Humans have a funny way of becoming a product of their environment.
I’d support this claim in a variety of ways with sequential and supportive evidence, alas, I’m not exactly livin’ the 4G life here, I don’t have Google (or Wikipedia for that matter) as my best friend, nor do I have a plethora of academic databases lying around; so, I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or, go ahead and just listen to my friends—they’ll tell you—I am lately exuding very Rwandan-esque behaviors. You’re becoming so Rwandan they say. This is usually after I phrase something in Rwandan English such as,
“How do you see Rwanda?”, or,
“Even me, I love milk.”
And one more for kicks and giggles,
“Ah, yes. The day is okay.”
And that’s just what my friends see of me.
They don’t see that girl who does a special greeting-handshake-thing with her students (called the push), or when I’m playing football and laugh when somebody falls down (laughter is completely accepted when somebody is embarrassed or in pain), or even when I mumble yes-way (coming from the Kinyarwanda phrase, Yesu we, meaning, Oh my Jesus!) when something surprises me.
Moreover, I get comments about having spent too much time in the village when I glorify plantains (a regular part of my diet), talk about my consistent visiting habits, or greet each and every person we pass on the streets—even if we are in the city of Kigali (a city is a city, and greeting like you do in the village isn’t really the norm).
In my defense, I can chalk up a lot of these behaviors to me just being me (in Rwandan form, of course) and also, I have taken a strong liking to Rwandan culture. With any culture, there are parts that you quite literally cannot understand and there are even parts that you want nothing to do with. I have my share of that. Yet, when I leave my little village world for a short trip, get together, or meeting and always, without fail, am told that Heather is becoming more like Impano (my Kinyarwanda name…or is it alias?) every day, I’d say the culture is having a good effect on me. A strong one, at least.
Better yet, is that these days when I leave, I want to come back. ASAP. Homesick? For the village? Maybe it’s not just being products of our environments that matters (Lord knows, I tried my darndest—and still do—to be Southern when I was living in Arkansas)—it’s the process of becoming a part of something larger than yourself. Before you know it, you’re changing, your worldview is breaking down only to be rebuilt, and you can just add one more place to the growing list of where home is.
Yeah, home is a huge word to throw around. Like I taught my students in the first term, home isn’t quite just a place—it’s a heavy mix of structures, thickly laced with layers of memories, comfort, and most importantly, people. When I think of home in the broadest sense, I think of images, sounds, flashbacks, and a dozen other senses (memory is quite powerful, after all) involving Norfolk Street, mom, dad, family BBQs, my large and crazy family, Buddy’s feet pattering in the kitchen, throwing the football with Lance, mom (and dad’s!) enchiladas, coffee on the way to work or school, my Ghana blanket, expansive trees, jokes with friends, studying in the sun, watching Friends with friends, NFL on Sundays, Hendrix College, long walks at dusk, bike rides in the summer, American highways, reading on the porch, sleeping late in the best bed in the world, chatting loudly and freely on the phone with my friends, my favorite pair of sweatpants, and just sitting and talking with my friends…family…or really anyone who cares to listen. Home is powerful you see, and these things—these images—are just what comes to the top of my head when I reflect on what home is to me. It goes so so much deeper than even this.
And now, I’m coming to see Rwanda in its very own way is becoming home too. Peace Corps blog policy (believe it) prohibits me from disclosing the exact location of where I live—which is unfortunate, otherwise you could be like dad, who seems to always be searching for my green house on google maps and finding me via satellite. I think I see you! You’re in the forest, right? Love him. If you’re curious, by all means, ask him.
But, I live in a great place. It’s beautiful—I can’t find another word that suffices—and it’s rural, green, and lined with dirt roads (like most of Rwanda). In between batches of sunflowers (incidentally, one of my favorite kinds of flowers) and banana trees, you can find my house. I live in the sector center (the sector, a small part of the entire regional province, has 4 main cells, like large villages. Yes. I know. It’s confusing.) which includes our secondary school, one of 3 primary schools (this one hosts 2000+ screaming children…you better believe that I plan my runs around when their school day ends), the health center, the red-bricked and ominous Catholic Church, a sector office about a 45 minute walk down the main road, and a few clusters of boutiques where you can buy salt, batteries, sugar, banana beer (a special home-brew; moonshine ain’t got nothin’ on this horribly disgusting excuse for a beer), phone credit (the company I use, MTN, is one of the largest corporations in all of Africa), and candy, to name a few.
