Tag Archives: dancing

we have a dream, like martin luther king


My old worn pink asics are on, I’m wearing my Hendrix capri sport pants, and my hair is thrown in a messy bun. I’m ready for sport. It’s just like most other days in my life—when it comes to my daily life, there’s a good chunk of time spent running, doing yoga (or some other random workout video on my computer), playing football, or going on long walks around the village. This is what I do. This is my element.

Only this time, one thing is different. Oh, and it’s pretty major. I’m playing goal ball and so I’m wearing black goggles that block out my vision. That’s right—I’m playing this particular sport without the ability to see. It’s what makes goal ball unique.

You see, I’m playing goal ball with a handful of boys who are partially blind or cannot see at all. And what’s amazing is that there is this game at all—it’s called goal ball—and you spend 20 minutes in a crouched position, waiting for the ball to be served (like the size of a kickball), and to come your way (you can’t see it, but it has a special bell inside so that you can listen for it). When you hear it, you prepare to block it from entering the large goal behind you. You have two other teammates by your side, ready to block right along with you. To serve, the best players place their hand on our goal to spot check, and just as quickly, the spin and dish the ball on the cement ground. They keep it low, and it somehow reminds me of a cross between bowling tactics and old school kickball on the playground. You can’t see—remember?—and so you have to clap your hands and feel the ground in order to position yourself correctly and communicate with your teammates.

To go from seeing everything to nothing is intense. And I did this for approximately 19 minutes—I can’t even begin to imagine what the boys that I played with must feel like everyday. In some ways, I imagine it’s incredibly isolating and frustrating. But these boys, well, they are without a doubt, a special group.

They made up 5 of the 65 boys we had at our recent Eastern Province BE CAMP (Boys Excelling). These boys came from all over the East to represent their schools as leaders and instigators of new ideas and change in their communities. The camp is sponsored by Peace Corps, so all of these students either have a Peace Corps Volunteer in their community as a teacher or as a health worker. I brought four boys to camp: Robert and Yousef from Senior 3, and Tom and Dieudonne from Senior 4.

We had the girls equivalent of this camp this last summer (GLOW: Girls Leading Our  World). And quite literally, that experience changed my life. I was able to see the real, concrete, and powerful effect of being a proverbial seed-planter. I’ve come to realize that is really what being a Peace Corps Volunteer is all about: we are here to encourage, to share, to love, and to support, but many of the ideas and resources we bring act as seeds to a much larger garden. I won’t see most of the changes that I’ve worked towards this past year and will continue this next year in 2013, but that’s okay—it comes with the territory. Camps seem to be an exception to this rule, as after just a few days of being together, singing songs, playing games, studying life skills, and dancing, Rwandan youth find so many ways to come out of their shells. You can often see them radiate with self-confidence and happiness after the camp is over, and though you never know how exactly these students will apply the knowledge and skills that we tried to teach them, you can instantly see what it feels like for them to be told that yes they can and that as leaders in their community, they have the power to make things better in their own lives but also in the lives of others.

When GLOW finished this last August, I couldn’t wait for the next camp. It was like I was addicted to this feeling—is this what it feels like to make the world a better place, I asked myself. I wrote the date for our BE camp early on and I had been looking forward to it ever since.

Yet, to be perfectly honest, I was also much more nervous for the boys version of camp. When it comes to working with youth and I have conversations that connect me emotionally with students, I have noticed that I connect much more strongly with young women. And so, anticipating the week long training with over 50 boys initiated a lot of questions on my behalf: will I be able to ask the right questions? Will they trust me to open up? Will they be as open to new ideas as the girls were?

All of these questions were put to rest as we stood in a circle in the great hall at HVP Gatagara (a school for the visually impaired about 90 minutes from my house), with burning candles held in our hands, singing Silent Night, after a stirring speech from one of our Peace Corps Volunteers, Christina. Silent Night always gives rise to emotions in my heart, and so a few small tears fell down my face much in the same way that the white candle wax was leaking through the brown paper onto my hands. I was crying out of happiness though; these boys, much like the girls from GLOW, inspired me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. In just 4 short days, I felt like I watched these boys learn new things about building relationships, commit themselves to achieving their dreams and visions, and working together to make new friends and learn more about themselves.

