Tag Archives: questions

streams of mercy

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If one hundred people represented the world’s population, fifty-three of those would live on less than $2 a day. Do you realize that if you make $4000 a month, you automatically make ONE HUNDRED TIMES more than the average person on this planet?

Which is more messed up—that we have so much compared to everyone else, or that we don’t think we’re rich? That on any given day, we might flippantly call ourselves “broke” or “poor.” We are neither of these things.

Crazy Love, by Francis Chan

You know, I’ve learned a lot here. I’ve slowly built an arsenal of useful Kinyarwanda phrases (chore—to express surprise in a negative way; reka—kind of like, “you’ve got to be kidding me” or literally translated, “don’t touch me!”; and Imana yanjye—“oh my God!”), I’ve managed to understand how to put together a cohesive lesson plan, and if you needed a play-by-play of a Rwandan wedding, I’m your girl.

There’s a lot to master—to understand—but with each passing day I’m finding the most complex, disturbing, and heart wrenching question is that related to poverty. I get these beautifully supportive emails, messages, calls, and letters from loved ones that encourage and commend the job I am doing. More than I can say, I appreciate these. But what I don’t often talk about, explain, or try to put into words is the guilt, hypocrisy, and embarrassment I feel by living in a world surrounded by extreme poverty and being the RICH one.

It’s easier to tell funny stories about my students (like when Yazina commented on my blisters from my shoes: “teacher, the shoes for you eat your foot”), to share anecdotes about living in the village, or even what I’m doing on this or that weekend. These things are important but to share this experience fully, it has to be addressed on what it’s like to be a blatantly rich person in a place full of subsistence farmers, one-or-two room houses made from wood and mud, and with children, students, and young adults who are barely able to pay for school. My father saw this all first hand.

I saw the look (and shock) on his face when he saw my house. So. You live HERE. But as we went deeper into my community, into the homes’ of families and friends, he too realized that I live above the rest. I have paint, cement floors, electricity, and multiple rooms for only me. Pictures, knick knacks, and letters line my walls. Clothes are bursting at the seams of my makeshift dresser. I use a mosquito net, and now have two mattresses stacked together to keep me comfortable at night. And when people see all of this, they are only getting a small taste of where I come from.

From the American perspective and life experience that I am coming from, I suspect that many people might think that how I live (and where I live) is a life on the margins. My, what you have given up! And so, I feel like I straddle the line of two extremes.

My past is full of a university education, vacations to stunningly gorgeous places, multiple cars at different times, weekly trips to Starbucks, gym memberships, camps, my own room and space, microwaves and toasters, and summer jobs that gave me money to help with school, car insurance, or a few extra bucks to hit the cinema. I am so grateful to have had these things. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them. And, it’s not like I haven’t had to work hard for these things. More than anything, I’ve just so happened to have a great deal of blessings in my life: incredible parents, good neighborhoods, and a sound education system. But, these blessings are not to be taken for granted, I’m learning. Because it’s more than just the things, really. It’s the opportunity; it’s the way that I have been able to move through life.

I’m not trying to say that America doesn’t have poor people. God, no. Nearly every day, I have to explain to Rwandans that America indeed has poverty, poor people, and a lot of problems with homelessness, mental illness, and abuse. America is a rich country, absolutely. But, like I tell people, rich countries have poor people and poor countries also have rich people. Americans don’t have a free pass from economic hardship. But, let me be clear. Despite my experience working in homeless shelters, community centers, and transitional housing, I, myself, never had to wonder if I could go to school. I never had to question if food would be on the table. And, I never had to question if my basic needs would be met.

It’s just hard to reconcile my life with my current situation.

If I’m going to be completely honest here, a lot of times I get really pissed. At me? At the world? At God? Truthfully, I’m not quite sure.

I’ll talk to a student who can’t afford the 10 US dollars to pay school fees. I’ll talk to another student with this problem. And another. And another. And another. It really is never ending.

I’ll visit a Rwandan home with no belongings in sight.

I’ll be running with my IPOD plugged in and passing old women who are walking slowly with a stick, returning from market or from praying. Maybe they’re headed home—to cook, to fetch water, to clean. Maybe all three. I hope the water is clean today, I think.

I’ll give back a brown paper bag to my student who brought it to me because their family wanted to give me tomatoes for the week. I give it back after putting those ripe, red tomatoes in my food box because she needs it. Nothing is disposable here for many people, even a brown paper bag.

I’ll see a woman pay 100 RWF (Rwandan Francs; this amount is equal to about 15 cents or so) to buy phone credit immediately after I have just paid 2000 RWF just so I can chat up my friends for the evening.

A woman will tell me how their country is poor. And the best thing I can come up with to say is something along the lines of, “well, you have really good people.” Really, Heather? Really?

