After all, we’re only human.
Is there any other reason why we stay instead of leaving?
-Jon McLaughlin, Human
Dressed in my handy, go-to, red, turquoise, and green Rwandan fabric themed dress, I sat in the audience at the American Ambassador’s House as the newest group of Peace Corps Education Volunteers (called ED-4; my group is called ED-3) took their oaths to serve in Rwanda for the next two years of their lives. I went to support the group—I had spent a couple of weeks teaching about how to use speaking and listening techniques in the classroom and observing the trainees as they went through their first round of teaching in a Rwandan classroom environment—but also to grab a burrito, relish in some margaritas, and enjoy and partake in an epic night on the town. Prior to the holidays, I had spent nearly 4 straight weeks in the village, and I may as well enjoy the festivities, I thought, especially for a special time for a lot of new friends as they enter the Peace Corps world (arguably the best, weirdest, most difficult, and craziest thing to do in life—that’s what I would say, anyway).
It was a strange experience to be on the other side of things—literally and metaphorically. This time, as a guest, I sat on the opposite side of the new-to-be volunteers. I watched their reactions, emotions, and vows throughout the ceremony. I laughed along with the speeches and let myself be moved by the speeches, as well. Their words, especially the English speeches (as I could FULLY grasp everything being said), moved me. Much more than I expected. They spoke with emotional anecdotes, personal insights on why this kind of thing works, and how important it is to follow this dream and commitment. I let the tears rise, and it wasn’t just because of the power of their words, it was also because for the previous week, I had been having an immensely difficult time.
To describe the kind of loneliness you experience here has proved difficult to put in words that actually hit where the heart hurts. I have people here, really amazing people that I love incredibly deeply, and yet, sometimes it just isn’t enough. And what’s weird too, is to realize that maybe the very people that I’m missing wouldn’t even necessarily be the answer to this pang in my mind and thoughts. I think that’s why this brand of loneliness is particularly complicated: the people here in my village don’t really know my life back in America, and my family and friends back home, despite my committed attempts to blog, email, and talk about this experience, and their committed efforts to listen and support me in all things, they still miss the small stuff that I can’t really put into words, pictures, or ideas. There is this gap between my two lives and sometimes it feels wider than usual, making me feel a bit lost in the world, or something like that. Like I said, it’s really hard to describe.
But then there are other things that are much easier to put into words.
- The week prior to swear-in, I spent hours in my house one rainy day, just crying. And I wasn’t even sure why.
- I always enjoy my first cup (or three) of coffee in bed, but then I often have the motivation to move about my day—to go outside, walk around, or to even go on a run. During this week, however, I felt no such urgency.
- A vast majority of my Peace Corps friends went home in the first week or two of break to be with their families for the holiday season. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to see them go—leaving me wondering if I should be going too, and also in the meantime, who I plan to talk and text with while they are out of country?
- One of my students died. It’s a long winded dramatic story, believe me. I found out just a few days into our vacation, as my senior 3 students were beginning the set of national exams they have to take advance into the advanced levels of secondary school. He, and his young, 10 year old sister, were poisoned by their neighbors. Apparently out of jealousy, another student and his “witch doctor” mother concocted some kind of poison set-up in a batch of sugar cane as to make them sick. Evidently, the intention was not for them to die, but they did. I visited the family a week or so after this all happened, and I felt just so heartsick for them. To lose TWO children? And what does this say about people in my community? This place really is a good place—but why does it always take just one or two people to bring so many others into question? It’s really not fair, for anyone. And so obviously, that has been beyond difficult to deal with. It wasn’t a student I was particularly close with, but he was in fact, my student. And so it’s still pretty uncomfortable and disturbing to talk about.
- A few times in these more difficult days, I’ve asked myself what if I just left? Would anyone really care that much? A year of service—that’s still pretty good. And I would walk away with so many good memories and experiences. Maybe I could leave before the start of the first term so I wouldn’t leave in the middle of a school year?
- Because of the violence and rocky things happening in Eastern DRC, one of our volunteers (and a friend of mine) was removed from her site temporarily and then eventually pushed in a position to return back to America and out of the Peace Corps. This is the 10th volunteer we have lost from our group—most of them from external situations that really can’t be controlled—and it’s so tough every time we lose someone. Yes, I do spend a vast majority of my time at site and not around Peace Corps Volunteers, but the people in our group are like our families, and when they go, it’s really hard. Especially in this particular case; she loved her site, loved Rwanda, and was doing SO many good things in her community.
Yeah, you could say that I haven’t been in a great place. I can tell you this much, remaining optimistic and living a life of positivity is near and dear to my heart, and yet, that’s been challenging lately. So, you can just imagine. It sure hasn’t been easy: and remember, I love this place. I love my job. But like with anything, it ain’t an easy ride. There are moments, phases, and times where things are really good and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life (I probably feel like this about 80% of the time, which I would say is a pretty darn good number for living a life completely different than my first 22 years). There are stages where things are just okay, and of course, there are segments where it just feels like you keep banging your head against a wall and you are quite literally, going nowhere. I recognize this is just how it goes. In Peace Corps, yes, but in life too.
It always gets better.
