Tag Archives: love

what I know for sure

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Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.
The Lord is near.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with Thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4: 4 – 9  

with Divine and kiddos from my host family at my original training site.

with Divine and kiddos from my host family at my original training site.

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Divine’s mama, and one of many mamas for me who I will always love and remember. This was taken right before we said goodbye.

Our small prayer group leader read these words slowly and intentionally. He read in Kinyarwanda, of course, and so I sat resolutely on a small brown bench trying to understand. He read these words on behalf of our Tuesday prayer group; he read this scripture as a representation of God’s bread. He shared this verse for me. It was my final day to pray in Ruramira, my home for the past two years. When I read the verse later in English as Divine and I finished eating my favorite food (plantains) in my living room, tears and gratitude filled my heart. What wonderful words to encapsulate my life here. What a beautiful piece of the Bible to send me off with. When we finished our prayers that last Tuesday, the old mamas huddles around me. Their old skin touched me as they set their walking sticks aside and they let out soft sounds of sadness.

“Uzagaruka ryari?” (When will you come back?)
“Simbizi.” (I don’t know.)
“Eh baba we. Imana yanjye! Turababaye pe.” (Oh my God, we are so very sad.)
“Ariko niba Imana ashobora kwerekana inzira, nzagaruka.” (But, if God shows me the way, I will return.)

I muttered something about these women being wonderful abakekurus (old women) but I completely lost words to speak when I saw one of these women grasping her mouth and holding back tears. Rwandans are stoic; never before had I seen an older Rwandan woman cry. Kinyarwanda, English….I don’t know. Finding the right words is impossible with goodbyes like this. Which is why that scripture means so much to me; where our words and understanding fails, God comes.

*

I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda somewhere around 820 days. For 27 months. The end always seemed like an idea formed in some intangible myth. We’d talk about America but it didn’t seem real. Of course I knew Rwanda would come to an end – eventually – but even now it feels impossible to look at my ticket and know it is really happening. To say I’m struggling to process all of this barely covers it, despite knowing from the very beginning that Peace Corps was never permanent. I remember in the first days of training how we always joked that “today is forever” because of the long days of Kinyarwanda lessons, cultural training, walks to our training site, and integration attempts with our families. I was convinced that if “real Peace Corps life” (that is, the time after training) was like that then there was no way I would survive two years in this country.

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“Real Peace Corps life” is not like that. If you approach the experience not as a job but wholly the life you have, then time moves, life happens, and sooner than you really understand, it’s over. My life for the last 820-ish days has been full. It’s been some of the best and worst days of my 24 years. In this time as a resident of Rwanda, I’ve had two birthdays, learnt a language, lost around 20 pounds, and was called “umuzungu” every single day. I found one of the best friends I will ever have, prayed regularly at the Catholic Church, was harassed, coached football, had rocks thrown at me by our village “crazy”, was lied to frequently, ate amazing home-made Rwandan food on student visits, helped establish a library, learned to use charcoal, somehow became a teacher, and lived in a village full of many people who had never seen an American before.

I became a friend, a family member, visited 4 other countries, went on 3 safaris, and showed my parents this beautiful country. I became a fan of waking up at 5:00am, read books, watched a lot of TV shows, and journaled almost every day. I have completed over 12 journals to prove it. Using a latrine became normal, I dealt with a nasty staph infection, and I was sick a few times. The most serious episode is now rumored to be an act of “poison” among my community members but I think I just ate a bad batch of meat. I drank banana beer in secret, wrote letters, and spent a lot of time on crowded buses. Once, I danced in front of 3,000 people at a church revival. Many times I prayed for over 5 hours on Sundays. I learnt far more about grace, love, and humility than I can even begin to say. I saw the good and bad of Rwandan culture and absorbed a lot of it in my own personality. My Peace Corps superlative at our going-away party was “most likely to return and live in Rwanda” and in a letter from Yazina, she commended the “miracle” it was to see an American woman also become a Rwandan woman. The lines certainly are blurred for me.

I have only told a few people this, but last year I heard voices in my house when I tried to sleep. I called out my grandmother’s name and I felt something on my back and neck. This all happened for a span of about a week in early 2012. I never knew what it was for sure, but I lost several nights of sleep before going to Kigali to see the doctor. Was I going crazy? Our doctor drained my ears and I only heard the voices once more after and so who knows.

In one of the most defining moments of my life, Rwanda served as the place I first heard the voice of God. I’ll never forget it. I was in a motorcycle accident one spring evening, around 6:00 at night. My motorcycle driver had come to take me, while another driver took Yazina and Divine from a restaurant we were visiting. It was dark, rainy, and not a good time to be in the road on a motorcycle. My motorcycle collided head-on with an old man and his bicycle as the road veered slightly to the left. Time stood completely still as my driver braked harshly and I was ejected forward from the back. I wore a measily helmet but it managed to stay on as I met the road with the back of my head and body and rolled once into a ditch. However, it’s what I heard when I spent milliseconds in the air, completely free in the body, that has changed my life. My legs dangled and I heard nothing but complete silence. I was screaming, but I didn’t hear it. The screeching of the brakes didn’t enter my ears. All I heard was,

BE STILL AND KNOW I AM GOD.

I processed be still and was sure to keep my body strong so I could absorb the impact on the pavement safely. Bruises, a cut lip, and shock aside, I was fine. In the next few minutes, I called Suzi completely panicked, and then was able to call the girls to come back. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I saw Divine on the other side of the road waiting for me, arms wide open. It was raining heavily at this point, and all I could do was sob. She held me tight, repeating that God loves you over and over. In light of all of these events, I know that was God. I know it.

*

So you can perhaps see the difficulty in understanding how this is over. Somewhere along the way it became a reality (for good and bad) and life continued. I learnt a lot of things in these months of residing in a small village surrounded by forests and banana trees. I learned how to communicate using multiple languages and many times, using the body as well. I learned the difference between being a “good” teacher and a “fun” teacher – because you can be both. I learned how to cook – a skill I’m very excited about.

I learned things I never imagined I would need; things like, using oil on the outside of a pot to prevent smoke leaving black stains, the best way to run when 5 children desperately want to hold onto you, how to kill a snake with a mop, and how to overcome fear with a woman who is insane and trying to remove all of her clothes in front of you.

Yeah, my life was strange here.

Of everything though, the one constant, transcending life lesson that was evident during my time in Rwanda was this:

GOD NEVER LEAVES US.

That alone, is what I know for sure.

Oprah Winfrey always ends her issues of O! Magazine with a few inspiring paragraphs about her most recent life insights. What I Know For Sure, is what she calls them.

Well for me, I can only spend endless paragraphs trying to adequately describe a truth I can barely fathom. God. Never. Leaves. Us.

It’s the only sentiment that explains the relationships I have made. And it’s the truth that held me together on the more challenging and trying days here.

What I know for sure is that God is the reason I was able to move my life, to leave my family, and to find pure, untainted joy in a place that like anywhere else has a plethora of issues.

Rwanda has not always been kind to me.

But in the midst of dark times, there was always light.

When my grandmother died, I had my host family to console me.
When I saw students beat others, there was a belief that things could change.
When I was lonely, someone always appeared or called. Or, I had Velveeta cheese from dad tucked away somewhere.
When I felt like a failure, GLOW club shined.
When I was afraid, living in my house without power, I found contentment in going to sleep early and peacefully in the night.
When I ran on these rural roads and people sometimes mocked me, I was able to run faster.

I’m a very lucky woman though. Most of the time, I loved Rwanda. Deeply, intensely – I loved it here.

And it isn’t very hard to figure out why. This last weekend, on a final visit to my host family, we gathered around the table after a delicious meal of meat, fries, rice, and fanta to pray. Divine had come with me and my family was so happy to meet her. Mama started to pray and she prayed long and hard. For 10 minutes she spoke to God. For 10 minutes she also struggled to find the words to speak – tears were stuck in her throat as she prayed for my journey, for the continued strength in my relationships, and for the time I had in Rwanda. When she finished the only thing I could tell her was that I believe that their family and Divine are direct blessings from God. God is the reason I was able to love this place like I do. His hand was in everything.

*

My last month here was one long goodbye. First to school, then to my students, then to teachers, then to my community, then to families, then to my students, then to my friends, then to my host family, and my last goodbye – in a sense, my goodbye to Rwanda – to Divine.

It was one of my favorite months here. I traveled around freely – to around 5 different districts – and to prevent being alone in my house while in my village, Divine moved in with me to support me for my last weeks. We spent our days truly enjoying each other’s company. She taught me how to properly wash clothes, I taught her how to use “home row” while using a computer. We even made her a facebook and email on a trip into town. We cooked. We listened to the radio. We took naps. We just lived life.

In one of my final days in Rwanda, we, along with 3 other of my girls, enjoyed a trip to Akagera National Park so they could experience a safari and see incredible animals and physical scenery. They loved it. They squealed at the sight of giraffes and upon seeing a large elephant in the road just 15 feet away, believed the elephant would come to eat us. Our 6 hour game park drive thrilled them and they repeatedly acknowledged how unbelievable it all was. I sat next to a quiet Divine on the way home. But our friendship is so comfortable that silences don’t bother me – a testament to our closeness because I love chatting! Finally she looked at me and spoke with conviction and clarity.

“Heather, the reason I am quiet is because I just feel this action you have made is so uncountable. It’s above my head – I don’t have words to say. It’s just amazing.”

I told her, “no problem Shu, there is no problem. I am just so happy you could see that place.”

“Thank you so much. But Heather. It’s more than this action of today. It’s all actions you have shown for me and others in the 2 years to share life. You are the first person in my life to speaking something and shoe the action – always. I have friends and family to support me, but what you have done for me…I don’t understand. Birarenze (to be at a loss for words)…I don’t have the words. All of this, it comes from God, and…wow. I don’t understand.”

Divine and I have had a slow goodbye and so we have had many conversations that try to pinpoint how we can have the friendship we do, but it always comes back to our lack of understanding – namely that it comes from God and how can we begin to grasp the intricacies of friendship that he works within?

