Tag Archives: culture

NOW OPEN: Ruramira’s first and only library

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“Heather, today you make history in Rwanda.” – Divine

For the last week, when I haven’t been teaching, I’ve actually been going insane.

Not for the normal reasons (my reignited war with mice, for example, or perhaps dealing with children staring at me through my windows on a daily basis) but actually because I had been making final preparations to open the Ruramira Community Library.

I imagine it was maybe somehow simiilar to what planning other big events feels like–be it a wedding, an important ceremony, or some kind of celebration.
People are asking you a billion different questions every second.
You have to make small and big decisions on the spot.
And, you are in a constant state of stress while planning.

This project is over a year in the making. USAID and EDC (Education Development Center) presented this idea to Peace Corps at my group’s in-service training conference back in April 2012. I expressed interest (my community had no viable reading materials) and by May, I found myself at planning meetings in Kigali at EDC headquarters. The plan was to bring libaries to a variety of rural communities across Rwanda. These would be some of the very first libraries in the entire country, and their implementation was a part of a larger initiative called L3 (Language, Literacy, and Learning). This initiative is a 5-year program completely funded by USAID and technically supported by EDC. The statistic below is what tipped me over to have 100% buy-in with this project. Perhaps it would be difficult to do, perhaps it would even fail, but why not try? It’s books, y’all!

In Rwanda its been proven that those with a higher level of education earn more money throughout their life.

Level of education                                   Average earning
Primary school                          70% higher than individuals with no education

Lower secondary                      240% higher

Upper secondary                     440% higher

University                                    1600% higher

By no means was I setting out on a mission to eradicate poverty completely in my community with a set of books; however, I did see the obvious correlation between literacy, education, and an increased level of economic opportunity. Maybe my Backstreet Boys lessons (as fantastic and fun as they are) weren’t enough to encourage English use in the lives of my students, but my oh my, the possibilities with a library seemed endless. And even better, it wouldn’t be just for them. It would be for everybody. Everybody could read a book. Students, old people, young people, farmers, leaders, anybody. An equal-opportunity, opportunity.

For the first few months, along with a handful of other Peace Corps Volunteers, we mapped out how to start one of these things in our respective communities: how do we inform and mobilize our communities? How do we make a library commitee? How can we ensure sustainability? How do we operate and organize the books?

By that summer I was working with our local leaders to find a place and a plan for our library. Eventually, it is hoped to make this library mobile, but for now, our focus has been establishing one library center. It’s located on our school grounds (thank you, headmaster) with a small office where the books are shelved and an adjacent room for reading.

The books were delivered in October 2012 and inventoried in November. Early 2013 was spent working to acquire shelves and once they arrived, I spent hours creating a system to process the collection (not only making an inventory but leveling the books as well). We have 1,186 books. Mostly they are in English, but we also do have a Kinyarwanda set. It took some creative brainstorming, but after some time I was able to create as sound of a system as I could think of: the books are divided by language and then by level. Kinyarwanda has 6 levels; English has 9. Additionally, we have a chapter book section and a life skills section. All are organized alphabetically and every book has a special color and number code to help track the books upon check-out. I have years of watching my mother organize things to thank; it was definitely her genes kicking in.

Each person who comes to the library is registered with a library card. They can submit this card upon check out, and the librarian records the book code that they take and they keep the card until their book is returned. We’ll see how it actually goes, right? It’s obviously still going to be in the experimental phase in that we are going to see what works and what doesn’t. It took the help of 3 other volunteers, over 20 hours of work, and lots of back pain to code all of the books. To all the librarians out there: RESPECT.

So yesterday was our big day; it was the launch! Media outlets and high government officials were due to come out for our celebration, but the rain (all 7 straight hours of it) kept them away. No matter, our news story was released to the press and many of my students later heard it on one of the major radio stations in the East, called Radio Izuba (‘Izuba’ meaning ‘Sun’). We had many speeches during our program (I chose to give mine in Kinyarwanda actually, and Divine later told me that I only made three mistakes, making my marks, in her opinion, an 8.5 out of 10. Let’s be real though, the girl is a bit biased!) and we had dancing, and of course, reading. Two old men from my village read a book in Kinyarwanda and our school president read a book in English. I purchased fantas (as per cultural norm) for the commitee after the party. As we locked the library up and packed our things, I sighed with major relief. We did it! The hard part, perhaps, is over. Now, it’s just about the reading. Our library slogan is this (and printed in our huge sign):

DUSANGIRE UMUCO WO GUSOMA.
We share the culture of reading.

It’s time to celebrate, sit back, relax, and read a good book.

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some leaving, some coming home

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You should be warned that as I write this, I am LUIDW. That is, Living Under the Influence of the Developed World.

What exactly, you might ask, does this entail?

It means, most importantly, that I can take a hot bath whenever I want. Bubble bath included. 1, 2, 3 times if I so please. Number two, I can drink clean water from the tap. Unlimited clean water, bring it on. LUIDW has also propelled and compelled me to at times whilst in England drink 5 cups of coffee in one day, not because I need it, but because I want it (and I can!). Cappachinos? Lattes? I’m sorry, you can add flavored syrup? Where have you been all of my life? (and by life, I of course mean the past 20 months or so, I haven’t completely forgotten the magical powers of America in my first 23 years.)

LUIDW can provide great joy. Not because of all the STUFF (this tends to actually make decisions difficult and results in a sort of sensory overload) but because you can be easily impressed. The electricity works! The dishwasher is readily available! The tea cooks in 3 minutes! Wow, this internet is fast! Hey girl, look at all of these kinds of apples!

Getting around is a lot smoother too. Cars, trains, whatever, it comes on time. The roads are for the most part quite nice and maintained.

Oh! And the toliets….don’t even get me started.

LUIDW = a very easily entertained, pleased, happy, and grateful Heather.

Certainly, the added benefits of traveling while a Peace Corps Volunteer has reaped me significant reprieve also because I’m NIR.

(Perhaps Peace Corps is rubbing off on me a bit much with all my acronyms here, as they are notorious for all of their own acronyms; for example, PCMO (that mean Peace Corps Medical Officer, our doctor), MSC (Mid-Service Conference, the conference we do at the mid-point in our service), and CD (Country Director, the leader in charge of all operations in a given country that Peace Corps works in). Believe me, that’s just the beginning of a very long list that acts very much so as its own language and lingo.)

But like I was saying, I am NIR and this refers to Not In Rwanda.

This brings about special breaks and pleasures that are unique to the Rwandan Peace Corps experience.

For all the joys in LUIDW, I have also been able to go walking on the street–any street–and move about completely unnoticed. Nobody cares who I am, nobody cares where I am going.

Maybe best of all, nobody screams out the English translation of “White person! White person! White person!” as if I already didn’t know my skin color.

I don’t have to speak Kinyarwanda 24/7 and I don’t hear people whispering (good or bad) about me when I pass by.

I can eat in public, I don’t have to carry everything in a bag upon purchase and I can wear a dress that reaches above my knees and not feel a single twinge of guilt.

If I got asked for spare change it wasn’t just because I’m a white person, people appeared to make few assumptions about me, and moving around in general was significantly much easier.

The state of NIR is both relieving and weird; unfamiliar and welcome; relaxing and strange. I mentioned the positive sides of NIR above, but of course, after 20 months of constantly trying to integrate into Rwandan culture, it struck me as odd that not every single person says hello to each other, that people don’t care where I pray (because the assumption is that all people do), and of course, why people just move so much quicker than I remember! Just because I’m NIR doesn’t mean I don’t love Rwanda, you know.

