Tag Archives: memories

little wonders

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our lives are made in these small hours
these little wonders
these twists and turns of fate
time falls away
but these small hours
still remain.
– “little wonders” by rob thomas

*

The boys run, skip, and jump as they exit the holey, grassy, and worn field. Many are holding hands and many are fist bumping anything that moves. They’ve just defeated an “Academy team” – a premier regional team that draws from richer, private secondary schools to create an all-star esque sort of combination. Our team – Ruramira Secondary School – beat them 3-2 on a Saturday afternoon of football. Our team. You know, the boys who come from the village. The boys who help their families and cultivate on the weekends. My boys, many who cannot afford the 8 dollar fee for school each term. We won. I’ve always loved a good underdog story. You can imagine the mountains of food they created when we followed the match with a team dinner courtesy of the remaining funds from the sports grant I received earlier this year. It was buffet style, and my, how those boys (and girls) can eat!

victory is sweet.

victory is sweet.

*

My girls are singing as we turn on the right-hand side of the black pavement to enter the dirt road that will take us home. We are 18 strong in a cramped blue bus and they are clapping their hands, slapping the side of the bus like a drum, and singing beautiful Kinyarwanda. Usually they sing all the GLOW songs I have brainwashed them with, but in this moment, it’s all them. It’s all their culture and it’s becoming one of my favorite moments in my 2 year service as the bus jangles further down the road. Divine is leading them in old school Rwandan rhythms which is perfect considering her role in our club. She’s “Mama GLOW” and so I found it fitting that she would be the one singing the more traditional songs, especially with her Catholic-style influence. She sings a verse and the girls repeat, and it changes each time. I try to catch the words, and I understand that she is singing about the good ideas the girls have and the journey we have traveled and that all thanks goes to God. As this is happening, Zahara looks at me wide-eyed and grinning, “Teacher! Look! The girls are so so very happy very high!” I do as told, and I see what she sees. Genuine happiness.

bus time songs.

bus time songs.

We are coming home from a GLOW field trip to visit another club, about an hour and a half away. We met the other club led by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer to “build friendships and share ideas.” Two members from each club (Divine and Yazina were our representatives) taught lessons and we also played games, made jewelry, and even blew bubbles. I watched as my girls interacted in their perfectly pressed uniforms, as they enthusiastically raised their hands to participate in all of the activities, and how they repeated our school name over and over again in their songs. It was pride, y’all, and how often have these girls been able to truly celebrate where they come from? We were at a much nicer school – a far cry from our crumbling classrooms and neglected toilets. And yet, time and time again, they prove it’s not those things that determine WHO WE ARE. They are just some of the best girls I know.

ruramira girls teaching during our GLOW day with another club.

ruramira girls teaching during our GLOW day with another club.

*

I’m sitting with Eugenie in her small room in her seemingly smaller village called Buhoro, which translates as ‘slowly’. A fitting name for your typical Rwandan village, because that really is the way things work. I’ve come for a visit after praying together for 4 hours at her Pentecost church, about an hours’ walk from where I live. We’ve been revising Geography and she comments on how the big national exam that all Senior 3 students in Rwanda will take is quickly approaching. She sucks in air quickly and gasps just a bit. Yeah girl, time is crazy, I tell her. She looks away for a moment and after a quiet pause she starts tenderly crying, with each tear waiting for the other to finish it’s journey down her petite face. I don’t even have to wait to hear why:

“As you know, my mother has birthed four girls. No boys. My father, he always asks my mother WHY? He thinks having girls is useless. He isn’t happy that my mother didn’t give him a boy. My mother just tells him about the sperm and that it is two people who make that baby, not just my mother. And she does not choose which sex she makes the baby.
I want to succeed in exam.
If I succeed maybe he can see that I have value.”

I rub her upper back and don’t know what to say. Sometimes knowing how to mentor my girls is easy and sometimes it is not. I’ve also become increasingly aware that often less is more. And so, I remind her that so many people believe in her – especially God – and I just sit with her as she finishes her tears. I tell her she is special. I tell her she is different from a lot of students – and this is all true. Eugenie is perfectly quaint, kind, and chirpy. If you need a friend, you will have one in Eugenie. Soon after my well-intentioned encouragement, she’s studying with even more intensity. Eugenie is a classic gentle soul, but she’s also quite determined. She is humbly aware of her intelligence and wants to “make it.” Desperately, I want the same thing too.

So the revision continues.
We are studying the methods of fish preservation.
Obviously, an area of expertise for me.
Not really, but I try to help in whatever way I can.

my sweet Eugenie.

my sweet Eugenie.

*

I had a two hour lesson block with one of my classes today, Senior 1A. It is currently the last week of lessons as quizzes start next week and so I wanted to do something fun, enjoyable, and relaxing for all of us. Enter Center Stage.

In the first hour, I relished in their expressions as they glimpsed at flashing images of frolicking ballerinas, a couple kissing and making out publicly, and images of New York City. When the first hour came to a close, it was time for the daily 10 minute break in which all of the students in the school either lie in the grass, walk around idly, or play football with a ball made from plastic bags. I usually take this opportunity to visit the girls’ toilet area as this is the prime place for socialization during school hours. Catching up and greeting some of the girls, I lose track of time and was late back to class. I’m clearly such a good role model.

When I entered, ALL of the students were sitting quietly and waiting to watch the film. They spit my usual (and I will openly admit, annoying) “time is time” mantra back in my face and I did the punishment I usually divy out to them: jumping jacks. This seemed all the more ironic considering last week I got really upset with them for being late and not taking my lesson seriously. Oops? We laughed and turned the movie back on. They huddled around as a group (same sex PDA is perfectly acceptable and encouraged in Rwanda; I actually love this because friends can very openly show their appreciation for each other) and gazed up at the small screen that I had set up by stacking a chair on two combined desks. For a short while we could journey elsewhere and it was a joy to watch them.

my dear students of senior 1 in their classroom.

my dear students of senior 1 in their classroom.