I sigh and quickly code these words from Divine into my memory. I don’t want to forget. Her words soothe my soul and it’s in that moment that despite the pain in moving on, I can do it – one, because I have humbly succeeded in what I set out to do (help the world just a little bit) and two, God’s given me an incredible friend who has taught me about life in ways only explainable by God’s divine touch.

Her English is a second language and yet I know her heart more deeply than people I have known for years. Her love for God is unchanging in all things – she showed me what it means to be a strong Christian woman.

We laughed everyday, shared meals, went on walks, studied, explained our histories, and did it all from two very different walks of life.

What I know for sure is that God never leaves us because in the time I needed friendship He gave me one of His most devoted followers.

*

Today is just like every other day. The Kigali sun is starting to reach the peak in the sky, birds are bustling around in the trees, and I’m ready for a buzz of caffeine from a cup of coffee. It’s just like any other day, except that it’s my last day in Rwanda and that in just 9 short hours, I will be on a plane headed for America. Headed for home.

I left my village on a moto, tears streaming down my face, as a group of my closest friends waved goodbye. They had come early in the morning to give letters, hug me, sip coffee, and say some parting words. Some of the congregation at the Catholic church were working the fields as my motorcycle zoomed past and I wistfully placed my hands in the air to wish them peace. I was leaving. Leaving. I remember the first time I came to Ruramira, by way of motorcycle, and I was leaving much in the same way. Only this time, there were kids screaming “Impano! Impano!” and I could look around, knowing where most of the paths lead. The difference was that I was leaving a home.

I went back to the very place I started – my host family – so I could give them final hugs. The goodbye was prayerful, full of gifts, and amazing, inspiring words. I told them what Divine has done for me in my time as a volunteer, and they commended her greatly, wishing her to come back and visit. They repeatedly told me how much appreciation they have for the work I have done and even more so, my attempts to live and work within Rwandan culture. Mama could barely believe the things I have learned to cook (cassava bread, bananas, and good sauce) and when she heard some of the new Kinyarwanda phrases I have acquired she stood back in shock. Somehow you have become Rwandan, she told me. From a strong Rwandan woman, that’s about the biggest compliment you could ask for.

Divine and I came back to Kigali following our visit to the host family to enjoy one more night together. We had tea and bread and we listened to the Catholic radio station. We talked. A lot. And we cried, a lot. When morning came, after few hours of sleep, we prayed together. Tears fell fast, quickly, and fiercly. How had this day finally arrived? How is it possible that I will not see this girl every day? Divine prayed so beautifully, asking God to protect our journeys, and praising Him over and over for the way He has worked in our lives. She asked for God to help us “have no fear” in separation and to keep us strong. I accompanied her to the bus station and helped her find a bus to go back home. It will be her first time to back at home in quite some time as she spent the last month living with me. I think her family will be happy to have her back. I hugged her once more, shook her hand and watched her sit in the bus. Immediately, she buried her face in her lap. She later told me she stayed like that for the entire journey. I went to the office for Peace Corps, found a quiet place in the garden and cried holding my Bible for 30 minutes. It was one of the saddest days I have had in my life. To say goodbye is already difficult, but when there is no certainty about the time you will see that person again, your heart hurts. And hurts a lot. I know Divine will be in my life forever. And I know I’ll see her again. It’s just a matter of accepting where life has taken us now. Our connection is one of the strongest I have felt in another human being. She’s a young, Rwandan student who comes from a poor village in East Africa. I’m a young wanna-be American teacher from a country and family where all of my needs have been met on a consistent basis. And yet, our conversations were perceptive, deep, and open. I know this girl. And she knows me. To walk away from Peace Corps with that kind of relationship is a resounding success.

*

God never leaves us.

Of everything I have learned, this is the most important.

There’s so much I could say and so much I want to try to explain; and yet, I’m losing the words.

I have an inexpressible amount of gratitude for my friends and family back home. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for sending letters. Thank you for sending American food. Thank you for your encouragement. I like to think of this blog as some sort of time capsule and so I’ll be starting a new blog once I get back stateside. In case you haven’t noticed, I love blogging, and so I look forward to writing about the next phase of my life back home. This blog will forever be the pieces of writing and experiences about Rwanda and I appreciate everybody who took the time to read and try to understand some of the things I experienced while working in this country.

A special thank you to my parents. Each and every time I want to do something, you are the first people to figure out HOW to make it happen. When I wanted to come to do Peace Corps you didn‘t think I was crazy. Too crazy, anyway. And when I found out it was Rwanda, you started planning the time you were going to come to visit – and you came. I want you to know how much that meant to me – and what that meant to my friends in Rwanda. The most important thing I have wanted to show in Rwanda is that love is far more than words (it’s an action) and you, my parents, have demonstrated that beautifully.

I’m indebted forever to the kind people in Ruramira. The reason I was able to have a positive and successful experience was because my community was welcoming, kind, and ready. They were open to have conversations, willing to take me in their home, and waved at me when I passed through on my daily runs. I will love that village forever. And a piece of me will always be there.

*

Today when my plane finally takes off, I’m not sure what will be running through my mind. I imagine I’ll be consumed with what it’s going to feel like to finally be home but also I’ll reflect on the people and places that have worked within my life for the last couple of years. I’ll remember Godriva, an old mama who gave me a couple of dollars as a going away gift, and I’ll remember Divine’s mother who frequently would break out into dancing just for the hell of it. I’ll remember the life I had there – even if for a short while – and know that no matter where life takes me, I’ll always have that.

I’ll think to myself that the most amazing thing of all is that though the Peace Corps experience is deeply personal, it’s also so much more than about yourself. It’s about the community you worked, the friends you make, and the people back home that are waiting to hear and understand all of the stories. My life is profoundly changed forever. And for that, I give all thanks to God.

*

my village and home, Ruramira.

my village and home, Ruramira.

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slow goodbyes

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Fidele reads from a short-handed list of the things he has interpreted as my successes while in Ruramira as a teacher, Peace Corps volunteer, and community member. I nervously smile, nod my head when appropriate, and listen as he describes to our student body, teachers, and administration what my two years have added up to.

He touches on the tangible things: he talks about the improvement of students’ ability to speak the English language (or at least try), he gives great gratitude for the sports project, and he commends the objectives and achievements of Ruramira Secondary School’s GLOW Club. He continues to describe what he feels are my most laudable personality traits: I am a umunyaukuri (a person of truth), a hard-worker, punctual (Lord knows any American could be in this culture), and he says that he can see that everything I do comes from the fact that I love people. He chuckles and proceeds to tell the student body that I actually know more about the inter-workings of families in our community than most due in large part to the many home-visits I have completed.

I’m humbled and proud of his assessment; if this is what he can take-away after two years, then I certainly have demonstrated the values and characters in which I try to live my life. Moreover, Fidele, perhaps more than any other co-worker of mine, has seen me at my worst. He has seen me when I have been angry and unforgiving to Rwanda. He has seen me act cold and distant when I’ve been unable to culturally adjust. He’s seen me cry a handful of times when I lose words – either in English or Kinyarwanda – to describe the frustrations I feel. And yet, he can still say such nice and warm things.

I smile and also sigh heavily; I really don’t know how to do this.

We are at my goodbye “party” which is taking place on the last day of term III and thus the last day of the 2013 school year. The students have moved a great number of desks to one of the school’s large, open rooms, and they are smushed together – so they can listen to the speeches that are an ever-present part of any Rwandan gathering. The program is relatively simple: Fidele speaks, some of the girls sing and dance for me (traditional music, of course), Headmaster commands each class takes a photograph with me, Headmaster speaks, and finally, I take 5 minutes to speak the last words I will speak in front of these students.

I had written my speech the night before. It was simultaneously easy and difficult. The ideas came easily but the words did not. How do you begin to thank a group of people for giving me what I have been given? For two years, I was shown a particular way of life; I was provided a purpose; and I was opened up to numerous special relationships. And so I was glad I had prepared the words below the night before. It gave me the time I needed to sort everything out the way I wanted to say it in the most concise way possible. I also made the conscious decision to speak in King-lish (an uninterrupted combination of both English and Kinyarwanda; my most common way of communicating while in the village and with my students). These were my words when it came time to speak and say goodbye:

Hello my dear headmaster, DOS, Jessica, and all the wonderful teachers.
Hello my super students – ugire amahoro (peace be with you)!

Today I am happy because we are together. Ariko (but), I am also sad because today will be our final day as a group – it is our last warning.

In a short time I will go back to America. In America I will see my beautiful family, my dog, and my home but I will miss Ruramira greatly.

Nzakumbura imisozi, nzakumbura abakekuru, nzakumbura ibitoki kandi ubugari cyane pe, nzakumbura umuco mu Rwanda, ariko nzakumbura i Ruramira cyane cyane cyane. (I will miss the mountains, I will miss the old mamas, I will miss bananas and cassava bread a lot, I will miss the culture of Rwanda, but I will miss Ruramira the most).

Namukunze cyane. Namukunze kandi nzakomeza kugira urukundo kubera mwese mufite umuco mwiza. Mufite umutima mwiza. (I have loved you greatly. I have loved you all and will continue to have love because all of you have a good culture. You all have good hearts).

You have the motivation to increase the life for you, your family, and your country.

To be a teacher in Ruramira was difficult in the beginning ariko now kumererwa neza (it is very comfortable). Noneha (at this time), Ruramira ni wacu (Ruramira is the home for all of us).

My favorite time in Ruramira was at this school. The best days were teaching songs from America, watching you students show theatre, helping GLOW club, and coaching football. I will never forget those times and all of you.

Sinshobora kwibagirwa (I could never forget).

Mfite imyizerere ko Imana ateguye kuzana mwese mu ubuzima banjye. Kubera wowe na kubera Imana nagize amahirwe. Nabonnye amahoro, nabonnye umuhati, nabonnye ubucuti. Murakoze cyane. (I have the belief that God planned to bring all of you in my life. Because of you and because of God I have had an incredible opportunity and chance. I have seen peace, I have seen courage, and I have seen friendship. Thank you very much.)

