Tag Archives: family

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.

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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.

*

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the genocideaire’s daughter

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Sometimes in mid-February if you look around for just a second you see that the sunflowers are dying.

They rise to the sky with a beaming yellow in America’s winter—December—but by the time the rain is ready to control the road, crops, and sleeping habits of our people (we call this our rainy season), they are wilting, no longer glowing, no longer living. They are dying. The petals look sad, the leaves become holey from bug infestations, and their backs arch in a curve, much like my grandmother’s back as she climbs up our dirt road with her right hand holding herself up, and her left hand clutching tightly to her walking stick. Every umuchechuru (‘old woman’) has one. How else could you get around the land of 1000 hills? It’s Rwanda, after all.

Life is a mixture (invyange) of reliable beauty (like the height and shine of our sunflowers) and of inevitable difficulty, like when they die to give way to sorghum, a significantly less appealing crop. It’s brown, you know. Why would you want a field of brown staring at you if you could have fields of green banana and yellow sunflowers? At least sorghum makes for good porridge, I suppose.

Sometimes I drink this in the morning before I leave for school. My pot may have a scratched, old, and black surface from everyday use over the fire, but it sure does make good porridge (igikoma). The sugar laces itself between the sorghum grains and slowly you can mix in grounded up corn. Slowly, that’s the secret. If you put it all together at once you don’t give it a chance to exist as separate elements—you don’t honor their identities. If you go slowly, they thrive, and with time, unite, to become a somehow delicious combination of many things that are good in Rwanda. It’s a wonderful way to start my mornings.

I say sometimes because sometimes I have to fetch water before the sun cracks in the sky and gives us light. I say sometimes because if the rain has come and we have caught God’s tears in my cracked, old basin, then there is often something else to do. Occasionally, I’ll find the grass (the food for cow) for Mama Sifa’s calf (a present last year from Sifa’s new husband’s family; it was the gift for our family at the dowry ceremony) or maybe I’ll help Zahara study for a quiz she has that morning. When I arrive to school after my usual 47 minute walk you can be sure that I’ve already had a decently productive day. But, porridge or not, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I help my family because that’s what we do. It’s not my job, really. It’s just my life.

My family is Zahara (my sister), my mother, my grandmother, my brother, my younger sister, my cousins, my aunts, my uncle, my great-aunt, and that’s just the beginning. My family is big. Some of us are Christians, some of us are Muslims. Some of us live in bigger cities, but most of us, like me, live in the village. I like the rural area, though. It would be better if my house had electricity, but we do the best we can. It’s hard to study, but if we have enough money, my mother buys me a candle that I use after the sun has left the Earth. This is usually a special occasion—the candle, I mean. But no matter. I’ve learned in my life that some days are more difficult than others. I try to smile every day because I have power in my heart. If I study, I can find knowledge, and maybe my future will be full of open doors. At school, I often look across the field, across the campus, and notice how most of the classroom doors are open, even if teachers are in the middle of teaching. I think that maybe my future could be like that. Should be like that. Full of open doors. If I have the chance, maybe I can even choose which one I enter. I try to not think about this too much (paying attention during the lesson is very important and good culture) but I remind myself every day why I come to school in the first place.

My family is good. My mother has a strong will and I’m pretty confident that my grandmother can do anything. I wouldn’t just say that, either. It’s true.

But you remember, don’t you? Life is a mixture of things that you know will be beautiful each and every time (like mother, for example) with some things that are evil. Evil, like the way the mud permeates the lines in my shoes after rainfall and can find its way into anything. Even if you’re careful, some things are just bad in the world. That’s why we need God. That’s why I pray every day. Because even some people. They can be evil.

My family is good.

But my family is no exception to this rule.

My father is evil.

I’m 18 years old. Nearly 19 years ago my country fell victim to itself. I was a small baby then. Zahara, my little sister, would be later born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. But, my mother was a woman in her prime. My father was there too. Mother doesn’t always say exactly how, when, or why (when we talk about it, her eyes become misty and heavy and it’s like she goes to visit another place while I sit there waiting for some kind of explanation) but I know what he did. My father was a Genocidaire. Which makes me the Genocidaire’s daughter. My father killed people. My father killed our people.

Last week in biology, we studied about what happens when a mother has her baby. We drew a diagram of where the baby comes from, but what I remember most is studying how that little, tiny baby is able to breathe from its mother’s own breath. More than that, it’s a mixture of the ones who created it. It has that blood of both mother and father.

I am the blood of my mother and father. If I press hard on my arm for more than 5 seconds, let go, and watch my skin, it quickly becomes white and changes back to the light brown skin that I have. I can try and navigate the blue veins in my body and then I remember again: it’s that blood. This blood is evil, isn’t it? What if it goes into my heart, and evil spills out from my nose, mouth, and eyes? What if I’m my father’s daughter but I don’t want to be?

