Monthly Archives: January 2013

when worlds collide

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Here’s a staggering fact for you.

Take the 5 girls I took to the Eastern Region GLOW Camp last summer in late July and August.

Joyce.

Divine.

Joselyne.

Maisara.

Yvonne.

5 girls.

Out of 5, 0 have a father in their life.

Joyce’s father died a long time ago. I’m not sure why. I was never really provided with the details and it wasn’t something I tried to push. She lives with her extended family and I’m pretty sure she is an orphan.

Divine’s father died in December of 2011. How? Well, again, I’m not really sure. We just talked about this last week, and I could tell it was a very sensitive thing to be talking about. Yet, she’s a brave girl, and she explained in broken English as best as she could.

Joselyne’s father died a few years ago because of food poisoning. Yes, you may have had to read that twice, but indeed, he died of food poisoning. This kind of thing really happens in Rwanda. At first, I chalked all this talk of food poisoning up to a myth that was used when they couldn’t really explain other reasons for death, like old age, undetected diseases, and what have you. But no, Joselyne insists that is how her father died. He visited Gisenyi, up North, and received a special invitation to a party and never made it home. He died immediately after being served beer—evidently, a poison loaded batch. Poison is more common in rural, more isolated parts of Rwanda and is often used as a way to make someone sick because of “jealousy”. I’m told that often, the person trying to harm someone doesn’t want to kill them, but to make them sick so they have some sort of temporary disadvantage. Still, people die.

Maisara’s dad is terrible. Awful. A bad man, as she tells me. Maisara recently (within the last year) relocated with her mother and sister, Zahara, to live with their grandmother in a small, three-room house. They moved because their father’s beatings were getting out of control and the mother made a decision that they had to leave. Getting the safety they needed was obviously of the upmost importance and I cannot even begin to describe the kind of strength their mother has. I don’t think it is necessarily common here for women to make that kind of decision—to defy the man—and so since day one, I’ve respected this woman to an infinite degree. Now, they’re safer (they still have a major problem with him coming by the house and threatening to harm, hurt, or kill people), but without the financial support of their father (he refuses to give any money for school) they struggle to get by. It’s not fair. I hate that the right decision can also lead to so much hardship. I met the father, once, on accident, in the road. Another student of mine explained who he was, and I made no false impression—I shook his hand, barely uttered a greeting, and simply looked at him with a look of disdain. How do you live with yourself?

Yvonne’s dad also died. I saw a picture of him for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and she simply remarked, “that’s my father.” I knew he was not a part of her life (I have probably visited close to 10 times and not once has his presence come up) but after showing me the photo, she finally did reveal that he had passed away. Why? Again, I don’t know. It’s amazing that you can have these close relationships here with people, and yet still, know very little. Like I’ve noted before, if Rwandans want to build emotional walls, they do, and they build them quite nicely. You can get shut out in a matter of seconds, before you even realize that you are distinctly on the outside looking in.

Yeah, it just so happens that these 5 girls don’t have their own father in their lives, but it’s more than just these girls. It’s a lot of Rwandan families I’m seeing; so many are matriarch-dominated.

So, you can also imagine how big of a deal it was for many of my community members to see this 6-foot-tall, dark-haired, Hendrix orange hat-wearing man walking around our village. Moreover, it was my dad. Papa Impano. He had come to Rwanda; but even more moving for them was that he came here, to my little piece of the world, my village. Time and time again, when people would greet us, people would say at least one (if not more) of the following things:

  1. Ehhhhh babe we! Papa yawe! Uri umusore!  (Oh my father! Your father! He is a young, strong man!)
  2. Imana ishimwe! Barasa! (God bless you! You both look the same.)
  3. Amaye inka, papa yawe agukunda cyane pe. (Give me a cow! *an expression of surprise in Kinyarwanda* Your father loves you very much.)

People were very impressed. To travel all of this way, to pay that kind of money; all to see his daughter. It’s been about a month since dad’s visit and still people are talking about how beautiful it was to see him come all the way here because he loves me. It was inspiring, I think, for a lot of people. Even the other day, as I was explaining more intricate details of why and how my parents divorced to Divine, her main comment was that, “well, no matter, because you have good parents. Because your father has come and your mother will come. They love you so much.” It’s like, yeah, how in the world can I argue with that?

