Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.
The Lord is near.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with Thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4: 4 – 9
Our small prayer group leader read these words slowly and intentionally. He read in Kinyarwanda, of course, and so I sat resolutely on a small brown bench trying to understand. He read these words on behalf of our Tuesday prayer group; he read this scripture as a representation of God’s bread. He shared this verse for me. It was my final day to pray in Ruramira, my home for the past two years. When I read the verse later in English as Divine and I finished eating my favorite food (plantains) in my living room, tears and gratitude filled my heart. What wonderful words to encapsulate my life here. What a beautiful piece of the Bible to send me off with. When we finished our prayers that last Tuesday, the old mamas huddles around me. Their old skin touched me as they set their walking sticks aside and they let out soft sounds of sadness.
“Uzagaruka ryari?” (When will you come back?)
“Simbizi.” (I don’t know.)
“Eh baba we. Imana yanjye! Turababaye pe.” (Oh my God, we are so very sad.)
“Ariko niba Imana ashobora kwerekana inzira, nzagaruka.” (But, if God shows me the way, I will return.)
I muttered something about these women being wonderful abakekurus (old women) but I completely lost words to speak when I saw one of these women grasping her mouth and holding back tears. Rwandans are stoic; never before had I seen an older Rwandan woman cry. Kinyarwanda, English….I don’t know. Finding the right words is impossible with goodbyes like this. Which is why that scripture means so much to me; where our words and understanding fails, God comes.
I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda somewhere around 820 days. For 27 months. The end always seemed like an idea formed in some intangible myth. We’d talk about America but it didn’t seem real. Of course I knew Rwanda would come to an end – eventually – but even now it feels impossible to look at my ticket and know it is really happening. To say I’m struggling to process all of this barely covers it, despite knowing from the very beginning that Peace Corps was never permanent. I remember in the first days of training how we always joked that “today is forever” because of the long days of Kinyarwanda lessons, cultural training, walks to our training site, and integration attempts with our families. I was convinced that if “real Peace Corps life” (that is, the time after training) was like that then there was no way I would survive two years in this country.
“Real Peace Corps life” is not like that. If you approach the experience not as a job but wholly the life you have, then time moves, life happens, and sooner than you really understand, it’s over. My life for the last 820-ish days has been full. It’s been some of the best and worst days of my 24 years. In this time as a resident of Rwanda, I’ve had two birthdays, learnt a language, lost around 20 pounds, and was called “umuzungu” every single day. I found one of the best friends I will ever have, prayed regularly at the Catholic Church, was harassed, coached football, had rocks thrown at me by our village “crazy”, was lied to frequently, ate amazing home-made Rwandan food on student visits, helped establish a library, learned to use charcoal, somehow became a teacher, and lived in a village full of many people who had never seen an American before.
I became a friend, a family member, visited 4 other countries, went on 3 safaris, and showed my parents this beautiful country. I became a fan of waking up at 5:00am, read books, watched a lot of TV shows, and journaled almost every day. I have completed over 12 journals to prove it. Using a latrine became normal, I dealt with a nasty staph infection, and I was sick a few times. The most serious episode is now rumored to be an act of “poison” among my community members but I think I just ate a bad batch of meat. I drank banana beer in secret, wrote letters, and spent a lot of time on crowded buses. Once, I danced in front of 3,000 people at a church revival. Many times I prayed for over 5 hours on Sundays. I learnt far more about grace, love, and humility than I can even begin to say. I saw the good and bad of Rwandan culture and absorbed a lot of it in my own personality. My Peace Corps superlative at our going-away party was “most likely to return and live in Rwanda” and in a letter from Yazina, she commended the “miracle” it was to see an American woman also become a Rwandan woman. The lines certainly are blurred for me.
I have only told a few people this, but last year I heard voices in my house when I tried to sleep. I called out my grandmother’s name and I felt something on my back and neck. This all happened for a span of about a week in early 2012. I never knew what it was for sure, but I lost several nights of sleep before going to Kigali to see the doctor. Was I going crazy? Our doctor drained my ears and I only heard the voices once more after and so who knows.