The developed world isn’t perfect– I’m not that misguided, y’all–but I sure can appreciate the conveniences a lot more, that’s for sure.

But I’m going to be real here.

The hot baths and tap water withstanding, I don’t credit LUIDW or NIR for providing the kind of peace that I’ve found in my 12 days in England. Absolutley, it’s been amazing, and it’s helped, but “recharging your batteries”, so to speak, isn’t enough to mend a frazzled and frayed spirit.

Moreover, all of the things that I did while visiting–a spur of the moment trip to Paris, walking through parks, having tea parties, ending my pub-virginity, hitting the gym, watching Rob Bell speak live, getting a hair-cut, perusing Oxford, and exploring the historic sites of London, to name a few–are now incredible memories that helped me feel alive, light-hearted, and free. They allowed me to feel, I dont know, normal? If there is such a thing. But, these activities alone wouldn’t have been enough either.

More than anything, it was being able to do all of the things that I listed above with one of the most important people in my life, Michelle.

Michelle and I were fast friends at Hendrix and after graduation with her wedding and move to England and my move to Rwanda for the Peace Corps, our lives, quite literally, went in separate directions.

But, the best thing about friendship, I think, is that no matter time or distance, you are always binded together. At least with the really, really good ones.

So, when I saw Michelle (for the first time in a year and a half) at the waiting area at Heathrow after my flight from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (Michelle and I say “Addis A-bo0-boo”; classy, I know), I could have been in any country, state, or county in the world and I would have been happy.

Michelle and Jon, her Manchester City-golf-ice pop-lovin’ husband opened their home to me for nearly two weeks. They gave me free reign to “make myself at home” and I usually have no fear in doing so, and with them, it felt completely natural. I was jogging pretty English roads, trying to learn street names, and always trying to learn new English lingo (“chav” and “cheeky” are my most recent acquisitions). Staying at the home of really great people, and in the home of your best friend is definitely the way to travel.

Last night, as we prepared to watch Julie & Julia, I hunkered down on the uber-comfortable red couch with the comforter from the guest bedroom along with a glass of sparkling water and my PJs.

“This is why you are here,” Michelle said with a contented smile.
“Oh you know girl, whatever I can do to provide entertainment,” I laughed back, thinking she meant I was being a goober having removed the comforter completely from the upstairs bed.
She chuckled for a second and then quickly corrected my misinterpretation,
“Um. No. I mean because you live in Rwanda, Heather!”

Oh. Rightttt. I’m here, to chill out and to enjoy the comforts that come with a cozy home.

Michelle was right, that was one of the reasons why I came.

The best moments weren’t necessarily the big sights and beautiful views; it was driving around with Michelle in her car, seeing her life first-hand. It was reminiscing about the past, explaining our present lives, and contemplating the future. It was going on a “picnic” (it was freezing, y’all), sleeping in, sharing breakfast in the morning, skyping our friends, playing Monopoly, drinking wine, and visiting local coffee shops. It often is the simple things you know, and what usually matters most is who you are with.

So many of our conversations were interlaced with our experiences living in an entirely new culture. There were some similarities, some differences, but we certainly both had stories to share about the cultures we had arrived in.

Both of us found solace in what it’s like living in places heavily rooted in tradition. It’s how we have always done things is something we have both had to face head on as newbies.

In England, at a pub, Michelle tells me it is common for one person to buy a round. Then, another person will pitch in, and this continues through the evening. You should also remain quiet on the train station (if you are loud, you could be a dead give away as a potential American). The English value football, tea, and who doesn’t love the Queen?

I told Michelle about the complexity of Rwandan culture; of how getting to know people is a difficult (but entirely rewardable and beautiful) process. I tried giving examples from the families I have become a part of. I noted what it’s like being a celebrity of sorts in my tiny village. And of course had to highlight the importance of church. Praying, it’s just what you do.

It’s time to go, and of course, I’m sad, but there is so much comfort in having a friend who understands what it’s like to try and fit in such a radically different place. What’s better, is that sometimes in these exchanges of cross-culture, you realize that as crazy different as the world is, we’re all humans, right? And so, we’re different, but we’re linked too.

My favorite example is being at the pub with Michelle and two of her girl friends, Venetia, and Becky, both of who are in a study group with Michelle. Best of all, they are reading through “Bad Girls in the Bible” (what’s not to love about this?) and yet when we all met up, the time was spent discussing practical ways to clean the bathroom, what work has been like, and the latest hubby tales.

I sat there in awe. Because y’all, the women in my village meet up for Women’s Council every Monday afternoon for nearly 3 hours and discuss these very things. Of course, it’s not the same, but in a way, it is. And that’s maybe the most enlightening thing to take away from the way our world works. There’s so much we don’t understand, but when you try, you find micro examples of how God has connected us all.

It’s time to go, but there’s a reason to be brave and the reason is that we’re all held together, by some sort of grace, with God. He loves us and He will see us through everything; whether it’s coming or going, leaving or staying.

 

red-blooded American

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The first time Barack Obama became President of the United States of America I was with my friends, at Hendrix College, dressed in an homemade Obama/Martin Luther King Jr. themed t-shirt, and screaming YES WE CAN on and off the entire election night. Red, blue, and white confetti scattered the tables and floors, and the hosts of the party (held in our school ballroom adjacent to the old cafeteria) had set out placards for each table representing a different state with the given number of electoral votes. I remember there was food, and I remember anticipating the returns as they came in, but mostly, I remember the feeling of when it became official: Barack Obama was THE President of our country. My friends and I, man, we were so happy.

It’s no secret that Obama did particularly well that year with first-time voters, and he had quite the following at Hendrix. Granted, that’s not surprising given that Hendrix leans heavily to the left. Anyway, it was an important night in history, but also in my life. I realized what it felt like to have a voice in something that big, and what it felt like to take part in the civic process. Just a year or so prior to that, I had come to Hendrix with my Republican background, certain I wouldn’t stray or veer far from that. But never underestimate the human ability to change. There’s a lot of reasons why I crossed party lines, but I did. And so, I found myself emphatic with Obama Fever and thrilled that he was the man that would now represent our country.

The second time Barack Obama became President of the United States of America I was thousands of miles away from Conway, Arkansas, and far removed from the constant rum of news broadcasts providing the latest and most up-to-date information about each state and race. This time, there wasn’t any mass election party to go to, no opportunity to watch the concession and acceptance speeches, or any social networking to check in with. Lord knows that facebook was blowing up and if nothing else, I was glad to be away from the inevitable bickering via statues, comments, and updates on the most used social networking site in the world.

Instead, I was spending the night at one of my favorite students’ (Tuyisenge, one of my GLOW girls) house. She had cooked me dinner (mushy plantains, a meat sauce, and the most delicious cup of milk tea I have yet to taste in Rwanda) after I went to take fanta with her grandparents. They literally bought me 4 fantas that I downed quickly as we watched Rwandan worship videos on their phone and greeted the community members moving in and out of the small dimly light shop. After dinner, Tuyisenge and I got ready for bed. We’d be sleeping together on her mattress; her house has three rooms—one for her grandparents, a storage place, and the front room that is used as a place for Tuyisenge to sleep, for us to eat, and even to wash feet as Rwandans so love to do at least 5 times per day. She carefully set up for bed; she tucked a sheet in at each corner, added a layer of African fabric, and finally placed one last thin sheet on top. I made a final latrine trip before cozying into bed. We studied an old English exam for about an hour before turning off the petrol lamp lighting our room. I didn’t sleep much that night. I wasn’t really that cramped but between the sugar of four fantas, the thoughts racing through my mind, and having little support for my back, sleep was hard to come by.

