Dad, visits my market in my village, Ruramira.
Everybody loved him. Of course, right?
Dad, visits my market in my village, Ruramira.
Everybody loved him. Of course, right?
I feel like I’m living like a king.
I’ve changed my cooking methods, for one. For the past 10 months I’ve relied on the black sooty chunks of charcoal to generate enough heat to power my meals, coffee, and water for bathing my often dusty body. When the charcoal bag reached ends meet, I contemplated purchasing another 10-ish dollar rice sack of amacara (that’s charcoal in Kinyarwanda). Yet, I put that thought on the back burner when I stumbled (quite literally) over this old dinky pea green petrol stove I bought before moving from the Peace Corps training site to my home. Let’s give this petrol stove a trial run, I thought.
BEST. DECISION. EVER.
I can cook water in 10 minutes (not 45) and I can come home and get right into cooking—not prepping my source of heat for an obscene amount of time (though, my charcoal lighting skills have gotten quite advanced, I would say). Oh and speaking of power. I GOT IT! And, I don’t mean the self-encouraging, confident, believe in yourself type. I HAVE ELECTRICITY.
I was gone from site for several days due to taking part in Peace Corps training (teaching new trainees how to teach listening and speaking in the classroom) and visiting Suzi and so I was rather consumed with things outside of my home and outside of my site. However, I got a call one morning from our school accountant and my friend Emi, who told me that they would be breaking into my house to install electricity. Seriously? Did I hear that correctly? And truth be told, I didn’t really believe it—that is until I saw it. Concrete crumbles were scattered in all of the nooks and crannies of my wall corners, workers were meticulously connecting things together in every room, and red and black wires began to intertwine with my beige bamboo ceiling. Oh the sweet wires. When I saw those babies I knew this was the real deal. When it was time to flip the white switch in my front room, I saw the bulb light every where I could see and I gleefully absorbed all of what this meant. I can cook at night enjoyably (without knocking over pots, pans, and spices due to the lack of light); I can actually see my floors (maybe assess whether they are actually clean); I don’t have to have a strategic game plan every single time I want to charge my electronics; I can grade papers (I have 381 students so you do the math) without hurting my eyes more than they will already hurt; and I can watch a tv show. Or two. Or three. My life will change, and hey, I’m cool with that.
I’m proud of myself—I did the no electricity thing for over a year. And you can make it. It’s possible. Most people in my village do it just fine. But, it’s hard. And I don’t think I’m some unsung hero or anything; I just remember thinking how scary/crazy it was when back in the ‘burbs the power would leave for like 23 minutes and Lance and I would grab blankets, security devices, and extra snacks for the duration without electricity. And this would be midday, mind you. I just have some added perspective, that’s all. And so you can bet that with each hour of light and power, I’ll be oh so grateful.
Another great thing about all of this is timing. Suzi had been planning a trip out East to visit me for several weeks and so as I went through all of these positive adjustments, Suzi was right there with me. Our journey to my house was full of rain, leaky bus roofs, and small cramped bus rides, but we made it. Even with added miscommunications with the bus people and the always present beast in the room: KINYARWANDA.
Suzi got to meet some of my students (and see some of them do their choreography to ‘Baby’ by the Biebs), talk with my headmaster, and see the rain damage to our school all within an hour in my village. It was just the beginning: Suzi’s visit was full of wine (thanks to Jon—an Australian merlot straight from England, HOLLER), magazines, macaroni and cheese, salad, coffee, ‘Abana daycare’ (Abana means children)—this involved Suzi and I hanging out with 14ish neighborhood kids playing Frisbee, bubbles, serving porridge, duck-duck-goose (changed to ihene-ihene-inka for cultural purposes—ihene means goat and inka means cow), and lots of photographs—, visiting my dear friend Jacqueline, watching 30 Rock, and lots of laughter, catching up, and relaxing in between.
There are some photos and there are these words but I guess I just forgot how wonderful, reaffirming, and joyous it is to share life with others. I do mean life in the most general sense: whether you’re sharing your family, showing the place you grew up, or cooking a special meal for another person, it’s just a really neat thing to open your life up a bit. I don’t know of a more heartwarming feeling than standing by and watching someone love what you love, to find the same joy in something you really care for, and to understand and have a context for a life you take a lot of pride in. And the best part is, for me, is that Suzi gets it. She exclaimed ‘your site is awesome!’ and how adorable my students are numerous times and I just wanted to jump up and down yelling, ‘YES! I KNOW, RIGHT?!’
