Tag Archives: home

full circle

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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

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you will always get back home

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One Year in Rwanda

MILES RAN (APPROXIMATE): 426

PACKAGES RECEIVED: 32

PHOTOS TAKEN: 1346

MICE KILLED: 8

BLOGS POSTED: 43

DAYS I HADA KITTEN: 3

BOOKS READ: 43

STUDENTS VISITED: 42

UMUGANDAS (COMMUNITY SERVICE DAYS): 4

STUDENTS TAUGHT: 346

HOST FAMILY VISITS: 2

SEASONS OF FRIENDS WATCHED: 10

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

HOURS TALKED ON PHONE: 54

PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS VISITED: 5

PEACE CORPS VISITORS AT MY HOME: 4

HOURS TAUGHT IN CLASS: 399

MATCHES COACHED: 4

DAYS WITH ELECTRICITY ACCESS: 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOP 10 HIGHLIGHTS

Peace Corps: Year One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 1 year down. 14 months to go.

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

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

Let’s do this.

 

 

sunflowers and bananas

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Humans have a funny way of becoming a product of their environment.

I’d support this claim in a variety of ways with sequential and supportive evidence, alas, I’m not exactly livin’ the 4G life here, I don’t have Google (or Wikipedia for that matter) as my best friend, nor do I have a plethora of academic databases lying around; so, I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or, go ahead and just listen to my friends—they’ll tell you—I am lately exuding very Rwandan-esque behaviors. You’re becoming so Rwandan they say. This is usually after I phrase something in Rwandan English such as,

“How do you see Rwanda?”, or,

“Even me, I love milk.”

And one more for kicks and giggles,

“Ah, yes. The day is okay.”

And that’s just what my friends see of me.

They don’t see that girl who does a special greeting-handshake-thing with her students (called the push), or when I’m playing football and laugh when somebody falls down (laughter is completely accepted when somebody is embarrassed or in pain), or even when I mumble yes-way (coming from the Kinyarwanda phrase, Yesu we, meaning, Oh my Jesus!) when something surprises me.

Moreover, I get comments about having spent too much time in the village when I glorify plantains (a regular part of my diet), talk about my consistent visiting habits, or greet each and every person we pass on the streets—even if we are in the city of Kigali (a city is a city, and greeting like you do in the village isn’t really the norm).

In my defense, I can chalk up a lot of these behaviors to me just being me (in Rwandan form, of course) and also, I have taken a strong liking to Rwandan culture. With any culture, there are parts that you quite literally cannot understand and there are even parts that you want nothing to do with. I have my share of that. Yet, when I leave my little village world for a short trip, get together, or meeting and always, without fail, am told that Heather is becoming more like Impano (my Kinyarwanda name…or is it alias?) every day, I’d say the culture is having a good effect on me. A strong one, at least.

Better yet, is that these days when I leave, I want to come back. ASAP. Homesick? For the village? Maybe it’s not just being products of our environments that matters (Lord knows, I tried my darndest—and still do—to be Southern when I was living in Arkansas)—it’s the process of becoming a part of something larger than yourself. Before you know it, you’re changing, your worldview is breaking down only to be rebuilt, and you can just add one more place to the growing list of where home is.

Yeah, home is a huge word to throw around. Like I taught my students in the first term, home isn’t quite just a place—it’s a heavy mix of structures, thickly laced with layers of memories, comfort, and most importantly, people. When I think of home in the broadest sense, I think of images, sounds, flashbacks, and a dozen other senses (memory is quite powerful, after all) involving Norfolk Street, mom, dad, family BBQs, my large and crazy family, Buddy’s feet pattering in the kitchen, throwing the football with Lance, mom (and dad’s!) enchiladas, coffee on the way to work or school, my Ghana blanket, expansive trees, jokes with friends, studying in the sun, watching Friends with friends, NFL on Sundays, Hendrix College, long walks at dusk, bike rides in the summer, American highways, reading on the porch, sleeping late in the best bed in the world, chatting loudly and freely on the phone with my friends, my favorite pair of sweatpants, and just sitting and talking with my friends…family…or really anyone who cares to listen. Home is powerful you see, and these things—these images—are just what comes to the top of my head when I reflect on what home is to me. It goes so so much deeper than even this.

