Tag Archives: Divine

what I know for sure

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Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.
The Lord is near.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with Thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4: 4 – 9  

with Divine and kiddos from my host family at my original training site.

with Divine and kiddos from my host family at my original training site.

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Divine’s mama, and one of many mamas for me who I will always love and remember. This was taken right before we said goodbye.

Our small prayer group leader read these words slowly and intentionally. He read in Kinyarwanda, of course, and so I sat resolutely on a small brown bench trying to understand. He read these words on behalf of our Tuesday prayer group; he read this scripture as a representation of God’s bread. He shared this verse for me. It was my final day to pray in Ruramira, my home for the past two years. When I read the verse later in English as Divine and I finished eating my favorite food (plantains) in my living room, tears and gratitude filled my heart. What wonderful words to encapsulate my life here. What a beautiful piece of the Bible to send me off with. When we finished our prayers that last Tuesday, the old mamas huddles around me. Their old skin touched me as they set their walking sticks aside and they let out soft sounds of sadness.

“Uzagaruka ryari?” (When will you come back?)
“Simbizi.” (I don’t know.)
“Eh baba we. Imana yanjye! Turababaye pe.” (Oh my God, we are so very sad.)
“Ariko niba Imana ashobora kwerekana inzira, nzagaruka.” (But, if God shows me the way, I will return.)

I muttered something about these women being wonderful abakekurus (old women) but I completely lost words to speak when I saw one of these women grasping her mouth and holding back tears. Rwandans are stoic; never before had I seen an older Rwandan woman cry. Kinyarwanda, English….I don’t know. Finding the right words is impossible with goodbyes like this. Which is why that scripture means so much to me; where our words and understanding fails, God comes.

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I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda somewhere around 820 days. For 27 months. The end always seemed like an idea formed in some intangible myth. We’d talk about America but it didn’t seem real. Of course I knew Rwanda would come to an end – eventually – but even now it feels impossible to look at my ticket and know it is really happening. To say I’m struggling to process all of this barely covers it, despite knowing from the very beginning that Peace Corps was never permanent. I remember in the first days of training how we always joked that “today is forever” because of the long days of Kinyarwanda lessons, cultural training, walks to our training site, and integration attempts with our families. I was convinced that if “real Peace Corps life” (that is, the time after training) was like that then there was no way I would survive two years in this country.

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“Real Peace Corps life” is not like that. If you approach the experience not as a job but wholly the life you have, then time moves, life happens, and sooner than you really understand, it’s over. My life for the last 820-ish days has been full. It’s been some of the best and worst days of my 24 years. In this time as a resident of Rwanda, I’ve had two birthdays, learnt a language, lost around 20 pounds, and was called “umuzungu” every single day. I found one of the best friends I will ever have, prayed regularly at the Catholic Church, was harassed, coached football, had rocks thrown at me by our village “crazy”, was lied to frequently, ate amazing home-made Rwandan food on student visits, helped establish a library, learned to use charcoal, somehow became a teacher, and lived in a village full of many people who had never seen an American before.

I became a friend, a family member, visited 4 other countries, went on 3 safaris, and showed my parents this beautiful country. I became a fan of waking up at 5:00am, read books, watched a lot of TV shows, and journaled almost every day. I have completed over 12 journals to prove it. Using a latrine became normal, I dealt with a nasty staph infection, and I was sick a few times. The most serious episode is now rumored to be an act of “poison” among my community members but I think I just ate a bad batch of meat. I drank banana beer in secret, wrote letters, and spent a lot of time on crowded buses. Once, I danced in front of 3,000 people at a church revival. Many times I prayed for over 5 hours on Sundays. I learnt far more about grace, love, and humility than I can even begin to say. I saw the good and bad of Rwandan culture and absorbed a lot of it in my own personality. My Peace Corps superlative at our going-away party was “most likely to return and live in Rwanda” and in a letter from Yazina, she commended the “miracle” it was to see an American woman also become a Rwandan woman. The lines certainly are blurred for me.

I have only told a few people this, but last year I heard voices in my house when I tried to sleep. I called out my grandmother’s name and I felt something on my back and neck. This all happened for a span of about a week in early 2012. I never knew what it was for sure, but I lost several nights of sleep before going to Kigali to see the doctor. Was I going crazy? Our doctor drained my ears and I only heard the voices once more after and so who knows.

In one of the most defining moments of my life, Rwanda served as the place I first heard the voice of God. I’ll never forget it. I was in a motorcycle accident one spring evening, around 6:00 at night. My motorcycle driver had come to take me, while another driver took Yazina and Divine from a restaurant we were visiting. It was dark, rainy, and not a good time to be in the road on a motorcycle. My motorcycle collided head-on with an old man and his bicycle as the road veered slightly to the left. Time stood completely still as my driver braked harshly and I was ejected forward from the back. I wore a measily helmet but it managed to stay on as I met the road with the back of my head and body and rolled once into a ditch. However, it’s what I heard when I spent milliseconds in the air, completely free in the body, that has changed my life. My legs dangled and I heard nothing but complete silence. I was screaming, but I didn’t hear it. The screeching of the brakes didn’t enter my ears. All I heard was,

BE STILL AND KNOW I AM GOD.

I processed be still and was sure to keep my body strong so I could absorb the impact on the pavement safely. Bruises, a cut lip, and shock aside, I was fine. In the next few minutes, I called Suzi completely panicked, and then was able to call the girls to come back. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I saw Divine on the other side of the road waiting for me, arms wide open. It was raining heavily at this point, and all I could do was sob. She held me tight, repeating that God loves you over and over. In light of all of these events, I know that was God. I know it.

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So you can perhaps see the difficulty in understanding how this is over. Somewhere along the way it became a reality (for good and bad) and life continued. I learnt a lot of things in these months of residing in a small village surrounded by forests and banana trees. I learned how to communicate using multiple languages and many times, using the body as well. I learned the difference between being a “good” teacher and a “fun” teacher – because you can be both. I learned how to cook – a skill I’m very excited about.

I learned things I never imagined I would need; things like, using oil on the outside of a pot to prevent smoke leaving black stains, the best way to run when 5 children desperately want to hold onto you, how to kill a snake with a mop, and how to overcome fear with a woman who is insane and trying to remove all of her clothes in front of you.

Yeah, my life was strange here.

Of everything though, the one constant, transcending life lesson that was evident during my time in Rwanda was this:

GOD NEVER LEAVES US.

That alone, is what I know for sure.

Oprah Winfrey always ends her issues of O! Magazine with a few inspiring paragraphs about her most recent life insights. What I Know For Sure, is what she calls them.

Well for me, I can only spend endless paragraphs trying to adequately describe a truth I can barely fathom. God. Never. Leaves. Us.

It’s the only sentiment that explains the relationships I have made. And it’s the truth that held me together on the more challenging and trying days here.

What I know for sure is that God is the reason I was able to move my life, to leave my family, and to find pure, untainted joy in a place that like anywhere else has a plethora of issues.

Rwanda has not always been kind to me.

But in the midst of dark times, there was always light.

When my grandmother died, I had my host family to console me.
When I saw students beat others, there was a belief that things could change.
When I was lonely, someone always appeared or called. Or, I had Velveeta cheese from dad tucked away somewhere.
When I felt like a failure, GLOW club shined.
When I was afraid, living in my house without power, I found contentment in going to sleep early and peacefully in the night.
When I ran on these rural roads and people sometimes mocked me, I was able to run faster.

I’m a very lucky woman though. Most of the time, I loved Rwanda. Deeply, intensely – I loved it here.

