolled up, banana stains on my hot pink shorts, sweat running down my face after close to an hour out on the trail. That brought my pace to about a 9:00 per mile pace—the best ever recorded? Hardly. But, pretty solid for my first official run.

Here’s what really happened out there:

7:23: depart Amahoro stadium in the first wave of runners. Run past the few camera-men. Smile. Grin. Keep good form—don’t appear too inexperienced. Have a couple second freak out: I am only spotting the numbers and colors coordinated with half and full marathoners. Did I leave with the wrong group? I am running with the relay, and I sure as hell am not running 20, 30, or 40 K!! ….have a sigh of relief when realizing that everybody runs the same course. The relayers run the course once. The half-marathoners run it twice, and the big winners of the day, the full-marathoners, run the same course four times. Phew.

7:24: not sure exactly when the second wave of runners was released but, my oh my, did I ever hear those runners coming. I heard the slap of foot and shoes meeting the cement as I simultaneously turned to see about a group of 30 elite Rwandan and Kenyan runners heading my way. I moved to the right side of the road instantly. I did not need (or want) to be trampled by some of the best runners I have ever seen.

7:25: note the time on my watch. Think for a couple minutes about why I continually wear my nice, turquoise watch that I purchased at the Tokyo airport a few years back, as opposed to a more sensible sports watch. Plan to buy sports watch/ask for one to be sent in the near future. Also realize quite instantly, how alone running is. I’ve loved that about the sport during the past few months, but even though I was running on a TEAM today, the actual sport itself comes down to you, and you alone. It’s you, your legs, and your mind.

7:30: feeling pretty good about form and running on the pavement. Was a bit worried about running on asphalt after training for the past few months on the dirt roads in my village…but so far, so good.

7:40: pass the Peace Corps office. The guards in their recognizable bright blue security outfits, are outside the ominous white gate with the Peace Corps insignia, cheering any PCVs they see. They wave at me, shouting “Komera!” (my most favorite Kinyarwanda phrase—meaning be strong) while smiling fully and warmly. Love them.

7:44: loop back around, passing Bourbon Coffee (really wishing I could have a coffee to go) and the Peace Corps office once again. At this point, tables have been set up full of bananas (and of the crack banana variety—what I call the small, sugary, best bananas in the world that Rwanda has all over the country). A race volunteer scrambles and hands me four bananas. Yummy. I rip each banana open recklessly and without any regard for manners, and chew on these bananas like I am some kind of cave woman. Suddenly, my four bananas are gone and I am empty-handed. Dangit, I think. I might just pay for that later in the race.

7:50: head back in the direction of the stadium along one of the main roads in the city. People are watching as we pass. Some cheer. Some stare. Some laugh. It certainly is Rwanda, isn’t it?

7:53: hit halfway point; 5K finished. Cruising and genuinely enjoying myself.

7:54: run along stations that are in charge of providing squeezy foamy concoctions to each runner so that they stay cool. I would learn this about 2 seconds too late, as I initially tried to squeeze the foam in such a way so that I could actually drink the water. Oops. The men and women at the station gawked and gasped. It was then I realized that this water was for my outer skin to be cool from the raging Rwanda sun…oh well. What can you do?

7:55: continue the run towards the eastern part of the city. This includes passing by the stadium…I suppose I thought I was faster than I really was at this point? Because, I somehow thought the race was ending soon because we had come by the stadium. But no. Oh no. We ran along the stadium gates, continued by UN Kigali offices, and headed toward the part of town known as Remera. I am familiar with this part of town especially, because Remera has the bus station that is my destination anytime I am coming from out East into Kigali.

8:00: consume two more bananas.

8:01: begin to regret all of the banana consumption.

8:02: major stomach cramp takes over. Refuse to stop no matter what. Begin to run at a snail pace. Some European man eggs and cheers me on as he runs with his bright blue camelback; after passing me, he proceeds to do a little crowd pleaser by dancing as he runs on by. I don’t have the kind of energy or strength for that. I can barely breathe with these intense stomach pains!

