Monthly Archives: October 2012

the dark days are over


I feel like I’m living like a king.

I’ve changed my cooking methods, for one. For the past 10 months I’ve relied on the black sooty chunks of charcoal to generate enough heat to power my meals, coffee, and water for bathing my often dusty body. When the charcoal bag reached ends meet, I contemplated purchasing another 10-ish dollar rice sack of amacara (that’s charcoal in Kinyarwanda). Yet, I put that thought on the back burner when I stumbled (quite literally) over this old dinky pea green petrol stove I bought before moving from the Peace Corps training site to my home. Let’s give this petrol stove a trial run, I thought.


I can cook water in 10 minutes (not 45) and I can come home and get right into cooking—not prepping my source of heat for an obscene amount of time (though, my charcoal lighting skills have gotten quite advanced, I would say). Oh and speaking of power. I GOT IT! And, I don’t mean the self-encouraging, confident, believe in yourself type. I HAVE ELECTRICITY.

I was gone from site for several days due to taking part in Peace Corps training (teaching new trainees how to teach listening and speaking in the classroom) and visiting Suzi and so I was rather consumed with things outside of my home and outside of my site. However, I got a call one morning from our school accountant and my friend Emi, who told me that they would be breaking into my house to install electricity. Seriously? Did I hear that correctly? And truth be told, I didn’t really believe it—that is until I saw it. Concrete crumbles were scattered in all of the nooks and crannies of my wall corners, workers were meticulously connecting things together in every room, and red and black wires began to intertwine with my beige bamboo ceiling. Oh the sweet wires. When I saw those babies I knew this was the real deal. When it was time to flip the white switch in my front room, I saw the bulb light every where I could see and I gleefully absorbed all of what this meant. I can cook at night  enjoyably (without knocking over pots, pans, and spices due to the lack of light); I can actually see my floors (maybe assess whether they are actually clean); I don’t have to have a strategic game plan every single time I want to charge my electronics; I can grade papers (I have 381 students so you do the math) without hurting my eyes more than they will already hurt; and I can watch a tv show. Or two. Or three. My life will change, and hey, I’m cool with that.

I’m proud of myself—I did the no electricity thing for over a year. And you can make it. It’s possible. Most people in my village do it just fine. But, it’s hard. And I don’t think I’m some unsung hero or anything; I just remember thinking how scary/crazy it was when back in the ‘burbs the power would leave for like 23 minutes and Lance and I would grab blankets, security devices, and extra snacks for the duration without electricity. And this would be midday, mind you. I just have some added perspective, that’s all. And so you can bet that with each hour of light and power, I’ll be oh so grateful.

Another great thing about all of this is timing. Suzi had been planning a trip out East to visit me for several weeks and so as I went through all of these positive adjustments, Suzi was right there with me. Our journey to my house was full of rain, leaky bus roofs, and small cramped bus rides, but we made it. Even with added miscommunications with the bus people and the always present beast in the room: KINYARWANDA.

Suzi got to meet some of my students (and see some of them do their choreography to ‘Baby’ by the Biebs), talk with my headmaster, and see the rain damage to our school all within an hour in my village. It was just the beginning: Suzi’s visit was full of wine (thanks to Jon—an Australian merlot straight from England, HOLLER), magazines, macaroni and cheese, salad, coffee, ‘Abana daycare’ (Abana means children)—this involved Suzi and I hanging out with 14ish neighborhood kids playing Frisbee, bubbles, serving porridge, duck-duck-goose (changed to ihene-ihene-inka for cultural purposes—ihene means goat and inka means cow), and lots of photographs—, visiting my dear friend Jacqueline, watching 30 Rock, and lots of laughter, catching up, and relaxing in between.

