Monthly Archives: May 2013

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I knew I hit the mommy jackpot when once, I had my teeth pulled out (those darn molars) and my mom dealt with me, her vicodin-induced daughter, gabbing and singing our entire trip back home to Aurora from the dentist’s office in Denver. She helped me through our door, tucked me in on the couch with a down comforter, brought me both rasberry and pineapple sherbet (the angel that she is), and as she readjusted the ice pack on my face, snuggled me in with my beloved stuffed elephant, Boo Boo.

(I was at least 16 or 17 years old, mind you.)

A mother’s love, I think is a special brand. She told me this before, too.

“You’ll understand when you have children someday.”

And I’ve witnessed–not just experienced–it as well. With my mother and also with my grandmothers and aunts who would do anything for their kids. Grandma Jenny would often drive Lance and I by my dad’s childhood home and she wistfully show us where he played on the playground and the crazy things he did with my two uncles. She would talk about how crazy her boys were, but she would also be sure to always say how much she loved them. And always, without fail, she would say that my dad and mom felt the same things about Lance and I and so that we should always appreciate our parents and what they do for us.

No, I haven’t birthed a child yet but perhaps at the ripe age of 24 (um. am I really in my mid-20’s?!?) I’m on the cusp of having a good chunk of hindsight and a fair amount of perspective. The teen years are over, that’s for sure. I can see my parents as people (yes, they actually went through most, if not all, of the stuff we go through) and yes, the game or movie nights, the occasional grounding, the checking in on homework completion, the time outs, and the family dinners actually did have a lot of purpose. I am finally able to see my parents, Michelle Cupps and Ted Newell, not only as ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ but as friends, spouses, community members, and people. They’ll always be just mom and dad, but I recognize much more fully everything that is a part of them. And maybe I’m starting to also better understand everything they did for me, and also why they did (and do) all these things for me.

I REPEAT: I am not a mother. I have no children or plans for children on the horizon.

However, in the last few weeks my role as a motherly figure within my job here has felt more pronounced and called upon.

Let me explain.

Last weekend, I brought four of my students to Kigali to meet with other volunteers and students who would run at the National Stadium (Amahoro ‘Peace’ Stadium) for the Kigali Marathon (they would be running in the 5K run, however). It was so fun!

I took my kiddos for ice cream within 20 minutes of reaching the city and though they were skeptical, scared even, at first, they loved it. They are still talking about it, y’all. Teacher, remember how cold the ice cream was!

And hello, what a chance for them! To see the big city (for my kids it was their first time to Kigali. Ever.), to meet other students, and to stay at a church compound with only two people per room. For them, this was pure luxury.

Yes, it was indeed great fun. But logistically, I felt like a mom in JCPenny’s when her rambunctious child decides to play a fun “game” and hide under the women’s clothing racks, waiting for their mother to find them (based on a real story). I had to constantly check and make sure we were together, make sure I had enough travel money for each of us, and keep them hydrated. It was exhausting.

But worth every minute. Because wow, the feeling and emotion I felt when I saw Maisara finish the race (the first girl in all of the 5K race to do so) was really strong. I got a little teary-eyed. So, maybe this is what mom felt like at all of those field hockey matches? At those soccer games? At the summer softball tournaments? At my short-lived attempt at gymnastics when I was 6?

Don’t even get me started on how I’ve evolved from the girls’ football coach into the official team mom. I would put crazy American team moms to shame.

I facilitate shoe check-out at every practice (oh yeah, we have a FULL set of CLEATS these days), provide filtered water post-practice, ocassionally provide crackers from a nearby boutique if I have the funds, lead stretching and conditioning exercises, check practice wounds, store the girls’ sports clothes in my house, give access to my lotion (Rwandan girls are obsessed with moisturizing), host team meetings, and also scrimmage with them and attempting to not get my butt kicked.

