Dear Mr. Newell’s Geography Class,
Hi there! It’s me, Heather.
I am writing to you at 7:30 pm (that’s 10:30am for you back in the Rocky Mountain Time Zone) on a Saturday evening. Today I spent the day writing in my journal, running, washing my dishes (done by hand with a small basin and a jerry can of water), and best of all, going to a town called Kibungo to pick up my packages from the post office. Today I was a big winner; not only did I have a package from my dad (that’s Mr. Newell for you) but I also had a box waiting from my high school field hockey coach. I did a little dance outside the big yellow sign that says IPOSITA (meaning post office); with two boxes of America to take home.
The package from Mr. Newell (dad) was perfect. He’s somehow perfected the art of cramming as many things as possible into a US postal box. I imagine he’s rather notorious at the local post office as he has sent me nearly 13 packages since I have been in Rwanda. Impressive, right? I ran the scissors through the layers and layers of tape to find things such as: Velveeta cheese (queso blanco flavor), candles, hot sauce, a bag of macaroni and cheese mix, Sports Illustrated magazines, chocolate, flavored drink mix, other noodle mixes, and a manilla folder full of your letters. Dad always remembers to send these along. He knows I enjoy reading them, and it’s true, I do.
He attached a letter of his own, written on a piece of notebook paper. I smiled as I read the beginning of the letter,
So how is my little punkin? I hope that you are well and happy! I’m now on summer break and enjoying a little down time – so to speak. Overall, I’m about the same, except now I’m 49! Oh well – it’s just a number. Can you believe that I just finished my 26th year of teaching (25 at Overland)? I do truly love my job, in spite some of the bad days. It is a hope of mine that whatever you are doing in life that it makes you happy.
That’s right, guys. I’m still his little punkin. That’s been my nickname since I can remember and I thought it was sweet that he started his letter that way even though I am 24. He’s right – age really is just a number. I wanted to highlight this part to gloat for just a second. I am certain my dad probably mentioned it to you (he loves repeating the same things over again) but in this case, he has every right to. The man has been teaching for a quarter of a century! He loves his job and so I just hope as his students you realize how lucky you are to have a teacher that cares so much about what he is doing.
I often talk to people about my trip to Rwanda. If you don’t know I had a GREAT time. It gave me needed perspective on what kind of life my daughter is living. What you do is so cool – don’t know how to explain but Heather you are special. About your blogs, many of my students really dig your stuff. Some of what I have read from particular students has floored me. Just to give you a heads up, I told my students that “when” you come home you will come to Overland and meet them. Like I said, I think you have made a connection with some students – and that is what it is all about.
Well time to go. I will talk to you many times before you get this, so there you go.
Keep safe and fighting the good fight.
PS: You should write about the blog responses my students have sent you and how it made you think/feel/respond/etc. Just a thought.
I folded his letter and added it to the multitude of other cards, papers, and pictures that I have received since becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda.
And then, I decided to write this letter to you.
You have been sending me responses to my blog since its conception and for that, I want to thank you. Maybe you read for pure enjoyment, maybe for the extra credit, or maybe for both, but either way, I am just happy to have blog readers and to be able to read your own ideas about what I have been writing. I am sorry I have not written you back – but this one is for you, and I hope I am able to answer some of your questions, add to your perspective, and enrich what you have already learned and discussed about Rwanda.
My blog is very important to me. Describing and explaining what it’s like to live, work, and be a part of another country is really really difficult. I have found that providing the right amount of detail in a conversation is actually more challenging than when I have put pen to paper. And thus, I have exerted a lot of time and effort to paint a picture for those of you back home. I don’t know if I have done the most accurate job, but I have been completely honest to what I have experienced and particularly to how I have felt. This is all the more important, I think, when studying something like geography. When you study social sciences you can look at maps, read case studies, and learn about cultural traditions. All of these are crucial; but your best learning experiences are often those that you can relate to. And so maybe you don’t know that much about me, but I am a young American girl. I went to school in the Cherry Creek School District just like you (Grandview High School, Class of 2007), I love cheeseburgers as much as anyone, I enjoy sports, and Colorado has always been my home no matter where my adventures and trips have taken me. So, if nothing else, you can try to learn about another country, culture, and life by way of my blog, knowing that we might have had some similar life experiences. That’s the most I can hope for, anyway.
I presume that Mr. Newell has shown you THE Rwandan Power Point Presentation at least twice now. Or, at least he’s shown the video of some of my village kids racing each other after we had finished a big family lunch for my dad’s visit. He loves that video, and he loves that power point presentation. We made the same kind of thing for when I was studying in Ghana, and you know what, I’m sure you have seen that too. I moaned and groaned at the time when Dad and I worked on making that presentation, but looking back, I’m so glad we did. What a way to remember such wonderful memories.