Our reunion was pretty epic, I would say. I was jittery from excitement, nerves, and coffee. But all of that dissipated when I saw dad. I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize him right away—maybe he would look a lot older or something—but that wasn’t a problem. Holding his large pea green roller suitcase, he was exiting the baggage area wearing his Hendrix field hockey hat. He looked just like I remembered. I shifted around other people and the gate so I could run right into his arms. It was emotional, and I just couldn’t believe I was hugging him. I couldn’t believe he was here. I couldn’t believe it had been so long. To say the least, it was rather surreal.

Dad’s first impression of Rwanda was that it was, “…really green, with lots of smiling people, and that Kigali was very clean.” Pretty accurate, I would say.

We did a lot in our days together. We traveled to a good portion of Rwanda—and it being the size of Maryland, I suppose it’s not hard to do, but we did so many different things that it was really quite impressive. We ventured around Kigali, eating pizza, playing blackjack, hanging out in the hotel room, dining at the Milles Collines (the hotel that provides the basis for the movie Hotel Rwanda), getting me coffee at Bourbon Coffee, and shopping at several convenience stores (which are always a special treat for me).

Outside of Kigali, we visited my site (ate AND slept here: props to my dad for being an awesome sport), took a pit stop at Lake Muhazi (a large lake out East), ate with my host family in the Southern Province, visited a deeply intense and emotional Genocide Memorial at a church, relaxed beachside in Gisenyi, and saw gorillas in the far North in Musanze.

We alternated between taking a private car and public transportation. Dad’s take on the bus station in three words? Surreal, hectic, and busy.

With all of this moving, visiting, and traveling, we also managed to eat a lot of food. For me, wow! How can I even begin? I was in heaven eating all that I wanted (and for free!) My favorite meal was without question, the meal we shared with my host family and the meal we shared with two of my girls, Maisara and Zahara. These meals contained peas, meat, rice, beans, and vegetables. Of course with Fanta thrown in on the side (it wouldn’t be a Rwandan celebration without it). As for food itself, I loved being able to soak up the pizza and burritos in Kigali. It was amazing at our Kigali hotel (called Top Tower; home of Rwanda’s only casino) that I could wake up in the morning and get FREE breakfast (including cereal). Dad had his own thoughts on food also,

“Even though I ate a lot of good food, the best food was the meat that your host family mom cooked. The worst food I ate was the Bacon Cheeseburger I ate on my second day at the Bourbon restaurant. Now remember, my knee was messed up, and I had some jet lag. However, it still grosses me out when I think of the slab of fat they served me calling it ‘bacon’. I should have complained.”

It’s so comforting to know that on the other side of the ocean I’m going to have someone that in some way, gets it. No, my dad can’t speak Kinyarwanda, or pick up on every single cultural clue (I can’t do that either), but he got a feel for what Rwanda is about, and that’s what matters. It means (and will mean) everything to me that he put himself outside his comfort zone to come here, see what this place is all about, and embrace what Rwanda has to offer. There were difficult times, too. Because at the end of the day, when you are away from someone for a long time you forget about their flaws (this of course goes both ways) but on the flip side, you remember even more strongly about what makes them great. I love that Dad always wants to know as much as he can about something, I love his open attitude (like that he’ll take a video on his IPAD while on a moving moto), and that he is always willing to talk to anybody. I love that he’ll do anything for his family, and maybe more than anything, I love how seriously he takes being a good dad. A lot of dads wouldn’t do what he did. And heck, this isn’t the first time he came to Africa—this is trip number TWO. But like I told him when he was here, if he says something, I believe it. If he says he’ll visit Rwanda, then by jolly, he will visit Rwanda. He told me that the best part of the trip was that, “…I really came to appreciate your home and village. You are a community star and teacher who is making a difference. I also had a great time doing nothing at the beach resort, and being driven around by Claude. The best thing was spending time with you, and seeing you Rwanda style.”

