Tag Archives: host family

how to be cool for an 8-year old in rwanda


My little sister was called Garase. As in, Ga-rah-say.

It took me approximately 5 weeks for me to fully realize her name was actually Grace (you know, the feminine name that has a Latin origin and usually refers to grace that God gives us as believers, spoken like gray-ce); the only difference was the pronunciation. Because, hello, I’m not in America, and not everything sounds the same.

And, get this, the only reason I found out was because of a small purple flashlight that had the word “GRACE” printed on it in green lettering. Grandpa and Glenda, my sweet, awesome, God-fearing grandparents by way of my mother had sent me a package all the way from Hooker, Oklahoma (population just over 1,000) full of fun goodies in preparation for Christmas. They also had sent this flashlight because my daily life included no electricity. Clearly, it came from a church related event, conference, revival, what have you, and when Mama saw it she instantly went bejerk. I, of course thought it was because it was a cool looking flashlight or “torch” as they refer to it over here.

But no. She was squealing and laughing and gesturing aggressively because she saw her daughter’s name printed on something. Apparently this is really cool. The second time a Rwandan saw a recognizable name in my presence was when Divine saw a Christmas ornament in the shape of a snowman that read “Heather” at the bottom. She held it in the air as if she had located a valuable piece of gold and told me that this was the nicest thing she had seen all day. I just smiled. It’s funny what we miss in our own lives, isn’t it? What is “cool” to you is barely a passing thought to someone else.

Anyway, Mama pointed this name out, explained it was Grace’s name (not Garase as I previously thought) and I shook my head and enthusiastically replied, “Mhmmmmmmmmmmmm. *that’s a universal Rwandan sound of approval* Ni byiza cyane!” (basically, I told mama that this little flashlight was really awesome). And, I chuckled along too, acting as if I had known this the entire time of my host family experience.

So, Grace.
She’s actually really bad ass for an 8 year old.

First of all, she’s Rwandan, so she’s got super human strength. For example, when I would come home after a long day of training, drenched in dirt, groggy from studying Kinyarwanda for an ungodly amount of time, I would get the best hugs from this girl. Except, they were like what 3 cups of coffee can do for me in the morning–it woke me up fast! She would run towards me, use her bird like arms and wrap them around me in a full on collision. If I was tired, cranky, or grumpy, her hugs would always do the trick. Especially since they usually knocked the wind out of me.

She would always be humming songs, jumping around, and generally just being really cool. She was so much cooler than me. And so, it became my mission, among other things (like accurately peeing in a hole) to make Grace think I was cool.

I would share my nail polish, play cards, and play hide and seek with her and her posse of 7, 8, and 9 year olds. I taught her to snap her fingers when shaking a person’s hand (a greeting a learned while studying in Ghana) and would often willfully submit my hair so she could play salon. Eventually, I think, I won her approval.

But, it took a lot. It took Booboo.

Booboo is (or was) my elephant. My stuffed grey elephant that is, and I brought him all the way to Rwanda. Yep. I had to pack for 2 years of my life in 2 bags and I used precious space for my toy. You see why I was so desperate to be cool, yes?

Anyway, Booboo had seen me through thick and thin while I was with my host family and in that 3 month “training” (I’d actually describe it more like cultural boot camp–let’s call it like it is).

When mosquitoes bit my face or when it really was just acne and 15 people would ask me about in one day, I had Booboo to console with. Yes, my face is sick. I would say. This did no favors for my self-esteem.

When I was coffee-starved and went a bit manic, I might have tossed Booboo frustratingly across the room. Which, in my defense, was no bigger than a 7 x 7 space. So, hey, at least it wasn’t far, right?

And when really hard things happened like my grandmother dying right after I had resettled in Rwanda, Booboo was a great place for me to blow my nose. Don’t judge, I ran out of tissue a lot.

So yeah, Booboo was there.

As I was preparing to leave my host family and go out into the real world of Rwanda and Peace Corps (this means I was going to live alone and go change the world or something-I still haven’t figured it out), I wanted to give Grace something that would show her just how much I love her.

Papa and Mama got a bulk of printed photos that we had hour long photo shoots with (yes, this actually became painful) and a few coffee mugs to represent all the milk tea they had given me on the daily. They do love their tea.

