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.