Monthly Archives: September 2012

oh sweet mary

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Sow your seed in the morning

And at evening let not your hands be idle,

For you do not know which will succeed,

Whether this or that,

Or whether both will do equally well.

Ecclesiastes 11:6

 I don’t know how to pray the saints, use a rosary, or follow the procedure for kneeling and praying during worship (years ago, I once nearly fell over myself trying to kneel appropriately at a Catholic funeral), but I sure do love praying on Sundays in the Rwandan Catholic Church.

Admittedly, the appeal could initially lie in the fact that the service is half as long as the sometimes 4, 5, or 6 hour Protestant service I often attend. However, I also find the Catholic service far more soothing, peaceful, and beautiful. ADEPR (that’s French for some Protestant acronym) is fun, loud, and dusty (from all the jumping and dancing around) and on some days it is utterly wonderful to be a part of. But I feel more in-tune with God when I worship at our sectors only (but very sizable and denoted by the many red bricks and blue paint) Catholic Church. I feel more comfortable, and though this was rather unexpected for me, I’ll take what I can get.

 On a simultaneously serious and light-hearted note: the Catholics also know how to party. Seriously. On New Year’s, I visited Suzi at her home (which is a convent complete with a sizable amount of nuns) and not only was I presented with a plate full of deliciously prepared food, there was ample amounts of beer and wine available. What? Oh, and not to be outdone, I recently went to a Catholic “wedding” for the mother of one my students. Wedding may be a tricky term as it was a ceremony celebrating the woman’s commitment to her new and lifelong husband: God. That’s right, she had a wedding to marry God. I’m not being tongue-in-cheek here; she couldn’t become a nun because she has already birthed like 4 children, and so she did the next best thing and became some kind of special sister in the church. Something like that. Anyway, I went to this wedding and there was not a dull moment. Dancing, drinking, eating. Repeat. I spent the night at the family’s home way out East in Rwanda, and slept very little. I eventually caved in to partaking in some classic fermented banana drink (that would be banana beer, my friends) to in some bizarre way prove myself to the skeptical and judgmental men, and well, I had a lot. The bus ride the next day was not fun. At all.

 Anyway, I digress.

 This does in no way instate a Catholic conversion; oh good gracious, no! I’m not Catholic. But, I do happen to believe that in some mysterious, un-knowing way (understanding God is far beyond any of our capacities) we are all worshipping, honoring, and loving the same God on Sunday and it’s best to go where you find Him most strongly.

 Most days, I don’t try too hard to translate the Kinyarwanda services in my head at church (and that assumes that I’m even adept enough in the language to do so). It’s just too much of a headache. I let my time at church be more free flowing than that. If I understand, fantastic. But, like soil adrift in the air from a cool breeze, I let the prayers, thoughts, and questions come and go with little restraint. I confess: sometimes, I day dream. If you are at church for 5 hours, well, I find this somehow inevitable. Because remember, you are sitting there, on a hard bench (your butt will go numb), for this long period of time, listening to a language that even after a year, you still can’t understand when spoken that quickly. Believe me, your mind wanders. But on the days that I feel connected with God, church feels really really good. Today was one of those days.

 It sure came at an important time; lately with all of my questions, doubts, and fears about the intentions behind my relationships in my community, I have felt my heart harden. My patience, like an old candle wick, has worn thin. The genuine kindness that is central to who I try to be has been difficult to maintain. I need God.

 I prayed on and off, eyes open and closed today. I sat between two old Rwandan women and repeatedly asked God to sustain my heart, yes, but to help all of our people find healing. Because that’s the power of God: if He helps you, certainly I’m helped too. We’re that connected.

 Remember that people in this rural community are pieces and parts of You, I prayed.

Please help me love.

