Tag Archives: life

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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making good correction

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Oops I did it again.

I managed to not only attend two wedding ceremonies in one weekend, but for one of them, I didn’t even know it was a wedding until I arrived. Once I realized what was happening, I hurled over in laughter. OF COURSE. This would happen.
Oh! And it gets better.

Divine had outfitted me in a red bandana by tying it around my neck. This is the symbol for our church group and we were all wearing these to the ceremony because we were the choir for the day. Yes, I have participated in weddings as an attendant, a greeter, a brides maid, a maid of honor, and now, as a member of the choir. Just when I thought I had seen it all when it comes to Rwandan weddings.

It wasn’t that Divine had hidden this information, it’s just in the consistent cross-cultural communication I live among, you don’t know what is going on most of the time. This was a classic case.

No matter, we sang (well they did, I just moved my mouth to the rhythmic hymns and danced enthusiastically) and it all went on without a hitch.

*

This weekend was a long one for me; because with my two off days (Friday and Tuesday) and the parliamentary elections on Monday, I had 5 days free from teaching. It went by swiftly as if time was being poured like a fresh cup of steamed milk. I barely even noticed the passage of days.

In these days I have found myself entrenched in the Word of God more than I have been in the last few months. And believe me, that’s a good thing. The danger we risk in life is floating. I actually think it’s in this middle ground of feeling NOTHING, doing NOTHING, and becoming AMBIVALENT where we lose our way. I say this because that is how and where my heart has been for a couple of weeks. ABSENT.

People – my neighbors and friends – call my name and instead of a wide open smile and response, I have been raising my hand as a mere acknowledgement.

When I’m home alone and taking the time to think intentionally, I don’t feel rooted in my joys. I drift off into a world of anxiety, fear, and questions. I become glazed over from too much. My presence in such an opportunity is weakened.

Even with Divine, my best friend, I have been overly sensitive to her attempts to “help me make good correction.” If I am being culturally inappropriate and she says something to me about it, I have been defensive, snappy, and for no good reason.

My patience in the classroom has run dry like an empty well and in moments that would usually warrant laughter on my part, I’ve felt myself skimming it over, ready to move to the next point in the lesson.

WHERE AM I?

In these days, in this long weekend, I’ve tried (and I think succeeded) to get back on track. I’ve allowed myself for a small time to disconnect but this is NOT how I live my life. But, being human, I’m unable to correct this myself. We MUST turn to God.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. (Isaiah 60: 1-2).

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On Friday, representatives from Girl Hub (a part of the Nike Foundation) came to my school to film my GLOW girls reading statements and declarations about the future of girls in the world. These snipets will appear in a film for the United Nations on the International Day of the Girl next month.

On Saturday, I was lost in the banana trees on my morning run but I found a small path to guide me home.

In the evening, for the first time in our two-year friendship, Divine told me about her family’s experience during the Rwandan genocide. She told me what happened, as it was retold to her by her mother because Divine was only a small 1-year old child at the time. She spoke slowly and deliberately (as she always does) but took frequent pauses to control the tears trying to escape her eyes.

“Heather, people don’t discuss this topic not because of fear, but because it brings the pain. But, if you have the high friend, you can do it.”

On Sunday, the lesson at church was about the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son (all from Luke 15).

On Monday, election day, my students, old men and women, and everybody who was willing able, traveled to the primary school to vote.

And on Tuesday, my coffee was a perfect temperature after a completely solid night of sleep.

*

God rescues us, little by little, performing small miracles in such a way that we forget and lose sight of how miraculous it all really is. That’s exactly it: we disconnect when we forget. When we’re tired. When we’re lonely. When we fear. But everything beautiful – big or small – comes from Him. And we are able to take heart in the biggest miracle of all; in all of our mistakes, mishaps, and wrong-doings, we’re always loved because God forgives us every single day. He gave us Jesus, and Jesus embodies the sacrifice of humanity. I feel like I am absorbing how grand this is for the first time; I don’t want to sound preachy but I can’t help but want to say, Y’ALL! THIS IS A MIRACLE!

I thought about this as I replayed my weekend through memories, sounds, and experiences. This was the weekend I re-connected; this was the weekend I celebrated ubuntu (God’s grace). And this was the weekend that God helped me make the good correction. I feel alive again. I feel renewed.

Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin. In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15: 8-10)

dusk run

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*5:00pm
I’ve waited nearly 2 and a half hours for my pasta and veggie stir-fry to settle smoothly in my stomach. Does that sound healthy? I should probably note that an extreme amount of cheese was used in this particular creation. I spent my afternoon looking up proverbs to teach, organizing my lessons, and marking an exercise where my students created their own flags to represent their class. I lie for a few minutes on my mat before a surge of energy finds my muscles and I pop up, ready to find my gear. I tie my frayed and faded laces on my pink Asics. I have a strange love affair with these shoes. They are dirty (an ultimate Rwandan no-no) and worn but we’ve gone lots of places together – all over Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and England – and so I don’t mind their gravel-infused look. I reach for a black sleeveless shirt (which prompts most of my neighbors to call me umusore – meaning a strong young man – as they seem intrigued by athletic looking arms, yes this is real life) and my Hendrix black pants. Like my shoes, these pants have been worn on at least 90% of my runs in Rwanda. Between the shoes, pants, and headband that I always run with, I realize how much a part of my routine and life this thing is – running, I mean. Yep, it’s time to run.