I don’t remember everything that that powerpoint has in it, but I can start by telling you that yes, Rwanda is a beautiful country. In your letters, one student wrote “you make Africa seem like a paradise.” In a lot of ways, it really is. It’s one of those places that cannot be captured completely in a photograph. If you see a beautiful sunset, for example, you can go and grab your camera, get a snapshot, and while it’s a nice photo, it doesn’t completely show what it’s like to be there in person. Still, there are a lot of problems in Rwanda. It’s a very poor country. Water can be difficult to find, many people live on less than $2 per day, and a lot of students drop out of school regularly because they can’t afford school fees. But, if it was all about cool animals and gorgeous forests, Peace Corps wouldn’t have sent me here. They sent me here because this is a country that is rising – and rising fast – but needs help to develop in certain areas. One of the most important areas is in English. The country adopted English as an official language a few years ago, but it takes a long time for a standard like that to be achieved, and so here you have me attempting to teach English in a small village. Rwanda is interesting because while a lot of people speak French and English is on the rise, nearly everyone speaks Kinyarwanda. Which made language training easy in that way – no matter where I would be working, everyone would speak the same language. That was when the “easy” part ended. I think Kinyarwanda is actually a very difficult language. I studied intensively for the first three months when I was training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, which included some days of 6 hour lessons. At this point, I can understand quite a bit. I know a lot of unique phrases and verbs, but speaking grammatically correct was a long-lost dream. I do try, however, and my girls (the ones I often write about) try to correct and teach me something new every day. My favorite Kinyarwanda word? It would probably have to be kajugugugu (meaning “helicopter” – hello, it’s so fun to say!) or for sentimental reasons, komera, which is a command that means “be strong”.
To give you a bit of perspective, Rwanda is about the size of Maryland – a pretty small state out East. However, Rwanda has around 11 million people which makes it one of the most densely populated African countries. You can be in the most rural of rural areas and you will still find people. People are everywhere. Dad noticed this right away on his visit – there are paths upon paths that lead to more and more villages. They are remote and rural, yes, but there are just a lot of people in this country. The biggest city is Kigali, which has around 1 million people. It’s a progressively developed city, especially in Africa. It’s very clean and a lot of NGO (Non-Government Organizations) are based here. I’ve been to a handful of large Africa cities (in Ghana, Togo, Benin, Tanzania, and Uganda) and Kigali is by far the most organized and aesthetically clean. That being said, in my experience, it’s still building a night life and a sense of city culture and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that Rwandan culture is a lot different from other African cultures that I have been immersed in. In general, Rwandans tend to be more reserved and won’t always speak their minds. Which is funny, because they say obvious things like, you are white, and it’s like, “um. Yes. Thank you, because I totally wasn’t aware of my skin color.” Yet, if you ask them about emotions or their opinions on some things, they can be evasive.
As you may have read in my blog, the Genocide of 1994 has played a major role in the culture and history of the Rwandan people. Next year, in 2014, this country will commemorate 20 years since this horrific event took place. In the span of 100 days, anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million people died at the hands of their neighbors, family, friends, and fellow Rwandans. This has created an interesting and hard-to-explain cultural dynamic. It’s one of the reasons making friends in Rwanda can be quite hard – when you experience something like that, moving forward becomes difficult. But, Rwandans sure are trying.
The Peace Corps left Rwanda during this upheaval and didn’t return until 2008. Currently, the Peace Corps has two different programs in this country: education and health. The education sector has volunteers working in school and the health sector has volunteers working in health centers. All of us create “secondary projects” to fill the rest of our time. You sign up for two years, train for three months, move to a village, and kind of just figure it out. Integration is the buzz word as a Peace Corps Volunteer and the way you achieve something like this is through conversation, walking around, greeting people, taking part in cultural events, and just trying to become a part of the community at large. I’ve been at it for two years, and in some ways I feel very successful, and a large part of me feels like I could live here forever and still wouldn’t have it all figured out.
A lot of your letters asked why did you join the Peace Corps?
I joined Peace Corps because I love helping people. I don’t mean this in a super altruistic, Mother Theresa sort-of-way (though she’s awesome). I just mean it like it is. There are people that are good at math, there are people who can put together computers and build rocket ships, and there are people that organize like nobody’s business. For me, I’ve always loved making connections with other people and building friendships. I’m 100% a people person and though Peace Corps has helped me appreciate alone time, I will always choose to be with family or friends because I like engaging other people in conversation, asking questions, and learning about different ways to approach life. Peace Corps seemed particularly appealing after spending a semester abroad in Ghana. I also didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with my life in the long term, and so I felt like I might as well challenge myself and do something crazy. There are a lot of reasons I chose to do this job for two years and those skim the surface of some of them. But when you boil it all down, it’s just about doing something you love. I am sure you aren’t looking for advice from a girl who chose to live with spotty electricity, in an environment that very little English is spoken, and who has mice wars, but I will tell you this: you will be successful in life when you are simultaneously living out your passions and helping other people. Helping other people looks very different in a lot of different contexts – heck no, it’s not always about going to Africa and helping the poor. It’s not even about going to a soup kitchen or giving change to a homeless man. It’s just living and existing consciously aware of the people around you. Say thank you, hold the door open, ask someone how their family is. These are the things that make a difference.
I actually found a lot of your letters really inspiring.