I hope in my 2 years I was able to help you do something. Birashoboka (perhaps), the English for you has increased. Birashoboka, you had the improved opportunity to play sport. But most importantly, I hope I helped you to find icyizere (confidence) and the belief that yego washoboye (yes you can)!

My goal as a teacher was also to be a friend, an umujyanama (counselor), and a supporter for you.

All of you students have the ability and power to have a good future – but it starts with you.

Thank you for sharing your hearts, your ideas, your love, and your home. Thank you for helping me to be an umunyarwandaikazi (Rwandan women). Ushaka inka aryama ntayo (Rwandan proverb: if you want a cow, you must lie like it). Thank you for making Rwanda a special part of my life forever. I will always remember this excellent place. One day I hope to come back and visit and see you students as leaders for this country – because yes you can.

I am sad to go.

Ndababaye cyane kubera umutima wanjye iri i Rwanda na Amerika. Ntakobwa ariko kubera Imana. (I am really sad because my heart is in two places; Rwanda and America. I don’t have fear though, because we have God).

Turi (we are) together in the spirit.

Imana ikomeze kubaha umugisha. (May God continue to bless all of you).

*
After I finish, my goodbye is over. It’s that simple. The school has a plan to continue to distribute the students’ reports and because we are over 2 hours late, we must move quickly. The top students in each class are announced and the class teachers call the names of their students so that they can see the results of how they performed for the entire year. Disorder creeps into the school day and so it makes a long-drawn out goodbye impossible. Students are everywhere. Some still need to pay school fees. Some want the village photographer to take a photo with myself and them. Some just want to return back home. I loiter for a while, but eventually, I resign myself to the small bar not too far away from school. Our headmaster has arranged for school sponsored fanta, beer, and goat meat (brochettes).

It feels weird that that was the goodbye. The speeches were wonderful and it was really kind for my school to organize something just for the sake of giving appreciation. Yet, it just ended. Like that. It felt weird that it could be over, after so many months, days, and hours spent at my school. I was perfectly okay with a goodbye that wasn’t full of tears and drama, but it just felt strange. That’s all. I drank a turbo king (one of the few beer brands available in-country) along with my teachers that afternoon and fully recognized my inability to process the movement of time. It wasn’t until a few days later when I actually thought about it:

um hello. That was the last time you will see most of those students. Ever.

As usual, I was on a run when this thought finally made some connection in my head and heart and I had to stop running for a few moments.

My students were the ones who taught me. My students were the ones who became my friends. We had our ups and downs, my students and I, but I could never relegate their influence in my life.

Many of them live in conditions that some of the world could never understand. I will never ever be able to reconcile why does the world work this way? when it comes to piecing together the circumstances that life has dealt them.

My students were the best thing about living in Rwanda.

And maybe what I dislike the most about goodbyes is that there are never enough words. And the words you use don’t necessarily convey exactly what you want to say. You try to explain further in detail, but it’s almost as if the more words you use, the less expressive you feel. So that speech above? Yeah, I think it covered most of what I wanted to say. It hit the right mixture of the two languages I have been speaking for two years. But, I wasn’t sure if my students walked away knowing just how grateful I am for their presence in my life.

*

The school goodbye marks a final transition and shift regarding my Peace Corps service. Now, my primary assignment is officially completed. I’m done.

As November nears, I am more and more aware of the time remaining. I have 6 weeks left in Rwanda.

This phased goodbye process is great in that you feel relatively stable as it goes. Yes, goodbyes are difficult, but slow by slow you can build the closure you need to really bring things to an end.

That’s essentially what I am doing the last 6 weeks I am here; slowly saying goodbye.

I have to admit, I am a little afraid of what it will feel like in the final hour, when it really is all over. I’m afraid because the down-side of spacing out goodbyes as such is that when you’re finished, that’s it. You are forced to look at life change in the face and accept it without question, hesitation, or delay.

Divine recently moved in with me for the next month in order to be better located for the national exam she will take, to help me pack, and to accompany me on what I have dubbed my Goodbye Tour. Nearly all of the Peace Corps Volunteers in my group will leave in early November and so Divine was adamant that my last days are not spent alone in my house. I am so grateful for this decision as it’s been like having a sleepover each and every night; we talk late into the night and wake early in the morning to drink tea and coffee. I then read from the Jesus Calling devotional (thanks Grandpa and Glenda!). At the end of the small devotional blurb, she reads the provided scripture in Kinyarwanda, I follow by reading from my English bible. Most of all, after living relatively alone for two years, it’s an amazing thing to have someone else around – to share meals, to chat, and just to have the company. The routine of her presence has provided a level of comfort that I never knew I could have in a country so far from my own.

It’s this, I think, that scares me the most about saying the REAL goodbye in over a month. I can say goodbye to my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I can muster a teary farewell to my village, and as I have already done, I can make peace with having finished my job as a teacher. But, say goodbye to that kind of friend? Say goodbye to the intangibles that a friendship like that brings?

I don’t know.

We both are aware it is coming and we touch on it from time to time, but never too long. Perhaps it’s a state of denial, again, I don’t know, but I figure it’s okay because it’s making my last days enjoyable, memorable, and a fun part of this journey in Rwanda.

This is all mutually exclusive from the joy and excitement in returning home, obviously. That feeling and anticipation is 100% present throughout the process of goodbyes as I remember that I’m lucky to have something so wonderful to go home to (namely, family and friends).

And so, it’s a matter of clinging strongly to our beliefs, our relationships, and the experiences we know to be true that make goodbyes bearable. I personally believe that God’s hand and love are most visible in times of transition and change; if He got us there in the first place, then surely He will put us right where we need to be. And, if he has continually put amazing people in our lives then that is forever. You may not get the people you want in the physical sense, but they change your lives for the better and you keep that always, no matter where you go. It’s not easy, it’s not always ideal, but it’s the reality.

When you become best friends with a person you don’t always know what they will bring. In foresight, I could never have known what Rwanda, Peace Corps, my school, or Divine was going to do for my life. Now, I’m starting to get an idea and I’m humbled, grateful, and happy with what I see and feel. I’m continually blown away. Hindsight is a beautiful thing. You see God’s hands in all that He has touched and orchestrated and you are unable to fathom at just how awesome it all is.

Here’s to one last, final month.

May it be full of laughter, memories, and a solid foundation to say a necessary goodbye. It’s these goodbyes that will lead me into the next chapter, a chapter that is waiting back home with more incredible people that God has so infinitely blessed me with.

Here we go.

*

during headmaster's goodbye speech.

during headmaster’s goodbye speech.

 

giving my speech.

giving my speech.

 

bananas outside the ceremony. i am going to miss the banana trees. so much.

bananas outside the ceremony. i am going to miss the banana trees. so much.

 

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).

*

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)

we are beautiful, confident, and we are changing the world.

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Recently, our GLOW club spent a Friday afternoon studying CONFIDENCE, having a photoshoot, and hosting visitors from Ni Nyampinga (associated with the Nike Foundation) as my girls were being filmed declaring their vision for their future for a film to celebrate the INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE GIRL next month. This film will be screened for the United Nations. I am a proud mama.

welcome to my happy place.

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Ruramira GLOW club singing and being filmed for an upcoming film for the United Nations to celebrate the International Day of the Girl. (!!!)

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beautiful Jeannine

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Zahara showing her confidence on the catwalk.

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Divine handles my crazy-ness so well.

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reading the girls’ empowerment magazine of Rwanda, Ni Nyampinga.

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of course we painted our nails. of course.

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“no fear”

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Josiane, posing with the flowers. typical.

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Copying the ‘Maisara’ swag.

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show me that YES WE ARE BEAUTIFUL.

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🙂

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the film crew. so proud.

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beautiful Yazina.

british red #350

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When I started wearing lipstick regularly about a year and a half ago, Yazina looked at me with her inquisitive eyes and commented emphatically, “teacher this decoration you have, ah-ah-ahh!”

At the time, I hadn’t yet learned the ins and outs of Rwanda’s language of sounds and noises set completely a part from the actual language of Kinyarwanda. You see, Rwandans can express themselves totally without words and by using various inflections, mumbles, and hums to get their point across. So, I had no clue what “ah-ah-ahh!” meant.

I prodded her by saying, “yes? This decoration (referring to my lipstick) is…?”

“is wonderful!!! Today you are beautiful very high in the face.”

I blushed and told her she was beautiful too.

It was around that time I became a firm believer in lipstick.

*

I love lipstick because it makes me feel awake, energized, and yeah, beautiful. Some women preach the mascara gospel or believe in the empowering effects of going au natural, but as for me, I know I’m ready to take on the day after a cup or three of coffee, writing in my journal, and adding a slight ‘pow’ of color to my lips in the mornings. I’ve worn lipstick nearly every day here. We’ve gone on a lot of journeys, lipstick and I.

I wore lipstick on the first day the girls’ had shoes at football practice, I had it on when I taught my very first lesson, and when I went to visit Michelle in England earlier this year I think I even applied two coats. This now strikes me as ironic because in British history, mostly in the 19th century, makeup of any sorts was not at all acceptable for any “respectable” woman. Thank God for progress.

They refer it to it as “bello” in my village, which could be some kind of French influenced word, but to be honest I’m not too sure. While I’ve never seen a woman in my village carrying around a tube of the stuff, occasionally my girls will have a purplish-brown tint on their lips. This comes from the small circles of gloss sold at boutiques and they take these little things everywhere. To GLOW camps, to church, and even to school. They too understand the powers of adding a bit of pizzazz to “decorate” their appearance.

