Tag Archives: hospitality



me and my love

For years growing up, you could bet cool green cans of Mountain Dew could be found in our big white refrigerator. If Y2K or our weekly soccer matches had taken precedent and the Dew was finished, no worries—cases could also be found in the back of dad’s Ford pickup. Dad was a legitimate Mountain Dew freak. Every 7/11 stop we made (a convenience store with the best slurpees in the world) was always associated with two kinds of things: some sort of cheese product for me, and Mountain Dew for Dad. It was just how things were, I suppose.

I remember when those very cases, bottles, and cans disappeared and Dad kicked his Mountain Dew habit. Apparently, pop isn’t the best thing for you, at least in those kinds of quantities. Not to mention, the Pepsi product, Mountain Dew, is loaded with a ridiculous amount of sugar and so that kind really isn’t good for you

Besides those days of that sugary lime-esque soda, pop was mostly absent as I grew up. If we had people over for a Broncos’ game or a typical American summer BBQ, you could certainly find some Coke products covered by ice in our cooler, but on a typical day in the Newell household, pop wasn’t much of a stronghold. Personally, I didn’t really like it that much anyway, so I was never bothered too much when my friends brought a can of soda with their brown bagged lunch. Between glasses of chocolate milk, water, or mom’s lemon iced tea, my thirst was almost always satisfied. So, when I fast forward well over 10 years and find myself in an unhealthy relationship with Coca-Cola, it’s rather difficult to pinpoint the roots. For so long, I hated pop. What happened?

And then, I remember. And I laugh because though I avoided pop for most of my life, I failed to understand the powers of Coca-Cola abroad. Turns out, they use real sugar and all sorts of other secret, magical things. Or so it seems.

My addiction started in Ghana, of all places.

I studied a semester my junior year of college at the University of Ghana-Legon. I use the term ‘studied’ leisurely, because a great chunk of my time was spent relaxing, working with some students who can’t afford to attend public school, traveling, and hanging out with my friends. Some days, we would all just sit in the courtyard area of our student housing and talk for hours—all day, even. While you could easily find juice or water on a hot, sunny afternoon to satisfy the thirst that sat in your mouth, it was almost always guaranteed that the pop would be the beverage of choice kept cold. Maybe the beer too, but it was hardly justifiable at 10:00 am. So, we drank Coke.

A small social thing at first, soon, we’d be structuring our social time in order to DRINK Coke. Sometimes, LITERS of it. Rachel, Paula, Taylor, and I—we were somehow obsessed. Once, in Benin, we cleared out the stock of  Coke a local motel had on hand. In one night only.

Rachel and I, both students at Hendrix, came back home and to school that year still glowing from what we called, “the sweet nectarine of life,” and would often reminisce of the joy of drinking our beverage of choice after dusty walks around Ghana. Sadly, cafeteria Coke or Walmart Coke just wasn’t the same—I still haven’t decided if it was the product or the place that made this so. Conway, Arkansas (home of Hendrix College, Toad Suck, and too many churches to name) has a local restaurant that serves Coke bottles imported from Mexico, and every now and then, we’d surprise each other with one of these bottles and instantly, our days would be made. Still, without the ever-present mix of Ghana and Coke, my fixation waned a bit.

Culturally, I had no idea what I was in for when I decided to accept my Peace Corps invitation to teach English in Rwanda. Without a doubt, this culture is highly complex because of its history, relationship with the world, and the religious influences that are infused everywhere. I can confidently say that I’ll never figure it out. Yet, I can proudly boast that I’ve come to understand, accept, and totally embrace one cultural fortress: FANTA. Fanta is everywhere in Rwanda and go ahead and take your pick: citron, fiesta, orange, coke, or sprite.

You know how in America when you visit someone you are welcomed with an often enthusiastic handshake or hug? Oh yeah, the same is true in Rwanda only you’ll also be immediately given a Fanta—or at least as soon as the prayer is over. The sometimes dusty and dirty (probably from it’s long voyage to way out here in the boonies) glass bottle is opened either with a run-of-the-mill bottle opener, the chair’s edge, or your host’s teeth. This is THE sign of hospitality, without question. To demonstrate the cultural importance of Fanta just a bit further, once I did an exercise with my students that put them in small groups. In their groups they had to decide what they would take to a deserted forest. I gave them the option of about 15 things and they could choose 4. Considering the small group choices, we developed an overall class list. The objects chosen were listed as follows (and in this order of importance):

1. A hoe (to cultivate)

2. Tea (with sugar)

3. Fanta

4. Matches

Mind you, there were other objects available for the picking, like pots, cooking tools, jerry cans, and the radio (another majorly important cultural object). And still, Fanta was on top of the list.

One time, I drank 7—yes, S-E-V-E-N Fantas—at a wedding. Weddings take the cake (literally) because tradition calls for families to share and exchange a 2-liter bottle of Coke (usually I see this happen and wonder how my friends and I drank Coke like we did back in our Ghana days) at the dowry ceremony. Once this happens and an ungodly amount of speeches are made, the guests are provided with a Fanta of their choice, housed in 4 x 6 red crates.

the glorious crate of cokes

Often, when running, I’ll hear a bicycle coming. I don’t know it’s coming because of the horn in front of the rider, the sliding of the bike chains, or the squeaky brakes rubbing against the various metals. I know the bicycle is coming because the glass bottles held in the back of the rider are clinking and banging together as they soar over the village dirt roads. Yes, even in the most rural of areas, there is Fanta. Best of all, they currently cost 300 RWF (Rwandan Francs). That’s just about 50 cents. How awesome is that?