Sometimes, no matter where you are in life, you can find yourself in a grind so to speak – am I right? Things just become normal (which is a wonderful thing, of course) but when this happens, we tend to take things for granted. We forget what is so special about our daily lives and we lose touch with what’s so beautiful about actually living. Anyway, in your letters, a lot of you wrote about your own experiences. One of you wrote about your own Peace Corps dreams: I am speechless right now and just dreaming the way you did when you got your packet of acceptance. In response to my blog about filling the role as a mother-figure and about my own mother, one of you wrote in-depth about your personal relationships about your mom and what she means to you. When I read these sort of things, I remember how much we all have to share and it makes me happy that I have the job that I do.
I appreciated all of your questions about Rwanda because they made me realize an important universal truth: we all have a lot to learn about the world.
For example, some of you asked questions about music in Rwanda, about my house, and about the food I eat. There is a lot of music here in Rwanda – traditional and modern – but there is also a lot of American music as well. American culture pervades a lot of countries in the world, and my students’ favorite music artists are people like Chris Brown, Jordin Sparks, and Bruno Mars. I live in a green house that has bricks and a cement exterior. I have cement floors, paint, and a nicer house than most people in my village. Most of my neighbors live in mud houses with tin roofs. And as for food, in Rwanda there are some important staple dishes: cassava bread, peanut sauce, potatoes and plantains, goat and cow meats, corn on the cob, and beans, to name a few. You see, while life IS very different here, it’s not as crazy and far-fetched as you might think. People are born here, grow up, fall in love, experience heartbreak, try to make the best lives for their families, go to church, have jobs, put food on the table, and play football. I don’t want to downplay all of the cultural and economic disparities, but ultimately the human experience is more uniting if we let it be, I think.
So, sometimes, it’s hard to answer your questions because I forget that American high-schoolers might not generally have a picture of what Africa or what Rwanda is like. And believe me, that’s more than okay. But I encourage you to read as many books as you can and learn about new places. This world is changing fast and the more you know about other places, the more you can relate to people at large.
And believe me, the same goes for my own students. It’s challenging because they are in the same general phase of life as you. They are secondary school students (what you would call high-schoolers). But their conception of America is a vision that is built based on movies they have seen, rumors they have heard, and perhaps Americans they have met. They think everyone in America has unlimited amounts of money, doesn’t know how to do manual labor, and that we’re all acquainted with celebrities like 50 Cent or Rihanna.
Like I said, we all have a lot more to learn about the world, don’t we?
Many of you mentioned how difficult it would be to live without comforts and friends and family for this long. And Lord knows, it is! I appreciate my life back in America more than ever, since leaving for Rwanda. But as my time here is drawing to an end, I’m realizing more and more that I didn’t necessarily leave a life behind. In fact, life has just kept on going and going. I realize this because I’ve made INCREDIBLE friendships here. I’ve built a life. I’ve adapted. And so yes, without my parents and family and best friends, it’s been so hard. Nothing could replace those relationships or the kind of love I feel for them. But in return, I’ve continually grown as a young woman and have experienced such a rich and full life here. It’s been very hard and there are have been downright horrible days, but the same would be true even if I lived in America. Moving to another country isn’t so much about “leaving a life”. I didn’t leave anything behind, because those people have been with me my entire time here. Moving to another country is more about being open, being willing to be vulnerable, and if you find yourself just in the right place, you’ll find a new family to help support and love you. Those relationships don’t replace one another; they build one another. That’s how I have managed to be away from my loved ones for so long. I miss them dearly, however.
Tomorrow, I am going to pray at the Catholic Church in the morning (the service is only about 2 hours) and after I am cooking a traditional Rwandan dish, ubugali (cassava bread), for Divine, my best friend in Rwanda. This next week at school is full of exams for the students and so I will be busy with supervising exams and grading the English tests. Soon my mother will be here, and I look forward to posting photographs of her visit.
I know you students are now in summer break. So, maybe none of you will even read or see this. But I hope you do! I keep all of your letters and I frequently look back on them to understand better what you want to know about Rwanda. Your encouragement is helpful, well-received, and much appreciated. Thank you again for all of the support and response to my blog. I definitely plan on answering more of your questions again. And, like my dad said in his letter to me, when I do come home from Rwanda, I will absolutely visit Overland and your class to meet you face-to-face.
Before I go, I just want to share my favorite pieces of Rwanda. Rwanda can be an extraordinarily challenging place to live (being white does not make this easy) but it has some of the most redeeming qualities. In my village, I can get free hugs from the cutest and most adorable old women in the world. Small children often run after me screaming my name (a nightmare perhaps for some, but a joy for me). If I walk for just 10 minutes, I can be on the cliff of a large mountain, breathing in what just has to be a creation from God. It’s home now. And while America is upon me later this year, I will be really sad to leave this place. Rwandans can be nosy, evasive, and secretive. But they will always open their home for you. They will take care of you. And I think we Americans could learn a lot from people who live life a lot differently than we do. I don’t mean to romanticize the problems here, but my neighbors, friends, and students have taught me things that I never could have never learned otherwise. That, my friends, is really why I wanted to do something like this.
I look forward to your next batch of letters. Until then, enjoy summer, the sun, and a break from school. It’s been great.
All my love,
Peace Corps Volunteer, Rwanda
Mr. Newell’s daughter