Tag Archives: community

the dark days are over

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I feel like I’m living like a king.

I’ve changed my cooking methods, for one. For the past 10 months I’ve relied on the black sooty chunks of charcoal to generate enough heat to power my meals, coffee, and water for bathing my often dusty body. When the charcoal bag reached ends meet, I contemplated purchasing another 10-ish dollar rice sack of amacara (that’s charcoal in Kinyarwanda). Yet, I put that thought on the back burner when I stumbled (quite literally) over this old dinky pea green petrol stove I bought before moving from the Peace Corps training site to my home. Let’s give this petrol stove a trial run, I thought.

BEST. DECISION. EVER.

I can cook water in 10 minutes (not 45) and I can come home and get right into cooking—not prepping my source of heat for an obscene amount of time (though, my charcoal lighting skills have gotten quite advanced, I would say). Oh and speaking of power. I GOT IT! And, I don’t mean the self-encouraging, confident, believe in yourself type. I HAVE ELECTRICITY.

I was gone from site for several days due to taking part in Peace Corps training (teaching new trainees how to teach listening and speaking in the classroom) and visiting Suzi and so I was rather consumed with things outside of my home and outside of my site. However, I got a call one morning from our school accountant and my friend Emi, who told me that they would be breaking into my house to install electricity. Seriously? Did I hear that correctly? And truth be told, I didn’t really believe it—that is until I saw it. Concrete crumbles were scattered in all of the nooks and crannies of my wall corners, workers were meticulously connecting things together in every room, and red and black wires began to intertwine with my beige bamboo ceiling. Oh the sweet wires. When I saw those babies I knew this was the real deal. When it was time to flip the white switch in my front room, I saw the bulb light every where I could see and I gleefully absorbed all of what this meant. I can cook at night  enjoyably (without knocking over pots, pans, and spices due to the lack of light); I can actually see my floors (maybe assess whether they are actually clean); I don’t have to have a strategic game plan every single time I want to charge my electronics; I can grade papers (I have 381 students so you do the math) without hurting my eyes more than they will already hurt; and I can watch a tv show. Or two. Or three. My life will change, and hey, I’m cool with that.

I’m proud of myself—I did the no electricity thing for over a year. And you can make it. It’s possible. Most people in my village do it just fine. But, it’s hard. And I don’t think I’m some unsung hero or anything; I just remember thinking how scary/crazy it was when back in the ‘burbs the power would leave for like 23 minutes and Lance and I would grab blankets, security devices, and extra snacks for the duration without electricity. And this would be midday, mind you. I just have some added perspective, that’s all. And so you can bet that with each hour of light and power, I’ll be oh so grateful.

Another great thing about all of this is timing. Suzi had been planning a trip out East to visit me for several weeks and so as I went through all of these positive adjustments, Suzi was right there with me. Our journey to my house was full of rain, leaky bus roofs, and small cramped bus rides, but we made it. Even with added miscommunications with the bus people and the always present beast in the room: KINYARWANDA.

Suzi got to meet some of my students (and see some of them do their choreography to ‘Baby’ by the Biebs), talk with my headmaster, and see the rain damage to our school all within an hour in my village. It was just the beginning: Suzi’s visit was full of wine (thanks to Jon—an Australian merlot straight from England, HOLLER), magazines, macaroni and cheese, salad, coffee, ‘Abana daycare’ (Abana means children)—this involved Suzi and I hanging out with 14ish neighborhood kids playing Frisbee, bubbles, serving porridge, duck-duck-goose (changed to ihene-ihene-inka for cultural purposes—ihene means goat and inka means cow), and lots of photographs—, visiting my dear friend Jacqueline, watching 30 Rock, and lots of laughter, catching up, and relaxing in between.