To relax, people drink Fanta (or often beer, but that’s an entirely different story). Once a term, our hearty and Coke-loving headmaster takes us to a hole in the wall place (this is not an exaggeration) and we sit out back waiting as goats are bought, killed, and cooked so we can enjoy brochettes and cooked banana as a side to our Fanta. This little experience is called our teacher “motivation.” Hey, works for me.

Most recently, I went to visit one of my favorite students, called Tuyisenge, and spent the night. Tuyisenge spoiled me with delicious hot milk brewed with tea and herbal yummy-ness and with plantains (my favorite Rwandan food). Besides making me feel right at home and taking care of me completely for the night, Tuyisenge’s grandparents also went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to Fanta hospitality. Let’s just say that as I write this, I’m experiencing what I like to call a “Fanta hangover.” Basically, in less than 20 hours, I somehow consumed 9 different fantas. The rounds just kept coming. Her musaza and muchechuru (old man and old woman; to refer to grandparents) took me to a nearby boutique where we watched Rwandan worship videos as they drank banana beer and I was consistently given at least one Fanta for each hand. I think the end count went something like this: I had 3 Cokes, 4 Orange Fantas, and 2 Fanta Citrons. Now, I’m lying in bed, recovering, and quite certain this is what being hungover from Fanta feels like. In the moment, it was grand. Now, however, I may have to take a 1 or 2 day hiatus from the likes of Fanta. But, I’ll be back to my ways shortly. This I am sure.

As I’ve been encountering all this Coke culture in a small African country, Rachel has been exploring graduate school world at MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University) getting her master’s degree in public history. I remember the day, nearly 6 months ago, when I got a phone call from her exclaiming that she had landed the summer internship with the Coca-Cola archives. I was visiting my nearest town to run errands, to check my email, and to grab a cold Coke. I was jumping up and down as I exited the internet café to take her call; I was so happy and proud of her. And hey, not only was it a great opportunity, we couldn’t help but wonder how much access she would be having to Coke products that summer.

Oh. Did that girl ever have quite the access! While she didn’t come away with any secret recipes (as least none that she has let on to having) she told me legendary tales of the Coke vending machines at headquarters in her office in Atlanta where you could basically choose any kind of Coke product that you wanted—even other kinds of drinks that Coke owns, like Odwalla, for example. She worked on projects, visited California, and made trips to different plants. She even went to intern meetings and staff meetings where she’d be in the same room as the CEO. It was pretty cool stuff, as I understand it.

I think Rachel did manage to walk away with a strong sense of how Coke really is everywhere in the world. You don’t really notice at first, I think, but when you take a look around, man, it’s just in every small corner. It’s in every country except for like two. Oh, and there are hundreds of bottle types, apparently. I think Coke is THE most recognized English word—oh wait. It might be second to Jesus. That’s quite a feat.

So, what exactly is it about Coke?

For me, working as a teacher in a small, rural village, I can certainly tell you that most of my neighbors and community members have a strong and passionate love for all things sugar. In my tea, for example, they might try and put 4 or 5 tablespoons of that stuff. Seriously. So, with Coke, sugar is definitely a factor.

But, is it really all about the taste? Because yeah, it’s tasty. But so are a lot of drinks: tea, coffee, juice, and milk.

Fanta is kind of revered as a league of its own.

Maybe there really isn’t one reason in particular, it just is what it is.

It’s a really amazing and intriguing experience to visit a subsistence farmer based family who is barely making ends meet, who might have only a table and a small bench when it comes to furniture, and yet will still spend the 300 RWF for a Coke (or two) to give to me as their guest. Because it’s important to remember, I realize, that for some people, 50 cents does hold a lot of weight when it comes to money. And yet, so powerful is Fanta as a symbol for hospitality that these families hardly think twice.

I think what it comes down to is this:

The culture of Rwanda, while unbelievably complicated, is all about visiting people you love, sharing things with your neighbors, and engaging completely in a communal experience. It’s a giving culture, and it just so happens that a glass bottle full of sugar and god-knows-what happens to represent and manifest that homey-ness. Rwanda—or more precisely, the village—lacks a lot of options for drinking. You can go to the nearest boutique in my village and if you are thirsty you can purchase one of the following: a Fanta, a beer (a pre-packaged bottle or the local banana brew if you so wish), a weird orange juice concoction, or bottled water. Mixed with the tendency of conservatism, especially in the rural areas, beer is sometimes looked down upon by the church. And so, you have Fanta. It’s as if Rwanda is a country where all the elements work in sync that allow a culture of Fanta to grow and thrive. It’s tasty, it’s everywhere, and why not?

I think one of the total pluses of being a 2nd year volunteer here in my village is this: people know I like Coke. And so, here’s the thing: now when I go to visit community members, often the Coke is already sitting on the wooden table, waiting for me to accept it, own it, and drink it in like 14 seconds flat. Good neighbors? I THINK YES.

Coke, I’ve noticed, has advertised Open Happiness as a slogan to conquer the world—ahem—to sell their product. I remember I first read that catch phrase and kind of wanted to roll my eyes. Now? Well, I kind of whole-heartedly agree. It’s the power of Coke culture, I suppose.

enjoying the Obama bar with COKE themed place settings

like rwanda, tanzania has a strong love affair with coke.

sunflowers and bananas


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.