Tag Archives: banana beer

Divine (da-vee-nay)


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.


Divine and her family at the wedding for her mother. Divine is in the middle with the orange/red shirt.


Divine in Rusumo


Divine and I at GLOW: at the baseball field!


Divine, far left, and myself with the rest of the GLOW girls at GLOW Camp.

oh sweet mary


Sow your seed in the morning

And at evening let not your hands be idle,

For you do not know which will succeed,

Whether this or that,

Or whether both will do equally well.

Ecclesiastes 11:6

 I don’t know how to pray the saints, use a rosary, or follow the procedure for kneeling and praying during worship (years ago, I once nearly fell over myself trying to kneel appropriately at a Catholic funeral), but I sure do love praying on Sundays in the Rwandan Catholic Church.

Admittedly, the appeal could initially lie in the fact that the service is half as long as the sometimes 4, 5, or 6 hour Protestant service I often attend. However, I also find the Catholic service far more soothing, peaceful, and beautiful. ADEPR (that’s French for some Protestant acronym) is fun, loud, and dusty (from all the jumping and dancing around) and on some days it is utterly wonderful to be a part of. But I feel more in-tune with God when I worship at our sectors only (but very sizable and denoted by the many red bricks and blue paint) Catholic Church. I feel more comfortable, and though this was rather unexpected for me, I’ll take what I can get.

 On a simultaneously serious and light-hearted note: the Catholics also know how to party. Seriously. On New Year’s, I visited Suzi at her home (which is a convent complete with a sizable amount of nuns) and not only was I presented with a plate full of deliciously prepared food, there was ample amounts of beer and wine available. What? Oh, and not to be outdone, I recently went to a Catholic “wedding” for the mother of one my students. Wedding may be a tricky term as it was a ceremony celebrating the woman’s commitment to her new and lifelong husband: God. That’s right, she had a wedding to marry God. I’m not being tongue-in-cheek here; she couldn’t become a nun because she has already birthed like 4 children, and so she did the next best thing and became some kind of special sister in the church. Something like that. Anyway, I went to this wedding and there was not a dull moment. Dancing, drinking, eating. Repeat. I spent the night at the family’s home way out East in Rwanda, and slept very little. I eventually caved in to partaking in some classic fermented banana drink (that would be banana beer, my friends) to in some bizarre way prove myself to the skeptical and judgmental men, and well, I had a lot. The bus ride the next day was not fun. At all.

 Anyway, I digress.

 This does in no way instate a Catholic conversion; oh good gracious, no! I’m not Catholic. But, I do happen to believe that in some mysterious, un-knowing way (understanding God is far beyond any of our capacities) we are all worshipping, honoring, and loving the same God on Sunday and it’s best to go where you find Him most strongly.

 Most days, I don’t try too hard to translate the Kinyarwanda services in my head at church (and that assumes that I’m even adept enough in the language to do so). It’s just too much of a headache. I let my time at church be more free flowing than that. If I understand, fantastic. But, like soil adrift in the air from a cool breeze, I let the prayers, thoughts, and questions come and go with little restraint. I confess: sometimes, I day dream. If you are at church for 5 hours, well, I find this somehow inevitable. Because remember, you are sitting there, on a hard bench (your butt will go numb), for this long period of time, listening to a language that even after a year, you still can’t understand when spoken that quickly. Believe me, your mind wanders. But on the days that I feel connected with God, church feels really really good. Today was one of those days.

 It sure came at an important time; lately with all of my questions, doubts, and fears about the intentions behind my relationships in my community, I have felt my heart harden. My patience, like an old candle wick, has worn thin. The genuine kindness that is central to who I try to be has been difficult to maintain. I need God.

 I prayed on and off, eyes open and closed today. I sat between two old Rwandan women and repeatedly asked God to sustain my heart, yes, but to help all of our people find healing. Because that’s the power of God: if He helps you, certainly I’m helped too. We’re that connected.

 Remember that people in this rural community are pieces and parts of You, I prayed.

Please help me love.

To love can be hard, but with God it becomes easier. And it’s also the most important thing we can do in our lives. So I’m always asking God to help me do this. Especially here, at this season of my life. Like I said, things have been hard lately. I have a more difficult time letting things go, and I’m worn from always having sets of eyes on me for every move I make. I know I chose this life; trust me, I love this life. It fits me and it works. I’m happy with it. But there are fragments that are so hard to describe, and because of that, it’s those very fragments that chip slowly away at my heart, bringing me down and down and down. Next thing you know, you are yelling at someone in your community and you don’t even know why. You can find yourself crying when you come home, because you have nowhere else to go. And you feel isolated, a warrior on your own, because you can’t really explain this to anyone. Not anybody in the village, and really, not anyone at home. This is just something you and God have to work through. And so you pray.

 My favorite part of church is the ending number.

The tithing for the church and the community is finished (collections are placed in the traditional ‘Agaseke’ woven basket) and all able rise and stand on their feet. This serene song plays. I’m not sure what it means (I repeat: my Kinyarwanda is still limited), but as the chorus kicks in, most women lift their hands and spread like a bird, they move their arms and bodies, giving all they have to God. This is a poor and inept description of something far more moving and beautiful to see in person. It’s just like watching people hand over doubts and fears, receiving peace and hope in exchange. It’s inspiring. Because often, in the world of Christianity and religion and God, we think we need instruments, audience numbers, and recent converts to equate fully to a relationship with God. That isn’t it and that isn’t enough. When I see and experience this, I feel hope. Hope in my village, for myself, and for the world. It sounds cheesy, I know that, but I suppose this is the mystery of God, isn’t it? Those really intangibly amazing moments are just so hard to put into words. But it’s at the end of the service, with those women dancing, that I am able to reaffirm all of my dreams and desires with God, ready to go back outside and do the best I can, because that’s all He really ever asks of us.

 Lifting your hands, giving thanks, and releasing the grit of fear, anxiety, and pain is where God meets man. It’s where God meets us. I love watching that. I love being a part of that. I love doing that. Who cares that it happens in a Catholic Church? A Protestant Church? Or hey, even outside in my very own backyard? What difference does it really make? To Him, none at all.

 Letting go and finding those moments of release refreshes my faith and reminds me that you’re never alone in life. Sometimes you just have to let love in, let God find you, and let your heart be open. Easier said than done, of course, but when you are a part of a community of believers sharing their hearts in the best ways they know how, well, it sure is easier.