My father killed people in 1994. My father killed people in our family in 1994. After it was all over, he was in prison for 12 years. He served his sentence, they say. He came back. But he was not okay. He was never okay.

He always liked the machete. I was happy that when came back he chose other objects to beat us with. He would hit mother. I would close my ears, praying it would go away. The beatings continued. Once, he threw a basin at me as I was getting ready to go to school. I told you already, I like to help my family, even if it is early in the morning. But if I did something that was wrong in the eyes of my father, I would pay. I went to school, running, forgetting my favorite blue pen, because I wanted to escape as fast as I could. School was my safe place. He came there once too. Drunk, I’m sure. He wanted to report to our school administration that Zahara and I were bad children. They took him away. But I knew I would have to answer to him later. There would be no escape when the lessons finished.

Did I tell you mother is strong? Well, she is. My mother, who lost 6 of her siblings during the Genocide, decided we couldn’t stay. We left our village to go and live with my grandmother. It wasn’t very far from our home, but it was a change. And it represented so much more, perhaps. She was leaving my father. Women don’t usually do this. But she did.

We changed our homes, our villages, and our places to fetch water so that we could be safe.

Our walk to school was shortened even, a little anyway. From grandmother’s home we walk about 38 minutes as opposed to 47, a small but sizeable change. Plus, we saw more sunflowers on the way to school. They are tucked neatly between large plantations of banana trees and immediately, I fell in love with those small, secret trails. The crisp smell of morning was best under those trees. Maybe that’s where I am most happy. Perhaps. I love laughing, by the way. That, and smiling. Every day, I remember to do these things. I remember because I know if I can enjoy my life, even under difficult circumstances, then maybe I can do anything.

It’s not like this is easy. On top of the upheaval of changing homes and finding temporary safety, my father found ways to continue to bring fear into my family. At night at maybe 7:00, right around the time the stars and moon would rule the sky, we would hear banging on our door. His scuffled steps were heard easily because we have to cook outside. The smoke from the fire wood is far too intense and dirty to even think of bringing our kitchen indoors. But I heard him. Mother knows this sound and she moves quickly to grab grandmother’s stick. We try not to be afraid. Don’t fear. No fear. I say this over. And over. And over. I don’t want to forget.

He occasionally brings a machete. He threatens us. He hits us. He tries to find us. If I can, I hide. Mother is our front line of protection, and so far, it’s worked out okay for us. He hasn’t killed us yet. He hasn’t even beaten us yet since the big move. I told you. Mother is strong. But he comes, he wants us, and Mother stops him. I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know if I really want to know. I know he hits grandmother. At night, I lie awake thinking that if someone can hurt an old person, than surely, their heart is dark. Where is God in this person?, I wonder.

It’s like the sunflowers; my family is strong and close and I love them. They are beautiful. But for every flower that shines and becomes one with the booming clouds, there is one that wilts, dies, and wallows in the soil back to the deep edges of Earth. In our wonderful, good family we have a man that is bad. He’s like a dying sunflower, with no life, no compassion, and certainly no brightness. Maybe it was there, once, a long time ago, but I have never seen it. This man is my very own father.

I’m the blending of two people—mother and father. And of course, I like to think there’s a bit of God’s love in me too. But, maybe the influence of my father ended the minute I came into Earth. My mother and grandmother took over, and so maybe biology is important because while it’s the study of life and how things work, when it comes to humans and who we are, you have the biological factors yes, but you also have the soul. The soul has nothing to do with who impregnated who. The soul is about your human experience and the way you contribute and take from the world. I want to be like a growing sunflower; shining, growing from the good roots of mother, sharing the joys of life with my friends and family. I am a daughter of a Genocidaire, but this does not define me. In fact, it has nothing to do with me. It’s my history, but I take the active choice to separate, to be me, on my very own terms.

I’m Maisara. I’m beautiful, I’m confident, I’m intelligent, and I will be somebody someday. I want to be a journalist, I want to help my family, and no matter what, I love to play football. Love is the most important thing in the world and though I’m a young woman I’ve been able to figure out that much. Most importantly, nothing is impossible. No fear. In all things, no fear.

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ten words

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This one time at college (how many stories start that way? Oh so many…) my friends and I were sitting around, chatting, laughing, hanging out likely until the wee hours of the morning. I think a lot of college stories start this way. Well, at least with my friends and I. We’re talkers. And thinkers.