There are some photos and there are these words but I guess I just forgot how wonderful, reaffirming, and joyous it is to share life with others. I do mean life in the most general sense: whether you’re sharing your family, showing the place you grew up, or cooking a special meal for another person, it’s just a really neat thing to open your life up a bit. I don’t know of a more heartwarming feeling than standing by and watching someone love what you love, to find the same joy in something you really care for, and to understand and have a context for a life you take a lot of pride in. And the best part is, for me, is that Suzi gets it. She exclaimed ‘your site is awesome!’ and how adorable my students are numerous times and I just wanted to jump up and down yelling, ‘YES! I KNOW, RIGHT?!’

The same sort of giddy contentment rushed through me when I visited the family last week while teaching the new group of Peace Corps education trainees. I had spoken with Taylor (the new trainee who lives with my host family, the third volunteer to do so, I was the first one) and I told her I was coming for a visit but I wanted it to be kept a secret as to surprise mama and papa. I was all but skipping down the familiar paths of my training days. I may be glad (beyond glad actually) to be done with training, but I always always enjoy seeing the people who took me in as their own, despite me being American, me being white, and me being just plain weird. When I turned the corner, I gulped down some adrenaline fueled energy, braced myself for the biggest hugs you could ever imagine from the neighborhood kids, and glanced up in time to see mama jumping up and down with her hands to her face in sheer surprise. I have been back three times now, and literally, each time it’s like coming home. It’s the closet thing I will have here; and really, it is actually that very experience, because in so many ways, that will always be a home for me.

It had been a long time—over 6 months—and so a visit was long overdue. As I downed 4 cups of milk tea, ate cassava bread with Taylor, and basked in all of the ruckus and excitement, I learned quickly how Taylor was equally happy with our host family. It’s a tough situation without a doubt, but we wholeheartedly agreed: we got SO blessed with Emmanuel and Bernadette and the kiddos as our host family in Rwanda (and the most beautiful part is that both mama and papa would tell you the same about the Peace Corps trainees that they have hosted, like I said, they are so precious). Taylor told me stories of her teaching ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’ to some of the girls, we exchanged mama superwoman stories (she’s superwoman if I’ve ever seen one) and how she literally can do anything, and of papa praying in the morning (followed by mama’s beautiful singing), and how they are just about the most welcoming people we have ever encountered. She was glowing and raving and spilling out with all of this positivity and again, I was reminded of how amazing it is to be able to relate to her in such a way and to share these very similar feelings and experiences. We’re sisters of sorts and we have a family with hearts of solid gold.

When you open parts of your life to people and you take a step back, you see things from a new perspective, as if you are seeing with fresh eyes. It’s renewal and the best part is you realize exactly what’s in front of you. These weeks have glided by effortlessly (even with my computer, phone, and French press all breaking in the same day about a week ago) and I’m realizing how much I have here.

When did that happen?

I’m seeing that even if my best village friends consist of a 3 year old, a 19 year old, and a 45 year old, it doesn’t really matter because the love that they have is quite real.

I’m finding that seeds grow.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 months in my village greeting, visiting, praying, visiting again, playing football, and going on aimless walks—and for what? To show my community that I’m here. To “integrate” as Peace Corps would say, which to me means sucking it up and putting yourself out there, even if you get laughed at. It means doing things that might make you uncomfortable (like 6 hour church services, a super long visit, or going on long trips) because you love someone and you want to show that to them. It means sharing yourself, hoping they’ll share in return. This process takes time. And Lord knows, it’s Rwanda, so it takes a VERY long time.

But it’s going. As we say here, slow by slow. Buhoro, buhoro.

As I’ve seen my life here with new lenses these last couple of weeks, I’m grateful, humbled, and happy with what I see.

It’s not my horn that I’m tooting—it’s my community’s. I live in a great place with really good people. Sure, it’s the village, with poverty and an entire slew of problems, but I’ve been more than welcomed and taken care of for nearly a year. I’ve been let in homes, in families, and in relationships. When I leave site for whatever reason, I can’t wait to come back. When I first got site, I remember checking frequently how many days remained in my service. Yes. My service. The whole whopping two years. I would check one day and it would read: 615. Soon, it would be under 600. One day it read 559. I can’t believe I did that. I haven’t done that in probably 7 or 8 months. I imagine what it will feel like to leave here and well….I can’t. I’ve planted the seeds, but it’s been my community, my students, my loved ones here that have tilled the soil, cultivating something far more beautiful than I really ever expected.

