full circle

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A few days ago it rained for five hours straight. And y’all, it didn’t just rain, it really rained. It was relentless; the clouds were a mixture of dark gray and purple and they moved as if they were making landfall from the heavens above. It was about time. It is technically rainy season but we haven’t seen rain for a couple of weeks. I have been able to see the nervous expressions of the farmers at market and as they walk the banana plantations en route to cultivate each morning. Currently, it is harvest season for the beans. No rain, no beans. I could almost feel the smiling faces, joy, and ardent relief from everybody when the rain came. Finally.

I enjoy the rains, most of the time. I don’t really care for how the roads become muddy pits (and thus altering my run schedule immensely), but at least a water source is ensured for a short time anyway. My house – like many – has a make-shift rain catching system. Rain falls on my roof and falls into a hanging tin. If you place a bucket below this tin, voila! You have water. You can be sure that when water is pouring from this magical piece of tin, I place every basin and bucket I can find under so that I have water in as many places as possible. When this successfully happens I unreservedly can say that it’s been a good day.

If rain is absent I have no other alternative than to fetch.

Alphonsine (the school groundskeeper who also washes my clothes and helps with other household chores when I need the assistance) comes by, grabs the 20-liter yellow jerry can, and goes on a water hunt. In this case, I give her 100 Rwandan Francs (the equivalent to around 20 US cents). There is a water tap source about 200 yards from my house, but is not reliable all of the time. If water is missing there, we can check at the pastor’s house across the street. They have recently built a tank system that stores an incredible amount of water. However, if you are in the midst of an intense dry season, like this past summer, then the only other water alternative is to head to a small lake south of my house. It is an hour-long trip and it’s largely uphill on the way back. It sure ain’t easy.

Alphonsine fetches for me around 3 times a week. If I need more then I take it upon myself to find water (amazi). Luckily, it’s almost always been present at the pastor’s house. However, a few times I have been unsuccessful in finding water and so I am forced to make fun decisions such as:

Should I wash my body or use the water to drink?
Should I use this water to cook or clean my floor?
Do I have enough water to at least wash my feet?

It gives you a hell of a lot of perspective when these are things you have to think about.

What I’ve noticed about myself and this whole water thing and really, life here in general, is just how…dare I say iteasy it has become?

In the beginning, about two years ago, finding water was a scary thought. Cooking with charcoal was a mystery. Washing my feet seemed stupid. Wearing igitenge (African fabric) to respect the more conservative culture felt strange – especially if I was just going out on the road for a couple of minutes! I was intimidated to walk into one of our shops to buy sugar, batteries, salt, or some necessary material I needed at home. Walking the roads was foreign; this was not my home.

But this is where life is a bit crazy.

I’m 100% coming full-circle.

The school holiday has arrived and so I’m no longer teaching. Just like the way I started, my work-load is well…next to nothing. Free time is the name of my game. I’ve switched back to cooking with charcoal, leaving behind my finnicky petrol stove. When I moved here that was my cooking source and I abandoned it about a year ago in lieu of something less messy. I chose petrol, but the reason I am back to charcoal is because it is significantly less expensive. In this final month in Rwanda, I am with Divine and we decided that charcoal would be our preferred method in cooking our meals. I am seeking out people to visit again – just for the hell of it – and I’m cleaning my house because I enjoy it.

My life is currently composed of all of the foundations that were present in the beginning. Only now, I’m so in my element.

I can have a hot, fiery charcoal stove ready in 5 minutes.
I embrace the free time; my house is sparkling clean. Mopping, sweeping, organizing? I barely have to think about it.
I wash my body at least two times (sometimes three!) per day. Being clean is important. It’s good culture.
These roads are ours now; I know the grooves and indentations in the soil (I have fallen enough times), and I know the back roads to take me to the forest, churches, or the never-ending plots of farm-land.

Life is slowing down. A lot. Which is good, because the last part of my service here is closing things up, saying goodbye, and soaking up the best parts of Rwanda before I head home. That’s why I am staying, you know. Most of my group leaves in less than a week, but I elected to stick around an extra month so that I could slowly phase out of this. I’m so glad I have.

Yazina and Divine, two of my girls, are living with me for the next week as they take their national examinations. They live far from the exam location and so we arranged for them to stay at my house so that they could focus on studying and not on the difficulty of commuting to sit for their exams. It’s been lovely, wonderful, and so much fun.

I have really realized how much I love taking care of people in this process.

We are in the second day of exams and so the girls have been with me now for a few days. I rise with them early in the morning and immediately put the kettle on to make some tea. I organize the sugar, the cups, and the bananas as they continue to read from their worn books. When it’s time to drink, we pray, consume, and Divine and I share the imigati (the proverbial “bread” that is, scripture from our Jesus Calling devotional). They then go to wash, kwisiga yo amavuta (put on lotion), and beautify themselves to go take their examinations. During exam week, they have two exams per day, and so when they leave in the morning I won’t see them again until around 4:00 or 5:00pm.

