My old worn pink asics are on, I’m wearing my Hendrix capri sport pants, and my hair is thrown in a messy bun. I’m ready for sport. It’s just like most other days in my life—when it comes to my daily life, there’s a good chunk of time spent running, doing yoga (or some other random workout video on my computer), playing football, or going on long walks around the village. This is what I do. This is my element.
Only this time, one thing is different. Oh, and it’s pretty major. I’m playing goal ball and so I’m wearing black goggles that block out my vision. That’s right—I’m playing this particular sport without the ability to see. It’s what makes goal ball unique.
You see, I’m playing goal ball with a handful of boys who are partially blind or cannot see at all. And what’s amazing is that there is this game at all—it’s called goal ball—and you spend 20 minutes in a crouched position, waiting for the ball to be served (like the size of a kickball), and to come your way (you can’t see it, but it has a special bell inside so that you can listen for it). When you hear it, you prepare to block it from entering the large goal behind you. You have two other teammates by your side, ready to block right along with you. To serve, the best players place their hand on our goal to spot check, and just as quickly, the spin and dish the ball on the cement ground. They keep it low, and it somehow reminds me of a cross between bowling tactics and old school kickball on the playground. You can’t see—remember?—and so you have to clap your hands and feel the ground in order to position yourself correctly and communicate with your teammates.
To go from seeing everything to nothing is intense. And I did this for approximately 19 minutes—I can’t even begin to imagine what the boys that I played with must feel like everyday. In some ways, I imagine it’s incredibly isolating and frustrating. But these boys, well, they are without a doubt, a special group.
They made up 5 of the 65 boys we had at our recent Eastern Province BE CAMP (Boys Excelling). These boys came from all over the East to represent their schools as leaders and instigators of new ideas and change in their communities. The camp is sponsored by Peace Corps, so all of these students either have a Peace Corps Volunteer in their community as a teacher or as a health worker. I brought four boys to camp: Robert and Yousef from Senior 3, and Tom and Dieudonne from Senior 4.
We had the girls equivalent of this camp this last summer (GLOW: Girls Leading Our World). And quite literally, that experience changed my life. I was able to see the real, concrete, and powerful effect of being a proverbial seed-planter. I’ve come to realize that is really what being a Peace Corps Volunteer is all about: we are here to encourage, to share, to love, and to support, but many of the ideas and resources we bring act as seeds to a much larger garden. I won’t see most of the changes that I’ve worked towards this past year and will continue this next year in 2013, but that’s okay—it comes with the territory. Camps seem to be an exception to this rule, as after just a few days of being together, singing songs, playing games, studying life skills, and dancing, Rwandan youth find so many ways to come out of their shells. You can often see them radiate with self-confidence and happiness after the camp is over, and though you never know how exactly these students will apply the knowledge and skills that we tried to teach them, you can instantly see what it feels like for them to be told that yes they can and that as leaders in their community, they have the power to make things better in their own lives but also in the lives of others.
When GLOW finished this last August, I couldn’t wait for the next camp. It was like I was addicted to this feeling—is this what it feels like to make the world a better place, I asked myself. I wrote the date for our BE camp early on and I had been looking forward to it ever since.
Yet, to be perfectly honest, I was also much more nervous for the boys version of camp. When it comes to working with youth and I have conversations that connect me emotionally with students, I have noticed that I connect much more strongly with young women. And so, anticipating the week long training with over 50 boys initiated a lot of questions on my behalf: will I be able to ask the right questions? Will they trust me to open up? Will they be as open to new ideas as the girls were?
All of these questions were put to rest as we stood in a circle in the great hall at HVP Gatagara (a school for the visually impaired about 90 minutes from my house), with burning candles held in our hands, singing Silent Night, after a stirring speech from one of our Peace Corps Volunteers, Christina. Silent Night always gives rise to emotions in my heart, and so a few small tears fell down my face much in the same way that the white candle wax was leaking through the brown paper onto my hands. I was crying out of happiness though; these boys, much like the girls from GLOW, inspired me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. In just 4 short days, I felt like I watched these boys learn new things about building relationships, commit themselves to achieving their dreams and visions, and working together to make new friends and learn more about themselves.
Abouba told me about his life as an orphan. His school lets him study and sleep there in exchange for his extra work on the holidays.
Erneste explained his passion for goal ball as we held hands and I guided him around campus. He is one of the best players around—yes, even in Rwanda and East Africa—as he was able to travel to Algeria and compete internationally just a few years ago. He may be blind, but he doesn’t view this as a handicap—just another challenge in life. We all have challenges, he told me, and it shouldn’t stop us from doing what we love to do.
Froudard was the incredible winner of Limbo at our carnival (I still can’t believe how low that boy got) and then he outdid himself in the talent show when he performed Rwandan traditional dance with boys from his school. He did the splits for nearly a minute and most of the volunteers watched with shock and gasps on our faces. That boy got skills!
Alphonse brought his guitar out every night and sang some classics (Country Roads and Hero for example) before singing some of his own songs. His ability to play guitar and sing is unparalleled by many other musical gifts that I have seen, and it’s all the more amazing when you realize that Alphonse is also visually impaired and cannot see. But that’s never the focus when you are in his presence; he is constantly keeping the people around him laughing and completely in awe by his musical talent.