*5:21pm
I’m on the road, kicking dust right away. 20 minutes before, I wasn’t sure how I was going to force my body to move. But as with anything, once you get going you can find a rhythm and move along beautifully. This red-brown soil attaches to my skin much in the same way that children do here too. Fast and strong. After 5 minutes my ankles are caked with the remnants of the road. Welcome to dry season. I saw rain at my house last week though it was the first time I had seen imvura (rain) in months. I pass an old man tilling some small plots in the front of his mud-bricked house and I greet him with a small but chirpy “mukomere” – translated in English as you all be strong. Even though it’s late afternoon here the sun is still a force to be reckoned with. That, and like I said, dried out soil can be a pain to cultivate. Plus, “mukomere” is a common way to greet people around here (think hey y’all in Arkansas); it’s just what you do.

*5:34pm
Today I decide to forgo one of my planned routes (I have many; all of which I have given a special name so I can record that routes I choose daily) and run a spontaneous track in, out, and through banana fields in the cell next to mine, called Nkamba. Cell is an administrative term referring to a large neighborhood and community; Rwanda is broken down by country-province-district-sector-cell-village (for me, it would be Rwanda-East-Kayonza-Ruramira-Umubuga-Kajembe). First, I pass Nkamba center and wave as people watch me go by. Some are sitting in shade. A group of tailors are working on their old-time sewing machines. Goats are being led home from feeding in the open fields. Today I even see a man carrying materials for a tin roof on his bicycle. These materials had to be at least 12 feet long. It’s not that surprising to see this sort of thing but I am always boggled by the seemingly implausible strength of Rwandans. It appears they can push, carry, or pull anything. There’s a special spot in this road that brings the same children out to greet me every day, without fail. But it’s far more than as short “hello”. It goes like this:

Me: Mwiriwe abana! (Hello children!)
Children: IMPANO! IMPANO! IMPANO! Dore Impano! (Impano is my Kinyarwanda name; Look it’s Impano!
Me: Yambi. (Give me a hug)
Children: *hugs all around* Impano, tunga! (snap our fingers, Impano)
Me: *snapping fingers for all the children*
All of us together: YAYYYYY! (yes, I taught them this gem of an English expression)

It’s not a long interaction but it’s beyond enough to bring a smile to my face and brighten my day. I love those kiddos.

*5:48pm
I come to a clearing away from water fetching foot traffic (with the sun setting soon it’s last call to go and get water – be it from our small lake or a water pump source). On both sides of me all I can see is banana trees. Above, I lose my breathe as I see how the clouds have formed intricately around the sun. It’s perfectly golden at this time and the sky molds into one. Starting with baby blue hues to the East, the colors shift to murky purples and into a burning pink as you look closer to the sun’s domain. I keep running of course, but feel in awe as I absorb the scenery around me. The good. The bad. And many times, the beautiful.

*5:55pm
It’s Rwanda and to no surprise nothing goes as you initially plan. I really reach my stride as I pass the community football field and prepare to run a loop around the mosque. However, right as my legs are kicking into high gear, I run into (quite literally) one of my girls’ mothers. She greets me but is quick to mention the problems their family is having right now. This is not unusual. They are a family that I do genuinely love but struggle to trust. They’ve taken advantage on numerous occasions of the relationships I have built with their girls. And so she’s speaking and I’m praying. I pray I can listen without passing judgment. I pray fervently that I can show the love that I do have for her. We agree on a visit in a couple of days. Night is coming, after all, and I need to get home.

*6:05pm
Because I’m in the general vicinity, I decide to stop and greet Divine at her uncle’s home. I jog intently and call her name as I approach the front of her house and breathe heavily from the uphill incline. I see her smiling face appear in her small window and she delightfully says, “Yezu umukiza” – meaning “Jesus, the incomparable and perfect one.” It’s a Catholic term for excitement. I trek behind her uncle’s banana beer shop that is attached to their home and so inevitably I am welcomed by old men and women who have quite possibly been drinking for hours. They sit on the ubiquitous brown Rwandan benches. They are kind and warm drunks and so it’s not a big deal. Greet. Shake hands. Continue inside. Divine and I have a short conversation (unusual for us) in her 8×8 room. She expects me to prepare a prayer for our prayer group tomorrow (we go every Tuesday) at the Catholic Church. She’ll help me put it in Kinyarwanda after I write my ideas in English and I can share in front of the study group. No pressure. But I love that about her; she pushes me to try and do things for the sake of experience and living life fully. I tell her I will be ready. And I will.

*6:26pm
The rays of the sun have long gone and the sky is turning into a deep dark navy. I’m running among stars. If you look up for just a moment, you can truly become lost in it all. Nothing can beat a dark Rwandan sky. The stars and the moon provide small bits of light (along with the occasional motorcycle passing by or if the power is working, there is a string of streetlights near my house too). I am blaring one of my favorite songs on my IPOD shuffle- “Oceans from Rain” – and I’m trying not to stumble over small pivots and stones in the road. It’s my first time to run in the night. Going on walks, oh, I do that all the time (it’s always when Divine is walking me home). But running? Not until today. And it was calming, freeing, and fun. I was wearing my Lion King sweatshirt over my attire and so I was sweating substantially as I neared my adorable green house. I arrive home to no power but I don’t even mind. I do some exercises with some newly acquired resistance bands and heat the small water I have in my jerry can in order to take a bucket bath. My roommates are cooking, chatting, singing, and just existing. I get cozy in bed once I am clean with my headlamp, music, peppermint tea, and notebook.

I write.
*
I run so I can take it all in.
I write so I don’t forget.
*

mr. newell’s geography class

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Dear Mr. Newell’s Geography Class,

Hi there! It’s me, Heather.