In fact, one of our great thinkers, Michelle, once posed the ever-present question in one of those long-winded dialogues that I really never wanted to end. You see, talking with friends about anything and everything is, I think, one of the best things that friendship brings us. Often and ideally, friendship gives you the freedom and space to talk about whatever is on your heart, on your mind, or frankly, what’s in your belly (who doesn’t love talking about the intricacies of food?). Michelle was my very first friend at college (and has remained like a sister since). Not counting my roommate, anyway. And let me tell you, the “friendship” I had with my first roommate was essentially non-existent. Awkward, if you will. Actually, it was my roomate’s ex-best friend that would eventually become one of my very best friends. Are you lost yet?  That’s another story entirely.

Like I was saying. It was Michelle—the Texas born, cowboy boot wearin’ woman—that said something in one of our long discussions that has stuck with us ever since. We were probably laughing or something (laughing was of the upmost importance in our friendship; the first time Michelle and I hung out on our freshman orientation trip we laughed. The entire time. I was laughing at her laugh…and she just laughed…and so the cycle continued. People thought we were legitimately crazy. They were right.) when we were perusing Michelle’s writing in one of her many classy journals. As she flipped through the pages, she read aloud one of her entries that asked, “what is time?” I can’t remember exactly, but I am certain we laughed for a very long time. After all, this particular entry was of the existential sort, exploring the conundrum of how time passes so quickly. In fact, I think she even asked something along the lines of whether or not we move through time or whether time moves through us. Like I told y’all, Michelle’s a thinker.

The what is time joke-catchphrase-thing is something we continue to say, even today, though I’m finding these days, we’re taking Michelle’s words a lot more seriously. The thing is, Michelle was right.

Because somehow, it’s 2013, I’m 24, and I’ve lived in Rwanda for 16 months.

Somehow, in 365 days, I’ve become a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a community member, a traveler, a bi-lingual woman, and a volunteer.

But, where exactly, did the time go? Like we always say, what is time?

A friend of mine told me that a fun little exercise to remember the year can be done when you try to summarize your year in 10 words. I probably took him too seriously (because I love these sorts of things) and so I thought about this exercise for hours. What exactly could I say about this year?

This year, in 2012, I started teaching secondary students in Rwanda. Some days, I earnestly tried to teach grammar. But often, we did things like sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, or went outside to observe nature, practiced dialogues, and looked at photos from my life. Some days, I think I might have had a break though. For example, before last term, I decided I was sick and tired of having the following conversation:

Me: “Hello students!”

Students: “Hello teacher!”

Me: “How are you?”

Students: “We are fine!”

You may look at this and think, well, what’s the problem? Let me explain. Every single student says the same thing. I am fine, they say. I am fine. I am fine. I am fine. It could drive one crazy. And it did. I decided enough was enough. These kiddos were going to learn different things to say upon being greeted in English. And so the I am fine days became the days of I am fantastic! I am wonderful! I am SUPERRRR!! (they love that last one). I taught them negative ones too, and I just MELT when a student tells me they are grumpy. Mostly because they say it like, “gra-mp-ie”. It’s too cute.

And so, I tried teaching. I don’t really know what they learned. Who knows. But for the most part, I showed up, and so did they, and we tried to speak English in the best way we could. I shared my phone number (not necessarily kosher in America, but let me just emphasize that Rwanda is quite different and I have been very open in my own personal boundaries here) and so every day I get anywhere from 3-12 calls from students wanting to greet me. And most of the time, they do this in English, and so in some small way, I find this to be a success.

We had three terms this year, and I finished all three. Phew. Teaching is hard work.

But I was much more than a teacher this year. I also ma friends—both in and outside of Peace Corps. To have a friend in Peace Corps is of the upmost importance; they, more than anyone, understand this experience, and so they offer an invaluable amount of support. My friend Suzi and I talked nearly every day. Maybe it was for a quick 1 minute funny story of our awkward lives, but more often, it was 10 or 20 minute conversation sharing our struggles and victories, supporting each other, and to be honest, ensuring that each of us could continue to stay here. Suzi and I have an uncanny amount of similarities. We’re different though, and so it works. It’s a blossoming friendship and without her and my other Peace Corps friends, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be here.

My friends in my village are a special brand. For one, most are my students. I know, I know, I know. Super un-traditional. But the best part is, I don’t really feel a need to defend it. The truth is, I connect with them in a very special way (mind you, I’m not talking about ALL my students here, how could I have that strong of a connection with over 350 students?). I’ve blogged, journaled, and talked about it and still I can’t capture what it feels like to be a role model, a friend, and an admirer all at once. What I mean is that while the students have been very clear that they see me as someone to look up to, I feel the very same way about them, and so this beautiful ebb-and-flow friendship has been created. I am in awe when I see what they give and do for their families; they ask question after question about my culture and why I believe what I do.

