I found myself last week on a crickety old bed with wooden slots and a stacked mat to act as a mattress. A double bed, I was sharing it with Divine at her family’s home in Rusumo, about 2 hours from where I live in Rwanda. Divine, a GLOW girl, student, and friend of mine lives in my village in order to take care of her sick and dying grandmother. In Rwanda, it is of the utmost importance to take care of the elderly, and Divine fills in that role beautifully for her family. So, she lives here while school is in session, and then goes to visit her family (mother and sister to name a few) on the holiday. Living situations and families are never quite simple here.
We had celebrated Divine’s mom’s “wedding” (she married God but isn’t quite considered a nun because she has already birthed 4 children) and even though I was cuddling up into bed, winding down, and ready to find some much needed sleep, the party managed to continue. I smiled and laughed as Divine, her mother, and her aunt danced, hooted, hollered, and hugged to their own beat. The men had long since retired, but power to the woman! They kept going…and going…and going!
The release of energy and continued shouts slowly became drunken slurs as the hours passed and ticked away. Eventually, they decided to sit on the bed and chat. They tried to whisper as to accommodate my clear desire to sleep but they whisper no better than I do. Which means they were extraordinarily incapable. I sat up, laughed, and decided to let my guard down a little bit. It was pitch black besides the small, tiny petrol powered candle, it was late at night, and it wasn’t like I would be sleeping anyway, so I just thought, oh what the hell. For the first time, I drank with only Rwandans, and truth be told, it felt good. I love the occasional wine, beer, cocktail, you name it, but up until this point, I had reserved that kind of activity for Kigali, when I was with my Peace Corps friends. It took them by surprise too, I could tell, as I had refused alcohol for the previous 10 hours. I sipped the banana beer through a worn straw and slurped the vodka from a plastic flask. So, we sat in this bed, sweaty, happy, together, and drinking the local brew well past midnight. I thought to myself, after I told Divine how this would be our little secret, that it’s amazing how I would do this with very few Rwandans (women drinking doesn’t always mesh well with societal expectations here) but it felt perfectly fine around her and her family.
But, our relationship didn’t come from nowhere. It’s taken a lot of time to develop the trust and understanding and ease that I feel when I’m with Divine. She was a new student, I found out, this year back in the first term, when I was also a newcomer. She was often eager to participate in lessons and I noticed her rather quickly amidst the sea of the over 300 students that I teach.
She also has one of the best laughs I have literally ever heard. It’s so hearty and joyful, you can’t help but smile. She’s 19 and I can tell–she’s youthful, fun, and goofy but I can sense a strong feeling of maturity that she carries with her. She speaks to me in English first–always–and only resorts to Kinyarwanda if she can’t express herself adequately in English. She prays at the Catholic Church twice a week–she’s as devoted to God as anyone you’ll ever find. On her phone, her display screen says God is love, an allusion to 1 John 4:7-9, one of my favorite verses in the bible. She is confident (she strutted and was the arguable winner of our very own fashion show the other day at GLOW club), dedicated, and also a really big dork. I’ve taught her to greet and talk to animals as Americans often tend to do, and she has totally embraced this, shouting Hello cow! when we go on walks together. It’s easy to be with her and that’s a coveted comfort anyone could ever want–no matter where in the world you are.
She’s been open about the possibility that her grandmother will die any day (she tells me that she has no fear) and her concerns about not having enough money to continue to study after Senior 3 (currently she is studying in Senior 2). I’ve told her how the rumors are not true–I’m not always happy–and that being away from my loved ones really hurts sometimes. She gets that. She even knows a bit about my brother, as I’ve explained his situation, and she always tells me that she will pray for him. We’ve often talked about how laughing and staying positive is important in life, and one of my favorite things she has ever told me was when we were discussing happiness.
Divine: Teacher, people they see you and they want you to visit them. They see you and wow! They are happy.
Heather: Well, I love visiting you students and the people in the community because they make me happy. Sometimes, I’m not happy, but you help me to feel better.
Divine: Ah yes! To be happy is the best part of the life!
Heather: I agree. I love to laugh, and I know you do too. Everyday, I see you, and you are laughing. Always laughing!
Divine: Ohlalala! Because if you have no laugh, you have no life.
I’m her teacher and she’s my student and yet, it’s just so much more than that. I’m terrible at keeping professional boundaries sometimes, you know, and so I’ve let this particular relationship grow and you know what?
I’m so glad I have.
I see her and she reminds me why I wanted to do Peace Corps and why I want to continue to stay. She brightens my day, and if you have ever had a person like that in your life then you know how special that is.
Sometimes, I feel as if I’m not helping, as if my presence here is doing nothing. Sometimes, I feel unmotivated, discouraged, and heartbroken. Sometimes, I leave the classroom, confident few students grasped any part of my lesson. Maybe I will hear the continual shouts of umuzungu or I will be asked for money or I will be laughed at for something stupid and I’ll think, why? Why should I see this through? Why do I stay?
Because, I remind myself, I have people like Divine.
Because those relationships matter more than I even know. Maybe I’m teaching them, but they’re teaching me way more in return. And it’s people like Divine, and the other strong relationships that I have, that help me remember that they are more than enough. They are more than I could have asked for in this experience. Divine, and many others, are changing my life forever, and that’s just pretty darn beautiful. God really is love.