I am writing to you at 7:30 pm (that’s 10:30am for you back in the Rocky Mountain Time Zone) on a Saturday evening. Today I spent the day writing in my journal, running, washing my dishes (done by hand with a small basin and a jerry can of water), and best of all, going to a town called Kibungo to pick up my packages from the post office. Today I was a big winner; not only did I have a package from my dad (that’s Mr. Newell for you) but I also had a box waiting from my high school field hockey coach. I did a little dance outside the big yellow sign that says IPOSITA (meaning post office); with two boxes of America to take home.

The package from Mr. Newell (dad) was perfect. He’s somehow perfected the art of cramming as many things as possible into a US postal box. I imagine he’s rather notorious at the local post office as he has sent me nearly 13 packages since I have been in Rwanda. Impressive, right? I ran the scissors through the layers and layers of tape to find things such as: Velveeta cheese (queso blanco flavor), candles, hot sauce, a bag of macaroni and cheese mix, Sports Illustrated magazines, chocolate, flavored drink mix, other noodle mixes, and a manilla folder full of your letters. Dad always remembers to send these along. He knows I enjoy reading them, and it’s true, I do.

He attached a letter of his own, written on a piece of notebook paper. I smiled as I read the beginning of the letter,

6-11-13
Dear Heather,
So how is my little punkin? I hope that you are well and happy! I’m now on summer break and enjoying a little down time – so to speak. Overall, I’m about the same, except now I’m 49! Oh well – it’s just a number. Can you believe that I just finished my 26th year of teaching (25 at Overland)? I do truly love my job, in spite some of the bad days. It is a hope of mine that whatever you are doing in life that it makes you happy.

That’s right, guys. I’m still his little punkin. That’s been my nickname since I can remember and I thought it was sweet that he started his letter that way even though I am 24. He’s right – age really is just a number. I wanted to highlight this part to gloat for just a second. I am certain my dad probably mentioned it to you (he loves repeating the same things over again) but in this case, he has every right to. The man has been teaching for a quarter of a century! He loves his job and so I just hope as his students you realize how lucky you are to have a teacher that cares so much about what he is doing.

He continues:

I often talk to people about my trip to Rwanda. If you don’t know I had a GREAT time. It gave me needed perspective on what kind of life my daughter is living. What you do is so cool – don’t know how to explain but Heather you are special. About your blogs, many of my students really dig your stuff. Some of what I have read from particular students has floored me. Just to give you a heads up, I told my students that “when” you come home you will come to Overland and meet them. Like I said, I think you have made a connection with some students – and that is what it is all about.

Well time to go. I will talk to you many times before you get this, so there you go.
Keep safe and fighting the good fight.
Love,
Dad
PS: You should write about the blog responses my students have sent you and how it made you think/feel/respond/etc. Just a thought.

I folded his letter and added it to the multitude of other cards, papers, and pictures that I have received since becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda.
And then, I decided to write this letter to you.

You have been sending me responses to my blog since its conception and for that, I want to thank you. Maybe you read for pure enjoyment, maybe for the extra credit, or maybe for both, but either way, I am just happy to have blog readers and to be able to read your own ideas about what I have been writing. I am sorry I have not written you back – but this one is for you, and I hope I am able to answer some of your questions, add to your perspective, and enrich what you have already learned and discussed about Rwanda.

My blog is very important to me. Describing and explaining what it’s like to live, work, and be a part of another country is really really difficult. I have found that providing the right amount of detail in a conversation is actually more challenging than when I have put pen to paper. And thus, I have exerted a lot of time and effort to paint a picture for those of you back home. I don’t know if I have done the most accurate job, but I have been completely honest to what I have experienced and particularly to how I have felt. This is all the more important, I think, when studying something like geography. When you study social sciences you can look at maps, read case studies, and learn about cultural traditions. All of these are crucial; but your best learning experiences are often those that you can relate to. And so maybe you don’t know that much about me, but I am a young American girl. I went to school in the Cherry Creek School District just like you (Grandview High School, Class of 2007), I love cheeseburgers as much as anyone, I enjoy sports, and Colorado has always been my home no matter where my adventures and trips have taken me. So, if nothing else, you can try to learn about another country, culture, and life by way of my blog, knowing that we might have had some similar life experiences. That’s the most I can hope for, anyway.

I presume that Mr. Newell has shown you THE Rwandan Power Point Presentation at least twice now. Or, at least he’s shown the video of some of my village kids racing each other after we had finished a big family lunch for my dad’s visit. He loves that video, and he loves that power point presentation. We made the same kind of thing for when I was studying in Ghana, and you know what, I’m sure you have seen that too. I moaned and groaned at the time when Dad and I worked on making that presentation, but looking back, I’m so glad we did. What a way to remember such wonderful memories.

I don’t remember everything that that powerpoint has in it, but I can start by telling you that yes, Rwanda is a beautiful country. In your letters, one student wrote “you make Africa seem like a paradise.” In a lot of ways, it really is. It’s one of those places that cannot be captured completely in a photograph. If you see a beautiful sunset, for example, you can go and grab your camera, get a snapshot, and while it’s a nice photo, it doesn’t completely show what it’s like to be there in person. Still, there are a lot of problems in Rwanda. It’s a very poor country. Water can be difficult to find, many people live on less than $2 per day, and a lot of students drop out of school regularly because they can’t afford school fees. But, if it was all about cool animals and gorgeous forests, Peace Corps wouldn’t have sent me here. They sent me here because this is a country that is rising – and rising fast – but needs help to develop in certain areas. One of the most important areas is in English. The country adopted English as an official language a few years ago, but it takes a long time for a standard like that to be achieved, and so here you have me attempting to teach English in a small village. Rwanda is interesting because while a lot of people speak French and English is on the rise, nearly everyone speaks Kinyarwanda. Which made language training easy in that way – no matter where I would be working, everyone would speak the same language. That was when the “easy” part ended. I think Kinyarwanda is actually a very difficult language. I studied intensively for the first three months when I was training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, which included some days of 6 hour lessons. At this point, I can understand quite a bit. I know a lot of unique phrases and verbs, but speaking grammatically correct was a long-lost dream. I do try, however, and my girls (the ones I often write about) try to correct and teach me something new every day. My favorite Kinyarwanda word? It would probably have to be kajugugugu (meaning “helicopter” – hello, it’s so fun to say!) or for sentimental reasons, komera, which is a command that means “be strong”.