Perhaps not fully understanding the stronghold my favorite lipstick has had in my daily life, one of our Peace Corps leaders in Kigali once suggested that I limit my use of lipstick in my community. We were having a conversation about integration and dealing with men and he delicately said that it was “advisable” to not draw even more attention to myself with the fire red lipstick I had smeared on. I chuckled, nodded, and thought to myself, “um. There is no way in hell I’ll be stopping to wear my red lipstick.” It’s not that I’m insubordinate, it’s just that I decided well before joining Peace Corps that to survive this experience I had to embrace the give and take. Visit people and eat their food? Absolutely. Refrain from drinking in public? Sure. Covering my knees when wearing clothes? I can do that. But, I want to also be who I am so there are some non-negotiables. As silly and small as it sounds, this was one of them.

And so maybe I should explain the other dimension lipstick – well, this particular red color – has in my life.

The red lipstick I have worn consistently while being a Peace Corps Volunteer is appropriately in a gold tube and is called “British Red,” number 350 from L’Oreal. Today, if you open it up you can instantly smell the flowery, old time fragrance. You would also have to use your finger to get any of the color; I have used it so much that it is nearly finished. But I just can’t move onto another color. I can’t rid myself of this is small golden encompassed treasure.

*

I was packing for Rwanda and searching through some of Grandma Jenny’s things. She was still alive, albeit in a nursing home unable to speak or move, and I was headed to the facility for the last time because I would leave for Rwanda the next day. I reached for a red leather purse that I found hidden away in a box and inside I found old receipts from a frozen yogurt shop, gum, sunglasses, and a half-full bottle of Chanel No. 5. It was so her; it’s like this bag had all these little things that represented a bit of who she was as a woman. And that’s when I found the lipstick. It was half-used and I tucked it into my pocket, intending to bring it along for the next couple of years. I wasn’t even sure that I would use it, but I figured it would be a good reminder of her while away.

The day I took the lipstick was the last day I saw my grandmother. Her cold and wrinkled hands filled mine as I said goodbye. Grandma had hung on for a long time as I think Newell’s do, but I knew when my time in Rwanda was over and I came home, she wouldn’t be there. I took in everything about her that I could. I lingered when I gave her a hug. I memorized the color of her pure blue eyes. And I also was sure to capture moments from when I was younger so that the memory of grandma was more about who she was before Multiple Sclerosis slowly wore away at her body. When I was alone in my car, crying into the steering wheel, I felt like I had missed something. I felt cheated of closure. Grandma, the woman who indescribably anchored me for much of my life at that point, would never hear my stories from this new journey in my life. She wouldn’t be there when I needed to call home because I was lonely. She wouldn’t see the friends I would come to deeply love in this country. And down the road, she wouldn’t be present as my life started to weave together all of the things from my past, present, and future. She died in October of that year.

So, this lipstick is grandma’s and is one of the most important things that came from her and continued on to Rwanda. The other things that I hold dear that are with me in my village are a gold ring from her mother and a small chipped wall decoration with West Highland White Terriers that says, “when you have a friend, you have everything.”

*

Last week, I experienced what I know will be one of my favorite Rwandan memories. Sometimes, you just know you’ll remember something forever.

I was visiting Divine’s family because her brother had broken is leg and came home from the hospital and I felt very strongly that Divine should be there, even if just for the weekend.

To help her family with the workload, I joined them in finding firewood and cutting down bananas from their endless amounts of banana trees on their land (ubutaka). We laughed and chatted and watched the sun leave the Eastern hills of Rwanda. Her sister helped place the pile of sticks on my head to carry home. I grasped above my head with both hands and was pleasantly surprised by my ability to keep it balanced. I mean, I’m no Rwandan who could do this job using no hands, but still. We walked the small and narrow brown paths back home to get cooking started. I was in the middle of the line of some seriously strong women – her mother, Divine, and her sister. This was so that Divine could keep an eye on me as she knows my night vision isn’t the best. I listened quietly as her mother and Divine discussed how grateful they were for my visit, how they would pull together as a family in this difficult time, and how it was simultaneously funny and beautiful that I was carrying firewood on my head. Funny because I’m a white girl in the middle of nowhere doing such a thing and beautiful for the same reason. I’m not above doing that or helping with chores just because of where I come from. Finally, a family that gets that.

I looked above at the stars, at the rolling landscape, overwhelmed with gratitude as I thought about my family. I thought about the family I have in Rwanda and the family back home that has raised me, loved me, and supported me for my entire life.

I smacked my lips, of course wearing that red lipstick, and remembered Grandma. Memories flooded back and they seemed to collide head on with the memories I was making in that moment. Love is so powerful sometimes, I think. It reaches far beyond our understanding. It’s so strong that the feeling of love you felt years before can come back and hit you in the exact same way.

I smiled as we finished the small journey home, indeed with firewood on my head, doing what the world might see as a menial task. It was much more than that. I felt a part of something. I felt connected. And as I found myself thanking God over and over again on that walk, it sort of felt like Grandma was there right with me.

*

opening and closing doors

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At our most recent Peace Corps Conference (dubbed COS: Close of Service) we met for three days to reflect on our service for the last two years, to have open discussions about both the successes and complications of development work, to begin the process of leaving the government, and to gain understanding on re-entering and adjusting to life back in the United States. The very last session we had is apparently something all Peace Corps Volunteers around the world do at the end of their service – a guided visualization.

Led by a Peace Corps staff member who has an innate ability to communicate well with anybody and has been in Peace Corps posts in various countries, he told us to “get comfortable” as we would be trying to cover a couple years of memories and emotions in just a few minutes.

I chose to move to the front of the large room and lie face down, my eyes buried between my two crossed arms. I closed my eyes. The lights dimmed and he put on a beautiful instrumental track of a piano star from England. It was immediately stirring; even before he started the visualization I knew I would be emotional. The music played for a few moments and my heart started to slow and I become more in tune with the moment.

In a soft yet steady voice, he told us to think back before our arrival in Rwanda in 2011.

Think about the moment you decided you wanted to do the Peace Corps.
You start the application.
Where were you? Who was the first person you told about starting the application process?
How did you feel?
You complete the interview and soon you have moved further in the process to become a volunteer. Maybe you question this path you have chosen for yourself. Maybe you think you are irrational. But for whatever reason, you continue to stick with it.
Months later, you get that notorious blue envelope with your official invitation to serve in the assigned country. What did you think as you opened it up? Who was with you?
You are invited to serve in Rwanda. Rwanda. What did you think?

He stops for a bit and lets us go through all of those feelings, times, and places. It feels very real – I remember it all clearly and so well. And me being me, I start to cry. I cry out of both happiness and sadness; as I think back to the seeds rooted in this experience, I can feel just how badly I wanted this to work and how deeply I longed for this dream. How so many small things fell into place so that my journey would take me to Rwanda. How long ago all of this was.

He continues.

You say goodbye to people you love. You say your farewell to America. Where do you visit before you leave? What do people tell you as you prepare to go? What went through your mind when you crossed the security point in the airport and you were alone, headed for something you really couldn’t envision?

You leave. You go to the staging process in Philadelphia. You are in a room with a group of people signed up for the exact thing you are to do: teach in Rwanda. Who did you talk to? What was the mood of the group? What did you do your first night together?

You arrive in-country. What did the weather feel like? What is the first thing you see outside of the airport?

It is the first morning after sleeping in the house of your host family. What do you hear in the morning? What do you smell?

After a long training, you move to your site permanently . You are new.
Who is the first person to befriend you? Is anyone waiting for you at your house?
What does your job feel like?
You do something extraordinary in your community. What was it? Who helped you?
At some point you travel with some Peace Corps friends. Where do you go? You see something together you will never forget – what is it?

Now it’s time to prepare to leave.

Who do you want to say goodbye to? Why is it so hard? Who will you hug? Who do you want to stay in touch with? What do you tell them? What do they tell you? What is the thing you will remember about your home for two years in your village?

You touch ground in your hometown or the place you are coming home to. People are waiting for you. People are cheering for you at the airport. You are home. Some you haven’t seen for a very long time.
Who is there? What is it like to be home again? What runs through your mind?

How will you talk about Rwanda? What will you say about your experience? What do you want them to know about your country?

All of this lasts around 25 minutes or so. He asks these questions slowly, with pauses in between so that we can go through this visualization little by little. By the end, I have cried so many tears that bags have formed under my eyes. I wasn’t the only one; all 20 of us were moved very deeply. My heart is bursting with a lot of things, but the biggest is gratitude. To so many people. Thinking back and reflecting made it so clear: these last 2 years have been the most difficult in my young life, but completely the most rewarding and the most life-changing. I’m 24 and I feel like I have had the experience of a life time.

My heart also hurt after that visualization because on a very fundamental, spiritual level, I knew my time was coming to an end and the idea of a third year extension that I had quite seriously considered was not the path I should take. I wanted it so badly and so I put my trust in God to make the best decision and in looking for an open door here, it ultimately didn’t come to fruition in the way I was hoping for. It was very close. In fact, a day prior to this visualization, I was all but ready to sign papers and take a job. But I didn’t, and I’m not going to.

Here’s why.

*
From the beginning, I knew if I did a 3rd year in Rwanda it would have to be what I called “very compelling”. I miss my family and friends and so another year so far from home had to warrant an irrefutable opportunity attached to it. But more than the job, it had to be the right situation in my life, with all things in place so that I could truly feel content and happy as I transitioned to something different. I would have loved to stay in Ruramira (my village) but I knew I didn’t want to formally teach another year, ruling out a site extension. Last month, I met with a director of an organization associated with Nike that acts as a “catalyst organization” to develop ideas for girls empowerment in Rwanda. However, an open job was not made clear and it served much more like an information interview where I was able to pick her brain about girls’ development but not really be offered a formal position within the organization. Not sure where to go next, I briefly considered extending as a PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader). I could work internally within Peace Corps, helping other volunteers, making site visits, and partnering with an NGO to gain some professional experience. I would even have access to drive a car! The drawbacks? Living in Kigali and not working as much in the field on a daily basis. Those were two pretty big strikes and praying to God for a sign I pursued yet another job posting sent via the Peace Corps. It was a job that looked like THE ONE.

