Tag Archives: challenges

7%

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I could delve in and out of the small, gritty details but hashing them out doesn’t really change what has happened. I started writing this by giving a synopsis of the facts (and what I know for sure) but I deleted it because that isn’t what I want to focus on. Playing cop and tracking down the guilty is exhausting. After 5 days of running through a thousand scenarios in my head and leading some kind of “investigation”, I just can’t do it anymore.

I will tell you this:

Money was stolen from me last week. From my bag. From my bag that was sitting on my table in the front room of my house.

I sold my small computer to a colleague after our GLOW party. He purchased my small, used computer for about the US equivalent of 60 bucks. The thief took a third of that, close to 25 US dollars. The thief took the money sometime between the end of the celebration and the next morning. However, I have reason to believe it occurred just before dark as girls headed home post-party. Moreover, I have compelling evidence to believe it was a GLOW girl – yes, one of my own – to do that action. You can imagine how that felt. On one hand, I was so mad at myself. How could I be reckless by leaving my bag vulnerable? And once your start chastising yourself, it can be hard to stop.

Have I been an idiot to be as open as I have?
Are these girls REALLY my friends?
Is my Peace Corps service tarnished by the role of money in some of my projects and relationships?
Have I been getting used this entire time?

And on the other hand, I just felt pure betrayal. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small amount of money, but it’s hard to ignore the layers rooted in this problem. I can deal with the loss of money (even though I was counting on having all of it for my impending travels around Rwanda) but I am not okay with stealing. Not from my girls.

Fidele, our director of studies, and one of my good friends from the very beginning of my time as a volunteer, has been working with me on how to approach this issue. He’s insightful and often gives good advice when it comes to these sort of things. “We must search and investigate slowly. Slowly by slowly, “ he told me. He called a meeting with all the girls who had entered my house and asked where and what they did in the time the theft happened. While it was a good meeting in terms of getting things on the table, so to speak, it added even more stress because tensions arose quickly. Nothing is ever simple here. Working with young women is amazing 98% of the time. But when drama arises, it is absolutely miserable.

I started to take stock of past behaviors and tendencies in the relationships I have with each girl that could have taken the money. Those continual and consistent home visits really paid off in this situation; I know a lot more than the community might realize. I know where these girls come from, the challenges they face, and their family dynamics. I KNOW THEM and that may be the most powerful tool I have in trying to sort all of this out. I carefully considered the things each girl has told me. I thought about the times each girl has tried to create issues or conflict with other girls. Because believe it or not, this problem became a lot more than just about an incident of theft.

Cries of “jealousy” surfaced and I wanted to know their roots. Basically, one girl was accused early on as being the thief and she completely freaked out and said that it was just another example of a lie in order to “make separation between us.” “Us” refers to myself and her.

She is one of two of my girls that have frequently discussed about having “enemies” and that people in the community have tried to spread “bad ideas” so that my relationship with them would suffer. However, one skill that I have keenly developed over the past 2 years while serving in Rwanda is the ability to understand people and why they do the things they do. And as I contemplated these claims, these stories didn’t make sense in light of the behavior of the other girls involved. The girls that said rumors were being spread about them are actually the ones harboring jealousy. They are creating enemies and conflict in their head and manipulating these kind of events to hide their own insecurities . They regularly see themselves as victims. I was close with these two girls very early in my service, but as my life here has continued, my relationships with other girls have become strong as well. For whatever reason, this does not sit well with them.

And it’s these two girls where money has played a very questionable role in our relationship. There have been far too many incidents where it has been highlighted in a problem between us and slowly it’s chipped away at my level of trust for them.

I of course also considered the feasible probability of each girl involved. What kind of opportunity did they have?

Following the meeting with Fidele, I also tried to see if any of their stories had “holes”. And on an early morning run a couple days following the incident, I was able to find a small gap in one girls’ story. Her story almost made perfect sense. Almost. But I found a small lie in her explanation that could point her out as the one who stole my money from my bag.

Finally, I consulted my headmaster and we discussed the psychology of this whole thing. He studied psychology for a long time in higher education. That, in addition to his extensive experience working with students as an administrator, makes him a pretty qualified person to work with on something like this. After providing more background information, we felt pretty confident in who the thief was. However, we are committed to moving slowly. Without a confession you can never know for sure. We don’t need to come down on this girl right away, we can wait and see what happens.

It was quite painful to think critically about the inter-workings of these relationships formed over the time I lived in my village. After 2 years, it’s not always enjoyable to be honest with yourself about why people “love” you. That being said, it was simultaneously an empowering experience, because it made me more resolute and totally sure about other relationships that I have. While there are people motivated by extrinsic things (namely, money) there are still some people who love me for me. They may not be many here, but they exist. And they are (and will continue to be) some of the most loyal friendships I have had.

Fidele told me without reservation, “don’t trust anybody. Don’t trust me, don’t trust that girl, this girl, or anyone. Don’t trust.”

Though I am certainly far too giving of my trust, I am also human. And I absolutely believe that in order to have full relationships, you must learn to trust people. But he is right in that if you trust everybody you are a fool. I must trust, it’s just about knowing who it goes to.

As I said, despite having a pretty strong idea of who stole from me, there exists a tiny sliver of doubt. That’s enough; and so honestly, I’m ready to just let all of this go.

I escaped this overbearing issue for a couple of days by visiting my friend Sarah at her wonderful site, a couple hours away.

We drank a beer in public at a bar in her village – a sign we are definitely old time 2-year volunteers who are ready to let go of some inhibitions that we’ve maintained during our services – and ate some seriously good food. Perhaps best of all, she has running water AND wonderfully strong water pressure from her shower! Y’all, a shower. I’ve been taking bucket baths every night and so a shower is a beautiful reprieve and is a gem of a find in rural Rwanda. Post-shower I was clean as I have been in months. I relaxed in my blue sarong, clean, listening to “This American Life”, and happy I took a couple of days outside Ruramira and outside the stress this problem has put on my heart.

I reflected delicately over what the last few weeks has brought in my life:

  • I officially closed all paperwork for my sports grant project.
  • Margaux, the new volunteer who will be replacing me in my village for her two year Peace Corps service, visited me for three days to learn the ropes and basics of our village.
  • I finished my last leg of teaching, grading, and obligations surrounding my primary assignment of being an educator.
  • I met with my friends and their respective replacements at one of our favorite regional towns and talked a lot of about the future.
  • The GLOW girls put on an amazing party to honor our accomplishments and achievements from 2012 until now. They did me proud. It was our last time together as a group.
  • And yes, money was stolen from me and a witch-hunt ensued.

In the midst of all these doubts and disappointments considering which one of my girls could have stolen from me, I kept coming back to the most obvious fact of all:

THIS IS THE END.

It’s a matter of fact, and it’s coming. Without any regard to how my days are filled. And when I become engaged with how the days are moving along, it’s very easy to see that the transition period is in full swing. And so, the ever-present (and stressful) issues of trust (really, more about mistrust), deception, and lies will not be removed from this inevitably up and down experience. But, I’ve prayed and asked God to help me forgive and to also be more aware of the way I am trusting people. I want to accept what has happened without it defining the greater part of my service. I don’t want to leave with a sour taste in my mouth.

I recognize fully that I’ve made mistakes in my service. I didn’t do the PEACE CORPS THING perfectly. Other volunteers could perhaps look at some parts of my actions here and say that I had something like a theft coming for me. But, let’s be real, there isn’t a right way to do this.

MOVE AWAY FROM YOUR FAMILY. CRY. LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE. CRY SOME MORE. ADAPT TO A NEW CULTURE. LIVE AMONG SOME OF THE WORLD’S POOREST. MAKE FRIENDS. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS. HELP. LIVE WITHOUT EXCESS. BE SICK. WATCH MOVIES. EAT BANANAS, OR WHATEVER THE LOCAL FAVORITE DISH MIGHT BE. MAKE BEST FRIENDS WITH YOUR HEADLAMP. TRY AND DO SOMETHING GOOD. TEACH. LEARN. CHANGE. SHARE ABOUT AMERICA. AND TELL YOUR AMERICAN FRIENDS ABOUT THE PLACE YOU CALLED HOME FOR A COUPLE YEARS IN YOUR LIFE.

I’m 25 months in. When you break it down mathematically, I have finished 93% of my service. That leaves 7%.

Can I fix and correct my mistakes with 7% left of my Peace Corps life?

No.

But, I can adapt. I will be devoted to what has always been right and good for me during my time in Rwanda. I will learn from all of these experiences. And I will make my last 7% – my last 6 weeks – great. I can do this, because that’s what Peace Corps Volunteers (and really, people in general) do. Sometimes crappy things happen.

So what exactly are you going to do about it?

And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know…
My weakness, I feel, I must finally show…
The way you invest your love, you invest your life
Awake my soul.
– Mumford & Sons “Awake My Soul”

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always one more time

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Have you ever had that sinking feeling that comes with knowing things you shouldn’t know? It’s that drop in your gut when you are let in on a secret that threatens all of the notions you have built to help you believe the good in all things. Secrets. They’re dangerous. They are close cousins to lies and distant relatives to gossip. Gossip, lies, secrets.

I’m in my second year of living and teaching in my community and I’m a bit aghast. I assumed things would be “easy” at this point. I have friends, people understand that I’m not some Kigali woman (yes, I actually live here), and I speak enough Kinyarwanda to get by. Not to mention, I don’t even think twice about using a latrine or a headlamp at night or a bucket as a bathtub or using internet once every week or two. This is my new normal.

But, I’ll warn you. My start to my second year has been lacking of fluff, ease, and light-heartedness. Like a horse right out of the gate, I’m pushing forward with all of the strength I can muster, but I’m just kicking dust into thin air as I try to go forward. I’m being a bit more exposed to the darker side of things. I’ll get to that. But I can tell you this much: in my first week back from my England holiday, I spent an inordinate amount of time considering leaving. Yes, leaving Peace Corps. The days haven’t been bad, actually. I just have questioned to the core if I can really do this anymore. You’ll see why.

