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From Arkansas to Rwanda

A few months back, I wrote this article for our Peace Corps publication. 

It is about my experience working with Hendrix in Rwanda when they came last year for the annual interview selection process for students to come to the United States and study. 

Enjoy!

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1 year later

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Isabella and Apolloknee (I am quite sure this is not how you spell her name, but it’s how I see it in my head, like Apollo—the space shuttle, and knee—a body part) arrived at my house earlier this week for dinner. I had just returned back from the boutique to buy a couple of rounds (no, not of beer, no way would I drink out here in the village) of Fanta and had just put the warm food in my heart themed serving set. On the menu were buttered noodles, brown-asian sautéed rice, and boiled vegetables. Nothing particularly special, but tasty enough to satisfy my guests. Both of these women are nurses at the nearby health center (where I’ll soon be teaching English) and to get a taste of their personalities, I can tell you that it was Isabella, when I first visited her home and asked if she had a boyfriend, who told me straight-faced (before laughing loud and unreservedly) that she did. She has three.

While I finished gathering utensils and checking on the boiling water to serve coffee (using my handy-dandy French press!) I threw my rather obnoxiously large red photo album on the table to keep them occupied. In Rwandan culture, photos are gold. You can’t go wrong.

When I came back to my dining room table (which is actually multi-purpose; I also use the dinky, wobbly table as a coffee table, sometimes as a desk, and always as a place to eat—it is in fact my only table and is courtesy of my school) they were gazing at one photo in particular.

I figured it was probably my favorite photograph of Cinderella’s castle at Disney World (I often have to tell people that no, I certainly do not live there) but instead it was a photo from Hendrix—my sophomore year—and it was one from Ali’s birthday. Jane, a former field hockey player, and I were holding Ali—one at each end—bracing to throw her in the fountain as per Hendrix birthday tradition. It’s the perfect picture to capture that Hendrix spirit: we each look perfectly poised to run as soon as we let Ali go (which we did) and Ali is wearing her Yankees navy blue t-shirt (an Ali classic) and even better, is wearing those questionable bright orange mesh hockey shorts that we were given our freshman year, the first year of the program. Everything about this photo screams Hendrix, and as I attempted to explain this college tradition to my friends with Kinyarwanda and dramatic hand gestures (using mostly gestures, I will admit) I nostalgically grasped that it had been just about a year since we graduated. We are now 1 year alumni.

Graduation Day 2011.

I woke up to my phone alarm (not to an annoying song ringtone like ‘Tattoo’ that I was famous for earlier in my college days), surrounded by boxes, clothes, and items strewn across my floor. I played “Wagon Wheel” (a Hendrix fave) as I started to get ready. Four years had come down to this? My eyes were puffy. Silly me, I read a beautiful letter from Jordana as I feel to sleep the night before and it brought me to tears (lots of them). I would like to look back on that day and say that I was feeling utterly invincible and completely, 100% happy—and at times I was—but in the way that it was a liberating and celebratory day with all of my loved ones having traveled from so far, it was also a major marker of the huge fork (as Robert Frost might say) in the road before us. I worked hard to feel the zest and pomp and circumstance. But, it was hard. I kept thinking about the goodbyes—oh! the dreaded goodbyes—and it was difficult to fathom what was happening. The ceremony was a blur, as huge life events can sometimes be, but I remember the cheers of the cafeteria ladies (especially from Ms. Debra. My god, that woman is loud), the contrast of the dimness of the room in Grove Gym and the look of brightness on professors’ faces as we boldly entered into our commencement ceremony, and mostly, I remember how proud I was not just when I stepped on that overbearing stage to accept my diploma, but more so when I looked on and smiled as my dear friends (well, most of them, Lauren is a 2012 graduate) did the same thing. We did it.

On that day some of us knew the directions ahead of us; certainly some more than others. I had a strong feeling that I’d end up here, in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I had also had the fun opportunity to have my life hang in balance as Peace Corps debated (for an entire year) if I was qualified for service. More would come that summer, I would soon discover, as I was finally invited into the Rwandan program mid-July, days after being told that the program I was nominated for had closed and I should expect to not be a volunteer in the near future. I found out just before an incredibly fun and jam-packed vacation to Disney World with Rachel, right before Michelle’s astoundingly beautiful wedding in the great metropolis of Moscow, Tennessee, and also right as I finished these two aforementioned events with one last visit to Hendrix to see Lauren and Ali. It was fitting to spend my last weeks in America with them, and then finally, my supportive and wonderful family. When it was time to go, I made my way through Philly, New York, Brussels, and finally, Kigali, Rwanda. It’s funny. Leaving for this felt surprisingly like it did to leave home for college in the first place, four years prior.

Fall 2007.

The green Subaru moved further and further in the distance, away from the girls’ dorms and away from me! They left me. In Arkansas. What. WHAT. What was I doing? I grudgingly walked (as slow as I could) to the now old cafeteria—the Burrow to be precise—to meet the field hockey girls for the first time. I passed the immensely large trees and trudged my way through the grimy Southern heat (you know, around 108 degrees, no big deal) thinking that mom, Randy, and grandma couldn’t make it that far in one day back to Colorado. Maybe they could come back for me?

This would be the year of a now inexplicable and embarrassing High School Musical obsession, Chick-fil-A every Saturday night for dinner, a winless hockey season, an accident involving gold spray paint and shoes in the Veasey Hall bathtub, a regrettable boy crush, and lots and lots of weight gain courtesy of the ever present cafeteria food (Chicken a-la King, despite what the haters say, still rocks). More than all of this, my friendships began here. Crazy (and weird) do-it-yourself music videos, mission trips, Apples to Apples, “study” sessions, photo shoots (sometimes as late as 3 am?), and explorations onto the social scene (or lack thereof).