As I share this with visitors and friends, y’all will see that too and I think be equally moved.

It’s this kind of stuff that makes this world a better place.

sunset outside my house.

 

me, Josiane, Ange, and Joselyne outside my house having our photoshoot!

always jumping it seems. me and the kiddos.

k

Divine and Yazina; these girls are amazing. I kind of sort of LOVE them.

n

classic Baracka. CANNOT HANDLE THE CUTENESS (of him!)

 

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you will always get back home

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One Year in Rwanda

MILES RAN (APPROXIMATE): 426

PACKAGES RECEIVED: 32

PHOTOS TAKEN: 1346

MICE KILLED: 8

BLOGS POSTED: 43

DAYS I HADA KITTEN: 3

BOOKS READ: 43

STUDENTS VISITED: 42

UMUGANDAS (COMMUNITY SERVICE DAYS): 4

STUDENTS TAUGHT: 346

HOST FAMILY VISITS: 2

SEASONS OF FRIENDS WATCHED: 10

CUPS OF COFFEE CONSUMED: UNMEASURABLE (but at least 2 per day)

HOURS TALKED ON PHONE: 54

PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS VISITED: 5

PEACE CORPS VISITORS AT MY HOME: 4

HOURS TAUGHT IN CLASS: 399

MATCHES COACHED: 4

DAYS WITH ELECTRICITY ACCESS: 18

Where this bout of homesickness is coming from, I’m not really sure. The one year mark of my service in Rwanda is vastly approaching and so maybe I’m much more attune to what I’ve live with—and what I’ve lived without—for a significant amount of time. These pangs of longing, to my surprise, don’t come around as often as I would have thought. I really think that is because I really am exactly where I should be: I love my life. I have no regrets, no “what ifs”, and I’m genuinely content with what I’m doing here. Lauren reminded me the other day, you’re following your dreams, just like everyone else. It’s a good little reminder.

Yet, when I can feel my heart hurt and my mind drifts to the familiar and comfortable, it comes in intense waves. And, I’m for once not talking about cheese, Chipolte, or the endless array of coffee choices. Heartache, for me, has everything to do with the people in my life. And my mind gives the constant reminder: enjoy the people you have here. The family and friends back home will be right there when you get back. They love you; they’re not going anywhere The mind, in this case, is 100% right. But mind over matter certainly isn’t prevailing; I (probably stupidly) sifted through my photo albums this morning and worked my way in and out of old memories.

I’m missing out on the lives of people I care about the most. Weddings, graduations, babies, travels, heartaches, celebrations, struggles…but maybe what I miss even more is the daily, normal kind of stuff. What I would give for a family dinner, the chance to text my friends the inevitable awkward encounters from my day, or the ability just to call and check in with my parents and say hello. My dad is famous for calling me at least 3 times a day just because, and guess what? I miss that. I took these things for granted, and I am seeing now that often, it’s the daily, un-exciting, normal stuff that builds trust, comfort, and reliance in relationships. I don’t doubt that in a bit over a year I’ll come home and have all of this waiting. Again, I know that. So, in the meantime, how do I feel these pangs of longing—to be with the people who know me best?

Because here’s what is crazy—when I come home someday I’ll have these very same desires and heartaches for the people I have in Rwanda. I’ll want this back. Life is weird like that.

Oprah said once that “you can have it all—just not all at once”. Dad wrote in a recent letter, “enjoy your time in Rwanda, it will go quicker than you think.”

So, I held tightly to the photos of Lance, my family, my friends from all walks of life, but I also set them down so I could look at the newly printed photos of my students—this particular set from our recent GLOW camp. Photos are powerful stuff—that’s why I love them. They remind us of where and what we’ve been. They show us the people who mattered and they take us back to meaningful, fun, crazy, and memorable times shared. They also point to what we have now—our present reality—and where this can take us.