It was a job based in the district where I already live now (called Kayonza), with a renowned organization, and operating under what is called the Women’s and Girls Initiative. I would work as a program intern, supervising girls’ clubs that were created to reach and help out-of-school girls. I would help improve their cooperatives (both artisan and agriculture), teach life skills, help develop the programming of the clubs, and work within the organization to do things like monitoring and evaluation. Rooted in field work with Rwandan girls, I could barely contain myself. IT’S PERFECT.

I made contact with the point person and had two “interviews”. The first one was initiated by a representative from Nike – she wanted to partner with this organization and wanted to see if I could serve as a link between the two, teaching their curriculum within this other initiative.

That particular interview (if you could call it that) was terrible, to be honest. It was filled with development oriented jargon, acronyms, and policy driven lingo. While these things are certainly interesting, I just sat there with my mouth wide open: my best friends are young Rwandan women, y’all. Do you want to hear a bit of what I have experienced with them? I don’t think I’m an expert or anything, but I’ve been working directly in the field for these past two years, have deep relationships with girls in my club, and these development workers seemed disinterested, at best. It was really disheartening. For nearly 3 hours I was talked at and I was not very happy about it. Two days later after some soul-searching, I sat down for a second interview. It went much better. It was with the leader of this initiative and her country director and they let me have free reign with what I wanted to talk about and what I wanted to say. I told my Peace Corps story. I bragged on my girls and we actually discussed the job at hand. I walked away much more at peace. And a bit sad – in a lot of ways I wanted this job. But I knew I couldn’t take it. It would be forcing an opportunity to work in my life when really, it should fit much more naturally.

It came down to the fact that they want someone to start working NOW and I’m not really ready to give up my time in my community. Also, they want all lessons taught in Kinyarwanda – 100%. Yeah, I can speak the language, as I have lived in the village for all of this time. But, in GLOW for example, I have girls who can translate and work between the two languages not remaining confined to only one. I appreciate and commend this organization for connecting with out of school girls, but at this point in my professional experience, I don’t feel qualified enough to deliver exactly what they are looking for. Truth be told, a Rwandan woman should really be offered that job.

And in this long, back and forth process, I was able to admit to myself how fearful I am of saying goodbye. But I can’t fight the reality of the situation anymore. I have to be strong, ready to feel that, and to trust in God to get all of us through it. Admitting this fear to myself made the choice much easier. In December, I will come home.

I sat on Divine’s bed yesterday and told her this story and my final decision. Telling Divine – more than any paper work, facebook status, or declaration – represented the finality of this decision. I told her slowly and carefully. And my heart broke all over again as I watched her process my words. She cried, sobbed, and it was my first time to see her so vulnerable and heart broken. I waited patiently as she grieved. The amazing thing is how understanding she was. She agreed, based on the opportunities at hand, that I had made the correct decision. The hard one, but the right one. I told her how much she means to me and that I am committed to helping her achieve a good future. I am going to support her final three years in secondary school and I will come back and visit her in Rwanda. My story and connection to this place has just begun, I think. I will call her as much as I can and I hope one day she can visit America. I’m a woman of my word and I will do everything I can to ensure she has a good life. There are things we are all meant to do in our own lives and this is one of them for me.

She told me between cries that losing me would be like losing a sister. She said that I was a miracle in her life.

I tried to convey amidst my own tears that all of these sentiments were the same for me. “It’s the start of our friendship, not the end,” I insisted. And I really do believe that. I know what distance can do to relationships, but it works both ways. Sometimes they fail because of distance, other times they remain. If for nothing else, because they were meant to be.
*
What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.
-Helen Keller

crossroads

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divine and mama

divine and mama

family

host family love

teaching

showin’ ma how teaching is done – rwanda style

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giraffe, mom, and randy = a great combination

For probably the third or fourth time in the first 2 hours of Mom and Randy’s visit I was explaining how wonderful their experience in Rwanda would be BECAUSE of the “off the road” approach we were attempting (visiting and sleeping in my village for 3 days, using public transport, and embracing volcano-like mountains of Rwandan food to be offered – along with Fanta, obviously). They weren’t sticking to only the “touristy” attractions – we were doing Rwanda with a lot of Heather swagger. I was anxious, giddy, nervous and happy it would be like this. Ater all, to see the Rwanda I love (and let’s be real, sometimes the Rwanda I loathe), you have to give the village and lie here a real chance to show itself. I knew things would be just fine, however, because Randy looked up for a momemt while packing his small green REI backpack and summed up the nature of his and mom’s can-do-Rwanda attitude in three words,

“We dig culture.”

And did they ever.

We saw Mama and Papa’s new home being built, shared handfuls of real Rwandan meals, tasted banana juice at Divine’s, went on long village walks which had to feel a lot like being the Royal Family with all the hootin’ and hollerin’, crossed overland from the edges of Tanzania to the 4th largest African lake bordering the Congo, and I, to no one’s surprise, cooked macaroni and cheese.

Their two weeks came and went quickly.

No words or photos can describe what it was like to have my mama here. After I creepily banged on the window glass to get their attention in baggage claim at the Kigali airport (yes, this drew countless numbers of stares and aghast looks of what a freak) I absorbed all that I could of her presence. I remembered and relished the way she always calls me “honey”, her enthusiastic, ready for anything smile, and her desire to continually want to make things comfortable for me (this included drawing a bath for me one evening – could life get any better?) And what was even better than just having mom here was having Randy here too. Three was not a crowd  and I was immensely impressed with both Mom and Randy’s kindness, openness, and flexibility to greet and love on my community members. They hugged SO many people. I LOVED THEIR CAPACITY TO LOVE.

Should I have been surprised? No.

If you wonder how I can be crazy enough to WANT to live in a rural Rwandan village for 2 years it is because I was raised by love-centered people. Mom, Dad – everybody – demonstrated through everything (because no, my life has not been perfect) we all have an ability and an obligation to love in the best way we know how.

My favorite moment of our trip was exploring the banana fields that belong to Divine’s mother. They go on for what feels like forever. You walk on a thin dirt path to maneuver your way through the land. Behind me, I watched mom and Divine holding hands. By my side was Suzi. In front, further along in the road, was Randy. He was taking photos with some youth, also emphasizing the importance of staying in school. I was in my favorite place in Rwanda with some of the most important people in my life. Not just mom and Randy, but Suzi and Divine too. For a rare moment, pieces of my life were interlaced and together. For a fleeting time, I didn’t have to describe two different worlds, I could just be. That’s the very best a family visit can bring you. That, and delicious meals with hot bathes. Just kidding.

And so those weeks were intensely whirldwind – especially before and after their travels to visit me. Before, I had finished HOURS and HOURS of marking to prepare for the end of term II. After, I exerted every ounce of energy I had at our region’s week-long 2013 GLOW (girls leading our world) camp.

Needless to say, my life has been crazy.

Somehow, it’s become mid-August and I am most certainly at a crossroad with a large fork in the road.

There are two options, you see.

One is to continue as I had planned all along: return back to beautiful America (Lord, I sure do miss home) having had finished 2 years of good work in Peace Corps Rwanda. I have some wonderful experience to carry with me, stories to share, and family and friends to be with. I can come home, figure out the next direction of my life, and soak all that is of my home, America.

The other option is a lot like Peyton Manning reading a different defense post-huddle and calling an audible based on what he sees: stay in Rwanda another year – “extend” as they call it in Peace Corps world – with a different job and living situation. All of the opportunities to continue in Peace Corps (and there are probably around 10 of them within Rwanda) as a Third Year Volunteer often involve working closely with other NGOs while still making a Peace Corps level salary (about 200 USD per month) and keeping Peace Corps status (able to defer loans, qualify for medical care, abiding by the many rules, and so on).

The details are set to be hankered and hammered out THIS week at what is called our Close of Service (COS) Conference. I’ll be coming back to America later this winter no matter what path I choose to take and so really it’s a question of what the right thing to do is as I consider the next year, 5 years, and 10 years of my life. What exactly do I vision for myself? What do I imagine my life could look like?

Discernment can sometimes feel 100% easy or a lot more murky.

This one, it’s been all over the place.

I am trusting that God will help me choose the next phase of my life that provides safety, purpose, passion, and open doors.

My soul has felt scattered and all over the place and so I’ve put together a pro-con list, raised my hands, and I am submitting my fears, doubts, anxiety, and worries to God. Prayers appreciated.

IF I EXTEND A 3RD YEAR IN RWANDA

PROS

-job security

-I really enjoy living and working in this country despite the challenges

-maintain Rwandan relationships very easily

-opens a lot of development opportunities down the road

-builds on my first 2 years in Peace Corps while also creating a new and challenging job

-more people could have the opportunity to come and visit Rwanda!

-already aware and immersed in the language and culture

-more possibilities of sports development experience

-living in a beautiful country

-maintain Peace Corps contacts and connections

-experience with grant-writing

-can easily visit my old village and community

-a paid (via Peace Corps) holiday home in the winter

-have the suppot of my family

-I can always leave if I decide it’s not the right fit for me

-can continue to defer loans

CONS

-more time away from home

-missing out on family and friend life events

-isolation from American culture in general

-avoiding an inevitable goodbye to this country

-still living on a Peace Corps salary

-continuing to regularly deal with Rwandan frusturations (water issues, electricity issues, lack of internet, being DIFFERENT than everyone else, always having to explain who I am…)

-all of my friends from my group (called ED – 3 – the third education group in Rwanda) will be finished with their jobs in Rwanda

-loneliness

-putting off time I could be using to get a master’s degree

-dealing with skeevy Rwandan men

born again

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I’ve been to my share of weddings, especially in Rwanda.
Okay, yeah, that is putting it mildly.

I’ve easily been to 15 weddings in this country. Which, really is out of control.

I’ve also attended engagement parties, church fundraising events, choir productions, and have now hosted two talent shows while in this land of a thousand hills. However, up until this weekend, I had yet to witness a baptism. This has stood out like a sore thumb on my Rwandan bucket list; baptisms and church and Imana (God) arguably sit at the top of cultural strongholds. These, of course, along with fanta, respect for authority, and at least where I live, bananas.

