Divine was walking me home last night, giving me advice on how to handle a couple of different problems – one with school and one with a family in our community – when I greeted a drunk woman on the edge of the road with an enthused and far too chirpy “muraho!” (this means hello). Divine immediately slapped my wrist and though it was dark with only the stars in the grey-blue sky giving light, I could feel her disapproving eyes.
“Heather. Umva! (listen) Me, everytime I tell you the culture of Rwanda, but sometimes you forget. If it is day to greet is very nice. No problem! But sherie (basically like saying my dear), if it is night, no! You go quickly and keep quiet.”
I nodded but also chuckled because indeed, this was not the first time that she had told me this, or watched me as I naively said hello to creepy men, goats, or people on the road in the black of night. It’s not that I often roam the roads after the sun sets, but when I visit Divine I usually am late to get back home because we get to talking and lose track of time. Each and everytime however, she walks me all the way back to my house, a 35 minute walk. This is probably for two reasons: one, she enjoys my company and wants to show good Rwandan culture. But most likely, she’s a bit freaked out by my friendly-to-a-fault tendencies and wants to make sure I get home without any problem.
Divine always has a lot to tell me and I frequently have a lot of questions. She told me recently that she is well aware of how in Rwanda people “hide their thoughts and ideas” and that it can be “difficult to know a person”. I wanted to give a standing ovation with a rounds of applause; yes! I was overjoyed that she sees this too. Rwandans are great people; but they are considerably closed and don’t always project what they are actually feeling. Why do you think my best friend is a 20-year old student? Relating as strongly to anyone else in my community has proved difficult (most of the men just want to flirt it up, and the other women in my village are typically mamas just trying to get all their stuff done).
So, to combat this, Divine has opened herself up and has promised me that she will not hide anything from me. This was all on her own inititation you know, but Lord knows I appreciate it. Without a doubt in my mind, she’s the one person in Rwanda that I trust completely and will give me a straight answer even if I don’t want to hear it. She firmly believes in the “responsibilites of friendship” as she calls it and this includes sharing all things. In doing so, the girl has taught me a lot. Much more than she probably even realizes.
First, for a frame of reference, let me give you the basics.
Divine’s full name is MUKAMUGEMA Divine (in Rwanda, you capitalize the first name), but unlike a lot of Rwandans, Divine insists that she is just Divine. In church last week, they were reading a list of people going on a trip to a major Catholic celebration/revival/pentecost in another district and Divine was signed up to go. They called “Mukamugema” and I looked on as she didn’t even realize her name was being called. She prides herself on her various nicknames though, and they certainly are numerous: Mama GLOW, Moon, and Ibishymbo (beans). However, a lot of times we just call each other “sha” which is a term of endearment for close friends.
Divine was born in the Kirehe District in Rwanda, in the far Eastern Province, about 45 minutes from the Tanzania border. Her village is quite close to Nyarabuye, the location of a large Catholic church that had a major massacre during the Genocide. This location now serves as a major Memorial Site that people can visit. Divine was about 9 months old in 1994 when the Genocide occured. She told me that her mother carried her on her back and would hide in the forest every day.
Divine no longer has her father. He died in December 2011, after a battle with a “muscle disease.” Just recently she filled in more of the blanks on her past – about how her father had 4 wives as was the norm in old traditional culture – and how when he was sick, she took a year off from studying to be at home to help him. She told me that they had a good relationship and they shared a similar “culture” of loving to laugh. I didn’t realize fully until she explained all of this how much she misses her dad. But, she also has a deep love for her mother and a whole fun batch of family members – Medi, Joseph, and Donatha. I mentioned how Divine has the nickname of beans, and it was actually her family that started this whole food-name business. Her mom is pineapple, Medi is sweet potato, Joseph is avocado, and Donatha is doughnut. They christened me as plantain because I eat so much of them. And because her mother said my nose looks like one. Yeah, they are kind of a bunch of goof balls and when I first met them, I could instantly see why Divine is the way she is. Certainly, that’s the best part of meeting families of people you love, isn’t it? You better understand where they are coming from.