When we woke in the morning, I knew that the election was over. I didn’t know which way it had gone, but inevitably, it was over (assuming we wouldn’t be having a repeat from Bush’s first election). Tuyisenge and I chatted about her dreams from the night before for a few minutes until her grandmother came trampling into the room just before 6:00 am.

Obama! Obama! Obama yatsinze! Imana ishimwe. Yegoooooo! Wooooooo.

Obama! Obama! Obama has won! God is happy. Yes! Woooo.

I cheered and smiled and felt relieved. What a funny way to get the news, I thought. We then listened to the news broadcast that confirmed his victory.

That was just the start of it too.

All day, and really for the next week, people from all over my community called, texted, and found me to congratulate America for Obama’s victory. That’s not the only thing though; often people would continue to comment how wonderful Democracy is in America. Without me having to say ONE word, I would follow along in Kinyarwanda as people talked about Romney’s concession speech and how all Americans can participate in these kinds of things. They would talk about peaceful transitions of power and how this kind of government really does work.

Inevitably, America was practically 50/50 when it came to this election, so there’s a lot of unhappy people out there. People that are worried about what a second term from Obama means for the economy, for social policies, and how this affects their day-to-day life. Absolutely, people are entitled to these worries, these questions, and these doubts.

If I needed any evidence to ensure that a good chunk of the American electorate was enraged, a simple login to facebook would suffice. I could only stay on facebook for approximately 2 minutes before I decided to turn my phone off. I was overwhelmed by the hatred-filled statuses and the mindless bickering on both sides. Seriously?

In the most perfect world, it wouldn’t be about Republicans and Democrats. It wouldn’t be about the polarization of the two-party system, and it wouldn’t be about why YOU are wrong or why YOU are right. Still, I can appreciate the process; while there’s a lot of debate about the sensibility and fairness of the electoral college, the fact that any American can go out and vote on election day is huge. Moreover, a candidate can win, another can lose, accept this, and our country remains peaceful. There’s no war. We move forward and do the best we can with our chosen leader. The government doesn’t rig the election, the government allows people to speak out against it, and the government follows some incredible documents (The Constitution and Bill of Rights) that stand for the people. This is a democracy after all, and while the government of America has its slew of problems, Americans should walk away from every election proud that we have the process, proud that we have a system set in place to allow the government to adequately and accurately represent the citizens and people it works for.

My mind was churning with this kind of sentiment all week. It was like I had become a red-blooded American, ready to tell anyone and everyone about our great country.

And still, I felt really sad a lot of this week, too. (this link describes perfectly the variance of my emotions on the daily: http://whatshouldpcvscallme.tumblr.com/post/33519467269/every-other-day)

Yes, I was happy with the results. Yes, I was appreciative of the really good aspects of our country. And yes, I was happy with a lot of the social victories in the recent election (with all of the new females in power and the Senate’s first openly gay representative). Yet, all I could think about was Tuyisenge’s house. Literally, her house has hardly anything inside. I couldn’t stop thinking about her life. For the 36ish hours that I was there, she filled her time cooking food, cleaning, and taking care of me. She’s a highly intelligent young woman with no fear (this is how Rwandans like to describe someone with a high level of confidence), and she’s going to continue her studies next year at a better school. She’s going somewhere, I think. But, as people were busy pointing fingers at each other in America, I watched as she washed her couple of pairs of shoes, set our food on a bucket to use as a table, and helped to take care of her family’s cows. I guess I just felt a really heavy and sudden dose of perspective and reality. The hardness of life here really set in this week, I think.

It made the election and all of the rhetoric and everything that goes with that somehow irrelevant. Not that it doesn’t matter, no, quite the opposite, it matters greatly. It’s just it’s hard to be in a reality that I’m unsure many Americans can visualize, understand, or even know about. I can write all the blogs in the world, post as many pictures as possible, and share stories, and yet, I can’t capture what it feels like to be here. I can’t capture that emotion—that experience—of watching someone I really love and care about (Tuyisenge) having to work so hard at tasks that Americans don’t really think twice about.

It upset me, I think, because as we listened to the election news on the radio all morning, I had that moment of wonderment: I’m rich. Tuyisenge is poor. Why? Why did the world work out this way?

I’m often embarrassed by my wealth here. I’m self-conscious about it. When my students come and visit me, I can feel them glancing around at my walls, seeing my plethora of photographs, and the many things that line my walls. Funny, because I have boxes and containers and still more boxes of stuff waiting for me at home in America, and yet everything in my home here is overwhelming for visitors that I have. I also hate how my status as a rich woman separates me. I’m lumped together with higher-up officials and it’s always this elephant in the room that nobody wants to address. At events where I would rather be in the crowd with my girls, I’m often found up in the front, in the chairs set out for leaders, because that’s what white skin and money can do for you. The kicker is that I’m a volunteer—I really don’t have that much money.

But in comparison, I do.

And so this brings me back to the election. I have heard and seen people complain and complain about the exact way Obama is going to ruin our country. But what they forget is to take a moment and grab a bit of perspective. See yourself as an American, within the context of the world. Think about what you do on a daily basis. Reflect on your blessings. Think about all the good things in your life. Before freaking out about the state of the United States government, give thanks where it is due, because there are people living in significantly worse conditions. I hate being that girl who says something along the lines of, “well, in Africa…” That’s not really what I’m getting at. My point is this: whatever you thought of the election, own it, feel it, and embrace it. But no matter what, give thanks that you have a government working for you. Give thanks for the life that you lead, give thanks for your blessings, and remember that the world is an incredibly beautiful and big place. 

People, of course around election time, always talk about the importance of being an informed voter. Read the news, read the history of the candidates, do your research, they say. This is crucial stuff. I agree whole-heartedly. But, I would encourage this kind of thing all year long, outside just the realm of politics, and much deeper in heart of the humanity. America is not the only representation of the world. Cultures, ideas, and histories run deep, and other parts of the world experience different lifestyles, challenges, and victories. While Peace Corps is an extreme way of trying to understand another culture by no means is it the only way. Read something. Talk to someone. Connect. I honest-to-God believe that attempting to understand the world can transform your life, the way you see things, and how you participate and contribute to your own country. 

fanta

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me and my love

For years growing up, you could bet cool green cans of Mountain Dew could be found in our big white refrigerator. If Y2K or our weekly soccer matches had taken precedent and the Dew was finished, no worries—cases could also be found in the back of dad’s Ford pickup. Dad was a legitimate Mountain Dew freak. Every 7/11 stop we made (a convenience store with the best slurpees in the world) was always associated with two kinds of things: some sort of cheese product for me, and Mountain Dew for Dad. It was just how things were, I suppose.

I remember when those very cases, bottles, and cans disappeared and Dad kicked his Mountain Dew habit. Apparently, pop isn’t the best thing for you, at least in those kinds of quantities. Not to mention, the Pepsi product, Mountain Dew, is loaded with a ridiculous amount of sugar and so that kind really isn’t good for you

Besides those days of that sugary lime-esque soda, pop was mostly absent as I grew up. If we had people over for a Broncos’ game or a typical American summer BBQ, you could certainly find some Coke products covered by ice in our cooler, but on a typical day in the Newell household, pop wasn’t much of a stronghold. Personally, I didn’t really like it that much anyway, so I was never bothered too much when my friends brought a can of soda with their brown bagged lunch. Between glasses of chocolate milk, water, or mom’s lemon iced tea, my thirst was almost always satisfied. So, when I fast forward well over 10 years and find myself in an unhealthy relationship with Coca-Cola, it’s rather difficult to pinpoint the roots. For so long, I hated pop. What happened?