Abouba told me about his life as an orphan. His school lets him study and sleep there in exchange for his extra work on the holidays.

Erneste explained his passion for goal ball as we held hands and I guided him around campus. He is one of the best players around—yes, even in Rwanda and East Africa—as he was able to travel to Algeria and compete internationally just a few years ago. He may be blind, but he doesn’t view this as a handicap—just another challenge in life. We all have challenges, he told me, and it shouldn’t stop us from doing what we love to do.

Froudard was the incredible winner of Limbo at our carnival (I still can’t believe how low that boy got) and then he outdid himself in the talent show when he performed Rwandan traditional dance with boys from his school. He did the splits for nearly a minute and most of the volunteers watched with shock and gasps on our faces. That boy got skills!

Alphonse brought his guitar out every night and sang some classics (Country Roads and Hero for example) before singing some of his own songs. His ability to play guitar and sing is unparalleled by many other musical gifts that I have seen, and it’s all the more amazing when you realize that Alphonse is also visually impaired and cannot see. But that’s never the focus when you are in his presence; he is constantly keeping the people around him laughing and completely in awe by his musical talent.

The boys of Martin Luther King Jr. (my hero group—we had a total of 8 hero groups so the boys could be in smaller groups to discuss and have a family like atmosphere) won the cheer-off on day one and I couldn’t have been prouder. After I explained Martin Luther King Jr. to the first boy who came to camp, he proceeded to explain the works and life of King to the rest of the boys who arrived throughout the afternoon. They owned and paraded around the campus with the pride of being in Dr. King’s group. I would yell, Where is the King? and the boys would respond equally loud and obnoxious with we are here! When we were all together we would sing our cheer which went something like this:

 Where are you going?

What what?

I said, where are you going?

WE (clap clap)

ARE (clap clap)

GOING (clap clap)

TO (clap clap)

WASHINGTON! (clap clap)

(here the boys and I bring our arms together in the middle of the circle, raised in the air, to symbolize the Washington Monument)

(we stay silent for about 3 seconds and then…)


We want freedom!

We want equality!

We want love!

So we tell them…

We have a dream!

Like Martin Luther King!

A dream, a dream, a DREAM A DREAM A DREAM!

It should come as no surprise that by the end of camp, I could barely talk and when I did, I sounded like an old man who has been smoking cigarettes for far too long.

Besides lessons on various topics like HIV/AIDS, gender equality, and communication, the boys had journaling activities (oh yeah. totally my doing), a career fair (we had visitors that included a journalist, a police officer, a soldier, a teacher, and an IT specialist) so they could share their experiences and journey within their respective vocations, a talent show, spontaneous dancing, and afternoon activities like sport, the American classic of the egg drop challenge, and cooking (some PCVs taught the boys how to cook bread over a charcoal stove).

I should emphasize the dancing: holy cow, I danced so much that week. I think GLOW was where I fell in love with teaching baseball in Rwanda and it was BE where I fell in love with dance. I’ve always enjoyed dancing (who doesn’t??) but I felt so free the entire time we were at camp. When the boys arrived at camp, we drummed the traditional Rwandan sound on the lunch tables and danced. Between meals, we danced. And when we finally landed a sound system for the talent show, we danced. I love moving around freely, but there is certainly something intensely special about the Rwandan cow dance. You move your arms to represent the intore, the traditional African warrior, alongside the proverbial cow, which is of the upmost importance in Rwandan culture. You move everything in your body along with the beat of the music, and it’s just about the most beautiful dance I have ever seen. And I sure do try. Sometimes, I actually feel like I can do it pretty decently—and the boys told me so! In the spirit of building confidence, they told me I can do the cow dance and so all week long, even in the absence of a melody to follow, I was moving my feet and legs, just like many Rwandans. Proof # 384 that I’m becoming more and more Rwandan with each passing day. (on a side note: I should also indicate that I have video proof of me doing the wobble along with about 20 other students and another PCV who taught us. Believe me, this is one for the home video collection!)