It’s not that I’m a god-send to these girls–it’s just doing all of these things makes me happy. It’s completely one of the best parts of my week. It also solidifies all of the work and time that the grant has required of me; this is exactly how we envisioned this. We’re finally a serious team.

And maybe all of this mother tender-heartedness feelings feel more on the table because of my GLOW girls and the kinds of conversations we are having this term. In the club sessions, we have been discussing healthy and unhealthy relationships and women’s health which are driving me to ‘google’ things like,

“how to talk to your child about puberty”
or
“how to help your child understand menstruation.”

Yes, I’m roaming self-help sites for mothers.

The girls ask general questions like what to do when a boy says ‘I love you’ and how to say ‘no’ when a boy ‘wants to kiss’. They’re opening up and so I feel 100% obliged to at least try and respond.

To take it one step further, some of my GLOW girls–my friends–and I discuss more intense life experiences one on one. One girl was recently approached and pressured to have sex. A couple of them frequently ask about changing bodies, emotions, irregularities in their health, what’s appropriate when it comes to physical affection, and who the best person to go to for advice is. It’s all over the place. But, it’s been great both ways, because I’m able to answer from personal experience and so I can open up as well.

I would never EVER fill the place of the girls’ mothers. Nor would I want to.

But, the nurturing, motherly side of me is coming out more these days. Maybe it’s because I know a lot of these girls so well at this point or maybe it’s just the nature of my personality and of theirs. I don’t really know, y’all.

But, it’s got me thinking and more than anything, thanking the good Lord for my lucky stars. The women I grew up around made me feel comfortable and supported. I just hope maybe that is what is happening here in Rwanda. They do call me ‘Grandmother GLOW’, after all.

It was Mother’s Day recently and I told Divine about how this holiday is celebrated in America (Rwanda doesn’t have this day in their calendar). She said she wished Rwanda had this kind of celebration because “mothers are the ones who make their babies strong.” And she wasn’t just talking about breast milk, believe me. I laughed and then spent a large portion of that Sunday remembering and cherishing what my own mom brings to my life.

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She is the kind of mom that organized my bagillion member family to bring signs and decorations to my last high school field hockey game. There’s a photo of them in the stands and it’s one of my favorite photos – ever.

She lets me go on (and on) one of my tangents during car rides to lunch on her days off from work in the summer.

She says “I love you” every day and also, I might add, completely supported me in my beanie baby craze when I was growing up in the 90’s. I had the Princess Diana bear with a tag protector IN a case. That’s legit.

She took me on special trips just because and even toted the best dog ever, Buddy, along with her to a trip to Arkansas to see me at Hendrix one time.

Every week that I have been in Rwanda, she has called me. She’s listened as I’ve gushed over my friends and families here, as I’ve dealt with loneliness, as I’ve had boy problems, and cheered me on in each and every situation. She has never made me feel bad for making the choice to live in Rwanda for two years; in fact, she’s encouraged me, which has pushed me to really put all of myself into living here. Other volunteers have not had this kind of support and I really do think it makes all the difference in the world.

And maybe what I love most is that not only is she the greatest mom around, but like I said, I can see her strengths as a wife, friend, sister, daughter, and woman of God.

And in turn, as I get older, she’s my determined and passionate mother but also a best friend for me. I get it because in some way, it’s how I feel for my girls–Divine, Maisara, Yazina, and Zahara–I’m a teacher for them first, but also a mentor, and a friend. Relationships actually can have overlapping roles and the rewards are beyond amazing despite the difficulties.

If I’m doing a good job with my girls it’s because of my mom. She taught me what it looks like to do anything for the people you love, especially as a mother. That’s the greatest gift I have. I hold it, cherish it, and do my best to use it. I’m far from perfect, as is mom, but when it comes to deeply loving someone, doing whatever you can for them is the root of a strong, abiding love.

Thanks mom, for showing me that.

It’s been nearly 630 days since I last hugged you at the airport, and in 2 short months, I’m finally going to be able to see you again, hug you, laugh with you, and show you a really neat place in the world. You’re going to meet some really special people and I just can’t wait for you and Randy to get here.

