Tag Archives: friendship

full circle

Standard

A few days ago it rained for five hours straight. And y’all, it didn’t just rain, it really rained. It was relentless; the clouds were a mixture of dark gray and purple and they moved as if they were making landfall from the heavens above. It was about time. It is technically rainy season but we haven’t seen rain for a couple of weeks. I have been able to see the nervous expressions of the farmers at market and as they walk the banana plantations en route to cultivate each morning. Currently, it is harvest season for the beans. No rain, no beans. I could almost feel the smiling faces, joy, and ardent relief from everybody when the rain came. Finally.

I enjoy the rains, most of the time. I don’t really care for how the roads become muddy pits (and thus altering my run schedule immensely), but at least a water source is ensured for a short time anyway. My house – like many – has a make-shift rain catching system. Rain falls on my roof and falls into a hanging tin. If you place a bucket below this tin, voila! You have water. You can be sure that when water is pouring from this magical piece of tin, I place every basin and bucket I can find under so that I have water in as many places as possible. When this successfully happens I unreservedly can say that it’s been a good day.

If rain is absent I have no other alternative than to fetch.

Alphonsine (the school groundskeeper who also washes my clothes and helps with other household chores when I need the assistance) comes by, grabs the 20-liter yellow jerry can, and goes on a water hunt. In this case, I give her 100 Rwandan Francs (the equivalent to around 20 US cents). There is a water tap source about 200 yards from my house, but is not reliable all of the time. If water is missing there, we can check at the pastor’s house across the street. They have recently built a tank system that stores an incredible amount of water. However, if you are in the midst of an intense dry season, like this past summer, then the only other water alternative is to head to a small lake south of my house. It is an hour-long trip and it’s largely uphill on the way back. It sure ain’t easy.

Alphonsine fetches for me around 3 times a week. If I need more then I take it upon myself to find water (amazi). Luckily, it’s almost always been present at the pastor’s house. However, a few times I have been unsuccessful in finding water and so I am forced to make fun decisions such as:

Should I wash my body or use the water to drink?
Should I use this water to cook or clean my floor?
Do I have enough water to at least wash my feet?

It gives you a hell of a lot of perspective when these are things you have to think about.

What I’ve noticed about myself and this whole water thing and really, life here in general, is just how…dare I say iteasy it has become?

In the beginning, about two years ago, finding water was a scary thought. Cooking with charcoal was a mystery. Washing my feet seemed stupid. Wearing igitenge (African fabric) to respect the more conservative culture felt strange – especially if I was just going out on the road for a couple of minutes! I was intimidated to walk into one of our shops to buy sugar, batteries, salt, or some necessary material I needed at home. Walking the roads was foreign; this was not my home.

But this is where life is a bit crazy.

I’m 100% coming full-circle.

The school holiday has arrived and so I’m no longer teaching. Just like the way I started, my work-load is well…next to nothing. Free time is the name of my game. I’ve switched back to cooking with charcoal, leaving behind my finnicky petrol stove. When I moved here that was my cooking source and I abandoned it about a year ago in lieu of something less messy. I chose petrol, but the reason I am back to charcoal is because it is significantly less expensive. In this final month in Rwanda, I am with Divine and we decided that charcoal would be our preferred method in cooking our meals. I am seeking out people to visit again – just for the hell of it – and I’m cleaning my house because I enjoy it.

My life is currently composed of all of the foundations that were present in the beginning. Only now, I’m so in my element.

I can have a hot, fiery charcoal stove ready in 5 minutes.
I embrace the free time; my house is sparkling clean. Mopping, sweeping, organizing? I barely have to think about it.
I wash my body at least two times (sometimes three!) per day. Being clean is important. It’s good culture.
These roads are ours now; I know the grooves and indentations in the soil (I have fallen enough times), and I know the back roads to take me to the forest, churches, or the never-ending plots of farm-land.

Life is slowing down. A lot. Which is good, because the last part of my service here is closing things up, saying goodbye, and soaking up the best parts of Rwanda before I head home. That’s why I am staying, you know. Most of my group leaves in less than a week, but I elected to stick around an extra month so that I could slowly phase out of this. I’m so glad I have.

Yazina and Divine, two of my girls, are living with me for the next week as they take their national examinations. They live far from the exam location and so we arranged for them to stay at my house so that they could focus on studying and not on the difficulty of commuting to sit for their exams. It’s been lovely, wonderful, and so much fun.

I have really realized how much I love taking care of people in this process.

We are in the second day of exams and so the girls have been with me now for a few days. I rise with them early in the morning and immediately put the kettle on to make some tea. I organize the sugar, the cups, and the bananas as they continue to read from their worn books. When it’s time to drink, we pray, consume, and Divine and I share the imigati (the proverbial “bread” that is, scripture from our Jesus Calling devotional). They then go to wash, kwisiga yo amavuta (put on lotion), and beautify themselves to go take their examinations. During exam week, they have two exams per day, and so when they leave in the morning I won’t see them again until around 4:00 or 5:00pm.

Once they leave, I take time to myself to journal, drink coffee, and listen to music (currently I am obsessed with a group called Imagine Dragons). I start cooking mid-morning, and I cook a lot. Divine advised that to save time, I should cook once per day, but cook enough to make two meals. Brilliant and sound advice! I’ve been cooking macaroni, beans, rice, vegetables, and plantains. I put the food in warming containers so it will stay relatively hot throughout the day. When I finish to prepare food for the girls, I clean. I add to my growing pile of things to take back to America and also add to the growing pile of give as gifts to my Rwandan friends. Eventually, I run. This week I have also been teaching a woman in my village who has recently been accepted with refugee status to come to America. I don’t quite know the ins-and-outs of her story, but she is a Rwandan woman who has lived in Congo, Rwanda, and Kenya. All of her family will come to the United States in December and she doesn’t know any English. She practically grabbed me as I was running last week and begged for some emergency lessons. With all this free time as I wait for the girls to finish their exams, I figured, oh, why not? Afterwards, I come home, paint my nails, write more of “thank you/goodbye letters” until I hear the sounds of the girls on the road (they are easy to listen for). I go out, greet them, bring them inside, and we do it all over again.

So many moments this week have been filled with déjà vu. Only this time, it’s just different. It’s like I belong, or something?

And it’s better. So so so much better.