To give you a bit of perspective, Rwanda is about the size of Maryland – a pretty small state out East. However, Rwanda has around 11 million people which makes it one of the most densely populated African countries. You can be in the most rural of rural areas and you will still find people. People are everywhere. Dad noticed this right away on his visit – there are paths upon paths that lead to more and more villages. They are remote and rural, yes, but there are just a lot of people in this country. The biggest city is Kigali, which has around 1 million people. It’s a progressively developed city, especially in Africa. It’s very clean and a lot of NGO (Non-Government Organizations) are based here. I’ve been to a handful of large Africa cities (in Ghana, Togo, Benin, Tanzania, and Uganda) and Kigali is by far the most organized and aesthetically clean. That being said, in my experience, it’s still building a night life and a sense of city culture and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that Rwandan culture is a lot different from other African cultures that I have been immersed in. In general, Rwandans tend to be more reserved and won’t always speak their minds. Which is funny, because they say obvious things like, you are white, and it’s like, “um. Yes. Thank you, because I totally wasn’t aware of my skin color.” Yet, if you ask them about emotions or their opinions on some things, they can be evasive.

As you may have read in my blog, the Genocide of 1994 has played a major role in the culture and history of the Rwandan people. Next year, in 2014, this country will commemorate 20 years since this horrific event took place. In the span of 100 days, anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million people died at the hands of their neighbors, family, friends, and fellow Rwandans. This has created an interesting and hard-to-explain cultural dynamic. It’s one of the reasons making friends in Rwanda can be quite hard – when you experience something like that, moving forward becomes difficult. But, Rwandans sure are trying.

The Peace Corps left Rwanda during this upheaval and didn’t return until 2008. Currently, the Peace Corps has two different programs in this country: education and health. The education sector has volunteers working in school and the health sector has volunteers working in health centers. All of us create “secondary projects” to fill the rest of our time. You sign up for two years, train for three months, move to a village, and kind of just figure it out. Integration is the buzz word as a Peace Corps Volunteer and the way you achieve something like this is through conversation, walking around, greeting people, taking part in cultural events, and just trying to become a part of the community at large. I’ve been at it for two years, and in some ways I feel very successful, and a large part of me feels like I could live here forever and still wouldn’t have it all figured out.

A lot of your letters asked why did you join the Peace Corps?

I joined Peace Corps because I love helping people. I don’t mean this in a super altruistic, Mother Theresa sort-of-way (though she’s awesome). I just mean it like it is. There are people that are good at math, there are people who can put together computers and build rocket ships, and there are people that organize like nobody’s business. For me, I’ve always loved making connections with other people and building friendships. I’m 100% a people person and though Peace Corps has helped me appreciate alone time, I will always choose to be with family or friends because I like engaging other people in conversation, asking questions, and learning about different ways to approach life. Peace Corps seemed particularly appealing after spending a semester abroad in Ghana. I also didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with my life in the long term, and so I felt like I might as well challenge myself and do something crazy. There are a lot of reasons I chose to do this job for two years and those skim the surface of some of them. But when you boil it all down, it’s just about doing something you love. I am sure you aren’t looking for advice from a girl who chose to live with spotty electricity, in an environment that very little English is spoken, and who has mice wars, but I will tell you this: you will be successful in life when you are simultaneously living out your passions and helping other people. Helping other people looks very different in a lot of different contexts – heck no, it’s not always about going to Africa and helping the poor. It’s not even about going to a soup kitchen or giving change to a homeless man. It’s just living and existing consciously aware of the people around you. Say thank you, hold the door open, ask someone how their family is. These are the things that make a difference.

I actually found a lot of your letters really inspiring.

Sometimes, no matter where you are in life, you can find yourself in a grind so to speak – am I right? Things just become normal (which is a wonderful thing, of course) but when this happens, we tend to take things for granted. We forget what is so special about our daily lives and we lose touch with what’s so beautiful about actually living. Anyway, in your letters, a lot of you wrote about your own experiences. One of you wrote about your own Peace Corps dreams: I am speechless right now and just dreaming the way you did when you got your packet of acceptance. In response to my blog about filling the role as a mother-figure and about my own mother, one of you wrote in-depth about your personal relationships about your mom and what she means to you. When I read these sort of things, I remember how much we all have to share and it makes me happy that I have the job that I do.

I appreciated all of your questions about Rwanda because they made me realize an important universal truth: we all have a lot to learn about the world.