I get pissed because I just keep asking, WHY DOES THE WORLD WORK THIS WAY?

Maybe before you can probe this question, you have to first ask, why don’t people know?

And like I already noted, Americans aren’t immune. Poverty exists, thrives, and persists in America too. So why is it that if you happen to be comfortably getting by you can comfortably turn on the IPOD speakers at dinner time and tune it all out?

Why do I get to come home, even in my little village, and get on my computer and watch whatever TV show I want? All the while, my neighbors cook late into the evening, with the harvest from that day, with a small, fidgety petrol candle by their side.

I’m not free of these questions just because I happen to live in Rwanda. I’m 24 and afforded privilege, wealth, and education and I’m living in the midst of this problem and still feel like I’m doing nothing. Maybe that’s why I feel so darn guilty—I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what to do.

The best I’ve been able to muster is to treat my community members as equals. I try not to bring wealth into the equation. Often, the word poor isn’t even a descriptor I think of when I am describing the community I live among. I help where the outlets have been made known: through teaching, coaching, and friendship. But, is it enough? I do think we all have the power to change the world. But, what does that even look like? Am I doing enough? In a few years will all of this really matter to people who spend most of their hours in a day just making sure they can eat, bathe, and clean?

The rain has come and gone. I’m cozied up in a blanket, with my tea, computer, and pillow to rest my back as I sit on my treasured mat. I think the rain is probably going to come back. The thunder is rumbling treacherously, and somehow, I think that the storm has yet to clear. But, that’s okay by me. Two of my candles are flickering at a nearby table and I’m intentionally closing myself off. From the world, from these dark questions of why the world can be so messed up, from my job, from my stresses, from my doubts, from the mistakes that I make, and even from the probing mosquitos. Let the rain come. I’ll still be here.

A couple of hours ago, I realized after some journaling and chatting on the phone recapping my day that I needed space. But not the kind of space where I shut my door, throw on the latest episode of a TV show that I’m watching (these days, it’s Weeds), and zone out. I need to think but also rest my heart and mind.

I don’t need to ask if I’m doing enough because I can’t single-handedly figure out, process, or give the answer to the poverty in my village (or in the world, for that matter).

I have to say that, to write that, because I really need to believe that.

It still hurts all the same. I turned on one of my favorite songs that always brings my heart back to God and tried praying for a little while. I let the images of my friends, of my students, flash in my mind and tears came. What could they do if they weren’t poor?

And in a very beautiful way, in a very beautiful personal sort-of way I should say, I also came to realize that these very heartaches and questions are directly connected to WHY I believe in God. Here on Earth, there are all sorts of disparities, pain, diseases, issues, and inequalities. As humans, I think, it’s our job to do the best we can to minimize these, to support each other, and fit our strengths with the weaknesses of others (and vice versa) so that we are the best we can possibly be. We won’t be perfect. That’s just not going to happen. With God though, there’s more. With God, there’s grace. And there’s a deep love that He has for ALL PEOPLE. EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what color you are, who you love, or the mistakes that you have made.

We’re equal in the eyes of God. And for all of those questions, for all the discomfort I feel, and for all the what ifs I ask when it comes to who has what, I believe that I have to continue to do what I can to help, but also to trust that our lives are in the hands of God.

At the Catholic Church this last Sunday, I watched a lot of women pray as the service ended. I’ve talked about this before, but it never fails to be splendidly moving. They pray with fervor, with conviction, with hope. And it helps me believe again. And to remember this equality that God so perfectly provides. He is the great provider. For now, that is enough. I can rest in that. No, the answer is that I’m not enough. But, He is.

Come to the water

You who thirst and you’ll thirst no more

Come to the Father

You who work and you’ll work no more

And all you labor in vain

And to the broken and shamed

Love is here, love is now, love is pouring from His hands from His brow

Love is near, it satisfies

Streams of mercy flowing from his side, because love is here

Come to the treasure

You who search and you’ll search no more

Come to the lover

You who want and you’ll want no more

And all you labor in vain

And to the broken and shamed

And to the bruised and fallen

Captives bound and broken hearted

He is the Lord

“Love is Here” –Tenth Avenue North

 

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Aside

A few weeks ago, Meredith and I were walking around town in Kigali, most likely searching for our go-to products (oatmeal, cheese, or spices), or maybe even more likely, headed to Bourbon Coffee to scope out the ever hot commodity of internet (and duh, a white chocolate mocha or café late depending on my particular mood of the day). We passed a highly reflective blue wall on the scaffold of some building in town and for the slightest few seconds, I glanced at my image, flipped my hair, and smiled.

Meredith saw the entire thing.

Busted. We laughed and kept moving.