*

It’s these smaller day-to-day things that I will miss the most.
It’s these micro examples of my life here that ultimately, make it what it is.

Days and weeks pass and sure, I’m teaching, or working with the girls in GLOW, or running, or cooking my latest food preference, but what is my life actually full of? What and where is the substance?

These are the things I have been thinking about lately. Because I know when it’s time to pack up and come home, I will somehow have to explain 2 years of my life in a few sentences. The crux and core of my experience is the little wonders as Rob Thomas sings about; it’s the little things. Sometimes…actually, often, they come and go extraordinarily quickly. Perhaps you don’t know you are even having a “special moment” until you get home that night, put some tea on the kettle, and reflect on what has transpired.

I don’t know how to hold on to all of this.

I finally am admitting this to myself; quite frankly, I have to. Remembering and moving forward beyond my Peace Corps life is a lot more than fitting it in a perfect little box and expecting it will unfold naturally. There has been so much good, weird, bad, horrible, ridiculous, unbelievable, insane, extraordinary, inspiring, awful, amazing, disgusting, and normal things that have happened in the past two years that a wonderfully contained story doesn’t really exist. So, I’ve tried to take stock of all of the little things (yes, even the negative) and write as much as possible about those events and experiences as they have come.

August became September and now October has arrived and I’m not quite sure what to make of that. I made it my goal to live in the moment! and to enjoy each day as it comes!  or to YOLO: YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE for the last chunk of my service, but what happens when you take a step back and one, two, or three months have passed? Sure, it’s great, but it’s also like, um, excuse me, I’d like to figure out exactly what time is doing here…?

But I’m certain this is not a problem just because I’m in Peace Corps. Or because I’m coming up on a major life transition. Or because I’m also almost officially in my mid-20’s. I think that’s just life. I know full well that life has continued back home and so when I step back on American soil for the first time in a very long time, it won’t be just me that has had to wrestle with what time has brought and taken from us. My parents, my brother, my friends, and family at large all have been through things the past couple of years and my experience abroad can certainly fit into that, but it’s not the whole story.

I’ve mastered appreciating the small moments. I think in Peace Corps, you kind of have to. Because absolutely, some days those are all you have. Did you wash your dishes? Yes! Success! Did you make it to market and successfully find all of the vegetables you were hoping for? Congratulations! Did old mamas greet you enthusiastically and wish you to have a wonderful life forever? Excellent!

But the challenge – the next step – is being okay with what time has waiting for you. Appreciating the small moments isn’t enough; you have to appreciate them because you know they are fleeting. It’s not that they are just essentially great – it’s that you don’t have those people or those feelings or those situations forever. This is a big jump, especially for me. I don’t like letting go and though I thrive in change and adapting, I try picturing a life outside this village and that world seems strange now. I’m a little scared. And I’m majorly blown away of how fast time has passed.

But, fear doesn’t do anything for us. And as I’ve been teaching about fighting fear for the last two years with my GLOW girls, it’s time I take my own advice.

Maybe I can’t hold on to every single thing that has composed the past two years of my life, but I will be walking away with memories, life lessons, and professional experience. I have a lot of photographs. I have 7 volumes of my journals (I’m so serious). I have stories. And I know I’ve changed, mostly for the better. How could I not?

But as always, the best thing I will be walking away with are the friendships I have made. A Peace Corps Volunteer and I were recently discussing about friendships in Rwanda and about how it is impossible to build a true, solid, and trusting relationship in this country. I listened and laughed, but I couldn’t agree. I don’t have many, I’ll give you that, but I do have a lot of caring people that I have met. I have a community full of people who have shown kindness just because that’s what you do. And when it does come to friendships, I will manage to walk away with at least one best friend who has totally revolutionized the way I see the world. In the best way possible.

Phew.

That was a lot of tangents, ideas, and thoughts.

But that’s what has been on my mind and I wanted to share it. Because that’s how we are able to understand ourselves and other people better.

Here’s to sharing life.

2 months to go. I’m ready to enjoy all of the little wonders that I still have waiting for me. Time is on my side.

coach heather.

coach heather.

welcome home.

welcome home.

 

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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

6 word memoirs

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Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a short story in only 6 words.

His story read,

For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

At our Close of Service Conference last week, members of my Peace Corps group (called Ed 3 – we are the third education group with Peace Corps to work in Rwanda) were challenged to do the same. Write your story, they told us, in 6 words.

The compilation of stories was sent out this morning and I wanted to share what the rest of my group wrote. I think they tell a larger story, a small glimpse into our lives. As Peace Corps Volunteers we had the same job on paper, but experienced and did it in so many different ways. That’s the nature of the human experience, I suppose. We all do it a bit differently. That’s actually what makes it beautiful.

Ate some intestines, became a vegetarian.

You want me to do what? 

I is somehow good English Teacher. 

A heart forever in the hills. 

Screw you guys, I’m going home. 

Appreciate a hill’s inclines and declines.

Home in the heart of Africa.

Love and loneliness, hand in hand.

Learn. Listen. Feel. Follow calling’s way. 

Hidden in banana trees, beautiful lives.

Love with urgency, not with haste.

Held many babies, taught some English. 

As for me, mine read like this,

Leading girls who now lead me!

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I knew I hit the mommy jackpot when once, I had my teeth pulled out (those darn molars) and my mom dealt with me, her vicodin-induced daughter, gabbing and singing our entire trip back home to Aurora from the dentist’s office in Denver. She helped me through our door, tucked me in on the couch with a down comforter, brought me both rasberry and pineapple sherbet (the angel that she is), and as she readjusted the ice pack on my face, snuggled me in with my beloved stuffed elephant, Boo Boo.

(I was at least 16 or 17 years old, mind you.)

A mother’s love, I think is a special brand. She told me this before, too.

“You’ll understand when you have children someday.”

