Tag Archives: celebrations

born again

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I’ve been to my share of weddings, especially in Rwanda.
Okay, yeah, that is putting it mildly.

I’ve easily been to 15 weddings in this country. Which, really is out of control.

I’ve also attended engagement parties, church fundraising events, choir productions, and have now hosted two talent shows while in this land of a thousand hills. However, up until this weekend, I had yet to witness a baptism. This has stood out like a sore thumb on my Rwandan bucket list; baptisms and church and Imana (God) arguably sit at the top of cultural strongholds. These, of course, along with fanta, respect for authority, and at least where I live, bananas.

And so I eagerly accepted Eugenie’s request for me to attend her umubaptismo. Eugenie, a Senior 3 student and GLOW club leader (she’s vice president) is one of the sweetest girls I have. She is small, petite, quiet, witty, intelligent, and very kind. She’s really good at theatre, singing, and she loves praying at the Pentecost Church. Oh yeah, that’s important information. You see, I wasn’t just going to any kind of baptism. It was with the Pentecosts, y’all!

Eugenie invited me to her special day weeks ago in great anticipation, and when she provided the date (July 6th) I hesitated as I had considered traveling out West to visit Lake Kivu and hang-out beachside for America’s birthday, the 4th of July. Yet, my hesitation was small and short-lived. Certainly, I could find something else fun to do for the holiday, and supporting one of my friends was far more important. I remember the day I was baptized like it was yesterday, and next to committing my life as a Christian, it was having the most important people in my life in attendance that made it all the more special.

I was kept busy the morning of Eugenie’s baptism. Suzi and Olive, one of the neighborhood kids (and perhaps the most adorable child in the world) had spent the night before. We ate macaroni, watched Aladdin, played with photo booth, and Suzi and I even attempted to wash this young child in a basin. It was…well, it was an intriguing short experiment in parenthood. Babysitting is fun, however, it is somehow wonderful to hand the child back over in the morning. And I do say that with all of the love in the world.

Anyway, we cleaned up from our sleepover, Suzi headed back to her site, and I washed my body thoroughly as I didn’t want to be perceived as dirty for this important event. Eventually, Eugenie and Zahara (another GLOW girl) arrived and we headed out on motorcycles to the lake that the baptism was taking place. It was a treacherous ride; the lake is located in my district but it took over 40 minutes on motor bike to get there. The road was rocky, dusty, and full of strange grooves. The dry season is among us without any question; by the time we dismounted the motorcycleI was drenched in brown dust and had a sore butt to boot. So much for my long and comprehensive wash.

Immediately, I was taken aback by the sheer amount of people surrounding the water. Eugenie took this opportunity to explain that this was a special day for many people to be baptized in this particular lake. Everyone interested from my sector, for example, was allowed to come, get in line, be prayed over, dipped, and become born again. Nobody could be turned away. And so you can just imagine.

I slowly meandered on a path separating the rice fields and the base of this lake and heard shouts of “umuzungu!” or for the people from my sector, “Impano!”. I was wearing my turquoise skinny jeans and was able to look through my fake Ray Bans at nearly 500 people glancing my way. The camera man who had been assigned to take photographs of this life-changing experience stopped in the middle of his job to capture my arrival. People rushed to find their camera phones before I passed too quickly. Students from my school came rushing to give me a hug. I frequently feel like a celebrity in this country, but no more so than at this mass baptism. Plus, everyone was repeating over and over, “come! Be baptized by the Holy Spirit! Now is your time!” I smiled, nodded, but politely declined. Once I explained how I had already been baptized, that was good enough. Thank goodness.

Eventually, I made it down to the rim of the water with Eugenie and wished her well as she got in line. While Zahara and I waited for Eugenie’s turn, we watched as old women, young children, middle-aged men, and everyone and anyone prepare to be saved. A large choir was singing in between the lines, repeating imbaraga, imbaraga, imbaraga over and over (this means ‘power’ or ‘strength’). Two white-roped old men stood waist-length in the water welcoming people as they came to show their commitment to God. They closed their eyes sincerely, lifted their old, shaky hands, and almost violently placed their congregants neck, face, and upper-body in the water. Some people would come up with a nearly blank expression on their faces while others would be shaking violently, screaming, and in need of 3 or more other people to carry them out of the lake. Many times they would begin praying instantly and you couldn’t ignore their strong emotion and convictions as they finished to be baptized in the name of God. It was very powerful and intense- and I was just watching.