The two brothers I had – Dani and Simon – got some play cars and a book to color with.
Hakiza, the house boy, got some pens (no need to scoff, pens are a cultural staple, gem, and proverbial sweet nectarine of life for Rwandans, especially of the BIC variety).

But Grace?
Well, she was the big winner.

I gave her a pack of nailpolish. And Booboo.

At first I wasn’t sure if she understood what a catamount event this was. Her reaction was enthused delight at best. I was hoping for unrestrained shouting for joy as if the Pentecosts had come over for lunch. I was a bit underwhelmed to say the least. However, I later stepped out from my room in the afternoon and saw Grace in the hall. With a string attached as a leash, she was preparing to take Booboo for a walk. She was talking to him softly and making sure he was ready for their adventure.

I knew then that I had made a great decision. He was in good hands. Booboo would be happy, Grace would be content, and just maybe, I would be cool.


evidence that Grace is the coolest kid around. She’s here on the far left.


Grace on the right. She’s got the smoldering look DOWN.

the dark days are over


I feel like I’m living like a king.

I’ve changed my cooking methods, for one. For the past 10 months I’ve relied on the black sooty chunks of charcoal to generate enough heat to power my meals, coffee, and water for bathing my often dusty body. When the charcoal bag reached ends meet, I contemplated purchasing another 10-ish dollar rice sack of amacara (that’s charcoal in Kinyarwanda). Yet, I put that thought on the back burner when I stumbled (quite literally) over this old dinky pea green petrol stove I bought before moving from the Peace Corps training site to my home. Let’s give this petrol stove a trial run, I thought.


I can cook water in 10 minutes (not 45) and I can come home and get right into cooking—not prepping my source of heat for an obscene amount of time (though, my charcoal lighting skills have gotten quite advanced, I would say). Oh and speaking of power. I GOT IT! And, I don’t mean the self-encouraging, confident, believe in yourself type. I HAVE ELECTRICITY.

I was gone from site for several days due to taking part in Peace Corps training (teaching new trainees how to teach listening and speaking in the classroom) and visiting Suzi and so I was rather consumed with things outside of my home and outside of my site. However, I got a call one morning from our school accountant and my friend Emi, who told me that they would be breaking into my house to install electricity. Seriously? Did I hear that correctly? And truth be told, I didn’t really believe it—that is until I saw it. Concrete crumbles were scattered in all of the nooks and crannies of my wall corners, workers were meticulously connecting things together in every room, and red and black wires began to intertwine with my beige bamboo ceiling. Oh the sweet wires. When I saw those babies I knew this was the real deal. When it was time to flip the white switch in my front room, I saw the bulb light every where I could see and I gleefully absorbed all of what this meant. I can cook at night  enjoyably (without knocking over pots, pans, and spices due to the lack of light); I can actually see my floors (maybe assess whether they are actually clean); I don’t have to have a strategic game plan every single time I want to charge my electronics; I can grade papers (I have 381 students so you do the math) without hurting my eyes more than they will already hurt; and I can watch a tv show. Or two. Or three. My life will change, and hey, I’m cool with that.

I’m proud of myself—I did the no electricity thing for over a year. And you can make it. It’s possible. Most people in my village do it just fine. But, it’s hard. And I don’t think I’m some unsung hero or anything; I just remember thinking how scary/crazy it was when back in the ‘burbs the power would leave for like 23 minutes and Lance and I would grab blankets, security devices, and extra snacks for the duration without electricity. And this would be midday, mind you. I just have some added perspective, that’s all. And so you can bet that with each hour of light and power, I’ll be oh so grateful.

Another great thing about all of this is timing. Suzi had been planning a trip out East to visit me for several weeks and so as I went through all of these positive adjustments, Suzi was right there with me. Our journey to my house was full of rain, leaky bus roofs, and small cramped bus rides, but we made it. Even with added miscommunications with the bus people and the always present beast in the room: KINYARWANDA.