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NOW OPEN: Ruramira’s first and only library

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“Heather, today you make history in Rwanda.” – Divine

For the last week, when I haven’t been teaching, I’ve actually been going insane.

Not for the normal reasons (my reignited war with mice, for example, or perhaps dealing with children staring at me through my windows on a daily basis) but actually because I had been making final preparations to open the Ruramira Community Library.

I imagine it was maybe somehow simiilar to what planning other big events feels like–be it a wedding, an important ceremony, or some kind of celebration.
People are asking you a billion different questions every second.
You have to make small and big decisions on the spot.
And, you are in a constant state of stress while planning.

This project is over a year in the making. USAID and EDC (Education Development Center) presented this idea to Peace Corps at my group’s in-service training conference back in April 2012. I expressed interest (my community had no viable reading materials) and by May, I found myself at planning meetings in Kigali at EDC headquarters. The plan was to bring libaries to a variety of rural communities across Rwanda. These would be some of the very first libraries in the entire country, and their implementation was a part of a larger initiative called L3 (Language, Literacy, and Learning). This initiative is a 5-year program completely funded by USAID and technically supported by EDC. The statistic below is what tipped me over to have 100% buy-in with this project. Perhaps it would be difficult to do, perhaps it would even fail, but why not try? It’s books, y’all!

In Rwanda its been proven that those with a higher level of education earn more money throughout their life.

Level of education                                   Average earning
Primary school                          70% higher than individuals with no education

Lower secondary                      240% higher

Upper secondary                     440% higher

University                                    1600% higher

By no means was I setting out on a mission to eradicate poverty completely in my community with a set of books; however, I did see the obvious correlation between literacy, education, and an increased level of economic opportunity. Maybe my Backstreet Boys lessons (as fantastic and fun as they are) weren’t enough to encourage English use in the lives of my students, but my oh my, the possibilities with a library seemed endless. And even better, it wouldn’t be just for them. It would be for everybody. Everybody could read a book. Students, old people, young people, farmers, leaders, anybody. An equal-opportunity, opportunity.

For the first few months, along with a handful of other Peace Corps Volunteers, we mapped out how to start one of these things in our respective communities: how do we inform and mobilize our communities? How do we make a library commitee? How can we ensure sustainability? How do we operate and organize the books?

By that summer I was working with our local leaders to find a place and a plan for our library. Eventually, it is hoped to make this library mobile, but for now, our focus has been establishing one library center. It’s located on our school grounds (thank you, headmaster) with a small office where the books are shelved and an adjacent room for reading.

The books were delivered in October 2012 and inventoried in November. Early 2013 was spent working to acquire shelves and once they arrived, I spent hours creating a system to process the collection (not only making an inventory but leveling the books as well). We have 1,186 books. Mostly they are in English, but we also do have a Kinyarwanda set. It took some creative brainstorming, but after some time I was able to create as sound of a system as I could think of: the books are divided by language and then by level. Kinyarwanda has 6 levels; English has 9. Additionally, we have a chapter book section and a life skills section. All are organized alphabetically and every book has a special color and number code to help track the books upon check-out. I have years of watching my mother organize things to thank; it was definitely her genes kicking in.

Each person who comes to the library is registered with a library card. They can submit this card upon check out, and the librarian records the book code that they take and they keep the card until their book is returned. We’ll see how it actually goes, right? It’s obviously still going to be in the experimental phase in that we are going to see what works and what doesn’t. It took the help of 3 other volunteers, over 20 hours of work, and lots of back pain to code all of the books. To all the librarians out there: RESPECT.