I witnessed at least 50 people wade in that water until it was time for Eugenie.

As always, she entered the water with grace, the corners of her mouth in the smallest smile. She’s an unassuming type, content and peaceful, but not showy. The pastor prayed over her, closed her nose with his hand, and she was under. After a second or two she came up for air, was grabbed by an elderly woman, and had a piece of African fabric on her face to dry off.

I, of course, confused this wonderful moment with a sporting match and had cheered her name like she had just scored a game-winning goal. Awkward.

You go girl! Yeah! Eugenie! Woooooo!

But, hey, like I said, it was a Pentecost oriented baptism experience, and so a little hooting and hollering was quickly forgotten. Eugenie changed her clothes and was glowing; she told Zahara and I that this was the most important day in her life.

After, us three took motorcycles back to Eugenie’s house for her baptism lunch and party. 4 of our other GLOW leaders – Yazina, Divine, Clemantine, and Maisara – joined us to support our friend. It was so fun to celebrate with all of the girls; it’s neat to see how they encourage each other outside of the classroom. That’s really what GLOW is all about.

The party started with prayer and singing from their hymnal. I even knew one of the songs – either a sign that I’m starting to fit in or that I’ve been in Rwanda a bit too long. True to Rwandan tradition, we heard speeches from Eugenie’s mother, her father, and Eugenie herself. Her speech was short and sweet. She mentioned again how this was a really important time for her and she was so grateful for what God has given in her life. And, at the end, she looked at me and said it was an honor to have me there so we could share something so important. I smiled with watery-eyes and was again grateful that I had decided to attend. We were served a huge plate of food (rice, isombe (a spinach-like dish), fried potatoes, and plantains). No alcohol was served (a big no-no for this denomination in Rwanda) but we did each get a warm cup of icyai (tea) and so I was thrilled. Untrue to Rwandan tradition, the party was only about an hour. I think this was because for baptisms, the party moves and circulates from house to house and culminates in dancing at the very end. However, the GLOW girls and I were tired and had a long way to walk, and so we said our goodbyes.

We walked home, hand in hand, discussing how proud of Eugenie we were, and how wonderful the last few days had been.

In addition to this baptism experience, our friend Suzi (I say our because Suzi is definitely no longer just my friend; the girls love her) came out for a 4th of July visit. Suzi and I had a relaxing and long lunch (complete with a cold beer and chicken) at a lakeside restaurant in my district’s main town to celebrate our country’s birthday. The next day, after a morning of watching The Mindy Project we attended our GLOW club’s talent show. The girls had put together a series of dancing, singing, and skits to show their talents and it was totally hilarious. The GLOW girls really are a different breed and they danced, sang, and acted with all of the enthusiasm in the world. Like I told Suzi, it’s just wonderful beyond words to see them let loose and have fun. That, again, is what GLOW is all about.

So you see, the past few days have been interwoven with dancing, baptisms, good food, friends, and relaxation. I even crossed off some things from the Rwandan bucket list – namely, the baptism.

The girls basked in the good fortune that has come our way recently and I couldn’t help but whole-heartedly agree.

Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is a strange, weird, often extraordinarily frustrating, sometimes utterly ridiculous, but also mostly wonderful life. It’s an odd mix and it’s even harder to keep up with (the love/hate relationship with Rwanda is consistently changing and moving up and down). But above all, I realize more than ever that it’s a once in a lifetime sort of thing. I’m lucky to have been doing it this long, and as time slowly starts to wind down, I am becoming more aware and conscious of the importance of making every day count.

And so, what’s left on this so-called bucket list?
See for yourself.

Heather’s Peace Corps Bucket List

*created December 2011, updated December 2012*
(things with a * are left to be done)