And so I eagerly accepted Eugenie’s request for me to attend her umubaptismo. Eugenie, a Senior 3 student and GLOW club leader (she’s vice president) is one of the sweetest girls I have. She is small, petite, quiet, witty, intelligent, and very kind. She’s really good at theatre, singing, and she loves praying at the Pentecost Church. Oh yeah, that’s important information. You see, I wasn’t just going to any kind of baptism. It was with the Pentecosts, y’all!

Eugenie invited me to her special day weeks ago in great anticipation, and when she provided the date (July 6th) I hesitated as I had considered traveling out West to visit Lake Kivu and hang-out beachside for America’s birthday, the 4th of July. Yet, my hesitation was small and short-lived. Certainly, I could find something else fun to do for the holiday, and supporting one of my friends was far more important. I remember the day I was baptized like it was yesterday, and next to committing my life as a Christian, it was having the most important people in my life in attendance that made it all the more special.

I was kept busy the morning of Eugenie’s baptism. Suzi and Olive, one of the neighborhood kids (and perhaps the most adorable child in the world) had spent the night before. We ate macaroni, watched Aladdin, played with photo booth, and Suzi and I even attempted to wash this young child in a basin. It was…well, it was an intriguing short experiment in parenthood. Babysitting is fun, however, it is somehow wonderful to hand the child back over in the morning. And I do say that with all of the love in the world.

Anyway, we cleaned up from our sleepover, Suzi headed back to her site, and I washed my body thoroughly as I didn’t want to be perceived as dirty for this important event. Eventually, Eugenie and Zahara (another GLOW girl) arrived and we headed out on motorcycles to the lake that the baptism was taking place. It was a treacherous ride; the lake is located in my district but it took over 40 minutes on motor bike to get there. The road was rocky, dusty, and full of strange grooves. The dry season is among us without any question; by the time we dismounted the motorcycleI was drenched in brown dust and had a sore butt to boot. So much for my long and comprehensive wash.

Immediately, I was taken aback by the sheer amount of people surrounding the water. Eugenie took this opportunity to explain that this was a special day for many people to be baptized in this particular lake. Everyone interested from my sector, for example, was allowed to come, get in line, be prayed over, dipped, and become born again. Nobody could be turned away. And so you can just imagine.

I slowly meandered on a path separating the rice fields and the base of this lake and heard shouts of “umuzungu!” or for the people from my sector, “Impano!”. I was wearing my turquoise skinny jeans and was able to look through my fake Ray Bans at nearly 500 people glancing my way. The camera man who had been assigned to take photographs of this life-changing experience stopped in the middle of his job to capture my arrival. People rushed to find their camera phones before I passed too quickly. Students from my school came rushing to give me a hug. I frequently feel like a celebrity in this country, but no more so than at this mass baptism. Plus, everyone was repeating over and over, “come! Be baptized by the Holy Spirit! Now is your time!” I smiled, nodded, but politely declined. Once I explained how I had already been baptized, that was good enough. Thank goodness.

Eventually, I made it down to the rim of the water with Eugenie and wished her well as she got in line. While Zahara and I waited for Eugenie’s turn, we watched as old women, young children, middle-aged men, and everyone and anyone prepare to be saved. A large choir was singing in between the lines, repeating imbaraga, imbaraga, imbaraga over and over (this means ‘power’ or ‘strength’). Two white-roped old men stood waist-length in the water welcoming people as they came to show their commitment to God. They closed their eyes sincerely, lifted their old, shaky hands, and almost violently placed their congregants neck, face, and upper-body in the water. Some people would come up with a nearly blank expression on their faces while others would be shaking violently, screaming, and in need of 3 or more other people to carry them out of the lake. Many times they would begin praying instantly and you couldn’t ignore their strong emotion and convictions as they finished to be baptized in the name of God. It was very powerful and intense- and I was just watching.

I witnessed at least 50 people wade in that water until it was time for Eugenie.

As always, she entered the water with grace, the corners of her mouth in the smallest smile. She’s an unassuming type, content and peaceful, but not showy. The pastor prayed over her, closed her nose with his hand, and she was under. After a second or two she came up for air, was grabbed by an elderly woman, and had a piece of African fabric on her face to dry off.

I, of course, confused this wonderful moment with a sporting match and had cheered her name like she had just scored a game-winning goal. Awkward.

You go girl! Yeah! Eugenie! Woooooo!

But, hey, like I said, it was a Pentecost oriented baptism experience, and so a little hooting and hollering was quickly forgotten. Eugenie changed her clothes and was glowing; she told Zahara and I that this was the most important day in her life.

After, us three took motorcycles back to Eugenie’s house for her baptism lunch and party. 4 of our other GLOW leaders – Yazina, Divine, Clemantine, and Maisara – joined us to support our friend. It was so fun to celebrate with all of the girls; it’s neat to see how they encourage each other outside of the classroom. That’s really what GLOW is all about.

The party started with prayer and singing from their hymnal. I even knew one of the songs – either a sign that I’m starting to fit in or that I’ve been in Rwanda a bit too long. True to Rwandan tradition, we heard speeches from Eugenie’s mother, her father, and Eugenie herself. Her speech was short and sweet. She mentioned again how this was a really important time for her and she was so grateful for what God has given in her life. And, at the end, she looked at me and said it was an honor to have me there so we could share something so important. I smiled with watery-eyes and was again grateful that I had decided to attend. We were served a huge plate of food (rice, isombe (a spinach-like dish), fried potatoes, and plantains). No alcohol was served (a big no-no for this denomination in Rwanda) but we did each get a warm cup of icyai (tea) and so I was thrilled. Untrue to Rwandan tradition, the party was only about an hour. I think this was because for baptisms, the party moves and circulates from house to house and culminates in dancing at the very end. However, the GLOW girls and I were tired and had a long way to walk, and so we said our goodbyes.

We walked home, hand in hand, discussing how proud of Eugenie we were, and how wonderful the last few days had been.

In addition to this baptism experience, our friend Suzi (I say our because Suzi is definitely no longer just my friend; the girls love her) came out for a 4th of July visit. Suzi and I had a relaxing and long lunch (complete with a cold beer and chicken) at a lakeside restaurant in my district’s main town to celebrate our country’s birthday. The next day, after a morning of watching The Mindy Project we attended our GLOW club’s talent show. The girls had put together a series of dancing, singing, and skits to show their talents and it was totally hilarious. The GLOW girls really are a different breed and they danced, sang, and acted with all of the enthusiasm in the world. Like I told Suzi, it’s just wonderful beyond words to see them let loose and have fun. That, again, is what GLOW is all about.

So you see, the past few days have been interwoven with dancing, baptisms, good food, friends, and relaxation. I even crossed off some things from the Rwandan bucket list – namely, the baptism.

The girls basked in the good fortune that has come our way recently and I couldn’t help but whole-heartedly agree.

Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is a strange, weird, often extraordinarily frustrating, sometimes utterly ridiculous, but also mostly wonderful life. It’s an odd mix and it’s even harder to keep up with (the love/hate relationship with Rwanda is consistently changing and moving up and down). But above all, I realize more than ever that it’s a once in a lifetime sort of thing. I’m lucky to have been doing it this long, and as time slowly starts to wind down, I am becoming more aware and conscious of the importance of making every day count.

And so, what’s left on this so-called bucket list?
See for yourself.

Heather’s Peace Corps Bucket List

*created December 2011, updated December 2012*
(things with a * are left to be done)

See a Rwandan wedding
Be in a Rwandan wedding
Attend a baptism
Try banana beer
Take a bicycle taxi instead of a motorcycle taxi
Attend a football match in Kigali*
Sing karaoke in Kigali*
Take a boat on Lake Kivu*
Visit the gorillas
Stay at Akagera National Park
Visit the Nyamata Memorial
Visit the Nyarabuye Memorial*
Cook cassava bread by myself
Go to an ex-pat party*
Pray at a Rwandan mosque
Visit South-west Rwanda; namely Cyangugu
Start a GLOW club
Cook grilled cheese for my host family
Pray aloud in Kinyarwanda at the Catholic Church*
Go on a date
Hike a volcano
Ride a bike in my village
Fetch water on my head
Run in the Kigali Marathon
Teach about the “I Have a Dream” speech in class
Visit every district in Rwanda*
Visit every province in Rwanda
Visit the US Embassy*
Take holiday in Uganda and Tanzania
Eat a burrito in Rwanda
Take Divine to Kigali*
Score a goal in a football match
Join a girls’ football team
Buy Rwandan handicrafts and art
Raft in Uganda
Get on Rwandan TV
Master how to properly hand-wash clothes*
Cook with a charcoal stove
Find a female bus driver
Take Kinyarwanda lessons*
Teach lyrics to American songs
Coach baseball
See fireworks in Rwanda*
Attempt to cultivate something*
Learn to do the Rwandan cow dance (the traditional style)
Have a 30 minute conversation in Kinyarwanda only
Walk from Kayonza town to my house (a total of around 20 km)
Find a temporary Rwandan mama
Cut bananas from a tree*
Play blackjack at the casino in Kigali
See an elephant
Start writing a book
Read at least 60 books while in Peace Corps
Visit Gisenyi to see the Congo border
See the National University in Butare
Host a party at my house
Finish the INSANITY workout series*
Go to GUMA GUMA Superstar Concert*
Successfully make porridge

Will I do it all?

Meh. Maybe. Perhaps. I hope so.

I have about 5 months left of this adventure and so we’ll see what happens.

everything divine taught me

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Divine was walking me home last night, giving me advice on how to handle a couple of different problems – one with school and one with a family in our community – when I greeted a drunk woman on the edge of the road with an enthused and far too chirpy “muraho!” (this means hello). Divine immediately slapped my wrist and though it was dark with only the stars in the grey-blue sky giving light, I could feel her disapproving eyes.

Heather. Umva! (listen) Me, everytime I tell you the culture of Rwanda, but sometimes you forget. If it is day to greet is very nice. No problem! But sherie (basically like saying my dear), if it is night, no! You go quickly and keep quiet.