And then, I remember. And I laugh because though I avoided pop for most of my life, I failed to understand the powers of Coca-Cola abroad. Turns out, they use real sugar and all sorts of other secret, magical things. Or so it seems.

My addiction started in Ghana, of all places.

I studied a semester my junior year of college at the University of Ghana-Legon. I use the term ‘studied’ leisurely, because a great chunk of my time was spent relaxing, working with some students who can’t afford to attend public school, traveling, and hanging out with my friends. Some days, we would all just sit in the courtyard area of our student housing and talk for hours—all day, even. While you could easily find juice or water on a hot, sunny afternoon to satisfy the thirst that sat in your mouth, it was almost always guaranteed that the pop would be the beverage of choice kept cold. Maybe the beer too, but it was hardly justifiable at 10:00 am. So, we drank Coke.

A small social thing at first, soon, we’d be structuring our social time in order to DRINK Coke. Sometimes, LITERS of it. Rachel, Paula, Taylor, and I—we were somehow obsessed. Once, in Benin, we cleared out the stock of  Coke a local motel had on hand. In one night only.

Rachel and I, both students at Hendrix, came back home and to school that year still glowing from what we called, “the sweet nectarine of life,” and would often reminisce of the joy of drinking our beverage of choice after dusty walks around Ghana. Sadly, cafeteria Coke or Walmart Coke just wasn’t the same—I still haven’t decided if it was the product or the place that made this so. Conway, Arkansas (home of Hendrix College, Toad Suck, and too many churches to name) has a local restaurant that serves Coke bottles imported from Mexico, and every now and then, we’d surprise each other with one of these bottles and instantly, our days would be made. Still, without the ever-present mix of Ghana and Coke, my fixation waned a bit.

Culturally, I had no idea what I was in for when I decided to accept my Peace Corps invitation to teach English in Rwanda. Without a doubt, this culture is highly complex because of its history, relationship with the world, and the religious influences that are infused everywhere. I can confidently say that I’ll never figure it out. Yet, I can proudly boast that I’ve come to understand, accept, and totally embrace one cultural fortress: FANTA. Fanta is everywhere in Rwanda and go ahead and take your pick: citron, fiesta, orange, coke, or sprite.

You know how in America when you visit someone you are welcomed with an often enthusiastic handshake or hug? Oh yeah, the same is true in Rwanda only you’ll also be immediately given a Fanta—or at least as soon as the prayer is over. The sometimes dusty and dirty (probably from it’s long voyage to way out here in the boonies) glass bottle is opened either with a run-of-the-mill bottle opener, the chair’s edge, or your host’s teeth. This is THE sign of hospitality, without question. To demonstrate the cultural importance of Fanta just a bit further, once I did an exercise with my students that put them in small groups. In their groups they had to decide what they would take to a deserted forest. I gave them the option of about 15 things and they could choose 4. Considering the small group choices, we developed an overall class list. The objects chosen were listed as follows (and in this order of importance):

1. A hoe (to cultivate)

2. Tea (with sugar)

3. Fanta

4. Matches

Mind you, there were other objects available for the picking, like pots, cooking tools, jerry cans, and the radio (another majorly important cultural object). And still, Fanta was on top of the list.

One time, I drank 7—yes, S-E-V-E-N Fantas—at a wedding. Weddings take the cake (literally) because tradition calls for families to share and exchange a 2-liter bottle of Coke (usually I see this happen and wonder how my friends and I drank Coke like we did back in our Ghana days) at the dowry ceremony. Once this happens and an ungodly amount of speeches are made, the guests are provided with a Fanta of their choice, housed in 4 x 6 red crates.

the glorious crate of cokes

Often, when running, I’ll hear a bicycle coming. I don’t know it’s coming because of the horn in front of the rider, the sliding of the bike chains, or the squeaky brakes rubbing against the various metals. I know the bicycle is coming because the glass bottles held in the back of the rider are clinking and banging together as they soar over the village dirt roads. Yes, even in the most rural of areas, there is Fanta. Best of all, they currently cost 300 RWF (Rwandan Francs). That’s just about 50 cents. How awesome is that?

To relax, people drink Fanta (or often beer, but that’s an entirely different story). Once a term, our hearty and Coke-loving headmaster takes us to a hole in the wall place (this is not an exaggeration) and we sit out back waiting as goats are bought, killed, and cooked so we can enjoy brochettes and cooked banana as a side to our Fanta. This little experience is called our teacher “motivation.” Hey, works for me.

Most recently, I went to visit one of my favorite students, called Tuyisenge, and spent the night. Tuyisenge spoiled me with delicious hot milk brewed with tea and herbal yummy-ness and with plantains (my favorite Rwandan food). Besides making me feel right at home and taking care of me completely for the night, Tuyisenge’s grandparents also went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to Fanta hospitality. Let’s just say that as I write this, I’m experiencing what I like to call a “Fanta hangover.” Basically, in less than 20 hours, I somehow consumed 9 different fantas. The rounds just kept coming. Her musaza and muchechuru (old man and old woman; to refer to grandparents) took me to a nearby boutique where we watched Rwandan worship videos as they drank banana beer and I was consistently given at least one Fanta for each hand. I think the end count went something like this: I had 3 Cokes, 4 Orange Fantas, and 2 Fanta Citrons. Now, I’m lying in bed, recovering, and quite certain this is what being hungover from Fanta feels like. In the moment, it was grand. Now, however, I may have to take a 1 or 2 day hiatus from the likes of Fanta. But, I’ll be back to my ways shortly. This I am sure.

As I’ve been encountering all this Coke culture in a small African country, Rachel has been exploring graduate school world at MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University) getting her master’s degree in public history. I remember the day, nearly 6 months ago, when I got a phone call from her exclaiming that she had landed the summer internship with the Coca-Cola archives. I was visiting my nearest town to run errands, to check my email, and to grab a cold Coke. I was jumping up and down as I exited the internet café to take her call; I was so happy and proud of her. And hey, not only was it a great opportunity, we couldn’t help but wonder how much access she would be having to Coke products that summer.

Oh. Did that girl ever have quite the access! While she didn’t come away with any secret recipes (as least none that she has let on to having) she told me legendary tales of the Coke vending machines at headquarters in her office in Atlanta where you could basically choose any kind of Coke product that you wanted—even other kinds of drinks that Coke owns, like Odwalla, for example. She worked on projects, visited California, and made trips to different plants. She even went to intern meetings and staff meetings where she’d be in the same room as the CEO. It was pretty cool stuff, as I understand it.

I think Rachel did manage to walk away with a strong sense of how Coke really is everywhere in the world. You don’t really notice at first, I think, but when you take a look around, man, it’s just in every small corner. It’s in every country except for like two. Oh, and there are hundreds of bottle types, apparently. I think Coke is THE most recognized English word—oh wait. It might be second to Jesus. That’s quite a feat.

So, what exactly is it about Coke?

For me, working as a teacher in a small, rural village, I can certainly tell you that most of my neighbors and community members have a strong and passionate love for all things sugar. In my tea, for example, they might try and put 4 or 5 tablespoons of that stuff. Seriously. So, with Coke, sugar is definitely a factor.

But, is it really all about the taste? Because yeah, it’s tasty. But so are a lot of drinks: tea, coffee, juice, and milk.

Fanta is kind of revered as a league of its own.

Maybe there really isn’t one reason in particular, it just is what it is.

It’s a really amazing and intriguing experience to visit a subsistence farmer based family who is barely making ends meet, who might have only a table and a small bench when it comes to furniture, and yet will still spend the 300 RWF for a Coke (or two) to give to me as their guest. Because it’s important to remember, I realize, that for some people, 50 cents does hold a lot of weight when it comes to money. And yet, so powerful is Fanta as a symbol for hospitality that these families hardly think twice.