Life on the roads and in the village isn’t necessarily a cake-walk. No, getting called umuzungu or being asked for money still presents all of the issues that exist when in the situation I am in. The lying, issues of trust, and all the layered difficulties that I have discovered over the months are still present too. None of that goes away – ever. But, that’s life, isn’t it? No matter where you are there is always going to be some sort of challenge. And so maybe it’s more important to embrace and thrive in what feels natural, easy, and normal. My daily life here feels normal y’all. Fetching water, using a latrine, sleeping in a mosquito net, shopping at market, putting hot water for tea later in my thermos, wearing a bandana “African style”, and washing my dishes in a basin feels utterly and completely…standard. I don’t even think about it anymore. And now that I’m doing all of this and somehow playing “mom” for the next week is honestly, like, super fun. I like checking in with the girls to make sure they get some sleep, I like cooking for them, I like making them tea, and I like providing water and soap so they can wash all the times they want. Maybe it feels extra good because so much of my time here has been me getting taken care of; now, I’m finally able to hold my own when it comes to living a semi-Rwandan life.

The girls have been staying up late to study and I have been an old woman and retiring to bed well before they do. They have been sharing a mattress in my living room and I’ve been sleeping as per usual, in my bed. To go outside they must pass through my bedroom and last night I woke around 4:00am to them slipping through, failing in their attempts to whisper. I followed them outside and low and behold, they were crouched on the ground ferociously trying to gather these flying insects that look a lot like fireflies.

Um. What are y’all doing? I asked them. Minus the y’all, of course.

Turns out, sometimes after big rains, these particular insects increase and fly around, particularly in areas of light (they were hanging around my light bulb outside my house). The girls, and almost all of the neighborhood, were collecting these bugs into a bowl so they could cook them later. Yep, cook them and EAT them later. I bowled over in laughter, is this seriously my life?

I crawled back into my bed with a smile on my face.
How is it that this life is so much a part of me now? How is it that I feel totally and completely a part of things? How is it that I can be completely myself with these girls? That I can take care of them (as they have taken care of me) and it feels like we’ve been in each other’s lives all along?

For this time though, I don’t think about making the adjustment from this kind of life to life back in America.
I don’t think about what it will feel like to say goodbye.
I don’t think about what it will be like when the comfortable part of this is over.
I don’t think about any of this.
Instead, I pray.
I thank God, over and over again, for making this place my home.

I’m realizing more now than ever, I somehow, somehow belong. I’m a far cry from being a Rwandan or a true villager, but in my efforts to try and try try again, it worked.

I’m coming full-circle only this time instead of making a place a home, I’m just existing in the home that I have already built. I’m blessed enough to have my Rwandan family members alongside me. Maybe sentimentality is starting to take over or something, but with each passing day that I keep house, easing into the day, waiting for the girls to come back home, I keep thinking of how right it all feels. I’m glad my ending will be like this. It will be about being home.

Who would have thought?

my girls and my Rwandan family; Divine and Yazina

my girls and my Rwandan family; Divine and Yazina

Advertisements

kubera imana

Standard

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

What’s Kibeho?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did we do, exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7%

Standard

I could delve in and out of the small, gritty details but hashing them out doesn’t really change what has happened. I started writing this by giving a synopsis of the facts (and what I know for sure) but I deleted it because that isn’t what I want to focus on. Playing cop and tracking down the guilty is exhausting. After 5 days of running through a thousand scenarios in my head and leading some kind of “investigation”, I just can’t do it anymore.

I will tell you this:

Money was stolen from me last week. From my bag. From my bag that was sitting on my table in the front room of my house.

I sold my small computer to a colleague after our GLOW party. He purchased my small, used computer for about the US equivalent of 60 bucks. The thief took a third of that, close to 25 US dollars. The thief took the money sometime between the end of the celebration and the next morning. However, I have reason to believe it occurred just before dark as girls headed home post-party. Moreover, I have compelling evidence to believe it was a GLOW girl – yes, one of my own – to do that action. You can imagine how that felt. On one hand, I was so mad at myself. How could I be reckless by leaving my bag vulnerable? And once your start chastising yourself, it can be hard to stop.

Have I been an idiot to be as open as I have?
Are these girls REALLY my friends?
Is my Peace Corps service tarnished by the role of money in some of my projects and relationships?
Have I been getting used this entire time?

And on the other hand, I just felt pure betrayal. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small amount of money, but it’s hard to ignore the layers rooted in this problem. I can deal with the loss of money (even though I was counting on having all of it for my impending travels around Rwanda) but I am not okay with stealing. Not from my girls.

Fidele, our director of studies, and one of my good friends from the very beginning of my time as a volunteer, has been working with me on how to approach this issue. He’s insightful and often gives good advice when it comes to these sort of things. “We must search and investigate slowly. Slowly by slowly, “ he told me. He called a meeting with all the girls who had entered my house and asked where and what they did in the time the theft happened. While it was a good meeting in terms of getting things on the table, so to speak, it added even more stress because tensions arose quickly. Nothing is ever simple here. Working with young women is amazing 98% of the time. But when drama arises, it is absolutely miserable.

I started to take stock of past behaviors and tendencies in the relationships I have with each girl that could have taken the money. Those continual and consistent home visits really paid off in this situation; I know a lot more than the community might realize. I know where these girls come from, the challenges they face, and their family dynamics. I KNOW THEM and that may be the most powerful tool I have in trying to sort all of this out. I carefully considered the things each girl has told me. I thought about the times each girl has tried to create issues or conflict with other girls. Because believe it or not, this problem became a lot more than just about an incident of theft.

Cries of “jealousy” surfaced and I wanted to know their roots. Basically, one girl was accused early on as being the thief and she completely freaked out and said that it was just another example of a lie in order to “make separation between us.” “Us” refers to myself and her.

She is one of two of my girls that have frequently discussed about having “enemies” and that people in the community have tried to spread “bad ideas” so that my relationship with them would suffer. However, one skill that I have keenly developed over the past 2 years while serving in Rwanda is the ability to understand people and why they do the things they do. And as I contemplated these claims, these stories didn’t make sense in light of the behavior of the other girls involved. The girls that said rumors were being spread about them are actually the ones harboring jealousy. They are creating enemies and conflict in their head and manipulating these kind of events to hide their own insecurities . They regularly see themselves as victims. I was close with these two girls very early in my service, but as my life here has continued, my relationships with other girls have become strong as well. For whatever reason, this does not sit well with them.

And it’s these two girls where money has played a very questionable role in our relationship. There have been far too many incidents where it has been highlighted in a problem between us and slowly it’s chipped away at my level of trust for them.

I of course also considered the feasible probability of each girl involved. What kind of opportunity did they have?

Following the meeting with Fidele, I also tried to see if any of their stories had “holes”. And on an early morning run a couple days following the incident, I was able to find a small gap in one girls’ story. Her story almost made perfect sense. Almost. But I found a small lie in her explanation that could point her out as the one who stole my money from my bag.