It’s so weird (and awesome) when worlds collide. It can be stressful; you become consumed with stress because you want each part of your life to accept, like, and feel comfortable with each other. But, it can also be incredibly moving; here’s an opportunity to take two experiences, two “yous” and share them. Because ultimately, I am not the same person I was before I left, and to show someone, especially of such importance like my dad, the place where I have put so much of myself, well it’s an honor, really. It’s a meeting, a joining, of someone who has had a profound impact on who I am with a place that’s currently giving some of the greatest joy that I have known. 

There can be confusion—I remember dad asking me in village, upon being visited and greeted seemingly a million times, why do we have to greet every single person?

There can be times of profound amazement—um. Hello. Standing less than a foot from a wild gorilla will do that for you.

There can be times of unrivaled emotion—hearing an old woman explain the history of her family during the Genocide in a small, African home in the middle of a rural village.

And even sometimes, there can be experiences that feel exactly normal, like nothing has changed at all—dad and I spent a good chunk of our dinners and walks discussing politics, the Broncos, and family. We could quite literally, pick up where we left off, even if it has been many days and separation by way of many countries and oceans.

I was just so proud to show my dad this place, and to show this place my dad. When finishing up a long day of home visits on one of the days in my village, my dad remarked about how he had moved from being pretty shocked by my home (he initially thought I was living on “ground zero” in poverty, but by comparison to my neighbors, I actually have a pretty nice home) to starting to really see how a place like this could grow on a person. I just nodded and smile. Good, I thought. He sees it too.

And luckily, overall, dad got to see the best that Rwanda has to offer; in terms of sights, but also in terms of people. Dad was impressed with Rwandans saying that their future is optimistic, with better days ahead, especially with people that are so “genuine and friendly.”

It was hard to see my dad go after 16 days. We arrived at the airport and I could feel the fogginess of my emotion permeating my brain. I just didn’t really want to face the goodbye, and yet, I knew it was inevitable. But something amazing happened right as he put his bag in the security check point; I felt a rush of relief and gratitude. In a matter of seconds, I realized how special our trip was, how important it was for our relationship, and that dad was really right (he had previously repeated better to have love and lost than to have never loved at all—yeah, that’s my dad for you). It was okay. Because he came here (for Christmas, no less), he saw this place, and we shared a lot of new memories. It wasn’t that it was perfect, but that instead, it was a time for family, love, and being together. Ultimately, whether it’s Ghana, Rwanda…or any place in the world, distance doesn’t have to break or degrade a relationship. It gets a chance to grow in a new way, and I walk away from my dad’s trip with the conviction that no matter how many days pass between seeing a person that you love, that love is strong enough to thrive.

Somehow, the world’s lottery (as dad refers to it as) gave me the dad I got, and honest-to-God, I’m so pleased with my winnings. 

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‘you are my fire’

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With coffee pulsing through my body, adorned with a very “smart” white button-up blouse that was a gift from Maisara and Zahara, it’s time to go. I have my elephant-cover lesson plan book in my backpack, along with my grade book and schedule book (thanks dad!), and yes, even my journal. I have learned in my 24 years of life that one should always carry a notebook and pen along. You never quite know when you’ll need to write something.

It’s interesting, because with teaching, it’s a bit nerve-wracking right as you are about to start, but once you get in the flow, the nerves die down and you find yourself just doing your thing.

I finish the day with small chunks of chalk in my pocket and with chalk dust tucked between the strands and roots of my hair. There are a lot of handshakes, greetings, and hugs in between. The school is alive; a sea of blue uniform wearing students swarm the classrooms and the flowers are in full bloom from the planting a few months ago. I’m significantly more aware of what’s ahead of me—in a sense, I actually know what’s going on. As much as I could, I suppose. I know that some days push the lines of perfection, while others feel like a full kick to the chest. I know what it feels like to fail miserably in the classroom, and I also know what it feels like when students ‘just get it’. It’s not that I’m any wiser. Simply, with one year under my belt, it’s not like I’m completely in the dark, either.

I sure didn’t forget how much I love being with my kids. I missed them. But it’s hard too, because the Senior 3 kids from last year won’t all be coming back and many other students change schools because that’s just how it works. They tell you not to grow attached, but I just can’t help it. If I decide to put my heart into something, I do, and while it’s usually a good thing, it can also lead to a lot of disappointment.