I think what it comes down to is this:

The culture of Rwanda, while unbelievably complicated, is all about visiting people you love, sharing things with your neighbors, and engaging completely in a communal experience. It’s a giving culture, and it just so happens that a glass bottle full of sugar and god-knows-what happens to represent and manifest that homey-ness. Rwanda—or more precisely, the village—lacks a lot of options for drinking. You can go to the nearest boutique in my village and if you are thirsty you can purchase one of the following: a Fanta, a beer (a pre-packaged bottle or the local banana brew if you so wish), a weird orange juice concoction, or bottled water. Mixed with the tendency of conservatism, especially in the rural areas, beer is sometimes looked down upon by the church. And so, you have Fanta. It’s as if Rwanda is a country where all the elements work in sync that allow a culture of Fanta to grow and thrive. It’s tasty, it’s everywhere, and why not?

I think one of the total pluses of being a 2nd year volunteer here in my village is this: people know I like Coke. And so, here’s the thing: now when I go to visit community members, often the Coke is already sitting on the wooden table, waiting for me to accept it, own it, and drink it in like 14 seconds flat. Good neighbors? I THINK YES.

Coke, I’ve noticed, has advertised Open Happiness as a slogan to conquer the world—ahem—to sell their product. I remember I first read that catch phrase and kind of wanted to roll my eyes. Now? Well, I kind of whole-heartedly agree. It’s the power of Coke culture, I suppose.

enjoying the Obama bar with COKE themed place settings

like rwanda, tanzania has a strong love affair with coke.

soundwaves

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I have received 25 packages and a multitude of letters over the last 10 months; yes, I sure am a blessed young woman. These packages have come from back home, all over the great United States of America, and from other corners of the world, like England and Ghana. I get an anxious-tingling feeling every time I make the hour-ish long trip to the post office: what will that blue and red US postal box hold this time? What letters will await me? I usually wait until I get back home–sweaty, dirty, and happy–to open my mail. I’ve gotten some of the best things that have made me feel loved, at home, and downright reassured that I’m not alone in this thing. Some of the highlights have been:

  • a red and black french press (I use this baby every. single. day.)
  • save the date cards for my friends’ weddings
  • MACNCHEESE (you can never have enough. life theory #54)
  • pictures of grandma and I that she had in her own photo collection
  • christmas decorations (even a Christmas tree!)
  • Mickey stuffed animal (I have a soft spot for this Disney icon after our trip to Disney last summer)
  • FRIENDS episodes on a flash drive
  • an external hard drive for my extensive media collection (PCVs have more boot-legged shows and movies than you could even imagine)
  • chopsticks????? (this one always makes me laugh. thanks dad)
  • pancake mix and aunt jemima syrup
  • velveeta (you don’t want to know how fast it took me to consume this block of fake cheese)
  • doritos (I forgot how good cool ranch really is)
  • coffee mug from Starby’s with a Colorado theme
  • highly successful glue mouse traps (the mice have left the building, my friends!)
  • arnold palmer mix
  • cards for all occasions (I love greeting cards. my secret dream is to write for hallmark. seriously.)
  • yoga pants (I’ve added an entirely new dimension to zumba. believe me.)
  • olive oil (if you’re going to cook with oil, you may as well try and be healthy with it!)
  • candles (more than just for romantic evenings….this is how I SEE at night)

Everything that arrives to BP 14 in Kibungo warms my heart. So seriously, thanks. Care packages and letters remind me that I have love, prayers, and support all over the world and in turn, encourages me in difficult moments that I indeed, can do this.

Besides love from back home, there’s other things that help me feel connected to the “outside world”. An outside world, indeed, it can feel as such sometimes. For about two weeks straight recently, I didn’t leave site at all–my computer sat above my desk, hidden under papers, dead, and I didn’t check my email, nor did I leave to go to the bank. I was completely immersed in things happening in my village. If America had succumbed to anarchy I wouldn’t have had a clue, if Lady Gaga birthed a child I would have missed it completely, and if the Mayans decided to move up their date for the end of the world, well, I would have been the last to know. And so, recalling my friend Sara’s advice–get a radio, it’s amazing–I invested about 10 dollars of my monthly stipend to purchase a Sonitec short wave black radio from a nearby boutique. Batteries included. I walked home proudly: my community was so excited for me!

Rwanda has one of the highest rates of radio usage in the world–add it to the list of chai, church, greetings, and dancing as an important cultural element. My village gets quiet around 6:30 or 7:00. Sometimes, when I lie in bed at night, at the late hour of 8:30 or something, I hear nothing but the thickness of silence and Kinyarwanda gospel songs coming from my neighbors’ radio. 10 months in, I’m a little late to the take, but hey, better late than never, right? I got me a trusty ole’ radio–my cultural immersion continues.

And my, I’m OBSESSED. The radio runs on 2 large D batteries, and I have a feeling I will through those babies pretty darn quickly. If I’m home, my radio is probably on. My friend Fidele once said that radio was so great because, “even if you are alone, you don’t feel that way when you can hear songs, broadcasts, and news from around the world.”

Preach it, Fidele, because holy moly, I’m a convert. Voice of America and the BBC station are my favorite channels (go figure–ENGLISH speaking) but I can listen to Kinyarwanda stations and be perfectly happy. Voice of America (104.2 FM) has a lovely blend of news, and get this, new and old songs. So, on a program they have called Border Crossings or Acoustic Cafe (this Sunday’s theme was songs about Route 66–classic America), I can hear old Motown hits and also hear the latest from singers like Demi Lovato or Old Crow Medicine Show. I just heard “I Won’t Give Up” from Jason Mraz this morning over coffee, loved it, and now am listening to it on repeat on youtube (because even the stars, they burn…we got a lot to learn, God knows we’re worth it). It’s so nice to hear new songs (even if they aren’t SUPER new to people back in the States) because I don’t feel so far away. In miles and in culture. More importantly, maybe, is that I am actually up to date on the world. Saudi Arabia is sending two women to the Olympics, the US lifted economic sanctions on Burma, Mitt Romney visited an NAACP conference in Houston, Texas, Syria is a complete mess, South Sudan’s independence hasn’t really solved a lot of problems, there was a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, and Kate Middleton is still lovely as ever.

I never quite realized how important news is to me, but I really think being informed on the latest in the world is important–even if it errs on the depressing side.That’s what music is for!

My music from my radio (I call it ‘Teddy’; I have a terrible habit (or is it sickness?) of naming inanimate objects…) is blaring, my mocha flavored coffee is hot, and I’m packing. Me and the girls (Suzi, Sara, Catie, and Meredith) leave Kigali for Zanzibar on Tuesday. (!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

We’re busing is which will take nearly 30 hours–one way. I’m not packing Teddy the radio, and instead am shoving and throwing my journal, handfuls of books, my camera, and sleep medication (come on. that’s a long time to be on a bus) into my bags. I’ll be back in about a week and a half, and though I’ll be sad to say goodbye to beaches, Kilimanjaro, and an epic road trip upon my return, I can at least turn on Voice of America or a local pop station and relax with some classic music and news. I never imagined a radio of all things could make me so happy. But, hey, life’s funny like that.