Finally, I consulted my headmaster and we discussed the psychology of this whole thing. He studied psychology for a long time in higher education. That, in addition to his extensive experience working with students as an administrator, makes him a pretty qualified person to work with on something like this. After providing more background information, we felt pretty confident in who the thief was. However, we are committed to moving slowly. Without a confession you can never know for sure. We don’t need to come down on this girl right away, we can wait and see what happens.

It was quite painful to think critically about the inter-workings of these relationships formed over the time I lived in my village. After 2 years, it’s not always enjoyable to be honest with yourself about why people “love” you. That being said, it was simultaneously an empowering experience, because it made me more resolute and totally sure about other relationships that I have. While there are people motivated by extrinsic things (namely, money) there are still some people who love me for me. They may not be many here, but they exist. And they are (and will continue to be) some of the most loyal friendships I have had.

Fidele told me without reservation, “don’t trust anybody. Don’t trust me, don’t trust that girl, this girl, or anyone. Don’t trust.”

Though I am certainly far too giving of my trust, I am also human. And I absolutely believe that in order to have full relationships, you must learn to trust people. But he is right in that if you trust everybody you are a fool. I must trust, it’s just about knowing who it goes to.

As I said, despite having a pretty strong idea of who stole from me, there exists a tiny sliver of doubt. That’s enough; and so honestly, I’m ready to just let all of this go.

I escaped this overbearing issue for a couple of days by visiting my friend Sarah at her wonderful site, a couple hours away.

We drank a beer in public at a bar in her village – a sign we are definitely old time 2-year volunteers who are ready to let go of some inhibitions that we’ve maintained during our services – and ate some seriously good food. Perhaps best of all, she has running water AND wonderfully strong water pressure from her shower! Y’all, a shower. I’ve been taking bucket baths every night and so a shower is a beautiful reprieve and is a gem of a find in rural Rwanda. Post-shower I was clean as I have been in months. I relaxed in my blue sarong, clean, listening to “This American Life”, and happy I took a couple of days outside Ruramira and outside the stress this problem has put on my heart.

I reflected delicately over what the last few weeks has brought in my life:

  • I officially closed all paperwork for my sports grant project.
  • Margaux, the new volunteer who will be replacing me in my village for her two year Peace Corps service, visited me for three days to learn the ropes and basics of our village.
  • I finished my last leg of teaching, grading, and obligations surrounding my primary assignment of being an educator.
  • I met with my friends and their respective replacements at one of our favorite regional towns and talked a lot of about the future.
  • The GLOW girls put on an amazing party to honor our accomplishments and achievements from 2012 until now. They did me proud. It was our last time together as a group.
  • And yes, money was stolen from me and a witch-hunt ensued.

In the midst of all these doubts and disappointments considering which one of my girls could have stolen from me, I kept coming back to the most obvious fact of all:

THIS IS THE END.

It’s a matter of fact, and it’s coming. Without any regard to how my days are filled. And when I become engaged with how the days are moving along, it’s very easy to see that the transition period is in full swing. And so, the ever-present (and stressful) issues of trust (really, more about mistrust), deception, and lies will not be removed from this inevitably up and down experience. But, I’ve prayed and asked God to help me forgive and to also be more aware of the way I am trusting people. I want to accept what has happened without it defining the greater part of my service. I don’t want to leave with a sour taste in my mouth.

I recognize fully that I’ve made mistakes in my service. I didn’t do the PEACE CORPS THING perfectly. Other volunteers could perhaps look at some parts of my actions here and say that I had something like a theft coming for me. But, let’s be real, there isn’t a right way to do this.

MOVE AWAY FROM YOUR FAMILY. CRY. LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE. CRY SOME MORE. ADAPT TO A NEW CULTURE. LIVE AMONG SOME OF THE WORLD’S POOREST. MAKE FRIENDS. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS. HELP. LIVE WITHOUT EXCESS. BE SICK. WATCH MOVIES. EAT BANANAS, OR WHATEVER THE LOCAL FAVORITE DISH MIGHT BE. MAKE BEST FRIENDS WITH YOUR HEADLAMP. TRY AND DO SOMETHING GOOD. TEACH. LEARN. CHANGE. SHARE ABOUT AMERICA. AND TELL YOUR AMERICAN FRIENDS ABOUT THE PLACE YOU CALLED HOME FOR A COUPLE YEARS IN YOUR LIFE.

I’m 25 months in. When you break it down mathematically, I have finished 93% of my service. That leaves 7%.

Can I fix and correct my mistakes with 7% left of my Peace Corps life?

No.

But, I can adapt. I will be devoted to what has always been right and good for me during my time in Rwanda. I will learn from all of these experiences. And I will make my last 7% – my last 6 weeks – great. I can do this, because that’s what Peace Corps Volunteers (and really, people in general) do. Sometimes crappy things happen.

So what exactly are you going to do about it?

And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know…
My weakness, I feel, I must finally show…
The way you invest your love, you invest your life
Awake my soul.
– Mumford & Sons “Awake My Soul”

opening and closing doors

Standard

At our most recent Peace Corps Conference (dubbed COS: Close of Service) we met for three days to reflect on our service for the last two years, to have open discussions about both the successes and complications of development work, to begin the process of leaving the government, and to gain understanding on re-entering and adjusting to life back in the United States. The very last session we had is apparently something all Peace Corps Volunteers around the world do at the end of their service – a guided visualization.

Led by a Peace Corps staff member who has an innate ability to communicate well with anybody and has been in Peace Corps posts in various countries, he told us to “get comfortable” as we would be trying to cover a couple years of memories and emotions in just a few minutes.

I chose to move to the front of the large room and lie face down, my eyes buried between my two crossed arms. I closed my eyes. The lights dimmed and he put on a beautiful instrumental track of a piano star from England. It was immediately stirring; even before he started the visualization I knew I would be emotional. The music played for a few moments and my heart started to slow and I become more in tune with the moment.

In a soft yet steady voice, he told us to think back before our arrival in Rwanda in 2011.

Think about the moment you decided you wanted to do the Peace Corps.
You start the application.
Where were you? Who was the first person you told about starting the application process?
How did you feel?
You complete the interview and soon you have moved further in the process to become a volunteer. Maybe you question this path you have chosen for yourself. Maybe you think you are irrational. But for whatever reason, you continue to stick with it.
Months later, you get that notorious blue envelope with your official invitation to serve in the assigned country. What did you think as you opened it up? Who was with you?
You are invited to serve in Rwanda. Rwanda. What did you think?

He stops for a bit and lets us go through all of those feelings, times, and places. It feels very real – I remember it all clearly and so well. And me being me, I start to cry. I cry out of both happiness and sadness; as I think back to the seeds rooted in this experience, I can feel just how badly I wanted this to work and how deeply I longed for this dream. How so many small things fell into place so that my journey would take me to Rwanda. How long ago all of this was.