With most of my community members working as farmers, you’ll see vast fields of banana trees, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, coffee, corn, sorghum, cassava, and rice. Having developed the consistent and strong habits of visiting my students and going on runs, I‘ve seen nearly my entire sector. It’s funny because while I do know the roads well, I often learn a secret shortcut, back way, or new path every day because that’s the nature of living amidst hills and the countryside—there is always a new way to go.
I can walk comfortably to most places. I mean that quite literally. If I want to wear my comfy sports get-up, I do. I’ve become adjusted enough that I don’t feel like I have to be on my best behavior and dress immaculately on every outing—it’s just me greeting the neighbors or stopping in for a quick Coke on a dry, hot day. That’s surely a strike in the whole me-becoming-Rwandan-endeavor, but it’s certainly what I prefer. I even veered from my discourse in wearing long black capris on runs to wearing the orange mesh field hockey shorts I brought with me. I wore them to our girls’ practice the other day, and ohlala. The girls went crazy. In a good way. They kept telling me how smart I am (that means you dress nicely) and I was happy to break the mold a bit…and get my pasty white legs some fresh Rwandan sun, for goodness sake!
I think the biggest sign that this once uncertain place has wagered a serious move to become home has everything to do with knowing the people. Like I said in the first place, that’s the biggest part of a place or time in your life feeling like home.
It’s a beautiful thing, I tell you, to run or walk 30 minutes away, see the mothers and fathers of my students, to call them by name, and greet them like it’s just another day. That provides such a sense of belonging and to hear them say things like our teacher, she loves people, she knows Kinyarwanda, she loves to laugh, and she is loved by all…what else could you really ask of a place thousands of miles from the home that I came from, a place I knew nobody 7 months ago, and a place embedded with a complex and hard to understand (and hard to break through) culture?
Granted, it’s not all ice cream and sprinkles; of course people still say umuzungu, make inappropriate comments, gawk and stare at me like I’m the newest zoo animal, and mock me just for the hell of it. I don’t preach perfection; this community (like anywhere in the world) has good people, bad people, positive signs of development, negative and intense issues, and that’s just from what I can actually understand. But instances of negativity are growing less and less, and the good comments, the man, I really feel at home because you said that comments are increasing and becoming more regular each time I step outside in the world of my little community.
I’m happy here. Not all the time, but that really is okay. Genuinely, truly, completely. For the first time in my life, really, for a consistent amount of time, I have been okay on my bad days. I realize that they come with the territory, and that life really isn’t life without a bit of everything. We’re human, after all. I’m happy when it matters; when moments come and it’s just so clear that this is exactly where I need to be. I call these home moments.
Here’s a few:
- Sitting on the school grounds with my students laughing…talking…doing nothing at all…even letting them play with my now long blonde hair…
- Watching the Senior 2A girls beat the Senior 3B girls for the girls’ inter-class football championship. I was sitting with my student and friend, Zahara, among other girls, and we were glued to what was happening on the field. After a 1-1 draw, the girls lined up for penalty kicks. With an edge of 1, the Senior 2A girls came away as the victors. We cheered loudly and proudly while also consoling the older girls who had every advantage to win (they are a stacked team, you might say). I will never forget the moment that I looked over at the S2A girls, hugging each other in a large circle, screaming at the top of their lungs. That’s what sports is all about—for a moment nothing else mattered. And I was both in that moment, and outside that moment, realizing that I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of that myself. Anyway, just being there, able to witness such a moving thing reminded me of the ties I have here now; I’m a supporter, a fan, if you will, and it’s amazing to have such great students to cheer for.