Once they leave, I take time to myself to journal, drink coffee, and listen to music (currently I am obsessed with a group called Imagine Dragons). I start cooking mid-morning, and I cook a lot. Divine advised that to save time, I should cook once per day, but cook enough to make two meals. Brilliant and sound advice! I’ve been cooking macaroni, beans, rice, vegetables, and plantains. I put the food in warming containers so it will stay relatively hot throughout the day. When I finish to prepare food for the girls, I clean. I add to my growing pile of things to take back to America and also add to the growing pile of give as gifts to my Rwandan friends. Eventually, I run. This week I have also been teaching a woman in my village who has recently been accepted with refugee status to come to America. I don’t quite know the ins-and-outs of her story, but she is a Rwandan woman who has lived in Congo, Rwanda, and Kenya. All of her family will come to the United States in December and she doesn’t know any English. She practically grabbed me as I was running last week and begged for some emergency lessons. With all this free time as I wait for the girls to finish their exams, I figured, oh, why not? Afterwards, I come home, paint my nails, write more of “thank you/goodbye letters” until I hear the sounds of the girls on the road (they are easy to listen for). I go out, greet them, bring them inside, and we do it all over again.

So many moments this week have been filled with déjà vu. Only this time, it’s just different. It’s like I belong, or something?

And it’s better. So so so much better.

Life on the roads and in the village isn’t necessarily a cake-walk. No, getting called umuzungu or being asked for money still presents all of the issues that exist when in the situation I am in. The lying, issues of trust, and all the layered difficulties that I have discovered over the months are still present too. None of that goes away – ever. But, that’s life, isn’t it? No matter where you are there is always going to be some sort of challenge. And so maybe it’s more important to embrace and thrive in what feels natural, easy, and normal. My daily life here feels normal y’all. Fetching water, using a latrine, sleeping in a mosquito net, shopping at market, putting hot water for tea later in my thermos, wearing a bandana “African style”, and washing my dishes in a basin feels utterly and completely…standard. I don’t even think about it anymore. And now that I’m doing all of this and somehow playing “mom” for the next week is honestly, like, super fun. I like checking in with the girls to make sure they get some sleep, I like cooking for them, I like making them tea, and I like providing water and soap so they can wash all the times they want. Maybe it feels extra good because so much of my time here has been me getting taken care of; now, I’m finally able to hold my own when it comes to living a semi-Rwandan life.

The girls have been staying up late to study and I have been an old woman and retiring to bed well before they do. They have been sharing a mattress in my living room and I’ve been sleeping as per usual, in my bed. To go outside they must pass through my bedroom and last night I woke around 4:00am to them slipping through, failing in their attempts to whisper. I followed them outside and low and behold, they were crouched on the ground ferociously trying to gather these flying insects that look a lot like fireflies.

Um. What are y’all doing? I asked them. Minus the y’all, of course.

Turns out, sometimes after big rains, these particular insects increase and fly around, particularly in areas of light (they were hanging around my light bulb outside my house). The girls, and almost all of the neighborhood, were collecting these bugs into a bowl so they could cook them later. Yep, cook them and EAT them later. I bowled over in laughter, is this seriously my life?

I crawled back into my bed with a smile on my face.
How is it that this life is so much a part of me now? How is it that I feel totally and completely a part of things? How is it that I can be completely myself with these girls? That I can take care of them (as they have taken care of me) and it feels like we’ve been in each other’s lives all along?

For this time though, I don’t think about making the adjustment from this kind of life to life back in America.
I don’t think about what it will feel like to say goodbye.
I don’t think about what it will be like when the comfortable part of this is over.
I don’t think about any of this.
Instead, I pray.
I thank God, over and over again, for making this place my home.

I’m realizing more now than ever, I somehow, somehow belong. I’m a far cry from being a Rwandan or a true villager, but in my efforts to try and try try again, it worked.

I’m coming full-circle only this time instead of making a place a home, I’m just existing in the home that I have already built. I’m blessed enough to have my Rwandan family members alongside me. Maybe sentimentality is starting to take over or something, but with each passing day that I keep house, easing into the day, waiting for the girls to come back home, I keep thinking of how right it all feels. I’m glad my ending will be like this. It will be about being home.

Who would have thought?

my girls and my Rwandan family; Divine and Yazina

my girls and my Rwandan family; Divine and Yazina

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About Heather Michelle Newell

Hi! I'm Heather. I am a writer and counselor in-training. I share stories so we can all learn about one another. I spend a great deal of time laughing loudly, going on adventures with my grandmother, walking amidst the beautiful Colorado mountains, and spending time with my fiancee, friends, and family. A Colorado native, I love dark-roasted coffee, sunshine, and getting up early before the rest of the world beats me too it. Enthusiasm, passion, and possibility: that's me at my best.

One response »

  1. Leaving your friends and all of the successes you have started has to be difficult and yes it is sometimes frustrating to not be able to see the complete results of our efforts. We just have to move on confident that Goad the the person we have worked so hard with will certainly reach levels of sucess we can’t even imagine. God bless you on your work Heather as you will never know all whom you have touched but I am sure the numbers of those touched by the Heather air will number far more that just those you have physically touched. Great job girl!! Hope did the gift giving go with the things we sent. Have you given them out yet? Looking forward to seeing you when you get home. Love, Grandpa

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