In one of the most defining moments of my life, Rwanda served as the place I first heard the voice of God. I’ll never forget it. I was in a motorcycle accident one spring evening, around 6:00 at night. My motorcycle driver had come to take me, while another driver took Yazina and Divine from a restaurant we were visiting. It was dark, rainy, and not a good time to be in the road on a motorcycle. My motorcycle collided head-on with an old man and his bicycle as the road veered slightly to the left. Time stood completely still as my driver braked harshly and I was ejected forward from the back. I wore a measily helmet but it managed to stay on as I met the road with the back of my head and body and rolled once into a ditch. However, it’s what I heard when I spent milliseconds in the air, completely free in the body, that has changed my life. My legs dangled and I heard nothing but complete silence. I was screaming, but I didn’t hear it. The screeching of the brakes didn’t enter my ears. All I heard was,
BE STILL AND KNOW I AM GOD.
I processed be still and was sure to keep my body strong so I could absorb the impact on the pavement safely. Bruises, a cut lip, and shock aside, I was fine. In the next few minutes, I called Suzi completely panicked, and then was able to call the girls to come back. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I saw Divine on the other side of the road waiting for me, arms wide open. It was raining heavily at this point, and all I could do was sob. She held me tight, repeating that God loves you over and over. In light of all of these events, I know that was God. I know it.
So you can perhaps see the difficulty in understanding how this is over. Somewhere along the way it became a reality (for good and bad) and life continued. I learnt a lot of things in these months of residing in a small village surrounded by forests and banana trees. I learned how to communicate using multiple languages and many times, using the body as well. I learned the difference between being a “good” teacher and a “fun” teacher – because you can be both. I learned how to cook – a skill I’m very excited about.
I learned things I never imagined I would need; things like, using oil on the outside of a pot to prevent smoke leaving black stains, the best way to run when 5 children desperately want to hold onto you, how to kill a snake with a mop, and how to overcome fear with a woman who is insane and trying to remove all of her clothes in front of you.
Yeah, my life was strange here.
Of everything though, the one constant, transcending life lesson that was evident during my time in Rwanda was this:
GOD NEVER LEAVES US.
That alone, is what I know for sure.
Oprah Winfrey always ends her issues of O! Magazine with a few inspiring paragraphs about her most recent life insights. What I Know For Sure, is what she calls them.
Well for me, I can only spend endless paragraphs trying to adequately describe a truth I can barely fathom. God. Never. Leaves. Us.
It’s the only sentiment that explains the relationships I have made. And it’s the truth that held me together on the more challenging and trying days here.
What I know for sure is that God is the reason I was able to move my life, to leave my family, and to find pure, untainted joy in a place that like anywhere else has a plethora of issues.
Rwanda has not always been kind to me.
But in the midst of dark times, there was always light.
When my grandmother died, I had my host family to console me.
When I saw students beat others, there was a belief that things could change.
When I was lonely, someone always appeared or called. Or, I had Velveeta cheese from dad tucked away somewhere.
When I felt like a failure, GLOW club shined.
When I was afraid, living in my house without power, I found contentment in going to sleep early and peacefully in the night.
When I ran on these rural roads and people sometimes mocked me, I was able to run faster.
I’m a very lucky woman though. Most of the time, I loved Rwanda. Deeply, intensely – I loved it here.
And it isn’t very hard to figure out why. This last weekend, on a final visit to my host family, we gathered around the table after a delicious meal of meat, fries, rice, and fanta to pray. Divine had come with me and my family was so happy to meet her. Mama started to pray and she prayed long and hard. For 10 minutes she spoke to God. For 10 minutes she also struggled to find the words to speak – tears were stuck in her throat as she prayed for my journey, for the continued strength in my relationships, and for the time I had in Rwanda. When she finished the only thing I could tell her was that I believe that their family and Divine are direct blessings from God. God is the reason I was able to love this place like I do. His hand was in everything.