Perhaps, I’ll start with gossip. There are rumors swirling around my “mission” here. People are being told I came to choose two Rwandans to “American-ize”–that is to bring them to the U.S. to give them financial support in all aspects of their lives, oh hey! And even to build them a house! I’m not kidding. That’s just the beginning. People gossip not only about me and my choices (what I eat, who I hang out with, who I am or am not dating, and why in the hell I don’t have children as a 24-year old woman) but also about everyone else. People I love, even. Divine told me that people don’t understand why she goes to study (she’s 19, so they presume that a woman her age should just skip studying all together and get a husband and do what everyone else is doing) or why Yazina, her BFFL, is friends with her because Divine is “too dark” and “does not have a good face”. I scoff. What? Divine? UGLY? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Which brings me to lies. Read my past blogs. If you don’t get the vibe that I really like Rwandan culture then you’re not reading closely enough. I love it here–and I have for quite some time. But, I’m going to go ahead and be real. I’ve had it, absolutely had it with one part of Rwandan culture–that is, the culture of lying. Suzi told me once of a conversation she had with a Rwandan man at a writing workshop that she attended. She expressed how she felt guilty about lying in a situation and this man assured her immediately. Feel guilty? No, no, no! Embrace it! He said lying is simply what people do. They don’t want to offend others (which is why some Rwandans move houses at night as to not show the belongings you have; which is why you carry the goods you buy from a shop in a brown bag so that people don’t see what you have purchased; and which is why when you are eating food you close the door so people don’t catch a glimpse of the meal you are putting in your body) so they lie. The other people usually know they are lying. But they don’t call them on it–they just accept it, as is. Divine put it most simply, “Ah! Heather. To lie in Rwanda, that is the culture. Bibaho (it happens).”

Mmkay. Good luck trusting anybody.

Imagine what it’s like to operate in this environment. Anything could be true, anything could be a lie. Sometimes, it’s a small lie, such as “I will visit you” or it’s something much, much bigger like, “that man killed people in the Genocide.” Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. To be an outsider, ahem, me, leaves no other option than to accept the most realistic truth I can find: I’ll never know for sure.

And so this is what has led me to a point of exhaustion, calling into question my entire passion and drive for being here. I’m tired of not knowing who to trust. This can and could be a problem anywhere in the world, but it certainly is magnified when you stack together this kind of culture, with a devastating history, and with my position on the outside-looking-in. It’s not like I haven’t struggled with this (heck, I’ve been struggling with this my entire service) it’s just now it feels like everything is compounding together.

And then, there are secrets. Everyone has them, I’m no fool, but learning about them is rocking my already shaky solid ground. Divine (who apparently I use as a source for all knowledge as I’ve cited her for nearly everything) told me some of hers. For example, she lives with her uncle currently because her mother’s house is in a community where the school fees are too expensive. Her uncle helps her with nothing. He provides housing of sorts and food to eat, but in exchange Divine has a ridiculous amount of jobs she has to do for her family. Fetch water, cook multiple times per day, search for fire wood, cultivate….I could go on. She told me that finding leisure time is extraordinarily difficult. But, she also told me that this has to be a secret. Why? Because speaking ill of her family is bad culture. It just can’t be done. So, she confides to her BFFl, Yazina and myself only.

Secrets, secrets, secrets. They make me think that sometimes, after all, ignorance is bliss.

Worst of all, Divine recently let me in on a secret that Yazina has been holding close to her heart. She didn’t share in a malicious-gossipy sort of way; Divine was sincerely trying to seek help for her friend. This secret. It’s bad. It’s disturbing. I don’t feel comfortable writing publicly about it. But, I’ll say that on top of EVERYTHING that my girls and my students have to deal with (poverty, excelling in school, being good family members, helping with an endless amount of chores) it’s unfair that their challenges can soar to new heights. It’s totally. completely. utterly. unfair. Her secret is safe with me but it’s making me sick. I think about it and I literally want to throw up. I want to help her, but literally, I CAN’T.

Gossip, lies, and secrets. That, when you boil it all down, is why I have been struggling as I’ve settled back into my life here.

When I was writing all of this furiously in my journal this morning during my off-hour, downing my 3rd cup of coffee, jamming the Rwandan equivalent of a doughnut in my mouth (they are called amandazi), I would have stopped there. Full stop. End of story. There is no bright spot this time, I thought to myself.

However, as it just so happens, I just finished reading this incredible book by the great Rob Bell. It’s called What We Talk About When We Talk About God.
He discusses a lot of things. Seriously. He talks about atoms, quantum physics, good Einstein quotes, anecdotes from small-town America, food, and between all of this references scripture to demonstrate his belief that God is with us, for us, and ahead of us.

"what we talk about when we talk about God"

“what we talk about when we talk about God”

He ends his book this way:

Back once more to that table with the bread and wine on it. There’s a reason why people have been taking bread and wine and remembering Jesus’s life and death and resurrection for the past two thousand years.

We need reminders of who we are and how things actually are.
And so we come to the table exactly as we are, some days on top of the world, other days barely getting by. Some days we feel like a number, like a machine, like a mere cog in a machine, severed and separated from the depth of things, this day feeling like all others. Other days we come feeling tuned in to the song, fully alive, hyperaware of the God who is all in all. The point of the experience isn’t to create special space where God is, over and against the rest of life where God isn’t. The power is in the striking ability of this experience to open our eyes all over again (and again and again) to the holiness and sacred nature of all of life, from family to friends to neighbors to money and breath and sex and work and play and food and wine.

That’s God all in all, bringing together all of our bodies and our minds and our souls and our spirits and all the parts and pieces that make us us, as our eyes are opened in the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the inspiring, and the gut-wrenching to the presence in all of life of the God who is with us, for us, and ahead of us.

Rob Bell is right, you know. We see again, again, and once more again that LIFE is sacred.

Maya Angelous says something along these lines too, in her own poetic way, “have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.” (love.her.)

Mom has good ideas too.
I told mom about what was pulling on my heart–namely Yazina’s secret–and she gave me the advice I needed more than anything to hear. First of all, pray. God can help in every situation. And then you just need to continue to be her friend. Be there for her. Just. be. her. friend. You have a purpose, Heather.

Oh, and God speaks for Himself quite often as well. I went on a slow run today, on one of my favorite loops, passing old mamas and young children screaming my name as I passed. I smiled and waved. And it was a good day today. But my heart still ached deeply for Yazina. It will continue to ache for Yazina. But, God is here. That’s all I heard in my mind.

The sun was setting perfectly over the booming clouds, meeting in the middle of the sky with the banana trees, and I smiled, remembering how much I really do love this place. It’s beautiful. I thought about my students, my girls, about Divine. This is a girl who is 19 but has in all honesty, turned my life upside-down. She’s inspired me; she has shown me strength in its very raw form; and she’s funny as hell. I wish I could describe her accurately, but words don’t do her justice. She gave me one of her most precious belongings the other day. She gave me her necklace that she uses to pray. It has Jesus on it. It’s scratched and worn but she wanted me to have it–to “wear it every day”–so that our prayers could be together. So that Jesus will always hear me. “He is always ready to hear your ideas and questions, Heather.” I have worn it every day since.

There are days where I just don’t understand. I don’t understand the gossip, or the lies, or the secrets. I don’t understand the pain that some people in my community–in the world, really–have to go through. But, I did understand, to a greater degree that even with 6 months left in Peace Corps, my community is far more than the sum of its secrets and that on a personal level, I have just as strong of a purpose. It may not be the sports project, the library, the English, or the integration after all. When I pack up all of my things and tell people what I did here…it may not really be any of those things that matter.

I was a friend. Sometimes this feels so small. Like it can bring nothing. But, when you see through the lense of God, when you have eyes to see, somehow this is enough. Even in the worst of circumstances. It is enough, you are enough, and this life, it’s enough.

Please pray for my friend Yazina. Please pray that she can find strength on her own terms, that she knows how much value she has, and that she is not alone. Please pray for my community. Pray that the good will always win. Please pray for me and other volunteers as we struggle in this season. Things, it seems all across the board, are very difficult right now. Please pray that we recognize God’s grace right before us and that we embrace this grace in order to forgive the mistakes we make as well as the mistakes of others. May this grace also propel us into a mindfulness for just how blessed we are and that this can in turn, affect positvely the work we do in our communities. Pray for those harboring doubts, fears, and loneliness. Pray that a friend is always there for them. Let us pray for the problems we see every day: be it stress, hunger, loss, poverty, uncertainty, and anxiety.

Most of all, let us all pray that we will trust God in all things, in all times, and under all circumstances, for we can know that He is here.

Nile Adventures: UGANDA

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Sit. Sip. Relax.
Except, not quite yet because I’m thirty minutes early to a local coffee shop (Anna’s Corner) in Entebbe, Uganda–about 40 km outside Kampala, Uganda’s largest city.

Like any young woman traveling alone should do, I went with my insticts.
Today, that was simple:
FIND COFFEE.

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best coffee place in entebbe. so. good.

After all, it’s after 7:00am and my body is waiting for some java. I boarded a small bus this morning (at some ungodly hour; around like 6:00am) from Kampala after all my travel partners and friends exchanged their tickets for a seat on the big red Jaguar bus headed back home to Kigali. They’ll be turning in their Ugandan Shillings and getting back to the good ole Rwandan Franc.

I bid farewell while it was still dark, found a seat of my own, and coasted on into Entebbe. I’m here–not back in Rwanda–because I’m moving my travels up and out of Africa (my first journey outside the continent in say, 19 months) into London. I’m already practicing my accent. And, the roads in Uganda operate in the same confusing way as the UK (driving on the “wrong” side of the road) and so perhaps it will be slightly less trippy to experience after my few days of practice in Uganda.

It’s weird being alone after backpacking for the past week with five other people (Sarah, Ella, Justin, Demetrea, Lyla, and Mike).

Travel partners sure do help. They can give assistance when crossing congested city roads (I never was good at that) or shooing away pushy motorcycle drivers. Luckily, I have my “wolverine scars” (as I’ve been strangely calling them) from my motorcycle accident last week to repel drivers away. I simply lift both arms in unison and voila! Those guys apologetically motor on away to their next unsuspecting customer.