8:05: begin to wonder when I will see the stadium again and descend upon the end of this rather long run.

8:10: cramps subside; feeling better and stronger. Wanting to finish strong and complete the 10K with a smile on my face.

8:12: arrive on the grounds of the stadium. Miss Independent (my former favorite “African song” from Ghana…until I realized it was a classic hit from the AMERICAN, Ne-Yo…oops) is playing loudly on the speakers. Feeling my own independence and strength, I run faster.

8:15: the trail continues in a complete circle around the stadium. Really, I mean, really?

 8:20: enter the stadium for one final lap to the finish line. My team and other Peace Corps participants are there to cheer me on. “You got it Heather! Yay!” They are awesome.

8:22: cross the finish line. (!!!!!) realize that I must slap Jon’s hand for him to get going. Hastily grab his hand for him to get going.

8:22 (cont.): realize just how much my legs hurt. And my stomach. Damn bananas.

We waited around for the next few hours as our relay teams finished and some of our friends even did the full and half marathons. Our relay team, bless their heart, finished last (or maybe it was second to last) among relay teams. However, to be fair, our last runner, Meredith, had to deal with a torrential downpour during her run. She has the best attitude though, and only worried about finishing and bringing our team home. We rocked it.

As we waited for our teams to finish, World Vision (the main sponsor of the event) workers announced alongside with representatives of the Ministry, the main winners of the day. As already mentioned, the Kenyans dominated. Completely. With the exception of one Rwandan woman who finished in the top 3 for the full-marathon women, all winners were Kenyan.

Two of the best moments after my run were this:

  • We watched as one man, who only has one leg, and thus uses crutches for support, finished the half-marathon before many other people. He got probably one of the loudest cheers of the day.
  • Some of the Peace Corps Volunteers received a grant to take some of their students to the marathon to compete in the relays. One student in particular, was glowing upon reaching the finish line. He’s a short little guy, shorter than me even, but he ran hard and his teammates were so happy for him, and for each other. About 20 PCV Rwandan students ran in the marathon, and for them, was an opportunity to learn about nutrition, about sport, but more than anything, an opportunity to do something pretty awesome. That was a great thing to see, and I’m hoping to get involved with that grant next year so some of my kids can come and run!

After the rain passed and we made it back to the Peace Corps hostel to clean up, a few of us grabbed a heck of a lot of Chinese food. We ate. A lot. I headed back home that evening, exhausted, but also thrilled that I participated in such an event.

Running, as painful, challenging, and difficult as it can be, also opens these doors to clarity, peace, and self-fulfillment. I’m addicted. I want to run another race already (next year, I’m gunning for the half, and have already set my eyes on participating in the Princess Marathon at Disney World upon return from Peace Corps). Running is meditative,..and on top of everything else, great for your health. I’ve lost about 30 pounds—the healthy way—and I think I’ve survived the tougher days when I’ve been out on the trail. I’m not especially good at it, but maybe that’s what makes it so great. You don’t have to be. You do it for your reasons, and support the people around you who are doing the very same thing, even if their reasons are entirely different.

10K? Check. 

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sports

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the boys greeting the crowd


volleyball time


fulgence taking care of business for team ruramira


serve’s up


sweet Rachel


girls’ volleyball. look closely (the expressions are too great). this picture makes me so happy.


me and the football team!


boys’ football huddle

words of wisdom from the old man on the bus

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“What an opportunity–to live in Africa, to have your own small piece of this incredible continent…it’s different. And for you, probably very difficult, coming from America. But, you’ll see. You’ll leave and want to come back. Rwanda is a special place. And you are doing good work. Yes, what an opportunity.”

Do you believe that sometimes, instead of our dearest and closest loved ones, it’s actually complete strangers who gives us tidbits of extraordinary wisdom that we didn’t even know we were looking for?

I do. 

