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.
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.