So yesterday was our big day; it was the launch! Media outlets and high government officials were due to come out for our celebration, but the rain (all 7 straight hours of it) kept them away. No matter, our news story was released to the press and many of my students later heard it on one of the major radio stations in the East, called Radio Izuba (‘Izuba’ meaning ‘Sun’). We had many speeches during our program (I chose to give mine in Kinyarwanda actually, and Divine later told me that I only made three mistakes, making my marks, in her opinion, an 8.5 out of 10. Let’s be real though, the girl is a bit biased!) and we had dancing, and of course, reading. Two old men from my village read a book in Kinyarwanda and our school president read a book in English. I purchased fantas (as per cultural norm) for the commitee after the party. As we locked the library up and packed our things, I sighed with major relief. We did it! The hard part, perhaps, is over. Now, it’s just about the reading. Our library slogan is this (and printed in our huge sign):

DUSANGIRE UMUCO WO GUSOMA.
We share the culture of reading.

It’s time to celebrate, sit back, relax, and read a good book.

football saturdays

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I just walked in through my back door, put our new football (ahem, I mean soccer ball) in the corner of my room, and collapsed onto the nearest chair.

It’s Saturday which means it’s football day.

Y’all, football day is one of my favorite days of the week. Typically (if there is such a thing in Peace Corps life) on Saturdays I wake up late, sip coffee while reading a magazine, wash my shoes, visit the girls, and go and play. Today it was like this. Except with some special things here and there. Like today, I took a nap mid-day at Maisara and Zahara’s house. I was tired and Maisara was sick and so her mother put a mat out for us, layed a piece of African fabric on top, and closed the door. Light peaked in through small holes, but we were asleep in seconds.

This was of course after we ate rabbit. Yes, rabbit. The girls’ brother, Abbouba, killed one of their white furred, red-eyed rabbits this morning, cooked it for a bit, and by the time I cruised in around noon it was all ready to go. If I’m going to be honest, I definitely prefer cow meat but I’m glad I at least gave it a try.

After eating and taking a light nap, I also looked on as the girls’ grandmother harvested tobacco. She hates the stuff, but she was putting in small little baggies to sell. I even did some of the grinding with a mortar and pestle. We sat on this little bench outside the house, exchanging smiles and glances, and I just was reminded of how awesome grandmothers are. She has these adorable gray curls in her hair, worn eyes, and sun-soaked skin. She’s really beautiful. And, she’s hilarious to boot. She’s a snarky one and I enjoyed being her little girl today (mostly because I could actually catch on to all her little jokes that she mumbles).

It was also a special day because we used a new ball that I just purchased with the sports grant money. A REAL BALL. It made such a difference! The girls were so excited. The community was so excited. People gathered around to watch us play with this beautiful ball and we were just all beaming. When you apply for grants with Peace Corps (and really, all grants in general) you have to provide some evaluations and what-not for Monitoring and Evalution. This helps the program and people know: did your project really work? Did you help people? I smiled to myself when this crossed my mind today because I just thought, how can you ever measure this? How do you evaluate sheer enjoyment? How can you monitor the feeling of being out on the field, letting go of problems, stress, and concerns and just playing? Who knows. But, I could sense a change with just A BALL. Wait till the teams at school get legitimate shoes, uniforms, and socks, to name a few. Good things are a comin’.

I played defense today and man, it was nitty gritty. I fell a few times, earned some nice-lookin’ grass stains, and at one point did manage to score a goal. A rarity for me in Rwanda, believe me.

I also laughed so much as we played today. It was just…so fun. Divine came out and played (usually she doesn’t come because she has chores to do) and she was a riot. That girl. She isn’t the most athletically gifted but she sure will try. She would often kick the ball right into the stomach of another player (usually her own teammate) and then fall on the ground laughing at this mishap. Let’s be real, I would then be rolling on the ground laughing with her and it was just another example of us being the ridiculous and obnoxious ones. Always.

I came home right as the sun was setting and I felt completely, utterly content. It’s weird how this happens.

