Monthly Archives: February 2013

the genocideaire’s daughter

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Sometimes in mid-February if you look around for just a second you see that the sunflowers are dying.

They rise to the sky with a beaming yellow in America’s winter—December—but by the time the rain is ready to control the road, crops, and sleeping habits of our people (we call this our rainy season), they are wilting, no longer glowing, no longer living. They are dying. The petals look sad, the leaves become holey from bug infestations, and their backs arch in a curve, much like my grandmother’s back as she climbs up our dirt road with her right hand holding herself up, and her left hand clutching tightly to her walking stick. Every umuchechuru (‘old woman’) has one. How else could you get around the land of 1000 hills? It’s Rwanda, after all.

Life is a mixture (invyange) of reliable beauty (like the height and shine of our sunflowers) and of inevitable difficulty, like when they die to give way to sorghum, a significantly less appealing crop. It’s brown, you know. Why would you want a field of brown staring at you if you could have fields of green banana and yellow sunflowers? At least sorghum makes for good porridge, I suppose.

Sometimes I drink this in the morning before I leave for school. My pot may have a scratched, old, and black surface from everyday use over the fire, but it sure does make good porridge (igikoma). The sugar laces itself between the sorghum grains and slowly you can mix in grounded up corn. Slowly, that’s the secret. If you put it all together at once you don’t give it a chance to exist as separate elements—you don’t honor their identities. If you go slowly, they thrive, and with time, unite, to become a somehow delicious combination of many things that are good in Rwanda. It’s a wonderful way to start my mornings.

I say sometimes because sometimes I have to fetch water before the sun cracks in the sky and gives us light. I say sometimes because if the rain has come and we have caught God’s tears in my cracked, old basin, then there is often something else to do. Occasionally, I’ll find the grass (the food for cow) for Mama Sifa’s calf (a present last year from Sifa’s new husband’s family; it was the gift for our family at the dowry ceremony) or maybe I’ll help Zahara study for a quiz she has that morning. When I arrive to school after my usual 47 minute walk you can be sure that I’ve already had a decently productive day. But, porridge or not, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I help my family because that’s what we do. It’s not my job, really. It’s just my life.

My family is Zahara (my sister), my mother, my grandmother, my brother, my younger sister, my cousins, my aunts, my uncle, my great-aunt, and that’s just the beginning. My family is big. Some of us are Christians, some of us are Muslims. Some of us live in bigger cities, but most of us, like me, live in the village. I like the rural area, though. It would be better if my house had electricity, but we do the best we can. It’s hard to study, but if we have enough money, my mother buys me a candle that I use after the sun has left the Earth. This is usually a special occasion—the candle, I mean. But no matter. I’ve learned in my life that some days are more difficult than others. I try to smile every day because I have power in my heart. If I study, I can find knowledge, and maybe my future will be full of open doors. At school, I often look across the field, across the campus, and notice how most of the classroom doors are open, even if teachers are in the middle of teaching. I think that maybe my future could be like that. Should be like that. Full of open doors. If I have the chance, maybe I can even choose which one I enter. I try to not think about this too much (paying attention during the lesson is very important and good culture) but I remind myself every day why I come to school in the first place.

My family is good. My mother has a strong will and I’m pretty confident that my grandmother can do anything. I wouldn’t just say that, either. It’s true.

But you remember, don’t you? Life is a mixture of things that you know will be beautiful each and every time (like mother, for example) with some things that are evil. Evil, like the way the mud permeates the lines in my shoes after rainfall and can find its way into anything. Even if you’re careful, some things are just bad in the world. That’s why we need God. That’s why I pray every day. Because even some people. They can be evil.

My family is good.

But my family is no exception to this rule.

My father is evil.

I’m 18 years old. Nearly 19 years ago my country fell victim to itself. I was a small baby then. Zahara, my little sister, would be later born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. But, my mother was a woman in her prime. My father was there too. Mother doesn’t always say exactly how, when, or why (when we talk about it, her eyes become misty and heavy and it’s like she goes to visit another place while I sit there waiting for some kind of explanation) but I know what he did. My father was a Genocidaire. Which makes me the Genocidaire’s daughter. My father killed people. My father killed our people.

Last week in biology, we studied about what happens when a mother has her baby. We drew a diagram of where the baby comes from, but what I remember most is studying how that little, tiny baby is able to breathe from its mother’s own breath. More than that, it’s a mixture of the ones who created it. It has that blood of both mother and father.