And it isn’t very hard to figure out why. This last weekend, on a final visit to my host family, we gathered around the table after a delicious meal of meat, fries, rice, and fanta to pray. Divine had come with me and my family was so happy to meet her. Mama started to pray and she prayed long and hard. For 10 minutes she spoke to God. For 10 minutes she also struggled to find the words to speak – tears were stuck in her throat as she prayed for my journey, for the continued strength in my relationships, and for the time I had in Rwanda. When she finished the only thing I could tell her was that I believe that their family and Divine are direct blessings from God. God is the reason I was able to love this place like I do. His hand was in everything.

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My last month here was one long goodbye. First to school, then to my students, then to teachers, then to my community, then to families, then to my students, then to my friends, then to my host family, and my last goodbye – in a sense, my goodbye to Rwanda – to Divine.

It was one of my favorite months here. I traveled around freely – to around 5 different districts – and to prevent being alone in my house while in my village, Divine moved in with me to support me for my last weeks. We spent our days truly enjoying each other’s company. She taught me how to properly wash clothes, I taught her how to use “home row” while using a computer. We even made her a facebook and email on a trip into town. We cooked. We listened to the radio. We took naps. We just lived life.

In one of my final days in Rwanda, we, along with 3 other of my girls, enjoyed a trip to Akagera National Park so they could experience a safari and see incredible animals and physical scenery. They loved it. They squealed at the sight of giraffes and upon seeing a large elephant in the road just 15 feet away, believed the elephant would come to eat us. Our 6 hour game park drive thrilled them and they repeatedly acknowledged how unbelievable it all was. I sat next to a quiet Divine on the way home. But our friendship is so comfortable that silences don’t bother me – a testament to our closeness because I love chatting! Finally she looked at me and spoke with conviction and clarity.

“Heather, the reason I am quiet is because I just feel this action you have made is so uncountable. It’s above my head – I don’t have words to say. It’s just amazing.”

I told her, “no problem Shu, there is no problem. I am just so happy you could see that place.”

“Thank you so much. But Heather. It’s more than this action of today. It’s all actions you have shown for me and others in the 2 years to share life. You are the first person in my life to speaking something and shoe the action – always. I have friends and family to support me, but what you have done for me…I don’t understand. Birarenze (to be at a loss for words)…I don’t have the words. All of this, it comes from God, and…wow. I don’t understand.”

Divine and I have had a slow goodbye and so we have had many conversations that try to pinpoint how we can have the friendship we do, but it always comes back to our lack of understanding – namely that it comes from God and how can we begin to grasp the intricacies of friendship that he works within?

I sigh and quickly code these words from Divine into my memory. I don’t want to forget. Her words soothe my soul and it’s in that moment that despite the pain in moving on, I can do it – one, because I have humbly succeeded in what I set out to do (help the world just a little bit) and two, God’s given me an incredible friend who has taught me about life in ways only explainable by God’s divine touch.

Her English is a second language and yet I know her heart more deeply than people I have known for years. Her love for God is unchanging in all things – she showed me what it means to be a strong Christian woman.

We laughed everyday, shared meals, went on walks, studied, explained our histories, and did it all from two very different walks of life.

What I know for sure is that God never leaves us because in the time I needed friendship He gave me one of His most devoted followers.

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Today is just like every other day. The Kigali sun is starting to reach the peak in the sky, birds are bustling around in the trees, and I’m ready for a buzz of caffeine from a cup of coffee. It’s just like any other day, except that it’s my last day in Rwanda and that in just 9 short hours, I will be on a plane headed for America. Headed for home.

I left my village on a moto, tears streaming down my face, as a group of my closest friends waved goodbye. They had come early in the morning to give letters, hug me, sip coffee, and say some parting words. Some of the congregation at the Catholic church were working the fields as my motorcycle zoomed past and I wistfully placed my hands in the air to wish them peace. I was leaving. Leaving. I remember the first time I came to Ruramira, by way of motorcycle, and I was leaving much in the same way. Only this time, there were kids screaming “Impano! Impano!” and I could look around, knowing where most of the paths lead. The difference was that I was leaving a home.

I went back to the very place I started – my host family – so I could give them final hugs. The goodbye was prayerful, full of gifts, and amazing, inspiring words. I told them what Divine has done for me in my time as a volunteer, and they commended her greatly, wishing her to come back and visit. They repeatedly told me how much appreciation they have for the work I have done and even more so, my attempts to live and work within Rwandan culture. Mama could barely believe the things I have learned to cook (cassava bread, bananas, and good sauce) and when she heard some of the new Kinyarwanda phrases I have acquired she stood back in shock. Somehow you have become Rwandan, she told me. From a strong Rwandan woman, that’s about the biggest compliment you could ask for.

Divine and I came back to Kigali following our visit to the host family to enjoy one more night together. We had tea and bread and we listened to the Catholic radio station. We talked. A lot. And we cried, a lot. When morning came, after few hours of sleep, we prayed together. Tears fell fast, quickly, and fiercly. How had this day finally arrived? How is it possible that I will not see this girl every day? Divine prayed so beautifully, asking God to protect our journeys, and praising Him over and over for the way He has worked in our lives. She asked for God to help us “have no fear” in separation and to keep us strong. I accompanied her to the bus station and helped her find a bus to go back home. It will be her first time to back at home in quite some time as she spent the last month living with me. I think her family will be happy to have her back. I hugged her once more, shook her hand and watched her sit in the bus. Immediately, she buried her face in her lap. She later told me she stayed like that for the entire journey. I went to the office for Peace Corps, found a quiet place in the garden and cried holding my Bible for 30 minutes. It was one of the saddest days I have had in my life. To say goodbye is already difficult, but when there is no certainty about the time you will see that person again, your heart hurts. And hurts a lot. I know Divine will be in my life forever. And I know I’ll see her again. It’s just a matter of accepting where life has taken us now. Our connection is one of the strongest I have felt in another human being. She’s a young, Rwandan student who comes from a poor village in East Africa. I’m a young wanna-be American teacher from a country and family where all of my needs have been met on a consistent basis. And yet, our conversations were perceptive, deep, and open. I know this girl. And she knows me. To walk away from Peace Corps with that kind of relationship is a resounding success.

*

God never leaves us.

Of everything I have learned, this is the most important.

There’s so much I could say and so much I want to try to explain; and yet, I’m losing the words.

I have an inexpressible amount of gratitude for my friends and family back home. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for sending letters. Thank you for sending American food. Thank you for your encouragement. I like to think of this blog as some sort of time capsule and so I’ll be starting a new blog once I get back stateside. In case you haven’t noticed, I love blogging, and so I look forward to writing about the next phase of my life back home. This blog will forever be the pieces of writing and experiences about Rwanda and I appreciate everybody who took the time to read and try to understand some of the things I experienced while working in this country.

A special thank you to my parents. Each and every time I want to do something, you are the first people to figure out HOW to make it happen. When I wanted to come to do Peace Corps you didn‘t think I was crazy. Too crazy, anyway. And when I found out it was Rwanda, you started planning the time you were going to come to visit – and you came. I want you to know how much that meant to me – and what that meant to my friends in Rwanda. The most important thing I have wanted to show in Rwanda is that love is far more than words (it’s an action) and you, my parents, have demonstrated that beautifully.

I’m indebted forever to the kind people in Ruramira. The reason I was able to have a positive and successful experience was because my community was welcoming, kind, and ready. They were open to have conversations, willing to take me in their home, and waved at me when I passed through on my daily runs. I will love that village forever. And a piece of me will always be there.

*

Today when my plane finally takes off, I’m not sure what will be running through my mind. I imagine I’ll be consumed with what it’s going to feel like to finally be home but also I’ll reflect on the people and places that have worked within my life for the last couple of years. I’ll remember Godriva, an old mama who gave me a couple of dollars as a going away gift, and I’ll remember Divine’s mother who frequently would break out into dancing just for the hell of it. I’ll remember the life I had there – even if for a short while – and know that no matter where life takes me, I’ll always have that.