My last month here was one long goodbye. First to school, then to my students, then to teachers, then to my community, then to families, then to my students, then to my friends, then to my host family, and my last goodbye – in a sense, my goodbye to Rwanda – to Divine.
It was one of my favorite months here. I traveled around freely – to around 5 different districts – and to prevent being alone in my house while in my village, Divine moved in with me to support me for my last weeks. We spent our days truly enjoying each other’s company. She taught me how to properly wash clothes, I taught her how to use “home row” while using a computer. We even made her a facebook and email on a trip into town. We cooked. We listened to the radio. We took naps. We just lived life.
In one of my final days in Rwanda, we, along with 3 other of my girls, enjoyed a trip to Akagera National Park so they could experience a safari and see incredible animals and physical scenery. They loved it. They squealed at the sight of giraffes and upon seeing a large elephant in the road just 15 feet away, believed the elephant would come to eat us. Our 6 hour game park drive thrilled them and they repeatedly acknowledged how unbelievable it all was. I sat next to a quiet Divine on the way home. But our friendship is so comfortable that silences don’t bother me – a testament to our closeness because I love chatting! Finally she looked at me and spoke with conviction and clarity.
“Heather, the reason I am quiet is because I just feel this action you have made is so uncountable. It’s above my head – I don’t have words to say. It’s just amazing.”
I told her, “no problem Shu, there is no problem. I am just so happy you could see that place.”
“Thank you so much. But Heather. It’s more than this action of today. It’s all actions you have shown for me and others in the 2 years to share life. You are the first person in my life to speaking something and shoe the action – always. I have friends and family to support me, but what you have done for me…I don’t understand. Birarenze (to be at a loss for words)…I don’t have the words. All of this, it comes from God, and…wow. I don’t understand.”
Divine and I have had a slow goodbye and so we have had many conversations that try to pinpoint how we can have the friendship we do, but it always comes back to our lack of understanding – namely that it comes from God and how can we begin to grasp the intricacies of friendship that he works within?
I sigh and quickly code these words from Divine into my memory. I don’t want to forget. Her words soothe my soul and it’s in that moment that despite the pain in moving on, I can do it – one, because I have humbly succeeded in what I set out to do (help the world just a little bit) and two, God’s given me an incredible friend who has taught me about life in ways only explainable by God’s divine touch.
Her English is a second language and yet I know her heart more deeply than people I have known for years. Her love for God is unchanging in all things – she showed me what it means to be a strong Christian woman.
We laughed everyday, shared meals, went on walks, studied, explained our histories, and did it all from two very different walks of life.
What I know for sure is that God never leaves us because in the time I needed friendship He gave me one of His most devoted followers.
Today is just like every other day. The Kigali sun is starting to reach the peak in the sky, birds are bustling around in the trees, and I’m ready for a buzz of caffeine from a cup of coffee. It’s just like any other day, except that it’s my last day in Rwanda and that in just 9 short hours, I will be on a plane headed for America. Headed for home.
I left my village on a moto, tears streaming down my face, as a group of my closest friends waved goodbye. They had come early in the morning to give letters, hug me, sip coffee, and say some parting words. Some of the congregation at the Catholic church were working the fields as my motorcycle zoomed past and I wistfully placed my hands in the air to wish them peace. I was leaving. Leaving. I remember the first time I came to Ruramira, by way of motorcycle, and I was leaving much in the same way. Only this time, there were kids screaming “Impano! Impano!” and I could look around, knowing where most of the paths lead. The difference was that I was leaving a home.
I went back to the very place I started – my host family – so I could give them final hugs. The goodbye was prayerful, full of gifts, and amazing, inspiring words. I told them what Divine has done for me in my time as a volunteer, and they commended her greatly, wishing her to come back and visit. They repeatedly told me how much appreciation they have for the work I have done and even more so, my attempts to live and work within Rwandan culture. Mama could barely believe the things I have learned to cook (cassava bread, bananas, and good sauce) and when she heard some of the new Kinyarwanda phrases I have acquired she stood back in shock. Somehow you have become Rwandan, she told me. From a strong Rwandan woman, that’s about the biggest compliment you could ask for.