A slight moment of vanity? Completely forgivable. After all, I maybe look at myself in a mirror once every few days or so. Not to mention my mirror (the only one I own here) is a small rectangle, maybe the size of an Iphone. This is quite divergent from the opportunity to see your reflection back home; mirrors litter my house, the stores I visit, and essentially any sort of establishment I frequent. I’ve welcomed this change. While it makes maintaining things like my eyebrows difficult, I am also released from really giving a damn about my appearance.

That didn’t come out right.

As a teacher and the only white girl living in my community, I do want to look culturally appropriate and nice. Especially since wambaye neza (‘you are dressed smart’) is a highly valued comment in this culture. But I’m not reliant on mirrors for satisfaction in my image, and believe me, there’s a difference. That’s what cameras are for, right?

No, really, I’m not saying all of this as a way to promote some sort of new self-righteousness separation from vanity that I’ve discovered in the last year. Oh no, that’s not really my point at all. The thing is, with a significant decrease in dependence upon mirrors, I find myself separated from the exterior of myself sometimes. I sometimes forget I’m a white girl. Is that weird?

Believe me, as quickly as I forget, I’m reminded once again. A child—sometimes even a full-grown educated man—shouts umuzungu (the name typically used for white or rich person). Someone touches my skin, obviously wondering if I’m another species. A woman gropes my hair in profound wonderment—oh my god, they say in Kinyarwanda (Imana wanjye). And yes, this happens every single day. I’ve lived in the same place for over 9 months, and still being white is mind-blowing for many people I live among.

As I forget my whiteness though, I sometimes forget what comes with being a white girl in rural Rwanda. Because I’m white, people often safely assume the following:

  1. I’m rich. Very very rich.
  2. I provide sponsorships. Often and regularly.
  3. I’m better than everyone else.
  4. I know Barack Obama. If they ever did cross another white person in their life, well, then I probably know them too.
  5. I can distribute all of my own possessions—these of course, are replaceable.
  6. I speak only English.
  7. I’m like every other white person in the world.
  8. I can’t possibly cook (or do anything else for that matter) for myself.

Just writing that—making it real—I feel a tinge of anger, frustration, and hurt seethe through my body. I never imagined being white would be this challenging. Because here’s the problem:

I’m a year in.

I’m very solidly integrated into my community. I can speak enough Kinyarwanda (at least enough to get by). Apparently, you can be happy here. I’m doing it. I have relationships that have started to feel very meaningful.

So, what gives?

Well, I’m invited to countless weddings. I’m IN weddings. I’m begged to come to all sorts of church services, family gatherings, parties, you name it. I’m repeatedly requested to visit as per Rwandan culture. I’m asked to give and donate money. I’m a point person for some people who have a problem. I’m asked to take photos. I’m asked to develop photos, spending my own money. And of course, I get the blatant ‘give me money’ every so often.

But even all of that, that’s not what has got me so twisted.

What if it’s the other stuff—the relationship stuff—that doesn’t add up?

What if I am simply a means to get to an end point? You know, make friends with the rich, white girl, and hey, maybe she can hook you up?

What if those people who I love, still see me as WHITE? Not as me, be it Heather or Impano, but the white girl, the umuzungu?

 It’s dangerous territory, I’m finding, to question everything in light of who I am and how this affects the people around me. I am learning that you can never be 100% sure of another person’s intentions. We don’t exist in the heads of other people, and for good reason. You can’t guarantee people do what they do for the right reasons. It’s a tough, heavy realization—one that I’ve never had to struggle with (at least not to this degree). My best, strongest relationships in life continue with an equilibrium of trust. Relationships take two people, and it’s give and take, not because you expect that, but because your motivation is love and you believe the same is true for the other person. If you really think about it, every single relationship you have in your life—be it God, your best friend, your parents, your co-workers, whatever—it’s built on trust. Everyone says that, and it’s obvious, but when really put to the test, working through the muck is extraordinarily difficult. Painful, even. Imagine questioning every good relationship you have in reach. That’s what I’m working through now and it’s not really something I anticipated to question with close community members. I’ve found myself almost paranoid, wondering if my students—especially the ones I’m really close with—love me because of what I potentially bring to the table (money, status, connections) and not because of the times we have shared together. To think too much about that, well, it kind of breaks my heart. Like I said, it’s dangerous territory.

My concerns and worries, I feel, are absolutely justified and understandable. I have to take a step back and take stock of what is happening here because this entire experience is important to process. Yet, Suzi told me something pretty powerful the other night over our nightly phone conversation as I spilled and spewed out these reservations of where I stand relationally in my small village: here, there may always be this question. It won’t go away. You have to learn to cope, to coexist, and maybe best of all, to be free of the worry that you can suffocate from if you think about it too much. I know full well I have to move forward. I know I have to trust my relationships here despite what being white may mean. Because while doubt can act as a necessary compass, to live in doubt permanently, to let doubt consume and taint everything I do—where does this take me? Nowhere.