I’ll think to myself that the most amazing thing of all is that though the Peace Corps experience is deeply personal, it’s also so much more than about yourself. It’s about the community you worked, the friends you make, and the people back home that are waiting to hear and understand all of the stories. My life is profoundly changed forever. And for that, I give all thanks to God.

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my village and home, Ruramira.

my village and home, Ruramira.

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kubera imana

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Divine sparked my interest in visiting Kibeho, Rwanda a few weeks back when she translated the church announcement that our congregation would bring a group there for an annual and ridiculously large Catholic gathering.

What’s Kibeho?

Well, it turns out it’s incredibly important, especially in the Catholic world. Not just in Rwanda, I repeat, the world.

Kibeho is in the Southern Province and is located in the Nyaraguru District. From where I live, it takes about 6 or 7 hours to get there one way by car. This small Rwandan town is known primarily from historical incidents that took place in November of 1981. According to everything I could find from a simple “google” search, Mary (as in the Virgin Mary) appeared to a group of students that year. This appearance is accepted as truth and “official” by the Pope and the church and so it’s a major deal. The sighting happened on this large, beautiful, green mountain and not only did Mary allegedly come and appear before this group of young students, but the sighting was accompanied by visions of intense fighting and death. Specifically, these Rwandans saw bloody bodies all over. This was well before the concentrated, high-intensity killings during the 1994 Genocide, and so many interpret these visions of religious relevance as precursors and warnings to Rwanda and its people.

Believe what you will, but no matter what, the importance of a place like this in Rwanda is absolutely undeniable. Consider the history and also consider the fact that an extraordinary amount of Rwandans identify as Catholic. And they sure do love the Virgin Mary.

All that to say, I was happy Divine and I signed on to take part in our church group’s pilgrimage to visit this place.

We left my village on a Saturday afternoon at 2:00 (two hours late and therefore right on time for Rwanda). We crammed into two small white and green “tweges” which are small vans that fit 18 people each and are the most common form of transport around here. We traveled with all older people; Divine and I were the only ones under the age of 50. But no matter, they were all a joy to journey with as they sang old Catholic Kinyarwanda hymns which matched the hum and rhythm of our car as it drove against the force of rocky, dirt roads. Plus, any time I made a small comment in Kinyarwanda they would cackle with delight and when they watched Divine and I speak comfortably in English, they were in awe of her communication ability. They called me “ntwari” for making the journey with them. That means hero, y’all. I love old people.

It was my first time to this particular district and it’s a mountain heavy district. The steep mountains were a far cry from our smaller hills out East. We arrived at 9:00pm. Hungry, sore, and tired. Awaiting us was Kibeho Church property and what I saw as I exited the vehicle caused my eyes to widen. Thousands of men and women covered in their individual African fabrics (igitenge) were loitering in and out of the Cathedral, singing on the vast green lawns, and fighting for a place to settle down for the night. The actual program that all of us were visiting for wouldn’t begin until the next day and so it was mostly a matter of finding a comfortable place to relax. And comfortable isn’t even an apt word. Comfort went completely out the window. For a short time after our arrival, Divine and I managed to get a place to sit in the church sanctuary but it was stuffy and there was no room to lay down – sitting room only, quite literally. After 45 minutes of feeling claustrophobic and needing to pee, we headed outside. We didn’t sleep that night.

What did we do, exactly?

Well. For starters, at around 2:00 in the morning, we fetched holy water. This process is completed by walking 20 minutes down into a valley at a source that is considered “holy” by the church. On a normal day it might take only 5 minutes to take water from the well, but as we were fetching alongside hundreds of others, it took nearly an hour. Divine made her way through the crowds, for-going any sense of a line, and managed to get the holy water in a 1-liter water bottle I had brought along to stay hydrated. This was an important process to do before the Sunday program because it would be officially blessed by the priest. More on that later.

After fetching this water, Divine and I walked around for a bit until our legs were tired. We then found a small slab of cold concrete to sit as we waited for morning. My head rested on her shoulder and we listened to my IPOD and tried to stay warm while outside in the windy wee hours of the morning. People only realized I was a young white girl when night finished. It had been easy to hide in the night because I had wrapped most of my body in any piece of clothing that Divine and I could find. Now it was quite obvious that I was the one umuzungu who had come to this gathering. Lord, help me.

Noooo! My secret is out!” I lamented as I opened my eyes to a group of small children staring at me. She laughed and slapped my arm lightly.

The church has running water so Divine and I took part in one of the most important Rwandan rituals: washing our feet. Before finding a place to eat amandazi (doughnuts) and tea, she bought a few souvenirs from a couple of vendors: rosaries and a large poster of Jesus and Pope Paul Francis. Our early morning was spent visiting the site of Mary’s sighting and a museum of sorts that highlights the Pope’s visit to Rwanda in 1990. Finally, around 11:00am it was time for the church service. It followed the protocol for just about every other Catholic service I have attended in Rwanda (the Catholic church is one of the most organized institutions I have ever witnessed) and despite feeling light-headed (I hadn’t eaten a real meal in over 24 hours) I could follow along relatively well. It was tangibly weird being the only white girl. While my village is used to random white girl walking around, most of these attendants are not. I was gawked at, laughed at, stared at, and consistently heard whispers about theories about why I was there. People always find it impossible to believe that Divine and I could be such good friends; and it’s amusing for us to watch people, especially other students, to see how comfortable we are around each other. Seeing a white and black person interact the way we do just doesn’t happen often. Luckily, when it came to the service I didn’t draw extra attention to myself because I knew when to kneel and when to bow and I was happy that all my time praying in small group every Tuesday prepped me well for this big outing.

It was after the main service that I had just about the weirdest and most interesting Catholic-related experience to date.

We all moved outside and listened patiently as all 10 priests, from all over the country, said a prayer for all of us and officially blessed the water that was fetched by people the night before. Using a soft broom, he dipped the water along the bristles and then flicked the ends into the throngs of people so that drops of the blessed water would touch everybody. People raised their rosaries, hands, and just about anything they had in possession so it could make contact with the water. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I held Divine’s rosary and her Bible and waited for the holy water to touch my skin and these items. When it finally did I just smiled at Divine and said “warakoze Imana!” (thanks, God!)

On our 7-hour ride home, Divine and I drank our fanta of choice, Coke, as the driver had purchased a crate of 24 bottles for all of our group. The sugar and sweet taste of one of the world’s greatest drinks satisfied my thirst, and I was just so happy to be where I was, in that moment in time, in that place. I love when life feels like that.

Divine told me how grateful she was to have made this journey. It was a beautiful thing to see someone so committed to their beliefs to have such a powerful religious experience. She then tried expressing how important our friendship has been for her. She commented that while the love her family as for her is very real and very strong, I am the first person in her life who has been able to provide for these kinds of opportunities. I’m the first person who has opened the door for some new ideas, ways of thinking, and a broader understanding of her country. I was humbled deeply in that moment. I have helped Divine go on several church trips and the reason is this: if you are able to visit new places, meet new people, and share new things, your ability to process life on a larger level is far easier and much more possible. If I can come to Rwanda and broaden my own perspective, I think it is important that other people have similar chances.

I simply said, “somehow we have had this time together and I do these things because I love you and also because God gives me the ability.

She broke into a smile and asked the rhetorical question she asks at least 10 times a day, “kubera iki?” (why?).

I grin because I know the answer, as I’m the one who answers this at least 10 times a day, “kubera Imana” (because of God).

british red #350

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When I started wearing lipstick regularly about a year and a half ago, Yazina looked at me with her inquisitive eyes and commented emphatically, “teacher this decoration you have, ah-ah-ahh!”

At the time, I hadn’t yet learned the ins and outs of Rwanda’s language of sounds and noises set completely a part from the actual language of Kinyarwanda. You see, Rwandans can express themselves totally without words and by using various inflections, mumbles, and hums to get their point across. So, I had no clue what “ah-ah-ahh!” meant.

