Tag Archives: peace

some leaving, some coming home

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You should be warned that as I write this, I am LUIDW. That is, Living Under the Influence of the Developed World.

What exactly, you might ask, does this entail?

It means, most importantly, that I can take a hot bath whenever I want. Bubble bath included. 1, 2, 3 times if I so please. Number two, I can drink clean water from the tap. Unlimited clean water, bring it on. LUIDW has also propelled and compelled me to at times whilst in England drink 5 cups of coffee in one day, not because I need it, but because I want it (and I can!). Cappachinos? Lattes? I’m sorry, you can add flavored syrup? Where have you been all of my life? (and by life, I of course mean the past 20 months or so, I haven’t completely forgotten the magical powers of America in my first 23 years.)

LUIDW can provide great joy. Not because of all the STUFF (this tends to actually make decisions difficult and results in a sort of sensory overload) but because you can be easily impressed. The electricity works! The dishwasher is readily available! The tea cooks in 3 minutes! Wow, this internet is fast! Hey girl, look at all of these kinds of apples!

Getting around is a lot smoother too. Cars, trains, whatever, it comes on time. The roads are for the most part quite nice and maintained.

Oh! And the toliets….don’t even get me started.

LUIDW = a very easily entertained, pleased, happy, and grateful Heather.

Certainly, the added benefits of traveling while a Peace Corps Volunteer has reaped me significant reprieve also because I’m NIR.

(Perhaps Peace Corps is rubbing off on me a bit much with all my acronyms here, as they are notorious for all of their own acronyms; for example, PCMO (that mean Peace Corps Medical Officer, our doctor), MSC (Mid-Service Conference, the conference we do at the mid-point in our service), and CD (Country Director, the leader in charge of all operations in a given country that Peace Corps works in). Believe me, that’s just the beginning of a very long list that acts very much so as its own language and lingo.)

But like I was saying, I am NIR and this refers to Not In Rwanda.

This brings about special breaks and pleasures that are unique to the Rwandan Peace Corps experience.

For all the joys in LUIDW, I have also been able to go walking on the street–any street–and move about completely unnoticed. Nobody cares who I am, nobody cares where I am going.

Maybe best of all, nobody screams out the English translation of “White person! White person! White person!” as if I already didn’t know my skin color.

I don’t have to speak Kinyarwanda 24/7 and I don’t hear people whispering (good or bad) about me when I pass by.

I can eat in public, I don’t have to carry everything in a bag upon purchase and I can wear a dress that reaches above my knees and not feel a single twinge of guilt.

If I got asked for spare change it wasn’t just because I’m a white person, people appeared to make few assumptions about me, and moving around in general was significantly much easier.

The state of NIR is both relieving and weird; unfamiliar and welcome; relaxing and strange. I mentioned the positive sides of NIR above, but of course, after 20 months of constantly trying to integrate into Rwandan culture, it struck me as odd that not every single person says hello to each other, that people don’t care where I pray (because the assumption is that all people do), and of course, why people just move so much quicker than I remember! Just because I’m NIR doesn’t mean I don’t love Rwanda, you know.

The developed world isn’t perfect– I’m not that misguided, y’all–but I sure can appreciate the conveniences a lot more, that’s for sure.

But I’m going to be real here.

The hot baths and tap water withstanding, I don’t credit LUIDW or NIR for providing the kind of peace that I’ve found in my 12 days in England. Absolutley, it’s been amazing, and it’s helped, but “recharging your batteries”, so to speak, isn’t enough to mend a frazzled and frayed spirit.

Moreover, all of the things that I did while visiting–a spur of the moment trip to Paris, walking through parks, having tea parties, ending my pub-virginity, hitting the gym, watching Rob Bell speak live, getting a hair-cut, perusing Oxford, and exploring the historic sites of London, to name a few–are now incredible memories that helped me feel alive, light-hearted, and free. They allowed me to feel, I dont know, normal? If there is such a thing. But, these activities alone wouldn’t have been enough either.

More than anything, it was being able to do all of the things that I listed above with one of the most important people in my life, Michelle.