He continues.

You say goodbye to people you love. You say your farewell to America. Where do you visit before you leave? What do people tell you as you prepare to go? What went through your mind when you crossed the security point in the airport and you were alone, headed for something you really couldn’t envision?

You leave. You go to the staging process in Philadelphia. You are in a room with a group of people signed up for the exact thing you are to do: teach in Rwanda. Who did you talk to? What was the mood of the group? What did you do your first night together?

You arrive in-country. What did the weather feel like? What is the first thing you see outside of the airport?

It is the first morning after sleeping in the house of your host family. What do you hear in the morning? What do you smell?

After a long training, you move to your site permanently . You are new.
Who is the first person to befriend you? Is anyone waiting for you at your house?
What does your job feel like?
You do something extraordinary in your community. What was it? Who helped you?
At some point you travel with some Peace Corps friends. Where do you go? You see something together you will never forget – what is it?

Now it’s time to prepare to leave.

Who do you want to say goodbye to? Why is it so hard? Who will you hug? Who do you want to stay in touch with? What do you tell them? What do they tell you? What is the thing you will remember about your home for two years in your village?

You touch ground in your hometown or the place you are coming home to. People are waiting for you. People are cheering for you at the airport. You are home. Some you haven’t seen for a very long time.
Who is there? What is it like to be home again? What runs through your mind?

How will you talk about Rwanda? What will you say about your experience? What do you want them to know about your country?

All of this lasts around 25 minutes or so. He asks these questions slowly, with pauses in between so that we can go through this visualization little by little. By the end, I have cried so many tears that bags have formed under my eyes. I wasn’t the only one; all 20 of us were moved very deeply. My heart is bursting with a lot of things, but the biggest is gratitude. To so many people. Thinking back and reflecting made it so clear: these last 2 years have been the most difficult in my young life, but completely the most rewarding and the most life-changing. I’m 24 and I feel like I have had the experience of a life time.

My heart also hurt after that visualization because on a very fundamental, spiritual level, I knew my time was coming to an end and the idea of a third year extension that I had quite seriously considered was not the path I should take. I wanted it so badly and so I put my trust in God to make the best decision and in looking for an open door here, it ultimately didn’t come to fruition in the way I was hoping for. It was very close. In fact, a day prior to this visualization, I was all but ready to sign papers and take a job. But I didn’t, and I’m not going to.

Here’s why.

*
From the beginning, I knew if I did a 3rd year in Rwanda it would have to be what I called “very compelling”. I miss my family and friends and so another year so far from home had to warrant an irrefutable opportunity attached to it. But more than the job, it had to be the right situation in my life, with all things in place so that I could truly feel content and happy as I transitioned to something different. I would have loved to stay in Ruramira (my village) but I knew I didn’t want to formally teach another year, ruling out a site extension. Last month, I met with a director of an organization associated with Nike that acts as a “catalyst organization” to develop ideas for girls empowerment in Rwanda. However, an open job was not made clear and it served much more like an information interview where I was able to pick her brain about girls’ development but not really be offered a formal position within the organization. Not sure where to go next, I briefly considered extending as a PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader). I could work internally within Peace Corps, helping other volunteers, making site visits, and partnering with an NGO to gain some professional experience. I would even have access to drive a car! The drawbacks? Living in Kigali and not working as much in the field on a daily basis. Those were two pretty big strikes and praying to God for a sign I pursued yet another job posting sent via the Peace Corps. It was a job that looked like THE ONE.

It was a job based in the district where I already live now (called Kayonza), with a renowned organization, and operating under what is called the Women’s and Girls Initiative. I would work as a program intern, supervising girls’ clubs that were created to reach and help out-of-school girls. I would help improve their cooperatives (both artisan and agriculture), teach life skills, help develop the programming of the clubs, and work within the organization to do things like monitoring and evaluation. Rooted in field work with Rwandan girls, I could barely contain myself. IT’S PERFECT.

I made contact with the point person and had two “interviews”. The first one was initiated by a representative from Nike – she wanted to partner with this organization and wanted to see if I could serve as a link between the two, teaching their curriculum within this other initiative.

That particular interview (if you could call it that) was terrible, to be honest. It was filled with development oriented jargon, acronyms, and policy driven lingo. While these things are certainly interesting, I just sat there with my mouth wide open: my best friends are young Rwandan women, y’all. Do you want to hear a bit of what I have experienced with them? I don’t think I’m an expert or anything, but I’ve been working directly in the field for these past two years, have deep relationships with girls in my club, and these development workers seemed disinterested, at best. It was really disheartening. For nearly 3 hours I was talked at and I was not very happy about it. Two days later after some soul-searching, I sat down for a second interview. It went much better. It was with the leader of this initiative and her country director and they let me have free reign with what I wanted to talk about and what I wanted to say. I told my Peace Corps story. I bragged on my girls and we actually discussed the job at hand. I walked away much more at peace. And a bit sad – in a lot of ways I wanted this job. But I knew I couldn’t take it. It would be forcing an opportunity to work in my life when really, it should fit much more naturally.

It came down to the fact that they want someone to start working NOW and I’m not really ready to give up my time in my community. Also, they want all lessons taught in Kinyarwanda – 100%. Yeah, I can speak the language, as I have lived in the village for all of this time. But, in GLOW for example, I have girls who can translate and work between the two languages not remaining confined to only one. I appreciate and commend this organization for connecting with out of school girls, but at this point in my professional experience, I don’t feel qualified enough to deliver exactly what they are looking for. Truth be told, a Rwandan woman should really be offered that job.

And in this long, back and forth process, I was able to admit to myself how fearful I am of saying goodbye. But I can’t fight the reality of the situation anymore. I have to be strong, ready to feel that, and to trust in God to get all of us through it. Admitting this fear to myself made the choice much easier. In December, I will come home.

I sat on Divine’s bed yesterday and told her this story and my final decision. Telling Divine – more than any paper work, facebook status, or declaration – represented the finality of this decision. I told her slowly and carefully. And my heart broke all over again as I watched her process my words. She cried, sobbed, and it was my first time to see her so vulnerable and heart broken. I waited patiently as she grieved. The amazing thing is how understanding she was. She agreed, based on the opportunities at hand, that I had made the correct decision. The hard one, but the right one. I told her how much she means to me and that I am committed to helping her achieve a good future. I am going to support her final three years in secondary school and I will come back and visit her in Rwanda. My story and connection to this place has just begun, I think. I will call her as much as I can and I hope one day she can visit America. I’m a woman of my word and I will do everything I can to ensure she has a good life. There are things we are all meant to do in our own lives and this is one of them for me.

She told me between cries that losing me would be like losing a sister. She said that I was a miracle in her life.