And now, I’m coming to see Rwanda in its very own way is becoming home too. Peace Corps blog policy (believe it) prohibits me from disclosing the exact location of where I live—which is unfortunate, otherwise you could be like dad, who seems to always be searching for my green house on google maps and finding me via satellite. I think I see you! You’re in the forest, right? Love him. If you’re curious, by all means, ask him.

But, I live in a great place. It’s beautiful—I can’t find another word that suffices—and it’s rural, green, and lined with dirt roads (like most of Rwanda). In between batches of sunflowers (incidentally, one of my favorite kinds of flowers) and banana trees, you can find my house. I live in the sector center (the sector, a small part of the entire regional province, has 4 main cells, like large villages. Yes. I know. It’s confusing.) which includes our secondary school, one of 3 primary schools (this one hosts 2000+ screaming children…you better believe that I plan my runs around when their school day ends), the health center, the red-bricked and ominous Catholic Church, a sector office about a 45 minute walk down the main road, and a few clusters of boutiques where you can buy salt, batteries, sugar, banana beer (a special home-brew; moonshine ain’t got nothin’ on this horribly disgusting excuse for a beer), phone credit (the company I use, MTN, is one of the largest corporations in all of Africa), and candy, to name a few.

With most of my community members working as farmers, you’ll see vast fields of banana trees, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, coffee, corn, sorghum, cassava, and rice. Having developed the consistent and strong habits of visiting my students and going on runs, I‘ve seen nearly my entire sector. It’s funny because while I do know the roads well, I often learn a secret shortcut, back way, or new path every day because that’s the nature of living amidst hills and the countryside—there is always a new way to go.

 

I can walk comfortably to most places. I mean that quite literally. If I want to wear my comfy sports get-up, I do. I’ve become adjusted enough that I don’t feel like I have to be on my best behavior and dress immaculately on every outing—it’s just me greeting the neighbors or stopping in for a quick Coke on a dry, hot day. That’s surely a strike in the whole me-becoming-Rwandan-endeavor, but it’s certainly what I prefer. I even veered from my discourse in wearing long black capris on runs to wearing the orange mesh field hockey shorts I brought with me. I wore them to our girls’ practice the other day, and ohlala. The girls went crazy. In a good way. They kept telling me how smart I am (that means you dress nicely) and I was happy to break the mold a bit…and get my pasty white legs some fresh Rwandan sun, for goodness sake!

 

I think the biggest sign that this once uncertain place has wagered a serious move to become home has everything to do with knowing the people. Like I said in the first place, that’s the biggest part of a place or time in your life feeling like home.

It’s a beautiful thing, I tell you, to run or walk 30 minutes away, see the mothers and fathers of my students, to call them by name, and greet them like it’s just another day. That provides such a sense of belonging and to hear them say things like our teacher, she loves people, she knows Kinyarwanda, she loves to laugh, and she is loved by all…what else could you really ask of a place thousands of miles from the home that I came from, a place I knew nobody 7 months ago, and a place embedded with a complex and hard to understand (and hard to break through) culture?

Granted, it’s not all ice cream and sprinkles; of course people still say umuzungu, make inappropriate comments, gawk and stare at me like I’m the newest zoo animal, and mock me just for the hell of it. I don’t preach perfection; this community (like anywhere in the world) has good people, bad people, positive signs of development, negative and intense issues, and that’s just from what I can actually understand. But instances of negativity are growing less and less, and the good comments, the man, I really feel at home because you said that comments are increasing and becoming more regular each time I step outside in the world of my little community.

I’m happy here. Not all the time, but that really is okay. Genuinely, truly, completely. For the first time in my life, really, for a consistent amount of time, I have been okay on my bad days. I realize that they come with the territory, and that life really isn’t life without a bit of everything. We’re human, after all. I’m happy when it matters; when moments come and it’s just so clear that this is exactly where I need to be. I call these home moments.