I heard this encouraging and perspective-loaded sentiment from an old man with a white beard on a bus. Typical, right?

I had picked up a package from Jessica, did my weekly internet, and was meandering home. I recognized the guy who runs the internet cafe on the large white express bus (I usually pay the extra 50 cents for the more spacious and expedient transport) and amidst explaining how I was participating in the Kigali Peace Marathon at the end of May, the old man next to me asked why I liked to run. Before I knew it, this very old Rwandan man (en transit from Arusha, Tanzania)–who resides full time in Vancouver as an oil businessman–was speaking all the right words in all the right places. He went on at length about how Africa is a unique place–there is nowhere in the world like it, he said. He actually reminded me a lot of one of my new favorite authors, Alexander McCall Smith (thanks to TL Brown who sent me two of his books!).

Smith has an entire fictional series called the Ladies No.1 Detective Agency (I WOULD like something like this…) that centers around the only woman detective in Botswana. The series is wonderfully mysterious, but what I enjoy most is his beautifully worded insights on African culture. And he would know. He was born in what is now Zimbabwe and has spent most of his life between Scotland and parts of Southern Africa. He somehow captures the continent with just enough grace and truth, without overgeneralizing or over-idealizing (as it can be easy to do). 

“….I think I can say that I had never been happier in my life. We had found a country where people treated one another well, with respect, and where there were values other than the grab, grab, grab which prevails back home. I felt humbled, in a way…people suffered here, and many of them had very little, but they had this wonderful feeling for others. When I first heard African people calling others–complete strangers–their brother or sister, it sounded odd to my ear. But after awhile I knew exactly what it meant and I started to think the same way…I was learning lessons. I had come to Africa and I was learning lessons.”

Strangely, I read this from Smith’s book Tears of the Giraffe the same day the man on the bus exclaimed at what a blessing I have in living and working in Rwanda. The world appears to be aligning, and so this week I’ve found myself in a spirit of gratitude for where I live, the people I live with, and the job I get to do. I could write forever and a day on the challenges and difficulties, and often, the frustrations as an American in Rwandan culture (why are you staring at me? why are you touching my hair? why are you laughing as I try to speak your language…). This whole living in Africa thing has already been one of the most difficult things that I’ve done in my life. I’m so far from the people I love, I’m alone, and I’m an outsider. However, it’s been equally rewarding. When you open your eyes, really open them, you began to really see. 