I had really great travel companions this trip and we did so much in such a short amount of time.

This last week, I went from being bruised and banged up, moaning from any movement in my bed in the village, to driving 10 hours to the country to the North, eating Thai, American, Chinese, and Indian food, drinking one too many Nile Specials (the local Ugandan beer), bungee jumping 44 meters, white water rafting the Nile River, perusing the chaotic streets of Kampala at night, and catching up on some much needed sleep. We met some really nice people along the way too. Many Ugandans speak English (and GOOD English to boot), are much more used to seeing foreigners (at least in the cities), and seem to be a bit more open than a lot of Rwandans I know. And no, this doesn’t mean Rwandans aren’t friendly, it’s just that Uganda operates under a very different set of cultural norms and the fact that Kinyarwanda isn’t a barrier for once, well, it does make things easier. As my group of nomads and I walked around, few people stared and really, few people cared. A welcome change, believe me.

I also (still) can’t believe we bungee jumped.

Originally, I was not going to do it. I was going to act simply as a source of moral support and comfort. That’s it, I told myself. However, as I photographed the jumps of my friends and cheered them on as they took the dive, more and more I just knew I had to do it. Sometimes you have to do uncomfortable things to get the most out of an experience, you know? And also, WHY NOT?

And so I did it, though you can imagine that it was quite the dramatic display. While some friends hopped up to the drop off point and went for it following the countdown of the guides (essentially making the entire process appear completely seamless), I stalled a bit more.

You sit in this throne-like chair before you go to jump (it’s here they put on all the safety equipment) and I was thinking I was a big shot.

this is the chair you sit in before you jump. this isn't me; real-time pictures of us to come soon!

this is the chair you sit in before you jump. this isn’t me; real-time pictures of us to come soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It ain’t nothin’ but a thing!”
“Yes I can!”
“Nta kibazo!”

…..

Only then, you have to walk a couple of feet to the edge, just so you can curl your toes over the metal and spread your arms to prepare to take the plunge. It was here I started screaming, feeling tears in my eyes, and shouting, “OH MY GOD!!!”

But I knew I was doing it–and I told the guides so–I just needed to go at my own pace. After around 20 seconds of heavy breathing, looking down, praying, and questioning my sanity, the guides counted down. 5…4…3…2…1………..and I leapt. It felt like nothing and everything at the same time. I was gliding but only for a second as the rope jolted me back up and down again. Physics at its finest. The Nile, trees, and nearby bar all faded into one and when I looked up at the clouds (and the point at which I jumped off) I couldn’t stop smiling. That wasn’t so bad, right?

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see that tower place? we bungee’d from that. yeah.

Though I’ll probably never do it again, I’m glad I did it at least once. And, hey, it was on the Nile so I feel like that’s got to have some pretty cool Cleopatra vibe or something.

Like I said, today (and until tomorrow around 6:30pm) I’m a solo traveler with nothing but time. Once I get my much needed coffee, I’ll hopefully get internet access so I can check my email and get the name of the hotel I booked for myself. I did just get the menu to this coffee house and not only does it provide the legend and story behind ‘qahwah‘ (the Arabic term for coffee) but it also has a seemingly endless array of choices (case and point: iced coffees, regular coffee from all of the surronding coffee-rich countries, different flavors like maple, vanilla, hazelnut, or chocolate, liquor-infused coffees, coffee with ice cream…). I might be here awhile.

I need the hotel name because in classic Heather form I forgot the name after I made the reservation online a couple of days ago. I did book something nicer ($45 y’all, that’s big money in my little Peace Corps world) but I figured this would be best since I’ll be alone during my stay in Entebbe.

during our galvant in uganda, i was in kampala, jinja, and entebbe.

during our galvant in uganda, i was in kampala, jinja, and entebbe.

It seems that there is much coffee to be had and maybe even some scenic walks to take (I can see Lake Victoria!) and a first world journey to prepare for. Last week, when I left Rwanda, I was emotionally fragile, scared after the accident, and operating at pretty high stress levels. Already, I’m feeling better (and maybe even missing Rwanda a bit already? Really?). Maybe, after all, I just needed a break. Knowing I’ll have nearly two weeks in London with Michelle, I can just imagine that the girl descending back upon Rwanda after these adventures will be refreshed, ready, and renewed.

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ready to see this girl again. IN SNOW, perhaps!

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not sure we’ll be having anything to do with the CAMO boots, but I am ready for Michelle-Heather antics to continue after a long hiatus.

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REUNION READY.

“life continues”

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My friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Sarah Epplin (out of Indiana and a graduate of Indiana University–this is something she will remind you probably each time you are together; she loves her Hoosier roots!) is a regular blogger about her experience as a volunteer in Rwanda. She lives in my region (out East) and so I’ve been able to exchange stories, feelings, and ideas with her relatively regularly over fanta, amadazi (that’s the Rwandan version of doughnuts), and tea while we all meet to pick up our packages from America in our “big” town.

One continual theme that she occasionally blogs about is a list of reasons, people, and things that have kept her in Rwanda over the course of this experience. She can get as specific as something that she might enjoy eating, or as broad as a desire to fulfill some sort of life purpose or value. I’ve always enjoyed reading her posts when she reflects on what keeps her here because whenever you read the reflections of others, you are usually pushed to reflect in your own way as well.

It’s really not been a secret in our close-knit (and gossip heavy) Peace Corps community that I’ve hit a rather large slump over the last couple of weeks. A lot of us have been here too, and so it does help to know that I’m not alone.

And, I’ve been pretty open about it on my blog. This is for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, my blog is a pretty important way for me to reflect on what I’m going through, and in order to do this to the fullest extent, I have to be honest. But also, it’s crucial to describe the difficulties here because while this experience has been 90% wonderful and amazing for me, there are low points that have put me in dark emotional places that I really have never known before. It’s important to me, as a daughter, friend, sister, and acquaintance, to be open about these things so that people back home can realize that being a Peace Corps Volunteer isn’t a pit-stop in my life. It is my life. And so you continue to feel the same things you would anywhere else in the world. Though more recently, I would say that as I have become a more seasoned volunteer, the highs have certainly become much more intense, and in turn, the lows have become equally intense. Overall, I’m feeling everything a lot more strongly than say, a year ago, and so I’ve had to adjust and “go back to basics” as they say, and recall what I love about my life here. And so you have this blog.

Why Am I Still Here?

  • this is a part of my story. When I made a decision to commit to this, I was all in. That hasn’t changed. Even when I consider the idea of leaving, it’s no longer like thinking about quitting a job. It would be leaving a life. And I just can’t do that.
  • 10 months ago I was hesitant as to if this would work. then, there was no looking back. I’ve hit a hard spot. But really, up until now, I’ve been cruising. I know I can get back to that feeling.
  • my girls. if nothing else, it’s them. It’s always been them, it will always be them. Divine, Maisara, Zahara, and Yazina (among many others) make me want to be a strong woman, a woman of God, and a woman who puts God and my loved ones first. They bring out the best in me. They make me laugh. They make me happy. We’ve hit rough spots (no relationship is perfect) and yet each and every time, they redeem themselves, and I think I redeem myself too. Divine, in particular, is my best friend here, and I cannot fathom not seeing her every day. She’s my rock and we’ve both talked about how it’s unbelievable (and totally the work of God) in the way our lives have crossed at such a time. We both needed (and continue to need) each other.
  • there is work still to be done. My grant just finished the fundraising phase and after the holiday will need to begin implementation. Also, the shelves have finally arrived for our library and so after organizing the books it will need to be opened.
  • the food and tea just keeps getting better. and better! The fruit loop tasting tea (I’m not kidding) makes for strong motivation to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve found a renewed love for bananas. I have even started to have cravings for Rwandan food. Would I STAY in Rwanda solely for a plate of cooked plantains? Um. No. But it does help on more difficult days, believe me.
  • i want to be a constant for my students. Rwandans move like crazy. Things change in an instant and they have an incredible ability to adjust. However, I know they need constants–every human does. Even if it’s just for 2 years (a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of life, I know) I want them to see and know I’m here. I said I would be here for a certain amount of time and as long as I’m emotionally healthy and able to be here, I will be.
  • i’m an addict. to rwandan culture, that is. For every annoying bit of the culture here (secret-keeping, lack of honesty, staring), there’s 20 redeeming aspects, like hospitality, saying things like “be strong”, greetings, and dancing that make up for it. I’m just used to that now. And I love it!
  • routine. While I can never predict what will happen on the road, at school, or in transit, I have found solace in that. The unpredictable has become predictable. I like that life is different here. I like being in a challenging environment. But in even the most challenging of places to live, we are human, and we find ways to make life normal. Sure, maybe I’ll encounter different people, have a new problem, or visit a different student than normal. But on most days, I wake up in the same bed, I drink the same coffee, I teach, I walk the same roads, and I do the same things at night (cook, journal, push-ups, talk on the phone, pray, watch a TV show). Rwanda, in a sense, has become normal despite how crazy and weird it is here.
  • glow club. “teacher, we have a good friendship because you help me to have confidence in the life.” dream job, realized.
  • simplicity. Life is complex, hypocritical, and confusing sometimes, but when I take walks on the road and greet my neighbors and go to buy petrol to cook, I appreciate how the excessive amounts of STUFF doesn’t surrond me here. I know my life still isn’t anything like that of my neighbors and community members, but for me–on a good day–life is simple.
  • it feels right when I pray to God. I really believe I should have been here all along. Sometimes, I want to run away. But, when you’re doing what you should be, you find a way to come back. And each and everytime, this has worked for me. And it will this time too.
  • every day is a chance to help someone. This is true ANYWHERE in the world in ANY situation. We live in communities for a reason. However, this is one of the most tied-together communities that I have lived within and because of this, being able to help someone, anyone, is there for the taking. And it’s not just because I’m white (let’s be real, that’s another issue altogether) but it’s because I’m a teacher in rural Rwanda, and with that role, a lot of other doors to help people are open. This is what I have always wanted the focus of my life to be, so I stay because I know I’m helping someone. And maybe the best part is that the people I am trying to serve or serving me right back. I tell them this all the time. I hope they know it. I hope they understand just how much they have added to my life.
  • it’s beautiful here. Who wouldn’t want to live amidst trees, mountains, birds, blues, greens, yellows, and rolling hills that make the scenery look unreal? Rwanda folktale say that Imana (God) goes all over the world in the day but that at night, he comes back home, to Rwanda, to sleep. I would too. This is one of the most gorgeous places I have ever seen.
  • i’ve come this far. I have finished teaching 4 terms at my school. 4 out of 6. I have lived in Rwanda since September 2011. That’s like, 19 months. I’ve spoken some kind of word in Kinyarwanda for every day that has passed. I’ve figured out how to stand my own at the market, where the best running trails exist in my village (still finding new ones every day), how to handle the frusturation of disorganization, how to exist in what we call ‘Rwanda time’, and I know who to go to when I have a problem. I have literally made a life here. There is no shame in walking away if it’s time to go, but for me, it’s not that time. I have come this far, surely I can continue. I’ve been able to withstand harassment, security issues, crazy people (quite literally), and being the only white girl around. If I can make it for 19 months, I know I can not only do, but do well in the remaining 8 months.