To love can be hard, but with God it becomes easier. And it’s also the most important thing we can do in our lives. So I’m always asking God to help me do this. Especially here, at this season of my life. Like I said, things have been hard lately. I have a more difficult time letting things go, and I’m worn from always having sets of eyes on me for every move I make. I know I chose this life; trust me, I love this life. It fits me and it works. I’m happy with it. But there are fragments that are so hard to describe, and because of that, it’s those very fragments that chip slowly away at my heart, bringing me down and down and down. Next thing you know, you are yelling at someone in your community and you don’t even know why. You can find yourself crying when you come home, because you have nowhere else to go. And you feel isolated, a warrior on your own, because you can’t really explain this to anyone. Not anybody in the village, and really, not anyone at home. This is just something you and God have to work through. And so you pray.

 My favorite part of church is the ending number.

The tithing for the church and the community is finished (collections are placed in the traditional ‘Agaseke’ woven basket) and all able rise and stand on their feet. This serene song plays. I’m not sure what it means (I repeat: my Kinyarwanda is still limited), but as the chorus kicks in, most women lift their hands and spread like a bird, they move their arms and bodies, giving all they have to God. This is a poor and inept description of something far more moving and beautiful to see in person. It’s just like watching people hand over doubts and fears, receiving peace and hope in exchange. It’s inspiring. Because often, in the world of Christianity and religion and God, we think we need instruments, audience numbers, and recent converts to equate fully to a relationship with God. That isn’t it and that isn’t enough. When I see and experience this, I feel hope. Hope in my village, for myself, and for the world. It sounds cheesy, I know that, but I suppose this is the mystery of God, isn’t it? Those really intangibly amazing moments are just so hard to put into words. But it’s at the end of the service, with those women dancing, that I am able to reaffirm all of my dreams and desires with God, ready to go back outside and do the best I can, because that’s all He really ever asks of us.

 Lifting your hands, giving thanks, and releasing the grit of fear, anxiety, and pain is where God meets man. It’s where God meets us. I love watching that. I love being a part of that. I love doing that. Who cares that it happens in a Catholic Church? A Protestant Church? Or hey, even outside in my very own backyard? What difference does it really make? To Him, none at all.

 Letting go and finding those moments of release refreshes my faith and reminds me that you’re never alone in life. Sometimes you just have to let love in, let God find you, and let your heart be open. Easier said than done, of course, but when you are a part of a community of believers sharing their hearts in the best ways they know how, well, it sure is easier.  

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Aside

A few weeks ago, Meredith and I were walking around town in Kigali, most likely searching for our go-to products (oatmeal, cheese, or spices), or maybe even more likely, headed to Bourbon Coffee to scope out the ever hot commodity of internet (and duh, a white chocolate mocha or café late depending on my particular mood of the day). We passed a highly reflective blue wall on the scaffold of some building in town and for the slightest few seconds, I glanced at my image, flipped my hair, and smiled.

Meredith saw the entire thing.

Busted. We laughed and kept moving.

A slight moment of vanity? Completely forgivable. After all, I maybe look at myself in a mirror once every few days or so. Not to mention my mirror (the only one I own here) is a small rectangle, maybe the size of an Iphone. This is quite divergent from the opportunity to see your reflection back home; mirrors litter my house, the stores I visit, and essentially any sort of establishment I frequent. I’ve welcomed this change. While it makes maintaining things like my eyebrows difficult, I am also released from really giving a damn about my appearance.

That didn’t come out right.

As a teacher and the only white girl living in my community, I do want to look culturally appropriate and nice. Especially since wambaye neza (‘you are dressed smart’) is a highly valued comment in this culture. But I’m not reliant on mirrors for satisfaction in my image, and believe me, there’s a difference. That’s what cameras are for, right?

No, really, I’m not saying all of this as a way to promote some sort of new self-righteousness separation from vanity that I’ve discovered in the last year. Oh no, that’s not really my point at all. The thing is, with a significant decrease in dependence upon mirrors, I find myself separated from the exterior of myself sometimes. I sometimes forget I’m a white girl. Is that weird?

Believe me, as quickly as I forget, I’m reminded once again. A child—sometimes even a full-grown educated man—shouts umuzungu (the name typically used for white or rich person). Someone touches my skin, obviously wondering if I’m another species. A woman gropes my hair in profound wonderment—oh my god, they say in Kinyarwanda (Imana wanjye). And yes, this happens every single day. I’ve lived in the same place for over 9 months, and still being white is mind-blowing for many people I live among.