And then there is my friends and family back home.  In 2012, I had friends start the path of finding their vocations, I had friends graduate college, I had friends continue to study, and I had friends have babies. I had family members decide to have weddings. I had a cousin get engaged. I missed out on the small, daily things with my mom and dad, which could be even harder to be away from (it’s often the small things that I miss the most). Two of my best friends from high school both got married, and it was heartbreaking to be absent. Being absent and distant was a common theme for my year because, well, hello, I live in the middle of a small, rural African village. But distance doesn’t always disconnect. In fact, it can bring you closer. While I’ve been absent for a lot of important things in my friends and family’s lives, I’ve put as much energy and love as I can, even so far away. I talk to both of my parents weekly. I email most of my friends, creating these wonderfully Oprah-esque (continuing our love for “life” conversations) chains of emails. I’ve managed a few amazing skype dates. I’ve developed an even stronger love for snail mail (as always, the packages have been unbelievably wonderful). None of these things make up for being absent. But you really can’t have it all at once. And eventually, you make peace with this, and just do the best you can. I hope all who are reading this know how much I do love you. And while I am doing this for me, I’m doing this whole entire thing because I believe in it too. If I didn’t, I would have left a long time ago. I want you to know that while I maybe did choose Africa and Rwanda for a time, this is also a season of life, and who knows where life goes next. Time moves just too damn quickly, as I’ve been saying, and so it’s best to just enjoy where you are and believe that things will fall into place as they should be. Being away is the hardest thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer, and to be honest, it’s often the source of a lot of sadness and dark times. But we keep moving, we keep persevering, because let’s be real, it’s the best way to live life. Recognize where you are. Feel what you feel. But take all of this, and go outside, and just work with you got. Because in the days, weeks, and months to come, it will be something different.

In 2012, I saw a lot of beautiful lands. Not only my little corner of Rwanda, I was blessed with an incredible journey of visiting the Northwestern part of the country with dad on his visit. We hiked around a volcano chain, saw gorillas, and spent Christmas lakeside on one of the most beautiful pieces of land I have ever seen. Y’all, I can’t say it enough. If life can bring you to Rwanda, whether now or 20 years down the road, come. It’s a great place, promise. I even went on an epic 32 hour bus ride across Tanzania, en route to Zanzibar. I was in the ocean when one ferry sank, and by the time I reached shore, the Aurora shooting was plaguing news headlines. It was a weird time. But, like Rwanda and yet in a very different way, Tanzania is gorgeous. I ran on those white sandy beaches, amazed that I was here in Africa. Travel is great that way; you can never really wrap your mind around just how big this world is.

And so as the year has closed and a new one has begun and I have now turned 24, I can’t help but do a bit of self-reflection (if you know me, you know I love doing this…I already have THREE FULL JOURNALS from my Peace Corps experience, and so you can just imagine.). Physically, I look a lot different. Blond highlights streak through my hair from the Rwandan sun. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight—last time I checked, I had lost 30 pounds. Though, from dad’s recent visit, I really think I put back on 10, but absolutely no regrets there. I ate like an American for two weeks and THAT was amazing. The physical changes are obvious, aren’t they? It’s easy to look at your reflection and find what’s different. But what about the other stuff?

Am I a better person? Am I kinder? Am I closer with God? Am I more mature?

I don’t know if I know the answer to those questions. I think about them, but it’s often hard to say. Because even those questions, they take time to understand. They take time to see. And really, I don’t think I’ll know what Rwanda has done to my heart and soul and mind until it’s all over later this year.

But I do know this. I am unequivocally grateful. I thank God every day for this—yes, even when I’m crying, upset, and unsure that I can go on. I thank God because between the people that I have met and the stories that I have heard, I know that in 2012, I have been bettered by the people I know. I know people who are so different from me. And yet, they have value. More value than the world would ever say, but they are some of the best people I know. My dad will tell you, the people he met, and the hospitality he experienced; it will literally change your heart. It will make you reconsider how you can treat people with more kindness and consideration in the world—not because you have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s life transforming, y’all.

And so I’ll put those questions of how I have changed on hold for a while. But I will say, that my capacity for love has grown, not because of me, but because of them. Just when you think you’ve given all you’ve got, God shows you that you have so much more. And He shows you through the people he brings in your life, short term or long term.

I thought about all of this as I tried to summarize my year in 10 words.

It took time, even a fitful night’s of sleep (once I get thinking, it’s hard to stop). Here’s what I came up with:

2012

Just when you think you can’t, you can.