For example, some of you asked questions about music in Rwanda, about my house, and about the food I eat. There is a lot of music here in Rwanda – traditional and modern – but there is also a lot of American music as well. American culture pervades a lot of countries in the world, and my students’ favorite music artists are people like Chris Brown, Jordin Sparks, and Bruno Mars. I live in a green house that has bricks and a cement exterior. I have cement floors, paint, and a nicer house than most people in my village. Most of my neighbors live in mud houses with tin roofs. And as for food, in Rwanda there are some important staple dishes: cassava bread, peanut sauce, potatoes and plantains, goat and cow meats, corn on the cob, and beans, to name a few. You see, while life IS very different here, it’s not as crazy and far-fetched as you might think. People are born here, grow up, fall in love, experience heartbreak, try to make the best lives for their families, go to church, have jobs, put food on the table, and play football. I don’t want to downplay all of the cultural and economic disparities, but ultimately the human experience is more uniting if we let it be, I think.

So, sometimes, it’s hard to answer your questions because I forget that American high-schoolers might not generally have a picture of what Africa or what Rwanda is like. And believe me, that’s more than okay. But I encourage you to read as many books as you can and learn about new places. This world is changing fast and the more you know about other places, the more you can relate to people at large.

And believe me, the same goes for my own students. It’s challenging because they are in the same general phase of life as you. They are secondary school students (what you would call high-schoolers). But their conception of America is a vision that is built based on movies they have seen, rumors they have heard, and perhaps Americans they have met. They think everyone in America has unlimited amounts of money, doesn’t know how to do manual labor, and that we’re all acquainted with celebrities like 50 Cent or Rihanna.

Like I said, we all have a lot more to learn about the world, don’t we?

Many of you mentioned how difficult it would be to live without comforts and friends and family for this long. And Lord knows, it is! I appreciate my life back in America more than ever, since leaving for Rwanda. But as my time here is drawing to an end, I’m realizing more and more that I didn’t necessarily leave a life behind. In fact, life has just kept on going and going. I realize this because I’ve made INCREDIBLE friendships here. I’ve built a life. I’ve adapted. And so yes, without my parents and family and best friends, it’s been so hard. Nothing could replace those relationships or the kind of love I feel for them. But in return, I’ve continually grown as a young woman and have experienced such a rich and full life here. It’s been very hard and there are have been downright horrible days, but the same would be true even if I lived in America. Moving to another country isn’t so much about “leaving a life”. I didn’t leave anything behind, because those people have been with me my entire time here. Moving to another country is more about being open, being willing to be vulnerable, and if you find yourself just in the right place, you’ll find a new family to help support and love you. Those relationships don’t replace one another; they build one another. That’s how I have managed to be away from my loved ones for so long. I miss them dearly, however.

Tomorrow, I am going to pray at the Catholic Church in the morning (the service is only about 2 hours) and after I am cooking a traditional Rwandan dish, ubugali (cassava bread), for Divine, my best friend in Rwanda. This next week at school is full of exams for the students and so I will be busy with supervising exams and grading the English tests. Soon my mother will be here, and I look forward to posting photographs of her visit.

I know you students are now in summer break. So, maybe none of you will even read or see this. But I hope you do! I keep all of your letters and I frequently look back on them to understand better what you want to know about Rwanda. Your encouragement is helpful, well-received, and much appreciated. Thank you again for all of the support and response to my blog. I definitely plan on answering more of your questions again. And, like my dad said in his letter to me, when I do come home from Rwanda, I will absolutely visit Overland and your class to meet you face-to-face.

Before I go, I just want to share my favorite pieces of Rwanda. Rwanda can be an extraordinarily challenging place to live (being white does not make this easy) but it has some of the most redeeming qualities. In my village, I can get free hugs from the cutest and most adorable old women in the world. Small children often run after me screaming my name (a nightmare perhaps for some, but a joy for me). If I walk for just 10 minutes, I can be on the cliff of a large mountain, breathing in what just has to be a creation from God. It’s home now. And while America is upon me later this year, I will be really sad to leave this place. Rwandans can be nosy, evasive, and secretive. But they will always open their home for you. They will take care of you. And I think we Americans could learn a lot from people who live life a lot differently than we do. I don’t mean to romanticize the problems here, but my neighbors, friends, and students have taught me things that I never could have never learned otherwise. That, my friends, is really why I wanted to do something like this.

I look forward to your next batch of letters. Until then, enjoy summer, the sun, and a break from school. It’s been great.

All my love,

Heather
Peace Corps Volunteer, Rwanda
Mr. Newell’s daughter

getting a package = america in a box = a very happy heather.

getting a package = america in a box = a very happy heather.

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visiting some of Divine’s family in Eastern Rwanda. And yes, that’s a stuffed animal on my back. I promise I really am 24.

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This is a large shot of our community men’s team playing football (known as ‘soccer’ in America). There are ALWAYS teams playing on the fields. It’s awesome.

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As part of my sports development project, the community gave its contribution by making field renovations and making the field a better place to play. Here is me and some of my neighbors after they finished their day of service.

the genocideaire’s daughter

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Sometimes in mid-February if you look around for just a second you see that the sunflowers are dying.

They rise to the sky with a beaming yellow in America’s winter—December—but by the time the rain is ready to control the road, crops, and sleeping habits of our people (we call this our rainy season), they are wilting, no longer glowing, no longer living. They are dying. The petals look sad, the leaves become holey from bug infestations, and their backs arch in a curve, much like my grandmother’s back as she climbs up our dirt road with her right hand holding herself up, and her left hand clutching tightly to her walking stick. Every umuchechuru (‘old woman’) has one. How else could you get around the land of 1000 hills? It’s Rwanda, after all.

Life is a mixture (invyange) of reliable beauty (like the height and shine of our sunflowers) and of inevitable difficulty, like when they die to give way to sorghum, a significantly less appealing crop. It’s brown, you know. Why would you want a field of brown staring at you if you could have fields of green banana and yellow sunflowers? At least sorghum makes for good porridge, I suppose.