ONWARD AND UPWARD.

Yesterday, I sat on my bed with Divine as she cried.

Yes, crying. Rwandans RARELY do this in the presence of another person; and I could count on my hand the times I had seen Rwandans cry.

Divine was upset because she was concerned about her mathematics marks after not being allowed to sit for the exam because she didn’t bring a notebook to contribute to the communal books of paper that the school uses during exam week. We won’t talk about how she actually did bring her book (the assistant principal wasn’t around when she came by the office) and when she tried again on the day of the exam (before any exam was even administered) he just remarked that it was too late and she’d have to take no marks for that exam.

She buried her face in her hands and cried for about 10 minutes. She refused to talk. She didn’t even take the tissue I offered. I tried to console her but it didn’t really work, I think. Crying is a different sort of thing in Rwanda, and she just needed to have her moment.

As I rubbed her back, I simultaneously became once again infuriated with my school and more determined than ever to stay here. In the same moment, I wanted to quit my job in protest of the ridiculous decisions our administration makes and also wanted to continue so that there could be an open space for my students if they so wanted. Obviously, Divine felt safe to be in my home; she woudn’t be crying there if this wasn’t the case.

After her tears finished, I gave her some chocolate and threw on “Kiss Me Kate”, a musical that had her laughing continously when she watched it the week prior. She loves the dancing and singing parts in particular.
I called her later that night after she had returned home and that same energy and spirit in her voice was back.

I asked how she was feeling and she said, “wonderful!” I smiled and said she was a very strong girl. She told me,

“Heather, before my heart was sad. Even me, I cried! Yeee weeee (oh my Jesus!)….but now it is okay. I will pray that God can find the solution for me. It is okay to be sad sometimes but life continues.”

Me: “Life continues?”

Divine: “Life continues. You continue to be happy in the life. No fear.”
She couldn’t have known, but these were the exact words I needed to hear. It’s the sort of thing that gives me purpose, inspiration, and motivation all in one. She’s right.
Life continues. I’m still here, and I’m still so glad to be. Let these reminders hold me in the challenging times. Let me remember what really matters.

the genocideaire’s daughter

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Sometimes in mid-February if you look around for just a second you see that the sunflowers are dying.

They rise to the sky with a beaming yellow in America’s winter—December—but by the time the rain is ready to control the road, crops, and sleeping habits of our people (we call this our rainy season), they are wilting, no longer glowing, no longer living. They are dying. The petals look sad, the leaves become holey from bug infestations, and their backs arch in a curve, much like my grandmother’s back as she climbs up our dirt road with her right hand holding herself up, and her left hand clutching tightly to her walking stick. Every umuchechuru (‘old woman’) has one. How else could you get around the land of 1000 hills? It’s Rwanda, after all.

Life is a mixture (invyange) of reliable beauty (like the height and shine of our sunflowers) and of inevitable difficulty, like when they die to give way to sorghum, a significantly less appealing crop. It’s brown, you know. Why would you want a field of brown staring at you if you could have fields of green banana and yellow sunflowers? At least sorghum makes for good porridge, I suppose.

Sometimes I drink this in the morning before I leave for school. My pot may have a scratched, old, and black surface from everyday use over the fire, but it sure does make good porridge (igikoma). The sugar laces itself between the sorghum grains and slowly you can mix in grounded up corn. Slowly, that’s the secret. If you put it all together at once you don’t give it a chance to exist as separate elements—you don’t honor their identities. If you go slowly, they thrive, and with time, unite, to become a somehow delicious combination of many things that are good in Rwanda. It’s a wonderful way to start my mornings.

I say sometimes because sometimes I have to fetch water before the sun cracks in the sky and gives us light. I say sometimes because if the rain has come and we have caught God’s tears in my cracked, old basin, then there is often something else to do. Occasionally, I’ll find the grass (the food for cow) for Mama Sifa’s calf (a present last year from Sifa’s new husband’s family; it was the gift for our family at the dowry ceremony) or maybe I’ll help Zahara study for a quiz she has that morning. When I arrive to school after my usual 47 minute walk you can be sure that I’ve already had a decently productive day. But, porridge or not, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I help my family because that’s what we do. It’s not my job, really. It’s just my life.

My family is Zahara (my sister), my mother, my grandmother, my brother, my younger sister, my cousins, my aunts, my uncle, my great-aunt, and that’s just the beginning. My family is big. Some of us are Christians, some of us are Muslims. Some of us live in bigger cities, but most of us, like me, live in the village. I like the rural area, though. It would be better if my house had electricity, but we do the best we can. It’s hard to study, but if we have enough money, my mother buys me a candle that I use after the sun has left the Earth. This is usually a special occasion—the candle, I mean. But no matter. I’ve learned in my life that some days are more difficult than others. I try to smile every day because I have power in my heart. If I study, I can find knowledge, and maybe my future will be full of open doors. At school, I often look across the field, across the campus, and notice how most of the classroom doors are open, even if teachers are in the middle of teaching. I think that maybe my future could be like that. Should be like that. Full of open doors. If I have the chance, maybe I can even choose which one I enter. I try to not think about this too much (paying attention during the lesson is very important and good culture) but I remind myself every day why I come to school in the first place.

My family is good. My mother has a strong will and I’m pretty confident that my grandmother can do anything. I wouldn’t just say that, either. It’s true.

But you remember, don’t you? Life is a mixture of things that you know will be beautiful each and every time (like mother, for example) with some things that are evil. Evil, like the way the mud permeates the lines in my shoes after rainfall and can find its way into anything. Even if you’re careful, some things are just bad in the world. That’s why we need God. That’s why I pray every day. Because even some people. They can be evil.

My family is good.

But my family is no exception to this rule.

My father is evil.

I’m 18 years old. Nearly 19 years ago my country fell victim to itself. I was a small baby then. Zahara, my little sister, would be later born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. But, my mother was a woman in her prime. My father was there too. Mother doesn’t always say exactly how, when, or why (when we talk about it, her eyes become misty and heavy and it’s like she goes to visit another place while I sit there waiting for some kind of explanation) but I know what he did. My father was a Genocidaire. Which makes me the Genocidaire’s daughter. My father killed people. My father killed our people.

Last week in biology, we studied about what happens when a mother has her baby. We drew a diagram of where the baby comes from, but what I remember most is studying how that little, tiny baby is able to breathe from its mother’s own breath. More than that, it’s a mixture of the ones who created it. It has that blood of both mother and father.

I am the blood of my mother and father. If I press hard on my arm for more than 5 seconds, let go, and watch my skin, it quickly becomes white and changes back to the light brown skin that I have. I can try and navigate the blue veins in my body and then I remember again: it’s that blood. This blood is evil, isn’t it? What if it goes into my heart, and evil spills out from my nose, mouth, and eyes? What if I’m my father’s daughter but I don’t want to be?

My father killed people in 1994. My father killed people in our family in 1994. After it was all over, he was in prison for 12 years. He served his sentence, they say. He came back. But he was not okay. He was never okay.

He always liked the machete. I was happy that when came back he chose other objects to beat us with. He would hit mother. I would close my ears, praying it would go away. The beatings continued. Once, he threw a basin at me as I was getting ready to go to school. I told you already, I like to help my family, even if it is early in the morning. But if I did something that was wrong in the eyes of my father, I would pay. I went to school, running, forgetting my favorite blue pen, because I wanted to escape as fast as I could. School was my safe place. He came there once too. Drunk, I’m sure. He wanted to report to our school administration that Zahara and I were bad children. They took him away. But I knew I would have to answer to him later. There would be no escape when the lessons finished.

Did I tell you mother is strong? Well, she is. My mother, who lost 6 of her siblings during the Genocide, decided we couldn’t stay. We left our village to go and live with my grandmother. It wasn’t very far from our home, but it was a change. And it represented so much more, perhaps. She was leaving my father. Women don’t usually do this. But she did.

We changed our homes, our villages, and our places to fetch water so that we could be safe.

Our walk to school was shortened even, a little anyway. From grandmother’s home we walk about 38 minutes as opposed to 47, a small but sizeable change. Plus, we saw more sunflowers on the way to school. They are tucked neatly between large plantations of banana trees and immediately, I fell in love with those small, secret trails. The crisp smell of morning was best under those trees. Maybe that’s where I am most happy. Perhaps. I love laughing, by the way. That, and smiling. Every day, I remember to do these things. I remember because I know if I can enjoy my life, even under difficult circumstances, then maybe I can do anything.