Suddenly, holding images of my girls here, my heart is stirred. I can’t imagine leaving this place. I can’t imagine not being here. I literally, for the first time, can’t imagine my heart, my life, my mind if I hadn’t somehow found myself exactly in this place at this season in my life. Homesickness doesn’t often disappear just because you decide you can handle it. It lingers, stuck in the corners of your mind and heart, rearing itself usually on not so great days. Still, those tears of sadness became dried and my face was replaced with smiles (sometimes life in Peace Corps really does make you feel bipolar) because God gives exactly what you need when you need it. I need those girls—all of my students, as much as they need me. I need this experience. Nothing can replace the love and life I have at home, but I suppose nothing can replace this either. Going to America would not suffice. I’m living a life—for just about a year now—without the strongholds that I had in my life up to this point. But, new strongholds are built, we do the best we can, and I’m making it. I can do this.

I’m teaching this motto of believing in yourself to my students, so I may as well take my own advice. I carry the people here and home with me, holding all of the strength inside, gearing up for another year of plantains, dusty chalkboards, long walks in the village, grass stains from football, and the hope that somewhere along the way I’m making a difference and helping somebody.

 Truth be told, I’ve been helped, loved, and changed far more than I could have even dreamed.

TOP 10 HIGHLIGHTS

Peace Corps: Year One

(I’m absolutely taking a cue from Sports Center here)

 *WILDCARD: NIGHT IN BELGIUM: After a jam-packed briefing in Philadelphia with my original Peace Corps group (called Education 3—the third education group to come to Rwanda), a bus ride to New York, and a flight to Europe, we missed our Kigali connection. This meant we had a free day and night in Brussels. We lucked out with a swanky hotel (courtesy of our airline) and vouchers for food (namely waffles and beer). Anxiety and goodbyes and anticipation had built up in my mind for weeks and so it was nice to have an escape; a time to relax  with my new colleagues and friends before the Peace Corps journey really got started.

 *10: SWEAR-IN: On a muggy December day, after a grueling 3-month training loaded with Kinyarwanda, cultural faux pas, and too much Rwandan food, we became official volunteers, graduating from being trainees. A dream finally becomes a reality for a lot of us. Myself included—after an application process that took over a year, I couldn’t believe the moment had finally come.

 *9: HENDRIX PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLARSHIP INTERVIEWS: I spent about 5 days helping Hendrix interview potential Rwandan students (the best in the country). I got much needed R &R (good and free food and skype dates with my friends and a nice stay in a Kigali hotel complete with a duvet set and cable television) but also had the opportunity to see the potential and opportunity for Rwandan youth—a powerful experience. Not to mention, I was able to connect with my beloved alma mater, a place and experience that is a huge part of me being in Rwanda in the first place.

 *8: CHOIR PARTY AT YVONNE’S HOUSE: Yvonne (who I call ‘Ingaby’ because her last name is ‘Ingabire’ which means ‘gift’) and her mother invited me to a house party for their church’s’ choir. I was there for nearly 7 hours—playing cards, eating, praying, taking photos, and watching the choir do their thing and dancing up a storm amidst the dry dust rising in the sky from their moving feet. Yvonne is a student of mine, but when I’m with her and her mom, Solange, it’s like I’m a part of the family. Yvonne and I are really close; and we’ve been that way since I became a teacher here. Not only was watching their choir amazing (think GLEE, Rwanda style), it was just so comforting to feel that at home. It reminded me of a late-summer BBQ, with easy conversation, and good laughs. Sometimes, it really is the simple things in life.