I am the blood of my mother and father. If I press hard on my arm for more than 5 seconds, let go, and watch my skin, it quickly becomes white and changes back to the light brown skin that I have. I can try and navigate the blue veins in my body and then I remember again: it’s that blood. This blood is evil, isn’t it? What if it goes into my heart, and evil spills out from my nose, mouth, and eyes? What if I’m my father’s daughter but I don’t want to be?

My father killed people in 1994. My father killed people in our family in 1994. After it was all over, he was in prison for 12 years. He served his sentence, they say. He came back. But he was not okay. He was never okay.

He always liked the machete. I was happy that when came back he chose other objects to beat us with. He would hit mother. I would close my ears, praying it would go away. The beatings continued. Once, he threw a basin at me as I was getting ready to go to school. I told you already, I like to help my family, even if it is early in the morning. But if I did something that was wrong in the eyes of my father, I would pay. I went to school, running, forgetting my favorite blue pen, because I wanted to escape as fast as I could. School was my safe place. He came there once too. Drunk, I’m sure. He wanted to report to our school administration that Zahara and I were bad children. They took him away. But I knew I would have to answer to him later. There would be no escape when the lessons finished.

Did I tell you mother is strong? Well, she is. My mother, who lost 6 of her siblings during the Genocide, decided we couldn’t stay. We left our village to go and live with my grandmother. It wasn’t very far from our home, but it was a change. And it represented so much more, perhaps. She was leaving my father. Women don’t usually do this. But she did.

We changed our homes, our villages, and our places to fetch water so that we could be safe.

Our walk to school was shortened even, a little anyway. From grandmother’s home we walk about 38 minutes as opposed to 47, a small but sizeable change. Plus, we saw more sunflowers on the way to school. They are tucked neatly between large plantations of banana trees and immediately, I fell in love with those small, secret trails. The crisp smell of morning was best under those trees. Maybe that’s where I am most happy. Perhaps. I love laughing, by the way. That, and smiling. Every day, I remember to do these things. I remember because I know if I can enjoy my life, even under difficult circumstances, then maybe I can do anything.

It’s not like this is easy. On top of the upheaval of changing homes and finding temporary safety, my father found ways to continue to bring fear into my family. At night at maybe 7:00, right around the time the stars and moon would rule the sky, we would hear banging on our door. His scuffled steps were heard easily because we have to cook outside. The smoke from the fire wood is far too intense and dirty to even think of bringing our kitchen indoors. But I heard him. Mother knows this sound and she moves quickly to grab grandmother’s stick. We try not to be afraid. Don’t fear. No fear. I say this over. And over. And over. I don’t want to forget.

He occasionally brings a machete. He threatens us. He hits us. He tries to find us. If I can, I hide. Mother is our front line of protection, and so far, it’s worked out okay for us. He hasn’t killed us yet. He hasn’t even beaten us yet since the big move. I told you. Mother is strong. But he comes, he wants us, and Mother stops him. I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know if I really want to know. I know he hits grandmother. At night, I lie awake thinking that if someone can hurt an old person, than surely, their heart is dark. Where is God in this person?, I wonder.

It’s like the sunflowers; my family is strong and close and I love them. They are beautiful. But for every flower that shines and becomes one with the booming clouds, there is one that wilts, dies, and wallows in the soil back to the deep edges of Earth. In our wonderful, good family we have a man that is bad. He’s like a dying sunflower, with no life, no compassion, and certainly no brightness. Maybe it was there, once, a long time ago, but I have never seen it. This man is my very own father.

I’m the blending of two people—mother and father. And of course, I like to think there’s a bit of God’s love in me too. But, maybe the influence of my father ended the minute I came into Earth. My mother and grandmother took over, and so maybe biology is important because while it’s the study of life and how things work, when it comes to humans and who we are, you have the biological factors yes, but you also have the soul. The soul has nothing to do with who impregnated who. The soul is about your human experience and the way you contribute and take from the world. I want to be like a growing sunflower; shining, growing from the good roots of mother, sharing the joys of life with my friends and family. I am a daughter of a Genocidaire, but this does not define me. In fact, it has nothing to do with me. It’s my history, but I take the active choice to separate, to be me, on my very own terms.

I’m Maisara. I’m beautiful, I’m confident, I’m intelligent, and I will be somebody someday. I want to be a journalist, I want to help my family, and no matter what, I love to play football. Love is the most important thing in the world and though I’m a young woman I’ve been able to figure out that much. Most importantly, nothing is impossible. No fear. In all things, no fear.

