Tag Archives: Peace Corps

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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mr. newell’s geography class

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Dear Mr. Newell’s Geography Class,

Hi there! It’s me, Heather.

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

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I actually found a lot of your letters really inspiring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All my love,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

football saturdays

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I just walked in through my back door, put our new football (ahem, I mean soccer ball) in the corner of my room, and collapsed onto the nearest chair.

It’s Saturday which means it’s football day.

Y’all, football day is one of my favorite days of the week. Typically (if there is such a thing in Peace Corps life) on Saturdays I wake up late, sip coffee while reading a magazine, wash my shoes, visit the girls, and go and play. Today it was like this. Except with some special things here and there. Like today, I took a nap mid-day at Maisara and Zahara’s house. I was tired and Maisara was sick and so her mother put a mat out for us, layed a piece of African fabric on top, and closed the door. Light peaked in through small holes, but we were asleep in seconds.

This was of course after we ate rabbit. Yes, rabbit. The girls’ brother, Abbouba, killed one of their white furred, red-eyed rabbits this morning, cooked it for a bit, and by the time I cruised in around noon it was all ready to go. If I’m going to be honest, I definitely prefer cow meat but I’m glad I at least gave it a try.

After eating and taking a light nap, I also looked on as the girls’ grandmother harvested tobacco. She hates the stuff, but she was putting in small little baggies to sell. I even did some of the grinding with a mortar and pestle. We sat on this little bench outside the house, exchanging smiles and glances, and I just was reminded of how awesome grandmothers are. She has these adorable gray curls in her hair, worn eyes, and sun-soaked skin. She’s really beautiful. And, she’s hilarious to boot. She’s a snarky one and I enjoyed being her little girl today (mostly because I could actually catch on to all her little jokes that she mumbles).

It was also a special day because we used a new ball that I just purchased with the sports grant money. A REAL BALL. It made such a difference! The girls were so excited. The community was so excited. People gathered around to watch us play with this beautiful ball and we were just all beaming. When you apply for grants with Peace Corps (and really, all grants in general) you have to provide some evaluations and what-not for Monitoring and Evalution. This helps the program and people know: did your project really work? Did you help people? I smiled to myself when this crossed my mind today because I just thought, how can you ever measure this? How do you evaluate sheer enjoyment? How can you monitor the feeling of being out on the field, letting go of problems, stress, and concerns and just playing? Who knows. But, I could sense a change with just A BALL. Wait till the teams at school get legitimate shoes, uniforms, and socks, to name a few. Good things are a comin’.

I played defense today and man, it was nitty gritty. I fell a few times, earned some nice-lookin’ grass stains, and at one point did manage to score a goal. A rarity for me in Rwanda, believe me.

I also laughed so much as we played today. It was just…so fun. Divine came out and played (usually she doesn’t come because she has chores to do) and she was a riot. That girl. She isn’t the most athletically gifted but she sure will try. She would often kick the ball right into the stomach of another player (usually her own teammate) and then fall on the ground laughing at this mishap. Let’s be real, I would then be rolling on the ground laughing with her and it was just another example of us being the ridiculous and obnoxious ones. Always.

I came home right as the sun was setting and I felt completely, utterly content. It’s weird how this happens.

The lows are so so low. But man, the highs. They are delicate and surprising at times, but when they come, it’s that kind of happiness that when you are feeling it, you can’t help but think wow, that this is what life is really about. Like you are experiencing something real, with all of life’s distractions picked away. You want to hold on to it desperately, because you know it’s fleeting. Happiness in general isn’t fleeting necessarily, but this kind of happiness is. I felt like that today. And perhaps tomorrow I will struggle, question the entire point of this experience, and face mountains that I don’t feel like I can tackle. But today, it was Rwanda at its finest.

I managed to get out of that chair, bathe my sore body, and open the computer to listen to one of my favorite mixes: it’s a mix that the wonderful Jessica Johns (Hardy) sent me last year. I’m still obsessed. I also opened a document in which I copied some news stories and blog entries during my internet time yesterday. This way, when I have internet I can get some content and read it later when I’m back in the village. I read the blog of one of my fellow volunteers, Betsy, who posted a letter that she had found from a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia. I read this letter (addressed to someone considering joining the Peace Corps) and nodded the entire time. This volunteer captures this kind of experience as aptly as you really could. It was a good read, particularly after the last few weeks, where I have gone up and down emotionally, just trying to keep up with everything.

I hope this letter leaves you with a better understanding and a fresh perspective on what it’s like to be in the Peace Corps.