And I’ve witnessed–not just experienced–it as well. With my mother and also with my grandmothers and aunts who would do anything for their kids. Grandma Jenny would often drive Lance and I by my dad’s childhood home and she wistfully show us where he played on the playground and the crazy things he did with my two uncles. She would talk about how crazy her boys were, but she would also be sure to always say how much she loved them. And always, without fail, she would say that my dad and mom felt the same things about Lance and I and so that we should always appreciate our parents and what they do for us.

No, I haven’t birthed a child yet but perhaps at the ripe age of 24 (um. am I really in my mid-20’s?!?) I’m on the cusp of having a good chunk of hindsight and a fair amount of perspective. The teen years are over, that’s for sure. I can see my parents as people (yes, they actually went through most, if not all, of the stuff we go through) and yes, the game or movie nights, the occasional grounding, the checking in on homework completion, the time outs, and the family dinners actually did have a lot of purpose. I am finally able to see my parents, Michelle Cupps and Ted Newell, not only as ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ but as friends, spouses, community members, and people. They’ll always be just mom and dad, but I recognize much more fully everything that is a part of them. And maybe I’m starting to also better understand everything they did for me, and also why they did (and do) all these things for me.

I REPEAT: I am not a mother. I have no children or plans for children on the horizon.

However, in the last few weeks my role as a motherly figure within my job here has felt more pronounced and called upon.

Let me explain.

Last weekend, I brought four of my students to Kigali to meet with other volunteers and students who would run at the National Stadium (Amahoro ‘Peace’ Stadium) for the Kigali Marathon (they would be running in the 5K run, however). It was so fun!

I took my kiddos for ice cream within 20 minutes of reaching the city and though they were skeptical, scared even, at first, they loved it. They are still talking about it, y’all. Teacher, remember how cold the ice cream was!

And hello, what a chance for them! To see the big city (for my kids it was their first time to Kigali. Ever.), to meet other students, and to stay at a church compound with only two people per room. For them, this was pure luxury.

Yes, it was indeed great fun. But logistically, I felt like a mom in JCPenny’s when her rambunctious child decides to play a fun “game” and hide under the women’s clothing racks, waiting for their mother to find them (based on a real story). I had to constantly check and make sure we were together, make sure I had enough travel money for each of us, and keep them hydrated. It was exhausting.

But worth every minute. Because wow, the feeling and emotion I felt when I saw Maisara finish the race (the first girl in all of the 5K race to do so) was really strong. I got a little teary-eyed. So, maybe this is what mom felt like at all of those field hockey matches? At those soccer games? At the summer softball tournaments? At my short-lived attempt at gymnastics when I was 6?

Don’t even get me started on how I’ve evolved from the girls’ football coach into the official team mom. I would put crazy American team moms to shame.

I facilitate shoe check-out at every practice (oh yeah, we have a FULL set of CLEATS these days), provide filtered water post-practice, ocassionally provide crackers from a nearby boutique if I have the funds, lead stretching and conditioning exercises, check practice wounds, store the girls’ sports clothes in my house, give access to my lotion (Rwandan girls are obsessed with moisturizing), host team meetings, and also scrimmage with them and attempting to not get my butt kicked.

It’s not that I’m a god-send to these girls–it’s just doing all of these things makes me happy. It’s completely one of the best parts of my week. It also solidifies all of the work and time that the grant has required of me; this is exactly how we envisioned this. We’re finally a serious team.

And maybe all of this mother tender-heartedness feelings feel more on the table because of my GLOW girls and the kinds of conversations we are having this term. In the club sessions, we have been discussing healthy and unhealthy relationships and women’s health which are driving me to ‘google’ things like,

“how to talk to your child about puberty”
or
“how to help your child understand menstruation.”

Yes, I’m roaming self-help sites for mothers.

The girls ask general questions like what to do when a boy says ‘I love you’ and how to say ‘no’ when a boy ‘wants to kiss’. They’re opening up and so I feel 100% obliged to at least try and respond.

To take it one step further, some of my GLOW girls–my friends–and I discuss more intense life experiences one on one. One girl was recently approached and pressured to have sex. A couple of them frequently ask about changing bodies, emotions, irregularities in their health, what’s appropriate when it comes to physical affection, and who the best person to go to for advice is. It’s all over the place. But, it’s been great both ways, because I’m able to answer from personal experience and so I can open up as well.

I would never EVER fill the place of the girls’ mothers. Nor would I want to.

But, the nurturing, motherly side of me is coming out more these days. Maybe it’s because I know a lot of these girls so well at this point or maybe it’s just the nature of my personality and of theirs. I don’t really know, y’all.

But, it’s got me thinking and more than anything, thanking the good Lord for my lucky stars. The women I grew up around made me feel comfortable and supported. I just hope maybe that is what is happening here in Rwanda. They do call me ‘Grandmother GLOW’, after all.

It was Mother’s Day recently and I told Divine about how this holiday is celebrated in America (Rwanda doesn’t have this day in their calendar). She said she wished Rwanda had this kind of celebration because “mothers are the ones who make their babies strong.” And she wasn’t just talking about breast milk, believe me. I laughed and then spent a large portion of that Sunday remembering and cherishing what my own mom brings to my life.

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She is the kind of mom that organized my bagillion member family to bring signs and decorations to my last high school field hockey game. There’s a photo of them in the stands and it’s one of my favorite photos – ever.

She lets me go on (and on) one of my tangents during car rides to lunch on her days off from work in the summer.

She says “I love you” every day and also, I might add, completely supported me in my beanie baby craze when I was growing up in the 90’s. I had the Princess Diana bear with a tag protector IN a case. That’s legit.

She took me on special trips just because and even toted the best dog ever, Buddy, along with her to a trip to Arkansas to see me at Hendrix one time.

Every week that I have been in Rwanda, she has called me. She’s listened as I’ve gushed over my friends and families here, as I’ve dealt with loneliness, as I’ve had boy problems, and cheered me on in each and every situation. She has never made me feel bad for making the choice to live in Rwanda for two years; in fact, she’s encouraged me, which has pushed me to really put all of myself into living here. Other volunteers have not had this kind of support and I really do think it makes all the difference in the world.