- Telling the 5 girls from our school that they were accepted into GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp this July and August. About 30 girls from our school applied, and the 5 that were selected—Yvonne, Joselyne, Joyce, Divine, and Maisara—are some of the best students at our entire school. I gathered them in our staff room and presented them with a homemade card made by yours truly, that said “you are a superstar! …congratulations! You will be attending GLOW Camp 2012!” They fist-pumped and high-fived each other. And, when I started to explain more details about the camp, and the importance of their selection, I saw tears in their eyes. This is huge for them. I knew it would be…but to be in that moment, to realize exactly what this camp could do for them…I too was overwhelmed with emotion. The next week, I had them over for coffee and bananas to go through the details of getting there, and I just know this is going to be a highlight of my time in Rwanda. Not to mention, provides a great deal of purpose and sense of community with the girls that are going. Yes, indeed, a home moment in every sense that it could be.
- Playing football. With my students. With the community women’s team that I just joined (I’ve had a couple good practices, scoring a few goals! holla.) As always, it just feels like I’m in my element and culturally, I’m dabbling in a sacred part of Rwandan life. It’s a match made in heaven. Ha. No pun intended.
- Going on walks with one of my good friends, 3 year old Olive. Frequently, I’ll visit her house, check in with her mom, and we’ll hold hands, walk to the next village over, and turn back around. We don’t talk that much (what can you really talk about with a toddler?) but we giggle, and have fun, which is what matters.
- Riding the moto on my 20 minute ride back from the main road into my village. It’s just so nice to have that feeling of, yes! I’m coming home! And the rolling hills peppered with an open sky certainly does not hurt the eyes as I whizz on by rural villages stacked together.
- Reading books, magazines, and newspapers in bed on Saturday morning, staying intertwined in my Coca-Cola themed sheets till gasp! 10 am. Nothing like catching up on the news (even if it’s 2 months behind) in bed with a good cup of coffee.
- Holding hands with my Rwandan friends. Holding hands is another cultural point of importance, and I’ve totally embraced it. It’s nice to feel physically close with someone and feel comfortable expressing that, and this not meaning anything else other than close friendship.
- Really really good home visits. They are all generally pretty good, but some are just absolutely wonderful, where you have a strong connection with families, and can build on the relationship you already have with the student. It makes you feel at home because suddenly you have a whole group of people wanting to love on you, make you feel welcome, and showing you the ropes of their home. It’s an honor, really, and most of these families, I don’t think even realize what their hospitality means to me. That’s what hospitality is all about: making you feel at home. Which is why really really good home visits are impacting how I see and feel about my place in this community. The best is returning, coming back again for another home visit, and having a repertoire and relationship already established. I have a couple families like that, and it’s just nice to know I have a place to go.
Sometimes, these self-dubbed “home moments” are small. Sometimes, they’re big. The big ones typically involve my students. As this place grows as a home for me, my students are undeniably a major part of this. This term has just opened up a whole new dynamic with my students and I…well, I love it.
And, it’s actually just so hard to explain.
There’s a lot of love in the world, but loving your students is so different. I’m vested in them; they’re vested in me. And for the ones I’m particularly close with, there is a shared sense of admiration, connection, and ease. I’m navigating how to be a teacher, friend, mentor, mother, and supporter, all in one relationship. It’s a lot. It’s weird. I can think of a handful of students where it’s just so natural to be with them and their company alone is incredibly uplifting. My heart flutters when they succeed. And when the face challenges I, even at 23, will never understand, my heart breaks. I want to fight for them. I want them to know that I am on their side. Yes, I am always, always, on your side, I think to myself.
When your heart is out there—for the good and the bad—and you are vulnerable like that, I think you can be sure that you are giving the place and people you are with at any stage in your life a fair-shot to become your new reality of home.
I can only hope that in doing so, I’m offering something to my friends, to my students, and to my community. What exactly I’m giving, I don’t really know. Because you can line this Peace Corps service with projects, aid ideas, and development, but like I’ve believed all along, the mark you leave behind is far more deeper than that (and far more important, maybe). They are giving me a home. I suppose in my heart of hearts, my hope is that throughout this process I am showing my community ways to believe in the people they are, that really, we are all just people, and that though the world is markedly unfair with profound inequalities (that’s entirely another blog), we are all living out a piece of what God wishes to see in the world and in humanity.
It’s a lofty ambition. But I came here, for the first time, completely freaked out. I never imagined I would feel the way I do—about the place, but more so, about the people. And so, lofty ambitions can be achieved. A village can become a home. And we can change the world. You just have to start small, and go from there.