Sometimes I drink this in the morning before I leave for school. My pot may have a scratched, old, and black surface from everyday use over the fire, but it sure does make good porridge (igikoma). The sugar laces itself between the sorghum grains and slowly you can mix in grounded up corn. Slowly, that’s the secret. If you put it all together at once you don’t give it a chance to exist as separate elements—you don’t honor their identities. If you go slowly, they thrive, and with time, unite, to become a somehow delicious combination of many things that are good in Rwanda. It’s a wonderful way to start my mornings.

I say sometimes because sometimes I have to fetch water before the sun cracks in the sky and gives us light. I say sometimes because if the rain has come and we have caught God’s tears in my cracked, old basin, then there is often something else to do. Occasionally, I’ll find the grass (the food for cow) for Mama Sifa’s calf (a present last year from Sifa’s new husband’s family; it was the gift for our family at the dowry ceremony) or maybe I’ll help Zahara study for a quiz she has that morning. When I arrive to school after my usual 47 minute walk you can be sure that I’ve already had a decently productive day. But, porridge or not, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I help my family because that’s what we do. It’s not my job, really. It’s just my life.

My family is Zahara (my sister), my mother, my grandmother, my brother, my younger sister, my cousins, my aunts, my uncle, my great-aunt, and that’s just the beginning. My family is big. Some of us are Christians, some of us are Muslims. Some of us live in bigger cities, but most of us, like me, live in the village. I like the rural area, though. It would be better if my house had electricity, but we do the best we can. It’s hard to study, but if we have enough money, my mother buys me a candle that I use after the sun has left the Earth. This is usually a special occasion—the candle, I mean. But no matter. I’ve learned in my life that some days are more difficult than others. I try to smile every day because I have power in my heart. If I study, I can find knowledge, and maybe my future will be full of open doors. At school, I often look across the field, across the campus, and notice how most of the classroom doors are open, even if teachers are in the middle of teaching. I think that maybe my future could be like that. Should be like that. Full of open doors. If I have the chance, maybe I can even choose which one I enter. I try to not think about this too much (paying attention during the lesson is very important and good culture) but I remind myself every day why I come to school in the first place.

My family is good. My mother has a strong will and I’m pretty confident that my grandmother can do anything. I wouldn’t just say that, either. It’s true.

But you remember, don’t you? Life is a mixture of things that you know will be beautiful each and every time (like mother, for example) with some things that are evil. Evil, like the way the mud permeates the lines in my shoes after rainfall and can find its way into anything. Even if you’re careful, some things are just bad in the world. That’s why we need God. That’s why I pray every day. Because even some people. They can be evil.

My family is good.

But my family is no exception to this rule.

My father is evil.

I’m 18 years old. Nearly 19 years ago my country fell victim to itself. I was a small baby then. Zahara, my little sister, would be later born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. But, my mother was a woman in her prime. My father was there too. Mother doesn’t always say exactly how, when, or why (when we talk about it, her eyes become misty and heavy and it’s like she goes to visit another place while I sit there waiting for some kind of explanation) but I know what he did. My father was a Genocidaire. Which makes me the Genocidaire’s daughter. My father killed people. My father killed our people.

Last week in biology, we studied about what happens when a mother has her baby. We drew a diagram of where the baby comes from, but what I remember most is studying how that little, tiny baby is able to breathe from its mother’s own breath. More than that, it’s a mixture of the ones who created it. It has that blood of both mother and father.

I am the blood of my mother and father. If I press hard on my arm for more than 5 seconds, let go, and watch my skin, it quickly becomes white and changes back to the light brown skin that I have. I can try and navigate the blue veins in my body and then I remember again: it’s that blood. This blood is evil, isn’t it? What if it goes into my heart, and evil spills out from my nose, mouth, and eyes? What if I’m my father’s daughter but I don’t want to be?

My father killed people in 1994. My father killed people in our family in 1994. After it was all over, he was in prison for 12 years. He served his sentence, they say. He came back. But he was not okay. He was never okay.

He always liked the machete. I was happy that when came back he chose other objects to beat us with. He would hit mother. I would close my ears, praying it would go away. The beatings continued. Once, he threw a basin at me as I was getting ready to go to school. I told you already, I like to help my family, even if it is early in the morning. But if I did something that was wrong in the eyes of my father, I would pay. I went to school, running, forgetting my favorite blue pen, because I wanted to escape as fast as I could. School was my safe place. He came there once too. Drunk, I’m sure. He wanted to report to our school administration that Zahara and I were bad children. They took him away. But I knew I would have to answer to him later. There would be no escape when the lessons finished.

Did I tell you mother is strong? Well, she is. My mother, who lost 6 of her siblings during the Genocide, decided we couldn’t stay. We left our village to go and live with my grandmother. It wasn’t very far from our home, but it was a change. And it represented so much more, perhaps. She was leaving my father. Women don’t usually do this. But she did.

We changed our homes, our villages, and our places to fetch water so that we could be safe.

Our walk to school was shortened even, a little anyway. From grandmother’s home we walk about 38 minutes as opposed to 47, a small but sizeable change. Plus, we saw more sunflowers on the way to school. They are tucked neatly between large plantations of banana trees and immediately, I fell in love with those small, secret trails. The crisp smell of morning was best under those trees. Maybe that’s where I am most happy. Perhaps. I love laughing, by the way. That, and smiling. Every day, I remember to do these things. I remember because I know if I can enjoy my life, even under difficult circumstances, then maybe I can do anything.