There are some photos and there are these words but I guess I just forgot how wonderful, reaffirming, and joyous it is to share life with others. I do mean life in the most general sense: whether you’re sharing your family, showing the place you grew up, or cooking a special meal for another person, it’s just a really neat thing to open your life up a bit. I don’t know of a more heartwarming feeling than standing by and watching someone love what you love, to find the same joy in something you really care for, and to understand and have a context for a life you take a lot of pride in. And the best part is, for me, is that Suzi gets it. She exclaimed ‘your site is awesome!’ and how adorable my students are numerous times and I just wanted to jump up and down yelling, ‘YES! I KNOW, RIGHT?!’

The same sort of giddy contentment rushed through me when I visited the family last week while teaching the new group of Peace Corps education trainees. I had spoken with Taylor (the new trainee who lives with my host family, the third volunteer to do so, I was the first one) and I told her I was coming for a visit but I wanted it to be kept a secret as to surprise mama and papa. I was all but skipping down the familiar paths of my training days. I may be glad (beyond glad actually) to be done with training, but I always always enjoy seeing the people who took me in as their own, despite me being American, me being white, and me being just plain weird. When I turned the corner, I gulped down some adrenaline fueled energy, braced myself for the biggest hugs you could ever imagine from the neighborhood kids, and glanced up in time to see mama jumping up and down with her hands to her face in sheer surprise. I have been back three times now, and literally, each time it’s like coming home. It’s the closet thing I will have here; and really, it is actually that very experience, because in so many ways, that will always be a home for me.

It had been a long time—over 6 months—and so a visit was long overdue. As I downed 4 cups of milk tea, ate cassava bread with Taylor, and basked in all of the ruckus and excitement, I learned quickly how Taylor was equally happy with our host family. It’s a tough situation without a doubt, but we wholeheartedly agreed: we got SO blessed with Emmanuel and Bernadette and the kiddos as our host family in Rwanda (and the most beautiful part is that both mama and papa would tell you the same about the Peace Corps trainees that they have hosted, like I said, they are so precious). Taylor told me stories of her teaching ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’ to some of the girls, we exchanged mama superwoman stories (she’s superwoman if I’ve ever seen one) and how she literally can do anything, and of papa praying in the morning (followed by mama’s beautiful singing), and how they are just about the most welcoming people we have ever encountered. She was glowing and raving and spilling out with all of this positivity and again, I was reminded of how amazing it is to be able to relate to her in such a way and to share these very similar feelings and experiences. We’re sisters of sorts and we have a family with hearts of solid gold.

When you open parts of your life to people and you take a step back, you see things from a new perspective, as if you are seeing with fresh eyes. It’s renewal and the best part is you realize exactly what’s in front of you. These weeks have glided by effortlessly (even with my computer, phone, and French press all breaking in the same day about a week ago) and I’m realizing how much I have here.

When did that happen?

I’m seeing that even if my best village friends consist of a 3 year old, a 19 year old, and a 45 year old, it doesn’t really matter because the love that they have is quite real.

I’m finding that seeds grow.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 months in my village greeting, visiting, praying, visiting again, playing football, and going on aimless walks—and for what? To show my community that I’m here. To “integrate” as Peace Corps would say, which to me means sucking it up and putting yourself out there, even if you get laughed at. It means doing things that might make you uncomfortable (like 6 hour church services, a super long visit, or going on long trips) because you love someone and you want to show that to them. It means sharing yourself, hoping they’ll share in return. This process takes time. And Lord knows, it’s Rwanda, so it takes a VERY long time.

But it’s going. As we say here, slow by slow. Buhoro, buhoro.

As I’ve seen my life here with new lenses these last couple of weeks, I’m grateful, humbled, and happy with what I see.

It’s not my horn that I’m tooting—it’s my community’s. I live in a great place with really good people. Sure, it’s the village, with poverty and an entire slew of problems, but I’ve been more than welcomed and taken care of for nearly a year. I’ve been let in homes, in families, and in relationships. When I leave site for whatever reason, I can’t wait to come back. When I first got site, I remember checking frequently how many days remained in my service. Yes. My service. The whole whopping two years. I would check one day and it would read: 615. Soon, it would be under 600. One day it read 559. I can’t believe I did that. I haven’t done that in probably 7 or 8 months. I imagine what it will feel like to leave here and well….I can’t. I’ve planted the seeds, but it’s been my community, my students, my loved ones here that have tilled the soil, cultivating something far more beautiful than I really ever expected.