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streams of mercy

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If one hundred people represented the world’s population, fifty-three of those would live on less than $2 a day. Do you realize that if you make $4000 a month, you automatically make ONE HUNDRED TIMES more than the average person on this planet?

Which is more messed up—that we have so much compared to everyone else, or that we don’t think we’re rich? That on any given day, we might flippantly call ourselves “broke” or “poor.” We are neither of these things.

Crazy Love, by Francis Chan

You know, I’ve learned a lot here. I’ve slowly built an arsenal of useful Kinyarwanda phrases (chore—to express surprise in a negative way; reka—kind of like, “you’ve got to be kidding me” or literally translated, “don’t touch me!”; and Imana yanjye—“oh my God!”), I’ve managed to understand how to put together a cohesive lesson plan, and if you needed a play-by-play of a Rwandan wedding, I’m your girl.

There’s a lot to master—to understand—but with each passing day I’m finding the most complex, disturbing, and heart wrenching question is that related to poverty. I get these beautifully supportive emails, messages, calls, and letters from loved ones that encourage and commend the job I am doing. More than I can say, I appreciate these. But what I don’t often talk about, explain, or try to put into words is the guilt, hypocrisy, and embarrassment I feel by living in a world surrounded by extreme poverty and being the RICH one.

It’s easier to tell funny stories about my students (like when Yazina commented on my blisters from my shoes: “teacher, the shoes for you eat your foot”), to share anecdotes about living in the village, or even what I’m doing on this or that weekend. These things are important but to share this experience fully, it has to be addressed on what it’s like to be a blatantly rich person in a place full of subsistence farmers, one-or-two room houses made from wood and mud, and with children, students, and young adults who are barely able to pay for school. My father saw this all first hand.

I saw the look (and shock) on his face when he saw my house. So. You live HERE. But as we went deeper into my community, into the homes’ of families and friends, he too realized that I live above the rest. I have paint, cement floors, electricity, and multiple rooms for only me. Pictures, knick knacks, and letters line my walls. Clothes are bursting at the seams of my makeshift dresser. I use a mosquito net, and now have two mattresses stacked together to keep me comfortable at night. And when people see all of this, they are only getting a small taste of where I come from.

From the American perspective and life experience that I am coming from, I suspect that many people might think that how I live (and where I live) is a life on the margins. My, what you have given up! And so, I feel like I straddle the line of two extremes.

My past is full of a university education, vacations to stunningly gorgeous places, multiple cars at different times, weekly trips to Starbucks, gym memberships, camps, my own room and space, microwaves and toasters, and summer jobs that gave me money to help with school, car insurance, or a few extra bucks to hit the cinema. I am so grateful to have had these things. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them. And, it’s not like I haven’t had to work hard for these things. More than anything, I’ve just so happened to have a great deal of blessings in my life: incredible parents, good neighborhoods, and a sound education system. But, these blessings are not to be taken for granted, I’m learning. Because it’s more than just the things, really. It’s the opportunity; it’s the way that I have been able to move through life.

I’m not trying to say that America doesn’t have poor people. God, no. Nearly every day, I have to explain to Rwandans that America indeed has poverty, poor people, and a lot of problems with homelessness, mental illness, and abuse. America is a rich country, absolutely. But, like I tell people, rich countries have poor people and poor countries also have rich people. Americans don’t have a free pass from economic hardship. But, let me be clear. Despite my experience working in homeless shelters, community centers, and transitional housing, I, myself, never had to wonder if I could go to school. I never had to question if food would be on the table. And, I never had to question if my basic needs would be met.

It’s just hard to reconcile my life with my current situation.

If I’m going to be completely honest here, a lot of times I get really pissed. At me? At the world? At God? Truthfully, I’m not quite sure.

I’ll talk to a student who can’t afford the 10 US dollars to pay school fees. I’ll talk to another student with this problem. And another. And another. And another. It really is never ending.

I’ll visit a Rwandan home with no belongings in sight.

I’ll be running with my IPOD plugged in and passing old women who are walking slowly with a stick, returning from market or from praying. Maybe they’re headed home—to cook, to fetch water, to clean. Maybe all three. I hope the water is clean today, I think.

I’ll give back a brown paper bag to my student who brought it to me because their family wanted to give me tomatoes for the week. I give it back after putting those ripe, red tomatoes in my food box because she needs it. Nothing is disposable here for many people, even a brown paper bag.