This year we have mostly the same staff, a new accountant and a new Entrepreneurship teacher notwithstanding. That’s pretty amazing considering its Rwanda—these things change all the time. I’m teaching the same workload as last year—Senior 1, 2, 3, and 4 (like 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th graders) for a total of 16 hours of teaching per week. The students were finally put into class divisions today (Senior 1A or Senior 1B, for example) and we even had a parents’ meeting. Things—slowly—are falling into place. I am still trying to construct my scheme of work for Senior 1 and Senior 4, but for Senior 2 I am focusing on basic conversational and writing skills. Senior 3, my favorite level of students for this year, should be great. I have a large culture unit planned with a Rwanda focus and a lot of exercises to practice listening. The two Senior 3 classes will be the ones taking a major National Exam in November and these classes also happen to have a large group of my favorite students (and friends). Thus, I personally feel a greater sense of investment for them.

I suppose that is another challenge I anticipate in this 2013 school year. While I can more proficiently navigate our school culture, I have different relationships with my students now. I’ve visited a good portion of these students and even more so, there are a small handful of my girls that are some of my best friends here. Seriously. We have inside jokes, memories, emotions, and all of the bits and pieces that make a relationship function and thrive. We’ve shared a lot together and the trick is letting these bonds enhance our student-teacher relationship without affecting the necessary level of professionalism while at school. With just under two weeks in, I’m learning (and so are they) how hard this is. For example, probably my dearest friend of all, Divine, has been really distant with me in the past couple of days. It could be anything; something could be happening at home, it could be that time of the month, or what I fear, she could be pulling away because she is realizing that maybe our close relationship is not appropriate for the time and place we find ourselves. Rwandans are so good at that; they can move a lot more fluidly in relationships. If they need to build distance, they can build that sucker in minutes. But for me, I need time. I can’t just shut myself off like that. However, the bottom line is that she is right. We can’t be all giddy and in our little friend-world all the time. I get that. I am trying to accept that. But, it still sucks, you know?

And, it’s not like all of this is not okay. That’s one of the things I really love about Peace Corps: you have a lot of control in defining what this experience is for YOU. There’s a lot about it that you can’t anticipate (or control), but it’s how you react, what you do, and what you bring to the table. At the end of the day, I’m just me. And, I happen to be a very friendly, open, and loud woman. I don’t hide this (I probably couldn’t if I tried) and if it has allowed students to feel comfortable around me, then there are ZERO regrets. None. I can take my lessons seriously and I can make sure I’m mingling with all of my students; that’s no problem. But I won’t change how I teach or how I relate to my students in general because isn’t that the whole point (for this, but also in life) to share who we are? To be happy, I’ve found, I need to be myself. And, I expect that from the people around me as well.

My goals for this school term and year are rather simple:

1. Implement the good communication skills that I’ve been reading about (I’m currently reading Bridges Not Walls, a book about interpersonal communication, yes, yes, and yes. I’m a dork, but I love that kind of stuff.) with my staff members. If I want to implement “sustainability” with the ideas I have, I need to approach my staff as equals.

2. Reach out to quieter students. Make sure I’m saying hello to as many students as possible each and every day.

3. Speak English only. Yeah, it’s harder to do than you would think. Kinyarwanda is too easy of a fall back sometimes. Use only when absolutely necessary.

4. Have fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously. (Like, if a lesson bombs, be okay with that. It happens.)

5. Continue GLOW club. Yeah, it’s kind of like my baby.

I am really happy to be back. It’s right. It really is.

Now, I’ve already seen heartbroken students told they have to repeat a level (because they failed), I’ve discussed with our new dean of discipline about new approaches to punishment, and I’m pretty certain that I’ve already had some of my ‘superstar’ stickers stolen.

You see, it’s not easy, perfect, or uncomplicated. But, I’m admittedly a little sad when the school day is over—and though I could be the first PCV in history to admit (or even feel) that, I think it’s a good sign that I’m enjoying the work—the life—before me.

Some highlights in the classroom so far:

*teaching ‘I Want It That Way’ to Senior 3. Favorite lyrics? You are my fire. They have been repeating this over. And Over. Again. This is my life.

*the next day, teaching ‘As Long As You Love Me’. Yes, I was on a Backstreet Boys kick. I have no defense or justification for this.