Here’s a few:

  • Sitting on the school grounds with my students laughing…talking…doing nothing at all…even letting them play with my now long blonde hair…
  • Watching the Senior 2A girls beat the Senior 3B girls for the girls’ inter-class football championship. I was sitting with my student and friend, Zahara, among other girls, and we were glued to what was happening on the field. After a 1-1 draw, the girls lined up for penalty kicks. With an edge of 1, the Senior 2A girls came away as the victors. We cheered loudly and proudly while also consoling the older girls who had every advantage to win (they are a stacked team, you might say). I will never forget the moment that I looked over at the S2A girls, hugging each other in a large circle, screaming at the top of their lungs. That’s what sports is all about—for a moment nothing else mattered. And I was both in that moment, and outside that moment, realizing that I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of that myself. Anyway, just being there, able to witness such a moving thing reminded me of the ties I have here now; I’m a supporter, a fan,  if you will, and it’s amazing to have such great students to cheer for.
  • Telling the 5 girls from our school that they were accepted into GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp this July and August. About 30 girls from our school applied, and the 5 that were selected—Yvonne, Joselyne, Joyce, Divine, and Maisara—are some of the best students at our entire school. I gathered them in our staff room and presented them with a homemade card made by yours truly, that said “you are a superstar! …congratulations! You will be attending GLOW Camp 2012!” They fist-pumped and high-fived each other. And, when I started to explain more details about the camp, and the importance of their selection, I saw tears in their eyes. This is huge for them. I knew it would be…but to be in that moment, to realize exactly what this camp could do for them…I too was overwhelmed with emotion. The next week, I had them over for coffee and bananas to go through the details of getting there, and I just know this is going to be a highlight of my time in Rwanda. Not to mention, provides a great deal of purpose and sense of community with the girls that are going. Yes, indeed, a home moment in every sense that it could be.
  • Playing football. With my students. With the community women’s team that I just joined (I’ve had a couple good practices, scoring a few goals! holla.) As always, it just feels like I’m in my element and culturally, I’m dabbling in a sacred part of Rwandan life. It’s a match made in heaven. Ha. No pun intended.
  • Going on walks with one of my good friends, 3 year old Olive. Frequently, I’ll visit her house, check in with her mom, and we’ll hold hands, walk to the next village over, and turn back around. We don’t talk that much (what can you really talk about with a toddler?) but we giggle, and have fun, which is what matters.
  • Riding the moto on my 20 minute ride back from the main road into my village. It’s just so nice to have that feeling of, yes! I’m coming home! And the rolling hills peppered with an open sky certainly does not hurt the eyes as I whizz on by rural villages stacked together.
  • Reading books, magazines, and newspapers in bed on Saturday morning, staying intertwined in my Coca-Cola themed sheets till gasp! 10 am. Nothing like catching up on the news (even if it’s 2 months behind) in bed with a good cup of coffee.
  • Holding hands with my Rwandan friends. Holding hands is another cultural point of importance, and I’ve totally embraced it. It’s nice to feel physically close with someone and feel comfortable expressing that, and this not meaning anything else other than close friendship.
  • Really really good home visits. They are all generally pretty good, but some are just absolutely wonderful, where you have a strong connection with families, and can build on the relationship you already have with the student. It makes you feel at home because suddenly you have a whole group of people wanting to love on you, make you feel welcome, and showing you the ropes of their home. It’s an honor, really, and most of these families, I don’t think even realize what their hospitality means to me. That’s what hospitality is all about: making you feel at home. Which is why really really good home visits are impacting how I see and feel about my place in this community. The best is returning, coming back again for another home visit, and having a repertoire and relationship already established. I have a couple families like that, and it’s just nice to know I have a place to go.

Sometimes, these self-dubbed “home moments” are small. Sometimes, they’re big. The big ones typically involve my students. As this place grows as a home for me, my students are undeniably a major part of this. This term has just opened up a whole new dynamic with my students and I…well, I love it.

And, it’s actually just so hard to explain.

There’s a lot of love in the world, but loving your students is so different. I’m vested in them; they’re vested in me. And for the ones I’m particularly close with, there is a shared sense of admiration, connection, and ease. I’m navigating how to be a teacher, friend, mentor, mother, and supporter, all in one relationship. It’s a lot. It’s weird. I can think of a handful of students where it’s just so natural to be with them and their company alone is incredibly uplifting. My heart flutters when they succeed. And when the face challenges I, even at 23, will never understand, my heart breaks. I want to fight for them. I want them to know that I am on their side. Yes, I am always, always, on your side, I think to myself.