For every time that I wanted to fly on a plane and get back to the people I love, God’s always shown me a reason to stay. Whether it was for Divine, for the girls’ football team, for my opportunity to grow, for a capacity to help, or for the undeniably delicious Coke, I stayed. And, honestly, I’m so glad I have.

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you will always get back home

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One Year in Rwanda

MILES RAN (APPROXIMATE): 426

PACKAGES RECEIVED: 32

PHOTOS TAKEN: 1346

MICE KILLED: 8

BLOGS POSTED: 43

DAYS I HADA KITTEN: 3

BOOKS READ: 43

STUDENTS VISITED: 42

UMUGANDAS (COMMUNITY SERVICE DAYS): 4

STUDENTS TAUGHT: 346

HOST FAMILY VISITS: 2

SEASONS OF FRIENDS WATCHED: 10

CUPS OF COFFEE CONSUMED: UNMEASURABLE (but at least 2 per day)

HOURS TALKED ON PHONE: 54

PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS VISITED: 5

PEACE CORPS VISITORS AT MY HOME: 4

HOURS TAUGHT IN CLASS: 399

MATCHES COACHED: 4

DAYS WITH ELECTRICITY ACCESS: 18

Where this bout of homesickness is coming from, I’m not really sure. The one year mark of my service in Rwanda is vastly approaching and so maybe I’m much more attune to what I’ve live with—and what I’ve lived without—for a significant amount of time. These pangs of longing, to my surprise, don’t come around as often as I would have thought. I really think that is because I really am exactly where I should be: I love my life. I have no regrets, no “what ifs”, and I’m genuinely content with what I’m doing here. Lauren reminded me the other day, you’re following your dreams, just like everyone else. It’s a good little reminder.

Yet, when I can feel my heart hurt and my mind drifts to the familiar and comfortable, it comes in intense waves. And, I’m for once not talking about cheese, Chipolte, or the endless array of coffee choices. Heartache, for me, has everything to do with the people in my life. And my mind gives the constant reminder: enjoy the people you have here. The family and friends back home will be right there when you get back. They love you; they’re not going anywhere The mind, in this case, is 100% right. But mind over matter certainly isn’t prevailing; I (probably stupidly) sifted through my photo albums this morning and worked my way in and out of old memories.

I’m missing out on the lives of people I care about the most. Weddings, graduations, babies, travels, heartaches, celebrations, struggles…but maybe what I miss even more is the daily, normal kind of stuff. What I would give for a family dinner, the chance to text my friends the inevitable awkward encounters from my day, or the ability just to call and check in with my parents and say hello. My dad is famous for calling me at least 3 times a day just because, and guess what? I miss that. I took these things for granted, and I am seeing now that often, it’s the daily, un-exciting, normal stuff that builds trust, comfort, and reliance in relationships. I don’t doubt that in a bit over a year I’ll come home and have all of this waiting. Again, I know that. So, in the meantime, how do I feel these pangs of longing—to be with the people who know me best?

Because here’s what is crazy—when I come home someday I’ll have these very same desires and heartaches for the people I have in Rwanda. I’ll want this back. Life is weird like that.

Oprah said once that “you can have it all—just not all at once”. Dad wrote in a recent letter, “enjoy your time in Rwanda, it will go quicker than you think.”

So, I held tightly to the photos of Lance, my family, my friends from all walks of life, but I also set them down so I could look at the newly printed photos of my students—this particular set from our recent GLOW camp. Photos are powerful stuff—that’s why I love them. They remind us of where and what we’ve been. They show us the people who mattered and they take us back to meaningful, fun, crazy, and memorable times shared. They also point to what we have now—our present reality—and where this can take us.

Suddenly, holding images of my girls here, my heart is stirred. I can’t imagine leaving this place. I can’t imagine not being here. I literally, for the first time, can’t imagine my heart, my life, my mind if I hadn’t somehow found myself exactly in this place at this season in my life. Homesickness doesn’t often disappear just because you decide you can handle it. It lingers, stuck in the corners of your mind and heart, rearing itself usually on not so great days. Still, those tears of sadness became dried and my face was replaced with smiles (sometimes life in Peace Corps really does make you feel bipolar) because God gives exactly what you need when you need it. I need those girls—all of my students, as much as they need me. I need this experience. Nothing can replace the love and life I have at home, but I suppose nothing can replace this either. Going to America would not suffice. I’m living a life—for just about a year now—without the strongholds that I had in my life up to this point. But, new strongholds are built, we do the best we can, and I’m making it. I can do this.

I’m teaching this motto of believing in yourself to my students, so I may as well take my own advice. I carry the people here and home with me, holding all of the strength inside, gearing up for another year of plantains, dusty chalkboards, long walks in the village, grass stains from football, and the hope that somewhere along the way I’m making a difference and helping somebody.

