Tag Archives: gratitude

little wonders

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our lives are made in these small hours
these little wonders
these twists and turns of fate
time falls away
but these small hours
still remain.
– “little wonders” by rob thomas

*

The boys run, skip, and jump as they exit the holey, grassy, and worn field. Many are holding hands and many are fist bumping anything that moves. They’ve just defeated an “Academy team” – a premier regional team that draws from richer, private secondary schools to create an all-star esque sort of combination. Our team – Ruramira Secondary School – beat them 3-2 on a Saturday afternoon of football. Our team. You know, the boys who come from the village. The boys who help their families and cultivate on the weekends. My boys, many who cannot afford the 8 dollar fee for school each term. We won. I’ve always loved a good underdog story. You can imagine the mountains of food they created when we followed the match with a team dinner courtesy of the remaining funds from the sports grant I received earlier this year. It was buffet style, and my, how those boys (and girls) can eat!

victory is sweet.

victory is sweet.

*

My girls are singing as we turn on the right-hand side of the black pavement to enter the dirt road that will take us home. We are 18 strong in a cramped blue bus and they are clapping their hands, slapping the side of the bus like a drum, and singing beautiful Kinyarwanda. Usually they sing all the GLOW songs I have brainwashed them with, but in this moment, it’s all them. It’s all their culture and it’s becoming one of my favorite moments in my 2 year service as the bus jangles further down the road. Divine is leading them in old school Rwandan rhythms which is perfect considering her role in our club. She’s “Mama GLOW” and so I found it fitting that she would be the one singing the more traditional songs, especially with her Catholic-style influence. She sings a verse and the girls repeat, and it changes each time. I try to catch the words, and I understand that she is singing about the good ideas the girls have and the journey we have traveled and that all thanks goes to God. As this is happening, Zahara looks at me wide-eyed and grinning, “Teacher! Look! The girls are so so very happy very high!” I do as told, and I see what she sees. Genuine happiness.

bus time songs.

bus time songs.

We are coming home from a GLOW field trip to visit another club, about an hour and a half away. We met the other club led by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer to “build friendships and share ideas.” Two members from each club (Divine and Yazina were our representatives) taught lessons and we also played games, made jewelry, and even blew bubbles. I watched as my girls interacted in their perfectly pressed uniforms, as they enthusiastically raised their hands to participate in all of the activities, and how they repeated our school name over and over again in their songs. It was pride, y’all, and how often have these girls been able to truly celebrate where they come from? We were at a much nicer school – a far cry from our crumbling classrooms and neglected toilets. And yet, time and time again, they prove it’s not those things that determine WHO WE ARE. They are just some of the best girls I know.

ruramira girls teaching during our GLOW day with another club.

ruramira girls teaching during our GLOW day with another club.

*

I’m sitting with Eugenie in her small room in her seemingly smaller village called Buhoro, which translates as ‘slowly’. A fitting name for your typical Rwandan village, because that really is the way things work. I’ve come for a visit after praying together for 4 hours at her Pentecost church, about an hours’ walk from where I live. We’ve been revising Geography and she comments on how the big national exam that all Senior 3 students in Rwanda will take is quickly approaching. She sucks in air quickly and gasps just a bit. Yeah girl, time is crazy, I tell her. She looks away for a moment and after a quiet pause she starts tenderly crying, with each tear waiting for the other to finish it’s journey down her petite face. I don’t even have to wait to hear why:

“As you know, my mother has birthed four girls. No boys. My father, he always asks my mother WHY? He thinks having girls is useless. He isn’t happy that my mother didn’t give him a boy. My mother just tells him about the sperm and that it is two people who make that baby, not just my mother. And she does not choose which sex she makes the baby.
I want to succeed in exam.
If I succeed maybe he can see that I have value.”

I rub her upper back and don’t know what to say. Sometimes knowing how to mentor my girls is easy and sometimes it is not. I’ve also become increasingly aware that often less is more. And so, I remind her that so many people believe in her – especially God – and I just sit with her as she finishes her tears. I tell her she is special. I tell her she is different from a lot of students – and this is all true. Eugenie is perfectly quaint, kind, and chirpy. If you need a friend, you will have one in Eugenie. Soon after my well-intentioned encouragement, she’s studying with even more intensity. Eugenie is a classic gentle soul, but she’s also quite determined. She is humbly aware of her intelligence and wants to “make it.” Desperately, I want the same thing too.

So the revision continues.
We are studying the methods of fish preservation.
Obviously, an area of expertise for me.
Not really, but I try to help in whatever way I can.

my sweet Eugenie.

my sweet Eugenie.

*

I had a two hour lesson block with one of my classes today, Senior 1A. It is currently the last week of lessons as quizzes start next week and so I wanted to do something fun, enjoyable, and relaxing for all of us. Enter Center Stage.

In the first hour, I relished in their expressions as they glimpsed at flashing images of frolicking ballerinas, a couple kissing and making out publicly, and images of New York City. When the first hour came to a close, it was time for the daily 10 minute break in which all of the students in the school either lie in the grass, walk around idly, or play football with a ball made from plastic bags. I usually take this opportunity to visit the girls’ toilet area as this is the prime place for socialization during school hours. Catching up and greeting some of the girls, I lose track of time and was late back to class. I’m clearly such a good role model.