It’s not like this is easy. On top of the upheaval of changing homes and finding temporary safety, my father found ways to continue to bring fear into my family. At night at maybe 7:00, right around the time the stars and moon would rule the sky, we would hear banging on our door. His scuffled steps were heard easily because we have to cook outside. The smoke from the fire wood is far too intense and dirty to even think of bringing our kitchen indoors. But I heard him. Mother knows this sound and she moves quickly to grab grandmother’s stick. We try not to be afraid. Don’t fear. No fear. I say this over. And over. And over. I don’t want to forget.

He occasionally brings a machete. He threatens us. He hits us. He tries to find us. If I can, I hide. Mother is our front line of protection, and so far, it’s worked out okay for us. He hasn’t killed us yet. He hasn’t even beaten us yet since the big move. I told you. Mother is strong. But he comes, he wants us, and Mother stops him. I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know if I really want to know. I know he hits grandmother. At night, I lie awake thinking that if someone can hurt an old person, than surely, their heart is dark. Where is God in this person?, I wonder.

It’s like the sunflowers; my family is strong and close and I love them. They are beautiful. But for every flower that shines and becomes one with the booming clouds, there is one that wilts, dies, and wallows in the soil back to the deep edges of Earth. In our wonderful, good family we have a man that is bad. He’s like a dying sunflower, with no life, no compassion, and certainly no brightness. Maybe it was there, once, a long time ago, but I have never seen it. This man is my very own father.

I’m the blending of two people—mother and father. And of course, I like to think there’s a bit of God’s love in me too. But, maybe the influence of my father ended the minute I came into Earth. My mother and grandmother took over, and so maybe biology is important because while it’s the study of life and how things work, when it comes to humans and who we are, you have the biological factors yes, but you also have the soul. The soul has nothing to do with who impregnated who. The soul is about your human experience and the way you contribute and take from the world. I want to be like a growing sunflower; shining, growing from the good roots of mother, sharing the joys of life with my friends and family. I am a daughter of a Genocidaire, but this does not define me. In fact, it has nothing to do with me. It’s my history, but I take the active choice to separate, to be me, on my very own terms.

I’m Maisara. I’m beautiful, I’m confident, I’m intelligent, and I will be somebody someday. I want to be a journalist, I want to help my family, and no matter what, I love to play football. Love is the most important thing in the world and though I’m a young woman I’ve been able to figure out that much. Most importantly, nothing is impossible. No fear. In all things, no fear.

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red-blooded American

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The first time Barack Obama became President of the United States of America I was with my friends, at Hendrix College, dressed in an homemade Obama/Martin Luther King Jr. themed t-shirt, and screaming YES WE CAN on and off the entire election night. Red, blue, and white confetti scattered the tables and floors, and the hosts of the party (held in our school ballroom adjacent to the old cafeteria) had set out placards for each table representing a different state with the given number of electoral votes. I remember there was food, and I remember anticipating the returns as they came in, but mostly, I remember the feeling of when it became official: Barack Obama was THE President of our country. My friends and I, man, we were so happy.

It’s no secret that Obama did particularly well that year with first-time voters, and he had quite the following at Hendrix. Granted, that’s not surprising given that Hendrix leans heavily to the left. Anyway, it was an important night in history, but also in my life. I realized what it felt like to have a voice in something that big, and what it felt like to take part in the civic process. Just a year or so prior to that, I had come to Hendrix with my Republican background, certain I wouldn’t stray or veer far from that. But never underestimate the human ability to change. There’s a lot of reasons why I crossed party lines, but I did. And so, I found myself emphatic with Obama Fever and thrilled that he was the man that would now represent our country.

The second time Barack Obama became President of the United States of America I was thousands of miles away from Conway, Arkansas, and far removed from the constant rum of news broadcasts providing the latest and most up-to-date information about each state and race. This time, there wasn’t any mass election party to go to, no opportunity to watch the concession and acceptance speeches, or any social networking to check in with. Lord knows that facebook was blowing up and if nothing else, I was glad to be away from the inevitable bickering via statues, comments, and updates on the most used social networking site in the world.

Instead, I was spending the night at one of my favorite students’ (Tuyisenge, one of my GLOW girls) house. She had cooked me dinner (mushy plantains, a meat sauce, and the most delicious cup of milk tea I have yet to taste in Rwanda) after I went to take fanta with her grandparents. They literally bought me 4 fantas that I downed quickly as we watched Rwandan worship videos on their phone and greeted the community members moving in and out of the small dimly light shop. After dinner, Tuyisenge and I got ready for bed. We’d be sleeping together on her mattress; her house has three rooms—one for her grandparents, a storage place, and the front room that is used as a place for Tuyisenge to sleep, for us to eat, and even to wash feet as Rwandans so love to do at least 5 times per day. She carefully set up for bed; she tucked a sheet in at each corner, added a layer of African fabric, and finally placed one last thin sheet on top. I made a final latrine trip before cozying into bed. We studied an old English exam for about an hour before turning off the petrol lamp lighting our room. I didn’t sleep much that night. I wasn’t really that cramped but between the sugar of four fantas, the thoughts racing through my mind, and having little support for my back, sleep was hard to come by.

When we woke in the morning, I knew that the election was over. I didn’t know which way it had gone, but inevitably, it was over (assuming we wouldn’t be having a repeat from Bush’s first election). Tuyisenge and I chatted about her dreams from the night before for a few minutes until her grandmother came trampling into the room just before 6:00 am.

Obama! Obama! Obama yatsinze! Imana ishimwe. Yegoooooo! Wooooooo.

Obama! Obama! Obama has won! God is happy. Yes! Woooo.

I cheered and smiled and felt relieved. What a funny way to get the news, I thought. We then listened to the news broadcast that confirmed his victory.