Michelle and I were fast friends at Hendrix and after graduation with her wedding and move to England and my move to Rwanda for the Peace Corps, our lives, quite literally, went in separate directions.

But, the best thing about friendship, I think, is that no matter time or distance, you are always binded together. At least with the really, really good ones.

So, when I saw Michelle (for the first time in a year and a half) at the waiting area at Heathrow after my flight from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (Michelle and I say “Addis A-bo0-boo”; classy, I know), I could have been in any country, state, or county in the world and I would have been happy.

Michelle and Jon, her Manchester City-golf-ice pop-lovin’ husband opened their home to me for nearly two weeks. They gave me free reign to “make myself at home” and I usually have no fear in doing so, and with them, it felt completely natural. I was jogging pretty English roads, trying to learn street names, and always trying to learn new English lingo (“chav” and “cheeky” are my most recent acquisitions). Staying at the home of really great people, and in the home of your best friend is definitely the way to travel.

Last night, as we prepared to watch Julie & Julia, I hunkered down on the uber-comfortable red couch with the comforter from the guest bedroom along with a glass of sparkling water and my PJs.

“This is why you are here,” Michelle said with a contented smile.
“Oh you know girl, whatever I can do to provide entertainment,” I laughed back, thinking she meant I was being a goober having removed the comforter completely from the upstairs bed.
She chuckled for a second and then quickly corrected my misinterpretation,
“Um. No. I mean because you live in Rwanda, Heather!”

Oh. Rightttt. I’m here, to chill out and to enjoy the comforts that come with a cozy home.

Michelle was right, that was one of the reasons why I came.

The best moments weren’t necessarily the big sights and beautiful views; it was driving around with Michelle in her car, seeing her life first-hand. It was reminiscing about the past, explaining our present lives, and contemplating the future. It was going on a “picnic” (it was freezing, y’all), sleeping in, sharing breakfast in the morning, skyping our friends, playing Monopoly, drinking wine, and visiting local coffee shops. It often is the simple things you know, and what usually matters most is who you are with.

So many of our conversations were interlaced with our experiences living in an entirely new culture. There were some similarities, some differences, but we certainly both had stories to share about the cultures we had arrived in.

Both of us found solace in what it’s like living in places heavily rooted in tradition. It’s how we have always done things is something we have both had to face head on as newbies.

In England, at a pub, Michelle tells me it is common for one person to buy a round. Then, another person will pitch in, and this continues through the evening. You should also remain quiet on the train station (if you are loud, you could be a dead give away as a potential American). The English value football, tea, and who doesn’t love the Queen?

I told Michelle about the complexity of Rwandan culture; of how getting to know people is a difficult (but entirely rewardable and beautiful) process. I tried giving examples from the families I have become a part of. I noted what it’s like being a celebrity of sorts in my tiny village. And of course had to highlight the importance of church. Praying, it’s just what you do.

It’s time to go, and of course, I’m sad, but there is so much comfort in having a friend who understands what it’s like to try and fit in such a radically different place. What’s better, is that sometimes in these exchanges of cross-culture, you realize that as crazy different as the world is, we’re all humans, right? And so, we’re different, but we’re linked too.

My favorite example is being at the pub with Michelle and two of her girl friends, Venetia, and Becky, both of who are in a study group with Michelle. Best of all, they are reading through “Bad Girls in the Bible” (what’s not to love about this?) and yet when we all met up, the time was spent discussing practical ways to clean the bathroom, what work has been like, and the latest hubby tales.

I sat there in awe. Because y’all, the women in my village meet up for Women’s Council every Monday afternoon for nearly 3 hours and discuss these very things. Of course, it’s not the same, but in a way, it is. And that’s maybe the most enlightening thing to take away from the way our world works. There’s so much we don’t understand, but when you try, you find micro examples of how God has connected us all.

It’s time to go, but there’s a reason to be brave and the reason is that we’re all held together, by some sort of grace, with God. He loves us and He will see us through everything; whether it’s coming or going, leaving or staying.

 

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red-blooded American

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was just the start of it too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But in comparison, I do.

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

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