I tried to convey amidst my own tears that all of these sentiments were the same for me. “It’s the start of our friendship, not the end,” I insisted. And I really do believe that. I know what distance can do to relationships, but it works both ways. Sometimes they fail because of distance, other times they remain. If for nothing else, because they were meant to be.
*
What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.
-Helen Keller

born again

Standard

I’ve been to my share of weddings, especially in Rwanda.
Okay, yeah, that is putting it mildly.

I’ve easily been to 15 weddings in this country. Which, really is out of control.

I’ve also attended engagement parties, church fundraising events, choir productions, and have now hosted two talent shows while in this land of a thousand hills. However, up until this weekend, I had yet to witness a baptism. This has stood out like a sore thumb on my Rwandan bucket list; baptisms and church and Imana (God) arguably sit at the top of cultural strongholds. These, of course, along with fanta, respect for authority, and at least where I live, bananas.

And so I eagerly accepted Eugenie’s request for me to attend her umubaptismo. Eugenie, a Senior 3 student and GLOW club leader (she’s vice president) is one of the sweetest girls I have. She is small, petite, quiet, witty, intelligent, and very kind. She’s really good at theatre, singing, and she loves praying at the Pentecost Church. Oh yeah, that’s important information. You see, I wasn’t just going to any kind of baptism. It was with the Pentecosts, y’all!

Eugenie invited me to her special day weeks ago in great anticipation, and when she provided the date (July 6th) I hesitated as I had considered traveling out West to visit Lake Kivu and hang-out beachside for America’s birthday, the 4th of July. Yet, my hesitation was small and short-lived. Certainly, I could find something else fun to do for the holiday, and supporting one of my friends was far more important. I remember the day I was baptized like it was yesterday, and next to committing my life as a Christian, it was having the most important people in my life in attendance that made it all the more special.

I was kept busy the morning of Eugenie’s baptism. Suzi and Olive, one of the neighborhood kids (and perhaps the most adorable child in the world) had spent the night before. We ate macaroni, watched Aladdin, played with photo booth, and Suzi and I even attempted to wash this young child in a basin. It was…well, it was an intriguing short experiment in parenthood. Babysitting is fun, however, it is somehow wonderful to hand the child back over in the morning. And I do say that with all of the love in the world.

Anyway, we cleaned up from our sleepover, Suzi headed back to her site, and I washed my body thoroughly as I didn’t want to be perceived as dirty for this important event. Eventually, Eugenie and Zahara (another GLOW girl) arrived and we headed out on motorcycles to the lake that the baptism was taking place. It was a treacherous ride; the lake is located in my district but it took over 40 minutes on motor bike to get there. The road was rocky, dusty, and full of strange grooves. The dry season is among us without any question; by the time we dismounted the motorcycleI was drenched in brown dust and had a sore butt to boot. So much for my long and comprehensive wash.

Immediately, I was taken aback by the sheer amount of people surrounding the water. Eugenie took this opportunity to explain that this was a special day for many people to be baptized in this particular lake. Everyone interested from my sector, for example, was allowed to come, get in line, be prayed over, dipped, and become born again. Nobody could be turned away. And so you can just imagine.

I slowly meandered on a path separating the rice fields and the base of this lake and heard shouts of “umuzungu!” or for the people from my sector, “Impano!”. I was wearing my turquoise skinny jeans and was able to look through my fake Ray Bans at nearly 500 people glancing my way. The camera man who had been assigned to take photographs of this life-changing experience stopped in the middle of his job to capture my arrival. People rushed to find their camera phones before I passed too quickly. Students from my school came rushing to give me a hug. I frequently feel like a celebrity in this country, but no more so than at this mass baptism. Plus, everyone was repeating over and over, “come! Be baptized by the Holy Spirit! Now is your time!” I smiled, nodded, but politely declined. Once I explained how I had already been baptized, that was good enough. Thank goodness.

Eventually, I made it down to the rim of the water with Eugenie and wished her well as she got in line. While Zahara and I waited for Eugenie’s turn, we watched as old women, young children, middle-aged men, and everyone and anyone prepare to be saved. A large choir was singing in between the lines, repeating imbaraga, imbaraga, imbaraga over and over (this means ‘power’ or ‘strength’). Two white-roped old men stood waist-length in the water welcoming people as they came to show their commitment to God. They closed their eyes sincerely, lifted their old, shaky hands, and almost violently placed their congregants neck, face, and upper-body in the water. Some people would come up with a nearly blank expression on their faces while others would be shaking violently, screaming, and in need of 3 or more other people to carry them out of the lake. Many times they would begin praying instantly and you couldn’t ignore their strong emotion and convictions as they finished to be baptized in the name of God. It was very powerful and intense- and I was just watching.

I witnessed at least 50 people wade in that water until it was time for Eugenie.

As always, she entered the water with grace, the corners of her mouth in the smallest smile. She’s an unassuming type, content and peaceful, but not showy. The pastor prayed over her, closed her nose with his hand, and she was under. After a second or two she came up for air, was grabbed by an elderly woman, and had a piece of African fabric on her face to dry off.

I, of course, confused this wonderful moment with a sporting match and had cheered her name like she had just scored a game-winning goal. Awkward.

You go girl! Yeah! Eugenie! Woooooo!

But, hey, like I said, it was a Pentecost oriented baptism experience, and so a little hooting and hollering was quickly forgotten. Eugenie changed her clothes and was glowing; she told Zahara and I that this was the most important day in her life.

After, us three took motorcycles back to Eugenie’s house for her baptism lunch and party. 4 of our other GLOW leaders – Yazina, Divine, Clemantine, and Maisara – joined us to support our friend. It was so fun to celebrate with all of the girls; it’s neat to see how they encourage each other outside of the classroom. That’s really what GLOW is all about.

The party started with prayer and singing from their hymnal. I even knew one of the songs – either a sign that I’m starting to fit in or that I’ve been in Rwanda a bit too long. True to Rwandan tradition, we heard speeches from Eugenie’s mother, her father, and Eugenie herself. Her speech was short and sweet. She mentioned again how this was a really important time for her and she was so grateful for what God has given in her life. And, at the end, she looked at me and said it was an honor to have me there so we could share something so important. I smiled with watery-eyes and was again grateful that I had decided to attend. We were served a huge plate of food (rice, isombe (a spinach-like dish), fried potatoes, and plantains). No alcohol was served (a big no-no for this denomination in Rwanda) but we did each get a warm cup of icyai (tea) and so I was thrilled. Untrue to Rwandan tradition, the party was only about an hour. I think this was because for baptisms, the party moves and circulates from house to house and culminates in dancing at the very end. However, the GLOW girls and I were tired and had a long way to walk, and so we said our goodbyes.