I nodded but also chuckled because indeed, this was not the first time that she had told me this, or watched me as I naively said hello to creepy men, goats, or people on the road in the black of night. It’s not that I often roam the roads after the sun sets, but when I visit Divine I usually am late to get back home because we get to talking and lose track of time. Each and everytime however, she walks me all the way back to my house, a 35 minute walk. This is probably for two reasons: one, she enjoys my company and wants to show good Rwandan culture. But most likely, she’s a bit freaked out by my friendly-to-a-fault tendencies and wants to make sure I get home without any problem.

*
Divine always has a lot to tell me and I frequently have a lot of questions. She told me recently that she is well aware of how in Rwanda people “hide their thoughts and ideas” and that it can be “difficult to know a person”. I wanted to give a standing ovation with a rounds of applause; yes! I was overjoyed that she sees this too. Rwandans are great people; but they are considerably closed and don’t always project what they are actually feeling. Why do you think my best friend is a 20-year old student? Relating as strongly to anyone else in my community has proved difficult (most of the men just want to flirt it up, and the other women in my village are typically mamas just trying to get all their stuff done).

So, to combat this, Divine has opened herself up and has promised me that she will not hide anything from me. This was all on her own inititation you know, but Lord knows I appreciate it. Without a doubt in my mind, she’s the one person in Rwanda that I trust completely and will give me a straight answer even if I don’t want to hear it. She firmly believes in the “responsibilites of friendship” as she calls it and this includes sharing all things. In doing so, the girl has taught me a lot. Much more than she probably even realizes.

*
First, for a frame of reference, let me give you the basics.

Divine’s full name is MUKAMUGEMA Divine (in Rwanda, you capitalize the first name), but unlike a lot of Rwandans, Divine insists that she is just Divine. In church last week, they were reading a list of people going on a trip to a major Catholic celebration/revival/pentecost in another district and Divine was signed up to go. They called “Mukamugema” and I looked on as she didn’t even realize her name was being called. She prides herself on her various nicknames though, and they certainly are numerous: Mama GLOW, Moon, and Ibishymbo (beans). However, a lot of times we just call each other “sha” which is a term of endearment for close friends.

Divine was born in the Kirehe District in Rwanda, in the far Eastern Province, about 45 minutes from the Tanzania border. Her village is quite close to Nyarabuye, the location of a large Catholic church that had a major massacre during the Genocide. This location now serves as a major Memorial Site that people can visit. Divine was about 9 months old in 1994 when the Genocide occured. She told me that her mother carried her on her back and would hide in the forest every day.

Divine no longer has her father. He died in December 2011, after a battle with a “muscle disease.” Just recently she filled in more of the blanks on her past – about how her father had 4 wives as was the norm in old traditional culture – and how when he was sick, she took a year off from studying to be at home to help him. She told me that they had a good relationship and they shared a similar “culture” of loving to laugh. I didn’t realize fully until she explained all of this how much she misses her dad. But, she also has a deep love for her mother and a whole fun batch of family members – Medi, Joseph, and Donatha. I mentioned how Divine has the nickname of beans, and it was actually her family that started this whole food-name business. Her mom is pineapple, Medi is sweet potato, Joseph is avocado, and Donatha is doughnut. They christened me as plantain because I eat so much of them. And because her mother said my nose looks like one. Yeah, they are kind of a bunch of goof balls and when I first met them, I could instantly see why Divine is the way she is. Certainly, that’s the best part of meeting families of people you love, isn’t it? You better understand where they are coming from.

She loves to eat plantains and beans and has a soft spot for porridge made with corn flour. Divine is 20 years old and studying in Senior 3 (like the equivalent to 9th grade) but it’s not unusual because many Rwandans are late to finish their education. Maybe they stop because of money or a family problem for example, but eventually continue when they can work through things. It’s just what happens. She recently mentioned for the first time- after being friends for 1 and 1/2 years – that she is the first person in her family to study as far as Senior 3. All of her siblings before her dropped out before then. I don’t know why she didn’t tell me this earlier; I think it’s something she is very proud of but doesn’t want to appear boastful or having too much pride.

She is incredibly wise. Her way of thinking is rooted in a lot of traditional cultural values, but she balances these with progressive notions too. But not always. We sometimes have disagreements on situations because of the perspectives we carry. It’s healthy though, because we are both able to see why we think the way we do and it’s in our many conversations about life that I feel most American. Which most of the time, makes me quite proud. In her cultural values, I should note, she isn’t backwards or uncivilized. There are just some things in her life that carry heavy importance – cleanliness, respect for elders, and helping around the home – because that’s just the way it is. It’s very easy to judge the values of others, but if you take a step back and reevaluate your own particular ways of seeing the world, you can then realize how steeped these often are in the culture you originate from.

Her two greatest skills are understanding people and making people smile. She can walk into a room and light it up. It’s not that she is the most loud or obnoxious as I tend to be, rather, she is just absolutely hilarious. And when I say that she can understand people well it’s because she can know instantly how someone is feeling about a situation, can see things from multiple perspectives, and is never hasty when discussing something with someone. If you tell her something, she will think about it, and give you an answer when she has considered the words she wants to use. It’s not just in English that she does that; it’s in Kinyarwanda as well. I asked her about this once.

Divine, you have no fear to speak. But many times, you think before you use the words. You are choosing very carefully.”
Of course! It is very important to think about the ideas in your head before speaking. You want to use the good words.”

The great love in her life is God. She is very proud to be a Catholic and prays at church at least twice per week. I’m not exaggerating when I say that she is the most faithful person I know. She always trusts that things will get better and that God “will give us the answer.” When I was dating somebody who wasn’t a Christian, she was horrified. Not in a judgemental way at all (hello, her best friend is Muslim so she is very open on the religion spectrum), she just struggles to understand a worldview outside of God. God is her bread, her walls, her leader, her friend, her everything. Everything for Divine begins and ends with God.

She’s really weird and like I said, funny. She calls me sometimes at night and simply tells me to go outside and see how strong she is (she is referring to the times that we have a full moon; moon is one of her nicknames and so she gets excited).

I said I would give you the basics and this was as “basic” as I could keep it. I could talk about this girl for days if people would let me. I think I mention Divine on the phone with Suzi every time we talk on the phone. Which is nearly every day.

Now, for the school of Divine. The following are quotes/ideas/advice/nuggets of wisdom/general thoughts on life that Divine has mentioned to me at one time or another. I thought this would shed good light on the kind of character she has and exactly how important she has been to my time in Rwanda, as she has consistenly been my confidante.

*
The School of Divine

*”Heather, stop using agatsiko to describe the English word groups. It means very bad things.” (She was right. It’s an almost direct translation for gangs. Please know I was using this word in class, each and every time I wanted to the students to break off into groups. Awesome.)

*On why people change their minds, “if you are sad, you can say the things that aren’t true. But when you are strong again, your ideas change.

*“LIFE CONTINUES” – her answer to each and every life problem. It’s not to say that the problem isn’t worthy or that it doesn’t need to be dealt with, but her philosophy refers to the most basic of all life truths. There will be another day, life does go on.

*Sunflower flour is even better than peanut flour when cooking a delicious Rwandan sauce.

*In Rwanda, the parents’ wishes must be honored.

*”If you say yes, mean yes, and if you say no, mean no.”

*”Heather you have taught me that in the life, if you have compassion you can have a good heart and do good things. To be compassionate is important if you want to make God happy.

*”Laughing is the same as eating, breathing, and washing. You need it in your life.”

*”Heather, me I think, you have water. You have soap. Why don’t you wash very well? It is very nice to have pride in the clothes and the body to show that you have the self-confidence. You are beautiful girl, so remember to wash very nice.” – referring to the fact that sometimes my feet are not super clean.

*”Wow! To cook in America and Rwanda is different. But this food is nice, so congratulations. But for me, I don’t understand very well this food.” -referring to macaroni and cheese.

*BE PATIENT. BE PATIENT. BE PATIENT. (that’s really a Rwandan universal truth in all aspects of life)

*”For me, if I cry, there are tears in my heart. I don’t show them on the face.”

*”Your friend is the most important relationship. To be a good friend, you must share your problems and try to find good solutions.

*”Heather, when someone speaks you think it is true every time. Sometimes it’s not true. You need to remember to ask questions and try to find more information to be sure.”

*Hugging me after the terrifying motorcycle accident, “God will continue to give miracles. He never goes out.”

*”Fetching water is a sport.”

*Me: “How do you do all of these things every day?”
Divine: “I am strong! God gives me the chance to be strong in the mind and the heart and it is possible to do anything I try to do.

*On the heartache of missing another person, “ahhhh, it is very difficult. Even for me, I miss my family every day. But you have to believe! You have to believe you are together in the spirit.”

*”You cannot love someone by the things they give in the life. Yes, the things are nice. But you need the good action and behavior. You need to see the love they have for you in the heart. That is when you know where the love is coming from and that it is real.”

*On confronting people right away with a problem, “Teacher, in Rwanda, we don’t do that.

*
More than just her insights and eternal truths, the way she lives her life is a testament to the heart she has.

Her friendship IS one of the primary reasons I have stayed here in times of doubt. It’s not a relationship about me being a teacher, an American, a rich girl nor her being a student, a Rwandan, or a person coming from a poor family. Those things don’t matter. Finding something like this here (and anywhere, really) is GOLD and nothing BUT the hand of God. I can’t stress it enough.

Some people don’t get it:
why are you such good friends with a STUDENT?
Or on her end, is that white girl your sponsor or something?

People ask these things because they don’t understand. Because they don’t understand how it is possible.

But for every reason that a friendship like this couldn’t or shouldn’t work, well, it just does. I am treated with love, respect, and equality. Again, when in the situation that I’m in, this is a big deal. She knows me very very well.

