Tag Archives: encouragement

Aside

A few weeks ago, Meredith and I were walking around town in Kigali, most likely searching for our go-to products (oatmeal, cheese, or spices), or maybe even more likely, headed to Bourbon Coffee to scope out the ever hot commodity of internet (and duh, a white chocolate mocha or café late depending on my particular mood of the day). We passed a highly reflective blue wall on the scaffold of some building in town and for the slightest few seconds, I glanced at my image, flipped my hair, and smiled.

Meredith saw the entire thing.

Busted. We laughed and kept moving.

A slight moment of vanity? Completely forgivable. After all, I maybe look at myself in a mirror once every few days or so. Not to mention my mirror (the only one I own here) is a small rectangle, maybe the size of an Iphone. This is quite divergent from the opportunity to see your reflection back home; mirrors litter my house, the stores I visit, and essentially any sort of establishment I frequent. I’ve welcomed this change. While it makes maintaining things like my eyebrows difficult, I am also released from really giving a damn about my appearance.

That didn’t come out right.

As a teacher and the only white girl living in my community, I do want to look culturally appropriate and nice. Especially since wambaye neza (‘you are dressed smart’) is a highly valued comment in this culture. But I’m not reliant on mirrors for satisfaction in my image, and believe me, there’s a difference. That’s what cameras are for, right?

No, really, I’m not saying all of this as a way to promote some sort of new self-righteousness separation from vanity that I’ve discovered in the last year. Oh no, that’s not really my point at all. The thing is, with a significant decrease in dependence upon mirrors, I find myself separated from the exterior of myself sometimes. I sometimes forget I’m a white girl. Is that weird?

Believe me, as quickly as I forget, I’m reminded once again. A child—sometimes even a full-grown educated man—shouts umuzungu (the name typically used for white or rich person). Someone touches my skin, obviously wondering if I’m another species. A woman gropes my hair in profound wonderment—oh my god, they say in Kinyarwanda (Imana wanjye). And yes, this happens every single day. I’ve lived in the same place for over 9 months, and still being white is mind-blowing for many people I live among.

As I forget my whiteness though, I sometimes forget what comes with being a white girl in rural Rwanda. Because I’m white, people often safely assume the following:

  1. I’m rich. Very very rich.
  2. I provide sponsorships. Often and regularly.
  3. I’m better than everyone else.
  4. I know Barack Obama. If they ever did cross another white person in their life, well, then I probably know them too.
  5. I can distribute all of my own possessions—these of course, are replaceable.
  6. I speak only English.
  7. I’m like every other white person in the world.
  8. I can’t possibly cook (or do anything else for that matter) for myself.

Just writing that—making it real—I feel a tinge of anger, frustration, and hurt seethe through my body. I never imagined being white would be this challenging. Because here’s the problem:

I’m a year in.

I’m very solidly integrated into my community. I can speak enough Kinyarwanda (at least enough to get by). Apparently, you can be happy here. I’m doing it. I have relationships that have started to feel very meaningful.

So, what gives?

Well, I’m invited to countless weddings. I’m IN weddings. I’m begged to come to all sorts of church services, family gatherings, parties, you name it. I’m repeatedly requested to visit as per Rwandan culture. I’m asked to give and donate money. I’m a point person for some people who have a problem. I’m asked to take photos. I’m asked to develop photos, spending my own money. And of course, I get the blatant ‘give me money’ every so often.

But even all of that, that’s not what has got me so twisted.

What if it’s the other stuff—the relationship stuff—that doesn’t add up?

What if I am simply a means to get to an end point? You know, make friends with the rich, white girl, and hey, maybe she can hook you up?

What if those people who I love, still see me as WHITE? Not as me, be it Heather or Impano, but the white girl, the umuzungu?

 It’s dangerous territory, I’m finding, to question everything in light of who I am and how this affects the people around me. I am learning that you can never be 100% sure of another person’s intentions. We don’t exist in the heads of other people, and for good reason. You can’t guarantee people do what they do for the right reasons. It’s a tough, heavy realization—one that I’ve never had to struggle with (at least not to this degree). My best, strongest relationships in life continue with an equilibrium of trust. Relationships take two people, and it’s give and take, not because you expect that, but because your motivation is love and you believe the same is true for the other person. If you really think about it, every single relationship you have in your life—be it God, your best friend, your parents, your co-workers, whatever—it’s built on trust. Everyone says that, and it’s obvious, but when really put to the test, working through the muck is extraordinarily difficult. Painful, even. Imagine questioning every good relationship you have in reach. That’s what I’m working through now and it’s not really something I anticipated to question with close community members. I’ve found myself almost paranoid, wondering if my students—especially the ones I’m really close with—love me because of what I potentially bring to the table (money, status, connections) and not because of the times we have shared together. To think too much about that, well, it kind of breaks my heart. Like I said, it’s dangerous territory.

My concerns and worries, I feel, are absolutely justified and understandable. I have to take a step back and take stock of what is happening here because this entire experience is important to process. Yet, Suzi told me something pretty powerful the other night over our nightly phone conversation as I spilled and spewed out these reservations of where I stand relationally in my small village: here, there may always be this question. It won’t go away. You have to learn to cope, to coexist, and maybe best of all, to be free of the worry that you can suffocate from if you think about it too much. I know full well I have to move forward. I know I have to trust my relationships here despite what being white may mean. Because while doubt can act as a necessary compass, to live in doubt permanently, to let doubt consume and taint everything I do—where does this take me? Nowhere.

This will be extraordinarily hard—maybe even harder than making and building these relationships in the first place. But, I have no choice.

A dear friend recently wrote me in a letter saying,

I just flipped through some of your pictures.

You look happy, almost like something in you has healed.

I hope you are as fulfilled and joyous as you seem.

Goosebumps hit all over my arms when I read these words late one Tuesday night before I headed off to take my nightly warm bucket bath. She’s right. 100% right.

As difficult as all of this can be, both the challenges and beautiful easy parts place me in a prime position to grow as a woman. I have issues, questions, and as you can see, doubts, like everyone else, but one thing I’ve learned in the last year is how to recognize a difficulty as an opportunity. I’ve always embraced the power of positivity, but believe me, in a year of village life, even I’ve been stretched to new limits and abilities to embrace times of struggle. That’s healing, my friends. And moreover, I’ve realized that integral to this kind of healing has always been my ability to love and trust. Sometimes, you get screwed over. But most of the time, I think, when you believe in the people around you and trust that they are with you for a reason, you reap a much greater deal of happiness, contentment, and joy in life. I’m not saying being naïve is the answer; rather, taking the leap and continuing to trust in the motivations and intentions of other people will bring you a greater peace of mind than questioning absolutely everything.

And so in the spirit of living but working through doubts, I have every intention to do that with this whole issue of being white. Because these years of teaching, living, and breathing Rwanda does count for something; God put me here for a reason. This isn’t arbitrary. I know I’m more than a random white girl in the village. I know this, because I believe in my friends here. I just do. Slowly, I’m revealing pieces of me to them and, that matters. Every day, I will have to rededicate and recommit myself to this. And the most fulfilling part is that I know I can.

Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.

-Maya Angelou

‘all the world is made of faith, trust, and pixie dust’

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home visits

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

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

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

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

 Steps to a successful Rwandan home visit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

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

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