We walked home, hand in hand, discussing how proud of Eugenie we were, and how wonderful the last few days had been.

In addition to this baptism experience, our friend Suzi (I say our because Suzi is definitely no longer just my friend; the girls love her) came out for a 4th of July visit. Suzi and I had a relaxing and long lunch (complete with a cold beer and chicken) at a lakeside restaurant in my district’s main town to celebrate our country’s birthday. The next day, after a morning of watching The Mindy Project we attended our GLOW club’s talent show. The girls had put together a series of dancing, singing, and skits to show their talents and it was totally hilarious. The GLOW girls really are a different breed and they danced, sang, and acted with all of the enthusiasm in the world. Like I told Suzi, it’s just wonderful beyond words to see them let loose and have fun. That, again, is what GLOW is all about.

So you see, the past few days have been interwoven with dancing, baptisms, good food, friends, and relaxation. I even crossed off some things from the Rwandan bucket list – namely, the baptism.

The girls basked in the good fortune that has come our way recently and I couldn’t help but whole-heartedly agree.

Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is a strange, weird, often extraordinarily frustrating, sometimes utterly ridiculous, but also mostly wonderful life. It’s an odd mix and it’s even harder to keep up with (the love/hate relationship with Rwanda is consistently changing and moving up and down). But above all, I realize more than ever that it’s a once in a lifetime sort of thing. I’m lucky to have been doing it this long, and as time slowly starts to wind down, I am becoming more aware and conscious of the importance of making every day count.

And so, what’s left on this so-called bucket list?
See for yourself.

Heather’s Peace Corps Bucket List

*created December 2011, updated December 2012*
(things with a * are left to be done)

See a Rwandan wedding
Be in a Rwandan wedding
Attend a baptism
Try banana beer
Take a bicycle taxi instead of a motorcycle taxi
Attend a football match in Kigali*
Sing karaoke in Kigali*
Take a boat on Lake Kivu*
Visit the gorillas
Stay at Akagera National Park
Visit the Nyamata Memorial
Visit the Nyarabuye Memorial*
Cook cassava bread by myself
Go to an ex-pat party*
Pray at a Rwandan mosque
Visit South-west Rwanda; namely Cyangugu
Start a GLOW club
Cook grilled cheese for my host family
Pray aloud in Kinyarwanda at the Catholic Church*
Go on a date
Hike a volcano
Ride a bike in my village
Fetch water on my head
Run in the Kigali Marathon
Teach about the “I Have a Dream” speech in class
Visit every district in Rwanda*
Visit every province in Rwanda
Visit the US Embassy*
Take holiday in Uganda and Tanzania
Eat a burrito in Rwanda
Take Divine to Kigali*
Score a goal in a football match
Join a girls’ football team
Buy Rwandan handicrafts and art
Raft in Uganda
Get on Rwandan TV
Master how to properly hand-wash clothes*
Cook with a charcoal stove
Find a female bus driver
Take Kinyarwanda lessons*
Teach lyrics to American songs
Coach baseball
See fireworks in Rwanda*
Attempt to cultivate something*
Learn to do the Rwandan cow dance (the traditional style)
Have a 30 minute conversation in Kinyarwanda only
Walk from Kayonza town to my house (a total of around 20 km)
Find a temporary Rwandan mama
Cut bananas from a tree*
Play blackjack at the casino in Kigali
See an elephant
Start writing a book
Read at least 60 books while in Peace Corps
Visit Gisenyi to see the Congo border
See the National University in Butare
Host a party at my house
Finish the INSANITY workout series*
Go to GUMA GUMA Superstar Concert*
Successfully make porridge

Will I do it all?

Meh. Maybe. Perhaps. I hope so.

I have about 5 months left of this adventure and so we’ll see what happens.

everything divine taught me

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*
The School of Divine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*”Fetching water is a sport.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine smiles and says with a great deal of conviction,

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

mama

Standard

mama3

I knew I hit the mommy jackpot when once, I had my teeth pulled out (those darn molars) and my mom dealt with me, her vicodin-induced daughter, gabbing and singing our entire trip back home to Aurora from the dentist’s office in Denver. She helped me through our door, tucked me in on the couch with a down comforter, brought me both rasberry and pineapple sherbet (the angel that she is), and as she readjusted the ice pack on my face, snuggled me in with my beloved stuffed elephant, Boo Boo.

(I was at least 16 or 17 years old, mind you.)

A mother’s love, I think is a special brand. She told me this before, too.

“You’ll understand when you have children someday.”

And I’ve witnessed–not just experienced–it as well. With my mother and also with my grandmothers and aunts who would do anything for their kids. Grandma Jenny would often drive Lance and I by my dad’s childhood home and she wistfully show us where he played on the playground and the crazy things he did with my two uncles. She would talk about how crazy her boys were, but she would also be sure to always say how much she loved them. And always, without fail, she would say that my dad and mom felt the same things about Lance and I and so that we should always appreciate our parents and what they do for us.

No, I haven’t birthed a child yet but perhaps at the ripe age of 24 (um. am I really in my mid-20’s?!?) I’m on the cusp of having a good chunk of hindsight and a fair amount of perspective. The teen years are over, that’s for sure. I can see my parents as people (yes, they actually went through most, if not all, of the stuff we go through) and yes, the game or movie nights, the occasional grounding, the checking in on homework completion, the time outs, and the family dinners actually did have a lot of purpose. I am finally able to see my parents, Michelle Cupps and Ted Newell, not only as ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ but as friends, spouses, community members, and people. They’ll always be just mom and dad, but I recognize much more fully everything that is a part of them. And maybe I’m starting to also better understand everything they did for me, and also why they did (and do) all these things for me.

I REPEAT: I am not a mother. I have no children or plans for children on the horizon.

However, in the last few weeks my role as a motherly figure within my job here has felt more pronounced and called upon.

Let me explain.

Last weekend, I brought four of my students to Kigali to meet with other volunteers and students who would run at the National Stadium (Amahoro ‘Peace’ Stadium) for the Kigali Marathon (they would be running in the 5K run, however). It was so fun!

I took my kiddos for ice cream within 20 minutes of reaching the city and though they were skeptical, scared even, at first, they loved it. They are still talking about it, y’all. Teacher, remember how cold the ice cream was!

And hello, what a chance for them! To see the big city (for my kids it was their first time to Kigali. Ever.), to meet other students, and to stay at a church compound with only two people per room. For them, this was pure luxury.

Yes, it was indeed great fun. But logistically, I felt like a mom in JCPenny’s when her rambunctious child decides to play a fun “game” and hide under the women’s clothing racks, waiting for their mother to find them (based on a real story). I had to constantly check and make sure we were together, make sure I had enough travel money for each of us, and keep them hydrated. It was exhausting.