And maybe what I love most is that not only is she the greatest mom around, but like I said, I can see her strengths as a wife, friend, sister, daughter, and woman of God.

And in turn, as I get older, she’s my determined and passionate mother but also a best friend for me. I get it because in some way, it’s how I feel for my girls–Divine, Maisara, Yazina, and Zahara–I’m a teacher for them first, but also a mentor, and a friend. Relationships actually can have overlapping roles and the rewards are beyond amazing despite the difficulties.

If I’m doing a good job with my girls it’s because of my mom. She taught me what it looks like to do anything for the people you love, especially as a mother. That’s the greatest gift I have. I hold it, cherish it, and do my best to use it. I’m far from perfect, as is mom, but when it comes to deeply loving someone, doing whatever you can for them is the root of a strong, abiding love.

Thanks mom, for showing me that.

It’s been nearly 630 days since I last hugged you at the airport, and in 2 short months, I’m finally going to be able to see you again, hug you, laugh with you, and show you a really neat place in the world. You’re going to meet some really special people and I just can’t wait for you and Randy to get here.

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gmas

 

 

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ten words

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This one time at college (how many stories start that way? Oh so many…) my friends and I were sitting around, chatting, laughing, hanging out likely until the wee hours of the morning. I think a lot of college stories start this way. Well, at least with my friends and I. We’re talkers. And thinkers.

In fact, one of our great thinkers, Michelle, once posed the ever-present question in one of those long-winded dialogues that I really never wanted to end. You see, talking with friends about anything and everything is, I think, one of the best things that friendship brings us. Often and ideally, friendship gives you the freedom and space to talk about whatever is on your heart, on your mind, or frankly, what’s in your belly (who doesn’t love talking about the intricacies of food?). Michelle was my very first friend at college (and has remained like a sister since). Not counting my roommate, anyway. And let me tell you, the “friendship” I had with my first roommate was essentially non-existent. Awkward, if you will. Actually, it was my roomate’s ex-best friend that would eventually become one of my very best friends. Are you lost yet?  That’s another story entirely.

Like I was saying. It was Michelle—the Texas born, cowboy boot wearin’ woman—that said something in one of our long discussions that has stuck with us ever since. We were probably laughing or something (laughing was of the upmost importance in our friendship; the first time Michelle and I hung out on our freshman orientation trip we laughed. The entire time. I was laughing at her laugh…and she just laughed…and so the cycle continued. People thought we were legitimately crazy. They were right.) when we were perusing Michelle’s writing in one of her many classy journals. As she flipped through the pages, she read aloud one of her entries that asked, “what is time?” I can’t remember exactly, but I am certain we laughed for a very long time. After all, this particular entry was of the existential sort, exploring the conundrum of how time passes so quickly. In fact, I think she even asked something along the lines of whether or not we move through time or whether time moves through us. Like I told y’all, Michelle’s a thinker.

The what is time joke-catchphrase-thing is something we continue to say, even today, though I’m finding these days, we’re taking Michelle’s words a lot more seriously. The thing is, Michelle was right.

Because somehow, it’s 2013, I’m 24, and I’ve lived in Rwanda for 16 months.

Somehow, in 365 days, I’ve become a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a community member, a traveler, a bi-lingual woman, and a volunteer.

But, where exactly, did the time go? Like we always say, what is time?

A friend of mine told me that a fun little exercise to remember the year can be done when you try to summarize your year in 10 words. I probably took him too seriously (because I love these sorts of things) and so I thought about this exercise for hours. What exactly could I say about this year?

This year, in 2012, I started teaching secondary students in Rwanda. Some days, I earnestly tried to teach grammar. But often, we did things like sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, or went outside to observe nature, practiced dialogues, and looked at photos from my life. Some days, I think I might have had a break though. For example, before last term, I decided I was sick and tired of having the following conversation:

Me: “Hello students!”

Students: “Hello teacher!”

Me: “How are you?”

Students: “We are fine!”

You may look at this and think, well, what’s the problem? Let me explain. Every single student says the same thing. I am fine, they say. I am fine. I am fine. I am fine. It could drive one crazy. And it did. I decided enough was enough. These kiddos were going to learn different things to say upon being greeted in English. And so the I am fine days became the days of I am fantastic! I am wonderful! I am SUPERRRR!! (they love that last one). I taught them negative ones too, and I just MELT when a student tells me they are grumpy. Mostly because they say it like, “gra-mp-ie”. It’s too cute.

And so, I tried teaching. I don’t really know what they learned. Who knows. But for the most part, I showed up, and so did they, and we tried to speak English in the best way we could. I shared my phone number (not necessarily kosher in America, but let me just emphasize that Rwanda is quite different and I have been very open in my own personal boundaries here) and so every day I get anywhere from 3-12 calls from students wanting to greet me. And most of the time, they do this in English, and so in some small way, I find this to be a success.

We had three terms this year, and I finished all three. Phew. Teaching is hard work.

But I was much more than a teacher this year. I also ma friends—both in and outside of Peace Corps. To have a friend in Peace Corps is of the upmost importance; they, more than anyone, understand this experience, and so they offer an invaluable amount of support. My friend Suzi and I talked nearly every day. Maybe it was for a quick 1 minute funny story of our awkward lives, but more often, it was 10 or 20 minute conversation sharing our struggles and victories, supporting each other, and to be honest, ensuring that each of us could continue to stay here. Suzi and I have an uncanny amount of similarities. We’re different though, and so it works. It’s a blossoming friendship and without her and my other Peace Corps friends, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be here.

My friends in my village are a special brand. For one, most are my students. I know, I know, I know. Super un-traditional. But the best part is, I don’t really feel a need to defend it. The truth is, I connect with them in a very special way (mind you, I’m not talking about ALL my students here, how could I have that strong of a connection with over 350 students?). I’ve blogged, journaled, and talked about it and still I can’t capture what it feels like to be a role model, a friend, and an admirer all at once. What I mean is that while the students have been very clear that they see me as someone to look up to, I feel the very same way about them, and so this beautiful ebb-and-flow friendship has been created. I am in awe when I see what they give and do for their families; they ask question after question about my culture and why I believe what I do.