The lows are so so low. But man, the highs. They are delicate and surprising at times, but when they come, it’s that kind of happiness that when you are feeling it, you can’t help but think wow, that this is what life is really about. Like you are experiencing something real, with all of life’s distractions picked away. You want to hold on to it desperately, because you know it’s fleeting. Happiness in general isn’t fleeting necessarily, but this kind of happiness is. I felt like that today. And perhaps tomorrow I will struggle, question the entire point of this experience, and face mountains that I don’t feel like I can tackle. But today, it was Rwanda at its finest.

I managed to get out of that chair, bathe my sore body, and open the computer to listen to one of my favorite mixes: it’s a mix that the wonderful Jessica Johns (Hardy) sent me last year. I’m still obsessed. I also opened a document in which I copied some news stories and blog entries during my internet time yesterday. This way, when I have internet I can get some content and read it later when I’m back in the village. I read the blog of one of my fellow volunteers, Betsy, who posted a letter that she had found from a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia. I read this letter (addressed to someone considering joining the Peace Corps) and nodded the entire time. This volunteer captures this kind of experience as aptly as you really could. It was a good read, particularly after the last few weeks, where I have gone up and down emotionally, just trying to keep up with everything.

I hope this letter leaves you with a better understanding and a fresh perspective on what it’s like to be in the Peace Corps.

The one thing I know for sure? I couldn’t do this without the PEOPLE in my life. There are people here, and there are people quite far away. I have families all over the place now, you know, and that’s a really beautiful thing–I’m a lucky girl. A special thank you to my dear friends and family that continually support me. With letters, with velveeta cheese, with surprise phone-calls, with hugs, with positivity, it all makes the hard days worth it. And it makes me particularly gushy on really good days, evidently. Just know I love you.

Enjoy.

Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps,

I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.

But should you? Is it right for you?

Honestly, you might not know that until you’ve arrived. You can research by reading books and official publications or by talking with current/returned volunteers, but everything you read and hear will probably tell you the same thing: every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site.

I’d like to think, though, that there are a few things that are universal throughout the Peace Corps world, and those things tend all to revolve around how you yourself will change – for the better and for the worse – because of your time in Peace Corps.

‘Sanitary’ will become an obsolete concept. You will eat on mats that you know are saturated in urine. You will prepare food on counters that also serve as chicken roosts. You will not have consistent/frequent access to soap. You will eat street food that is undoubtedly questionable. You will be dirty, dusty, and sweaty at all times. You will have mind over body battles to force yourself to bucket shower in the winter. Bugs, lizards, chickens, ducks, and mice will crap on everything. These things will be ok. You’ll adjust. The sterile environment of the States will become a distant odd memory or a constant fantasy.

Your body, though, might not adjust as quickly. You will have parasites and infections and illnesses that you had never heard of before training. You will be constantly constipated. Or go the opposite extreme. I hate to say it, but you will probably poop in your pants at least once. You will learn to vomit over a squat toilet and into a plastic bag during a bus ride. You will discuss your bodily functions openly and enthusiastically with other volunteers. No topic will be taboo.

The way you communicate will completely transform. Learning a language from scratch through immersion is a powerful experience. You will learn to have complex communications though expressions, gestures, and basic vocabulary. You will learn to bond with another human being through silence. You will answer the same basic questions over and over and over again. You may never achieve the ability to discuss ideas and concepts. You will develop a new English language which consists of pared down vocabulary and grammatical structures. You will actively think of each word before you speak. Your speech patterns will slow. You will have to define words whose meanings you had always taken for granted. You will learn to listen.

Your concept of money will entirely alter. Paying more than $1 for anything will cause you to pause and question your purchase. You will understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will learn to barter, even on cheaper items. You will consistently feel as though you have been cheated on the price. You will be enraged by all prices upon returning to the States.

You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. No one knows how to budget like a Peace Corps volunteer. And no one can binge like one.

You will be discontented with your work. You will wonder – and scream to the heavens – about the benefit of your presence. You will feel lost in unstructured expectations and crushed by promising ideas fallen to the side. Your expectations will fade into an unexpected reality. You will learn to celebrate small victories. You will look at mountains and see mole hills. You will try to tackle the impossible. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll just pick yourself up and take aim at another impossibility.