*creating ‘food names’ with some of the girls. I came up with the slogan, “girl-FOODS” as opposed to “girl-FRIENDS” and found this hilarious. For example, I’m ibitoke (banana), Divine is ibijumba (sweet potato), Eugenie is umucheli (rice), and Clemantine is ubugari (cassava bread). It’s weird, but also absolutely hysterical.

*my Senior 1 students brainstorming different animals and making the sounds of each animal, like goats, cats, and pigs. I was laughing so hard that I had tears in my eyes.

*playing a game to review various directions (forward, go left, go back, etc.) with a student wearing a blindfold and listening to the students’ instructions to find the piece of chalk.

*sitting in the grass, during break, chatting. For sure, my favorite activity. Ever.

*teaching a very successful lesson on culture (pretty sure I experienced a teacher high following this lesson) and watching my students act out different scenarios in their dialogues and ROCKING it. Divine approached me before her skit (her topic was about Rwandan weddings) and told me they had planned the whole thing in Kinyarwanda and she asked me if this was okay. I told her that they really needed to try in English. She looked slightly dismayed, muttered “no fear”, and went on to perform the best skit all day—and in FANTASTIC English. It’s so good to see tangible success like that!

*giving the football girls their letters from the Hendrix Field Hockey girls. Their minds were BLOWN. They loved the pictures, the words…but mostly, I think they just love knowing they have a friend in America.

*on a walk with Clemantine, she remarked at the rain, “Hello rain! How are you? How is heaven?”

*little bits and pieces of what we studied last year coming up in conversations; for example, Yazina pretending different weird scenarios to demonstrate her “imagination” and Felicien asking why Americans like bacon. Happiness, beyond belief, that maybe my kids are learning something (even if it is imagination or bacon related).

*finally, getting a letter at the end of the week from Divine who, it turns out, had a rough week because she was afraid she couldn’t continue studying because she only had partial school fees. The letter said the following,

Dear Heather Impano,

First of all thank you very much today. You are a good teacher because you are understand the question for me. After the meeting for in school the parents to make the situation for to pay the school fees is seven thousand. Me I think what is the school fees do you have? Thank you to help me.

All things do you have in your life I say and help me because you have good heart or you have compassion.

Mother for you and father thank you to be birth because you came in Rwanda. You help the students but me is very high in all students.

All years to be in the earth I love you because all things you do for is very nice. Let me finish I wish to be the way compassionate in the life for you.

Nice dream.

Love, Divine

I think that letter encapsulates every great part of this experience. You get something like that, and you just thank your lucky stars that somehow, you are here, doing this, living your life and it just makes you happy. My kids keep asking ‘Am I your fire?’. And I’m just like, y’all. You have no idea.

ten words

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This one time at college (how many stories start that way? Oh so many…) my friends and I were sitting around, chatting, laughing, hanging out likely until the wee hours of the morning. I think a lot of college stories start this way. Well, at least with my friends and I. We’re talkers. And thinkers.

In fact, one of our great thinkers, Michelle, once posed the ever-present question in one of those long-winded dialogues that I really never wanted to end. You see, talking with friends about anything and everything is, I think, one of the best things that friendship brings us. Often and ideally, friendship gives you the freedom and space to talk about whatever is on your heart, on your mind, or frankly, what’s in your belly (who doesn’t love talking about the intricacies of food?). Michelle was my very first friend at college (and has remained like a sister since). Not counting my roommate, anyway. And let me tell you, the “friendship” I had with my first roommate was essentially non-existent. Awkward, if you will. Actually, it was my roomate’s ex-best friend that would eventually become one of my very best friends. Are you lost yet?  That’s another story entirely.

Like I was saying. It was Michelle—the Texas born, cowboy boot wearin’ woman—that said something in one of our long discussions that has stuck with us ever since. We were probably laughing or something (laughing was of the upmost importance in our friendship; the first time Michelle and I hung out on our freshman orientation trip we laughed. The entire time. I was laughing at her laugh…and she just laughed…and so the cycle continued. People thought we were legitimately crazy. They were right.) when we were perusing Michelle’s writing in one of her many classy journals. As she flipped through the pages, she read aloud one of her entries that asked, “what is time?” I can’t remember exactly, but I am certain we laughed for a very long time. After all, this particular entry was of the existential sort, exploring the conundrum of how time passes so quickly. In fact, I think she even asked something along the lines of whether or not we move through time or whether time moves through us. Like I told y’all, Michelle’s a thinker.

