Monthly Archives: August 2013

opening and closing doors

Standard

At our most recent Peace Corps Conference (dubbed COS: Close of Service) we met for three days to reflect on our service for the last two years, to have open discussions about both the successes and complications of development work, to begin the process of leaving the government, and to gain understanding on re-entering and adjusting to life back in the United States. The very last session we had is apparently something all Peace Corps Volunteers around the world do at the end of their service – a guided visualization.

Led by a Peace Corps staff member who has an innate ability to communicate well with anybody and has been in Peace Corps posts in various countries, he told us to “get comfortable” as we would be trying to cover a couple years of memories and emotions in just a few minutes.

I chose to move to the front of the large room and lie face down, my eyes buried between my two crossed arms. I closed my eyes. The lights dimmed and he put on a beautiful instrumental track of a piano star from England. It was immediately stirring; even before he started the visualization I knew I would be emotional. The music played for a few moments and my heart started to slow and I become more in tune with the moment.

In a soft yet steady voice, he told us to think back before our arrival in Rwanda in 2011.

Think about the moment you decided you wanted to do the Peace Corps.
You start the application.
Where were you? Who was the first person you told about starting the application process?
How did you feel?
You complete the interview and soon you have moved further in the process to become a volunteer. Maybe you question this path you have chosen for yourself. Maybe you think you are irrational. But for whatever reason, you continue to stick with it.
Months later, you get that notorious blue envelope with your official invitation to serve in the assigned country. What did you think as you opened it up? Who was with you?
You are invited to serve in Rwanda. Rwanda. What did you think?

He stops for a bit and lets us go through all of those feelings, times, and places. It feels very real – I remember it all clearly and so well. And me being me, I start to cry. I cry out of both happiness and sadness; as I think back to the seeds rooted in this experience, I can feel just how badly I wanted this to work and how deeply I longed for this dream. How so many small things fell into place so that my journey would take me to Rwanda. How long ago all of this was.

He continues.

You say goodbye to people you love. You say your farewell to America. Where do you visit before you leave? What do people tell you as you prepare to go? What went through your mind when you crossed the security point in the airport and you were alone, headed for something you really couldn’t envision?

You leave. You go to the staging process in Philadelphia. You are in a room with a group of people signed up for the exact thing you are to do: teach in Rwanda. Who did you talk to? What was the mood of the group? What did you do your first night together?

You arrive in-country. What did the weather feel like? What is the first thing you see outside of the airport?

It is the first morning after sleeping in the house of your host family. What do you hear in the morning? What do you smell?

After a long training, you move to your site permanently . You are new.
Who is the first person to befriend you? Is anyone waiting for you at your house?
What does your job feel like?
You do something extraordinary in your community. What was it? Who helped you?
At some point you travel with some Peace Corps friends. Where do you go? You see something together you will never forget – what is it?

Now it’s time to prepare to leave.

Who do you want to say goodbye to? Why is it so hard? Who will you hug? Who do you want to stay in touch with? What do you tell them? What do they tell you? What is the thing you will remember about your home for two years in your village?

You touch ground in your hometown or the place you are coming home to. People are waiting for you. People are cheering for you at the airport. You are home. Some you haven’t seen for a very long time.
Who is there? What is it like to be home again? What runs through your mind?

How will you talk about Rwanda? What will you say about your experience? What do you want them to know about your country?

All of this lasts around 25 minutes or so. He asks these questions slowly, with pauses in between so that we can go through this visualization little by little. By the end, I have cried so many tears that bags have formed under my eyes. I wasn’t the only one; all 20 of us were moved very deeply. My heart is bursting with a lot of things, but the biggest is gratitude. To so many people. Thinking back and reflecting made it so clear: these last 2 years have been the most difficult in my young life, but completely the most rewarding and the most life-changing. I’m 24 and I feel like I have had the experience of a life time.

My heart also hurt after that visualization because on a very fundamental, spiritual level, I knew my time was coming to an end and the idea of a third year extension that I had quite seriously considered was not the path I should take. I wanted it so badly and so I put my trust in God to make the best decision and in looking for an open door here, it ultimately didn’t come to fruition in the way I was hoping for. It was very close. In fact, a day prior to this visualization, I was all but ready to sign papers and take a job. But I didn’t, and I’m not going to.

Here’s why.