You will learn to do all of this through pure self-motivation. You will be the one to drag yourself out of bed and out the door. You won’t have anyone holding your hand or pushing you forward. Just you. You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself.

You will be a celebrity in your community. That status comes with hardships and benefits that will ineradicably change you. You will be the exception to the societal rules. You will be the foreigner, the one set apart. You will receive privileges and have special attention/status because of your nationality. You will always have eyes on you. You will have joined as an agent of culture exchange and understanding, but you will still find yourself falling into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Use it. Consider it. Contemplate the value we place on people because of arbitrary characteristics. You will come away from your experience more attune to your own merits, to those that are deserved and to those that are given.

Your culture of personal space, one that maybe you have always taken for granted, will be challenged. You will wonder why you need an entire room to yourself while no one else even has a bed to himself. You still won’t want to give your room up. Privacy will be a privilege or a rarity, not a right.
You will lose all control of your emotions and be on an unpredictable roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. You will go from happy and confident to sullen and tearful by things as simple as ants in your candy or yet another child saying ‘Hello!’ Your highs will be high, but they will be fragile. Your lows will feel inescapable. Your family and friends in the States probably won’t understand this. Your isolation will force you to become your own support system. You will become aware of yourself in the context of solely being yourself.

Your government-issued friends will be your reprieve. The love and closeness you share with people back in the States won’t change, but it will be your fellow volunteers who understand. They will be friendships forged from necessity, and they will be deep and fervent.

You will witness a whole new way of life, and you will question your notion of necessity. You will consider your personal wealth, and people will constantly remind you of it. You will discover what your ‘needs’ are to live a productive, satisfied life. I hope you will remember that when you return to a culture of plenty.

You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.

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always one more time

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Have you ever had that sinking feeling that comes with knowing things you shouldn’t know? It’s that drop in your gut when you are let in on a secret that threatens all of the notions you have built to help you believe the good in all things. Secrets. They’re dangerous. They are close cousins to lies and distant relatives to gossip. Gossip, lies, secrets.

I’m in my second year of living and teaching in my community and I’m a bit aghast. I assumed things would be “easy” at this point. I have friends, people understand that I’m not some Kigali woman (yes, I actually live here), and I speak enough Kinyarwanda to get by. Not to mention, I don’t even think twice about using a latrine or a headlamp at night or a bucket as a bathtub or using internet once every week or two. This is my new normal.

But, I’ll warn you. My start to my second year has been lacking of fluff, ease, and light-heartedness. Like a horse right out of the gate, I’m pushing forward with all of the strength I can muster, but I’m just kicking dust into thin air as I try to go forward. I’m being a bit more exposed to the darker side of things. I’ll get to that. But I can tell you this much: in my first week back from my England holiday, I spent an inordinate amount of time considering leaving. Yes, leaving Peace Corps. The days haven’t been bad, actually. I just have questioned to the core if I can really do this anymore. You’ll see why.

Perhaps, I’ll start with gossip. There are rumors swirling around my “mission” here. People are being told I came to choose two Rwandans to “American-ize”–that is to bring them to the U.S. to give them financial support in all aspects of their lives, oh hey! And even to build them a house! I’m not kidding. That’s just the beginning. People gossip not only about me and my choices (what I eat, who I hang out with, who I am or am not dating, and why in the hell I don’t have children as a 24-year old woman) but also about everyone else. People I love, even. Divine told me that people don’t understand why she goes to study (she’s 19, so they presume that a woman her age should just skip studying all together and get a husband and do what everyone else is doing) or why Yazina, her BFFL, is friends with her because Divine is “too dark” and “does not have a good face”. I scoff. What? Divine? UGLY? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Which brings me to lies. Read my past blogs. If you don’t get the vibe that I really like Rwandan culture then you’re not reading closely enough. I love it here–and I have for quite some time. But, I’m going to go ahead and be real. I’ve had it, absolutely had it with one part of Rwandan culture–that is, the culture of lying. Suzi told me once of a conversation she had with a Rwandan man at a writing workshop that she attended. She expressed how she felt guilty about lying in a situation and this man assured her immediately. Feel guilty? No, no, no! Embrace it! He said lying is simply what people do. They don’t want to offend others (which is why some Rwandans move houses at night as to not show the belongings you have; which is why you carry the goods you buy from a shop in a brown bag so that people don’t see what you have purchased; and which is why when you are eating food you close the door so people don’t catch a glimpse of the meal you are putting in your body) so they lie. The other people usually know they are lying. But they don’t call them on it–they just accept it, as is. Divine put it most simply, “Ah! Heather. To lie in Rwanda, that is the culture. Bibaho (it happens).”