It’s not like this is easy. On top of the upheaval of changing homes and finding temporary safety, my father found ways to continue to bring fear into my family. At night at maybe 7:00, right around the time the stars and moon would rule the sky, we would hear banging on our door. His scuffled steps were heard easily because we have to cook outside. The smoke from the fire wood is far too intense and dirty to even think of bringing our kitchen indoors. But I heard him. Mother knows this sound and she moves quickly to grab grandmother’s stick. We try not to be afraid. Don’t fear. No fear. I say this over. And over. And over. I don’t want to forget.

He occasionally brings a machete. He threatens us. He hits us. He tries to find us. If I can, I hide. Mother is our front line of protection, and so far, it’s worked out okay for us. He hasn’t killed us yet. He hasn’t even beaten us yet since the big move. I told you. Mother is strong. But he comes, he wants us, and Mother stops him. I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know if I really want to know. I know he hits grandmother. At night, I lie awake thinking that if someone can hurt an old person, than surely, their heart is dark. Where is God in this person?, I wonder.

It’s like the sunflowers; my family is strong and close and I love them. They are beautiful. But for every flower that shines and becomes one with the booming clouds, there is one that wilts, dies, and wallows in the soil back to the deep edges of Earth. In our wonderful, good family we have a man that is bad. He’s like a dying sunflower, with no life, no compassion, and certainly no brightness. Maybe it was there, once, a long time ago, but I have never seen it. This man is my very own father.

I’m the blending of two people—mother and father. And of course, I like to think there’s a bit of God’s love in me too. But, maybe the influence of my father ended the minute I came into Earth. My mother and grandmother took over, and so maybe biology is important because while it’s the study of life and how things work, when it comes to humans and who we are, you have the biological factors yes, but you also have the soul. The soul has nothing to do with who impregnated who. The soul is about your human experience and the way you contribute and take from the world. I want to be like a growing sunflower; shining, growing from the good roots of mother, sharing the joys of life with my friends and family. I am a daughter of a Genocidaire, but this does not define me. In fact, it has nothing to do with me. It’s my history, but I take the active choice to separate, to be me, on my very own terms.

I’m Maisara. I’m beautiful, I’m confident, I’m intelligent, and I will be somebody someday. I want to be a journalist, I want to help my family, and no matter what, I love to play football. Love is the most important thing in the world and though I’m a young woman I’ve been able to figure out that much. Most importantly, nothing is impossible. No fear. In all things, no fear.

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streams of mercy

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If one hundred people represented the world’s population, fifty-three of those would live on less than $2 a day. Do you realize that if you make $4000 a month, you automatically make ONE HUNDRED TIMES more than the average person on this planet?

Which is more messed up—that we have so much compared to everyone else, or that we don’t think we’re rich? That on any given day, we might flippantly call ourselves “broke” or “poor.” We are neither of these things.

Crazy Love, by Francis Chan

You know, I’ve learned a lot here. I’ve slowly built an arsenal of useful Kinyarwanda phrases (chore—to express surprise in a negative way; reka—kind of like, “you’ve got to be kidding me” or literally translated, “don’t touch me!”; and Imana yanjye—“oh my God!”), I’ve managed to understand how to put together a cohesive lesson plan, and if you needed a play-by-play of a Rwandan wedding, I’m your girl.

There’s a lot to master—to understand—but with each passing day I’m finding the most complex, disturbing, and heart wrenching question is that related to poverty. I get these beautifully supportive emails, messages, calls, and letters from loved ones that encourage and commend the job I am doing. More than I can say, I appreciate these. But what I don’t often talk about, explain, or try to put into words is the guilt, hypocrisy, and embarrassment I feel by living in a world surrounded by extreme poverty and being the RICH one.

It’s easier to tell funny stories about my students (like when Yazina commented on my blisters from my shoes: “teacher, the shoes for you eat your foot”), to share anecdotes about living in the village, or even what I’m doing on this or that weekend. These things are important but to share this experience fully, it has to be addressed on what it’s like to be a blatantly rich person in a place full of subsistence farmers, one-or-two room houses made from wood and mud, and with children, students, and young adults who are barely able to pay for school. My father saw this all first hand.

I saw the look (and shock) on his face when he saw my house. So. You live HERE. But as we went deeper into my community, into the homes’ of families and friends, he too realized that I live above the rest. I have paint, cement floors, electricity, and multiple rooms for only me. Pictures, knick knacks, and letters line my walls. Clothes are bursting at the seams of my makeshift dresser. I use a mosquito net, and now have two mattresses stacked together to keep me comfortable at night. And when people see all of this, they are only getting a small taste of where I come from.

From the American perspective and life experience that I am coming from, I suspect that many people might think that how I live (and where I live) is a life on the margins. My, what you have given up! And so, I feel like I straddle the line of two extremes.

My past is full of a university education, vacations to stunningly gorgeous places, multiple cars at different times, weekly trips to Starbucks, gym memberships, camps, my own room and space, microwaves and toasters, and summer jobs that gave me money to help with school, car insurance, or a few extra bucks to hit the cinema. I am so grateful to have had these things. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them. And, it’s not like I haven’t had to work hard for these things. More than anything, I’ve just so happened to have a great deal of blessings in my life: incredible parents, good neighborhoods, and a sound education system. But, these blessings are not to be taken for granted, I’m learning. Because it’s more than just the things, really. It’s the opportunity; it’s the way that I have been able to move through life.

I’m not trying to say that America doesn’t have poor people. God, no. Nearly every day, I have to explain to Rwandans that America indeed has poverty, poor people, and a lot of problems with homelessness, mental illness, and abuse. America is a rich country, absolutely. But, like I tell people, rich countries have poor people and poor countries also have rich people. Americans don’t have a free pass from economic hardship. But, let me be clear. Despite my experience working in homeless shelters, community centers, and transitional housing, I, myself, never had to wonder if I could go to school. I never had to question if food would be on the table. And, I never had to question if my basic needs would be met.

It’s just hard to reconcile my life with my current situation.

If I’m going to be completely honest here, a lot of times I get really pissed. At me? At the world? At God? Truthfully, I’m not quite sure.

I’ll talk to a student who can’t afford the 10 US dollars to pay school fees. I’ll talk to another student with this problem. And another. And another. And another. It really is never ending.

I’ll visit a Rwandan home with no belongings in sight.

I’ll be running with my IPOD plugged in and passing old women who are walking slowly with a stick, returning from market or from praying. Maybe they’re headed home—to cook, to fetch water, to clean. Maybe all three. I hope the water is clean today, I think.

I’ll give back a brown paper bag to my student who brought it to me because their family wanted to give me tomatoes for the week. I give it back after putting those ripe, red tomatoes in my food box because she needs it. Nothing is disposable here for many people, even a brown paper bag.

I’ll see a woman pay 100 RWF (Rwandan Francs; this amount is equal to about 15 cents or so) to buy phone credit immediately after I have just paid 2000 RWF just so I can chat up my friends for the evening.

A woman will tell me how their country is poor. And the best thing I can come up with to say is something along the lines of, “well, you have really good people.” Really, Heather? Really?

I get pissed because I just keep asking, WHY DOES THE WORLD WORK THIS WAY?

Maybe before you can probe this question, you have to first ask, why don’t people know?

And like I already noted, Americans aren’t immune. Poverty exists, thrives, and persists in America too. So why is it that if you happen to be comfortably getting by you can comfortably turn on the IPOD speakers at dinner time and tune it all out?

Why do I get to come home, even in my little village, and get on my computer and watch whatever TV show I want? All the while, my neighbors cook late into the evening, with the harvest from that day, with a small, fidgety petrol candle by their side.

I’m not free of these questions just because I happen to live in Rwanda. I’m 24 and afforded privilege, wealth, and education and I’m living in the midst of this problem and still feel like I’m doing nothing. Maybe that’s why I feel so darn guilty—I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what to do.

The best I’ve been able to muster is to treat my community members as equals. I try not to bring wealth into the equation. Often, the word poor isn’t even a descriptor I think of when I am describing the community I live among. I help where the outlets have been made known: through teaching, coaching, and friendship. But, is it enough? I do think we all have the power to change the world. But, what does that even look like? Am I doing enough? In a few years will all of this really matter to people who spend most of their hours in a day just making sure they can eat, bathe, and clean?

The rain has come and gone. I’m cozied up in a blanket, with my tea, computer, and pillow to rest my back as I sit on my treasured mat. I think the rain is probably going to come back. The thunder is rumbling treacherously, and somehow, I think that the storm has yet to clear. But, that’s okay by me. Two of my candles are flickering at a nearby table and I’m intentionally closing myself off. From the world, from these dark questions of why the world can be so messed up, from my job, from my stresses, from my doubts, from the mistakes that I make, and even from the probing mosquitos. Let the rain come. I’ll still be here.

A couple of hours ago, I realized after some journaling and chatting on the phone recapping my day that I needed space. But not the kind of space where I shut my door, throw on the latest episode of a TV show that I’m watching (these days, it’s Weeds), and zone out. I need to think but also rest my heart and mind.

I don’t need to ask if I’m doing enough because I can’t single-handedly figure out, process, or give the answer to the poverty in my village (or in the world, for that matter).

I have to say that, to write that, because I really need to believe that.

It still hurts all the same. I turned on one of my favorite songs that always brings my heart back to God and tried praying for a little while. I let the images of my friends, of my students, flash in my mind and tears came. What could they do if they weren’t poor?

And in a very beautiful way, in a very beautiful personal sort-of way I should say, I also came to realize that these very heartaches and questions are directly connected to WHY I believe in God. Here on Earth, there are all sorts of disparities, pain, diseases, issues, and inequalities. As humans, I think, it’s our job to do the best we can to minimize these, to support each other, and fit our strengths with the weaknesses of others (and vice versa) so that we are the best we can possibly be. We won’t be perfect. That’s just not going to happen. With God though, there’s more. With God, there’s grace. And there’s a deep love that He has for ALL PEOPLE. EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what color you are, who you love, or the mistakes that you have made.

We’re equal in the eyes of God. And for all of those questions, for all the discomfort I feel, and for all the what ifs I ask when it comes to who has what, I believe that I have to continue to do what I can to help, but also to trust that our lives are in the hands of God.