As I forget my whiteness though, I sometimes forget what comes with being a white girl in rural Rwanda. Because I’m white, people often safely assume the following:

  1. I’m rich. Very very rich.
  2. I provide sponsorships. Often and regularly.
  3. I’m better than everyone else.
  4. I know Barack Obama. If they ever did cross another white person in their life, well, then I probably know them too.
  5. I can distribute all of my own possessions—these of course, are replaceable.
  6. I speak only English.
  7. I’m like every other white person in the world.
  8. I can’t possibly cook (or do anything else for that matter) for myself.

Just writing that—making it real—I feel a tinge of anger, frustration, and hurt seethe through my body. I never imagined being white would be this challenging. Because here’s the problem:

I’m a year in.

I’m very solidly integrated into my community. I can speak enough Kinyarwanda (at least enough to get by). Apparently, you can be happy here. I’m doing it. I have relationships that have started to feel very meaningful.

So, what gives?

Well, I’m invited to countless weddings. I’m IN weddings. I’m begged to come to all sorts of church services, family gatherings, parties, you name it. I’m repeatedly requested to visit as per Rwandan culture. I’m asked to give and donate money. I’m a point person for some people who have a problem. I’m asked to take photos. I’m asked to develop photos, spending my own money. And of course, I get the blatant ‘give me money’ every so often.

But even all of that, that’s not what has got me so twisted.

What if it’s the other stuff—the relationship stuff—that doesn’t add up?

What if I am simply a means to get to an end point? You know, make friends with the rich, white girl, and hey, maybe she can hook you up?

What if those people who I love, still see me as WHITE? Not as me, be it Heather or Impano, but the white girl, the umuzungu?

 It’s dangerous territory, I’m finding, to question everything in light of who I am and how this affects the people around me. I am learning that you can never be 100% sure of another person’s intentions. We don’t exist in the heads of other people, and for good reason. You can’t guarantee people do what they do for the right reasons. It’s a tough, heavy realization—one that I’ve never had to struggle with (at least not to this degree). My best, strongest relationships in life continue with an equilibrium of trust. Relationships take two people, and it’s give and take, not because you expect that, but because your motivation is love and you believe the same is true for the other person. If you really think about it, every single relationship you have in your life—be it God, your best friend, your parents, your co-workers, whatever—it’s built on trust. Everyone says that, and it’s obvious, but when really put to the test, working through the muck is extraordinarily difficult. Painful, even. Imagine questioning every good relationship you have in reach. That’s what I’m working through now and it’s not really something I anticipated to question with close community members. I’ve found myself almost paranoid, wondering if my students—especially the ones I’m really close with—love me because of what I potentially bring to the table (money, status, connections) and not because of the times we have shared together. To think too much about that, well, it kind of breaks my heart. Like I said, it’s dangerous territory.

My concerns and worries, I feel, are absolutely justified and understandable. I have to take a step back and take stock of what is happening here because this entire experience is important to process. Yet, Suzi told me something pretty powerful the other night over our nightly phone conversation as I spilled and spewed out these reservations of where I stand relationally in my small village: here, there may always be this question. It won’t go away. You have to learn to cope, to coexist, and maybe best of all, to be free of the worry that you can suffocate from if you think about it too much. I know full well I have to move forward. I know I have to trust my relationships here despite what being white may mean. Because while doubt can act as a necessary compass, to live in doubt permanently, to let doubt consume and taint everything I do—where does this take me? Nowhere.

This will be extraordinarily hard—maybe even harder than making and building these relationships in the first place. But, I have no choice.

A dear friend recently wrote me in a letter saying,

I just flipped through some of your pictures.

You look happy, almost like something in you has healed.

I hope you are as fulfilled and joyous as you seem.

Goosebumps hit all over my arms when I read these words late one Tuesday night before I headed off to take my nightly warm bucket bath. She’s right. 100% right.