When your heart is out there—for the good and the bad—and you are vulnerable like that, I think you can be sure that you are giving the place and people you are with at any stage in your life a fair-shot to become your new reality of home.

I can only hope that in doing so, I’m offering something to my friends, to my students, and to my community. What exactly I’m giving, I don’t really know. Because you can line this Peace Corps service with projects, aid ideas, and development, but like I’ve believed all along, the mark you leave behind is far more deeper than that (and far more important, maybe). They are giving me a home. I suppose in my heart of hearts, my hope is that throughout this process I am showing my community ways to believe in the people they are, that really, we are all just people, and that though the world is markedly unfair with profound inequalities (that’s entirely another blog), we are all living out a piece of what God wishes to see in the world and in humanity.

 It’s a lofty ambition. But I came here, for the first time, completely freaked out. I never imagined I would feel the way I do—about the place, but more so, about the people. And so, lofty ambitions can be achieved. A village can become a home. And we can change the world. You just have to start small, and go from there.


weekend solace and the joy of coming home

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I was that girl on the rickety red bus coming up the hills outside Kigalil; I was of course the strangely dressed girl (I wore sport wear simply because I felt like it), as well as a weird white girl, but I was also a very obviously happy girl. I was en route to Suzi’s site, the sun was shining, and I sat next to a sparky old woman who-for once-seemed to actually understand why me (a young 23 year old woman living in Africa) wasn’t in the market for a husband. It’s a strange paradox I have found when it comes to age, marriage, and becoming a woman. While being 23 often incites audible gasps from people surprised to hear my young age, those gasps continue when they realize I am in fact, single. Apparently, in Rwanda, you are a “girl” until you take a husband, but after the age of 25, you are somehow considered a muchechuru, that is, an old woman. Go ahead and try and figure that all out. I’m still trying.

As we all bounced  simultaneously in some condensed-squished together rhythm, I literally could not stop smiling. It’s that feeling when joy fills your body and you are content in that moment because you can be—because you want to be. I was also just greatly anticipating the weekend ahead of me: a visit to Suzi’s site, a trip to the Southern Province to celebrate Alyssa’s birthday, and the prospect of coming back home at the end of all of it. Lately, being in my community—being home—it’s just working. I love it. As unbalanced as emotions, moods, and perspectives can be here, I feel as balanced as you could really expect. I’ve been staying busy; but not in the classic American way of filling to-do lists and moving from one thing to the next. Instead, I’ve been busy visiting. I have been visiting my students at their homes and believe it or not, it’s a pretty big time commitment. First of all, we have to walk there. Which, for many of my superstars (this is what I call my students these days—they love it) is quite far. Then, there is the photos…and the food…and the praying…and the talking. And so, it takes a long time. Yet, I love it, and it’s making me feel so much at home with my community, specifically with my students, and I actually think it’s paying off in the classroom.

Suzi’s site sits maybe a 15 minute walk off  the main road. I’ve visited several times now and I enjoy every time I come. Her home welcomes you with a plethora of colorful flowers and shrubbery; ‘the garden of Eden’ is how I like to lovingly (and aptly) refer to this place, and it’s pretty darn accurate. The compound she lives on is behind the all-encompassing Catholic church and right before the school grounds where she teaches English. The beauty of her site is always so warm and welcoming, and yet it is just a tip of the iceberg in terms of what makes her site so great.

Suz lives with nuns. Yes, nuns.

And, I might argue, some of the best nuns you’ll find. Not that I’ve met a lot of them in the world, but I think these ladies would be hard to beat.

Suz has infinitely more insight and wisdom into the lives and characters of these eccentric, kind-hearted, and gracious women, but I feel fortunate to even  have met them and visited them on a couple of occasions. They greet you like a long lost daughter, feed you like you haven’t eaten in days, and  make you feel like you are right at home. In my short visit last week, I heard the special song they made for Suzi, saw Sister Martha do the shopping cart dance, heard an impression of my laugh (which was strangely accurate), showed photos of my family and friends, and explained that I can, in fact, cut and prepare plantains, cook them on a charcoal stove, and feed myself. I wouldn’t trade my site for anything’ I’m comfortable here, and my community has fully embraced the sport obsessed, loud, and goofy woman that I am. However, herein lies the beauty of visiting friends in Peace Corps: you can experience a piece of their lives in Rwanda and better understand the roles they have in their communities and what they go through on a daily basis. I love visiting Suzi because I get to be around strong and undeniably hilarious nuns, share a meal like a family, and the hot milk and tea is a wonderfully fantastic bonus.