*
From the beginning, I knew if I did a 3rd year in Rwanda it would have to be what I called “very compelling”. I miss my family and friends and so another year so far from home had to warrant an irrefutable opportunity attached to it. But more than the job, it had to be the right situation in my life, with all things in place so that I could truly feel content and happy as I transitioned to something different. I would have loved to stay in Ruramira (my village) but I knew I didn’t want to formally teach another year, ruling out a site extension. Last month, I met with a director of an organization associated with Nike that acts as a “catalyst organization” to develop ideas for girls empowerment in Rwanda. However, an open job was not made clear and it served much more like an information interview where I was able to pick her brain about girls’ development but not really be offered a formal position within the organization. Not sure where to go next, I briefly considered extending as a PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader). I could work internally within Peace Corps, helping other volunteers, making site visits, and partnering with an NGO to gain some professional experience. I would even have access to drive a car! The drawbacks? Living in Kigali and not working as much in the field on a daily basis. Those were two pretty big strikes and praying to God for a sign I pursued yet another job posting sent via the Peace Corps. It was a job that looked like THE ONE.

It was a job based in the district where I already live now (called Kayonza), with a renowned organization, and operating under what is called the Women’s and Girls Initiative. I would work as a program intern, supervising girls’ clubs that were created to reach and help out-of-school girls. I would help improve their cooperatives (both artisan and agriculture), teach life skills, help develop the programming of the clubs, and work within the organization to do things like monitoring and evaluation. Rooted in field work with Rwandan girls, I could barely contain myself. IT’S PERFECT.

I made contact with the point person and had two “interviews”. The first one was initiated by a representative from Nike – she wanted to partner with this organization and wanted to see if I could serve as a link between the two, teaching their curriculum within this other initiative.

That particular interview (if you could call it that) was terrible, to be honest. It was filled with development oriented jargon, acronyms, and policy driven lingo. While these things are certainly interesting, I just sat there with my mouth wide open: my best friends are young Rwandan women, y’all. Do you want to hear a bit of what I have experienced with them? I don’t think I’m an expert or anything, but I’ve been working directly in the field for these past two years, have deep relationships with girls in my club, and these development workers seemed disinterested, at best. It was really disheartening. For nearly 3 hours I was talked at and I was not very happy about it. Two days later after some soul-searching, I sat down for a second interview. It went much better. It was with the leader of this initiative and her country director and they let me have free reign with what I wanted to talk about and what I wanted to say. I told my Peace Corps story. I bragged on my girls and we actually discussed the job at hand. I walked away much more at peace. And a bit sad – in a lot of ways I wanted this job. But I knew I couldn’t take it. It would be forcing an opportunity to work in my life when really, it should fit much more naturally.

It came down to the fact that they want someone to start working NOW and I’m not really ready to give up my time in my community. Also, they want all lessons taught in Kinyarwanda – 100%. Yeah, I can speak the language, as I have lived in the village for all of this time. But, in GLOW for example, I have girls who can translate and work between the two languages not remaining confined to only one. I appreciate and commend this organization for connecting with out of school girls, but at this point in my professional experience, I don’t feel qualified enough to deliver exactly what they are looking for. Truth be told, a Rwandan woman should really be offered that job.

And in this long, back and forth process, I was able to admit to myself how fearful I am of saying goodbye. But I can’t fight the reality of the situation anymore. I have to be strong, ready to feel that, and to trust in God to get all of us through it. Admitting this fear to myself made the choice much easier. In December, I will come home.

I sat on Divine’s bed yesterday and told her this story and my final decision. Telling Divine – more than any paper work, facebook status, or declaration – represented the finality of this decision. I told her slowly and carefully. And my heart broke all over again as I watched her process my words. She cried, sobbed, and it was my first time to see her so vulnerable and heart broken. I waited patiently as she grieved. The amazing thing is how understanding she was. She agreed, based on the opportunities at hand, that I had made the correct decision. The hard one, but the right one. I told her how much she means to me and that I am committed to helping her achieve a good future. I am going to support her final three years in secondary school and I will come back and visit her in Rwanda. My story and connection to this place has just begun, I think. I will call her as much as I can and I hope one day she can visit America. I’m a woman of my word and I will do everything I can to ensure she has a good life. There are things we are all meant to do in our own lives and this is one of them for me.

