Monthly Archives: March 2013

“life continues”

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My friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Sarah Epplin (out of Indiana and a graduate of Indiana University–this is something she will remind you probably each time you are together; she loves her Hoosier roots!) is a regular blogger about her experience as a volunteer in Rwanda. She lives in my region (out East) and so I’ve been able to exchange stories, feelings, and ideas with her relatively regularly over fanta, amadazi (that’s the Rwandan version of doughnuts), and tea while we all meet to pick up our packages from America in our “big” town.

One continual theme that she occasionally blogs about is a list of reasons, people, and things that have kept her in Rwanda over the course of this experience. She can get as specific as something that she might enjoy eating, or as broad as a desire to fulfill some sort of life purpose or value. I’ve always enjoyed reading her posts when she reflects on what keeps her here because whenever you read the reflections of others, you are usually pushed to reflect in your own way as well.

It’s really not been a secret in our close-knit (and gossip heavy) Peace Corps community that I’ve hit a rather large slump over the last couple of weeks. A lot of us have been here too, and so it does help to know that I’m not alone.

And, I’ve been pretty open about it on my blog. This is for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, my blog is a pretty important way for me to reflect on what I’m going through, and in order to do this to the fullest extent, I have to be honest. But also, it’s crucial to describe the difficulties here because while this experience has been 90% wonderful and amazing for me, there are low points that have put me in dark emotional places that I really have never known before. It’s important to me, as a daughter, friend, sister, and acquaintance, to be open about these things so that people back home can realize that being a Peace Corps Volunteer isn’t a pit-stop in my life. It is my life. And so you continue to feel the same things you would anywhere else in the world. Though more recently, I would say that as I have become a more seasoned volunteer, the highs have certainly become much more intense, and in turn, the lows have become equally intense. Overall, I’m feeling everything a lot more strongly than say, a year ago, and so I’ve had to adjust and “go back to basics” as they say, and recall what I love about my life here. And so you have this blog.

Why Am I Still Here?