BE camp, just like GLOW, will without question, be a highlight of my Peace Corps experience. It just works. In our communities, working in the classroom everyday and building relationships with our community members, it can be sometimes quite difficult to witness, understand, or even believe that you are making any kind of difference. But at camp, you just know, and it’s one of the most powerful emotions I have ever experienced. To be standing there, in a crowded room, knowing that lives have been changed—what more could you ask for? And what’s even better, is that you know that this change isn’t possible just because of you, it’s also because of them, and it’s also because of God. Who knows when I’ll meet with some of those boys and girls again—if ever—but we were together for a powerful time, albeit short, and that counts for something. We have memories to take with us, feelings to carry on, and the world to change for the better. When I participate in these kinds of camps, I always walk away reaffirmed and believing that the best of our world lies in the youth. They have the capability to do it—it’s just telling them, reaffirming them, and giving them the knowledge and capacity to do so. Just like with GLOW, I walk away from this camp absolutely convinced that this is what I want to do with my life. I want to be the person that says yes you can and if I could be doing this alongside lessons about life skills and going outside to play sport, then I would be even more happy. These boys (and the girls back at GLOW) write notes of affirmation, telling us how much they love us, and how important the camp was to them. I write them notes back too, not only telling them how great they are, but giving them thanks, because whether they know it or not, they have also given me the confidence to believe in my life, to believe in my work, and continue to know that we all have something special to offer the world.

Yes, like my boys said, we have a dream, like Martin Luther King.

And, I am so blessed to be apart of it, no matter if it’s big or small.

Even on the hard days, I often find myself thinking that I must have one of the best jobs in the world. And maybe the best part is that it’s not really a job for me—and it never really has. It’s just my life and my dream coming together and giving some sort of outcome for the vision I have had for myself for so long. And really, it’s just the beginning. Not just for my Peace Corps experience, but for what I hope for the rest of my life. Yes, all of this I gain from a few small days of playing sport, holding hands, and cheering with a group of boys. They are that inspirational, believe me. They are going to change Rwanda for the better. They are going to be the ones to change the world. 

I kunda you


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

I kunda you.

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

I love you.

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

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

We’re kind of adorable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kunda you.

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

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

-V. Raymond Edman 

wedding time!


me and the family of Maisara and Zahara

Me and Divine and her grandmother

you know. teaching.

the girls rockin’ at dancing

drumming and waiting for the German delegation


we’re learning to jump. somehow.

oh sweet mary


Sow your seed in the morning

And at evening let not your hands be idle,

For you do not know which will succeed,

Whether this or that,

Or whether both will do equally well.

Ecclesiastes 11:6

 I don’t know how to pray the saints, use a rosary, or follow the procedure for kneeling and praying during worship (years ago, I once nearly fell over myself trying to kneel appropriately at a Catholic funeral), but I sure do love praying on Sundays in the Rwandan Catholic Church.

Admittedly, the appeal could initially lie in the fact that the service is half as long as the sometimes 4, 5, or 6 hour Protestant service I often attend. However, I also find the Catholic service far more soothing, peaceful, and beautiful. ADEPR (that’s French for some Protestant acronym) is fun, loud, and dusty (from all the jumping and dancing around) and on some days it is utterly wonderful to be a part of. But I feel more in-tune with God when I worship at our sectors only (but very sizable and denoted by the many red bricks and blue paint) Catholic Church. I feel more comfortable, and though this was rather unexpected for me, I’ll take what I can get.

 On a simultaneously serious and light-hearted note: the Catholics also know how to party. Seriously. On New Year’s, I visited Suzi at her home (which is a convent complete with a sizable amount of nuns) and not only was I presented with a plate full of deliciously prepared food, there was ample amounts of beer and wine available. What? Oh, and not to be outdone, I recently went to a Catholic “wedding” for the mother of one my students. Wedding may be a tricky term as it was a ceremony celebrating the woman’s commitment to her new and lifelong husband: God. That’s right, she had a wedding to marry God. I’m not being tongue-in-cheek here; she couldn’t become a nun because she has already birthed like 4 children, and so she did the next best thing and became some kind of special sister in the church. Something like that. Anyway, I went to this wedding and there was not a dull moment. Dancing, drinking, eating. Repeat. I spent the night at the family’s home way out East in Rwanda, and slept very little. I eventually caved in to partaking in some classic fermented banana drink (that would be banana beer, my friends) to in some bizarre way prove myself to the skeptical and judgmental men, and well, I had a lot. The bus ride the next day was not fun. At all.