This will be extraordinarily hard—maybe even harder than making and building these relationships in the first place. But, I have no choice.

A dear friend recently wrote me in a letter saying,

I just flipped through some of your pictures.

You look happy, almost like something in you has healed.

I hope you are as fulfilled and joyous as you seem.

Goosebumps hit all over my arms when I read these words late one Tuesday night before I headed off to take my nightly warm bucket bath. She’s right. 100% right.

As difficult as all of this can be, both the challenges and beautiful easy parts place me in a prime position to grow as a woman. I have issues, questions, and as you can see, doubts, like everyone else, but one thing I’ve learned in the last year is how to recognize a difficulty as an opportunity. I’ve always embraced the power of positivity, but believe me, in a year of village life, even I’ve been stretched to new limits and abilities to embrace times of struggle. That’s healing, my friends. And moreover, I’ve realized that integral to this kind of healing has always been my ability to love and trust. Sometimes, you get screwed over. But most of the time, I think, when you believe in the people around you and trust that they are with you for a reason, you reap a much greater deal of happiness, contentment, and joy in life. I’m not saying being naïve is the answer; rather, taking the leap and continuing to trust in the motivations and intentions of other people will bring you a greater peace of mind than questioning absolutely everything.

And so in the spirit of living but working through doubts, I have every intention to do that with this whole issue of being white. Because these years of teaching, living, and breathing Rwanda does count for something; God put me here for a reason. This isn’t arbitrary. I know I’m more than a random white girl in the village. I know this, because I believe in my friends here. I just do. Slowly, I’m revealing pieces of me to them and, that matters. Every day, I will have to rededicate and recommit myself to this. And the most fulfilling part is that I know I can.

Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.

-Maya Angelou

‘all the world is made of faith, trust, and pixie dust’

peace (corps), love, and Rwanda

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From the moment the BIG BLUE packet arrived on my front doorstep next to the milk box, I’ve been somewhere between a reflective, grateful, contemplative young woman to a girl who is running around like a chicken with their head cut off.

I think they are both natural responses to a BIG life change. How big? RWANDA big.

Finally, after almost a year (to the day) of waiting, I found out that I was in the Peace Corps. I would be leaving in September, and I would be teaching.

That was enough for about the first 2 hours upon finding out.

Then. it started.

What do I do next?

What forms do I have to turn in?

Do I need a passport?

When should I buy stuff that I need?

What all do I need to take?

Is teaching really right for me?

Am I going to do a good job?

Will I be able to communicate with my friends and family?

Where in Rwanda will I live?

Will I be safe?

You get the idea. The thing is, I ‘ve thought about all of these things before. 1 year in the PC application process will do that to you. But. Now, I have this letter. And it’s like “Congratulations! You are invited to begin training in Rwanda!” I guess that’s what they mean when they say it just got real.

I went backpacking with my mom and Randy this last weekend and I thought a lot about this opportunity. There were moments that I laid in the hammock wondering how my life got to this point…and I just smiled. And the answer is basically, I don’t know. But I’m glad, and grateful. So so grateful. I can’t even begin to imagine what this experience will be like, but I’m so thankful that I get a chance to do it, that I have this opportunity to pursue something I am so dearly passionate for.

What is right, is right. What will be, will be. This is something that it took me 4 years to learn in college, and I’m still learning it. But, I am believing it more and more. That’s what this is. Somehow, in all of the madness that this process brought, ultimately, it worked out. God’s hand was in this.

So, now I am moving forward appreciatively and a little crazily, but certainly very productively. To date, I have submitted my US passport to get approved for a special Peace Corps passport, I have submitted my aspiration statement and updated resume to PC, I have formally accepted the position (writing that email was probably one of the most insane/cool emails I have ever written), I have finished the paperwork for the media relations office, I have started this blog, I have read the Volunteer handbook, I have ordered a Kinyarwanda dictionary, and I am voraciously everything I can read about Rwanda. I am doing really well in this preparation process. Maybe as well as could be expected? I am working through the financial issues (banks, loans, etc.) but that too is getting worked out.

This is a special period in my life, I think. So, I’m going to do my best to enjoy it. The month of August will be one of the best…I don’t even doubt it. Michelle is coming to visit Colorado, I am going to Disney World with Rachel, I am helping Rachel move into her grad-school apartment in Murfreesboro, I am going to Michelle’s wedding in Moscow, TN, seeing all my friends (reunion!), and then hanging out at Hendrix for a week, capped off with seeing the first Hendrix field hockey game of the season. Indeed, it’s a special time in my life right now. I will come home from this trip and have ONE WEEK to get my things together, spend time with my family, and prepare to close the door on this part of my life for awhile.

Yet, a new one is opening, and goodness, I can just feel the excitement inside of me.