Mmkay. Good luck trusting anybody.

Imagine what it’s like to operate in this environment. Anything could be true, anything could be a lie. Sometimes, it’s a small lie, such as “I will visit you” or it’s something much, much bigger like, “that man killed people in the Genocide.” Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. To be an outsider, ahem, me, leaves no other option than to accept the most realistic truth I can find: I’ll never know for sure.

And so this is what has led me to a point of exhaustion, calling into question my entire passion and drive for being here. I’m tired of not knowing who to trust. This can and could be a problem anywhere in the world, but it certainly is magnified when you stack together this kind of culture, with a devastating history, and with my position on the outside-looking-in. It’s not like I haven’t struggled with this (heck, I’ve been struggling with this my entire service) it’s just now it feels like everything is compounding together.

And then, there are secrets. Everyone has them, I’m no fool, but learning about them is rocking my already shaky solid ground. Divine (who apparently I use as a source for all knowledge as I’ve cited her for nearly everything) told me some of hers. For example, she lives with her uncle currently because her mother’s house is in a community where the school fees are too expensive. Her uncle helps her with nothing. He provides housing of sorts and food to eat, but in exchange Divine has a ridiculous amount of jobs she has to do for her family. Fetch water, cook multiple times per day, search for fire wood, cultivate….I could go on. She told me that finding leisure time is extraordinarily difficult. But, she also told me that this has to be a secret. Why? Because speaking ill of her family is bad culture. It just can’t be done. So, she confides to her BFFl, Yazina and myself only.

Secrets, secrets, secrets. They make me think that sometimes, after all, ignorance is bliss.

Worst of all, Divine recently let me in on a secret that Yazina has been holding close to her heart. She didn’t share in a malicious-gossipy sort of way; Divine was sincerely trying to seek help for her friend. This secret. It’s bad. It’s disturbing. I don’t feel comfortable writing publicly about it. But, I’ll say that on top of EVERYTHING that my girls and my students have to deal with (poverty, excelling in school, being good family members, helping with an endless amount of chores) it’s unfair that their challenges can soar to new heights. It’s totally. completely. utterly. unfair. Her secret is safe with me but it’s making me sick. I think about it and I literally want to throw up. I want to help her, but literally, I CAN’T.

Gossip, lies, and secrets. That, when you boil it all down, is why I have been struggling as I’ve settled back into my life here.

When I was writing all of this furiously in my journal this morning during my off-hour, downing my 3rd cup of coffee, jamming the Rwandan equivalent of a doughnut in my mouth (they are called amandazi), I would have stopped there. Full stop. End of story. There is no bright spot this time, I thought to myself.

However, as it just so happens, I just finished reading this incredible book by the great Rob Bell. It’s called What We Talk About When We Talk About God.
He discusses a lot of things. Seriously. He talks about atoms, quantum physics, good Einstein quotes, anecdotes from small-town America, food, and between all of this references scripture to demonstrate his belief that God is with us, for us, and ahead of us.