 Anyway, I digress.

 This does in no way instate a Catholic conversion; oh good gracious, no! I’m not Catholic. But, I do happen to believe that in some mysterious, un-knowing way (understanding God is far beyond any of our capacities) we are all worshipping, honoring, and loving the same God on Sunday and it’s best to go where you find Him most strongly.

 Most days, I don’t try too hard to translate the Kinyarwanda services in my head at church (and that assumes that I’m even adept enough in the language to do so). It’s just too much of a headache. I let my time at church be more free flowing than that. If I understand, fantastic. But, like soil adrift in the air from a cool breeze, I let the prayers, thoughts, and questions come and go with little restraint. I confess: sometimes, I day dream. If you are at church for 5 hours, well, I find this somehow inevitable. Because remember, you are sitting there, on a hard bench (your butt will go numb), for this long period of time, listening to a language that even after a year, you still can’t understand when spoken that quickly. Believe me, your mind wanders. But on the days that I feel connected with God, church feels really really good. Today was one of those days.

 It sure came at an important time; lately with all of my questions, doubts, and fears about the intentions behind my relationships in my community, I have felt my heart harden. My patience, like an old candle wick, has worn thin. The genuine kindness that is central to who I try to be has been difficult to maintain. I need God.

 I prayed on and off, eyes open and closed today. I sat between two old Rwandan women and repeatedly asked God to sustain my heart, yes, but to help all of our people find healing. Because that’s the power of God: if He helps you, certainly I’m helped too. We’re that connected.

 Remember that people in this rural community are pieces and parts of You, I prayed.

Please help me love.

To love can be hard, but with God it becomes easier. And it’s also the most important thing we can do in our lives. So I’m always asking God to help me do this. Especially here, at this season of my life. Like I said, things have been hard lately. I have a more difficult time letting things go, and I’m worn from always having sets of eyes on me for every move I make. I know I chose this life; trust me, I love this life. It fits me and it works. I’m happy with it. But there are fragments that are so hard to describe, and because of that, it’s those very fragments that chip slowly away at my heart, bringing me down and down and down. Next thing you know, you are yelling at someone in your community and you don’t even know why. You can find yourself crying when you come home, because you have nowhere else to go. And you feel isolated, a warrior on your own, because you can’t really explain this to anyone. Not anybody in the village, and really, not anyone at home. This is just something you and God have to work through. And so you pray.

 My favorite part of church is the ending number.

The tithing for the church and the community is finished (collections are placed in the traditional ‘Agaseke’ woven basket) and all able rise and stand on their feet. This serene song plays. I’m not sure what it means (I repeat: my Kinyarwanda is still limited), but as the chorus kicks in, most women lift their hands and spread like a bird, they move their arms and bodies, giving all they have to God. This is a poor and inept description of something far more moving and beautiful to see in person. It’s just like watching people hand over doubts and fears, receiving peace and hope in exchange. It’s inspiring. Because often, in the world of Christianity and religion and God, we think we need instruments, audience numbers, and recent converts to equate fully to a relationship with God. That isn’t it and that isn’t enough. When I see and experience this, I feel hope. Hope in my village, for myself, and for the world. It sounds cheesy, I know that, but I suppose this is the mystery of God, isn’t it? Those really intangibly amazing moments are just so hard to put into words. But it’s at the end of the service, with those women dancing, that I am able to reaffirm all of my dreams and desires with God, ready to go back outside and do the best I can, because that’s all He really ever asks of us.

 Lifting your hands, giving thanks, and releasing the grit of fear, anxiety, and pain is where God meets man. It’s where God meets us. I love watching that. I love being a part of that. I love doing that. Who cares that it happens in a Catholic Church? A Protestant Church? Or hey, even outside in my very own backyard? What difference does it really make? To Him, none at all.

 Letting go and finding those moments of release refreshes my faith and reminds me that you’re never alone in life. Sometimes you just have to let love in, let God find you, and let your heart be open. Easier said than done, of course, but when you are a part of a community of believers sharing their hearts in the best ways they know how, well, it sure is easier.