The what is time joke-catchphrase-thing is something we continue to say, even today, though I’m finding these days, we’re taking Michelle’s words a lot more seriously. The thing is, Michelle was right.

Because somehow, it’s 2013, I’m 24, and I’ve lived in Rwanda for 16 months.

Somehow, in 365 days, I’ve become a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a community member, a traveler, a bi-lingual woman, and a volunteer.

But, where exactly, did the time go? Like we always say, what is time?

A friend of mine told me that a fun little exercise to remember the year can be done when you try to summarize your year in 10 words. I probably took him too seriously (because I love these sorts of things) and so I thought about this exercise for hours. What exactly could I say about this year?

This year, in 2012, I started teaching secondary students in Rwanda. Some days, I earnestly tried to teach grammar. But often, we did things like sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, or went outside to observe nature, practiced dialogues, and looked at photos from my life. Some days, I think I might have had a break though. For example, before last term, I decided I was sick and tired of having the following conversation:

Me: “Hello students!”

Students: “Hello teacher!”

Me: “How are you?”

Students: “We are fine!”

You may look at this and think, well, what’s the problem? Let me explain. Every single student says the same thing. I am fine, they say. I am fine. I am fine. I am fine. It could drive one crazy. And it did. I decided enough was enough. These kiddos were going to learn different things to say upon being greeted in English. And so the I am fine days became the days of I am fantastic! I am wonderful! I am SUPERRRR!! (they love that last one). I taught them negative ones too, and I just MELT when a student tells me they are grumpy. Mostly because they say it like, “gra-mp-ie”. It’s too cute.

And so, I tried teaching. I don’t really know what they learned. Who knows. But for the most part, I showed up, and so did they, and we tried to speak English in the best way we could. I shared my phone number (not necessarily kosher in America, but let me just emphasize that Rwanda is quite different and I have been very open in my own personal boundaries here) and so every day I get anywhere from 3-12 calls from students wanting to greet me. And most of the time, they do this in English, and so in some small way, I find this to be a success.

We had three terms this year, and I finished all three. Phew. Teaching is hard work.

But I was much more than a teacher this year. I also ma friends—both in and outside of Peace Corps. To have a friend in Peace Corps is of the upmost importance; they, more than anyone, understand this experience, and so they offer an invaluable amount of support. My friend Suzi and I talked nearly every day. Maybe it was for a quick 1 minute funny story of our awkward lives, but more often, it was 10 or 20 minute conversation sharing our struggles and victories, supporting each other, and to be honest, ensuring that each of us could continue to stay here. Suzi and I have an uncanny amount of similarities. We’re different though, and so it works. It’s a blossoming friendship and without her and my other Peace Corps friends, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be here.

My friends in my village are a special brand. For one, most are my students. I know, I know, I know. Super un-traditional. But the best part is, I don’t really feel a need to defend it. The truth is, I connect with them in a very special way (mind you, I’m not talking about ALL my students here, how could I have that strong of a connection with over 350 students?). I’ve blogged, journaled, and talked about it and still I can’t capture what it feels like to be a role model, a friend, and an admirer all at once. What I mean is that while the students have been very clear that they see me as someone to look up to, I feel the very same way about them, and so this beautiful ebb-and-flow friendship has been created. I am in awe when I see what they give and do for their families; they ask question after question about my culture and why I believe what I do.