But worth every minute. Because wow, the feeling and emotion I felt when I saw Maisara finish the race (the first girl in all of the 5K race to do so) was really strong. I got a little teary-eyed. So, maybe this is what mom felt like at all of those field hockey matches? At those soccer games? At the summer softball tournaments? At my short-lived attempt at gymnastics when I was 6?

Don’t even get me started on how I’ve evolved from the girls’ football coach into the official team mom. I would put crazy American team moms to shame.

I facilitate shoe check-out at every practice (oh yeah, we have a FULL set of CLEATS these days), provide filtered water post-practice, ocassionally provide crackers from a nearby boutique if I have the funds, lead stretching and conditioning exercises, check practice wounds, store the girls’ sports clothes in my house, give access to my lotion (Rwandan girls are obsessed with moisturizing), host team meetings, and also scrimmage with them and attempting to not get my butt kicked.

It’s not that I’m a god-send to these girls–it’s just doing all of these things makes me happy. It’s completely one of the best parts of my week. It also solidifies all of the work and time that the grant has required of me; this is exactly how we envisioned this. We’re finally a serious team.

And maybe all of this mother tender-heartedness feelings feel more on the table because of my GLOW girls and the kinds of conversations we are having this term. In the club sessions, we have been discussing healthy and unhealthy relationships and women’s health which are driving me to ‘google’ things like,

“how to talk to your child about puberty”
or
“how to help your child understand menstruation.”

Yes, I’m roaming self-help sites for mothers.

The girls ask general questions like what to do when a boy says ‘I love you’ and how to say ‘no’ when a boy ‘wants to kiss’. They’re opening up and so I feel 100% obliged to at least try and respond.

To take it one step further, some of my GLOW girls–my friends–and I discuss more intense life experiences one on one. One girl was recently approached and pressured to have sex. A couple of them frequently ask about changing bodies, emotions, irregularities in their health, what’s appropriate when it comes to physical affection, and who the best person to go to for advice is. It’s all over the place. But, it’s been great both ways, because I’m able to answer from personal experience and so I can open up as well.

I would never EVER fill the place of the girls’ mothers. Nor would I want to.

But, the nurturing, motherly side of me is coming out more these days. Maybe it’s because I know a lot of these girls so well at this point or maybe it’s just the nature of my personality and of theirs. I don’t really know, y’all.

But, it’s got me thinking and more than anything, thanking the good Lord for my lucky stars. The women I grew up around made me feel comfortable and supported. I just hope maybe that is what is happening here in Rwanda. They do call me ‘Grandmother GLOW’, after all.

It was Mother’s Day recently and I told Divine about how this holiday is celebrated in America (Rwanda doesn’t have this day in their calendar). She said she wished Rwanda had this kind of celebration because “mothers are the ones who make their babies strong.” And she wasn’t just talking about breast milk, believe me. I laughed and then spent a large portion of that Sunday remembering and cherishing what my own mom brings to my life.

mama1

She is the kind of mom that organized my bagillion member family to bring signs and decorations to my last high school field hockey game. There’s a photo of them in the stands and it’s one of my favorite photos – ever.

She lets me go on (and on) one of my tangents during car rides to lunch on her days off from work in the summer.

She says “I love you” every day and also, I might add, completely supported me in my beanie baby craze when I was growing up in the 90’s. I had the Princess Diana bear with a tag protector IN a case. That’s legit.

She took me on special trips just because and even toted the best dog ever, Buddy, along with her to a trip to Arkansas to see me at Hendrix one time.

Every week that I have been in Rwanda, she has called me. She’s listened as I’ve gushed over my friends and families here, as I’ve dealt with loneliness, as I’ve had boy problems, and cheered me on in each and every situation. She has never made me feel bad for making the choice to live in Rwanda for two years; in fact, she’s encouraged me, which has pushed me to really put all of myself into living here. Other volunteers have not had this kind of support and I really do think it makes all the difference in the world.

And maybe what I love most is that not only is she the greatest mom around, but like I said, I can see her strengths as a wife, friend, sister, daughter, and woman of God.

And in turn, as I get older, she’s my determined and passionate mother but also a best friend for me. I get it because in some way, it’s how I feel for my girls–Divine, Maisara, Yazina, and Zahara–I’m a teacher for them first, but also a mentor, and a friend. Relationships actually can have overlapping roles and the rewards are beyond amazing despite the difficulties.

If I’m doing a good job with my girls it’s because of my mom. She taught me what it looks like to do anything for the people you love, especially as a mother. That’s the greatest gift I have. I hold it, cherish it, and do my best to use it. I’m far from perfect, as is mom, but when it comes to deeply loving someone, doing whatever you can for them is the root of a strong, abiding love.

Thanks mom, for showing me that.

It’s been nearly 630 days since I last hugged you at the airport, and in 2 short months, I’m finally going to be able to see you again, hug you, laugh with you, and show you a really neat place in the world. You’re going to meet some really special people and I just can’t wait for you and Randy to get here.

mama4

fhmom

gmas

 

 

mama5

some leaving, some coming home

Standard

You should be warned that as I write this, I am LUIDW. That is, Living Under the Influence of the Developed World.

What exactly, you might ask, does this entail?

It means, most importantly, that I can take a hot bath whenever I want. Bubble bath included. 1, 2, 3 times if I so please. Number two, I can drink clean water from the tap. Unlimited clean water, bring it on. LUIDW has also propelled and compelled me to at times whilst in England drink 5 cups of coffee in one day, not because I need it, but because I want it (and I can!). Cappachinos? Lattes? I’m sorry, you can add flavored syrup? Where have you been all of my life? (and by life, I of course mean the past 20 months or so, I haven’t completely forgotten the magical powers of America in my first 23 years.)

LUIDW can provide great joy. Not because of all the STUFF (this tends to actually make decisions difficult and results in a sort of sensory overload) but because you can be easily impressed. The electricity works! The dishwasher is readily available! The tea cooks in 3 minutes! Wow, this internet is fast! Hey girl, look at all of these kinds of apples!

Getting around is a lot smoother too. Cars, trains, whatever, it comes on time. The roads are for the most part quite nice and maintained.

Oh! And the toliets….don’t even get me started.

LUIDW = a very easily entertained, pleased, happy, and grateful Heather.

Certainly, the added benefits of traveling while a Peace Corps Volunteer has reaped me significant reprieve also because I’m NIR.

(Perhaps Peace Corps is rubbing off on me a bit much with all my acronyms here, as they are notorious for all of their own acronyms; for example, PCMO (that mean Peace Corps Medical Officer, our doctor), MSC (Mid-Service Conference, the conference we do at the mid-point in our service), and CD (Country Director, the leader in charge of all operations in a given country that Peace Corps works in). Believe me, that’s just the beginning of a very long list that acts very much so as its own language and lingo.)