She loves to eat plantains and beans and has a soft spot for porridge made with corn flour. Divine is 20 years old and studying in Senior 3 (like the equivalent to 9th grade) but it’s not unusual because many Rwandans are late to finish their education. Maybe they stop because of money or a family problem for example, but eventually continue when they can work through things. It’s just what happens. She recently mentioned for the first time- after being friends for 1 and 1/2 years – that she is the first person in her family to study as far as Senior 3. All of her siblings before her dropped out before then. I don’t know why she didn’t tell me this earlier; I think it’s something she is very proud of but doesn’t want to appear boastful or having too much pride.
She is incredibly wise. Her way of thinking is rooted in a lot of traditional cultural values, but she balances these with progressive notions too. But not always. We sometimes have disagreements on situations because of the perspectives we carry. It’s healthy though, because we are both able to see why we think the way we do and it’s in our many conversations about life that I feel most American. Which most of the time, makes me quite proud. In her cultural values, I should note, she isn’t backwards or uncivilized. There are just some things in her life that carry heavy importance – cleanliness, respect for elders, and helping around the home – because that’s just the way it is. It’s very easy to judge the values of others, but if you take a step back and reevaluate your own particular ways of seeing the world, you can then realize how steeped these often are in the culture you originate from.
Her two greatest skills are understanding people and making people smile. She can walk into a room and light it up. It’s not that she is the most loud or obnoxious as I tend to be, rather, she is just absolutely hilarious. And when I say that she can understand people well it’s because she can know instantly how someone is feeling about a situation, can see things from multiple perspectives, and is never hasty when discussing something with someone. If you tell her something, she will think about it, and give you an answer when she has considered the words she wants to use. It’s not just in English that she does that; it’s in Kinyarwanda as well. I asked her about this once.
“Divine, you have no fear to speak. But many times, you think before you use the words. You are choosing very carefully.”
“Of course! It is very important to think about the ideas in your head before speaking. You want to use the good words.”
The great love in her life is God. She is very proud to be a Catholic and prays at church at least twice per week. I’m not exaggerating when I say that she is the most faithful person I know. She always trusts that things will get better and that God “will give us the answer.” When I was dating somebody who wasn’t a Christian, she was horrified. Not in a judgemental way at all (hello, her best friend is Muslim so she is very open on the religion spectrum), she just struggles to understand a worldview outside of God. God is her bread, her walls, her leader, her friend, her everything. Everything for Divine begins and ends with God.
She’s really weird and like I said, funny. She calls me sometimes at night and simply tells me to go outside and see how strong she is (she is referring to the times that we have a full moon; moon is one of her nicknames and so she gets excited).
I said I would give you the basics and this was as “basic” as I could keep it. I could talk about this girl for days if people would let me. I think I mention Divine on the phone with Suzi every time we talk on the phone. Which is nearly every day.
Now, for the school of Divine. The following are quotes/ideas/advice/nuggets of wisdom/general thoughts on life that Divine has mentioned to me at one time or another. I thought this would shed good light on the kind of character she has and exactly how important she has been to my time in Rwanda, as she has consistenly been my confidante.
The School of Divine
*”Heather, stop using agatsiko to describe the English word groups. It means very bad things.” (She was right. It’s an almost direct translation for gangs. Please know I was using this word in class, each and every time I wanted to the students to break off into groups. Awesome.)
*On why people change their minds, “if you are sad, you can say the things that aren’t true. But when you are strong again, your ideas change.”
*“LIFE CONTINUES” – her answer to each and every life problem. It’s not to say that the problem isn’t worthy or that it doesn’t need to be dealt with, but her philosophy refers to the most basic of all life truths. There will be another day, life does go on.
*Sunflower flour is even better than peanut flour when cooking a delicious Rwandan sauce.
*In Rwanda, the parents’ wishes must be honored.
*”If you say yes, mean yes, and if you say no, mean no.”
*”Heather you have taught me that in the life, if you have compassion you can have a good heart and do good things. To be compassionate is important if you want to make God happy.”
*”Laughing is the same as eating, breathing, and washing. You need it in your life.”