I prodded her by saying, “yes? This decoration (referring to my lipstick) is…?”

“is wonderful!!! Today you are beautiful very high in the face.”

I blushed and told her she was beautiful too.

It was around that time I became a firm believer in lipstick.

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I love lipstick because it makes me feel awake, energized, and yeah, beautiful. Some women preach the mascara gospel or believe in the empowering effects of going au natural, but as for me, I know I’m ready to take on the day after a cup or three of coffee, writing in my journal, and adding a slight ‘pow’ of color to my lips in the mornings. I’ve worn lipstick nearly every day here. We’ve gone on a lot of journeys, lipstick and I.

I wore lipstick on the first day the girls’ had shoes at football practice, I had it on when I taught my very first lesson, and when I went to visit Michelle in England earlier this year I think I even applied two coats. This now strikes me as ironic because in British history, mostly in the 19th century, makeup of any sorts was not at all acceptable for any “respectable” woman. Thank God for progress.

They refer it to it as “bello” in my village, which could be some kind of French influenced word, but to be honest I’m not too sure. While I’ve never seen a woman in my village carrying around a tube of the stuff, occasionally my girls will have a purplish-brown tint on their lips. This comes from the small circles of gloss sold at boutiques and they take these little things everywhere. To GLOW camps, to church, and even to school. They too understand the powers of adding a bit of pizzazz to “decorate” their appearance.

Perhaps not fully understanding the stronghold my favorite lipstick has had in my daily life, one of our Peace Corps leaders in Kigali once suggested that I limit my use of lipstick in my community. We were having a conversation about integration and dealing with men and he delicately said that it was “advisable” to not draw even more attention to myself with the fire red lipstick I had smeared on. I chuckled, nodded, and thought to myself, “um. There is no way in hell I’ll be stopping to wear my red lipstick.” It’s not that I’m insubordinate, it’s just that I decided well before joining Peace Corps that to survive this experience I had to embrace the give and take. Visit people and eat their food? Absolutely. Refrain from drinking in public? Sure. Covering my knees when wearing clothes? I can do that. But, I want to also be who I am so there are some non-negotiables. As silly and small as it sounds, this was one of them.

And so maybe I should explain the other dimension lipstick – well, this particular red color – has in my life.

The red lipstick I have worn consistently while being a Peace Corps Volunteer is appropriately in a gold tube and is called “British Red,” number 350 from L’Oreal. Today, if you open it up you can instantly smell the flowery, old time fragrance. You would also have to use your finger to get any of the color; I have used it so much that it is nearly finished. But I just can’t move onto another color. I can’t rid myself of this is small golden encompassed treasure.

*

I was packing for Rwanda and searching through some of Grandma Jenny’s things. She was still alive, albeit in a nursing home unable to speak or move, and I was headed to the facility for the last time because I would leave for Rwanda the next day. I reached for a red leather purse that I found hidden away in a box and inside I found old receipts from a frozen yogurt shop, gum, sunglasses, and a half-full bottle of Chanel No. 5. It was so her; it’s like this bag had all these little things that represented a bit of who she was as a woman. And that’s when I found the lipstick. It was half-used and I tucked it into my pocket, intending to bring it along for the next couple of years. I wasn’t even sure that I would use it, but I figured it would be a good reminder of her while away.

The day I took the lipstick was the last day I saw my grandmother. Her cold and wrinkled hands filled mine as I said goodbye. Grandma had hung on for a long time as I think Newell’s do, but I knew when my time in Rwanda was over and I came home, she wouldn’t be there. I took in everything about her that I could. I lingered when I gave her a hug. I memorized the color of her pure blue eyes. And I also was sure to capture moments from when I was younger so that the memory of grandma was more about who she was before Multiple Sclerosis slowly wore away at her body. When I was alone in my car, crying into the steering wheel, I felt like I had missed something. I felt cheated of closure. Grandma, the woman who indescribably anchored me for much of my life at that point, would never hear my stories from this new journey in my life. She wouldn’t be there when I needed to call home because I was lonely. She wouldn’t see the friends I would come to deeply love in this country. And down the road, she wouldn’t be present as my life started to weave together all of the things from my past, present, and future. She died in October of that year.

So, this lipstick is grandma’s and is one of the most important things that came from her and continued on to Rwanda. The other things that I hold dear that are with me in my village are a gold ring from her mother and a small chipped wall decoration with West Highland White Terriers that says, “when you have a friend, you have everything.”

*

Last week, I experienced what I know will be one of my favorite Rwandan memories. Sometimes, you just know you’ll remember something forever.

I was visiting Divine’s family because her brother had broken is leg and came home from the hospital and I felt very strongly that Divine should be there, even if just for the weekend.

To help her family with the workload, I joined them in finding firewood and cutting down bananas from their endless amounts of banana trees on their land (ubutaka). We laughed and chatted and watched the sun leave the Eastern hills of Rwanda. Her sister helped place the pile of sticks on my head to carry home. I grasped above my head with both hands and was pleasantly surprised by my ability to keep it balanced. I mean, I’m no Rwandan who could do this job using no hands, but still. We walked the small and narrow brown paths back home to get cooking started. I was in the middle of the line of some seriously strong women – her mother, Divine, and her sister. This was so that Divine could keep an eye on me as she knows my night vision isn’t the best. I listened quietly as her mother and Divine discussed how grateful they were for my visit, how they would pull together as a family in this difficult time, and how it was simultaneously funny and beautiful that I was carrying firewood on my head. Funny because I’m a white girl in the middle of nowhere doing such a thing and beautiful for the same reason. I’m not above doing that or helping with chores just because of where I come from. Finally, a family that gets that.

I looked above at the stars, at the rolling landscape, overwhelmed with gratitude as I thought about my family. I thought about the family I have in Rwanda and the family back home that has raised me, loved me, and supported me for my entire life.

I smacked my lips, of course wearing that red lipstick, and remembered Grandma. Memories flooded back and they seemed to collide head on with the memories I was making in that moment. Love is so powerful sometimes, I think. It reaches far beyond our understanding. It’s so strong that the feeling of love you felt years before can come back and hit you in the exact same way.

I smiled as we finished the small journey home, indeed with firewood on my head, doing what the world might see as a menial task. It was much more than that. I felt a part of something. I felt connected. And as I found myself thanking God over and over again on that walk, it sort of felt like Grandma was there right with me.

*

NTA IMVURA IDAHITA

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there is no rain that doesn’t stop.

Kinyarwanda proverb

fam

Divine shared this old proverb with me as we discussed a potential goodbye in the coming months.

The proverb means just that – rain comes, but always, it stops. Things are difficult sometimes and challenges seem so hard to tackle, but eventually you will.

I’ll be in America and miss her. I’m in Rwanda and I miss my family and friends.

You can’t have it all at once. But you can accept this, and try to find the best perspective possible.

After sharing this proverb, we said goodnight on the phone, as we do most nights. Though on this particular evening, she called back minutes later. Why? She was upset that I sounded sad. I told her I was stressed from weighing decisions about the future. Stressed about picking the right path. Stressed about the inevitable goodbyes that will come later this year.

“Heather, you choose what is best for YOU. Make the good decision for your heart. Continue to have kwizera (trust) that God will show you the way.”

everything divine taught me

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Divine was walking me home last night, giving me advice on how to handle a couple of different problems – one with school and one with a family in our community – when I greeted a drunk woman on the edge of the road with an enthused and far too chirpy “muraho!” (this means hello). Divine immediately slapped my wrist and though it was dark with only the stars in the grey-blue sky giving light, I could feel her disapproving eyes.