  • I love the way Rwanda wakes up. As day breaks, and yellow and oranges filter in through my wood window, goats and cows move even before the farmers manage to get out the door. I know it’s time to leave bed when babies start crying. If it’s a school day, I roll out around 5:30. On weekends, all bets are off–I may just play it lazy and stay curled in my sheets until–GASP–8:00 am. 
  • I love the way old women greet…and hug…and well….everything they do. I’ve joked that on my bad days, it’s the old mamas that have kept me here. They often wear the most mis-matched African fabrics; they’ll put oranges, blacks, pinks, and yellows together with an assortment of crazy patterns and yet, it looks like a perfectly constructed outfit. Hello, African fashion. Their hands, especially if they are farmers (which, in my village, most are) are caked with the brown soil of earth and show all the signs of aging. This usually contrasts greatly with their faces; some of the oldest mamas don’t look all that old; they have this vibrancy that shines outwardly for all to see. They look you in the eye when grabbing you to say hello and when they smile, you can just feel their spirit. Occasionally, a tooth (or several) will be missing, or the brownish-yellow sorghum will line their gums, but warmness undoubtedly engulfs you in their embrace. When I’m running and don’t usually stop for hugs (if I did, I would never be in shape) they hold both hands in the air as if praising God, and exclaim, “yes, mama!” That’s right. Mama. Like I said, LOVE THEM. 
  • I love the kids. This isn’t particularly Rwandan specific, but absolutely nothing beats seeing some of my favorite kiddos on the road. They’ll scream (seriously) “IMPANO!!!‘, run like it’s the last day on earth, and when they get close, I say, “yambi’ (Swahili for ‘hug’) and they fall right into you. Baracka, my neighbor and 3 year old bestie, specifically, is the cutest kid there ever was. I could right a book about how great he is and it still wouldn’t do justice for what he’s like and what it’s like being with him. He wears this old Cars shirt, talks at the speed of lightning (I understand abotu 6% of what he says), and smiles endlessly. I can’t believe how adorable he is: currently he’s in Kindergarten and learning some serious English vocabulary. This includes words like, fingers, table, milk, cow, and head. We practice. A lot. His parents joke that he’ll come to America with me. All I want to say is seriously, YES PLEASE.
  • I love ichai and plantains. I drink at least 2 cups a day. And, among my group of education volunteers, I was awarded the following superlative: Most likely to win an igitoche (plantain) eating contest. Enough said. 
  • I love visiting people. Besides football, Rwanda’s favorite pastime is visiting family and friends. You can spend hours doing this, it’s culturally so beautiful: it’s putting the people you love first in your life. You go and you just sit and talk. Expect food. Maybe cards. But if you don’t do it, you certainly aren’t Rwandan. It transcends all boundaries of class: the rich powers that be in Kigali do it, and the rural farmer, barely scarping buy, do it as well. Wear your nicest clothes; you’ll be in public so you best look nice. How far this is from the world of facebook, Iphones, and twitter. I love all that stuff, and you can ask anyone, I love being connected. But, when you strip all of that stuff away, I’ve found myself more connected than I have ever been before. When you take all of that away, you simply have people. Rwandans practice that. Religiously. And so, I love spending 5 hours on a Saturday afternoon, walking the road, visiting my community. And to boot, when you leave the house you visited, they accompany you back out to the road, sometimes all the way back to your house. Now that’s hospitality. 
  • I love church on Sundays. Granted, I don’t like the often 5 hour services. That’s just…a really long time. But, the dancing and expressions of love completely make up for it. With the rhythmic sound of the drum (or the new keyboard like my church!) both men and women move their hands, arms, backs, legs, and feet in a cohesive movement. They dance with their whole bodies. The dust of the floor rises. The small holes in the battered tin roof shine light on them and for a moment, it’s like God is looking down at us. It’s unbelievably moving. On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself choked up watching this all unfold before my eyes. This is what praising God looks like. I’ve imitated the traditional dance with my students in class (after obnoxiously trying to teach the ‘macarena’ without music…FAIL) and they just laughed. I was terrible at African Dance in Ghana (yes, I’m still bitter about BARELY passing after essentially failing my final) and apparently the same is true in Rwanda. Still, I love it all the same. 

It’s uplifting to gather and reflect on what makes this place beautiful. Smith writes, 

“this is what Africa could say to the world: it could remind us what it is to be human.”

Rwanda is far, far from perfect. And yet, in a week where I talked about relationships, gay marriage, and sex in some of my classes, ran for 90 minutes straight into parts of Rwanda where a white person has never before been seen, shared tea with my neighborhood kids, helped prepare beans in a mud shack along the road in my village, and hugged a record number of ‘mamas’, I mean it when I say I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. 

dig deep

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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.”

Jeannine: “15.”

Heather: “Okay, no. Between 1-10. 1…2…3…4…”

Jeannine: (translates to Solange in Kinyarwanda) “1.”

Solange: “10.”

Heather: “You sure? You can choose any number between 1-10. 1…2…3…maybe even 8, for example.”

Jeannine: “8.”

Solange: “5.”

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?

Inspirational quotes?

Photos?

Water, maybe?

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.

 **SPORTS UPDATE**:

 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,

Tuyisenge!

Syliva!

Oliva!

Nyirasenga!

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.

 

1 year later

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

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

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

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

Graduation Day 2011.

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

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

Fall 2007.

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

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

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

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

August 2010.

It was time to return.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.