Suzi got to meet some of my students (and see some of them do their choreography to ‘Baby’ by the Biebs), talk with my headmaster, and see the rain damage to our school all within an hour in my village. It was just the beginning: Suzi’s visit was full of wine (thanks to Jon—an Australian merlot straight from England, HOLLER), magazines, macaroni and cheese, salad, coffee, ‘Abana daycare’ (Abana means children)—this involved Suzi and I hanging out with 14ish neighborhood kids playing Frisbee, bubbles, serving porridge, duck-duck-goose (changed to ihene-ihene-inka for cultural purposes—ihene means goat and inka means cow), and lots of photographs—, visiting my dear friend Jacqueline, watching 30 Rock, and lots of laughter, catching up, and relaxing in between.

There are some photos and there are these words but I guess I just forgot how wonderful, reaffirming, and joyous it is to share life with others. I do mean life in the most general sense: whether you’re sharing your family, showing the place you grew up, or cooking a special meal for another person, it’s just a really neat thing to open your life up a bit. I don’t know of a more heartwarming feeling than standing by and watching someone love what you love, to find the same joy in something you really care for, and to understand and have a context for a life you take a lot of pride in. And the best part is, for me, is that Suzi gets it. She exclaimed ‘your site is awesome!’ and how adorable my students are numerous times and I just wanted to jump up and down yelling, ‘YES! I KNOW, RIGHT?!’

The same sort of giddy contentment rushed through me when I visited the family last week while teaching the new group of Peace Corps education trainees. I had spoken with Taylor (the new trainee who lives with my host family, the third volunteer to do so, I was the first one) and I told her I was coming for a visit but I wanted it to be kept a secret as to surprise mama and papa. I was all but skipping down the familiar paths of my training days. I may be glad (beyond glad actually) to be done with training, but I always always enjoy seeing the people who took me in as their own, despite me being American, me being white, and me being just plain weird. When I turned the corner, I gulped down some adrenaline fueled energy, braced myself for the biggest hugs you could ever imagine from the neighborhood kids, and glanced up in time to see mama jumping up and down with her hands to her face in sheer surprise. I have been back three times now, and literally, each time it’s like coming home. It’s the closet thing I will have here; and really, it is actually that very experience, because in so many ways, that will always be a home for me.

It had been a long time—over 6 months—and so a visit was long overdue. As I downed 4 cups of milk tea, ate cassava bread with Taylor, and basked in all of the ruckus and excitement, I learned quickly how Taylor was equally happy with our host family. It’s a tough situation without a doubt, but we wholeheartedly agreed: we got SO blessed with Emmanuel and Bernadette and the kiddos as our host family in Rwanda (and the most beautiful part is that both mama and papa would tell you the same about the Peace Corps trainees that they have hosted, like I said, they are so precious). Taylor told me stories of her teaching ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’ to some of the girls, we exchanged mama superwoman stories (she’s superwoman if I’ve ever seen one) and how she literally can do anything, and of papa praying in the morning (followed by mama’s beautiful singing), and how they are just about the most welcoming people we have ever encountered. She was glowing and raving and spilling out with all of this positivity and again, I was reminded of how amazing it is to be able to relate to her in such a way and to share these very similar feelings and experiences. We’re sisters of sorts and we have a family with hearts of solid gold.

When you open parts of your life to people and you take a step back, you see things from a new perspective, as if you are seeing with fresh eyes. It’s renewal and the best part is you realize exactly what’s in front of you. These weeks have glided by effortlessly (even with my computer, phone, and French press all breaking in the same day about a week ago) and I’m realizing how much I have here.

When did that happen?

I’m seeing that even if my best village friends consist of a 3 year old, a 19 year old, and a 45 year old, it doesn’t really matter because the love that they have is quite real.

I’m finding that seeds grow.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 months in my village greeting, visiting, praying, visiting again, playing football, and going on aimless walks—and for what? To show my community that I’m here. To “integrate” as Peace Corps would say, which to me means sucking it up and putting yourself out there, even if you get laughed at. It means doing things that might make you uncomfortable (like 6 hour church services, a super long visit, or going on long trips) because you love someone and you want to show that to them. It means sharing yourself, hoping they’ll share in return. This process takes time. And Lord knows, it’s Rwanda, so it takes a VERY long time.

But it’s going. As we say here, slow by slow. Buhoro, buhoro.

As I’ve seen my life here with new lenses these last couple of weeks, I’m grateful, humbled, and happy with what I see.