Heather. Umva! (listen) Me, everytime I tell you the culture of Rwanda, but sometimes you forget. If it is day to greet is very nice. No problem! But sherie (basically like saying my dear), if it is night, no! You go quickly and keep quiet.

I nodded but also chuckled because indeed, this was not the first time that she had told me this, or watched me as I naively said hello to creepy men, goats, or people on the road in the black of night. It’s not that I often roam the roads after the sun sets, but when I visit Divine I usually am late to get back home because we get to talking and lose track of time. Each and everytime however, she walks me all the way back to my house, a 35 minute walk. This is probably for two reasons: one, she enjoys my company and wants to show good Rwandan culture. But most likely, she’s a bit freaked out by my friendly-to-a-fault tendencies and wants to make sure I get home without any problem.

*
Divine always has a lot to tell me and I frequently have a lot of questions. She told me recently that she is well aware of how in Rwanda people “hide their thoughts and ideas” and that it can be “difficult to know a person”. I wanted to give a standing ovation with a rounds of applause; yes! I was overjoyed that she sees this too. Rwandans are great people; but they are considerably closed and don’t always project what they are actually feeling. Why do you think my best friend is a 20-year old student? Relating as strongly to anyone else in my community has proved difficult (most of the men just want to flirt it up, and the other women in my village are typically mamas just trying to get all their stuff done).

So, to combat this, Divine has opened herself up and has promised me that she will not hide anything from me. This was all on her own inititation you know, but Lord knows I appreciate it. Without a doubt in my mind, she’s the one person in Rwanda that I trust completely and will give me a straight answer even if I don’t want to hear it. She firmly believes in the “responsibilites of friendship” as she calls it and this includes sharing all things. In doing so, the girl has taught me a lot. Much more than she probably even realizes.

*
First, for a frame of reference, let me give you the basics.

Divine’s full name is MUKAMUGEMA Divine (in Rwanda, you capitalize the first name), but unlike a lot of Rwandans, Divine insists that she is just Divine. In church last week, they were reading a list of people going on a trip to a major Catholic celebration/revival/pentecost in another district and Divine was signed up to go. They called “Mukamugema” and I looked on as she didn’t even realize her name was being called. She prides herself on her various nicknames though, and they certainly are numerous: Mama GLOW, Moon, and Ibishymbo (beans). However, a lot of times we just call each other “sha” which is a term of endearment for close friends.

Divine was born in the Kirehe District in Rwanda, in the far Eastern Province, about 45 minutes from the Tanzania border. Her village is quite close to Nyarabuye, the location of a large Catholic church that had a major massacre during the Genocide. This location now serves as a major Memorial Site that people can visit. Divine was about 9 months old in 1994 when the Genocide occured. She told me that her mother carried her on her back and would hide in the forest every day.

Divine no longer has her father. He died in December 2011, after a battle with a “muscle disease.” Just recently she filled in more of the blanks on her past – about how her father had 4 wives as was the norm in old traditional culture – and how when he was sick, she took a year off from studying to be at home to help him. She told me that they had a good relationship and they shared a similar “culture” of loving to laugh. I didn’t realize fully until she explained all of this how much she misses her dad. But, she also has a deep love for her mother and a whole fun batch of family members – Medi, Joseph, and Donatha. I mentioned how Divine has the nickname of beans, and it was actually her family that started this whole food-name business. Her mom is pineapple, Medi is sweet potato, Joseph is avocado, and Donatha is doughnut. They christened me as plantain because I eat so much of them. And because her mother said my nose looks like one. Yeah, they are kind of a bunch of goof balls and when I first met them, I could instantly see why Divine is the way she is. Certainly, that’s the best part of meeting families of people you love, isn’t it? You better understand where they are coming from.

She loves to eat plantains and beans and has a soft spot for porridge made with corn flour. Divine is 20 years old and studying in Senior 3 (like the equivalent to 9th grade) but it’s not unusual because many Rwandans are late to finish their education. Maybe they stop because of money or a family problem for example, but eventually continue when they can work through things. It’s just what happens. She recently mentioned for the first time- after being friends for 1 and 1/2 years – that she is the first person in her family to study as far as Senior 3. All of her siblings before her dropped out before then. I don’t know why she didn’t tell me this earlier; I think it’s something she is very proud of but doesn’t want to appear boastful or having too much pride.

She is incredibly wise. Her way of thinking is rooted in a lot of traditional cultural values, but she balances these with progressive notions too. But not always. We sometimes have disagreements on situations because of the perspectives we carry. It’s healthy though, because we are both able to see why we think the way we do and it’s in our many conversations about life that I feel most American. Which most of the time, makes me quite proud. In her cultural values, I should note, she isn’t backwards or uncivilized. There are just some things in her life that carry heavy importance – cleanliness, respect for elders, and helping around the home – because that’s just the way it is. It’s very easy to judge the values of others, but if you take a step back and reevaluate your own particular ways of seeing the world, you can then realize how steeped these often are in the culture you originate from.

Her two greatest skills are understanding people and making people smile. She can walk into a room and light it up. It’s not that she is the most loud or obnoxious as I tend to be, rather, she is just absolutely hilarious. And when I say that she can understand people well it’s because she can know instantly how someone is feeling about a situation, can see things from multiple perspectives, and is never hasty when discussing something with someone. If you tell her something, she will think about it, and give you an answer when she has considered the words she wants to use. It’s not just in English that she does that; it’s in Kinyarwanda as well. I asked her about this once.

Divine, you have no fear to speak. But many times, you think before you use the words. You are choosing very carefully.”
Of course! It is very important to think about the ideas in your head before speaking. You want to use the good words.”

The great love in her life is God. She is very proud to be a Catholic and prays at church at least twice per week. I’m not exaggerating when I say that she is the most faithful person I know. She always trusts that things will get better and that God “will give us the answer.” When I was dating somebody who wasn’t a Christian, she was horrified. Not in a judgemental way at all (hello, her best friend is Muslim so she is very open on the religion spectrum), she just struggles to understand a worldview outside of God. God is her bread, her walls, her leader, her friend, her everything. Everything for Divine begins and ends with God.

She’s really weird and like I said, funny. She calls me sometimes at night and simply tells me to go outside and see how strong she is (she is referring to the times that we have a full moon; moon is one of her nicknames and so she gets excited).

I said I would give you the basics and this was as “basic” as I could keep it. I could talk about this girl for days if people would let me. I think I mention Divine on the phone with Suzi every time we talk on the phone. Which is nearly every day.

Now, for the school of Divine. The following are quotes/ideas/advice/nuggets of wisdom/general thoughts on life that Divine has mentioned to me at one time or another. I thought this would shed good light on the kind of character she has and exactly how important she has been to my time in Rwanda, as she has consistenly been my confidante.

*
The School of Divine

*”Heather, stop using agatsiko to describe the English word groups. It means very bad things.” (She was right. It’s an almost direct translation for gangs. Please know I was using this word in class, each and every time I wanted to the students to break off into groups. Awesome.)

*On why people change their minds, “if you are sad, you can say the things that aren’t true. But when you are strong again, your ideas change.

*“LIFE CONTINUES” – her answer to each and every life problem. It’s not to say that the problem isn’t worthy or that it doesn’t need to be dealt with, but her philosophy refers to the most basic of all life truths. There will be another day, life does go on.

*Sunflower flour is even better than peanut flour when cooking a delicious Rwandan sauce.

*In Rwanda, the parents’ wishes must be honored.

*”If you say yes, mean yes, and if you say no, mean no.”

*”Heather you have taught me that in the life, if you have compassion you can have a good heart and do good things. To be compassionate is important if you want to make God happy.

*”Laughing is the same as eating, breathing, and washing. You need it in your life.”

*”Heather, me I think, you have water. You have soap. Why don’t you wash very well? It is very nice to have pride in the clothes and the body to show that you have the self-confidence. You are beautiful girl, so remember to wash very nice.” – referring to the fact that sometimes my feet are not super clean.