And then there is my friends and family back home.  In 2012, I had friends start the path of finding their vocations, I had friends graduate college, I had friends continue to study, and I had friends have babies. I had family members decide to have weddings. I had a cousin get engaged. I missed out on the small, daily things with my mom and dad, which could be even harder to be away from (it’s often the small things that I miss the most). Two of my best friends from high school both got married, and it was heartbreaking to be absent. Being absent and distant was a common theme for my year because, well, hello, I live in the middle of a small, rural African village. But distance doesn’t always disconnect. In fact, it can bring you closer. While I’ve been absent for a lot of important things in my friends and family’s lives, I’ve put as much energy and love as I can, even so far away. I talk to both of my parents weekly. I email most of my friends, creating these wonderfully Oprah-esque (continuing our love for “life” conversations) chains of emails. I’ve managed a few amazing skype dates. I’ve developed an even stronger love for snail mail (as always, the packages have been unbelievably wonderful). None of these things make up for being absent. But you really can’t have it all at once. And eventually, you make peace with this, and just do the best you can. I hope all who are reading this know how much I do love you. And while I am doing this for me, I’m doing this whole entire thing because I believe in it too. If I didn’t, I would have left a long time ago. I want you to know that while I maybe did choose Africa and Rwanda for a time, this is also a season of life, and who knows where life goes next. Time moves just too damn quickly, as I’ve been saying, and so it’s best to just enjoy where you are and believe that things will fall into place as they should be. Being away is the hardest thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer, and to be honest, it’s often the source of a lot of sadness and dark times. But we keep moving, we keep persevering, because let’s be real, it’s the best way to live life. Recognize where you are. Feel what you feel. But take all of this, and go outside, and just work with you got. Because in the days, weeks, and months to come, it will be something different.

In 2012, I saw a lot of beautiful lands. Not only my little corner of Rwanda, I was blessed with an incredible journey of visiting the Northwestern part of the country with dad on his visit. We hiked around a volcano chain, saw gorillas, and spent Christmas lakeside on one of the most beautiful pieces of land I have ever seen. Y’all, I can’t say it enough. If life can bring you to Rwanda, whether now or 20 years down the road, come. It’s a great place, promise. I even went on an epic 32 hour bus ride across Tanzania, en route to Zanzibar. I was in the ocean when one ferry sank, and by the time I reached shore, the Aurora shooting was plaguing news headlines. It was a weird time. But, like Rwanda and yet in a very different way, Tanzania is gorgeous. I ran on those white sandy beaches, amazed that I was here in Africa. Travel is great that way; you can never really wrap your mind around just how big this world is.

And so as the year has closed and a new one has begun and I have now turned 24, I can’t help but do a bit of self-reflection (if you know me, you know I love doing this…I already have THREE FULL JOURNALS from my Peace Corps experience, and so you can just imagine.). Physically, I look a lot different. Blond highlights streak through my hair from the Rwandan sun. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight—last time I checked, I had lost 30 pounds. Though, from dad’s recent visit, I really think I put back on 10, but absolutely no regrets there. I ate like an American for two weeks and THAT was amazing. The physical changes are obvious, aren’t they? It’s easy to look at your reflection and find what’s different. But what about the other stuff?

Am I a better person? Am I kinder? Am I closer with God? Am I more mature?

I don’t know if I know the answer to those questions. I think about them, but it’s often hard to say. Because even those questions, they take time to understand. They take time to see. And really, I don’t think I’ll know what Rwanda has done to my heart and soul and mind until it’s all over later this year.

But I do know this. I am unequivocally grateful. I thank God every day for this—yes, even when I’m crying, upset, and unsure that I can go on. I thank God because between the people that I have met and the stories that I have heard, I know that in 2012, I have been bettered by the people I know. I know people who are so different from me. And yet, they have value. More value than the world would ever say, but they are some of the best people I know. My dad will tell you, the people he met, and the hospitality he experienced; it will literally change your heart. It will make you reconsider how you can treat people with more kindness and consideration in the world—not because you have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s life transforming, y’all.

And so I’ll put those questions of how I have changed on hold for a while. But I will say, that my capacity for love has grown, not because of me, but because of them. Just when you think you’ve given all you’ve got, God shows you that you have so much more. And He shows you through the people he brings in your life, short term or long term.

I thought about all of this as I tried to summarize my year in 10 words.

It took time, even a fitful night’s of sleep (once I get thinking, it’s hard to stop). Here’s what I came up with:

2012

Just when you think you can’t, you can.

For every time that I wanted to fly on a plane and get back to the people I love, God’s always shown me a reason to stay. Whether it was for Divine, for the girls’ football team, for my opportunity to grow, for a capacity to help, or for the undeniably delicious Coke, I stayed. And, honestly, I’m so glad I have.

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you will always get back home

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One Year in Rwanda

MILES RAN (APPROXIMATE): 426

PACKAGES RECEIVED: 32

PHOTOS TAKEN: 1346

MICE KILLED: 8

BLOGS POSTED: 43

DAYS I HADA KITTEN: 3

BOOKS READ: 43

STUDENTS VISITED: 42

UMUGANDAS (COMMUNITY SERVICE DAYS): 4

STUDENTS TAUGHT: 346

HOST FAMILY VISITS: 2

SEASONS OF FRIENDS WATCHED: 10

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

HOURS TALKED ON PHONE: 54

PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS VISITED: 5

PEACE CORPS VISITORS AT MY HOME: 4

HOURS TAUGHT IN CLASS: 399

MATCHES COACHED: 4

DAYS WITH ELECTRICITY ACCESS: 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOP 10 HIGHLIGHTS

Peace Corps: Year One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 1 year down. 14 months to go.

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

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

Let’s do this.

 

 

girl, grow up

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I was 16. It was 2005.