Moreover, I love visiting Suzi because I think an important part of friendship is spending time together and exchanging stories of love, small victories, frustrations, embarrassing moments, and everything in between. In a span of about 18 hours, we played volleyball and football with some of her students, went together to her adult education class, made macaroni and cheese, nearly cried after successfully baking funfetti cake, and talked till nearly 1:00 am (that’s about 4 hours past my normal bedtime!). I knew I had a good friend when I looked at her in the kitchen and asked if I had a bulk of cheese sauce on my face and we just laughed hysterically at what our lives have become. We’re goobers, as she might say.

We traveled together to a rather neat Rwandan town that holds quite a bit of historical significance. It is considered the first area of civilization in Rwanda, where kings ruled for years, and as a result, it has many museums and historical sites. Our trip took a bit longer than what should really be about an hour and a half; we rode largely uphill and we had to stop frequently as there was some cycling event in which we watched serious cyclists climb one hill at a time and cruise gratefully downhill when the opportunity presented itself. It reminded me of what it looked like to watch the Tour de France on TV with Mom and Randy…only this was in person! And in Rwanda! But hey, it was cycling, so that’s a start, right?

We arrived at a hotel pool to find our friends lounging around with food, coke, and beer. Ah yes, a beautiful way to spend a Saturday. I jumped recklessly in the greenish-seaweed color pool (sketchy. Yes. whatever) and felt the cool water strike my skin. It’s June. It’s only natural to be in a pool, right? It is summertime after all. That’s easy to forget about when there are only two true seasons here: rainy or dry. I was a sight for sore eyes: lots and lots of hair on my pasty pasty white legs, dirty feet from traveling, oh, and a huge pimple on my lip. I looked like your run of the mill volunteer from the village—what can you do? In celebration of Alyssa’s birthday, we had chickens cooked and prepared and then brought to the house many of us stayed at. Someone also brought BBQ sauce. Bless their heart. It was heavenly and reminiscent of an American summer celebration. We had lofty ambitions to go out and explore some live Congolese music…but no. The conversation, wine, dancing, and chickens got the best of us. We stayed in and had our own dance party. Pictures were taken. Curled up in a cozy brown and white blanket with red wine and Tracy Chapman’s Crossroads (one of my favorite albums) playing in the background talking about everything from family to Peace Corps to music and sports was a nice way to reconnect with fellow volunteers and friends.

I hugged and greeted children along the road as I carried my maroon flowery bag to Sunday market in the next village over. I was back home from  my quick weekend getaway, and when I checked my food supply, I realized I was in desperate need for some grub. I arrived at the market amidst old women farmers who sell their excess crops and greeted them enthusiastically. They are always so kind and friendly to me; and as far as I know, give me the prices for food and things that are the actual prices. No umuzungu prices for this girl here. I bought some basic vegetables, potatoes, and bananas. It was fun. And those same children that I greeted along the roadside took my hands and we walked together home. I would unpack, wish my dad a Happy Father’s Day, and catch up on the phone with Rachel.

It’s an amazing thing to go exploring in old and new places in Rwanda, but there’s also nothing quite like coming home. It’s somehow possible that the difficult times here actually plant the seeds for the good times to flourish. Now, I am finding a sense of solace in visiting, a bounce in my step when greeting, and a profound sense of pride in my small little rural community. It’s far from perfect. The bad days will continue to come, of course. But, in feeling a bit more at home and connected with the people that I am living with, it’s becoming familiar. Most of all, I find myself welcoming that feeling of Monday morning, which seems odd and at ends with how most people view Mondays anywhere in the world. But for me, it’s when I get to see my students again, when I get to hear about the weekends they had, and start the week all over again. It’s a fresh start. Thank goodness for those.