*”Wow! To cook in America and Rwanda is different. But this food is nice, so congratulations. But for me, I don’t understand very well this food.” -referring to macaroni and cheese.

*BE PATIENT. BE PATIENT. BE PATIENT. (that’s really a Rwandan universal truth in all aspects of life)

*”For me, if I cry, there are tears in my heart. I don’t show them on the face.”

*”Your friend is the most important relationship. To be a good friend, you must share your problems and try to find good solutions.

*”Heather, when someone speaks you think it is true every time. Sometimes it’s not true. You need to remember to ask questions and try to find more information to be sure.”

*Hugging me after the terrifying motorcycle accident, “God will continue to give miracles. He never goes out.”

*”Fetching water is a sport.”

*Me: “How do you do all of these things every day?”
Divine: “I am strong! God gives me the chance to be strong in the mind and the heart and it is possible to do anything I try to do.

*On the heartache of missing another person, “ahhhh, it is very difficult. Even for me, I miss my family every day. But you have to believe! You have to believe you are together in the spirit.”

*”You cannot love someone by the things they give in the life. Yes, the things are nice. But you need the good action and behavior. You need to see the love they have for you in the heart. That is when you know where the love is coming from and that it is real.”

*On confronting people right away with a problem, “Teacher, in Rwanda, we don’t do that.

*
More than just her insights and eternal truths, the way she lives her life is a testament to the heart she has.

Her friendship IS one of the primary reasons I have stayed here in times of doubt. It’s not a relationship about me being a teacher, an American, a rich girl nor her being a student, a Rwandan, or a person coming from a poor family. Those things don’t matter. Finding something like this here (and anywhere, really) is GOLD and nothing BUT the hand of God. I can’t stress it enough.

Some people don’t get it:
why are you such good friends with a STUDENT?
Or on her end, is that white girl your sponsor or something?

People ask these things because they don’t understand. Because they don’t understand how it is possible.

But for every reason that a friendship like this couldn’t or shouldn’t work, well, it just does. I am treated with love, respect, and equality. Again, when in the situation that I’m in, this is a big deal. She knows me very very well.

She tells me about my “easy heart” (her words, not mine) which I have come to understand as being very sensitive. True.
She knows I don’t handle unhappiness well. True.
She calls me out when I try to solve a problem IMMEDIATELY as opposed to trying to feel out all of the alternatives. True again.
She understands that I value quality time above all other things. She laughs at my jokes and strange behavior. She teases me for all the questions I ask. And when I’ve had a crappy day, she knows just what to say and do to cheer me up.

Her ability to understand me to a strong degree blows my mind – I remember thinking when I first moved here, will I ever be able to BE MYSELF? Will I constantly be in the mode of “integration” and never fully open up to show all of who I am? Oh, and there’s the whole language barrier thing, but in the most rare of circumstances, a good friendship can overcome anything. And this one has. As for the language thing, well the girl is quite wonderful at speaking English, and even though my Kinyarwanda skills are quickly sinking like an overturned ship, we make a mixture of the two which we call “Kin-glish.” And you know what? It works.

*
I am more convinced than ever that when you need it most, God gives you exactly what you need. I needed a friend here in my little part of the world and I got way more than I could have ever imagined. I got a best friend that I deeply admire, love to be around, and makes this life enjoyable, happy, worth all of the difficulties, and just…exactly what I had hoped it would be. And more.

“I came to Ruramira and I didn’t know what my future was. My father died and I lost the money to go to the school by my home. I was sad. I missed my family. I didn’t have friends in this place. But, I saw you at the school, and thought maybe it would be okay.”

“I remember seeing you in the class and thinking, I want to know more about this girl. This girl, she’s different. She’s always smiling, always wanting to study very high, and has good ideas.”

Divine smiles and says with a great deal of conviction,

I think God brought us together. I think He wanted us to be best friends.”
*

my kind of weekend.

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this succinctly captures my feelings on this last weekend.

this succinctly captures my feelings on this last weekend.

I’ve been racking my brain, having too many failed attempts to put pen with paper, and sitting iddly for a bit too long as I’ve tried to figure out how to best explain and describe this past weekend. Then, at 5:37 am on a Tuesday morning I just thought, well, perhaps I should just start from the beginning.
*
Old Woman Heather
Fridays are one of my two days off this school year (the other being Tuesday) but outside of sleeping in until 7:00 it’s hardly a day off. I typically wake up, run, write, and go to school by mid-morning. Why? Because it’s library day. This consists of me stifling the chaos of hundreds of primary students trying to get their hands on a book. Crazy doesn’t begin to adequately paint the picture. It takes four of my students working the desk and teachers roaming around with sticks in hand to control book check-out. I swear, the next time I enter a quiet and peaceful library, I will thank my lucky stars because while the demand in Ruramira is fantastic, the peaceful demeanor of library etiquiette and culture is coming along much like teaching a puppy to pee outside. Slow.

Anyway, on this particular Friday, I did almost nothing after we closed the library around 2:00. Usually, I’m ready to go and visit some students or teach a GLOW lesson, but I was wiped. I went home, took a nap, and sat on my porch with tea and slippers and watched the sun slowly trickle away from the sky.

Best Day. Ever.
And so Saturday came. I woke up early in order to my run in and prepare for A LOT of things: we had two volleyball matches, two football matches (one for the girls and one for the boys), I had visitors coming (Sara, Suzi, and 3 of her friends visiting from America), and a GLOW leaders party to host (complete with a full meal and two rounds of Fanta; a serious party, y’all). I anticipated it would be a busy but rewarding day. And it was. It was so great it ended up being one of my favorite days at site: it was a combination of all things good in my life here. I went from coaching duties (do we have money to buy water? Do they have their shoes? Is the line-up ready to go?) to being a fan (cheering like a madwoman) to showing the visitors the ins and outs of my village. It’s important to note that our girls and boys won in football with Maisara and Zahara, resident GLOW girls and sisters, scoring a goal each for our girls’ victory. But, winning our match, watching the fans dance to drums (along with a spear that had a rabbit skull on top?), and basking in good ole sports pride didn’t carry the stick for the best part of the day.

That part came here.

After playing, at around 3:00, 7 of my GLOW gleaders, me, and the guests had a party at school. Alphonsine, the woman who helps me around my house, cooked for 15 people, bless her. We ate and then began our party. The purpose? To show our visitors good Rwandan culture and to celebrate the wonderful leadership of our girls. It was Suzi’s idea and I commend her profusely for wanting to make this day special for my girls. She just gets it, and I love that. I took a step back and watched as the girls sang songs, introduced themselves, and demonstrated how incredible they are. I realized it then – I will never be able to capture how inspiring they are in words alone. You see it best in their presence and I couldn’t have been prouder. Time and time again, it’s these girls that give my time here so much meaning. They are the ones that have evolved this from being a “job” to it becoming just a piece of my life. I’m forever indebted. I briefed them on the concept of diversity and explained it further by giving them the meanings of their names to show how they are special as individuals and that they are good leaders because they put their gifts together to make unity. And so naturally, we then tye-dyed shirts to demonstrate colors (like our individual special gifts) coming together to make something beautiful. They loved it. And, their shirts turned out great.

That night we cooked pancakes that we coated in Nutella and peanut butter and crowded in my 2 rooms to sleep 6 of us. And that’s where the weekend gets a little complicated. No, not the guests cramming together, but the arrival of Sunday.