But like I was saying, I am NIR and this refers to Not In Rwanda.

This brings about special breaks and pleasures that are unique to the Rwandan Peace Corps experience.

For all the joys in LUIDW, I have also been able to go walking on the street–any street–and move about completely unnoticed. Nobody cares who I am, nobody cares where I am going.

Maybe best of all, nobody screams out the English translation of “White person! White person! White person!” as if I already didn’t know my skin color.

I don’t have to speak Kinyarwanda 24/7 and I don’t hear people whispering (good or bad) about me when I pass by.

I can eat in public, I don’t have to carry everything in a bag upon purchase and I can wear a dress that reaches above my knees and not feel a single twinge of guilt.

If I got asked for spare change it wasn’t just because I’m a white person, people appeared to make few assumptions about me, and moving around in general was significantly much easier.

The state of NIR is both relieving and weird; unfamiliar and welcome; relaxing and strange. I mentioned the positive sides of NIR above, but of course, after 20 months of constantly trying to integrate into Rwandan culture, it struck me as odd that not every single person says hello to each other, that people don’t care where I pray (because the assumption is that all people do), and of course, why people just move so much quicker than I remember! Just because I’m NIR doesn’t mean I don’t love Rwanda, you know.

The developed world isn’t perfect– I’m not that misguided, y’all–but I sure can appreciate the conveniences a lot more, that’s for sure.

But I’m going to be real here.

The hot baths and tap water withstanding, I don’t credit LUIDW or NIR for providing the kind of peace that I’ve found in my 12 days in England. Absolutley, it’s been amazing, and it’s helped, but “recharging your batteries”, so to speak, isn’t enough to mend a frazzled and frayed spirit.

Moreover, all of the things that I did while visiting–a spur of the moment trip to Paris, walking through parks, having tea parties, ending my pub-virginity, hitting the gym, watching Rob Bell speak live, getting a hair-cut, perusing Oxford, and exploring the historic sites of London, to name a few–are now incredible memories that helped me feel alive, light-hearted, and free. They allowed me to feel, I dont know, normal? If there is such a thing. But, these activities alone wouldn’t have been enough either.

More than anything, it was being able to do all of the things that I listed above with one of the most important people in my life, Michelle.

Michelle and I were fast friends at Hendrix and after graduation with her wedding and move to England and my move to Rwanda for the Peace Corps, our lives, quite literally, went in separate directions.

But, the best thing about friendship, I think, is that no matter time or distance, you are always binded together. At least with the really, really good ones.

So, when I saw Michelle (for the first time in a year and a half) at the waiting area at Heathrow after my flight from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (Michelle and I say “Addis A-bo0-boo”; classy, I know), I could have been in any country, state, or county in the world and I would have been happy.

Michelle and Jon, her Manchester City-golf-ice pop-lovin’ husband opened their home to me for nearly two weeks. They gave me free reign to “make myself at home” and I usually have no fear in doing so, and with them, it felt completely natural. I was jogging pretty English roads, trying to learn street names, and always trying to learn new English lingo (“chav” and “cheeky” are my most recent acquisitions). Staying at the home of really great people, and in the home of your best friend is definitely the way to travel.

Last night, as we prepared to watch Julie & Julia, I hunkered down on the uber-comfortable red couch with the comforter from the guest bedroom along with a glass of sparkling water and my PJs.

“This is why you are here,” Michelle said with a contented smile.
“Oh you know girl, whatever I can do to provide entertainment,” I laughed back, thinking she meant I was being a goober having removed the comforter completely from the upstairs bed.
She chuckled for a second and then quickly corrected my misinterpretation,
“Um. No. I mean because you live in Rwanda, Heather!”

Oh. Rightttt. I’m here, to chill out and to enjoy the comforts that come with a cozy home.

Michelle was right, that was one of the reasons why I came.

The best moments weren’t necessarily the big sights and beautiful views; it was driving around with Michelle in her car, seeing her life first-hand. It was reminiscing about the past, explaining our present lives, and contemplating the future. It was going on a “picnic” (it was freezing, y’all), sleeping in, sharing breakfast in the morning, skyping our friends, playing Monopoly, drinking wine, and visiting local coffee shops. It often is the simple things you know, and what usually matters most is who you are with.

So many of our conversations were interlaced with our experiences living in an entirely new culture. There were some similarities, some differences, but we certainly both had stories to share about the cultures we had arrived in.

Both of us found solace in what it’s like living in places heavily rooted in tradition. It’s how we have always done things is something we have both had to face head on as newbies.

In England, at a pub, Michelle tells me it is common for one person to buy a round. Then, another person will pitch in, and this continues through the evening. You should also remain quiet on the train station (if you are loud, you could be a dead give away as a potential American). The English value football, tea, and who doesn’t love the Queen?

I told Michelle about the complexity of Rwandan culture; of how getting to know people is a difficult (but entirely rewardable and beautiful) process. I tried giving examples from the families I have become a part of. I noted what it’s like being a celebrity of sorts in my tiny village. And of course had to highlight the importance of church. Praying, it’s just what you do.

It’s time to go, and of course, I’m sad, but there is so much comfort in having a friend who understands what it’s like to try and fit in such a radically different place. What’s better, is that sometimes in these exchanges of cross-culture, you realize that as crazy different as the world is, we’re all humans, right? And so, we’re different, but we’re linked too.

My favorite example is being at the pub with Michelle and two of her girl friends, Venetia, and Becky, both of who are in a study group with Michelle. Best of all, they are reading through “Bad Girls in the Bible” (what’s not to love about this?) and yet when we all met up, the time was spent discussing practical ways to clean the bathroom, what work has been like, and the latest hubby tales.

I sat there in awe. Because y’all, the women in my village meet up for Women’s Council every Monday afternoon for nearly 3 hours and discuss these very things. Of course, it’s not the same, but in a way, it is. And that’s maybe the most enlightening thing to take away from the way our world works. There’s so much we don’t understand, but when you try, you find micro examples of how God has connected us all.

It’s time to go, but there’s a reason to be brave and the reason is that we’re all held together, by some sort of grace, with God. He loves us and He will see us through everything; whether it’s coming or going, leaving or staying.

 

“life continues”

Standard

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

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

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

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

Why Am I Still Here?

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

ONWARD AND UPWARD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “Life continues?”

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

murakoze (thanks).

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

-BE (Boys Excelling) Camp

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

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

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

-DAD’S VISIT TO RWANDA (!!!!!!!)

-New Year’s safari with friends in Eastern Rwanda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Murakoze (thank you).