when worlds collide


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.






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. 


About Heather Michelle Newell

Hi! I'm Heather. I am a writer and counselor in-training and love to share stories so we can all learn about one another. I spend a great deal of time laughing loudly, going on adventures with my grandmother, walking amidst the beautiful Colorado mountains, and spending time with my fiancee, friends, and family. A Colorado native, I love dark-roasted coffee, sunshine, and getting up early before the rest of the world beats me too it. I am an ENFP, so brace yourself for all the passion, all the enthusiasm, all the possibility.

One response »

  1. Heather your recount of our time together in Africa brought back many recent and found memories. The trip I took to Rwanda to see you at Christmas was exceptional. What nice things you wrote about me. You made me smile and tear up. I am sooooo proud of you. Love Dad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s