I was in my sophomore year of high school. With a license to drive I was toting around my grandma’s old car: a ’97 Chevrolet Lumina. It was maroon-a decent color for a car-but that’s where the perks end. That car caused me hell, breaking down at the most inconvenient times, often when I was running late to my first period Spanish class, or following a yearbook meeting after school. But I remember thinking that it didn’t matter: I had a car, I had the keys, and I had freedom. It was my first year on the Varsity field hockey team and I’ll never forget the letter that each player received after tryouts, forecasting your fate on the high school team–be it JV or Varsity. That year, the letter said something like, Congratulations! You have been selected to join the Grandview High School Varsity Field Hockey Team. Meet for bowling tonight and get ready for a great season. I was humbled by the very talented group of seniors (the first group of girls to play hockey at my suburban Colorado school) and so I think it was that year that I really learnt how to play hockey, how to love it, and what it felt like to be a young, new player on a stacked team of experienced girls. At this point, my parents had divorced and remarried and so both sides of my family grew: new step-parents (Randy, my step-dad, met mom at Divorce Recovery class at church; Gretchen, my step-mom, met dad through her mom, who happened to be my Grandma’s best friend) as well as a new step-brother and step-sister. I was all settled living in Aurora, roaming the perfectly trimmed sidewalks on Friday nights with my friends, working at Dairy Queen (I still know how many scoops it takes to make a large Oreo blizzard thankyouverymuch), and attending Fellowship Community Church on a regular basis. 

That was seven years ago and a lot has happened with time. However, I find myself drifting back to those years, and the years since then, as I compare my teenage years to what my very own students are going through themselves.

Yvonne, one of my favorite students, with a sweet sweet smile, a curiosity for knowledge in any form, and a girl with profound swagger on the football field, told me she was 16 as we looked through her small and treasured photo album. 16. 16. She seems so young and mature at the same time. Being 16 is being 16 anywhere, but it’s a lot different than what it looked like for me. Yvonne, a senior 3 student, lives with her mother, Solange, and her younger twin brother and sister. She told me her father died in the Genocide, which despite Yvonne being born in 1996, is possible and probable, because even though the Genocide officially ended in 1994, violence continued for years after. She loves music, clothes, and henna (what Rwandans use as nailpolish) and I’m pretty sure she has several boys chasing her–she’s quite the catch. She loves her girlfriends and visits them on the weekends. She also has a heavy load of responsibility at home; she helps her mother to cook, to fetch water, and to take care of their black pig out back. Yvonne–or Ingaby as I call her, from her family name, Ingabire–carries a larger weight for her family, and those communal needs often come first. We–myself included–like to think that we put our family first in all things. Many times, we do. But, this is a whole different level entirely. She, like many of my students, study at home only if she has the time and can do leisure activities only if her commitments at home are fulfilled. Even at 16, her womanhood is coming fast, and I would even suggest that children grow up faster here: they have to. 

I thought about all of this as I was getting ready this morning. 

Peace Corps, by nature, gives you a lot of time to think. That’s the definite upside of having a lot of alone time–you can let your thoughts wonder like a calm breeze moving through the trees. Even as extroverted as I am, drawing a great deal of energy from other people, I yearn for when I can think on my own and without interruption. Living alone in the dark nights of Africa can do that to you. 

Like I said, I was getting ready this morning, slipping on my white keds, humming terribly to a Billie Holiday tune that I had listened to on my small netbook the night before. I packed my green and red fake Ray Bans in my African fabric themed bag as I made sure that I had all of my school documents in place. I stopped for less than a moment and realized that I, in this season of my life now, am a wonderfully awkward hodgepodge of youth and maturity. 

I’m only 23. I realize, fully, how young I still am, and yet, as I develop strong relationships with my students, who are often around the mere age of 16, it’s so clear what I am not. In the same way, my best friend in the village, Jackie, is in her mid-30’s, the mother of one of my students, and a level-headed woman running an entire household on her own. Obviously, I’m not there either. So, I wonder, when do I stop being a girl and take on all that is woman-hood (whatever, that is)? 

I’m afraid this is approaching too closely an old classic Britney Spears coming-of-age hit (I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman–I remember reflecting on this song for an assignment in 7th grade. That seems silly now, doesn’t it?) and so I’ll try and keep the self-identity crisis to a minimum. 

What I’m getting at, I think, is that as much as this entire experience is not about me–it’s about my community, my students, my school, the process of integration and teaching, embracing a new culture–you get the idea–I happen to be doing the whole Peace Corps thing as I am “growing up”. 

It’s a new kind of growing up though: it’s more than the dethroning of teenage angst when you realize the world is not all about you, and it’s less subtle, I think than the maturity you find and pursue freely amidst a college campus. There you may change political parties, discover a new way of seeing God, and redirect where you see yourself going in life down the road (all of this, of course, in between studying, nights out and girl talk). Yet, here I am, a teacher in East Africa, a post-grad, and a 23-year old woman. Combine these things together and this kind of growing up–specifically, becoming a woman, I might add–is all about flexibility and balance. 

I have a good idea of who I am, what I believe in, and what I desire in life. Still, I think I owe it to this experience to be flexible and open to discoveries about the world and even myself, because it’s happened to me before: Africa changes people. And this time, I’m entrenched in the culture as much as I feasibly could be and really, I have a life here. Two years of this growing up business here–who knows what that will look like?