I didn’t know all of this, and so I was scared. I was hesitant; would I make any friends? I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. Somehow, everything usually does happen for a reason, we end up places and with people because we need them. I, honest-to-God, believe that.

It’s interesting how with time, you grow not only into yourself, but along with other people if you so let it. After leaving my host family this past December to brave the new life of a volunteer in a rural Rwandan village, I realized that to get through this—better yet, to thrive in this—I needed support. I’ve come to heavily rely on Peace Corps friends. Despite our own situations and site differences, it’s pretty uncanny in that when I’m having a bad day, usually Meredith, Suzi, Alyssa, or Sara are having one too. It’s like we’re on the same wavelength or something. We’re together and it’s comforting to have people who get at least some of this experience; if nothing else, they understand what it feels like to be outside of a culture 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I’m American. I can try to be Rwandan. I can get close. But, I can’t (nor will I) change entirely. I’m learning a lot about who I am—especially in regards to my own limitations—and my friends are doing the same. We’re leading a weird life, we know that, but it’s a meaningful one and so we do the best we can.

August 2010.

It was time to return.

I could not have been happier to cross the Arkansas state line coming through Oklahoma—senior year, baby! I had been in Ghana with Rachel the previous semester and so I hadn’t seen most of my friends in months, far too long at this point in our lives.

By this point, our group, the Hey Girl Hey Girls as some would say, were well established. They were the ones who were there when my heart was breaking hearing about my brothers’ struggles back home, who encouraged me to pursue a lovely liberal arts degree called American Studies, had been closely involved with the field hockey team (getting better each year, by the way), had come each week to our girls’ bible study, had been together as a group when Obama became the first black President, and would engage in deep ‘what is life?’ talks just for the hell of it, even if a huge paper was due the next day (these talks certainly encompass everything from what is time? to things like scouring wedding blogs and discussing the state of our world). Moreover, we had a lot to talk about as we each arrived back on campus that fall. Michelle had been in England; Ali, Jessica, and Lauren at Hendrix; Rachel and I in Ghana; Jordana in Belgium; Paige in Scotland; Angela in Finland; and Alison in Latin America for a full year abroad.

Ghana was a profound life experience in every way it could be. I found a passion to help, a need to see the world, an addiction to Coca-Cola, an exposure to issues in poverty and education on a global level, and the deep friendship I already had with Rachel grew leaps and bounds in those 4ish months abroad. I came back to the US a changed woman that summer after Ghana.

Senior year would be the year of grown up apartment living (kind of ) with Michelle and Ali, thesis writing on the relationship of recreational space and socio-economics in New Orleans (culminating in park research and other fun times in NOLA for Spring Break), our very own March Madness, Michelle’s engagement, live band karaoke with Rachel, singing ‘Super Freak’, major and important field hockey wins for my last season, Harry Potter marathons, snow days, grocery shopping and cooking (usually with me in the kitchen it was enchiladas), and towards the end, lots and lots of Yahtzee.

It was a fantastically fun year, but a hard one—on the brink of change and moving forward. Senior year of college stands as a crossroad for where I am now, because it was at that time where I realized my potential and ability to be here, teaching and integrating on a daily basis. Hendrix, like many other life experiences outside it, helped me grow as a woman and realize—fully realize—who I was and wanted to be. Hendrix helped me question and then recognize that that was entirely okay. It was there where I lost and found God again, where I got a full view of poverty in different places around the world, and understood better that though small, yes, one person can make a difference.

I learnt a lot, all four years, in and out of the classroom (maybe the exception being Robotics—Lauren can sympathize with me here). Looking back, all that I needed was there. Hendrix wasn’t the only thing that pushed me to pursue a life of service (my home and family did a large chunk of that), but it was a big part.

Michelle always has loved benedictions. So, as this reflection of time and seasons and life 1 year after Hendrix ends, I’ll close with what I hope makes her proud:

All of us, we are bits and pieces of what we were before, slowly letting room in for change, ideas, people, and experiences.

We have no choice but to embrace where we go. We long, we miss, we remember. It’s important to do so. But because life is a continuum, nothing really stays the same, does it?

Even as I’m here, writing by candlelight in Rwanda, tomorrow will not be today.

And so, take the past and the future, but live now.

Maybe it’s thousands of miles away like my family, like my friends, like my old college days, but it’s there because as for me, I’ve been changed because of where I’ve been. What matters tends to stick around. Maybe not in the ways we want or think it will, but if nothing else, we have beautifully poignant memories that remind us the power of relationships and people (and places) in our lives. I know, for example, that having all of the people I love in one place is nearly impossible. But, that’s okay too. Because they will come and they will go, but the people you love never really leave entirely.

I’m a year out from graduation, and I remember so many things about those wonderful (and at times, very difficult) four years of my life. More than anything, I am grateful for my friends there because without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am and am becoming. The best part is that I have them for life, and if that’s what you walk away with after the ending of some life experience, well, consider yourself immensely blessed.

I showed a few more photos to Isabella and Apolloknee before we got to the prayer and stuffing our faces part of our meal. They enjoyed my stories and the pictures that went with them. I explained my large family, my dogs, and my high school friends too. And when I say that after dinner, that very evening, I’ll talk to both dad and a friend from back home in America, they seem happy because they can see too, that what God generously provided, still remains.