That was just the start of it too.

All day, and really for the next week, people from all over my community called, texted, and found me to congratulate America for Obama’s victory. That’s not the only thing though; often people would continue to comment how wonderful Democracy is in America. Without me having to say ONE word, I would follow along in Kinyarwanda as people talked about Romney’s concession speech and how all Americans can participate in these kinds of things. They would talk about peaceful transitions of power and how this kind of government really does work.

Inevitably, America was practically 50/50 when it came to this election, so there’s a lot of unhappy people out there. People that are worried about what a second term from Obama means for the economy, for social policies, and how this affects their day-to-day life. Absolutely, people are entitled to these worries, these questions, and these doubts.

If I needed any evidence to ensure that a good chunk of the American electorate was enraged, a simple login to facebook would suffice. I could only stay on facebook for approximately 2 minutes before I decided to turn my phone off. I was overwhelmed by the hatred-filled statuses and the mindless bickering on both sides. Seriously?

In the most perfect world, it wouldn’t be about Republicans and Democrats. It wouldn’t be about the polarization of the two-party system, and it wouldn’t be about why YOU are wrong or why YOU are right. Still, I can appreciate the process; while there’s a lot of debate about the sensibility and fairness of the electoral college, the fact that any American can go out and vote on election day is huge. Moreover, a candidate can win, another can lose, accept this, and our country remains peaceful. There’s no war. We move forward and do the best we can with our chosen leader. The government doesn’t rig the election, the government allows people to speak out against it, and the government follows some incredible documents (The Constitution and Bill of Rights) that stand for the people. This is a democracy after all, and while the government of America has its slew of problems, Americans should walk away from every election proud that we have the process, proud that we have a system set in place to allow the government to adequately and accurately represent the citizens and people it works for.

My mind was churning with this kind of sentiment all week. It was like I had become a red-blooded American, ready to tell anyone and everyone about our great country.

And still, I felt really sad a lot of this week, too. (this link describes perfectly the variance of my emotions on the daily: http://whatshouldpcvscallme.tumblr.com/post/33519467269/every-other-day)

Yes, I was happy with the results. Yes, I was appreciative of the really good aspects of our country. And yes, I was happy with a lot of the social victories in the recent election (with all of the new females in power and the Senate’s first openly gay representative). Yet, all I could think about was Tuyisenge’s house. Literally, her house has hardly anything inside. I couldn’t stop thinking about her life. For the 36ish hours that I was there, she filled her time cooking food, cleaning, and taking care of me. She’s a highly intelligent young woman with no fear (this is how Rwandans like to describe someone with a high level of confidence), and she’s going to continue her studies next year at a better school. She’s going somewhere, I think. But, as people were busy pointing fingers at each other in America, I watched as she washed her couple of pairs of shoes, set our food on a bucket to use as a table, and helped to take care of her family’s cows. I guess I just felt a really heavy and sudden dose of perspective and reality. The hardness of life here really set in this week, I think.

It made the election and all of the rhetoric and everything that goes with that somehow irrelevant. Not that it doesn’t matter, no, quite the opposite, it matters greatly. It’s just it’s hard to be in a reality that I’m unsure many Americans can visualize, understand, or even know about. I can write all the blogs in the world, post as many pictures as possible, and share stories, and yet, I can’t capture what it feels like to be here. I can’t capture that emotion—that experience—of watching someone I really love and care about (Tuyisenge) having to work so hard at tasks that Americans don’t really think twice about.

It upset me, I think, because as we listened to the election news on the radio all morning, I had that moment of wonderment: I’m rich. Tuyisenge is poor. Why? Why did the world work out this way?

I’m often embarrassed by my wealth here. I’m self-conscious about it. When my students come and visit me, I can feel them glancing around at my walls, seeing my plethora of photographs, and the many things that line my walls. Funny, because I have boxes and containers and still more boxes of stuff waiting for me at home in America, and yet everything in my home here is overwhelming for visitors that I have. I also hate how my status as a rich woman separates me. I’m lumped together with higher-up officials and it’s always this elephant in the room that nobody wants to address. At events where I would rather be in the crowd with my girls, I’m often found up in the front, in the chairs set out for leaders, because that’s what white skin and money can do for you. The kicker is that I’m a volunteer—I really don’t have that much money.

But in comparison, I do.

And so this brings me back to the election. I have heard and seen people complain and complain about the exact way Obama is going to ruin our country. But what they forget is to take a moment and grab a bit of perspective. See yourself as an American, within the context of the world. Think about what you do on a daily basis. Reflect on your blessings. Think about all the good things in your life. Before freaking out about the state of the United States government, give thanks where it is due, because there are people living in significantly worse conditions. I hate being that girl who says something along the lines of, “well, in Africa…” That’s not really what I’m getting at. My point is this: whatever you thought of the election, own it, feel it, and embrace it. But no matter what, give thanks that you have a government working for you. Give thanks for the life that you lead, give thanks for your blessings, and remember that the world is an incredibly beautiful and big place. 

People, of course around election time, always talk about the importance of being an informed voter. Read the news, read the history of the candidates, do your research, they say. This is crucial stuff. I agree whole-heartedly. But, I would encourage this kind of thing all year long, outside just the realm of politics, and much deeper in heart of the humanity. America is not the only representation of the world. Cultures, ideas, and histories run deep, and other parts of the world experience different lifestyles, challenges, and victories. While Peace Corps is an extreme way of trying to understand another culture by no means is it the only way. Read something. Talk to someone. Connect. I honest-to-God believe that attempting to understand the world can transform your life, the way you see things, and how you participate and contribute to your own country.