The one thing I know for sure? I couldn’t do this without the PEOPLE in my life. There are people here, and there are people quite far away. I have families all over the place now, you know, and that’s a really beautiful thing–I’m a lucky girl. A special thank you to my dear friends and family that continually support me. With letters, with velveeta cheese, with surprise phone-calls, with hugs, with positivity, it all makes the hard days worth it. And it makes me particularly gushy on really good days, evidently. Just know I love you.

Enjoy.

Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps,

I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.

But should you? Is it right for you?

Honestly, you might not know that until you’ve arrived. You can research by reading books and official publications or by talking with current/returned volunteers, but everything you read and hear will probably tell you the same thing: every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site.

I’d like to think, though, that there are a few things that are universal throughout the Peace Corps world, and those things tend all to revolve around how you yourself will change – for the better and for the worse – because of your time in Peace Corps.

‘Sanitary’ will become an obsolete concept. You will eat on mats that you know are saturated in urine. You will prepare food on counters that also serve as chicken roosts. You will not have consistent/frequent access to soap. You will eat street food that is undoubtedly questionable. You will be dirty, dusty, and sweaty at all times. You will have mind over body battles to force yourself to bucket shower in the winter. Bugs, lizards, chickens, ducks, and mice will crap on everything. These things will be ok. You’ll adjust. The sterile environment of the States will become a distant odd memory or a constant fantasy.

Your body, though, might not adjust as quickly. You will have parasites and infections and illnesses that you had never heard of before training. You will be constantly constipated. Or go the opposite extreme. I hate to say it, but you will probably poop in your pants at least once. You will learn to vomit over a squat toilet and into a plastic bag during a bus ride. You will discuss your bodily functions openly and enthusiastically with other volunteers. No topic will be taboo.

The way you communicate will completely transform. Learning a language from scratch through immersion is a powerful experience. You will learn to have complex communications though expressions, gestures, and basic vocabulary. You will learn to bond with another human being through silence. You will answer the same basic questions over and over and over again. You may never achieve the ability to discuss ideas and concepts. You will develop a new English language which consists of pared down vocabulary and grammatical structures. You will actively think of each word before you speak. Your speech patterns will slow. You will have to define words whose meanings you had always taken for granted. You will learn to listen.

Your concept of money will entirely alter. Paying more than $1 for anything will cause you to pause and question your purchase. You will understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will learn to barter, even on cheaper items. You will consistently feel as though you have been cheated on the price. You will be enraged by all prices upon returning to the States.

You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. No one knows how to budget like a Peace Corps volunteer. And no one can binge like one.

You will be discontented with your work. You will wonder – and scream to the heavens – about the benefit of your presence. You will feel lost in unstructured expectations and crushed by promising ideas fallen to the side. Your expectations will fade into an unexpected reality. You will learn to celebrate small victories. You will look at mountains and see mole hills. You will try to tackle the impossible. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll just pick yourself up and take aim at another impossibility.

You will learn to do all of this through pure self-motivation. You will be the one to drag yourself out of bed and out the door. You won’t have anyone holding your hand or pushing you forward. Just you. You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself.

You will be a celebrity in your community. That status comes with hardships and benefits that will ineradicably change you. You will be the exception to the societal rules. You will be the foreigner, the one set apart. You will receive privileges and have special attention/status because of your nationality. You will always have eyes on you. You will have joined as an agent of culture exchange and understanding, but you will still find yourself falling into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Use it. Consider it. Contemplate the value we place on people because of arbitrary characteristics. You will come away from your experience more attune to your own merits, to those that are deserved and to those that are given.

Your culture of personal space, one that maybe you have always taken for granted, will be challenged. You will wonder why you need an entire room to yourself while no one else even has a bed to himself. You still won’t want to give your room up. Privacy will be a privilege or a rarity, not a right.
You will lose all control of your emotions and be on an unpredictable roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. You will go from happy and confident to sullen and tearful by things as simple as ants in your candy or yet another child saying ‘Hello!’ Your highs will be high, but they will be fragile. Your lows will feel inescapable. Your family and friends in the States probably won’t understand this. Your isolation will force you to become your own support system. You will become aware of yourself in the context of solely being yourself.

Your government-issued friends will be your reprieve. The love and closeness you share with people back in the States won’t change, but it will be your fellow volunteers who understand. They will be friendships forged from necessity, and they will be deep and fervent.

You will witness a whole new way of life, and you will question your notion of necessity. You will consider your personal wealth, and people will constantly remind you of it. You will discover what your ‘needs’ are to live a productive, satisfied life. I hope you will remember that when you return to a culture of plenty.