At the Catholic Church this last Sunday, I watched a lot of women pray as the service ended. I’ve talked about this before, but it never fails to be splendidly moving. They pray with fervor, with conviction, with hope. And it helps me believe again. And to remember this equality that God so perfectly provides. He is the great provider. For now, that is enough. I can rest in that. No, the answer is that I’m not enough. But, He is.

Come to the water

You who thirst and you’ll thirst no more

Come to the Father

You who work and you’ll work no more

And all you labor in vain

And to the broken and shamed

Love is here, love is now, love is pouring from His hands from His brow

Love is near, it satisfies

Streams of mercy flowing from his side, because love is here

Come to the treasure

You who search and you’ll search no more

Come to the lover

You who want and you’ll want no more

And all you labor in vain

And to the broken and shamed

And to the bruised and fallen

Captives bound and broken hearted

He is the Lord

“Love is Here” –Tenth Avenue North

 

ten words

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This one time at college (how many stories start that way? Oh so many…) my friends and I were sitting around, chatting, laughing, hanging out likely until the wee hours of the morning. I think a lot of college stories start this way. Well, at least with my friends and I. We’re talkers. And thinkers.

In fact, one of our great thinkers, Michelle, once posed the ever-present question in one of those long-winded dialogues that I really never wanted to end. You see, talking with friends about anything and everything is, I think, one of the best things that friendship brings us. Often and ideally, friendship gives you the freedom and space to talk about whatever is on your heart, on your mind, or frankly, what’s in your belly (who doesn’t love talking about the intricacies of food?). Michelle was my very first friend at college (and has remained like a sister since). Not counting my roommate, anyway. And let me tell you, the “friendship” I had with my first roommate was essentially non-existent. Awkward, if you will. Actually, it was my roomate’s ex-best friend that would eventually become one of my very best friends. Are you lost yet?  That’s another story entirely.

Like I was saying. It was Michelle—the Texas born, cowboy boot wearin’ woman—that said something in one of our long discussions that has stuck with us ever since. We were probably laughing or something (laughing was of the upmost importance in our friendship; the first time Michelle and I hung out on our freshman orientation trip we laughed. The entire time. I was laughing at her laugh…and she just laughed…and so the cycle continued. People thought we were legitimately crazy. They were right.) when we were perusing Michelle’s writing in one of her many classy journals. As she flipped through the pages, she read aloud one of her entries that asked, “what is time?” I can’t remember exactly, but I am certain we laughed for a very long time. After all, this particular entry was of the existential sort, exploring the conundrum of how time passes so quickly. In fact, I think she even asked something along the lines of whether or not we move through time or whether time moves through us. Like I told y’all, Michelle’s a thinker.

The what is time joke-catchphrase-thing is something we continue to say, even today, though I’m finding these days, we’re taking Michelle’s words a lot more seriously. The thing is, Michelle was right.

Because somehow, it’s 2013, I’m 24, and I’ve lived in Rwanda for 16 months.

Somehow, in 365 days, I’ve become a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a community member, a traveler, a bi-lingual woman, and a volunteer.

But, where exactly, did the time go? Like we always say, what is time?

A friend of mine told me that a fun little exercise to remember the year can be done when you try to summarize your year in 10 words. I probably took him too seriously (because I love these sorts of things) and so I thought about this exercise for hours. What exactly could I say about this year?

This year, in 2012, I started teaching secondary students in Rwanda. Some days, I earnestly tried to teach grammar. But often, we did things like sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, or went outside to observe nature, practiced dialogues, and looked at photos from my life. Some days, I think I might have had a break though. For example, before last term, I decided I was sick and tired of having the following conversation:

Me: “Hello students!”

Students: “Hello teacher!”

Me: “How are you?”

Students: “We are fine!”

You may look at this and think, well, what’s the problem? Let me explain. Every single student says the same thing. I am fine, they say. I am fine. I am fine. I am fine. It could drive one crazy. And it did. I decided enough was enough. These kiddos were going to learn different things to say upon being greeted in English. And so the I am fine days became the days of I am fantastic! I am wonderful! I am SUPERRRR!! (they love that last one). I taught them negative ones too, and I just MELT when a student tells me they are grumpy. Mostly because they say it like, “gra-mp-ie”. It’s too cute.

And so, I tried teaching. I don’t really know what they learned. Who knows. But for the most part, I showed up, and so did they, and we tried to speak English in the best way we could. I shared my phone number (not necessarily kosher in America, but let me just emphasize that Rwanda is quite different and I have been very open in my own personal boundaries here) and so every day I get anywhere from 3-12 calls from students wanting to greet me. And most of the time, they do this in English, and so in some small way, I find this to be a success.

We had three terms this year, and I finished all three. Phew. Teaching is hard work.

But I was much more than a teacher this year. I also ma friends—both in and outside of Peace Corps. To have a friend in Peace Corps is of the upmost importance; they, more than anyone, understand this experience, and so they offer an invaluable amount of support. My friend Suzi and I talked nearly every day. Maybe it was for a quick 1 minute funny story of our awkward lives, but more often, it was 10 or 20 minute conversation sharing our struggles and victories, supporting each other, and to be honest, ensuring that each of us could continue to stay here. Suzi and I have an uncanny amount of similarities. We’re different though, and so it works. It’s a blossoming friendship and without her and my other Peace Corps friends, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be here.

My friends in my village are a special brand. For one, most are my students. I know, I know, I know. Super un-traditional. But the best part is, I don’t really feel a need to defend it. The truth is, I connect with them in a very special way (mind you, I’m not talking about ALL my students here, how could I have that strong of a connection with over 350 students?). I’ve blogged, journaled, and talked about it and still I can’t capture what it feels like to be a role model, a friend, and an admirer all at once. What I mean is that while the students have been very clear that they see me as someone to look up to, I feel the very same way about them, and so this beautiful ebb-and-flow friendship has been created. I am in awe when I see what they give and do for their families; they ask question after question about my culture and why I believe what I do.

And then there is my friends and family back home.  In 2012, I had friends start the path of finding their vocations, I had friends graduate college, I had friends continue to study, and I had friends have babies. I had family members decide to have weddings. I had a cousin get engaged. I missed out on the small, daily things with my mom and dad, which could be even harder to be away from (it’s often the small things that I miss the most). Two of my best friends from high school both got married, and it was heartbreaking to be absent. Being absent and distant was a common theme for my year because, well, hello, I live in the middle of a small, rural African village. But distance doesn’t always disconnect. In fact, it can bring you closer. While I’ve been absent for a lot of important things in my friends and family’s lives, I’ve put as much energy and love as I can, even so far away. I talk to both of my parents weekly. I email most of my friends, creating these wonderfully Oprah-esque (continuing our love for “life” conversations) chains of emails. I’ve managed a few amazing skype dates. I’ve developed an even stronger love for snail mail (as always, the packages have been unbelievably wonderful). None of these things make up for being absent. But you really can’t have it all at once. And eventually, you make peace with this, and just do the best you can. I hope all who are reading this know how much I do love you. And while I am doing this for me, I’m doing this whole entire thing because I believe in it too. If I didn’t, I would have left a long time ago. I want you to know that while I maybe did choose Africa and Rwanda for a time, this is also a season of life, and who knows where life goes next. Time moves just too damn quickly, as I’ve been saying, and so it’s best to just enjoy where you are and believe that things will fall into place as they should be. Being away is the hardest thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer, and to be honest, it’s often the source of a lot of sadness and dark times. But we keep moving, we keep persevering, because let’s be real, it’s the best way to live life. Recognize where you are. Feel what you feel. But take all of this, and go outside, and just work with you got. Because in the days, weeks, and months to come, it will be something different.

In 2012, I saw a lot of beautiful lands. Not only my little corner of Rwanda, I was blessed with an incredible journey of visiting the Northwestern part of the country with dad on his visit. We hiked around a volcano chain, saw gorillas, and spent Christmas lakeside on one of the most beautiful pieces of land I have ever seen. Y’all, I can’t say it enough. If life can bring you to Rwanda, whether now or 20 years down the road, come. It’s a great place, promise. I even went on an epic 32 hour bus ride across Tanzania, en route to Zanzibar. I was in the ocean when one ferry sank, and by the time I reached shore, the Aurora shooting was plaguing news headlines. It was a weird time. But, like Rwanda and yet in a very different way, Tanzania is gorgeous. I ran on those white sandy beaches, amazed that I was here in Africa. Travel is great that way; you can never really wrap your mind around just how big this world is.

And so as the year has closed and a new one has begun and I have now turned 24, I can’t help but do a bit of self-reflection (if you know me, you know I love doing this…I already have THREE FULL JOURNALS from my Peace Corps experience, and so you can just imagine.). Physically, I look a lot different. Blond highlights streak through my hair from the Rwandan sun. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight—last time I checked, I had lost 30 pounds. Though, from dad’s recent visit, I really think I put back on 10, but absolutely no regrets there. I ate like an American for two weeks and THAT was amazing. The physical changes are obvious, aren’t they? It’s easy to look at your reflection and find what’s different. But what about the other stuff?

Am I a better person? Am I kinder? Am I closer with God? Am I more mature?

I don’t know if I know the answer to those questions. I think about them, but it’s often hard to say. Because even those questions, they take time to understand. They take time to see. And really, I don’t think I’ll know what Rwanda has done to my heart and soul and mind until it’s all over later this year.

But I do know this. I am unequivocally grateful. I thank God every day for this—yes, even when I’m crying, upset, and unsure that I can go on. I thank God because between the people that I have met and the stories that I have heard, I know that in 2012, I have been bettered by the people I know. I know people who are so different from me. And yet, they have value. More value than the world would ever say, but they are some of the best people I know. My dad will tell you, the people he met, and the hospitality he experienced; it will literally change your heart. It will make you reconsider how you can treat people with more kindness and consideration in the world—not because you have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s life transforming, y’all.

And so I’ll put those questions of how I have changed on hold for a while. But I will say, that my capacity for love has grown, not because of me, but because of them. Just when you think you’ve given all you’ve got, God shows you that you have so much more. And He shows you through the people he brings in your life, short term or long term.