Bon voyage.

what I’m busing 30 hours for. totally worth it.

home visits

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I knew I was onto something when upon entering Samson and Dative’s home, their mother started jumping for joy (quite literally) and passionately—almost abrasively—praying to good ole’ Imana (that’s God here in Rwanda). Over and over again she kept repeating thanks to God for my presence and asking for Him to bless the conversation we were about to partake in. Sarcastically (in my head of course), I thought about the inevitable awkward silences that come with home visits and that God should probably bless the lulls in addition to the actual conversation too. I chuckled to myself, momentarily realizing two very important things:

  1. If that’s what it takes to make me laugh these days, I’m concerned about what living out in the village is doing to my humor. And,
  2. It’s actually quite likely that the silences aren’t awkward at all. And yet, because I’m American, and a loud and yappy one to boot, quiet moments are confusing to me, and inherently the social situation feels and becomes awkward.

Like I said, Mama Samson was euphoric. Her home, from what I could gather, is a muddish-concrete-gravel mix with give or take 3 rooms. They have an outdoor kitchen, maybe around 4 total square feet. Their home sits well off the bigger dirt road through town; they live at the cusp of a downhill mountain and so they are about as isolated as you could be in my village, which given the extraordinary high population density of Rwanda, isn’t saying much.

I sat on a long wooden bench that is common for Rwandans to have (if they have furniture—given the nature of a communal culture, most do have at least one place for guests and residents to sit) and of course, looked intently through a bundle of photos. Home visits have become something of a habit for me as of late and I have it down to somewhat of a science (as much as it really could be):

 Steps to a successful Rwandan home visit:

  1. Pray
  2. Attempt dialogue
  3. Ask about photos
  4. Look at photos
  5. Compliment photos
  6. Attempt dialogue
  7. Pray
  8. Eat
  9. Attempt one more bout of dialogue
  10. Hear speech about gratitude of your visit
  11. Offer some words about the happiness you feel about your visit
  12. Hear another speech
  13. Pray
  14. Finally, you are escorted out of the home, and accompanied to the road—a core Rwandan social tenet.

Depending on the family, visits can take 1-4 hours. Yet, there is that occasional family that will make such a hoorah of your presence that you will arrive back home 5 to 6 hours after you left. That’s not including travel time.

Samson and Dative are in my Senior 2C class (they are brother and sister) and both ranked in the top 10 students of their class last term: Samson was number 2 and Dative was number 8. They asked if I could come and visit and according to my newly developed home visit policy (which you should know, I developed in my head a few days ago and is by no means a publicly broadcasted rule of thumb), if they ask, I go.

I have done around 20 student home visits—a large chunk of these in the past couple of weeks. A mix between the cultural emphasis of visiting, my interests in social work, as well as getting to know my students outside the classroom (the confines of a classroom wall, I have found, are rather limiting—there is far too much to know about them than can be learnt in a classroom context) that has motivated me to be available to my students outside of the school hours of 7-2. I’ve visited students all over my sector—I’ve been to parts of all 4 administrative cell areas—and have gone as far as some 5-10 km to going merely across the street from my lovely turquoise-blue trimmed abode.

There is something quite transcending, I suppose, about seeing where a person comes from. Some of my students have hard-working, close-knit families. Some don’t live with families. Some don’t have families. Some live in broken homes. Some live in homes with few problems. Some live in violent homes. A select few are “rich” by the standards of my village in Eastern Rwanda; maybe they have cushions to accompany their wood framed furniture, a painted house, or multiple cows. However, the vast majority are poor. I imagine that many families maybe make around 500 USD per year—and that’s for everybody included. Yet, the beautiful thing about my situation is this: I live among poverty and thus might be better able to address it. More so, I don’t look at my students and their families and see poverty as the defining characteristic of who they are. Many of them certainly do about themselves—almost always I hear a comment about them having no money, about them being poor. I see them as people. I can’t stress this enough: by no means do I intend to romanticize the extreme poverty around me. The noble savage is not what I’m getting at. Simply, because my community members are people that I have relationships with, I don’t perceive them as a project or another social case. Anyway, the point of all this is to say that more than anything, the best part of this home visit business is that I’m grasping a deeper sense of purpose in my role here, and that after 6 months at my site, feelings that I have for people, especially my students, are intensely real.

Okay. That might sounds similar to a one-on-one date interview off The Bachelor or some other ridiculous (and addicting) reality show, but I do mean it.

I didn’t even know how much I cared until last week.

It was Thursday—our market day—and after school I found Maisara working out the quadratic formula on the black board with a couple of other students. Maisara is a beautiful, healthy, big smile, energetic kind of girl. She was the one who became vice-student dean this past February when the onslaught of Girl Power became a thing here with my girls. I approached her with a hand on her shoulder and asked if today was a good day for me to visit. Her sister, Zahara, a senior 1 student full of intellect, spark, a bull-dog attitude on the football pitch, and a gregarious laugh, had insisted that I visit sometime soon. Thursday was a clear day for me mid-afternoon so I figured it would be a good day to go and see them and their home. Maisara suggested there wasn’t any problem and we left school together, passing the cows, the primary students, and recalling the events of the day. I asked to stop at my house to drop my heavy books and presumed she would follow. She didn’t. And when I came outside my gate, she was gone. Assuming she went on to notify her parents or something, I kept walking. And walking. For 2 hours, in one direction. People kept telling me to continue and so I did. Yet after fruitless assistance from a sweet old woman, I turned back a little peeved and aghast that my entire afternoon was wiped. Not to mention I was profusely sweating, had walked into the next sector, and was exhausted from the combination of walking, doing a run earlier that morning, and teaching all day. Would I even make it to market on time? Would I make it to market at all? I huffed and puffed for a while until at the turn of the road, where a large band of trees meets the edge of a cliff, I saw a young girl running. Maisara! And Zahara! They threw their arms around me apologizing profusely.

“Heather! Heather! Please please forgive. Ah, we are so sorry. Sorry. Please forgive! Forgive me.”

I didn’t even know the reason, but they were long forgiven. I couldn’t be mad at these girls. Impossible.

We started walking up a notoriously steep Rwandan hill when everything kind of flooded our conversation at once. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

In sentences and broken phrases full of Kinyarwanda and English (and a lot of heavy breathing) the girls told me that they are in the process of switching homes. Their dad, as they put it, is “a very bad man.” He consistently beats their mother and even his children and is also a community problem—in a part of the village, I am told, that is full of not so great people. This was all from them, like I said, and so I don’t know what the details are, but I don’t question them for a minute. I would later receive confirmation that the information about him beating his family is in fact true, and that some of our school officials are aware of the problem. Now they’re living with their grandmother but are facing the problem of school feels (their mother is a subsistence farmer and makes little money, and it appears their father contributes little to their well-being; it appears, in fact, that he does quite the opposite). I listened with my mouth wide open.

The story isn’t new to me. No, I’ve faced challenging situations dealing with abuse in many different contexts and experiences—in Ghana as a teacher for children who couldn’t afford to go to school, as an intern at The Gathering Place in Denver, and at the homeless shelter in Conway, Arkansas, the Bethlehem House. Yet, not only is this striking a more personal note (I love these girls), it simply surprised me to the core. These girls—some of my best students—are victims of violence? Tears welled in my eyes. It’s not as though I didn’t believe this was happening to any of my students…it’s just…I guess I didn’t fully comprehend it can really happen to anyone, even the best and the brightest.

They walked me to the market (after treating me to the universal sign of love: a Coke) and asked me to come next week, this time to meet their mother and grandmother. I agreed without any hesitation. They giggled with delight and we started to talk about my family back home. Sensing their interest, I asked if they wanted to talk with my mom from America—they squealed with joy and agreed enthusiastically. They laughed when they heard mom’s voice and repeatedly said, “Heather is my friendy.” When mom ended our conversation with, “I love you honey,” their eyes opened wide. Had they heard that before? Had people told them that they loved them?