  • this is a part of my story. When I made a decision to commit to this, I was all in. That hasn’t changed. Even when I consider the idea of leaving, it’s no longer like thinking about quitting a job. It would be leaving a life. And I just can’t do that.
  • 10 months ago I was hesitant as to if this would work. then, there was no looking back. I’ve hit a hard spot. But really, up until now, I’ve been cruising. I know I can get back to that feeling.
  • my girls. if nothing else, it’s them. It’s always been them, it will always be them. Divine, Maisara, Zahara, and Yazina (among many others) make me want to be a strong woman, a woman of God, and a woman who puts God and my loved ones first. They bring out the best in me. They make me laugh. They make me happy. We’ve hit rough spots (no relationship is perfect) and yet each and every time, they redeem themselves, and I think I redeem myself too. Divine, in particular, is my best friend here, and I cannot fathom not seeing her every day. She’s my rock and we’ve both talked about how it’s unbelievable (and totally the work of God) in the way our lives have crossed at such a time. We both needed (and continue to need) each other.
  • there is work still to be done. My grant just finished the fundraising phase and after the holiday will need to begin implementation. Also, the shelves have finally arrived for our library and so after organizing the books it will need to be opened.
  • the food and tea just keeps getting better. and better! The fruit loop tasting tea (I’m not kidding) makes for strong motivation to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve found a renewed love for bananas. I have even started to have cravings for Rwandan food. Would I STAY in Rwanda solely for a plate of cooked plantains? Um. No. But it does help on more difficult days, believe me.
  • i want to be a constant for my students. Rwandans move like crazy. Things change in an instant and they have an incredible ability to adjust. However, I know they need constants–every human does. Even if it’s just for 2 years (a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of life, I know) I want them to see and know I’m here. I said I would be here for a certain amount of time and as long as I’m emotionally healthy and able to be here, I will be.
  • i’m an addict. to rwandan culture, that is. For every annoying bit of the culture here (secret-keeping, lack of honesty, staring), there’s 20 redeeming aspects, like hospitality, saying things like “be strong”, greetings, and dancing that make up for it. I’m just used to that now. And I love it!
  • routine. While I can never predict what will happen on the road, at school, or in transit, I have found solace in that. The unpredictable has become predictable. I like that life is different here. I like being in a challenging environment. But in even the most challenging of places to live, we are human, and we find ways to make life normal. Sure, maybe I’ll encounter different people, have a new problem, or visit a different student than normal. But on most days, I wake up in the same bed, I drink the same coffee, I teach, I walk the same roads, and I do the same things at night (cook, journal, push-ups, talk on the phone, pray, watch a TV show). Rwanda, in a sense, has become normal despite how crazy and weird it is here.
  • glow club. “teacher, we have a good friendship because you help me to have confidence in the life.” dream job, realized.
  • simplicity. Life is complex, hypocritical, and confusing sometimes, but when I take walks on the road and greet my neighbors and go to buy petrol to cook, I appreciate how the excessive amounts of STUFF doesn’t surrond me here. I know my life still isn’t anything like that of my neighbors and community members, but for me–on a good day–life is simple.
  • it feels right when I pray to God. I really believe I should have been here all along. Sometimes, I want to run away. But, when you’re doing what you should be, you find a way to come back. And each and everytime, this has worked for me. And it will this time too.
  • every day is a chance to help someone. This is true ANYWHERE in the world in ANY situation. We live in communities for a reason. However, this is one of the most tied-together communities that I have lived within and because of this, being able to help someone, anyone, is there for the taking. And it’s not just because I’m white (let’s be real, that’s another issue altogether) but it’s because I’m a teacher in rural Rwanda, and with that role, a lot of other doors to help people are open. This is what I have always wanted the focus of my life to be, so I stay because I know I’m helping someone. And maybe the best part is that the people I am trying to serve or serving me right back. I tell them this all the time. I hope they know it. I hope they understand just how much they have added to my life.
  • it’s beautiful here. Who wouldn’t want to live amidst trees, mountains, birds, blues, greens, yellows, and rolling hills that make the scenery look unreal? Rwanda folktale say that Imana (God) goes all over the world in the day but that at night, he comes back home, to Rwanda, to sleep. I would too. This is one of the most gorgeous places I have ever seen.
  • i’ve come this far. I have finished teaching 4 terms at my school. 4 out of 6. I have lived in Rwanda since September 2011. That’s like, 19 months. I’ve spoken some kind of word in Kinyarwanda for every day that has passed. I’ve figured out how to stand my own at the market, where the best running trails exist in my village (still finding new ones every day), how to handle the frusturation of disorganization, how to exist in what we call ‘Rwanda time’, and I know who to go to when I have a problem. I have literally made a life here. There is no shame in walking away if it’s time to go, but for me, it’s not that time. I have come this far, surely I can continue. I’ve been able to withstand harassment, security issues, crazy people (quite literally), and being the only white girl around. If I can make it for 19 months, I know I can not only do, but do well in the remaining 8 months.

ONWARD AND UPWARD.

Yesterday, I sat on my bed with Divine as she cried.

Yes, crying. Rwandans RARELY do this in the presence of another person; and I could count on my hand the times I had seen Rwandans cry.

Divine was upset because she was concerned about her mathematics marks after not being allowed to sit for the exam because she didn’t bring a notebook to contribute to the communal books of paper that the school uses during exam week. We won’t talk about how she actually did bring her book (the assistant principal wasn’t around when she came by the office) and when she tried again on the day of the exam (before any exam was even administered) he just remarked that it was too late and she’d have to take no marks for that exam.

She buried her face in her hands and cried for about 10 minutes. She refused to talk. She didn’t even take the tissue I offered. I tried to console her but it didn’t really work, I think. Crying is a different sort of thing in Rwanda, and she just needed to have her moment.

As I rubbed her back, I simultaneously became once again infuriated with my school and more determined than ever to stay here. In the same moment, I wanted to quit my job in protest of the ridiculous decisions our administration makes and also wanted to continue so that there could be an open space for my students if they so wanted. Obviously, Divine felt safe to be in my home; she woudn’t be crying there if this wasn’t the case.

After her tears finished, I gave her some chocolate and threw on “Kiss Me Kate”, a musical that had her laughing continously when she watched it the week prior. She loves the dancing and singing parts in particular.
I called her later that night after she had returned home and that same energy and spirit in her voice was back.