I thought about all of this as I tried to summarize my year in 10 words.

It took time, even a fitful night’s of sleep (once I get thinking, it’s hard to stop). Here’s what I came up with:

2012

Just when you think you can’t, you can.

For every time that I wanted to fly on a plane and get back to the people I love, God’s always shown me a reason to stay. Whether it was for Divine, for the girls’ football team, for my opportunity to grow, for a capacity to help, or for the undeniably delicious Coke, I stayed. And, honestly, I’m so glad I have.

team

IMG_0422 sara tanzy

family2

students

IMG_0204 village

after all, we’re only human

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After all, we’re only human.

Is there any other reason why we stay instead of leaving?

-Jon McLaughlin, Human

Dressed in my handy, go-to, red, turquoise, and green Rwandan fabric themed dress, I sat in the audience at the American Ambassador’s House as the newest group of Peace Corps Education Volunteers (called ED-4; my group is called ED-3) took their oaths to serve in Rwanda for the next two years of their lives. I went to support the group—I had spent a couple of weeks teaching about how to use speaking and listening techniques in the classroom and observing the trainees as they went through their first round of teaching in a Rwandan classroom environment—but also to grab a burrito, relish in some margaritas, and enjoy and partake in an epic night on the town. Prior to the holidays, I had spent nearly 4 straight weeks in the village, and I may as well enjoy the festivities, I thought, especially for a special time for a lot of new friends as they enter the Peace Corps world (arguably the best, weirdest, most difficult, and craziest thing to do in life—that’s what I would say, anyway).

It was a strange experience to be on the other side of things—literally and metaphorically. This time, as a guest, I sat on the opposite side of the new-to-be volunteers. I watched their reactions, emotions, and vows throughout the ceremony. I laughed along with the speeches and let myself be moved by the speeches, as well. Their words, especially the English speeches (as I could FULLY grasp everything being said), moved me. Much more than I expected. They spoke with emotional anecdotes, personal insights on why this kind of thing works, and how important it is to follow this dream and commitment. I let the tears rise, and it wasn’t just because of the power of their words, it was also because for the previous week, I had been having an immensely difficult time.

To describe the kind of loneliness you experience here has proved difficult to put in words that actually hit where the heart hurts. I have people here, really amazing people that I love incredibly deeply, and yet, sometimes it just isn’t enough. And what’s weird too, is to realize that maybe the very people that I’m missing wouldn’t even necessarily be the answer to this pang in my mind and thoughts. I think that’s why this brand of loneliness is particularly complicated: the people here in my village don’t really know my life back in America, and my family and friends back home, despite my committed attempts to blog, email, and talk about this experience, and their committed efforts to listen and support me in all things, they still miss the small stuff that I can’t really put into words, pictures, or ideas. There is this gap between my two lives and sometimes it feels wider than usual, making me feel a bit lost in the world, or something like that. Like I said, it’s really hard to describe.

But then there are other things that are much easier to put into words.

  • The week prior to swear-in, I spent hours in my house one rainy day, just crying. And I wasn’t even sure why.
  • I always enjoy my first cup (or three) of coffee in bed, but then I often have the motivation to move about my day—to go outside, walk around, or to even go on a run. During this week, however, I felt no such urgency.
  • A vast majority of my Peace Corps friends went home in the first week or two of break to be with their families for the holiday season. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to see them go—leaving me wondering if I should be going too, and also in the meantime, who I plan to talk and text with while they are out of country?
  • One of my students died. It’s a long winded dramatic story, believe me. I found out just a few days into our vacation, as my senior 3 students were beginning the set of national exams they have to take advance into the advanced levels of secondary school. He, and his young, 10 year old sister, were poisoned by their neighbors. Apparently out of jealousy, another student and his “witch doctor” mother concocted some kind of poison set-up in a batch of sugar cane as to make them sick. Evidently, the intention was not for them to die, but they did. I visited the family a week or so after this all happened, and I felt just so heartsick for them. To lose TWO children? And what does this say about people in my community? This place really is a good place—but why does it always take just one or two people to bring so many others into question? It’s really not fair, for anyone. And so obviously, that has been beyond difficult to deal with. It wasn’t a student I was particularly close with, but he was in fact, my student. And so it’s still pretty uncomfortable and disturbing to talk about.
  • A few times in these more difficult days, I’ve asked myself what if I just left?  Would anyone really care that much? A year of service—that’s still pretty good. And I would walk away with so many good memories and experiences. Maybe I could leave before the start of the first term so I wouldn’t leave in the middle of a school year?
  • Because of the violence and rocky things happening in Eastern DRC, one of our volunteers (and a friend of mine) was removed from her site temporarily and then eventually pushed in a position to return back to America and out of the Peace Corps. This is the 10th volunteer we have lost from our group—most of them from external situations that really can’t be controlled—and it’s so tough every time we lose someone. Yes, I do spend a vast majority of my time at site and not around Peace Corps Volunteers, but the people in our group are like our families, and when they go, it’s really hard. Especially in this particular case; she loved her site, loved Rwanda, and was doing SO many good things in her community.

Yeah, you could say that I haven’t been in a great place. I can tell you this much, remaining optimistic and living a life of positivity is near and dear to my heart, and yet, that’s been challenging lately. So, you can just imagine. It sure hasn’t been easy: and remember, I love this place. I love my job. But like with anything, it ain’t an easy ride. There are moments, phases, and times where things are really good and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life (I probably feel like this about 80% of the time, which I would say is a pretty darn good number for living a life completely different than my first 22 years). There are stages where things are just okay, and of course, there are segments where it just feels like you keep banging your head against a wall and you are quite literally, going nowhere. I recognize this is just how it goes. In Peace Corps, yes, but in life too.

It always gets better.

We’re human, and we find ways to actually feel what we’re feeling, deal with it, and continue with life. Adversity, I think, is one of the most important qualities a person can have. A lot of mentors, family members, and people that I admire have this important characteristic, and I try to bear those very people in mind when I’m going through a rough patch—whether it’s emotionally, spiritually, or whatever it may pertain to. I figured the best thing I could do for myself would be to go to a place that I could enjoy, but more importantly, be with people that would make me laugh, make me feel at home, and relax just a bit. My site is my home (I can say that now without reservation) but to work through these emotions, I realized I needed to get out of my house. I needed a change of scenery, yes, but I needed people that could still lift me up.

I decided to visit my good ole’ student-friend, Divine. She’s the one (and yes, I’ve blogged, talked, and written about her already many times) that lives way out East, near Tanzania when we don’t have school. That’s where most of her family is. However, when school is in session, she lives in my community with her grandmother, helping to take care of her as she lives her last weeks and months. Anyway, I had promised I would come for another visit to see her mother, sisters, and brother. And also, with all of this muck wearing me down, I wanted to be with someone who can lift my spirits without really even trying. And y’all, that’s this girl.

I arrived at her house on a Saturday evening (it was a nearly 4 hour trip from Kigali) and stayed through Tuesday afternoon. 4 days, 3 nights. It was exactly what I needed. I fit quite well in her family, I would say. They totally get my humor, laugh at my Kinyarwanda jokes, and we spend a lot of time just doing more weird stuff that makes us laugh all over again. I would dare say that her family are some of the most jolly (is that the right word? You know, people that love to laugh?) people I’ve met in Rwanda. They are always laughing. It’s so great.

We also ate so much food. SO MUCH. That’s just standard though, when it comes to visiting Rwandans.

We ate, danced, cooked, played sport, visited the Tanzanian border (just me, Divine, and her sister), walked around, fetched water, greeted Divine’s extended family and friends, watched The Lion King, and listened to music. I turned off my phone for most of my visit and not really even because they don’t have electricity and I couldn’t charge. No, I turned it off because I needed a little break from the world so I sure as hell was going to take it. My days out there were a continuum of really feeling at home. Like I said, I just fit in well, and so it’s easy to be there. I think I played hide-and-go-seek with Divine’s little cousin for like an hour. It’s the little things. It really is. 

I arrived back home quite clean (looking and being clean is SUPER important in Rwandan culture), pretty darn tired, but doing a lot better than I was the few days before. Taking a break and visiting Divine didn’t solve all of my doubts, problems, or issues, but wow, as usual, she made me believe in this whole thing all over again, and helped me remember what beautiful seeds I have sown here. Divine is a friend for life, believe it, and being around her encourages me to make the most of my time here. She makes me want to be a better person, and I’m so lucky to have her in my life. In some crazy way, she’s just another sister that I never had.

I came back home with this kind of encouragement ringing throughout my head and heart, loaded with a couple of fresh packages from the post office, and a date to play football with a girls team in my village. I journaled about my trip with Divine, opened my packages (one from Ali, the other from Dad—y’all rock), and I played football, which was like the icing on a cake to a great sequence of days. The best part of the game, without a doubt, was when I shot the ball hard with my right foot, it hit off the right post, and Zahara, one of my friends and students, rebounded it directly back into the goal. YES!!! We jumped up and down and I ran right into her arms. Quite literally. Her hand knocked right into my mouth and teeth, but it didn’t even matter. We were just so excited about this SportsCenter top-10 worthy play. Congratulations! Zahara just said over and over again for like 5 minutes straight. It was a great day for football. And it was a great day, just in general. I walked home after the sun had set, happy for the game, but just happy that I was feeling okay again. Maybe not euphoric like I sometimes and often do, but I’m feeling once again comfortable and able to deal with whatever comes my way.

Lucky for me, the next part of this journey brings me back in the company, presence, and arms of someone I love deeply, fully, and without any reservation.

Dad is coming HERE. To RWANDA.

Could the timing be any better? I really don’t think so.

I’m counting down the days and hours until I get to run and hug him harder than I think I have ever done. Finally. A piece of home is coming here. Finally. 15 months without being face to face with someone from my family or circle of friends is unbelievably hard.

I can’t wait to explore Rwanda with dad, with a new set of eyes, and maybe even more so, I’m so ready for Dad to see where I live. To meet the people in my community, to know this place that I call home, and to get a little taste for what my life is like here.