So far, I’m learning that I take a lot of pride in being a woman, and that maturity has nothing to do with being a dork: they are mutually inclusive. I blaringly see my limitations. I have seen that I do have a breaking point–everyone does. I understand happiness is often relative, and actually, not necessarily what we should be after. Contentment and gratitude–that’s the real good and real sustainable stuff. I welcome my coffee addiction, my new appreciation for chocolate, and that life’s far too short not to express how you are feeling. I know who my friends are, can’t express how grateful I am for my family, and that we all have the capacity to change the world no matter where we are, what we do, or what we believe. In fact, upon reflection, most of what my parents told me growing up in my teen years–around the ripe age of 16 in fact–is of course, true. Parents have a way of doing that, I see. They told me I would understand some day:

  • if you can count your best friends on your hand, you are lucky. 
  • success is having options. 
  • the people that love you will love you for YOU, and YOU alone. 
  • time goes fast. you’ll want those real good moments back. 
  • balance is key: especially in what you are eating. 
  • in everything, do the best you can–you’ll live with fewer regrets. 
  • do what you love. 
  • listen to what your parents say: they have lived longer–“I was your age once, I know what I’m talking about.”
So, as I try to navigate everything that living in Rwanda throws my way (and some days, this does feel endless), I also continue to reassess who I am, what I’m doing, and the purpose of my life. I’m of course doing this as I have a context for a completely different teenage experience and trying to understand what it’s like to be a teenager in Rwanda. The game is a bit different, that’s for sure. 
 
My parents gave me some pretty solid-sound advice when I was younger, and now it’s all making a lot more sense. I’m at a critical juncture, and I genuinely think that the entire two years in Peace Corps Rwanda could profoundly shape the path I take years and years beyond my life in a small, wonderfully rural village. I’m growing up. But no reason to fret; I’m still the girl I have always been just with a bit more life insights. Oprah, watch out, lady. 

1 year later

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Isabella and Apolloknee (I am quite sure this is not how you spell her name, but it’s how I see it in my head, like Apollo—the space shuttle, and knee—a body part) arrived at my house earlier this week for dinner. I had just returned back from the boutique to buy a couple of rounds (no, not of beer, no way would I drink out here in the village) of Fanta and had just put the warm food in my heart themed serving set. On the menu were buttered noodles, brown-asian sautéed rice, and boiled vegetables. Nothing particularly special, but tasty enough to satisfy my guests. Both of these women are nurses at the nearby health center (where I’ll soon be teaching English) and to get a taste of their personalities, I can tell you that it was Isabella, when I first visited her home and asked if she had a boyfriend, who told me straight-faced (before laughing loud and unreservedly) that she did. She has three.

While I finished gathering utensils and checking on the boiling water to serve coffee (using my handy-dandy French press!) I threw my rather obnoxiously large red photo album on the table to keep them occupied. In Rwandan culture, photos are gold. You can’t go wrong.

When I came back to my dining room table (which is actually multi-purpose; I also use the dinky, wobbly table as a coffee table, sometimes as a desk, and always as a place to eat—it is in fact my only table and is courtesy of my school) they were gazing at one photo in particular.

I figured it was probably my favorite photograph of Cinderella’s castle at Disney World (I often have to tell people that no, I certainly do not live there) but instead it was a photo from Hendrix—my sophomore year—and it was one from Ali’s birthday. Jane, a former field hockey player, and I were holding Ali—one at each end—bracing to throw her in the fountain as per Hendrix birthday tradition. It’s the perfect picture to capture that Hendrix spirit: we each look perfectly poised to run as soon as we let Ali go (which we did) and Ali is wearing her Yankees navy blue t-shirt (an Ali classic) and even better, is wearing those questionable bright orange mesh hockey shorts that we were given our freshman year, the first year of the program. Everything about this photo screams Hendrix, and as I attempted to explain this college tradition to my friends with Kinyarwanda and dramatic hand gestures (using mostly gestures, I will admit) I nostalgically grasped that it had been just about a year since we graduated. We are now 1 year alumni.

Graduation Day 2011.

I woke up to my phone alarm (not to an annoying song ringtone like ‘Tattoo’ that I was famous for earlier in my college days), surrounded by boxes, clothes, and items strewn across my floor. I played “Wagon Wheel” (a Hendrix fave) as I started to get ready. Four years had come down to this? My eyes were puffy. Silly me, I read a beautiful letter from Jordana as I feel to sleep the night before and it brought me to tears (lots of them). I would like to look back on that day and say that I was feeling utterly invincible and completely, 100% happy—and at times I was—but in the way that it was a liberating and celebratory day with all of my loved ones having traveled from so far, it was also a major marker of the huge fork (as Robert Frost might say) in the road before us. I worked hard to feel the zest and pomp and circumstance. But, it was hard. I kept thinking about the goodbyes—oh! the dreaded goodbyes—and it was difficult to fathom what was happening. The ceremony was a blur, as huge life events can sometimes be, but I remember the cheers of the cafeteria ladies (especially from Ms. Debra. My god, that woman is loud), the contrast of the dimness of the room in Grove Gym and the look of brightness on professors’ faces as we boldly entered into our commencement ceremony, and mostly, I remember how proud I was not just when I stepped on that overbearing stage to accept my diploma, but more so when I looked on and smiled as my dear friends (well, most of them, Lauren is a 2012 graduate) did the same thing. We did it.

On that day some of us knew the directions ahead of us; certainly some more than others. I had a strong feeling that I’d end up here, in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I had also had the fun opportunity to have my life hang in balance as Peace Corps debated (for an entire year) if I was qualified for service. More would come that summer, I would soon discover, as I was finally invited into the Rwandan program mid-July, days after being told that the program I was nominated for had closed and I should expect to not be a volunteer in the near future. I found out just before an incredibly fun and jam-packed vacation to Disney World with Rachel, right before Michelle’s astoundingly beautiful wedding in the great metropolis of Moscow, Tennessee, and also right as I finished these two aforementioned events with one last visit to Hendrix to see Lauren and Ali. It was fitting to spend my last weeks in America with them, and then finally, my supportive and wonderful family. When it was time to go, I made my way through Philly, New York, Brussels, and finally, Kigali, Rwanda. It’s funny. Leaving for this felt surprisingly like it did to leave home for college in the first place, four years prior.

Fall 2007.

The green Subaru moved further and further in the distance, away from the girls’ dorms and away from me! They left me. In Arkansas. What. WHAT. What was I doing? I grudgingly walked (as slow as I could) to the now old cafeteria—the Burrow to be precise—to meet the field hockey girls for the first time. I passed the immensely large trees and trudged my way through the grimy Southern heat (you know, around 108 degrees, no big deal) thinking that mom, Randy, and grandma couldn’t make it that far in one day back to Colorado. Maybe they could come back for me?