And then there is my friends and family back home.  In 2012, I had friends start the path of finding their vocations, I had friends graduate college, I had friends continue to study, and I had friends have babies. I had family members decide to have weddings. I had a cousin get engaged. I missed out on the small, daily things with my mom and dad, which could be even harder to be away from (it’s often the small things that I miss the most). Two of my best friends from high school both got married, and it was heartbreaking to be absent. Being absent and distant was a common theme for my year because, well, hello, I live in the middle of a small, rural African village. But distance doesn’t always disconnect. In fact, it can bring you closer. While I’ve been absent for a lot of important things in my friends and family’s lives, I’ve put as much energy and love as I can, even so far away. I talk to both of my parents weekly. I email most of my friends, creating these wonderfully Oprah-esque (continuing our love for “life” conversations) chains of emails. I’ve managed a few amazing skype dates. I’ve developed an even stronger love for snail mail (as always, the packages have been unbelievably wonderful). None of these things make up for being absent. But you really can’t have it all at once. And eventually, you make peace with this, and just do the best you can. I hope all who are reading this know how much I do love you. And while I am doing this for me, I’m doing this whole entire thing because I believe in it too. If I didn’t, I would have left a long time ago. I want you to know that while I maybe did choose Africa and Rwanda for a time, this is also a season of life, and who knows where life goes next. Time moves just too damn quickly, as I’ve been saying, and so it’s best to just enjoy where you are and believe that things will fall into place as they should be. Being away is the hardest thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer, and to be honest, it’s often the source of a lot of sadness and dark times. But we keep moving, we keep persevering, because let’s be real, it’s the best way to live life. Recognize where you are. Feel what you feel. But take all of this, and go outside, and just work with you got. Because in the days, weeks, and months to come, it will be something different.

In 2012, I saw a lot of beautiful lands. Not only my little corner of Rwanda, I was blessed with an incredible journey of visiting the Northwestern part of the country with dad on his visit. We hiked around a volcano chain, saw gorillas, and spent Christmas lakeside on one of the most beautiful pieces of land I have ever seen. Y’all, I can’t say it enough. If life can bring you to Rwanda, whether now or 20 years down the road, come. It’s a great place, promise. I even went on an epic 32 hour bus ride across Tanzania, en route to Zanzibar. I was in the ocean when one ferry sank, and by the time I reached shore, the Aurora shooting was plaguing news headlines. It was a weird time. But, like Rwanda and yet in a very different way, Tanzania is gorgeous. I ran on those white sandy beaches, amazed that I was here in Africa. Travel is great that way; you can never really wrap your mind around just how big this world is.

And so as the year has closed and a new one has begun and I have now turned 24, I can’t help but do a bit of self-reflection (if you know me, you know I love doing this…I already have THREE FULL JOURNALS from my Peace Corps experience, and so you can just imagine.). Physically, I look a lot different. Blond highlights streak through my hair from the Rwandan sun. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight—last time I checked, I had lost 30 pounds. Though, from dad’s recent visit, I really think I put back on 10, but absolutely no regrets there. I ate like an American for two weeks and THAT was amazing. The physical changes are obvious, aren’t they? It’s easy to look at your reflection and find what’s different. But what about the other stuff?

Am I a better person? Am I kinder? Am I closer with God? Am I more mature?

I don’t know if I know the answer to those questions. I think about them, but it’s often hard to say. Because even those questions, they take time to understand. They take time to see. And really, I don’t think I’ll know what Rwanda has done to my heart and soul and mind until it’s all over later this year.

But I do know this. I am unequivocally grateful. I thank God every day for this—yes, even when I’m crying, upset, and unsure that I can go on. I thank God because between the people that I have met and the stories that I have heard, I know that in 2012, I have been bettered by the people I know. I know people who are so different from me. And yet, they have value. More value than the world would ever say, but they are some of the best people I know. My dad will tell you, the people he met, and the hospitality he experienced; it will literally change your heart. It will make you reconsider how you can treat people with more kindness and consideration in the world—not because you have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s life transforming, y’all.

And so I’ll put those questions of how I have changed on hold for a while. But I will say, that my capacity for love has grown, not because of me, but because of them. Just when you think you’ve given all you’ve got, God shows you that you have so much more. And He shows you through the people he brings in your life, short term or long term.

I thought about all of this as I tried to summarize my year in 10 words.

It took time, even a fitful night’s of sleep (once I get thinking, it’s hard to stop). Here’s what I came up with:

2012

Just when you think you can’t, you can.

For every time that I wanted to fly on a plane and get back to the people I love, God’s always shown me a reason to stay. Whether it was for Divine, for the girls’ football team, for my opportunity to grow, for a capacity to help, or for the undeniably delicious Coke, I stayed. And, honestly, I’m so glad I have.

team

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students

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