I asked how she was feeling and she said, “wonderful!” I smiled and said she was a very strong girl. She told me,

“Heather, before my heart was sad. Even me, I cried! Yeee weeee (oh my Jesus!)….but now it is okay. I will pray that God can find the solution for me. It is okay to be sad sometimes but life continues.”

Me: “Life continues?”

Divine: “Life continues. You continue to be happy in the life. No fear.”
She couldn’t have known, but these were the exact words I needed to hear. It’s the sort of thing that gives me purpose, inspiration, and motivation all in one. She’s right.
Life continues. I’m still here, and I’m still so glad to be. Let these reminders hold me in the challenging times. Let me remember what really matters.

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enjoy your apple pie

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Does 4 cups of de-caffeinated coffee cancel out the whole won’t-hype-you-up-at-night thing?

It’s 9:30 at night and on any given night at this time I would be at home doing one of four things:

1)      Sleeping.

2)      Watching Gossip Girl (that’s my MO these days, anyway).

3)      Doing some sort of yoga-weights (with condensed milk cans, I should note)-zumba wannabe workout. 

4)      My getting ready for bed routine. This is as follows: turn off Christmas lights, brush teeth, throw trash down latrine, use latrine to go to the bathroom, wash my hands, moisturize my face, pick out clothes for the next day, floss, set alarm, make sure my petrol stove is off and put away, check alarm one more time for good measure, and enter the wonderful world of my mosquito net.)

Instead, I’m at the coffee shop in Kigali (Bourbon Coffee—my home away from home away from home—that’s right, it’s my home outside my Rwandan home which is still further away from good ole America) on a Thursday evening. Soon, I’ll be heading to the hostel that Suzi so kindly made a reservation for me at. I’m eating a beautiful slice of cinnamon flavored apple pie with peanut butter ice cream alongside my coffee. Sometimes, this is really what taking a break is all about. The pie. 

I was supposed to leave my village tomorrow morning in order to attend our Peer Support Network Meeting (we are a group of volunteers that acts a sort of support system for volunteers in Rwanda) but impulsively, I decided to leave earlier this evening. I was tutoring a girl in my village, Solange, who has been nothing but kind to me. Her family is amazing. And yet, somehow, I was still getting worked up, frustrated, and felt suffocated being in her home. I think it was probably in part to the fact it was raining outside and so I had no choice but to be there. And I was force fed approximately seven pieces of meat. Just another instance of having very little control of my life.

Anyway, I finished teaching her about some phrases to use at the market (in English, of course) and after walking home barefoot (in the mud; my shoes broke on the way there) I made a strong stride straight to my backpack and packed recklessly. I threw a few shirts in, some deodorant, and my IPOD. The travel essentials. I called my moto driver, Emile, and he came within the hour. I just wanted out. Something in me ticked and it was like all of the things that have upset me lately came spilling out. I cried half of the moto ride. That must of just been a beautiful, capture-me moment. White girl rides moto with stained mascara and a blotchy red face.

I lost all my photos from a computer virus. My students continually keep getting screwed over by our horribly disorganized administration. My exam got the short end of the stick when most students didn’t have an appropriate amount of time to do it—what am I supposed to do, give them zeroes? I have been extraordinarily short on money.

And yet, those are specific, identifiable things that have been upsetting me and I’m not sure that’s why I was even crying in the first place.

I need a break. That much I was able to see. When I’m with people that usually remind me of why I love this place and I’m still feeling aggressive and upset—that’s a red flag. For me, anyway.

But also, in the back of my mind, I keep asking, what’s going on here? I have enjoyed this experience far more than I could ever describe. And when you peel the layers back, there is the solid base of people that I have relationships with that have unquestionably made my life better. Not this experience—my life. Why isn’t that enough? Why is it harder than just reassuring yourself that everything is going to be okay, and I don’t know, just getting on with it?

Because y’all, this is life.

That’s really the best way to summarize all of this. This stopped being a job for me a long time ago. And when it did, the sensible, structured, and easy-explanation stuff came to a halt. Sometimes, we just feel what we feel, and we have to deal with.