This would be the year of a now inexplicable and embarrassing High School Musical obsession, Chick-fil-A every Saturday night for dinner, a winless hockey season, an accident involving gold spray paint and shoes in the Veasey Hall bathtub, a regrettable boy crush, and lots and lots of weight gain courtesy of the ever present cafeteria food (Chicken a-la King, despite what the haters say, still rocks). More than all of this, my friendships began here. Crazy (and weird) do-it-yourself music videos, mission trips, Apples to Apples, “study” sessions, photo shoots (sometimes as late as 3 am?), and explorations onto the social scene (or lack thereof).

I didn’t know all of this, and so I was scared. I was hesitant; would I make any friends? I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. Somehow, everything usually does happen for a reason, we end up places and with people because we need them. I, honest-to-God, believe that.

It’s interesting how with time, you grow not only into yourself, but along with other people if you so let it. After leaving my host family this past December to brave the new life of a volunteer in a rural Rwandan village, I realized that to get through this—better yet, to thrive in this—I needed support. I’ve come to heavily rely on Peace Corps friends. Despite our own situations and site differences, it’s pretty uncanny in that when I’m having a bad day, usually Meredith, Suzi, Alyssa, or Sara are having one too. It’s like we’re on the same wavelength or something. We’re together and it’s comforting to have people who get at least some of this experience; if nothing else, they understand what it feels like to be outside of a culture 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I’m American. I can try to be Rwandan. I can get close. But, I can’t (nor will I) change entirely. I’m learning a lot about who I am—especially in regards to my own limitations—and my friends are doing the same. We’re leading a weird life, we know that, but it’s a meaningful one and so we do the best we can.

August 2010.

It was time to return.

I could not have been happier to cross the Arkansas state line coming through Oklahoma—senior year, baby! I had been in Ghana with Rachel the previous semester and so I hadn’t seen most of my friends in months, far too long at this point in our lives.

By this point, our group, the Hey Girl Hey Girls as some would say, were well established. They were the ones who were there when my heart was breaking hearing about my brothers’ struggles back home, who encouraged me to pursue a lovely liberal arts degree called American Studies, had been closely involved with the field hockey team (getting better each year, by the way), had come each week to our girls’ bible study, had been together as a group when Obama became the first black President, and would engage in deep ‘what is life?’ talks just for the hell of it, even if a huge paper was due the next day (these talks certainly encompass everything from what is time? to things like scouring wedding blogs and discussing the state of our world). Moreover, we had a lot to talk about as we each arrived back on campus that fall. Michelle had been in England; Ali, Jessica, and Lauren at Hendrix; Rachel and I in Ghana; Jordana in Belgium; Paige in Scotland; Angela in Finland; and Alison in Latin America for a full year abroad.

Ghana was a profound life experience in every way it could be. I found a passion to help, a need to see the world, an addiction to Coca-Cola, an exposure to issues in poverty and education on a global level, and the deep friendship I already had with Rachel grew leaps and bounds in those 4ish months abroad. I came back to the US a changed woman that summer after Ghana.

Senior year would be the year of grown up apartment living (kind of ) with Michelle and Ali, thesis writing on the relationship of recreational space and socio-economics in New Orleans (culminating in park research and other fun times in NOLA for Spring Break), our very own March Madness, Michelle’s engagement, live band karaoke with Rachel, singing ‘Super Freak’, major and important field hockey wins for my last season, Harry Potter marathons, snow days, grocery shopping and cooking (usually with me in the kitchen it was enchiladas), and towards the end, lots and lots of Yahtzee.

It was a fantastically fun year, but a hard one—on the brink of change and moving forward. Senior year of college stands as a crossroad for where I am now, because it was at that time where I realized my potential and ability to be here, teaching and integrating on a daily basis. Hendrix, like many other life experiences outside it, helped me grow as a woman and realize—fully realize—who I was and wanted to be. Hendrix helped me question and then recognize that that was entirely okay. It was there where I lost and found God again, where I got a full view of poverty in different places around the world, and understood better that though small, yes, one person can make a difference.

I learnt a lot, all four years, in and out of the classroom (maybe the exception being Robotics—Lauren can sympathize with me here). Looking back, all that I needed was there. Hendrix wasn’t the only thing that pushed me to pursue a life of service (my home and family did a large chunk of that), but it was a big part.

Michelle always has loved benedictions. So, as this reflection of time and seasons and life 1 year after Hendrix ends, I’ll close with what I hope makes her proud:

All of us, we are bits and pieces of what we were before, slowly letting room in for change, ideas, people, and experiences.

We have no choice but to embrace where we go. We long, we miss, we remember. It’s important to do so. But because life is a continuum, nothing really stays the same, does it?

Even as I’m here, writing by candlelight in Rwanda, tomorrow will not be today.

And so, take the past and the future, but live now.

Maybe it’s thousands of miles away like my family, like my friends, like my old college days, but it’s there because as for me, I’ve been changed because of where I’ve been. What matters tends to stick around. Maybe not in the ways we want or think it will, but if nothing else, we have beautifully poignant memories that remind us the power of relationships and people (and places) in our lives. I know, for example, that having all of the people I love in one place is nearly impossible. But, that’s okay too. Because they will come and they will go, but the people you love never really leave entirely.

I’m a year out from graduation, and I remember so many things about those wonderful (and at times, very difficult) four years of my life. More than anything, I am grateful for my friends there because without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am and am becoming. The best part is that I have them for life, and if that’s what you walk away with after the ending of some life experience, well, consider yourself immensely blessed.

I showed a few more photos to Isabella and Apolloknee before we got to the prayer and stuffing our faces part of our meal. They enjoyed my stories and the pictures that went with them. I explained my large family, my dogs, and my high school friends too. And when I say that after dinner, that very evening, I’ll talk to both dad and a friend from back home in America, they seem happy because they can see too, that what God generously provided, still remains.