 Truth be told, I’ve been helped, loved, and changed far more than I could have even dreamed.

TOP 10 HIGHLIGHTS

Peace Corps: Year One

(I’m absolutely taking a cue from Sports Center here)

 *WILDCARD: NIGHT IN BELGIUM: After a jam-packed briefing in Philadelphia with my original Peace Corps group (called Education 3—the third education group to come to Rwanda), a bus ride to New York, and a flight to Europe, we missed our Kigali connection. This meant we had a free day and night in Brussels. We lucked out with a swanky hotel (courtesy of our airline) and vouchers for food (namely waffles and beer). Anxiety and goodbyes and anticipation had built up in my mind for weeks and so it was nice to have an escape; a time to relax  with my new colleagues and friends before the Peace Corps journey really got started.

 *10: SWEAR-IN: On a muggy December day, after a grueling 3-month training loaded with Kinyarwanda, cultural faux pas, and too much Rwandan food, we became official volunteers, graduating from being trainees. A dream finally becomes a reality for a lot of us. Myself included—after an application process that took over a year, I couldn’t believe the moment had finally come.

 *9: HENDRIX PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLARSHIP INTERVIEWS: I spent about 5 days helping Hendrix interview potential Rwandan students (the best in the country). I got much needed R &R (good and free food and skype dates with my friends and a nice stay in a Kigali hotel complete with a duvet set and cable television) but also had the opportunity to see the potential and opportunity for Rwandan youth—a powerful experience. Not to mention, I was able to connect with my beloved alma mater, a place and experience that is a huge part of me being in Rwanda in the first place.

 *8: CHOIR PARTY AT YVONNE’S HOUSE: Yvonne (who I call ‘Ingaby’ because her last name is ‘Ingabire’ which means ‘gift’) and her mother invited me to a house party for their church’s’ choir. I was there for nearly 7 hours—playing cards, eating, praying, taking photos, and watching the choir do their thing and dancing up a storm amidst the dry dust rising in the sky from their moving feet. Yvonne is a student of mine, but when I’m with her and her mom, Solange, it’s like I’m a part of the family. Yvonne and I are really close; and we’ve been that way since I became a teacher here. Not only was watching their choir amazing (think GLEE, Rwanda style), it was just so comforting to feel that at home. It reminded me of a late-summer BBQ, with easy conversation, and good laughs. Sometimes, it really is the simple things in life.

 *7: GOING AWAY PARTY WITH MY HOST FAMILY: My host family—Emmanuel, Bernadette, Grace, Simon Pierre, and Dani—are one of the best Rwandan families I’ve met. Saying goodbye after three months of them putting up with this crazy girl (me) was heart-breaking but the party they arranged for me was sweet, sentimental, and heartfelt. We shared Fanta, my mom’s special cooking, and gifts. We reminisced about the great (and the awkward) moments (latrine trouble, knowing ZERO Kinyarwanda in the beginning, etc.) and promised to always be together, no matter what. 

 *6: RUGBY WITH JON: My friend Jon—who works with street children in Kigali (he is a volunteer from his church in England, not a Peace Corps Volunteer)—came to visit my village last week and brought a rugby ball along with him to our girls and community football practice. He showed them how to kick and pass, and I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard (literally falling down from doing so) for quite some time. The girls embraced the new sport; showing off their attempts at stealthy moves with Harlem Globetrotter-esque fake-outs and tackles. It really should have been taped because without a doubt, it would have gone viral and the whole world could have seen one of the most hilarious sports attempts ever.

 *5: KIBUYE: From what I’ve seen in Rwanda—and I’ve been to all provinces here—this part is the most beautiful. I visited Kibuye for the first time in April with Sara and Saara (who lives nearby) and between cooking macaroni and cheese (a staple in my diet), sipping coffee lakeside, and eating pizza as a rainstorm came in over and through the mountains, it was one of the most relaxing weekends I have had here.

 *4: GIRLS VOLLEYBALL WIN: In my first stint as a coach, I watched as our girls volleyball team beat the only other secondary school in our sector in the last point of the game. Maybe it was all the more dramatic with the mud and rain drenched in the nooks and crannies of our legs, arms, and hair, but it made for one hell of a victory. Screaming…hugs…emotion…all the beauty of sports in one moment. I couldn’t have been prouder.

 *3: TANZANIA: African road trip, beach time, friends, and street food. It was a vacation greatly needed…and Tanzania absolutely lives up to all of the hype.