As difficult as all of this can be, both the challenges and beautiful easy parts place me in a prime position to grow as a woman. I have issues, questions, and as you can see, doubts, like everyone else, but one thing I’ve learned in the last year is how to recognize a difficulty as an opportunity. I’ve always embraced the power of positivity, but believe me, in a year of village life, even I’ve been stretched to new limits and abilities to embrace times of struggle. That’s healing, my friends. And moreover, I’ve realized that integral to this kind of healing has always been my ability to love and trust. Sometimes, you get screwed over. But most of the time, I think, when you believe in the people around you and trust that they are with you for a reason, you reap a much greater deal of happiness, contentment, and joy in life. I’m not saying being naïve is the answer; rather, taking the leap and continuing to trust in the motivations and intentions of other people will bring you a greater peace of mind than questioning absolutely everything.

And so in the spirit of living but working through doubts, I have every intention to do that with this whole issue of being white. Because these years of teaching, living, and breathing Rwanda does count for something; God put me here for a reason. This isn’t arbitrary. I know I’m more than a random white girl in the village. I know this, because I believe in my friends here. I just do. Slowly, I’m revealing pieces of me to them and, that matters. Every day, I will have to rededicate and recommit myself to this. And the most fulfilling part is that I know I can.

Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.

-Maya Angelou

‘all the world is made of faith, trust, and pixie dust’

you will always get back home

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One Year in Rwanda

MILES RAN (APPROXIMATE): 426

PACKAGES RECEIVED: 32

PHOTOS TAKEN: 1346

MICE KILLED: 8

BLOGS POSTED: 43

DAYS I HADA KITTEN: 3

BOOKS READ: 43

STUDENTS VISITED: 42

UMUGANDAS (COMMUNITY SERVICE DAYS): 4

STUDENTS TAUGHT: 346

HOST FAMILY VISITS: 2

SEASONS OF FRIENDS WATCHED: 10

CUPS OF COFFEE CONSUMED: UNMEASURABLE (but at least 2 per day)

HOURS TALKED ON PHONE: 54

PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS VISITED: 5

PEACE CORPS VISITORS AT MY HOME: 4

HOURS TAUGHT IN CLASS: 399

MATCHES COACHED: 4

DAYS WITH ELECTRICITY ACCESS: 18

Where this bout of homesickness is coming from, I’m not really sure. The one year mark of my service in Rwanda is vastly approaching and so maybe I’m much more attune to what I’ve live with—and what I’ve lived without—for a significant amount of time. These pangs of longing, to my surprise, don’t come around as often as I would have thought. I really think that is because I really am exactly where I should be: I love my life. I have no regrets, no “what ifs”, and I’m genuinely content with what I’m doing here. Lauren reminded me the other day, you’re following your dreams, just like everyone else. It’s a good little reminder.

Yet, when I can feel my heart hurt and my mind drifts to the familiar and comfortable, it comes in intense waves. And, I’m for once not talking about cheese, Chipolte, or the endless array of coffee choices. Heartache, for me, has everything to do with the people in my life. And my mind gives the constant reminder: enjoy the people you have here. The family and friends back home will be right there when you get back. They love you; they’re not going anywhere The mind, in this case, is 100% right. But mind over matter certainly isn’t prevailing; I (probably stupidly) sifted through my photo albums this morning and worked my way in and out of old memories.

I’m missing out on the lives of people I care about the most. Weddings, graduations, babies, travels, heartaches, celebrations, struggles…but maybe what I miss even more is the daily, normal kind of stuff. What I would give for a family dinner, the chance to text my friends the inevitable awkward encounters from my day, or the ability just to call and check in with my parents and say hello. My dad is famous for calling me at least 3 times a day just because, and guess what? I miss that. I took these things for granted, and I am seeing now that often, it’s the daily, un-exciting, normal stuff that builds trust, comfort, and reliance in relationships. I don’t doubt that in a bit over a year I’ll come home and have all of this waiting. Again, I know that. So, in the meantime, how do I feel these pangs of longing—to be with the people who know me best?

Because here’s what is crazy—when I come home someday I’ll have these very same desires and heartaches for the people I have in Rwanda. I’ll want this back. Life is weird like that.

Oprah said once that “you can have it all—just not all at once”. Dad wrote in a recent letter, “enjoy your time in Rwanda, it will go quicker than you think.”