 *7: GOING AWAY PARTY WITH MY HOST FAMILY: My host family—Emmanuel, Bernadette, Grace, Simon Pierre, and Dani—are one of the best Rwandan families I’ve met. Saying goodbye after three months of them putting up with this crazy girl (me) was heart-breaking but the party they arranged for me was sweet, sentimental, and heartfelt. We shared Fanta, my mom’s special cooking, and gifts. We reminisced about the great (and the awkward) moments (latrine trouble, knowing ZERO Kinyarwanda in the beginning, etc.) and promised to always be together, no matter what. 

 *6: RUGBY WITH JON: My friend Jon—who works with street children in Kigali (he is a volunteer from his church in England, not a Peace Corps Volunteer)—came to visit my village last week and brought a rugby ball along with him to our girls and community football practice. He showed them how to kick and pass, and I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard (literally falling down from doing so) for quite some time. The girls embraced the new sport; showing off their attempts at stealthy moves with Harlem Globetrotter-esque fake-outs and tackles. It really should have been taped because without a doubt, it would have gone viral and the whole world could have seen one of the most hilarious sports attempts ever.

 *5: KIBUYE: From what I’ve seen in Rwanda—and I’ve been to all provinces here—this part is the most beautiful. I visited Kibuye for the first time in April with Sara and Saara (who lives nearby) and between cooking macaroni and cheese (a staple in my diet), sipping coffee lakeside, and eating pizza as a rainstorm came in over and through the mountains, it was one of the most relaxing weekends I have had here.

 *4: GIRLS VOLLEYBALL WIN: In my first stint as a coach, I watched as our girls volleyball team beat the only other secondary school in our sector in the last point of the game. Maybe it was all the more dramatic with the mud and rain drenched in the nooks and crannies of our legs, arms, and hair, but it made for one hell of a victory. Screaming…hugs…emotion…all the beauty of sports in one moment. I couldn’t have been prouder.

 *3: TANZANIA: African road trip, beach time, friends, and street food. It was a vacation greatly needed…and Tanzania absolutely lives up to all of the hype.

 *2: HOME VISITS: the cornerstone of my life at site, vising my community, especially my students, is the source of a great deal of understanding, conversation, laugher, integration, and food. It’s not always easy or fantastic, but the visits that go well often go really well, opening doors (really unique doors, I might add) for me to become a part of families and to show my students and their loved ones that I am 100% invested in them and my job here. I’ve seen countless amounts of photographs, consumed way too much Coke, and have walked a lot of miles on sometimes dry, sometimes muddy, dirt roads. Without any question, it’s totally worth it.

 *1: GLOW CAMP: I’ve written about this, talked about this, and I could go on for a long time about it too. But I’ll keep it simple: this was absolutely my #1 highlight in my first year in the Peace Corps because I was completely in my element, a witness to the strength of a lot of young women who can be Rwanda’s next generation of leaders, and in just the 4 or 5 days that we had camp, I could see how lives can be touched and changed. It really works. It’s the perfect example of why I wanted to do Peace Corps—and why I will continue to do Peace Corps for another year. It was…the absolute best. Suzi called me after her own GLOW camp and said it herself: it was great, and it was such a positive experience. She also told me that she had a moment, sitting there and taking it all in, and realized that of course, this would be something that Heather loves, this is her “homeship.” We had an affirmation wall at camp where everybody could write notes of encouragement to each other. I have a few up in my house to push and motivate me on my more difficult days. They read:

 Heather, you are so fun, and I love how you care for me, how you show us that you are with us. Thank you so much for your good heart. GLOW is the best and now I have the self-confidence. I believe in myself. –Christine

 Heather, I love you soooo much because you are energetic, kind, make a lot of fun, and you have a beautiful smile. I like you. You are so fabulous. –Flaviah

 And maybe best of all (this one always brings me the biggest smile and makes me laugh):

Oprah, hello. I am Olive. I like you. Thanks for GLOW. –Olive

(I think Olive was a little confused about who was Oprah and who was Heather…?)

 1 year down. 14 months to go.

I’m ready, open, persistent, grateful, strong, and happy.

I’m exactly where I want to be, despite all things difficult.

Let’s do this.