‘The Bread of God’
After the guests headed out for the National Park nearby for a safari, Sara and I decided to tye-dye the extra shirts we had. Great life decision, by the way. Tye-dye is a fun way to spend a weekend morning! Sara went back to her site around 11:00 and as she said farewell, Divine stopped by to give me the “bread of God”. That is, the particular lesson that was preached about. Whenever I miss mass Divine is sure to write and remember the scripture so that I can “be satisfied” from God even if I didn’t go to church. Yes, that is my best friend. She was a hit, by the way, with the visitors. I think everyone recognized how hilarious she is; she is certainly one of the most ALIVE people that I know.

I unexpectedly visited her for like three hours (this frequently happens; I leave my house to accompany her like a good Rwandan, but somehow end up at her home and we continue to talk for a really long time). She already knew, but her suspicions of how crazy I am were confirmed when she found my planner and read every single page. She didn’t know how much of a planner I am (and how I have to write down everything or I will forget) and she was totally amused by this. Planning is a trivial concept here, at least where I am living, and so I think for her to see a major compilation of to-do lists, lesson plan ideas, people to visit, things to buy, places to go, and people to email, she was just like, what?

Anyway, by the afternoon it was time for a wedding I was invited to. This wasn’t the “real” wedding – just a delivery of the cow for the bride’s family followed by a family meeting to discuss the logistics and plan for the actual ceremony. This is where the weekend got a little…um, fragile? Confusing? Weird?

Bear with me.

Family Drama
This “wedding” was for Maisara and Zahara’s aunt. It was at the house for Maisara and Zahara’s father. However, Maisara and Zahara no longer live there. Why? Because their father is a terrible man. A lying, abusive man. A year ago, them and their mother moved in with their grandmother. Last week though, the mother moved back. Temporarily, she claims, as to help prep for the wedding nupitals, but I’m skeptical. This has left the girls to make their own decision: they don’t want to go back. And no one in their family understands or supports this decision. They are afraid but people in their family just see their action as a denial of their family obligation.

Confused yet?

So there was this family wedding.

And I’m going. But the girls tell me they can’t do it – they can’t go in that house. It’s okay, I tell them, they have the right to choose where they feel comfortable to be. I go with the aunt and the cow and I sit in a dimly lit room with their entire family. I sit with a lot of secrets too. I know what their father has done and their uncle (Yazina’s father), well, I know what he’s done too, but that’s another story. He leads the prayer and I want to vomit.

We drink fanta. Eat food. And that’s really as far as I get. By 6:30 it’s dark and I want to go. The girls arrive and when they do, their father calls them to come. They refuse. For me, I say my goodbyes and say I need to get home to plan for teaching the following day. I make a quick exit but not before Maisara and Zahara’s mother follows me outside, grabs me, and starts complaining about why her girls won’t be a part of the gathering. She’s embarassed, and I can sense that, but I’m quick to defend the girls. I know I should have stayed neutral but the whole things seemed ridiculous. Quite literally, I was being pulled into two directions – the girls insisted we leave and the mother wanted to continue to explain her side of the story. I was standing between Maisara and her mother with my hands pushing both back, trying to keep the peace. Again, I wanted to vomit.

The girls walked me all the way home. 45 entire minutes, one way. We held hands the whole way and I hugged Zahara when she cried. Their family is separating again, and her pain is raw. I am heartbroken for them. My family split under different circumstances, but somehow I could sense a small piece of what the heart feels like when that happens. Right now, they are living away from their mother, left to cook and support themselves after studying and playing football each day. They just tell me how they can’t stop studying. They tell me they can’t give up on their future and that their father threatens that. I’m speechless and can only muster to say I love you. I commend them for the decision they have had to make. I don’t support or encourage family disagreements but how can I not support their courage to fight for what they believe in? These are the kind of girls that score goals, ace exams, help others, and live life well. They excel in GLOW because they believe in what they can do. But what happens when the “support system” around them doesn’t?
*
This was my weekend.
As usual, there are no words to describe the completely beautiful moments or find the easy answers (or answers AT ALL) to the complicated tangled web of problems here. I’m not discouraged, though.

Divine regularly lectures me (among other things) on the importance of kwihangane and kwitonda, that is, essentially being patient and not freaking out about something. She says that to succeed in Rwanda you have to have these two things. True. But what’s awesome, is that in return, I lecture her on the importance of being honest, of speaking truth, and not being afraid to express what is in your mind. She integrates these two cultural values – much like the rest of my girls – and creates a mixture that is uniquely them. And so, while I do worry, fret, and feel very real heartache when the girls are going through problems, I know they are as equipped as anybody to handle them. Not because of me, but because of them. They’ve had the skills all along. And so, it’s just a matter of hoping that they use them when the time calls for it.

If nothing else, I find myself inspired this Tuesday morning, really just wishing that the people I love the most back home could know these girls like I do. They change lives and they are changing mine.

always one more time

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

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

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

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

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

Mmkay. Good luck trusting anybody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"what we talk about when we talk about God"

“what we talk about when we talk about God”

He ends his book this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“life continues”

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

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

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

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

Why Am I Still Here?

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

ONWARD AND UPWARD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “Life continues?”

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

enjoy your apple pie

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Does 4 cups of de-caffeinated coffee cancel out the whole won’t-hype-you-up-at-night thing?

It’s 9:30 at night and on any given night at this time I would be at home doing one of four things:

1)      Sleeping.

2)      Watching Gossip Girl (that’s my MO these days, anyway).

3)      Doing some sort of yoga-weights (with condensed milk cans, I should note)-zumba wannabe workout. 

4)      My getting ready for bed routine. This is as follows: turn off Christmas lights, brush teeth, throw trash down latrine, use latrine to go to the bathroom, wash my hands, moisturize my face, pick out clothes for the next day, floss, set alarm, make sure my petrol stove is off and put away, check alarm one more time for good measure, and enter the wonderful world of my mosquito net.)

Instead, I’m at the coffee shop in Kigali (Bourbon Coffee—my home away from home away from home—that’s right, it’s my home outside my Rwandan home which is still further away from good ole America) on a Thursday evening. Soon, I’ll be heading to the hostel that Suzi so kindly made a reservation for me at. I’m eating a beautiful slice of cinnamon flavored apple pie with peanut butter ice cream alongside my coffee. Sometimes, this is really what taking a break is all about. The pie. 

I was supposed to leave my village tomorrow morning in order to attend our Peer Support Network Meeting (we are a group of volunteers that acts a sort of support system for volunteers in Rwanda) but impulsively, I decided to leave earlier this evening. I was tutoring a girl in my village, Solange, who has been nothing but kind to me. Her family is amazing. And yet, somehow, I was still getting worked up, frustrated, and felt suffocated being in her home. I think it was probably in part to the fact it was raining outside and so I had no choice but to be there. And I was force fed approximately seven pieces of meat. Just another instance of having very little control of my life.

Anyway, I finished teaching her about some phrases to use at the market (in English, of course) and after walking home barefoot (in the mud; my shoes broke on the way there) I made a strong stride straight to my backpack and packed recklessly. I threw a few shirts in, some deodorant, and my IPOD. The travel essentials. I called my moto driver, Emile, and he came within the hour. I just wanted out. Something in me ticked and it was like all of the things that have upset me lately came spilling out. I cried half of the moto ride. That must of just been a beautiful, capture-me moment. White girl rides moto with stained mascara and a blotchy red face.

I lost all my photos from a computer virus. My students continually keep getting screwed over by our horribly disorganized administration. My exam got the short end of the stick when most students didn’t have an appropriate amount of time to do it—what am I supposed to do, give them zeroes? I have been extraordinarily short on money.

And yet, those are specific, identifiable things that have been upsetting me and I’m not sure that’s why I was even crying in the first place.

I need a break. That much I was able to see. When I’m with people that usually remind me of why I love this place and I’m still feeling aggressive and upset—that’s a red flag. For me, anyway.