So, I held tightly to the photos of Lance, my family, my friends from all walks of life, but I also set them down so I could look at the newly printed photos of my students—this particular set from our recent GLOW camp. Photos are powerful stuff—that’s why I love them. They remind us of where and what we’ve been. They show us the people who mattered and they take us back to meaningful, fun, crazy, and memorable times shared. They also point to what we have now—our present reality—and where this can take us.

Suddenly, holding images of my girls here, my heart is stirred. I can’t imagine leaving this place. I can’t imagine not being here. I literally, for the first time, can’t imagine my heart, my life, my mind if I hadn’t somehow found myself exactly in this place at this season in my life. Homesickness doesn’t often disappear just because you decide you can handle it. It lingers, stuck in the corners of your mind and heart, rearing itself usually on not so great days. Still, those tears of sadness became dried and my face was replaced with smiles (sometimes life in Peace Corps really does make you feel bipolar) because God gives exactly what you need when you need it. I need those girls—all of my students, as much as they need me. I need this experience. Nothing can replace the love and life I have at home, but I suppose nothing can replace this either. Going to America would not suffice. I’m living a life—for just about a year now—without the strongholds that I had in my life up to this point. But, new strongholds are built, we do the best we can, and I’m making it. I can do this.

I’m teaching this motto of believing in yourself to my students, so I may as well take my own advice. I carry the people here and home with me, holding all of the strength inside, gearing up for another year of plantains, dusty chalkboards, long walks in the village, grass stains from football, and the hope that somewhere along the way I’m making a difference and helping somebody.

 Truth be told, I’ve been helped, loved, and changed far more than I could have even dreamed.

TOP 10 HIGHLIGHTS

Peace Corps: Year One

(I’m absolutely taking a cue from Sports Center here)

 *WILDCARD: NIGHT IN BELGIUM: After a jam-packed briefing in Philadelphia with my original Peace Corps group (called Education 3—the third education group to come to Rwanda), a bus ride to New York, and a flight to Europe, we missed our Kigali connection. This meant we had a free day and night in Brussels. We lucked out with a swanky hotel (courtesy of our airline) and vouchers for food (namely waffles and beer). Anxiety and goodbyes and anticipation had built up in my mind for weeks and so it was nice to have an escape; a time to relax  with my new colleagues and friends before the Peace Corps journey really got started.

 *10: SWEAR-IN: On a muggy December day, after a grueling 3-month training loaded with Kinyarwanda, cultural faux pas, and too much Rwandan food, we became official volunteers, graduating from being trainees. A dream finally becomes a reality for a lot of us. Myself included—after an application process that took over a year, I couldn’t believe the moment had finally come.

 *9: HENDRIX PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLARSHIP INTERVIEWS: I spent about 5 days helping Hendrix interview potential Rwandan students (the best in the country). I got much needed R &R (good and free food and skype dates with my friends and a nice stay in a Kigali hotel complete with a duvet set and cable television) but also had the opportunity to see the potential and opportunity for Rwandan youth—a powerful experience. Not to mention, I was able to connect with my beloved alma mater, a place and experience that is a huge part of me being in Rwanda in the first place.

 *8: CHOIR PARTY AT YVONNE’S HOUSE: Yvonne (who I call ‘Ingaby’ because her last name is ‘Ingabire’ which means ‘gift’) and her mother invited me to a house party for their church’s’ choir. I was there for nearly 7 hours—playing cards, eating, praying, taking photos, and watching the choir do their thing and dancing up a storm amidst the dry dust rising in the sky from their moving feet. Yvonne is a student of mine, but when I’m with her and her mom, Solange, it’s like I’m a part of the family. Yvonne and I are really close; and we’ve been that way since I became a teacher here. Not only was watching their choir amazing (think GLEE, Rwanda style), it was just so comforting to feel that at home. It reminded me of a late-summer BBQ, with easy conversation, and good laughs. Sometimes, it really is the simple things in life.