See a Rwandan wedding
Be in a Rwandan wedding
Attend a baptism
Try banana beer
Take a bicycle taxi instead of a motorcycle taxi
Attend a football match in Kigali*
Sing karaoke in Kigali*
Take a boat on Lake Kivu*
Visit the gorillas
Stay at Akagera National Park
Visit the Nyamata Memorial
Visit the Nyarabuye Memorial*
Cook cassava bread by myself
Go to an ex-pat party*
Pray at a Rwandan mosque
Visit South-west Rwanda; namely Cyangugu
Start a GLOW club
Cook grilled cheese for my host family
Pray aloud in Kinyarwanda at the Catholic Church*
Go on a date
Hike a volcano
Ride a bike in my village
Fetch water on my head
Run in the Kigali Marathon
Teach about the “I Have a Dream” speech in class
Visit every district in Rwanda*
Visit every province in Rwanda
Visit the US Embassy*
Take holiday in Uganda and Tanzania
Eat a burrito in Rwanda
Take Divine to Kigali*
Score a goal in a football match
Join a girls’ football team
Buy Rwandan handicrafts and art
Raft in Uganda
Get on Rwandan TV
Master how to properly hand-wash clothes*
Cook with a charcoal stove
Find a female bus driver
Take Kinyarwanda lessons*
Teach lyrics to American songs
Coach baseball
See fireworks in Rwanda*
Attempt to cultivate something*
Learn to do the Rwandan cow dance (the traditional style)
Have a 30 minute conversation in Kinyarwanda only
Walk from Kayonza town to my house (a total of around 20 km)
Find a temporary Rwandan mama
Cut bananas from a tree*
Play blackjack at the casino in Kigali
See an elephant
Start writing a book
Read at least 60 books while in Peace Corps
Visit Gisenyi to see the Congo border
See the National University in Butare
Host a party at my house
Finish the INSANITY workout series*
Go to GUMA GUMA Superstar Concert*
Successfully make porridge

Will I do it all?

Meh. Maybe. Perhaps. I hope so.

I have about 5 months left of this adventure and so we’ll see what happens.

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weekend solace and the joy of coming home

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I was that girl on the rickety red bus coming up the hills outside Kigalil; I was of course the strangely dressed girl (I wore sport wear simply because I felt like it), as well as a weird white girl, but I was also a very obviously happy girl. I was en route to Suzi’s site, the sun was shining, and I sat next to a sparky old woman who-for once-seemed to actually understand why me (a young 23 year old woman living in Africa) wasn’t in the market for a husband. It’s a strange paradox I have found when it comes to age, marriage, and becoming a woman. While being 23 often incites audible gasps from people surprised to hear my young age, those gasps continue when they realize I am in fact, single. Apparently, in Rwanda, you are a “girl” until you take a husband, but after the age of 25, you are somehow considered a muchechuru, that is, an old woman. Go ahead and try and figure that all out. I’m still trying.

As we all bounced  simultaneously in some condensed-squished together rhythm, I literally could not stop smiling. It’s that feeling when joy fills your body and you are content in that moment because you can be—because you want to be. I was also just greatly anticipating the weekend ahead of me: a visit to Suzi’s site, a trip to the Southern Province to celebrate Alyssa’s birthday, and the prospect of coming back home at the end of all of it. Lately, being in my community—being home—it’s just working. I love it. As unbalanced as emotions, moods, and perspectives can be here, I feel as balanced as you could really expect. I’ve been staying busy; but not in the classic American way of filling to-do lists and moving from one thing to the next. Instead, I’ve been busy visiting. I have been visiting my students at their homes and believe it or not, it’s a pretty big time commitment. First of all, we have to walk there. Which, for many of my superstars (this is what I call my students these days—they love it) is quite far. Then, there is the photos…and the food…and the praying…and the talking. And so, it takes a long time. Yet, I love it, and it’s making me feel so much at home with my community, specifically with my students, and I actually think it’s paying off in the classroom.

Suzi’s site sits maybe a 15 minute walk off  the main road. I’ve visited several times now and I enjoy every time I come. Her home welcomes you with a plethora of colorful flowers and shrubbery; ‘the garden of Eden’ is how I like to lovingly (and aptly) refer to this place, and it’s pretty darn accurate. The compound she lives on is behind the all-encompassing Catholic church and right before the school grounds where she teaches English. The beauty of her site is always so warm and welcoming, and yet it is just a tip of the iceberg in terms of what makes her site so great.

Suz lives with nuns. Yes, nuns.

And, I might argue, some of the best nuns you’ll find. Not that I’ve met a lot of them in the world, but I think these ladies would be hard to beat.