Unfortunately, for you, my loyal blog readers, I feel like a great deal of my blogs deal with this not-so-uncommon phenomenon of how we deal with emotions (you’re probably like–“um. I kind of wanted to read about Rwanda.”) But hey, that’s part of the story, you know? I write about it a lot because it really is a beast out here in between the banana trees and the unrelenting sun (or these days, as it is now rainy season, the unrelenting rain).

I’m taking a break, and I’m really glad I am. And this break is a lot more than just a couple days in Kigali, sipping delicious coffee and having dinner dates with friends.

No, I’m literally leaving in less than a week for a journey to not only Uganda, but to England. Could this have come at a better time? Um. No. I need to completely relax. I need someone who knows me from before. I need to recharge my batteries. I need to share my stories to someone. I just need to take a hot bath, darnit!

I’m reminding myself over (and over) again that just because I need a break and just because I’m tired and just because I’m upset doesn’t take away from what has happened here and what I really do feel for my village and my life as an education volunteer. At the end of the day, I have the ability to take a break. People in my village—well, they don’t, really. And so if I’m really that fed up, I’m doing myself a much better service to leave, catch my breath, and come back fresh. I might not like feeling weak, but being vulnerable actually lets you win in the end. You actually experience truth and that’s much more powerful in the end.

And you really don’t have to worry about me too much.

Before I go on a three-week-Rwanda-hiatus, I’m going to spend the last week finishing up some school reports, having Bobby visit me for several days, visit Kigali with Divine and Yazina, and host a little get-together at my house (beer included, apparently) with Maisara and Zahara’s mom and grandmother.

Plus, things like this happen:

Sunday afternoon: Yazina brings over a rice sack FULL of plantains. A gift from her grandmother.

Later that Sunday: Divine brings over a small yellow jug of banana beer to share. “Heather it’s been many days since you had the banana beer. Me, I think that I want to bring this gift to you.”

Monday: Solange brings me sweet banana (these would be the yellow kinds). Yum!

Tuesday: Solange’s mom gives me money to help buy electricity (an incredibly moving and sweet gesture).

Wednesday: Jean brings me a small bag full of plantains to add to my collection.

Thursday: Yazina, Divine, and I discuss American Culture over some Crystal Light before making bets on the weather. This is quite typical. It’s what we do.

Most of these things have to do with hospitality, friendship, and bananas.

Luckily for me, after a long, 4-month period of LOATHING anything banana related, I’m back in the saddle again. I sipped that beer and have been cooking up those bananas (awesome in a curry like paste) after hours and hours of supervising final exams.

And maybe just like bananas, I’ll eventually get through this difficult period and be back in the saddle again too.

Our former country director warned us. She told us several times actually how our service in the Peace Corps is full of innumerable amounts of ups and downs and that a lot of times you will feel like you are riding a roller coaster.

There’s been a dip. But there’s reason to believe that things will get better, because they always do. They have before, and they will again. With a ridiculous supply of bananas, rest time, and a holiday coming up, I have no doubts about that.

don’t forget to remember

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the folder of notes and love that has been sent to me from abroad over the past year

my comprehensive book list

my comprehensive book list

Nearly two years ago I helped my best friend, Rachel, move her things, boxes, and car to Murfreesboro, Tennessee by way of Little Rock, Arkansas. She would soon start her graduate studies (getting her master’s in Public History) as she resettled into a new place, with a new apartment, a new campus, and a new set of friends. We had graduated Hendrix that spring, spent the hot months of June, July, and August working at home (bless her, she worked in Little Rock doing surveys via telephone) and before getting on with our new beginnings, had road-tripped to Disney World in Rachel’s white Saturn, fondly named Thea (the name comes from a long story from an adventure in Togo, Africa while we studied abroad). Michelle, our other best friend, was also to be married in the days following and I was down to about 2 weeks left in the U.S. before departing for Peace Corps Rwanda.

All of this is important because it was a time of change, uprooting our lives, and transition. I kept this in the back of my mind as we carried heavy boxes, bags, and suitcases in and out of Rach’s place. And, when we started organizing and putting things together (she could certainly highlight my faulty bookshelf-building skills), I couldn’t help but poke fun at her collection of things—do you really need this? Can you just throw this away? Most of the time she just rolled her eyes and we went on with the day, deciding whether we wanted to eat Fazoli’s or at a local café (the Southern food found in Tennessee is hard to beat—especially if you’re looking for perfectly fried chicken tenders, catfish, or a mean kind of gravy sauce).