As I share this with visitors and friends, y’all will see that too and I think be equally moved.

It’s this kind of stuff that makes this world a better place.

sunset outside my house.


me, Josiane, Ange, and Joselyne outside my house having our photoshoot!

always jumping it seems. me and the kiddos.


Divine and Yazina; these girls are amazing. I kind of sort of LOVE them.


classic Baracka. CANNOT HANDLE THE CUTENESS (of him!)


I kunda you


I’ve got a new favorite phrase which if you know my speaking habits, well, I’m saying it a lot. Too much, probably. Reaching “hey girl” status would seem like an improbable feat, but it’s getting there. This new magical phrase?

I kunda you.

I imagine I don’t need to explain the ‘I’ or the ‘You’ but the ‘kunda’ comes from the Kinyarwanda verb ‘gukunda’, meaning to love.

I love you.

This little gem of a phrase comes from Ruramira’s own—the secondary school students. It says a lot about my kids’ English abilities; they sure are trying, but a combined mixture of Kinyarwanda and English is somehow the norm. One day, a few weeks back, I showed up for class, wrapped up our lesson on nutrition, and as I walked out with white chalk residue littered all over my clothes and hands, I heard a couple students shout quickly and loudly, “I kunda you teacher!” Grinning wide, I poked my head back in the brick-covered classroom and shouted back. “I kunda you, too!”

Now, on an average day, I hear and say these three words dozens and dozens of times. It’s kind of our thing, you know?

We’re kind of adorable.

Don’t get me wrong though, this job, this life, and the relationships I have with my students aren’t always full of flowers and butterflies.

This term (the last one of my first year) has been hard at times. I’ve walked out on classes. I left school in tears. I’ve given 0’s for cheating. I’ve kicked kids out. I even sent one to the dean of discipline, knowing that he would probably be beat (I definitely regret this decision). I’ve also given the following lecture at least a handful of times, in a variety of different forms:

Do you want to study? Why pay school fees if you come to disturb the class? Do you realize that I am here for YOU? Should I just go back to America? I can find a job there (though I don’t let on how difficult this would actually be given the state of our economy). Do you want me to go? If I am headmaster, you are quiet. If I am another teacher and carry a stick to beat you, you are quiet. Why? What can I do?

At times, teaching is a rocky road, full of stress, discomfort, and a load of frusturation. I came home several days this term, practically throwing the door back, and wondering why? Why do I try so hard to make this work?

But, this was also a term of really wonderful things too.

This was the term where I demonstrated how to cook salad with a bit of props, imagination, and extraordinary acting skills in order to teach about the importance of vegetables in our diet. My students did tongue twisters (yes, like your classic Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers) and acted out different careers during a game of charades. This term, we had debates: some about discrimination (just another excuse for me to name drop and talk about Martin Luther King Jr.), some about which career is the best, and even one was about whether water or fire was better. Funny enough, it was that one that was probably the very best one. The girls football team wrote letters to the Hendrix field hockey team, we started out very own GLOW Club (we just had elections for leadership: we have a president, VP, secretary, publicity executive, and mama GLOW—the girl who helps the girls if they have a problem and need someone to talk to—and I was given the title of ‘grandmother GLOW’. Perfect). And one day, we danced for 3 hours to prep for welcoming visitors from our sponsor school in Germany, including a member of their parliament.

Outside of school, I’ve continued my home visits. It really, in all sincerity, is one of my favorite things to do. And, they’ve visited me too, which is always a nice change. I was in a family wedding for two of my students, I’ve praised and worshipped God with others, and I’ve even done some small traveling with students I have special relationships with.

When my days are filled  with these sort of things, I literally can’t imagine not being here. Which is kind of hilarious. Mostly because I’ll have a day where I just want to pack up and go. I’m done, I think. This is just too hard, it’s not working, and I can’t handle the stress anymore.