"what we talk about when we talk about God"

“what we talk about when we talk about God”

He ends his book this way:

Back once more to that table with the bread and wine on it. There’s a reason why people have been taking bread and wine and remembering Jesus’s life and death and resurrection for the past two thousand years.

We need reminders of who we are and how things actually are.
And so we come to the table exactly as we are, some days on top of the world, other days barely getting by. Some days we feel like a number, like a machine, like a mere cog in a machine, severed and separated from the depth of things, this day feeling like all others. Other days we come feeling tuned in to the song, fully alive, hyperaware of the God who is all in all. The point of the experience isn’t to create special space where God is, over and against the rest of life where God isn’t. The power is in the striking ability of this experience to open our eyes all over again (and again and again) to the holiness and sacred nature of all of life, from family to friends to neighbors to money and breath and sex and work and play and food and wine.

That’s God all in all, bringing together all of our bodies and our minds and our souls and our spirits and all the parts and pieces that make us us, as our eyes are opened in the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the inspiring, and the gut-wrenching to the presence in all of life of the God who is with us, for us, and ahead of us.

Rob Bell is right, you know. We see again, again, and once more again that LIFE is sacred.

Maya Angelous says something along these lines too, in her own poetic way, “have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.” (love.her.)

Mom has good ideas too.
I told mom about what was pulling on my heart–namely Yazina’s secret–and she gave me the advice I needed more than anything to hear. First of all, pray. God can help in every situation. And then you just need to continue to be her friend. Be there for her. Just. be. her. friend. You have a purpose, Heather.

Oh, and God speaks for Himself quite often as well. I went on a slow run today, on one of my favorite loops, passing old mamas and young children screaming my name as I passed. I smiled and waved. And it was a good day today. But my heart still ached deeply for Yazina. It will continue to ache for Yazina. But, God is here. That’s all I heard in my mind.

The sun was setting perfectly over the booming clouds, meeting in the middle of the sky with the banana trees, and I smiled, remembering how much I really do love this place. It’s beautiful. I thought about my students, my girls, about Divine. This is a girl who is 19 but has in all honesty, turned my life upside-down. She’s inspired me; she has shown me strength in its very raw form; and she’s funny as hell. I wish I could describe her accurately, but words don’t do her justice. She gave me one of her most precious belongings the other day. She gave me her necklace that she uses to pray. It has Jesus on it. It’s scratched and worn but she wanted me to have it–to “wear it every day”–so that our prayers could be together. So that Jesus will always hear me. “He is always ready to hear your ideas and questions, Heather.” I have worn it every day since.

There are days where I just don’t understand. I don’t understand the gossip, or the lies, or the secrets. I don’t understand the pain that some people in my community–in the world, really–have to go through. But, I did understand, to a greater degree that even with 6 months left in Peace Corps, my community is far more than the sum of its secrets and that on a personal level, I have just as strong of a purpose. It may not be the sports project, the library, the English, or the integration after all. When I pack up all of my things and tell people what I did here…it may not really be any of those things that matter.

I was a friend. Sometimes this feels so small. Like it can bring nothing. But, when you see through the lense of God, when you have eyes to see, somehow this is enough. Even in the worst of circumstances. It is enough, you are enough, and this life, it’s enough.

Please pray for my friend Yazina. Please pray that she can find strength on her own terms, that she knows how much value she has, and that she is not alone. Please pray for my community. Pray that the good will always win. Please pray for me and other volunteers as we struggle in this season. Things, it seems all across the board, are very difficult right now. Please pray that we recognize God’s grace right before us and that we embrace this grace in order to forgive the mistakes we make as well as the mistakes of others. May this grace also propel us into a mindfulness for just how blessed we are and that this can in turn, affect positvely the work we do in our communities. Pray for those harboring doubts, fears, and loneliness. Pray that a friend is always there for them. Let us pray for the problems we see every day: be it stress, hunger, loss, poverty, uncertainty, and anxiety.

Most of all, let us all pray that we will trust God in all things, in all times, and under all circumstances, for we can know that He is here.