I mean, I have to also understand her archivist-inclined brain—many things from our past have value in the future, holding some kind of sentimental virtue; a way we construct our memory, if you will. The girl wrote her senior thesis about this sort of thing, and so I know it’s important—to her, yes, but also to humans in general.

Today, I sifted through the volumes of journals I have thus far from my time in Rwanda, perused old folders tucked behind the stacks of books that need reading, and found notebooks full of notes, lessons, and ideas I’ve had here. And, maybe today the tables would be turned; Rach could say, “I told you so!” or even, “who’s the archivist now?” because after a year and a half here, I’ve hoarded, collected, and kept an obscene amount of artifacts to represent my experience.

As if my extensive writings weren’t enough, I’ve kept notes from students (Valentines included), photos, Peace Corps memos, manuals, old quizzes, class lists, bus tickets, letters and pictures from home, package slips, and pamphlets from my travels around Rwanda and in Tanzania. It makes sense, I think, because these things not only represent what we did, but they also represent how we felt. Time is a powerful force—you have to be ready to reckon with it if you want to come out on top. Time passes and you forget. It’s inevitable, but keeping those notes, those letters, and those photographs remind you of what was important and what mattered.

Once an obsessive watcher of Hoarders (a slightly disturbing and addicting depiction of people with severe hoarding issues), I understand how our compulsion to keep THINGS can get out of control—rooted in something far deeper than the thing itself. I’ve seen it first-hand too—I have had family members with this very problem. But for me, well for one, you won’t see me on TV anytime soon for hoarding, and mostly, I just fear I’ll forget. I worry I’ll forget what it feels like to just have a “normal” day in the village, what emotions rise when I feel a genuine relationship building here, how much it hurts to be lonely, lied to, and on the outside looking in, the sheer joy of traveling and seeing new and beautiful places, and the evidence of a successful day in the classroom.

So, I keep these things in a genuine effort to remember. As I lost time looking at all of these things though, I realized as of late, I’ve been too worried about the future. Will I try and do a third year in Rwanda? Will I go home? Will I be able to find a job? Will I go to graduate school? How can I maintain these relationships so far away? Can I still support the girls that I am closest to? How can I explain this entire experience to people? Will they understand? Will I ever fit into anything again?

…..

I should do myself a service.

Continue to keep these things, but don’t lose sight of where I am now. Today, this is my life, so just soak it up. Feel it. And enjoy for what it is now, knowing I’ll have artifacts and journals galore to help me remember what it was like to be this young, weird, American woman living in rural Rwanda.

It was Rachel, I should note, that joked that I could have an archive after all of this was all said and done. Doing her proud, every day, one letter, paper, and list at a time.

kigali to do list

kigali to do list

i've saved several of my phone cards; these are what i use to buy minutes so i can use my phone (it's like pay as you go!)

i’ve saved several of my phone cards; these are what i use to buy minutes so i can use my phone (it’s like pay as you go!)

all my lesson plans (yes, some are kept in harry potter books, classy)

all my lesson plans (yes, some are kept in harry potter books, classy)

 

superwomen

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Running was easy today.

More than easy, it was as if all of the joy, energy, and enthusiasm that were flowing through my mind, body, and heart were filtering right into my blood, lifting my legs with a strength I hadn’t felt for what seemed like days and weeks prior. I could have run for hours if the sun wasn’t saying goodbye to our little piece of the world. The sun was setting, it was getting close to 6:00, and on my way home I ran into some of my GLOW girls still making their way home from our over 3-hour long celebration for International Women’s Day. We greeted each other in a classic Heather-student sort of way.

Me: “Superwomen!!!!!”

Girls: “Yessssss….superwomen!!!!”

Me: Today I am very happy. The party was wonderful!

Maisara: Today I am so happy!!!

Me: But I am sorry! Be patient. You are very late to go at home. Go home and eat! You are hungry, yes?
Zahara: No!

Me: No? You are not hungry?

Zahara: No! We are satisfied because we eat love.

Maisara: We eat happiness! It is very important in the life!

Me: *rendered speechless from how cute this little interaction was*

Jeannine: Today was the best day. The best day.