*”Heather, me I think, you have water. You have soap. Why don’t you wash very well? It is very nice to have pride in the clothes and the body to show that you have the self-confidence. You are beautiful girl, so remember to wash very nice.” – referring to the fact that sometimes my feet are not super clean.
*”Wow! To cook in America and Rwanda is different. But this food is nice, so congratulations. But for me, I don’t understand very well this food.” -referring to macaroni and cheese.
*BE PATIENT. BE PATIENT. BE PATIENT. (that’s really a Rwandan universal truth in all aspects of life)
*”For me, if I cry, there are tears in my heart. I don’t show them on the face.”
*”Your friend is the most important relationship. To be a good friend, you must share your problems and try to find good solutions.”
*”Heather, when someone speaks you think it is true every time. Sometimes it’s not true. You need to remember to ask questions and try to find more information to be sure.”
*Hugging me after the terrifying motorcycle accident, “God will continue to give miracles. He never goes out.”
*”Fetching water is a sport.”
*Me: “How do you do all of these things every day?”
Divine: “I am strong! God gives me the chance to be strong in the mind and the heart and it is possible to do anything I try to do.”
*On the heartache of missing another person, “ahhhh, it is very difficult. Even for me, I miss my family every day. But you have to believe! You have to believe you are together in the spirit.”
*”You cannot love someone by the things they give in the life. Yes, the things are nice. But you need the good action and behavior. You need to see the love they have for you in the heart. That is when you know where the love is coming from and that it is real.”
*On confronting people right away with a problem, “Teacher, in Rwanda, we don’t do that.”
More than just her insights and eternal truths, the way she lives her life is a testament to the heart she has.
Her friendship IS one of the primary reasons I have stayed here in times of doubt. It’s not a relationship about me being a teacher, an American, a rich girl nor her being a student, a Rwandan, or a person coming from a poor family. Those things don’t matter. Finding something like this here (and anywhere, really) is GOLD and nothing BUT the hand of God. I can’t stress it enough.
Some people don’t get it:
why are you such good friends with a STUDENT?
Or on her end, is that white girl your sponsor or something?
People ask these things because they don’t understand. Because they don’t understand how it is possible.
But for every reason that a friendship like this couldn’t or shouldn’t work, well, it just does. I am treated with love, respect, and equality. Again, when in the situation that I’m in, this is a big deal. She knows me very very well.
She tells me about my “easy heart” (her words, not mine) which I have come to understand as being very sensitive. True.
She knows I don’t handle unhappiness well. True.
She calls me out when I try to solve a problem IMMEDIATELY as opposed to trying to feel out all of the alternatives. True again.
She understands that I value quality time above all other things. She laughs at my jokes and strange behavior. She teases me for all the questions I ask. And when I’ve had a crappy day, she knows just what to say and do to cheer me up.
Her ability to understand me to a strong degree blows my mind – I remember thinking when I first moved here, will I ever be able to BE MYSELF? Will I constantly be in the mode of “integration” and never fully open up to show all of who I am? Oh, and there’s the whole language barrier thing, but in the most rare of circumstances, a good friendship can overcome anything. And this one has. As for the language thing, well the girl is quite wonderful at speaking English, and even though my Kinyarwanda skills are quickly sinking like an overturned ship, we make a mixture of the two which we call “Kin-glish.” And you know what? It works.
I am more convinced than ever that when you need it most, God gives you exactly what you need. I needed a friend here in my little part of the world and I got way more than I could have ever imagined. I got a best friend that I deeply admire, love to be around, and makes this life enjoyable, happy, worth all of the difficulties, and just…exactly what I had hoped it would be. And more.
“I came to Ruramira and I didn’t know what my future was. My father died and I lost the money to go to the school by my home. I was sad. I missed my family. I didn’t have friends in this place. But, I saw you at the school, and thought maybe it would be okay.”
“I remember seeing you in the class and thinking, I want to know more about this girl. This girl, she’s different. She’s always smiling, always wanting to study very high, and has good ideas.”
Divine smiles and says with a great deal of conviction,
“I think God brought us together. I think He wanted us to be best friends.”