Suz has infinitely more insight and wisdom into the lives and characters of these eccentric, kind-hearted, and gracious women, but I feel fortunate to even  have met them and visited them on a couple of occasions. They greet you like a long lost daughter, feed you like you haven’t eaten in days, and  make you feel like you are right at home. In my short visit last week, I heard the special song they made for Suzi, saw Sister Martha do the shopping cart dance, heard an impression of my laugh (which was strangely accurate), showed photos of my family and friends, and explained that I can, in fact, cut and prepare plantains, cook them on a charcoal stove, and feed myself. I wouldn’t trade my site for anything’ I’m comfortable here, and my community has fully embraced the sport obsessed, loud, and goofy woman that I am. However, herein lies the beauty of visiting friends in Peace Corps: you can experience a piece of their lives in Rwanda and better understand the roles they have in their communities and what they go through on a daily basis. I love visiting Suzi because I get to be around strong and undeniably hilarious nuns, share a meal like a family, and the hot milk and tea is a wonderfully fantastic bonus.

Moreover, I love visiting Suzi because I think an important part of friendship is spending time together and exchanging stories of love, small victories, frustrations, embarrassing moments, and everything in between. In a span of about 18 hours, we played volleyball and football with some of her students, went together to her adult education class, made macaroni and cheese, nearly cried after successfully baking funfetti cake, and talked till nearly 1:00 am (that’s about 4 hours past my normal bedtime!). I knew I had a good friend when I looked at her in the kitchen and asked if I had a bulk of cheese sauce on my face and we just laughed hysterically at what our lives have become. We’re goobers, as she might say.

We traveled together to a rather neat Rwandan town that holds quite a bit of historical significance. It is considered the first area of civilization in Rwanda, where kings ruled for years, and as a result, it has many museums and historical sites. Our trip took a bit longer than what should really be about an hour and a half; we rode largely uphill and we had to stop frequently as there was some cycling event in which we watched serious cyclists climb one hill at a time and cruise gratefully downhill when the opportunity presented itself. It reminded me of what it looked like to watch the Tour de France on TV with Mom and Randy…only this was in person! And in Rwanda! But hey, it was cycling, so that’s a start, right?

We arrived at a hotel pool to find our friends lounging around with food, coke, and beer. Ah yes, a beautiful way to spend a Saturday. I jumped recklessly in the greenish-seaweed color pool (sketchy. Yes. whatever) and felt the cool water strike my skin. It’s June. It’s only natural to be in a pool, right? It is summertime after all. That’s easy to forget about when there are only two true seasons here: rainy or dry. I was a sight for sore eyes: lots and lots of hair on my pasty pasty white legs, dirty feet from traveling, oh, and a huge pimple on my lip. I looked like your run of the mill volunteer from the village—what can you do? In celebration of Alyssa’s birthday, we had chickens cooked and prepared and then brought to the house many of us stayed at. Someone also brought BBQ sauce. Bless their heart. It was heavenly and reminiscent of an American summer celebration. We had lofty ambitions to go out and explore some live Congolese music…but no. The conversation, wine, dancing, and chickens got the best of us. We stayed in and had our own dance party. Pictures were taken. Curled up in a cozy brown and white blanket with red wine and Tracy Chapman’s Crossroads (one of my favorite albums) playing in the background talking about everything from family to Peace Corps to music and sports was a nice way to reconnect with fellow volunteers and friends.

I hugged and greeted children along the road as I carried my maroon flowery bag to Sunday market in the next village over. I was back home from  my quick weekend getaway, and when I checked my food supply, I realized I was in desperate need for some grub. I arrived at the market amidst old women farmers who sell their excess crops and greeted them enthusiastically. They are always so kind and friendly to me; and as far as I know, give me the prices for food and things that are the actual prices. No umuzungu prices for this girl here. I bought some basic vegetables, potatoes, and bananas. It was fun. And those same children that I greeted along the roadside took my hands and we walked together home. I would unpack, wish my dad a Happy Father’s Day, and catch up on the phone with Rachel.

It’s an amazing thing to go exploring in old and new places in Rwanda, but there’s also nothing quite like coming home. It’s somehow possible that the difficult times here actually plant the seeds for the good times to flourish. Now, I am finding a sense of solace in visiting, a bounce in my step when greeting, and a profound sense of pride in my small little rural community. It’s far from perfect. The bad days will continue to come, of course. But, in feeling a bit more at home and connected with the people that I am living with, it’s becoming familiar. Most of all, I find myself welcoming that feeling of Monday morning, which seems odd and at ends with how most people view Mondays anywhere in the world. But for me, it’s when I get to see my students again, when I get to hear about the weekends they had, and start the week all over again. It’s a fresh start. Thank goodness for those.