It’s not my horn that I’m tooting—it’s my community’s. I live in a great place with really good people. Sure, it’s the village, with poverty and an entire slew of problems, but I’ve been more than welcomed and taken care of for nearly a year. I’ve been let in homes, in families, and in relationships. When I leave site for whatever reason, I can’t wait to come back. When I first got site, I remember checking frequently how many days remained in my service. Yes. My service. The whole whopping two years. I would check one day and it would read: 615. Soon, it would be under 600. One day it read 559. I can’t believe I did that. I haven’t done that in probably 7 or 8 months. I imagine what it will feel like to leave here and well….I can’t. I’ve planted the seeds, but it’s been my community, my students, my loved ones here that have tilled the soil, cultivating something far more beautiful than I really ever expected.

As I share this with visitors and friends, y’all will see that too and I think be equally moved.

It’s this kind of stuff that makes this world a better place.

sunset outside my house.


me, Josiane, Ange, and Joselyne outside my house having our photoshoot!

always jumping it seems. me and the kiddos.


Divine and Yazina; these girls are amazing. I kind of sort of LOVE them.


classic Baracka. CANNOT HANDLE THE CUTENESS (of him!)


friendship, love, or something like that


Sara: “This land is totally and completely pre-historic looking.”

Heather: “You are so right! That’s like, the perfect way to describe this place.”

Sara: “Yeah—it’s like freakin’ right out of Land Before Time or something.”


Heather: “You know, it’s crazy to think about dinosaurs and then roaming the Earth—like can you just imagine? They would have been as big as these mountains! Incredible.”

*even longer pause* *laughter* *pause*

Sara: “Um. Dinosaurs were big…but not THAT big. If that was the case, there would have been like 6 dinosaurs on the whole Earth.

Somehow, after the revelation ­that I had a pretty misguided conception of dinosaurs when gazing upon Lake Kivu in Western Rwanda, Sara still continues to be my friend. As Southerners would put tenderly, “bless her heart.”

Sara is one of my good PCV friends and I’m lucky to have her. Sara is quiet—not shy—and her humor is sharp as a brand-spanking new razor. She loves goats, cats, hails from the state of Pennsylvania, and has an equally deep appreciation for the mystical powers of cheese. Plus, her favorite Friends character is Ross which is good for two reasons:

1)      I’m a firm believer that your favorite character from that wonderfully made TV show definitely says something about you. And,

2)      My favorite character is also Ross. So it just works.

It’s been relatively easy to connect with PCVs and find a good niche of friends. I suppose the difficult part was realizing how special my college girls were (and are) and that the closeness and trust I had with them is not easily replicated—nor should it be! That’s what makes friendships so special in the first place. But, when you have chosen Peace Corps as your life for over two years (and, in fact, it is YOU wholly responsible for having to relieve yourself in a queasy-smelling latrine, live every night by candlelight because of the lack of electricity, and teach in a profoundly changing, disorganized, and transitional education system) well, there is certainly lots to talk about. It really does take a different kind of person to do this, and when you are here in country, it’s essential to have a support network of people who at the end of the day, they just get it. They get why you are here, they get what you are going through, and it’s easy to explain those awkward-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me moments that happen time to time (or more realistically, every day).

But, ultimately, this isn’t about them, because a good chunk of your time as an education volunteer is spent where it should be: in your village, at your site, at your school, and at your house where it is totally dependent on you to make your own friends. Like being back in elementary school, looking for some kind of connections on the playground, albeit the four-square domain or the monkey bars, it’s a new territory and you have no choice but to just put yourself out there.

For me, it’s gone as well as I really think it could. I don’t mean that I’m on the verge of revolutionizing the Peace Corps experience and becoming volunteer of the year—believe me, far from it. By no means do I have a Rwanda BFFL quite yet (best friend for life for those who missed the 90’s craze of best friend bracelets) but I have a good group of what my friends and I call ‘mamas’ (older women who basically are superhuman in strength and energy) and some fellow teachers who I’ve been able to talk with at length in English, share meals, and play cards. I’ve been good about getting into my community (running, walking around aimlessly, going to market, visiting neighbors and students, praying at church, and even like today, carrying market goods on my head proclaiming loudly that indeed, I have become Rwandan—the trick to winning people over is acting like a complete loon, something that comes very natural for me). All of this has undoubtedly aided in my integration. But lately, I have wondered and contemplated about how so many of these people know me, but even after 2 years, will really not know me. You know what I mean?