Today at one of our inter-class football scrimmages, I watched as Maisara in a black knit sweater dominated the field. She was everywhere! She even scored 2 goals and carried her class to victory over an upper level class. I felt like a proud mom or something. My heart was just so content to watch her play with such joy, conviction, and determination. I cheered, clapped, and yelled, because that’s the job here I take pride in the most. Teaching is beyond important and learning English is essential as Rwanda develops and becomes integrated as the leader of the East African Community (EAC) where the official language is English. However, being an agent of change starts with being a person who loves.

Martin Luther King Jr. talked a lot about love—who doesn’t?—and he lived a life within the Civil Rights Movement that exemplified being an extremist of love.

I want to be that for my students, if nothing else. To realize such a purpose is daunting and yet, completely invigorating. Love is what really matters, and it’s what has really mattered all along.

Suzi made a book for my birthday this last January—it’s called the Komera (‘be strong’) Book full of inspirational sayings, stickers, and colors for when I’m needing encouragement (love. her.). The one that is pushing me forward as I aim to be a supporter and mentor for my students is this little gem from Confucius:

Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

I can’t stop the violence here single-handedly. I can’t rebuild broken homes. I can’t expect to make things better simply because I’m American or simply because I want to.

But, at the very least, I can be here, and I can love. I can love my students, remind them that they do matter and that no matter what happens, I’m here for them. To me, that’s the best job you could ask for. It’s the job I wanted in the first place, and the job I want to continue to have as long as I’m willing and able. And so, that’s why I do the home visits in the first place: they matter. The students matter. And that’s something far more important for them to learn than any subject you will find in the school curriculum.

words of wisdom from the old man on the bus

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“What an opportunity–to live in Africa, to have your own small piece of this incredible continent…it’s different. And for you, probably very difficult, coming from America. But, you’ll see. You’ll leave and want to come back. Rwanda is a special place. And you are doing good work. Yes, what an opportunity.”

Do you believe that sometimes, instead of our dearest and closest loved ones, it’s actually complete strangers who gives us tidbits of extraordinary wisdom that we didn’t even know we were looking for?

I do. 

I heard this encouraging and perspective-loaded sentiment from an old man with a white beard on a bus. Typical, right?

I had picked up a package from Jessica, did my weekly internet, and was meandering home. I recognized the guy who runs the internet cafe on the large white express bus (I usually pay the extra 50 cents for the more spacious and expedient transport) and amidst explaining how I was participating in the Kigali Peace Marathon at the end of May, the old man next to me asked why I liked to run. Before I knew it, this very old Rwandan man (en transit from Arusha, Tanzania)–who resides full time in Vancouver as an oil businessman–was speaking all the right words in all the right places. He went on at length about how Africa is a unique place–there is nowhere in the world like it, he said. He actually reminded me a lot of one of my new favorite authors, Alexander McCall Smith (thanks to TL Brown who sent me two of his books!).

Smith has an entire fictional series called the Ladies No.1 Detective Agency (I WOULD like something like this…) that centers around the only woman detective in Botswana. The series is wonderfully mysterious, but what I enjoy most is his beautifully worded insights on African culture. And he would know. He was born in what is now Zimbabwe and has spent most of his life between Scotland and parts of Southern Africa. He somehow captures the continent with just enough grace and truth, without overgeneralizing or over-idealizing (as it can be easy to do). 

“….I think I can say that I had never been happier in my life. We had found a country where people treated one another well, with respect, and where there were values other than the grab, grab, grab which prevails back home. I felt humbled, in a way…people suffered here, and many of them had very little, but they had this wonderful feeling for others. When I first heard African people calling others–complete strangers–their brother or sister, it sounded odd to my ear. But after awhile I knew exactly what it meant and I started to think the same way…I was learning lessons. I had come to Africa and I was learning lessons.”

Strangely, I read this from Smith’s book Tears of the Giraffe the same day the man on the bus exclaimed at what a blessing I have in living and working in Rwanda. The world appears to be aligning, and so this week I’ve found myself in a spirit of gratitude for where I live, the people I live with, and the job I get to do. I could write forever and a day on the challenges and difficulties, and often, the frustrations as an American in Rwandan culture (why are you staring at me? why are you touching my hair? why are you laughing as I try to speak your language…). This whole living in Africa thing has already been one of the most difficult things that I’ve done in my life. I’m so far from the people I love, I’m alone, and I’m an outsider. However, it’s been equally rewarding. When you open your eyes, really open them, you began to really see. 

  • I love the way Rwanda wakes up. As day breaks, and yellow and oranges filter in through my wood window, goats and cows move even before the farmers manage to get out the door. I know it’s time to leave bed when babies start crying. If it’s a school day, I roll out around 5:30. On weekends, all bets are off–I may just play it lazy and stay curled in my sheets until–GASP–8:00 am. 
  • I love the way old women greet…and hug…and well….everything they do. I’ve joked that on my bad days, it’s the old mamas that have kept me here. They often wear the most mis-matched African fabrics; they’ll put oranges, blacks, pinks, and yellows together with an assortment of crazy patterns and yet, it looks like a perfectly constructed outfit. Hello, African fashion. Their hands, especially if they are farmers (which, in my village, most are) are caked with the brown soil of earth and show all the signs of aging. This usually contrasts greatly with their faces; some of the oldest mamas don’t look all that old; they have this vibrancy that shines outwardly for all to see. They look you in the eye when grabbing you to say hello and when they smile, you can just feel their spirit. Occasionally, a tooth (or several) will be missing, or the brownish-yellow sorghum will line their gums, but warmness undoubtedly engulfs you in their embrace. When I’m running and don’t usually stop for hugs (if I did, I would never be in shape) they hold both hands in the air as if praising God, and exclaim, “yes, mama!” That’s right. Mama. Like I said, LOVE THEM. 
  • I love the kids. This isn’t particularly Rwandan specific, but absolutely nothing beats seeing some of my favorite kiddos on the road. They’ll scream (seriously) “IMPANO!!!‘, run like it’s the last day on earth, and when they get close, I say, “yambi’ (Swahili for ‘hug’) and they fall right into you. Baracka, my neighbor and 3 year old bestie, specifically, is the cutest kid there ever was. I could right a book about how great he is and it still wouldn’t do justice for what he’s like and what it’s like being with him. He wears this old Cars shirt, talks at the speed of lightning (I understand abotu 6% of what he says), and smiles endlessly. I can’t believe how adorable he is: currently he’s in Kindergarten and learning some serious English vocabulary. This includes words like, fingers, table, milk, cow, and head. We practice. A lot. His parents joke that he’ll come to America with me. All I want to say is seriously, YES PLEASE.
  • I love ichai and plantains. I drink at least 2 cups a day. And, among my group of education volunteers, I was awarded the following superlative: Most likely to win an igitoche (plantain) eating contest. Enough said. 
  • I love visiting people. Besides football, Rwanda’s favorite pastime is visiting family and friends. You can spend hours doing this, it’s culturally so beautiful: it’s putting the people you love first in your life. You go and you just sit and talk. Expect food. Maybe cards. But if you don’t do it, you certainly aren’t Rwandan. It transcends all boundaries of class: the rich powers that be in Kigali do it, and the rural farmer, barely scarping buy, do it as well. Wear your nicest clothes; you’ll be in public so you best look nice. How far this is from the world of facebook, Iphones, and twitter. I love all that stuff, and you can ask anyone, I love being connected. But, when you strip all of that stuff away, I’ve found myself more connected than I have ever been before. When you take all of that away, you simply have people. Rwandans practice that. Religiously. And so, I love spending 5 hours on a Saturday afternoon, walking the road, visiting my community. And to boot, when you leave the house you visited, they accompany you back out to the road, sometimes all the way back to your house. Now that’s hospitality. 
  • I love church on Sundays. Granted, I don’t like the often 5 hour services. That’s just…a really long time. But, the dancing and expressions of love completely make up for it. With the rhythmic sound of the drum (or the new keyboard like my church!) both men and women move their hands, arms, backs, legs, and feet in a cohesive movement. They dance with their whole bodies. The dust of the floor rises. The small holes in the battered tin roof shine light on them and for a moment, it’s like God is looking down at us. It’s unbelievably moving. On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself choked up watching this all unfold before my eyes. This is what praising God looks like. I’ve imitated the traditional dance with my students in class (after obnoxiously trying to teach the ‘macarena’ without music…FAIL) and they just laughed. I was terrible at African Dance in Ghana (yes, I’m still bitter about BARELY passing after essentially failing my final) and apparently the same is true in Rwanda. Still, I love it all the same. 