 *2: HOME VISITS: the cornerstone of my life at site, vising my community, especially my students, is the source of a great deal of understanding, conversation, laugher, integration, and food. It’s not always easy or fantastic, but the visits that go well often go really well, opening doors (really unique doors, I might add) for me to become a part of families and to show my students and their loved ones that I am 100% invested in them and my job here. I’ve seen countless amounts of photographs, consumed way too much Coke, and have walked a lot of miles on sometimes dry, sometimes muddy, dirt roads. Without any question, it’s totally worth it.

 *1: GLOW CAMP: I’ve written about this, talked about this, and I could go on for a long time about it too. But I’ll keep it simple: this was absolutely my #1 highlight in my first year in the Peace Corps because I was completely in my element, a witness to the strength of a lot of young women who can be Rwanda’s next generation of leaders, and in just the 4 or 5 days that we had camp, I could see how lives can be touched and changed. It really works. It’s the perfect example of why I wanted to do Peace Corps—and why I will continue to do Peace Corps for another year. It was…the absolute best. Suzi called me after her own GLOW camp and said it herself: it was great, and it was such a positive experience. She also told me that she had a moment, sitting there and taking it all in, and realized that of course, this would be something that Heather loves, this is her “homeship.” We had an affirmation wall at camp where everybody could write notes of encouragement to each other. I have a few up in my house to push and motivate me on my more difficult days. They read:

 Heather, you are so fun, and I love how you care for me, how you show us that you are with us. Thank you so much for your good heart. GLOW is the best and now I have the self-confidence. I believe in myself. –Christine

 Heather, I love you soooo much because you are energetic, kind, make a lot of fun, and you have a beautiful smile. I like you. You are so fabulous. –Flaviah

 And maybe best of all (this one always brings me the biggest smile and makes me laugh):

Oprah, hello. I am Olive. I like you. Thanks for GLOW. –Olive

(I think Olive was a little confused about who was Oprah and who was Heather…?)

 1 year down. 14 months to go.

I’m ready, open, persistent, grateful, strong, and happy.

I’m exactly where I want to be, despite all things difficult.

Let’s do this.

 

 

girl, grow up

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I was 16. It was 2005.

I was in my sophomore year of high school. With a license to drive I was toting around my grandma’s old car: a ’97 Chevrolet Lumina. It was maroon-a decent color for a car-but that’s where the perks end. That car caused me hell, breaking down at the most inconvenient times, often when I was running late to my first period Spanish class, or following a yearbook meeting after school. But I remember thinking that it didn’t matter: I had a car, I had the keys, and I had freedom. It was my first year on the Varsity field hockey team and I’ll never forget the letter that each player received after tryouts, forecasting your fate on the high school team–be it JV or Varsity. That year, the letter said something like, Congratulations! You have been selected to join the Grandview High School Varsity Field Hockey Team. Meet for bowling tonight and get ready for a great season. I was humbled by the very talented group of seniors (the first group of girls to play hockey at my suburban Colorado school) and so I think it was that year that I really learnt how to play hockey, how to love it, and what it felt like to be a young, new player on a stacked team of experienced girls. At this point, my parents had divorced and remarried and so both sides of my family grew: new step-parents (Randy, my step-dad, met mom at Divorce Recovery class at church; Gretchen, my step-mom, met dad through her mom, who happened to be my Grandma’s best friend) as well as a new step-brother and step-sister. I was all settled living in Aurora, roaming the perfectly trimmed sidewalks on Friday nights with my friends, working at Dairy Queen (I still know how many scoops it takes to make a large Oreo blizzard thankyouverymuch), and attending Fellowship Community Church on a regular basis. 

That was seven years ago and a lot has happened with time. However, I find myself drifting back to those years, and the years since then, as I compare my teenage years to what my very own students are going through themselves.

Yvonne, one of my favorite students, with a sweet sweet smile, a curiosity for knowledge in any form, and a girl with profound swagger on the football field, told me she was 16 as we looked through her small and treasured photo album. 16. 16. She seems so young and mature at the same time. Being 16 is being 16 anywhere, but it’s a lot different than what it looked like for me. Yvonne, a senior 3 student, lives with her mother, Solange, and her younger twin brother and sister. She told me her father died in the Genocide, which despite Yvonne being born in 1996, is possible and probable, because even though the Genocide officially ended in 1994, violence continued for years after. She loves music, clothes, and henna (what Rwandans use as nailpolish) and I’m pretty sure she has several boys chasing her–she’s quite the catch. She loves her girlfriends and visits them on the weekends. She also has a heavy load of responsibility at home; she helps her mother to cook, to fetch water, and to take care of their black pig out back. Yvonne–or Ingaby as I call her, from her family name, Ingabire–carries a larger weight for her family, and those communal needs often come first. We–myself included–like to think that we put our family first in all things. Many times, we do. But, this is a whole different level entirely. She, like many of my students, study at home only if she has the time and can do leisure activities only if her commitments at home are fulfilled. Even at 16, her womanhood is coming fast, and I would even suggest that children grow up faster here: they have to. 