When I entered, ALL of the students were sitting quietly and waiting to watch the film. They spit my usual (and I will openly admit, annoying) “time is time” mantra back in my face and I did the punishment I usually divy out to them: jumping jacks. This seemed all the more ironic considering last week I got really upset with them for being late and not taking my lesson seriously. Oops? We laughed and turned the movie back on. They huddled around as a group (same sex PDA is perfectly acceptable and encouraged in Rwanda; I actually love this because friends can very openly show their appreciation for each other) and gazed up at the small screen that I had set up by stacking a chair on two combined desks. For a short while we could journey elsewhere and it was a joy to watch them.

my dear students of senior 1 in their classroom.

my dear students of senior 1 in their classroom.

*

It’s these smaller day-to-day things that I will miss the most.
It’s these micro examples of my life here that ultimately, make it what it is.

Days and weeks pass and sure, I’m teaching, or working with the girls in GLOW, or running, or cooking my latest food preference, but what is my life actually full of? What and where is the substance?

These are the things I have been thinking about lately. Because I know when it’s time to pack up and come home, I will somehow have to explain 2 years of my life in a few sentences. The crux and core of my experience is the little wonders as Rob Thomas sings about; it’s the little things. Sometimes…actually, often, they come and go extraordinarily quickly. Perhaps you don’t know you are even having a “special moment” until you get home that night, put some tea on the kettle, and reflect on what has transpired.

I don’t know how to hold on to all of this.

I finally am admitting this to myself; quite frankly, I have to. Remembering and moving forward beyond my Peace Corps life is a lot more than fitting it in a perfect little box and expecting it will unfold naturally. There has been so much good, weird, bad, horrible, ridiculous, unbelievable, insane, extraordinary, inspiring, awful, amazing, disgusting, and normal things that have happened in the past two years that a wonderfully contained story doesn’t really exist. So, I’ve tried to take stock of all of the little things (yes, even the negative) and write as much as possible about those events and experiences as they have come.

August became September and now October has arrived and I’m not quite sure what to make of that. I made it my goal to live in the moment! and to enjoy each day as it comes!  or to YOLO: YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE for the last chunk of my service, but what happens when you take a step back and one, two, or three months have passed? Sure, it’s great, but it’s also like, um, excuse me, I’d like to figure out exactly what time is doing here…?

But I’m certain this is not a problem just because I’m in Peace Corps. Or because I’m coming up on a major life transition. Or because I’m also almost officially in my mid-20’s. I think that’s just life. I know full well that life has continued back home and so when I step back on American soil for the first time in a very long time, it won’t be just me that has had to wrestle with what time has brought and taken from us. My parents, my brother, my friends, and family at large all have been through things the past couple of years and my experience abroad can certainly fit into that, but it’s not the whole story.

I’ve mastered appreciating the small moments. I think in Peace Corps, you kind of have to. Because absolutely, some days those are all you have. Did you wash your dishes? Yes! Success! Did you make it to market and successfully find all of the vegetables you were hoping for? Congratulations! Did old mamas greet you enthusiastically and wish you to have a wonderful life forever? Excellent!

But the challenge – the next step – is being okay with what time has waiting for you. Appreciating the small moments isn’t enough; you have to appreciate them because you know they are fleeting. It’s not that they are just essentially great – it’s that you don’t have those people or those feelings or those situations forever. This is a big jump, especially for me. I don’t like letting go and though I thrive in change and adapting, I try picturing a life outside this village and that world seems strange now. I’m a little scared. And I’m majorly blown away of how fast time has passed.

But, fear doesn’t do anything for us. And as I’ve been teaching about fighting fear for the last two years with my GLOW girls, it’s time I take my own advice.

Maybe I can’t hold on to every single thing that has composed the past two years of my life, but I will be walking away with memories, life lessons, and professional experience. I have a lot of photographs. I have 7 volumes of my journals (I’m so serious). I have stories. And I know I’ve changed, mostly for the better. How could I not?

But as always, the best thing I will be walking away with are the friendships I have made. A Peace Corps Volunteer and I were recently discussing about friendships in Rwanda and about how it is impossible to build a true, solid, and trusting relationship in this country. I listened and laughed, but I couldn’t agree. I don’t have many, I’ll give you that, but I do have a lot of caring people that I have met. I have a community full of people who have shown kindness just because that’s what you do. And when it does come to friendships, I will manage to walk away with at least one best friend who has totally revolutionized the way I see the world. In the best way possible.

Phew.

That was a lot of tangents, ideas, and thoughts.

But that’s what has been on my mind and I wanted to share it. Because that’s how we are able to understand ourselves and other people better.

Here’s to sharing life.

2 months to go. I’m ready to enjoy all of the little wonders that I still have waiting for me. Time is on my side.

coach heather.

coach heather.

welcome home.

welcome home.

 

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always one more time

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

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

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

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

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

Mmkay. Good luck trusting anybody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"what we talk about when we talk about God"

“what we talk about when we talk about God”

He ends his book this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

murakoze (thanks).

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

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

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

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

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

-BE (Boys Excelling) Camp

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

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

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

-DAD’S VISIT TO RWANDA (!!!!!!!)

-New Year’s safari with friends in Eastern Rwanda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Murakoze (thank you).