I’ll see a woman pay 100 RWF (Rwandan Francs; this amount is equal to about 15 cents or so) to buy phone credit immediately after I have just paid 2000 RWF just so I can chat up my friends for the evening.

A woman will tell me how their country is poor. And the best thing I can come up with to say is something along the lines of, “well, you have really good people.” Really, Heather? Really?

I get pissed because I just keep asking, WHY DOES THE WORLD WORK THIS WAY?

Maybe before you can probe this question, you have to first ask, why don’t people know?

And like I already noted, Americans aren’t immune. Poverty exists, thrives, and persists in America too. So why is it that if you happen to be comfortably getting by you can comfortably turn on the IPOD speakers at dinner time and tune it all out?

Why do I get to come home, even in my little village, and get on my computer and watch whatever TV show I want? All the while, my neighbors cook late into the evening, with the harvest from that day, with a small, fidgety petrol candle by their side.

I’m not free of these questions just because I happen to live in Rwanda. I’m 24 and afforded privilege, wealth, and education and I’m living in the midst of this problem and still feel like I’m doing nothing. Maybe that’s why I feel so darn guilty—I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what to do.

The best I’ve been able to muster is to treat my community members as equals. I try not to bring wealth into the equation. Often, the word poor isn’t even a descriptor I think of when I am describing the community I live among. I help where the outlets have been made known: through teaching, coaching, and friendship. But, is it enough? I do think we all have the power to change the world. But, what does that even look like? Am I doing enough? In a few years will all of this really matter to people who spend most of their hours in a day just making sure they can eat, bathe, and clean?

The rain has come and gone. I’m cozied up in a blanket, with my tea, computer, and pillow to rest my back as I sit on my treasured mat. I think the rain is probably going to come back. The thunder is rumbling treacherously, and somehow, I think that the storm has yet to clear. But, that’s okay by me. Two of my candles are flickering at a nearby table and I’m intentionally closing myself off. From the world, from these dark questions of why the world can be so messed up, from my job, from my stresses, from my doubts, from the mistakes that I make, and even from the probing mosquitos. Let the rain come. I’ll still be here.

A couple of hours ago, I realized after some journaling and chatting on the phone recapping my day that I needed space. But not the kind of space where I shut my door, throw on the latest episode of a TV show that I’m watching (these days, it’s Weeds), and zone out. I need to think but also rest my heart and mind.

I don’t need to ask if I’m doing enough because I can’t single-handedly figure out, process, or give the answer to the poverty in my village (or in the world, for that matter).

I have to say that, to write that, because I really need to believe that.

It still hurts all the same. I turned on one of my favorite songs that always brings my heart back to God and tried praying for a little while. I let the images of my friends, of my students, flash in my mind and tears came. What could they do if they weren’t poor?

And in a very beautiful way, in a very beautiful personal sort-of way I should say, I also came to realize that these very heartaches and questions are directly connected to WHY I believe in God. Here on Earth, there are all sorts of disparities, pain, diseases, issues, and inequalities. As humans, I think, it’s our job to do the best we can to minimize these, to support each other, and fit our strengths with the weaknesses of others (and vice versa) so that we are the best we can possibly be. We won’t be perfect. That’s just not going to happen. With God though, there’s more. With God, there’s grace. And there’s a deep love that He has for ALL PEOPLE. EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what color you are, who you love, or the mistakes that you have made.

We’re equal in the eyes of God. And for all of those questions, for all the discomfort I feel, and for all the what ifs I ask when it comes to who has what, I believe that I have to continue to do what I can to help, but also to trust that our lives are in the hands of God.

At the Catholic Church this last Sunday, I watched a lot of women pray as the service ended. I’ve talked about this before, but it never fails to be splendidly moving. They pray with fervor, with conviction, with hope. And it helps me believe again. And to remember this equality that God so perfectly provides. He is the great provider. For now, that is enough. I can rest in that. No, the answer is that I’m not enough. But, He is.

Come to the water

You who thirst and you’ll thirst no more

Come to the Father

You who work and you’ll work no more

And all you labor in vain

And to the broken and shamed

Love is here, love is now, love is pouring from His hands from His brow

Love is near, it satisfies

Streams of mercy flowing from his side, because love is here

Come to the treasure

You who search and you’ll search no more

Come to the lover

You who want and you’ll want no more

And all you labor in vain

And to the broken and shamed

And to the bruised and fallen

Captives bound and broken hearted

He is the Lord

“Love is Here” –Tenth Avenue North