I thought about all of this as I was getting ready this morning. 

Peace Corps, by nature, gives you a lot of time to think. That’s the definite upside of having a lot of alone time–you can let your thoughts wonder like a calm breeze moving through the trees. Even as extroverted as I am, drawing a great deal of energy from other people, I yearn for when I can think on my own and without interruption. Living alone in the dark nights of Africa can do that to you. 

Like I said, I was getting ready this morning, slipping on my white keds, humming terribly to a Billie Holiday tune that I had listened to on my small netbook the night before. I packed my green and red fake Ray Bans in my African fabric themed bag as I made sure that I had all of my school documents in place. I stopped for less than a moment and realized that I, in this season of my life now, am a wonderfully awkward hodgepodge of youth and maturity. 

I’m only 23. I realize, fully, how young I still am, and yet, as I develop strong relationships with my students, who are often around the mere age of 16, it’s so clear what I am not. In the same way, my best friend in the village, Jackie, is in her mid-30’s, the mother of one of my students, and a level-headed woman running an entire household on her own. Obviously, I’m not there either. So, I wonder, when do I stop being a girl and take on all that is woman-hood (whatever, that is)? 

I’m afraid this is approaching too closely an old classic Britney Spears coming-of-age hit (I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman–I remember reflecting on this song for an assignment in 7th grade. That seems silly now, doesn’t it?) and so I’ll try and keep the self-identity crisis to a minimum. 

What I’m getting at, I think, is that as much as this entire experience is not about me–it’s about my community, my students, my school, the process of integration and teaching, embracing a new culture–you get the idea–I happen to be doing the whole Peace Corps thing as I am “growing up”. 

It’s a new kind of growing up though: it’s more than the dethroning of teenage angst when you realize the world is not all about you, and it’s less subtle, I think than the maturity you find and pursue freely amidst a college campus. There you may change political parties, discover a new way of seeing God, and redirect where you see yourself going in life down the road (all of this, of course, in between studying, nights out and girl talk). Yet, here I am, a teacher in East Africa, a post-grad, and a 23-year old woman. Combine these things together and this kind of growing up–specifically, becoming a woman, I might add–is all about flexibility and balance. 

I have a good idea of who I am, what I believe in, and what I desire in life. Still, I think I owe it to this experience to be flexible and open to discoveries about the world and even myself, because it’s happened to me before: Africa changes people. And this time, I’m entrenched in the culture as much as I feasibly could be and really, I have a life here. Two years of this growing up business here–who knows what that will look like?

So far, I’m learning that I take a lot of pride in being a woman, and that maturity has nothing to do with being a dork: they are mutually inclusive. I blaringly see my limitations. I have seen that I do have a breaking point–everyone does. I understand happiness is often relative, and actually, not necessarily what we should be after. Contentment and gratitude–that’s the real good and real sustainable stuff. I welcome my coffee addiction, my new appreciation for chocolate, and that life’s far too short not to express how you are feeling. I know who my friends are, can’t express how grateful I am for my family, and that we all have the capacity to change the world no matter where we are, what we do, or what we believe. In fact, upon reflection, most of what my parents told me growing up in my teen years–around the ripe age of 16 in fact–is of course, true. Parents have a way of doing that, I see. They told me I would understand some day:

  • if you can count your best friends on your hand, you are lucky. 
  • success is having options. 
  • the people that love you will love you for YOU, and YOU alone. 
  • time goes fast. you’ll want those real good moments back. 
  • balance is key: especially in what you are eating. 
  • in everything, do the best you can–you’ll live with fewer regrets. 
  • do what you love. 
  • listen to what your parents say: they have lived longer–“I was your age once, I know what I’m talking about.”
So, as I try to navigate everything that living in Rwanda throws my way (and some days, this does feel endless), I also continue to reassess who I am, what I’m doing, and the purpose of my life. I’m of course doing this as I have a context for a completely different teenage experience and trying to understand what it’s like to be a teenager in Rwanda. The game is a bit different, that’s for sure. 
 
My parents gave me some pretty solid-sound advice when I was younger, and now it’s all making a lot more sense. I’m at a critical juncture, and I genuinely think that the entire two years in Peace Corps Rwanda could profoundly shape the path I take years and years beyond my life in a small, wonderfully rural village. I’m growing up. But no reason to fret; I’m still the girl I have always been just with a bit more life insights. Oprah, watch out, lady. 

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.