 *7: GOING AWAY PARTY WITH MY HOST FAMILY: My host family—Emmanuel, Bernadette, Grace, Simon Pierre, and Dani—are one of the best Rwandan families I’ve met. Saying goodbye after three months of them putting up with this crazy girl (me) was heart-breaking but the party they arranged for me was sweet, sentimental, and heartfelt. We shared Fanta, my mom’s special cooking, and gifts. We reminisced about the great (and the awkward) moments (latrine trouble, knowing ZERO Kinyarwanda in the beginning, etc.) and promised to always be together, no matter what. 

 *6: RUGBY WITH JON: My friend Jon—who works with street children in Kigali (he is a volunteer from his church in England, not a Peace Corps Volunteer)—came to visit my village last week and brought a rugby ball along with him to our girls and community football practice. He showed them how to kick and pass, and I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard (literally falling down from doing so) for quite some time. The girls embraced the new sport; showing off their attempts at stealthy moves with Harlem Globetrotter-esque fake-outs and tackles. It really should have been taped because without a doubt, it would have gone viral and the whole world could have seen one of the most hilarious sports attempts ever.

 *5: KIBUYE: From what I’ve seen in Rwanda—and I’ve been to all provinces here—this part is the most beautiful. I visited Kibuye for the first time in April with Sara and Saara (who lives nearby) and between cooking macaroni and cheese (a staple in my diet), sipping coffee lakeside, and eating pizza as a rainstorm came in over and through the mountains, it was one of the most relaxing weekends I have had here.

 *4: GIRLS VOLLEYBALL WIN: In my first stint as a coach, I watched as our girls volleyball team beat the only other secondary school in our sector in the last point of the game. Maybe it was all the more dramatic with the mud and rain drenched in the nooks and crannies of our legs, arms, and hair, but it made for one hell of a victory. Screaming…hugs…emotion…all the beauty of sports in one moment. I couldn’t have been prouder.

 *3: TANZANIA: African road trip, beach time, friends, and street food. It was a vacation greatly needed…and Tanzania absolutely lives up to all of the hype.

 *2: HOME VISITS: the cornerstone of my life at site, vising my community, especially my students, is the source of a great deal of understanding, conversation, laugher, integration, and food. It’s not always easy or fantastic, but the visits that go well often go really well, opening doors (really unique doors, I might add) for me to become a part of families and to show my students and their loved ones that I am 100% invested in them and my job here. I’ve seen countless amounts of photographs, consumed way too much Coke, and have walked a lot of miles on sometimes dry, sometimes muddy, dirt roads. Without any question, it’s totally worth it.

 *1: GLOW CAMP: I’ve written about this, talked about this, and I could go on for a long time about it too. But I’ll keep it simple: this was absolutely my #1 highlight in my first year in the Peace Corps because I was completely in my element, a witness to the strength of a lot of young women who can be Rwanda’s next generation of leaders, and in just the 4 or 5 days that we had camp, I could see how lives can be touched and changed. It really works. It’s the perfect example of why I wanted to do Peace Corps—and why I will continue to do Peace Corps for another year. It was…the absolute best. Suzi called me after her own GLOW camp and said it herself: it was great, and it was such a positive experience. She also told me that she had a moment, sitting there and taking it all in, and realized that of course, this would be something that Heather loves, this is her “homeship.” We had an affirmation wall at camp where everybody could write notes of encouragement to each other. I have a few up in my house to push and motivate me on my more difficult days. They read:

 Heather, you are so fun, and I love how you care for me, how you show us that you are with us. Thank you so much for your good heart. GLOW is the best and now I have the self-confidence. I believe in myself. –Christine

 Heather, I love you soooo much because you are energetic, kind, make a lot of fun, and you have a beautiful smile. I like you. You are so fabulous. –Flaviah

 And maybe best of all (this one always brings me the biggest smile and makes me laugh):

Oprah, hello. I am Olive. I like you. Thanks for GLOW. –Olive

(I think Olive was a little confused about who was Oprah and who was Heather…?)

 1 year down. 14 months to go.

I’m ready, open, persistent, grateful, strong, and happy.

I’m exactly where I want to be, despite all things difficult.

Let’s do this.