She told me between cries that losing me would be like losing a sister. She said that I was a miracle in her life.

I tried to convey amidst my own tears that all of these sentiments were the same for me. “It’s the start of our friendship, not the end,” I insisted. And I really do believe that. I know what distance can do to relationships, but it works both ways. Sometimes they fail because of distance, other times they remain. If for nothing else, because they were meant to be.
*
What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.
-Helen Keller

Advertisements

6 word memoirs

Standard

Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a short story in only 6 words.

His story read,

For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

At our Close of Service Conference last week, members of my Peace Corps group (called Ed 3 – we are the third education group with Peace Corps to work in Rwanda) were challenged to do the same. Write your story, they told us, in 6 words.

The compilation of stories was sent out this morning and I wanted to share what the rest of my group wrote. I think they tell a larger story, a small glimpse into our lives. As Peace Corps Volunteers we had the same job on paper, but experienced and did it in so many different ways. That’s the nature of the human experience, I suppose. We all do it a bit differently. That’s actually what makes it beautiful.

Ate some intestines, became a vegetarian.

You want me to do what? 

I is somehow good English Teacher. 

A heart forever in the hills. 

Screw you guys, I’m going home. 

Appreciate a hill’s inclines and declines.

Home in the heart of Africa.

Love and loneliness, hand in hand.

Learn. Listen. Feel. Follow calling’s way. 

Hidden in banana trees, beautiful lives.

Love with urgency, not with haste.

Held many babies, taught some English. 

As for me, mine read like this,

Leading girls who now lead me!

Image

NTA IMVURA IDAHITA

Standard

there is no rain that doesn’t stop.

Kinyarwanda proverb

fam

Divine shared this old proverb with me as we discussed a potential goodbye in the coming months.

The proverb means just that – rain comes, but always, it stops. Things are difficult sometimes and challenges seem so hard to tackle, but eventually you will.

I’ll be in America and miss her. I’m in Rwanda and I miss my family and friends.

You can’t have it all at once. But you can accept this, and try to find the best perspective possible.

After sharing this proverb, we said goodnight on the phone, as we do most nights. Though on this particular evening, she called back minutes later. Why? She was upset that I sounded sad. I told her I was stressed from weighing decisions about the future. Stressed about picking the right path. Stressed about the inevitable goodbyes that will come later this year.

“Heather, you choose what is best for YOU. Make the good decision for your heart. Continue to have kwizera (trust) that God will show you the way.”

crossroads

Standard
divine and mama

divine and mama

family

host family love

teaching

showin’ ma how teaching is done – rwanda style

twig

giraffe, mom, and randy = a great combination

For probably the third or fourth time in the first 2 hours of Mom and Randy’s visit I was explaining how wonderful their experience in Rwanda would be BECAUSE of the “off the road” approach we were attempting (visiting and sleeping in my village for 3 days, using public transport, and embracing volcano-like mountains of Rwandan food to be offered – along with Fanta, obviously). They weren’t sticking to only the “touristy” attractions – we were doing Rwanda with a lot of Heather swagger. I was anxious, giddy, nervous and happy it would be like this. Ater all, to see the Rwanda I love (and let’s be real, sometimes the Rwanda I loathe), you have to give the village and lie here a real chance to show itself. I knew things would be just fine, however, because Randy looked up for a momemt while packing his small green REI backpack and summed up the nature of his and mom’s can-do-Rwanda attitude in three words,

“We dig culture.”

And did they ever.

We saw Mama and Papa’s new home being built, shared handfuls of real Rwandan meals, tasted banana juice at Divine’s, went on long village walks which had to feel a lot like being the Royal Family with all the hootin’ and hollerin’, crossed overland from the edges of Tanzania to the 4th largest African lake bordering the Congo, and I, to no one’s surprise, cooked macaroni and cheese.

Their two weeks came and went quickly.

No words or photos can describe what it was like to have my mama here. After I creepily banged on the window glass to get their attention in baggage claim at the Kigali airport (yes, this drew countless numbers of stares and aghast looks of what a freak) I absorbed all that I could of her presence. I remembered and relished the way she always calls me “honey”, her enthusiastic, ready for anything smile, and her desire to continually want to make things comfortable for me (this included drawing a bath for me one evening – could life get any better?) And what was even better than just having mom here was having Randy here too. Three was not a crowd  and I was immensely impressed with both Mom and Randy’s kindness, openness, and flexibility to greet and love on my community members. They hugged SO many people. I LOVED THEIR CAPACITY TO LOVE.