I’m really not trying to be all existential here, instead, I’ve just tried to take stock of the limitations I have here when it comes to relationships. It’s an entirely new set of rules—a new cultural context—and with that, I find myself in the passenger seat. In many situations, despite being a teacher by profession here, it is me that is the learner and because of an incredibly complicated language, I can’t even fully (or adequately) express my emotions or ideas. To be frank, that’s hard. Really hard. I come from a culture of words and words are power. It’s that simple. I long for companionship and when the conversation is about potatoes or tea every day, how much of that intangible, magnetic, strong, and mutual longing to be together and share more can really grow?

All of this is one side of relationships for me as a 7-month Peace Corps Volunteer.

I suppose I didn’t mention a key element in the plight for friendship: given my role, and given the situation—friendship is exactly like a double edged sword. Stay with me. I promise it makes sense.

On one side is this unattainable longing to just be me and have people who know what that is and what that looks like, no questions asked. I’m talking about the little things that actually, when put together, make a person whole. It’s the little things, you see, that often make up who we are.

It would be oh so comforting to have a person here who gets that I don’t like sugar in my coffee (Rwandans are OBSESSED)—black coffee will be just fine, thank you. They would of course understand the good and bad about my tendency to want to keep everyone happy. That same person wouldn’t look twice if I was carrying around a water bottle 24/7, they would laugh off my quest to speak in a bagillion different accents simply for fun (which I admit, often all sound the same), and they would already know that I do everything intensely: I walk intensely, I write intensely, I laugh intensely…you get the idea.

It’s like doing these things, or acting a certain way—it just feels like home. And believe me; here I have few false pretenses (the only one I can really think of is when I lied to my host family about liking ‘ubugari’—a really strange traditional Rwandan dish—so that they would like me). I am who I am. But as I’ve been saying, in a new culture, well, somehow who you are doesn’t always translate directly.

Ah, yes, but like I told you this whole relationship thing? Well, it’s like a double-edged sword, right? The other side of the sword so to speak:

At the end of the day, culture plays a huge role in who we are. That’s undeniable. But even with a language and cultural barrier, it doesn’t mean you can’t know the very core of someone. It doesn’t make sense, does it? How can you possibly know the core of someone if you don’t really know what they are about? That’s the mystery of relationships, I suppose. That’s the bigger mystery of who we are as a people, how we relate to each other, but also how our lives can also signify something so much greater than ourselves. The old cliché (which, excuse the use of cliché’s here, but if you notice, they are often correct) seems to ring true: actions speak louder than words.

I’ve just returned from visiting my host family for the second time since I became an actual volunteer. It was uncanny how comfortable it felt. They’ll never know my middle name, they don’t know about my education history, they maybe won’t ever fully know the depth of my dorkiness tendencies, and explaining my family has proved difficult (‘divorce’ is a fairly uncommon concept in Rwandan culture). And yet, I feel at home with them. They know my pronounced preference of Coke to Fanta, my love of sport and desire to be outside whenever possible, and they get that I like to hug people. A lot. Moreover, after my travels back home, accompanied the whole way by my host dad (he wanted to know how to get to my house so he can bring the whole family next time—I KNOW HOW CUTE IS HE??) he told me over my coffee table that I was a woman with a good heart who loves people. It blew me away—what a wonderful, beautiful compliment from someone who I think knows me better than I even realize.

I felt honored. I thought back to times we’ve shared.

The first three months I was like a baby. I was scared, unsure, and quite literally, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even speak to them—my family. I can tell you this much, I was completely prepared to pack my bags and fly back home after the first couple of days in Rwanda. I was afraid that I was way in over my head; I made a vow to myself that I would give it a whirl with my family and see if maybe I was jumping the gun too early. Oh, and was I ever! I’m trying to stay on the cusp of not being overly dramatic, but seriously. They’re the reason I stayed. As my understanding and knowledge grew, so did my perception. These people—my new Rwandan family—they are good. They love people for the sake of loving others. They live in the middle of Rwanda, this family, they don’t’ have much, but they have hearts of complete gold. Maybe in the same way that they won’t completely know me, I can never fully know them. But, I’m learning to never underestimate the power of humans and reading each other. Sometimes, a good person is just that—good. You don’t even need words. It just is. It’s the truth.