But also, in the back of my mind, I keep asking, what’s going on here? I have enjoyed this experience far more than I could ever describe. And when you peel the layers back, there is the solid base of people that I have relationships with that have unquestionably made my life better. Not this experience—my life. Why isn’t that enough? Why is it harder than just reassuring yourself that everything is going to be okay, and I don’t know, just getting on with it?

Because y’all, this is life.

That’s really the best way to summarize all of this. This stopped being a job for me a long time ago. And when it did, the sensible, structured, and easy-explanation stuff came to a halt. Sometimes, we just feel what we feel, and we have to deal with.

Unfortunately, for you, my loyal blog readers, I feel like a great deal of my blogs deal with this not-so-uncommon phenomenon of how we deal with emotions (you’re probably like–“um. I kind of wanted to read about Rwanda.”) But hey, that’s part of the story, you know? I write about it a lot because it really is a beast out here in between the banana trees and the unrelenting sun (or these days, as it is now rainy season, the unrelenting rain).

I’m taking a break, and I’m really glad I am. And this break is a lot more than just a couple days in Kigali, sipping delicious coffee and having dinner dates with friends.

No, I’m literally leaving in less than a week for a journey to not only Uganda, but to England. Could this have come at a better time? Um. No. I need to completely relax. I need someone who knows me from before. I need to recharge my batteries. I need to share my stories to someone. I just need to take a hot bath, darnit!

I’m reminding myself over (and over) again that just because I need a break and just because I’m tired and just because I’m upset doesn’t take away from what has happened here and what I really do feel for my village and my life as an education volunteer. At the end of the day, I have the ability to take a break. People in my village—well, they don’t, really. And so if I’m really that fed up, I’m doing myself a much better service to leave, catch my breath, and come back fresh. I might not like feeling weak, but being vulnerable actually lets you win in the end. You actually experience truth and that’s much more powerful in the end.

And you really don’t have to worry about me too much.

Before I go on a three-week-Rwanda-hiatus, I’m going to spend the last week finishing up some school reports, having Bobby visit me for several days, visit Kigali with Divine and Yazina, and host a little get-together at my house (beer included, apparently) with Maisara and Zahara’s mom and grandmother.

Plus, things like this happen:

Sunday afternoon: Yazina brings over a rice sack FULL of plantains. A gift from her grandmother.

Later that Sunday: Divine brings over a small yellow jug of banana beer to share. “Heather it’s been many days since you had the banana beer. Me, I think that I want to bring this gift to you.”

Monday: Solange brings me sweet banana (these would be the yellow kinds). Yum!

Tuesday: Solange’s mom gives me money to help buy electricity (an incredibly moving and sweet gesture).

Wednesday: Jean brings me a small bag full of plantains to add to my collection.

Thursday: Yazina, Divine, and I discuss American Culture over some Crystal Light before making bets on the weather. This is quite typical. It’s what we do.

Most of these things have to do with hospitality, friendship, and bananas.

Luckily for me, after a long, 4-month period of LOATHING anything banana related, I’m back in the saddle again. I sipped that beer and have been cooking up those bananas (awesome in a curry like paste) after hours and hours of supervising final exams.

And maybe just like bananas, I’ll eventually get through this difficult period and be back in the saddle again too.

Our former country director warned us. She told us several times actually how our service in the Peace Corps is full of innumerable amounts of ups and downs and that a lot of times you will feel like you are riding a roller coaster.

There’s been a dip. But there’s reason to believe that things will get better, because they always do. They have before, and they will again. With a ridiculous supply of bananas, rest time, and a holiday coming up, I have no doubts about that.

murakoze (thanks).

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A couple of weeks ago, I was at a Rwandan party (typical) that had to do with some pre-wedding celebration (as to be expected) with Divine (we are basically attached at the hip). I get invited to these sorts of gatherings occasionally with an invitation but most often with a short-notice verbal offer. And usually I say yes. Divine had mentioned the party on a Friday—the final day of school where we passed out reports—and the party was the next day, on Saturday. No problem, I said. And so it was.

I arrived to the wide-open arms of old women draped in traditional Rwandan dress, to a bark brown colored cow, and to a slew of old men on benches already sucking the straws of their shared banana and sorghum beer. Why yes, a Rwandan party indeed. After a few minutes of greeting the family (and let’s be real, working the crowd), Divine whisked me away to a small room on an attached part of the house. The room was quite a bit isolated from everything else, and we sat on an old bed frame with a small blanket, adjacent to a small table holding various household items, like a large spoon to serve and a red jacket to keep warm.

Here, we got to take a break from the stuffy room full of family members discussing wedding formalities, and instead relax, hug, and catch up for a few moments. Abruptly Divine left for a few moments and so I was left alone for a bit (quite common when visiting homes in Rwanda) and wondered what exactly that girl was up to. And y’all, that girl came back holding a 1-liter yellow jug full of banana beer. We kind of have this understanding as I had let her in on my little secret: I like beer. Moreover, I like banana beer (oh yeah, totally have been in the village too long). And so, Divine and I shared this smuggled jug of banana beer in a small, cramped, one-window room in our little village. True friendship.

That party framed the end of not only the school term, but the school year. Before I committed to a long list of holiday obligations and commitments, I spent the last week in my village working on my library project, doing some last minute home visits, and taking some time to just relax. I knew I would need it. My holiday schedule is as follows:

-Model School (helping observe Peace Corps trainees as they practice teaching)

-BE (Boys Excelling) Camp

-Visiting Divine in Eastern Rwanda at her mother’s home

-Visiting another student, Joyce, at her home near the Ugandan border

-Attending and celebrating at the swear-in ceremony for the new group of Education volunteers (called ‘Ed-4’ in Peace Corps lingo)

-DAD’S VISIT TO RWANDA (!!!!!!!)

-New Year’s safari with friends in Eastern Rwanda

-Mid-Service Conference (Peace Corps sponsored conference to discuss ideas, issues, and experiences with my group (‘Ed-3’) as we reach the half-way point of our service)

This particular holiday is approximately 2 months and yet almost every week I have various commitments and events to attend. It’s crazy—even living in rural Rwanda keeps me busy.

In other big news, my sports grant was officially approved by Peace Corps Washington! Which means I can start fundraising. To donate money to help our school acquire materials for our sports program you can follow this link and donate online. Super easy. Everything helps and we would appreciate any contribution you can make!

https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=696-021

I went out for pizza last night with 4 other Peace Corps friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. We went around the table, as per tradition, to share what we are thankful for.

Admittedly (and so not surprisingly), I got a bit emotional and teary-eyed as I explained how much I have treasured and valued the support I’ve received the past year.

From my wonderful network of family and friends back home to the new support systems and families that I have found in Rwanda, not a day has passed that I haven’t been encouraged. Packages, letters, phone calls, hugs, smiles, skype dates, conversations, greetings, and the building of relationships are just the beginning of this kind of support. I can’t really explain it, but I suppose when you move a bagillion miles away to a new place you are able to see your life in a new way, with a fresh lens. I’ve reflected on a lot of things and one things for sure: the people in my love are the driving force for all that I do. I can do this because people believe in me. I can do this because it’s beyond worth it—even in the tough days. I do this because I think God brings us to exactly what we need. I can do this because it’s what is meant to be. My life in Rwanda is no longer just about me, and I think that’s important to note. It’s a strange mixture of the past and present, of the people who shaped the woman I have been, and the people that are influencing the woman I am becoming. It’s a blending of giving and receiving, of believing and trusting. It’s an extraordinarily difficult experience sometimes, but that’s why I love Thanksgiving. This day, in particular, reminds you of what you can offer to the world and what the world gives you. It helps you reflect on what God has put in your life and what exactly you can do with it. Thanksgiving makes you believe in your potential and life again. And so even celebrating a couple days late, I’m just bursting at the seams with gratitude, unsure of exactly how ended up here, but just so glad I have.

 Murakoze (thank you).