We’re human, and we find ways to actually feel what we’re feeling, deal with it, and continue with life. Adversity, I think, is one of the most important qualities a person can have. A lot of mentors, family members, and people that I admire have this important characteristic, and I try to bear those very people in mind when I’m going through a rough patch—whether it’s emotionally, spiritually, or whatever it may pertain to. I figured the best thing I could do for myself would be to go to a place that I could enjoy, but more importantly, be with people that would make me laugh, make me feel at home, and relax just a bit. My site is my home (I can say that now without reservation) but to work through these emotions, I realized I needed to get out of my house. I needed a change of scenery, yes, but I needed people that could still lift me up.
I decided to visit my good ole’ student-friend, Divine. She’s the one (and yes, I’ve blogged, talked, and written about her already many times) that lives way out East, near Tanzania when we don’t have school. That’s where most of her family is. However, when school is in session, she lives in my community with her grandmother, helping to take care of her as she lives her last weeks and months. Anyway, I had promised I would come for another visit to see her mother, sisters, and brother. And also, with all of this muck wearing me down, I wanted to be with someone who can lift my spirits without really even trying. And y’all, that’s this girl.
I arrived at her house on a Saturday evening (it was a nearly 4 hour trip from Kigali) and stayed through Tuesday afternoon. 4 days, 3 nights. It was exactly what I needed. I fit quite well in her family, I would say. They totally get my humor, laugh at my Kinyarwanda jokes, and we spend a lot of time just doing more weird stuff that makes us laugh all over again. I would dare say that her family are some of the most jolly (is that the right word? You know, people that love to laugh?) people I’ve met in Rwanda. They are always laughing. It’s so great.
We also ate so much food. SO MUCH. That’s just standard though, when it comes to visiting Rwandans.
We ate, danced, cooked, played sport, visited the Tanzanian border (just me, Divine, and her sister), walked around, fetched water, greeted Divine’s extended family and friends, watched The Lion King, and listened to music. I turned off my phone for most of my visit and not really even because they don’t have electricity and I couldn’t charge. No, I turned it off because I needed a little break from the world so I sure as hell was going to take it. My days out there were a continuum of really feeling at home. Like I said, I just fit in well, and so it’s easy to be there. I think I played hide-and-go-seek with Divine’s little cousin for like an hour. It’s the little things. It really is.
I arrived back home quite clean (looking and being clean is SUPER important in Rwandan culture), pretty darn tired, but doing a lot better than I was the few days before. Taking a break and visiting Divine didn’t solve all of my doubts, problems, or issues, but wow, as usual, she made me believe in this whole thing all over again, and helped me remember what beautiful seeds I have sown here. Divine is a friend for life, believe it, and being around her encourages me to make the most of my time here. She makes me want to be a better person, and I’m so lucky to have her in my life. In some crazy way, she’s just another sister that I never had.
I came back home with this kind of encouragement ringing throughout my head and heart, loaded with a couple of fresh packages from the post office, and a date to play football with a girls team in my village. I journaled about my trip with Divine, opened my packages (one from Ali, the other from Dad—y’all rock), and I played football, which was like the icing on a cake to a great sequence of days. The best part of the game, without a doubt, was when I shot the ball hard with my right foot, it hit off the right post, and Zahara, one of my friends and students, rebounded it directly back into the goal. YES!!! We jumped up and down and I ran right into her arms. Quite literally. Her hand knocked right into my mouth and teeth, but it didn’t even matter. We were just so excited about this SportsCenter top-10 worthy play. Congratulations! Zahara just said over and over again for like 5 minutes straight. It was a great day for football. And it was a great day, just in general. I walked home after the sun had set, happy for the game, but just happy that I was feeling okay again. Maybe not euphoric like I sometimes and often do, but I’m feeling once again comfortable and able to deal with whatever comes my way.
Lucky for me, the next part of this journey brings me back in the company, presence, and arms of someone I love deeply, fully, and without any reservation.
Dad is coming HERE. To RWANDA.
Could the timing be any better? I really don’t think so.
I’m counting down the days and hours until I get to run and hug him harder than I think I have ever done. Finally. A piece of home is coming here. Finally. 15 months without being face to face with someone from my family or circle of friends is unbelievably hard.
I can’t wait to explore Rwanda with dad, with a new set of eyes, and maybe even more so, I’m so ready for Dad to see where I live. To meet the people in my community, to know this place that I call home, and to get a little taste for what my life is like here.
I’ve cleaned my house. I’ve got our tickets to trek mountain gorillas ready to go. I’ve cleared my camera disc space. He just needs to get here.
I’m okay with how I have been feeling. I really am. It sounds crazy, but after all, we really are only human. We feel things, deal with things, and experience things that hurt, and sometimes we aren’t even sure why. But it’s better to recognize the hurt, I’ve realized, and to do something about it. I know I don’t have to be happy all the time. I know that. But I also understand that it’s important to find ways to deal with your emotions. It doesn’t mean fixing them—it means embracing them, feeling them, and using the gifts God gives us (our family, friends, communities) to help us.
We’re only human, yes. But our powers to love and support each other—and to love and support ourselves—are incredibly powerful.
I’m smart enough to know that life goes by
And it leaves a trail of broken parts behind
If you fear of letting go
Just give me time
I’ll come running to your side
We all need someplace we can hide inside
All these ups and downs
They trip up our good intentions
Nobody said this was an easy ride
-Jon McLaughlin, Human