Maybe it’s here where the real love and friendship exists. It’s the recognition of goodness in an often broken, messed up, and confusing world, and the commitment to care for that person in whatever way you can. With my best friend that could mean a 4 hour phone conversation in complete comfort and openness without holding anything back. Here in Rwanda, that could simply mean a clean and comfortable bed to sleep in for the night. A warm cup of tea. A home cooked meal. Laughter.

Even more beautifully, what I’m seeing is that good people, well, they are there when you need them the most.

My wonderful wonderful WONDERFUL (did I say wonderful?) friend Jackie lives in my sector, in the next village over. She’s a community health worker—which means she gives out medicine to people with malaria, AIDS, you name it. She’s probably around 34, maybe? She has 4 children, but no husband. Where the father of her last three children is, I’m not sure, but her first husband died in the Genocide in 1994. She didn’t go to secondary school, she doesn’t speak English, and my, how people love Jackie. People told me about her—they told me that it’s Jackie that has the greatest heart, and man, they were right. Jackie and I met through a mutual teacher friend and since then, I’ve visited her house a couple of times while she has also visited me. She’s given me plantains and vegetables, and I’ve given her macaroni and soup mix. But nothing compares to what she gave me the other day.

Last weekend, on Saturday, we had a 5 hour (that’s normal for any kind of ceremony) memorial service in my village. It was a time of remembrance (the whole week was spent remembering the Genocide, particularly at community meetings that we had every day that were mandatory for all people). Specifically, the community had found some remains in a nearby river from people that had died and were left in the water and were going to properly bury them in the village memorial. With my friend Philos translating, we heard from all sorts of officials—most notably the district mayor—and heard a couple stunning and moving songs from a popular music artist. We even heard a survivor story. The entire time, the emotion was thick and palpable. I could sense it. However, many kept their grief to themselves. Only once did I see one woman break down completely and moan as though pain was leaving her body and subsequently, had to leave the ceremony. That was, however, before the casket was brought into the memorial and when people were allowed to go inside and pay their respects.

I thought it would be good for me to go inside. And it was. I saw people finding their family members’ names on the new, updated tarp that was freshly printed for the service. I saw people leaving flowers, many marked with specific names of people who died 18 years ago. After a few minutes, I knew I needed to leave. Tears had continually lined my eye ducts for the entire 5 hours, but now I could feel them coming. And fast. I walked briskly away and became even more choked up when I was greeted by a couple of my students who looked somber and sad. I need to get out of here. That was when I saw Jackie. She was hugging her friend from behind and looked sad, but also resolute. She was not crying. I thought of her pain. I thought of her and what people had said about her: Genocide survivor. Survivor. SURVIVOR. I don’t know if I’ll ever know why, but as I shook her hand to greet her, I just burst into tears. I’m not a pretty crier—my friends and family can tell you that—and so I was grateful that she embraced me without any hesitation and let me cry right into her chest, on her perfectly tailored satin green dress. I couldn’t hold it anymore. I was just, so so sad. And then, when I realized  that HUNDREDS of people were watching this scene unfold, I cried more. I cried because I felt silly. Why am I crying? This isn’t even my story; I can’t even BEGIN to understand this kind of pain. But, I cried. What can you do? After being brushed away to another friend’s house for a nap (apparently in Rwanda, resting is the cure for everything…they may be on to something…) and dinner, Jackie told me that I couldn’t go home for the night—it was too dark, it was too late. She insisted I stay at her house. And so, that night, I slept in Jackie’s bed, right along with her, under a white mosquito net. It’s a twin bed—a tight squeeze—but I saw her sticking to the edge as much as she could; she wanted me to have as much space as possible. I coughed a lot that night (it’s gotten colder with it being rainy season and all) and I woke up to her making sure I was covered with the blanket.

This was all from a woman that though I have grown to deeply admire, I don’t really know her that much. And in the same way, she doesn’t really know me either. But it’s that double-edged sword, isn’t it? When you are a good person, it’s just who you are. No language can really express what that looks like anyway.

 Friendship, love. It’s all relative sometimes.