You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.

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murakoze (thanks).

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A couple of weeks ago, I was at a Rwandan party (typical) that had to do with some pre-wedding celebration (as to be expected) with Divine (we are basically attached at the hip). I get invited to these sorts of gatherings occasionally with an invitation but most often with a short-notice verbal offer. And usually I say yes. Divine had mentioned the party on a Friday—the final day of school where we passed out reports—and the party was the next day, on Saturday. No problem, I said. And so it was.

I arrived to the wide-open arms of old women draped in traditional Rwandan dress, to a bark brown colored cow, and to a slew of old men on benches already sucking the straws of their shared banana and sorghum beer. Why yes, a Rwandan party indeed. After a few minutes of greeting the family (and let’s be real, working the crowd), Divine whisked me away to a small room on an attached part of the house. The room was quite a bit isolated from everything else, and we sat on an old bed frame with a small blanket, adjacent to a small table holding various household items, like a large spoon to serve and a red jacket to keep warm.

Here, we got to take a break from the stuffy room full of family members discussing wedding formalities, and instead relax, hug, and catch up for a few moments. Abruptly Divine left for a few moments and so I was left alone for a bit (quite common when visiting homes in Rwanda) and wondered what exactly that girl was up to. And y’all, that girl came back holding a 1-liter yellow jug full of banana beer. We kind of have this understanding as I had let her in on my little secret: I like beer. Moreover, I like banana beer (oh yeah, totally have been in the village too long). And so, Divine and I shared this smuggled jug of banana beer in a small, cramped, one-window room in our little village. True friendship.

That party framed the end of not only the school term, but the school year. Before I committed to a long list of holiday obligations and commitments, I spent the last week in my village working on my library project, doing some last minute home visits, and taking some time to just relax. I knew I would need it. My holiday schedule is as follows:

-Model School (helping observe Peace Corps trainees as they practice teaching)

-BE (Boys Excelling) Camp

-Visiting Divine in Eastern Rwanda at her mother’s home

-Visiting another student, Joyce, at her home near the Ugandan border

-Attending and celebrating at the swear-in ceremony for the new group of Education volunteers (called ‘Ed-4’ in Peace Corps lingo)

-DAD’S VISIT TO RWANDA (!!!!!!!)

-New Year’s safari with friends in Eastern Rwanda

-Mid-Service Conference (Peace Corps sponsored conference to discuss ideas, issues, and experiences with my group (‘Ed-3’) as we reach the half-way point of our service)

This particular holiday is approximately 2 months and yet almost every week I have various commitments and events to attend. It’s crazy—even living in rural Rwanda keeps me busy.

In other big news, my sports grant was officially approved by Peace Corps Washington! Which means I can start fundraising. To donate money to help our school acquire materials for our sports program you can follow this link and donate online. Super easy. Everything helps and we would appreciate any contribution you can make!

https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=696-021

I went out for pizza last night with 4 other Peace Corps friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. We went around the table, as per tradition, to share what we are thankful for.

Admittedly (and so not surprisingly), I got a bit emotional and teary-eyed as I explained how much I have treasured and valued the support I’ve received the past year.

From my wonderful network of family and friends back home to the new support systems and families that I have found in Rwanda, not a day has passed that I haven’t been encouraged. Packages, letters, phone calls, hugs, smiles, skype dates, conversations, greetings, and the building of relationships are just the beginning of this kind of support. I can’t really explain it, but I suppose when you move a bagillion miles away to a new place you are able to see your life in a new way, with a fresh lens. I’ve reflected on a lot of things and one things for sure: the people in my love are the driving force for all that I do. I can do this because people believe in me. I can do this because it’s beyond worth it—even in the tough days. I do this because I think God brings us to exactly what we need. I can do this because it’s what is meant to be. My life in Rwanda is no longer just about me, and I think that’s important to note. It’s a strange mixture of the past and present, of the people who shaped the woman I have been, and the people that are influencing the woman I am becoming. It’s a blending of giving and receiving, of believing and trusting. It’s an extraordinarily difficult experience sometimes, but that’s why I love Thanksgiving. This day, in particular, reminds you of what you can offer to the world and what the world gives you. It helps you reflect on what God has put in your life and what exactly you can do with it. Thanksgiving makes you believe in your potential and life again. And so even celebrating a couple days late, I’m just bursting at the seams with gratitude, unsure of exactly how ended up here, but just so glad I have.

 Murakoze (thank you).