I’ve cleaned my house. I’ve got our tickets to trek mountain gorillas ready to go. I’ve cleared my camera disc space. He just needs to get here.

I’m okay with how I have been feeling. I really am. It sounds crazy, but after all, we really are only human. We feel things, deal with things, and experience things that hurt, and sometimes we aren’t even sure why. But it’s better to recognize the hurt, I’ve realized, and to do something about it. I know I don’t have to be happy all the time. I know that. But I also understand that it’s important to find ways to deal with your emotions. It doesn’t mean fixing them—it means embracing them, feeling them, and using the gifts God gives us (our family, friends, communities) to help us.

We’re only human, yes. But our powers to love and support each other—and to love and support ourselves—are incredibly powerful.

I’m smart enough to know that life goes by

And it leaves a trail of broken parts behind

If you fear of letting go

Just give me time

I’ll come running to your side

We all need someplace we can hide inside

All these ups and downs

They trip up our good intentions

Nobody said this was an easy ride

-Jon McLaughlin, Human

set fire to the rain

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Today I felt so much that I felt nothing.

All of that admiration, that joy, that intangible desire to be around you because you make this all worth it dissipated in seconds. It’s taken a year to build and it seems that it can, in fact, fall that quickly.

Disillusionment becomes shock and reshapes into a more heavy weight of disappointment. Seeping into every corner of my head and heart, I am in disbelief.

You hold that stick—you defend that “tradition”—and you might as well hit me too.

Laugh. Laugh. Laugh.

Go ahead, spin the wheel, because you’re adding to the cycle just like everyone else.

Do something different, I say. CHANGE.

But change is an idea, and the stick is the reality.

“Teacher Heather, it’s our tradition.”

You see me as a girl with all ideas; you see me as a girl with butterflies and bees flopping in the air because I can only talk about love and peace like it’s some utopian ideal. You’re wrong. It’s about doing the right thing. Set fire to the rain.

I’m not better than you. I love you.

I told you I would never beat you.

Kubita ni bibi. Kubita ni bibi.

Every damn day.

KUBITA NI BIBI.

To beat is bad.

 I stand up for you, did you know that? At our 3, 4, 5, and 6 hour long staff meetings, I harp at the stick and I defend your right to be safe—physically and psychologically.

To what end?

Because maybe you’re just biding your time to move from the beaten to the beatee.

I feel dumb. I feel alone.

It’s like I’m shouting on a crowded street and no one is looking up.

I close my eyes to press the tears back and I’m sure I can’t do this. If this is what disappointment in your own children feels like, woe to parents around the world.

It’s the last day and I have the worst taste in my mouth. I taste sadness, confusion, hypocrisy and pretense. I taste hopelessness.

And all this time, I thought we were on the same team.

I thought we were together when it came down to this.

I kunda you, right?

That’s the one thing keeping my hands down, not in the air, waving up and down in defeat. Not taking those very hands, grabbing my phone, and quitting.

But I wanted to.

And I want to tell you that.

You hurt me, but much worse, you hurt each other.

I’m supposed to teach you tenses, terms, and topics. But no grammar lesson will give you what you need to move so much further.

I chose this wonderfully crazy 2-year life in Rwanda—away from so many people I love—FOR YOU.

Because while I believe in the power of education, I also believe in the power of a relationship outside the classroom. And so, I’ve built my days, weeks, and life in the village around you.

Why do you think I walk miles to visit you? Why do you think I stay here on the weekends? Why do you think I write grants for you, play football with you, take photos with you, dance with you, cry with you, and laugh with you?

You want to talk culture?

Let’s talk about it.

Let’s talk about your culture of sharing, of kindness, and of community. You help someone when they’re in trouble. You pray together, you eat together, and you make decisions together.

Let this culture win. Fight for this. Without a stick. Be an example.

The stick reaffirms some self-contrived notion of superiority and works with one stroke against the “peace” you say Rwanda has found.

THE STICK WORKS AGAINST YOU.

Don’t you see that?

You can be so much more. But I can’t do that for you. You have to believe it yourself.

I’ll wait, though. I’ll hope for something better.

I’ll hope you’ll put the stick down and choose to represent yourself with a new tradition.

We got a lot to learn, God knows we’re worth it.

I’ll wait.

Because as much as this frustration makes me want to run away from here without looking back, the love I have for you is still stronger. I’m not giving up. Love wins.

You’ll see that someday. Love always wins. 

I kunda you

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I’ve got a new favorite phrase which if you know my speaking habits, well, I’m saying it a lot. Too much, probably. Reaching “hey girl” status would seem like an improbable feat, but it’s getting there. This new magical phrase?

I kunda you.

I imagine I don’t need to explain the ‘I’ or the ‘You’ but the ‘kunda’ comes from the Kinyarwanda verb ‘gukunda’, meaning to love.

I love you.

This little gem of a phrase comes from Ruramira’s own—the secondary school students. It says a lot about my kids’ English abilities; they sure are trying, but a combined mixture of Kinyarwanda and English is somehow the norm. One day, a few weeks back, I showed up for class, wrapped up our lesson on nutrition, and as I walked out with white chalk residue littered all over my clothes and hands, I heard a couple students shout quickly and loudly, “I kunda you teacher!” Grinning wide, I poked my head back in the brick-covered classroom and shouted back. “I kunda you, too!”

Now, on an average day, I hear and say these three words dozens and dozens of times. It’s kind of our thing, you know?

We’re kind of adorable.

Don’t get me wrong though, this job, this life, and the relationships I have with my students aren’t always full of flowers and butterflies.

This term (the last one of my first year) has been hard at times. I’ve walked out on classes. I left school in tears. I’ve given 0’s for cheating. I’ve kicked kids out. I even sent one to the dean of discipline, knowing that he would probably be beat (I definitely regret this decision). I’ve also given the following lecture at least a handful of times, in a variety of different forms:

Do you want to study? Why pay school fees if you come to disturb the class? Do you realize that I am here for YOU? Should I just go back to America? I can find a job there (though I don’t let on how difficult this would actually be given the state of our economy). Do you want me to go? If I am headmaster, you are quiet. If I am another teacher and carry a stick to beat you, you are quiet. Why? What can I do?

At times, teaching is a rocky road, full of stress, discomfort, and a load of frusturation. I came home several days this term, practically throwing the door back, and wondering why? Why do I try so hard to make this work?

But, this was also a term of really wonderful things too.

This was the term where I demonstrated how to cook salad with a bit of props, imagination, and extraordinary acting skills in order to teach about the importance of vegetables in our diet. My students did tongue twisters (yes, like your classic Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers) and acted out different careers during a game of charades. This term, we had debates: some about discrimination (just another excuse for me to name drop and talk about Martin Luther King Jr.), some about which career is the best, and even one was about whether water or fire was better. Funny enough, it was that one that was probably the very best one. The girls football team wrote letters to the Hendrix field hockey team, we started out very own GLOW Club (we just had elections for leadership: we have a president, VP, secretary, publicity executive, and mama GLOW—the girl who helps the girls if they have a problem and need someone to talk to—and I was given the title of ‘grandmother GLOW’. Perfect). And one day, we danced for 3 hours to prep for welcoming visitors from our sponsor school in Germany, including a member of their parliament.

Outside of school, I’ve continued my home visits. It really, in all sincerity, is one of my favorite things to do. And, they’ve visited me too, which is always a nice change. I was in a family wedding for two of my students, I’ve praised and worshipped God with others, and I’ve even done some small traveling with students I have special relationships with.

When my days are filled  with these sort of things, I literally can’t imagine not being here. Which is kind of hilarious. Mostly because I’ll have a day where I just want to pack up and go. I’m done, I think. This is just too hard, it’s not working, and I can’t handle the stress anymore.

Then, the next day, I’ll be walking home right as the sun filters out of the coming dark blue night sky and think about how happy I am. I’ll remember how I almost didn’t do Peace Corps at all, and it blows my mind. My life is now framed and inter-laced with the people I love here, as if I was meant to be here all along. Yeah. Peace Corps cultivates a lot of things, including the sense that you are in fact, bipolar.

This upcoming week is the last week of lessons but I will not be at school as I will be helping out at the training for the new education volunteers (soon, we’ll be the oldest group here!) I’ll be surprising my host family, giving lessons on how to teach speaking, and visiting the place I was a trainee a year ago. This means I’m done teaching for the term. (!!!) I’m happy, because it’s definitely time for a break, but I’ll admit, I’m a bit nostalgic too.

My senior three students will take the national exam next month. If they do well, they can go to another school with more resources and course options to continue the advanced level of study for secondary school (referring to senior 4, senior 5, and senior 6). Which, is awesome! But, I’m a sap too, and I’ll miss them. It’s like watching your babies grow up.

But, as those doors close, so many more open. I have another year to do better, to learn from my experiences, and to teach in ways that I know will work.

One thing is for sure, as least as I write this, in this given moment: I am right where I need to be. Dirty dishes lie waiting for scrubbing and washing in my back room, left over from the visit from 4 of my girls, papers needing grading fill my books to the rim, and sticky notes are on every edge and corner of my desk reminding me of who I said I would visit and the little things I need to take care of in and out of the village. I’m figuring this out.

I kunda you.

Like I said, that’s kind of our thing at school now and I love that. I love that Term 3 was the term ‘I kunda you’ came into being and that it was this term that I felt comfortable enough to let my guard down, be me, and let this experience exist exactly as it is—in the good, bad, and unknowing times. It’s not perfect, and there are really really bad days sometimes. But I know it just all fits together, because when I find myself completely content, happy, and more at peace then I have been in a very very long time (maybe ever) I just thank God that everything is worth it.

Taken separately, the experiences of life can work harm and not good. Taken together, they make a pattern of blessing and strength the likes of which the world does not know.

-V. Raymond Edman 

wedding time!

 

me and the family of Maisara and Zahara

Me and Divine and her grandmother

you know. teaching.

the girls rockin’ at dancing

drumming and waiting for the German delegation

dancing

we’re learning to jump. somehow.