She tells me about my “easy heart” (her words, not mine) which I have come to understand as being very sensitive. True.
She knows I don’t handle unhappiness well. True.
She calls me out when I try to solve a problem IMMEDIATELY as opposed to trying to feel out all of the alternatives. True again.
She understands that I value quality time above all other things. She laughs at my jokes and strange behavior. She teases me for all the questions I ask. And when I’ve had a crappy day, she knows just what to say and do to cheer me up.

Her ability to understand me to a strong degree blows my mind – I remember thinking when I first moved here, will I ever be able to BE MYSELF? Will I constantly be in the mode of “integration” and never fully open up to show all of who I am? Oh, and there’s the whole language barrier thing, but in the most rare of circumstances, a good friendship can overcome anything. And this one has. As for the language thing, well the girl is quite wonderful at speaking English, and even though my Kinyarwanda skills are quickly sinking like an overturned ship, we make a mixture of the two which we call “Kin-glish.” And you know what? It works.

*
I am more convinced than ever that when you need it most, God gives you exactly what you need. I needed a friend here in my little part of the world and I got way more than I could have ever imagined. I got a best friend that I deeply admire, love to be around, and makes this life enjoyable, happy, worth all of the difficulties, and just…exactly what I had hoped it would be. And more.

“I came to Ruramira and I didn’t know what my future was. My father died and I lost the money to go to the school by my home. I was sad. I missed my family. I didn’t have friends in this place. But, I saw you at the school, and thought maybe it would be okay.”

“I remember seeing you in the class and thinking, I want to know more about this girl. This girl, she’s different. She’s always smiling, always wanting to study very high, and has good ideas.”

Divine smiles and says with a great deal of conviction,

I think God brought us together. I think He wanted us to be best friends.”
*

my kind of weekend.

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this succinctly captures my feelings on this last weekend.

this succinctly captures my feelings on this last weekend.

I’ve been racking my brain, having too many failed attempts to put pen with paper, and sitting iddly for a bit too long as I’ve tried to figure out how to best explain and describe this past weekend. Then, at 5:37 am on a Tuesday morning I just thought, well, perhaps I should just start from the beginning.
*
Old Woman Heather
Fridays are one of my two days off this school year (the other being Tuesday) but outside of sleeping in until 7:00 it’s hardly a day off. I typically wake up, run, write, and go to school by mid-morning. Why? Because it’s library day. This consists of me stifling the chaos of hundreds of primary students trying to get their hands on a book. Crazy doesn’t begin to adequately paint the picture. It takes four of my students working the desk and teachers roaming around with sticks in hand to control book check-out. I swear, the next time I enter a quiet and peaceful library, I will thank my lucky stars because while the demand in Ruramira is fantastic, the peaceful demeanor of library etiquiette and culture is coming along much like teaching a puppy to pee outside. Slow.

Anyway, on this particular Friday, I did almost nothing after we closed the library around 2:00. Usually, I’m ready to go and visit some students or teach a GLOW lesson, but I was wiped. I went home, took a nap, and sat on my porch with tea and slippers and watched the sun slowly trickle away from the sky.

Best Day. Ever.
And so Saturday came. I woke up early in order to my run in and prepare for A LOT of things: we had two volleyball matches, two football matches (one for the girls and one for the boys), I had visitors coming (Sara, Suzi, and 3 of her friends visiting from America), and a GLOW leaders party to host (complete with a full meal and two rounds of Fanta; a serious party, y’all). I anticipated it would be a busy but rewarding day. And it was. It was so great it ended up being one of my favorite days at site: it was a combination of all things good in my life here. I went from coaching duties (do we have money to buy water? Do they have their shoes? Is the line-up ready to go?) to being a fan (cheering like a madwoman) to showing the visitors the ins and outs of my village. It’s important to note that our girls and boys won in football with Maisara and Zahara, resident GLOW girls and sisters, scoring a goal each for our girls’ victory. But, winning our match, watching the fans dance to drums (along with a spear that had a rabbit skull on top?), and basking in good ole sports pride didn’t carry the stick for the best part of the day.

That part came here.

After playing, at around 3:00, 7 of my GLOW gleaders, me, and the guests had a party at school. Alphonsine, the woman who helps me around my house, cooked for 15 people, bless her. We ate and then began our party. The purpose? To show our visitors good Rwandan culture and to celebrate the wonderful leadership of our girls. It was Suzi’s idea and I commend her profusely for wanting to make this day special for my girls. She just gets it, and I love that. I took a step back and watched as the girls sang songs, introduced themselves, and demonstrated how incredible they are. I realized it then – I will never be able to capture how inspiring they are in words alone. You see it best in their presence and I couldn’t have been prouder. Time and time again, it’s these girls that give my time here so much meaning. They are the ones that have evolved this from being a “job” to it becoming just a piece of my life. I’m forever indebted. I briefed them on the concept of diversity and explained it further by giving them the meanings of their names to show how they are special as individuals and that they are good leaders because they put their gifts together to make unity. And so naturally, we then tye-dyed shirts to demonstrate colors (like our individual special gifts) coming together to make something beautiful. They loved it. And, their shirts turned out great.

That night we cooked pancakes that we coated in Nutella and peanut butter and crowded in my 2 rooms to sleep 6 of us. And that’s where the weekend gets a little complicated. No, not the guests cramming together, but the arrival of Sunday.

‘The Bread of God’
After the guests headed out for the National Park nearby for a safari, Sara and I decided to tye-dye the extra shirts we had. Great life decision, by the way. Tye-dye is a fun way to spend a weekend morning! Sara went back to her site around 11:00 and as she said farewell, Divine stopped by to give me the “bread of God”. That is, the particular lesson that was preached about. Whenever I miss mass Divine is sure to write and remember the scripture so that I can “be satisfied” from God even if I didn’t go to church. Yes, that is my best friend. She was a hit, by the way, with the visitors. I think everyone recognized how hilarious she is; she is certainly one of the most ALIVE people that I know.

I unexpectedly visited her for like three hours (this frequently happens; I leave my house to accompany her like a good Rwandan, but somehow end up at her home and we continue to talk for a really long time). She already knew, but her suspicions of how crazy I am were confirmed when she found my planner and read every single page. She didn’t know how much of a planner I am (and how I have to write down everything or I will forget) and she was totally amused by this. Planning is a trivial concept here, at least where I am living, and so I think for her to see a major compilation of to-do lists, lesson plan ideas, people to visit, things to buy, places to go, and people to email, she was just like, what?

Anyway, by the afternoon it was time for a wedding I was invited to. This wasn’t the “real” wedding – just a delivery of the cow for the bride’s family followed by a family meeting to discuss the logistics and plan for the actual ceremony. This is where the weekend got a little…um, fragile? Confusing? Weird?

Bear with me.

Family Drama
This “wedding” was for Maisara and Zahara’s aunt. It was at the house for Maisara and Zahara’s father. However, Maisara and Zahara no longer live there. Why? Because their father is a terrible man. A lying, abusive man. A year ago, them and their mother moved in with their grandmother. Last week though, the mother moved back. Temporarily, she claims, as to help prep for the wedding nupitals, but I’m skeptical. This has left the girls to make their own decision: they don’t want to go back. And no one in their family understands or supports this decision. They are afraid but people in their family just see their action as a denial of their family obligation.

Confused yet?

So there was this family wedding.

And I’m going. But the girls tell me they can’t do it – they can’t go in that house. It’s okay, I tell them, they have the right to choose where they feel comfortable to be. I go with the aunt and the cow and I sit in a dimly lit room with their entire family. I sit with a lot of secrets too. I know what their father has done and their uncle (Yazina’s father), well, I know what he’s done too, but that’s another story. He leads the prayer and I want to vomit.

We drink fanta. Eat food. And that’s really as far as I get. By 6:30 it’s dark and I want to go. The girls arrive and when they do, their father calls them to come. They refuse. For me, I say my goodbyes and say I need to get home to plan for teaching the following day. I make a quick exit but not before Maisara and Zahara’s mother follows me outside, grabs me, and starts complaining about why her girls won’t be a part of the gathering. She’s embarassed, and I can sense that, but I’m quick to defend the girls. I know I should have stayed neutral but the whole things seemed ridiculous. Quite literally, I was being pulled into two directions – the girls insisted we leave and the mother wanted to continue to explain her side of the story. I was standing between Maisara and her mother with my hands pushing both back, trying to keep the peace. Again, I wanted to vomit.

The girls walked me all the way home. 45 entire minutes, one way. We held hands the whole way and I hugged Zahara when she cried. Their family is separating again, and her pain is raw. I am heartbroken for them. My family split under different circumstances, but somehow I could sense a small piece of what the heart feels like when that happens. Right now, they are living away from their mother, left to cook and support themselves after studying and playing football each day. They just tell me how they can’t stop studying. They tell me they can’t give up on their future and that their father threatens that. I’m speechless and can only muster to say I love you. I commend them for the decision they have had to make. I don’t support or encourage family disagreements but how can I not support their courage to fight for what they believe in? These are the kind of girls that score goals, ace exams, help others, and live life well. They excel in GLOW because they believe in what they can do. But what happens when the “support system” around them doesn’t?
*
This was my weekend.
As usual, there are no words to describe the completely beautiful moments or find the easy answers (or answers AT ALL) to the complicated tangled web of problems here. I’m not discouraged, though.

Divine regularly lectures me (among other things) on the importance of kwihangane and kwitonda, that is, essentially being patient and not freaking out about something. She says that to succeed in Rwanda you have to have these two things. True. But what’s awesome, is that in return, I lecture her on the importance of being honest, of speaking truth, and not being afraid to express what is in your mind. She integrates these two cultural values – much like the rest of my girls – and creates a mixture that is uniquely them. And so, while I do worry, fret, and feel very real heartache when the girls are going through problems, I know they are as equipped as anybody to handle them. Not because of me, but because of them. They’ve had the skills all along. And so, it’s just a matter of hoping that they use them when the time calls for it.

If nothing else, I find myself inspired this Tuesday morning, really just wishing that the people I love the most back home could know these girls like I do. They change lives and they are changing mine.