Then, the next day, I’ll be walking home right as the sun filters out of the coming dark blue night sky and think about how happy I am. I’ll remember how I almost didn’t do Peace Corps at all, and it blows my mind. My life is now framed and inter-laced with the people I love here, as if I was meant to be here all along. Yeah. Peace Corps cultivates a lot of things, including the sense that you are in fact, bipolar.

This upcoming week is the last week of lessons but I will not be at school as I will be helping out at the training for the new education volunteers (soon, we’ll be the oldest group here!) I’ll be surprising my host family, giving lessons on how to teach speaking, and visiting the place I was a trainee a year ago. This means I’m done teaching for the term. (!!!) I’m happy, because it’s definitely time for a break, but I’ll admit, I’m a bit nostalgic too.

My senior three students will take the national exam next month. If they do well, they can go to another school with more resources and course options to continue the advanced level of study for secondary school (referring to senior 4, senior 5, and senior 6). Which, is awesome! But, I’m a sap too, and I’ll miss them. It’s like watching your babies grow up.

But, as those doors close, so many more open. I have another year to do better, to learn from my experiences, and to teach in ways that I know will work.

One thing is for sure, as least as I write this, in this given moment: I am right where I need to be. Dirty dishes lie waiting for scrubbing and washing in my back room, left over from the visit from 4 of my girls, papers needing grading fill my books to the rim, and sticky notes are on every edge and corner of my desk reminding me of who I said I would visit and the little things I need to take care of in and out of the village. I’m figuring this out.

I kunda you.

Like I said, that’s kind of our thing at school now and I love that. I love that Term 3 was the term ‘I kunda you’ came into being and that it was this term that I felt comfortable enough to let my guard down, be me, and let this experience exist exactly as it is—in the good, bad, and unknowing times. It’s not perfect, and there are really really bad days sometimes. But I know it just all fits together, because when I find myself completely content, happy, and more at peace then I have been in a very very long time (maybe ever) I just thank God that everything is worth it.

Taken separately, the experiences of life can work harm and not good. Taken together, they make a pattern of blessing and strength the likes of which the world does not know.

-V. Raymond Edman 

wedding time!


me and the family of Maisara and Zahara

Me and Divine and her grandmother

you know. teaching.

the girls rockin’ at dancing

drumming and waiting for the German delegation


we’re learning to jump. somehow.

Divine (da-vee-nay)


I found myself last week on a crickety old bed with wooden slots and a stacked mat to act as a mattress. A double bed, I was sharing it with Divine at her family’s home in Rusumo, about 2 hours from where I live in Rwanda. Divine, a GLOW girl, student, and friend of mine lives in my village in order to take care of her sick and dying grandmother. In Rwanda, it is of the utmost importance to take care of the elderly, and Divine fills in that role beautifully for her family. So, she lives here while school is in session, and then goes to visit her family (mother and sister to name a few) on the holiday. Living situations and families are never quite simple here.

We had celebrated Divine’s mom’s “wedding” (she married God but isn’t quite considered a nun because she has already birthed 4 children) and even though I was cuddling up into bed, winding down, and ready to find some much needed sleep, the party managed to continue. I smiled and laughed as Divine, her mother, and her aunt danced, hooted, hollered, and hugged to their own beat. The men had long since retired, but power to the woman! They kept going…and going…and going!

The release of energy and continued shouts slowly became drunken slurs as the hours passed and ticked away. Eventually, they decided to sit on the bed and chat. They tried to whisper as to accommodate my clear desire to sleep but they whisper no better than I do. Which means they were extraordinarily incapable. I sat up, laughed, and decided to let my guard down a little bit. It was pitch black besides the small, tiny petrol powered candle, it was late at night, and it wasn’t like I would be sleeping anyway, so I just thought, oh what the hell. For the first time, I drank with only Rwandans, and truth be told, it felt good. I love the occasional wine, beer, cocktail, you name it, but up until this point, I had reserved that kind of activity for Kigali, when I was with my Peace Corps friends. It took them by surprise too, I could tell, as I had refused alcohol for the previous 10 hours. I sipped the banana beer through a worn straw and slurped the vodka from a plastic flask. So, we sat in this bed, sweaty, happy, together, and drinking the local brew well past midnight. I thought to myself, after I told Divine how this would be our little secret, that it’s amazing how I would do this with very few Rwandans (women drinking doesn’t always mesh well with societal expectations here) but it felt perfectly fine around her and her family.