The boys of Martin Luther King Jr. (my hero group—we had a total of 8 hero groups so the boys could be in smaller groups to discuss and have a family like atmosphere) won the cheer-off on day one and I couldn’t have been prouder. After I explained Martin Luther King Jr. to the first boy who came to camp, he proceeded to explain the works and life of King to the rest of the boys who arrived throughout the afternoon. They owned and paraded around the campus with the pride of being in Dr. King’s group. I would yell, Where is the King? and the boys would respond equally loud and obnoxious with we are here! When we were all together we would sing our cheer which went something like this:
Where are you going?
I said, where are you going?
WE (clap clap)
ARE (clap clap)
GOING (clap clap)
TO (clap clap)
WASHINGTON! (clap clap)
(here the boys and I bring our arms together in the middle of the circle, raised in the air, to symbolize the Washington Monument)
(we stay silent for about 3 seconds and then…)
We want freedom!
We want equality!
We want love!
So we tell them…
We have a dream!
Like Martin Luther King!
A dream, a dream, a DREAM A DREAM A DREAM!
It should come as no surprise that by the end of camp, I could barely talk and when I did, I sounded like an old man who has been smoking cigarettes for far too long.
Besides lessons on various topics like HIV/AIDS, gender equality, and communication, the boys had journaling activities (oh yeah. totally my doing), a career fair (we had visitors that included a journalist, a police officer, a soldier, a teacher, and an IT specialist) so they could share their experiences and journey within their respective vocations, a talent show, spontaneous dancing, and afternoon activities like sport, the American classic of the egg drop challenge, and cooking (some PCVs taught the boys how to cook bread over a charcoal stove).
I should emphasize the dancing: holy cow, I danced so much that week. I think GLOW was where I fell in love with teaching baseball in Rwanda and it was BE where I fell in love with dance. I’ve always enjoyed dancing (who doesn’t??) but I felt so free the entire time we were at camp. When the boys arrived at camp, we drummed the traditional Rwandan sound on the lunch tables and danced. Between meals, we danced. And when we finally landed a sound system for the talent show, we danced. I love moving around freely, but there is certainly something intensely special about the Rwandan cow dance. You move your arms to represent the intore, the traditional African warrior, alongside the proverbial cow, which is of the upmost importance in Rwandan culture. You move everything in your body along with the beat of the music, and it’s just about the most beautiful dance I have ever seen. And I sure do try. Sometimes, I actually feel like I can do it pretty decently—and the boys told me so! In the spirit of building confidence, they told me I can do the cow dance and so all week long, even in the absence of a melody to follow, I was moving my feet and legs, just like many Rwandans. Proof # 384 that I’m becoming more and more Rwandan with each passing day. (on a side note: I should also indicate that I have video proof of me doing the wobble along with about 20 other students and another PCV who taught us. Believe me, this is one for the home video collection!)
BE camp, just like GLOW, will without question, be a highlight of my Peace Corps experience. It just works. In our communities, working in the classroom everyday and building relationships with our community members, it can be sometimes quite difficult to witness, understand, or even believe that you are making any kind of difference. But at camp, you just know, and it’s one of the most powerful emotions I have ever experienced. To be standing there, in a crowded room, knowing that lives have been changed—what more could you ask for? And what’s even better, is that you know that this change isn’t possible just because of you, it’s also because of them, and it’s also because of God. Who knows when I’ll meet with some of those boys and girls again—if ever—but we were together for a powerful time, albeit short, and that counts for something. We have memories to take with us, feelings to carry on, and the world to change for the better. When I participate in these kinds of camps, I always walk away reaffirmed and believing that the best of our world lies in the youth. They have the capability to do it—it’s just telling them, reaffirming them, and giving them the knowledge and capacity to do so. Just like with GLOW, I walk away from this camp absolutely convinced that this is what I want to do with my life. I want to be the person that says yes you can and if I could be doing this alongside lessons about life skills and going outside to play sport, then I would be even more happy. These boys (and the girls back at GLOW) write notes of affirmation, telling us how much they love us, and how important the camp was to them. I write them notes back too, not only telling them how great they are, but giving them thanks, because whether they know it or not, they have also given me the confidence to believe in my life, to believe in my work, and continue to know that we all have something special to offer the world.
Yes, like my boys said, we have a dream, like Martin Luther King.
And, I am so blessed to be apart of it, no matter if it’s big or small.
Even on the hard days, I often find myself thinking that I must have one of the best jobs in the world. And maybe the best part is that it’s not really a job for me—and it never really has. It’s just my life and my dream coming together and giving some sort of outcome for the vision I have had for myself for so long. And really, it’s just the beginning. Not just for my Peace Corps experience, but for what I hope for the rest of my life. Yes, all of this I gain from a few small days of playing sport, holding hands, and cheering with a group of boys. They are that inspirational, believe me. They are going to change Rwanda for the better. They are going to be the ones to change the world.