Me: Yes! You girls have a nice night. Good journey home! I love you!

Girls: And meeeee! See you tomorrow, Heather!

Like I said, running was easy. How could it not be when I had all of this to process? For the first time in weeks, my run wasn’t heavy, full of questions, frustrations, and sadness. For some reason, well a lot actually, it’s been a more difficult week or two emotionally, and it’s showed in my running. It wasn’t fun anymore. I dreaded it. But I did it because it still managed to relieve my stress, somehow.

Today was my favorite day in a very long time. Today was just one of those days that reminds you why life is beautiful, why God always gives you what you need when you need it most, and what it feels like to see the fruits of your labor.

Today, at GLOW club, we celebrated International Women’s Day. To make this extra special, I received a phone call last week from a fellow 3rd year Peace Corps Volunteer, Sarah, who works with the Nike Foundation/Girl Hub (an initiative to encourage girl empowerment projects and activities throughout Rwanda; specifically there is a publication called Ni Nyampingai that serves as a radio broadcast and magazine to get these kinds of ideas to girls all over rural Rwanda) who wanted to visit our GLOW club. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity, knowing my girls would be overjoyed. And so we spent the week prepping our songs, dance, and poem for the coming guests. We cut pieces of the same igitenge (Rwandan fabric) so that we could be unified and have a common sign for being a part of GLOW club. And, I put together a lesson that I would be giving on the day that the guests came: it was a brief history of Women’s Day, a brainstorm session of what makes women super, and finally, some lyrics to Alicia Keys’ song, Superwoman.

On the day of our celebration, the guests came into our classroom and the girls were beaming. I mean, I was almost knocked off my feet from how beautiful, energized, and happy they looked. And then, they did their traditional dance and sang their song that greets guests (very important in Rwandan Culture) and I could barely contain myself. Yes, I’m kind of an emotional basketcase when it comes to these things, but I’m telling you, it was just SO inspiring to see. They really had no fear. No fear. No fear. We have been repeating this mantra all term and wow, they just completely got it.

Our guests included a representative from Ni Nyampinga magazine (check out their link here: ), Sarah (the third year Peace Corps Volunteer), a professional photographer, two interviewers, and a translator. The girls particularly loved the representative from the magazine as she was a young, beautiful Rwandan woman that talked to them about women’s empowerment and spoke to them extensively about these sorts of things in Kinyarwanda. That was my favorite part of this whole thing; it’s one thing for me to stand up in front of my girls and preach about self-confidence, goals, and fighting fear, but for a strong Rwandan woman to do the same is much more powerful. It brings it home for them, and as she was speaking to them about their dreams for their futures, I watched as their eyes just lit up as they shared their dreams to be teachers, doctors, and presidents.

After welcoming our guests and giving the lesson about Superwomen to the girls, they engaged in conversations, read the magazine, and two of my girls, Divine and Maisara, gave interviews for nearly an hour about the club, what we do, and why it’s a safe place for them. I haven’t read their answers or anything, but the interviewers told me they did great. I’m totally not surprised. Not in the least. We also shared juice, had a dance party, practiced our model walks, and really, just celebrated being young women. What more do you need than that to have a good time?

The girls also did a sketch for the guests (the one we did about fighting fear) and we did the trust circle to demonstrate the importance of the girls trusting one another to help them in all things.

A bagillion MILLION pictures were taken and so I can’t wait to see the finished article (they came specifically to do a piece about the girls) and see how great the pictures and interviews turned out.

I just loved today, mostly because my girls got to feel and BELIEVE that they are, in fact, superwomen. They often tell me how much they love me…and after today, I just want to hold them tight and tell them over and over again, that it’s THEM who are my heroes. It’s THEM that makes me want to show up for work every day, and it really is THEM who makes me believe that the world can be a better place. I know that’s cheesy, fluffy, and all sorts of idealistic, but I promise you, had you been in that room with me today, you would think the very same things. I couldn’t have been a prouder mama, and there’s nothing that could have made celebrating Women’s Day so beautiful. I’m just so proud I get to try and be a superwoman alongside these girls. They are everything to me and are the reason that the string of bad and difficult times can fade into the background. They are the reason I can endure. They are the reason I love being a Peace Corps Volunteer.