But, our relationship didn’t come from nowhere. It’s taken a lot of time to develop the trust and understanding and ease that I feel when I’m with Divine. She was a new student, I found out, this year back in the first term, when I was also a newcomer. She was often eager to participate in lessons and I noticed her rather quickly amidst the sea of the over 300 students that I teach.

She also has one of the best laughs I have literally ever heard. It’s so hearty and joyful, you can’t help but smile. She’s 19 and I can tell–she’s youthful, fun, and goofy but I can sense a strong feeling of maturity that she carries with her. She speaks to me in English first–always–and only resorts to Kinyarwanda if she can’t express herself adequately in English. She prays at the Catholic Church twice a week–she’s as devoted to God as anyone you’ll ever find. On her phone, her display screen says God is love, an allusion to 1 John 4:7-9, one of my favorite verses in the bible. She is confident (she strutted and was the arguable winner of our very own fashion show the other day at GLOW club), dedicated, and also a really big dork. I’ve taught her to greet and talk to animals as Americans often tend to do, and she has totally embraced this, shouting Hello cow! when we go on walks together. It’s easy to be with her and that’s a coveted comfort anyone could ever want–no matter where in the world you are.

She’s been open about the possibility that her grandmother will die any day (she tells me that she has no fear) and her concerns about not having enough money to continue to study after Senior 3 (currently she is studying in Senior 2). I’ve told her how the rumors are not true–I’m not always happy–and that being away from my loved ones really hurts sometimes. She gets that. She even knows a bit about my brother, as I’ve explained his situation, and she always tells me that she will pray for him. We’ve often talked about how laughing and staying positive is important in life, and one of my favorite things she has ever told me was when we were discussing happiness.

Divine: Teacher, people they see you and they want you to visit them. They see you and wow! They are happy.

Heather: Well, I love visiting you students and the people in the community because they make me happy. Sometimes, I’m not happy, but you help me to feel better.

Divine: Ah yes! To be happy is the best part of the life!

Heather: I agree. I love to laugh, and I know you do too. Everyday, I see you, and you are laughing. Always laughing!

Divine: Ohlalala! Because if you have no laugh, you have no life.

I’m her teacher and she’s my student and yet, it’s just so much more than that. I’m terrible at keeping professional boundaries sometimes, you know, and so I’ve let this particular relationship grow and you know what?

I’m so glad I have.

I see her and she reminds me why I wanted to do Peace Corps and why I want to continue to stay. She brightens my day, and if you have ever had a person like that in your life then you know how special that is.

Sometimes, I feel as if I’m not helping, as if my presence here is doing nothing. Sometimes, I feel unmotivated, discouraged, and heartbroken. Sometimes, I leave the classroom, confident few students grasped any part of my lesson. Maybe I will hear the continual shouts of umuzungu or I will be asked for money or I will be laughed at for something stupid and I’ll think, why? Why should I see this through? Why do I stay?

Because, I remind myself, I have people like Divine.

Because those relationships matter more than I even know. Maybe I’m teaching them, but they’re teaching me way more in return. And it’s people like Divine, and the other strong relationships that I have, that help me remember that they are more than enough. They are more than I could have asked for in this experience. Divine, and many others, are changing my life forever, and that’s just pretty darn beautiful. God really is love.


Divine and her family at the wedding for her mother. Divine is in the middle with the orange/red shirt.


Divine in Rusumo


Divine and I at GLOW: at the baseball field!


Divine, far left, and myself with the rest of the GLOW girls at GLOW Camp.