It’s uplifting to gather and reflect on what makes this place beautiful. Smith writes, 

“this is what Africa could say to the world: it could remind us what it is to be human.”

Rwanda is far, far from perfect. And yet, in a week where I talked about relationships, gay marriage, and sex in some of my classes, ran for 90 minutes straight into parts of Rwanda where a white person has never before been seen, shared tea with my neighborhood kids, helped prepare beans in a mud shack along the road in my village, and hugged a record number of ‘mamas’, I mean it when I say I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. 

bon appetite

Standard

My crossover and full immersion into Rwandan culture seemed somehow complete at dinner the other night when I visited some neighbors. It wasn’t upon some magical-breaking down boundaries conversation; rather when given the choice of cold, clean water or Rwandan tea, I hardly hesitated and chose the tea. I realize this sounds completely irrelevant but for people who know me well (or just know me at all—I advertise it pretty loudly by having a water bottle by my side 24/7) I love water. And yet, I wanted tea, and lately, that’s all I really go for.

A minimal blip on the radar? Yes. But, it’s often our food choices, how we share a meal, and what exactly we eat that reveals much more into our cultural context and the lives we are leading.

Wow. Reading that over, I realize I sound like I’m about to write a sociological analysis regarding food culture, but really, it’s just me thinking about food in Rwanda.

What’s interesting about Rwandan food (which generally, I really like) is that it’s essentially the same wherever you go. Often, you are guaranteed to find some combination or assortment of the following:

-plantains

-beans

-potatoes (sweet or regular—called Irish potatoes here?)

-meat

-sauce

-rice

-vegetables

Sometimes, “salad” will be served (especially on special occasions) which for all intents and purposes is a pile of cabbage, topped with a sliced red tomato, and a dollop of mayonnaise.

For snacks you can opt for the greasy ‘amadazi’ (fried bread, essentially) or my much preferred ‘cheke’ (like sweet cornbread).

Food availability depends on the region, of course, and so in the East with the plentiful (and never ending) vision of banana trees, eating plantains (‘igitoche’) can be assumed at nearly every meal. I’ve noticed that one Rwandan traditional dish called ‘ubugari’ (cassava bread) was available much more in the West. Fine by me. Ew. I was not a fan, but in an attempt to win over the host family, pretended to enjoy it, and as punishment, had it at least once per week during training. Not only is the taste less than appealing (reminiscent of uncooked flour? Maybe?) the texture is weird and you eat by hand and so you’ll get cassava under your nails for the evening. Enticing, right? Interestingly, a similar dish was available when I was in Ghana (called ‘banku’) and I actually liked it! I don’t know what gives in regards to the distaste I have for ubugari, but my best guess is that West African food DEFINITELY has more flavor and so maybe the sauces accompanied with the flour like substance cancelled out the weirdness? Who knows.

Yet, don’t count out all traditional dishes! In fact, my favorite thing to eat here is called ‘isombe’ which is essentially mashed up cassava leaves. It’s like spinach; it’s green and can be eaten with rice or plantains as a soup-like dish. I lack the Rwandan capacity to cook it, but when I eat it at the homes of Rwandans and it is a part of the meal, I get really excited.

Which reminds me: often, I forget how wonderful it is to share a meal with others. I enjoy cooking on my charcoal stove and I enjoy even more eating my creations after. Usually, I’ll eat later in the afternoon after a full day of work, and I’m finally able to relax. My roomie, Louise, likes to eat later at night, so typically, we don’t eat together.

Last night, I visited the health center director, Ernestine, and her husband, Emmanuel (a lab technician at the Rwandan Military Hospital, a pastor, a member of Gideon’s International, and a former soldier during the Genocide—a jack of all trades) for dinner. We ate a dining table (a rarity out here in the village) and as we passed the pots around I remembered the joy in eating together. Rwandans are good about that—though there is some strange hierarchy to it (typical) where kids and servants will eat separately. It’s like my family holidays every day of the week—there is the adult table and the kids table (man, wasn’t that such a good feeling when I finally moved up with the adults!). Yet, meals are important, no question about that. It’s at these tables full of pots designed to keep heat on the food (as cooking often takes forever) that you learn and share.

I glanced at their kids, Hope and Prince, as they played after they finished eating, and it was like watching me and my brother, Lance, as little kids. I got a little choked up and told the parents what I was thinking: we are so different…and yet, not really at all.

“My brother and I…we did the exact same things. We played the exact same games,” I told them.

Interestingly, it was earlier in the same day that I shared lunch with a couple of students on home visits I decided to do during the holiday when a neighbor began to tell me about how he was a teacher before the Genocide.

 “What happened? Why did you stop teaching?” I asked innocently

“I went to prison. Me and my wife. For 12 years. After…well it was all new after that.”

The Rwandan government won’t hire war criminals as teachers, even if they serve their sentences in full, I was later told. So presumably, I was speaking with a former war criminal. And that wasn’t the last time it would happen (and due to my lack of knowledge about what happened in 1994 here and who did what, it has probably happened many many times previously). As I was given an omelette to eat from another pastor I knew while greeting him at his home today, I complimented his family.

 “Your family. They are good people.”

“No. My parents…they…during the Genocide…they were bad.”

So, in two days, I heard more about the Genocide in 1994 than I have in 7 months. Each time, while consuming food. Like I said, when you eat together, the conversation becomes much more wide open and you begin to maybe know and learn about the people you are eating with.

Though it’s not as if every meal in Rwanda is transformative; I had plenty of silent dinners with only the clattering of silverware with my host family. Simply, food is a starting point—especially when you are new and adjusting to a new community and life.

So far, my tricks of the trade to food culture in Rwanda are the following:

 -if someone offers you food, take it.

-a Fanta is a sign of friendship.

-leave a small amount of food on your plate when you are full—it shows you are satisfied.

-don’t eat before praying. Just don’t.

-if you have a visitor at home, offer them food. If you don’t have any, offer them tea. That’s good enough, sometimes even better.

-unless you are on a bus, don’t eat in public.

-if you find yourself living with a host family and you genuinely don’t like something TELL THEM. If you tell them the opposite, you will be eating it again. And again. And again.

-you are going to miss American food. That’s a given. Have the good stuff sent in packages.

-unless you are a vegetarian, if you are served meat, eat at least some. It’s expensive her for Rwandan families.

There’s still a lot to know in terms of eating in Rwanda. But as I master my own cooking and eating too, I’m realizing that food is right in the center of Rwandan culture—any culture, really—and so, as Rwandans say upon taking the first bite, enjoy.