Should I have been surprised? No.

If you wonder how I can be crazy enough to WANT to live in a rural Rwandan village for 2 years it is because I was raised by love-centered people. Mom, Dad – everybody – demonstrated through everything (because no, my life has not been perfect) we all have an ability and an obligation to love in the best way we know how.

My favorite moment of our trip was exploring the banana fields that belong to Divine’s mother. They go on for what feels like forever. You walk on a thin dirt path to maneuver your way through the land. Behind me, I watched mom and Divine holding hands. By my side was Suzi. In front, further along in the road, was Randy. He was taking photos with some youth, also emphasizing the importance of staying in school. I was in my favorite place in Rwanda with some of the most important people in my life. Not just mom and Randy, but Suzi and Divine too. For a rare moment, pieces of my life were interlaced and together. For a fleeting time, I didn’t have to describe two different worlds, I could just be. That’s the very best a family visit can bring you. That, and delicious meals with hot bathes. Just kidding.

And so those weeks were intensely whirldwind – especially before and after their travels to visit me. Before, I had finished HOURS and HOURS of marking to prepare for the end of term II. After, I exerted every ounce of energy I had at our region’s week-long 2013 GLOW (girls leading our world) camp.

Needless to say, my life has been crazy.

Somehow, it’s become mid-August and I am most certainly at a crossroad with a large fork in the road.

There are two options, you see.

One is to continue as I had planned all along: return back to beautiful America (Lord, I sure do miss home) having had finished 2 years of good work in Peace Corps Rwanda. I have some wonderful experience to carry with me, stories to share, and family and friends to be with. I can come home, figure out the next direction of my life, and soak all that is of my home, America.

The other option is a lot like Peyton Manning reading a different defense post-huddle and calling an audible based on what he sees: stay in Rwanda another year – “extend” as they call it in Peace Corps world – with a different job and living situation. All of the opportunities to continue in Peace Corps (and there are probably around 10 of them within Rwanda) as a Third Year Volunteer often involve working closely with other NGOs while still making a Peace Corps level salary (about 200 USD per month) and keeping Peace Corps status (able to defer loans, qualify for medical care, abiding by the many rules, and so on).

The details are set to be hankered and hammered out THIS week at what is called our Close of Service (COS) Conference. I’ll be coming back to America later this winter no matter what path I choose to take and so really it’s a question of what the right thing to do is as I consider the next year, 5 years, and 10 years of my life. What exactly do I vision for myself? What do I imagine my life could look like?

Discernment can sometimes feel 100% easy or a lot more murky.

This one, it’s been all over the place.

I am trusting that God will help me choose the next phase of my life that provides safety, purpose, passion, and open doors.

My soul has felt scattered and all over the place and so I’ve put together a pro-con list, raised my hands, and I am submitting my fears, doubts, anxiety, and worries to God. Prayers appreciated.

IF I EXTEND A 3RD YEAR IN RWANDA

PROS

-job security

-I really enjoy living and working in this country despite the challenges

-maintain Rwandan relationships very easily

-opens a lot of development opportunities down the road

-builds on my first 2 years in Peace Corps while also creating a new and challenging job

-more people could have the opportunity to come and visit Rwanda!

-already aware and immersed in the language and culture

-more possibilities of sports development experience

-living in a beautiful country

-maintain Peace Corps contacts and connections

-experience with grant-writing

-can easily visit my old village and community

-a paid (via Peace Corps) holiday home in the winter

-have the suppot of my family

-I can always leave if I decide it’s not the right fit for me

-can continue to defer loans

CONS

-more time away from home

-missing out on family and friend life events

-isolation from American culture in general

-avoiding an inevitable goodbye to this country

-still living on a Peace Corps salary

-continuing to regularly deal with Rwandan frusturations (water issues, electricity issues, lack of internet, being DIFFERENT than everyone else, always having to explain who I am…)

-all of my friends from my group (called ED – 3 – the third education group in Rwanda) will be finished with their jobs in Rwanda

-loneliness

-putting off time I could be using to get a master’s degree

-dealing with skeevy Rwandan men