Divine and I came back to Kigali following our visit to the host family to enjoy one more night together. We had tea and bread and we listened to the Catholic radio station. We talked. A lot. And we cried, a lot. When morning came, after few hours of sleep, we prayed together. Tears fell fast, quickly, and fiercly. How had this day finally arrived? How is it possible that I will not see this girl every day? Divine prayed so beautifully, asking God to protect our journeys, and praising Him over and over for the way He has worked in our lives. She asked for God to help us “have no fear” in separation and to keep us strong. I accompanied her to the bus station and helped her find a bus to go back home. It will be her first time to back at home in quite some time as she spent the last month living with me. I think her family will be happy to have her back. I hugged her once more, shook her hand and watched her sit in the bus. Immediately, she buried her face in her lap. She later told me she stayed like that for the entire journey. I went to the office for Peace Corps, found a quiet place in the garden and cried holding my Bible for 30 minutes. It was one of the saddest days I have had in my life. To say goodbye is already difficult, but when there is no certainty about the time you will see that person again, your heart hurts. And hurts a lot. I know Divine will be in my life forever. And I know I’ll see her again. It’s just a matter of accepting where life has taken us now. Our connection is one of the strongest I have felt in another human being. She’s a young, Rwandan student who comes from a poor village in East Africa. I’m a young wanna-be American teacher from a country and family where all of my needs have been met on a consistent basis. And yet, our conversations were perceptive, deep, and open. I know this girl. And she knows me. To walk away from Peace Corps with that kind of relationship is a resounding success.
God never leaves us.
Of everything I have learned, this is the most important.
There’s so much I could say and so much I want to try to explain; and yet, I’m losing the words.
I have an inexpressible amount of gratitude for my friends and family back home. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for sending letters. Thank you for sending American food. Thank you for your encouragement. I like to think of this blog as some sort of time capsule and so I’ll be starting a new blog once I get back stateside. In case you haven’t noticed, I love blogging, and so I look forward to writing about the next phase of my life back home. This blog will forever be the pieces of writing and experiences about Rwanda and I appreciate everybody who took the time to read and try to understand some of the things I experienced while working in this country.
A special thank you to my parents. Each and every time I want to do something, you are the first people to figure out HOW to make it happen. When I wanted to come to do Peace Corps you didn‘t think I was crazy. Too crazy, anyway. And when I found out it was Rwanda, you started planning the time you were going to come to visit – and you came. I want you to know how much that meant to me – and what that meant to my friends in Rwanda. The most important thing I have wanted to show in Rwanda is that love is far more than words (it’s an action) and you, my parents, have demonstrated that beautifully.
I’m indebted forever to the kind people in Ruramira. The reason I was able to have a positive and successful experience was because my community was welcoming, kind, and ready. They were open to have conversations, willing to take me in their home, and waved at me when I passed through on my daily runs. I will love that village forever. And a piece of me will always be there.
Today when my plane finally takes off, I’m not sure what will be running through my mind. I imagine I’ll be consumed with what it’s going to feel like to finally be home but also I’ll reflect on the people and places that have worked within my life for the last couple of years. I’ll remember Godriva, an old mama who gave me a couple of dollars as a going away gift, and I’ll remember Divine’s mother who frequently would break out into dancing just for the hell of it. I’ll remember the life I had there – even if for a short while – and know that no matter where life takes me, I’ll always have that.
I’ll think to myself that the most amazing thing of all is that though the Peace Corps experience is deeply personal, it’s also so much more than about yourself. It’s about the community you worked, the friends you make, and the people back home that are waiting to hear and understand all of the stories. My life is profoundly changed forever. And for that, I give all thanks to God.