The same sort of giddy contentment rushed through me when I visited the family last week while teaching the new group of Peace Corps education trainees. I had spoken with Taylor (the new trainee who lives with my host family, the third volunteer to do so, I was the first one) and I told her I was coming for a visit but I wanted it to be kept a secret as to surprise mama and papa. I was all but skipping down the familiar paths of my training days. I may be glad (beyond glad actually) to be done with training, but I always always enjoy seeing the people who took me in as their own, despite me being American, me being white, and me being just plain weird. When I turned the corner, I gulped down some adrenaline fueled energy, braced myself for the biggest hugs you could ever imagine from the neighborhood kids, and glanced up in time to see mama jumping up and down with her hands to her face in sheer surprise. I have been back three times now, and literally, each time it’s like coming home. It’s the closet thing I will have here; and really, it is actually that very experience, because in so many ways, that will always be a home for me.
It had been a long time—over 6 months—and so a visit was long overdue. As I downed 4 cups of milk tea, ate cassava bread with Taylor, and basked in all of the ruckus and excitement, I learned quickly how Taylor was equally happy with our host family. It’s a tough situation without a doubt, but we wholeheartedly agreed: we got SO blessed with Emmanuel and Bernadette and the kiddos as our host family in Rwanda (and the most beautiful part is that both mama and papa would tell you the same about the Peace Corps trainees that they have hosted, like I said, they are so precious). Taylor told me stories of her teaching ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’ to some of the girls, we exchanged mama superwoman stories (she’s superwoman if I’ve ever seen one) and how she literally can do anything, and of papa praying in the morning (followed by mama’s beautiful singing), and how they are just about the most welcoming people we have ever encountered. She was glowing and raving and spilling out with all of this positivity and again, I was reminded of how amazing it is to be able to relate to her in such a way and to share these very similar feelings and experiences. We’re sisters of sorts and we have a family with hearts of solid gold.
When you open parts of your life to people and you take a step back, you see things from a new perspective, as if you are seeing with fresh eyes. It’s renewal and the best part is you realize exactly what’s in front of you. These weeks have glided by effortlessly (even with my computer, phone, and French press all breaking in the same day about a week ago) and I’m realizing how much I have here.
When did that happen?
I’m seeing that even if my best village friends consist of a 3 year old, a 19 year old, and a 45 year old, it doesn’t really matter because the love that they have is quite real.
I’m finding that seeds grow.
I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 months in my village greeting, visiting, praying, visiting again, playing football, and going on aimless walks—and for what? To show my community that I’m here. To “integrate” as Peace Corps would say, which to me means sucking it up and putting yourself out there, even if you get laughed at. It means doing things that might make you uncomfortable (like 6 hour church services, a super long visit, or going on long trips) because you love someone and you want to show that to them. It means sharing yourself, hoping they’ll share in return. This process takes time. And Lord knows, it’s Rwanda, so it takes a VERY long time.
But it’s going. As we say here, slow by slow. Buhoro, buhoro.
As I’ve seen my life here with new lenses these last couple of weeks, I’m grateful, humbled, and happy with what I see.
It’s not my horn that I’m tooting—it’s my community’s. I live in a great place with really good people. Sure, it’s the village, with poverty and an entire slew of problems, but I’ve been more than welcomed and taken care of for nearly a year. I’ve been let in homes, in families, and in relationships. When I leave site for whatever reason, I can’t wait to come back. When I first got site, I remember checking frequently how many days remained in my service. Yes. My service. The whole whopping two years. I would check one day and it would read: 615. Soon, it would be under 600. One day it read 559. I can’t believe I did that. I haven’t done that in probably 7 or 8 months. I imagine what it will feel like to leave here and well….I can’t. I’ve planted the seeds, but it’s been my community, my students, my loved ones here that have tilled the soil, cultivating something far more beautiful than I really ever expected.
As I share this with visitors and friends, y’all will see that too and I think be equally moved.
It’s this kind of stuff that makes this world a better place.
I knew I was onto something when upon entering Samson and Dative’s home, their mother started jumping for joy (quite literally) and passionately—almost abrasively—praying to good ole’ Imana (that’s God here in Rwanda). Over and over again she kept repeating thanks to God for my presence and asking for Him to bless the conversation we were about to partake in. Sarcastically (in my head of course), I thought about the inevitable awkward silences that come with home visits and that God should probably bless the lulls in addition to the actual conversation too. I chuckled to myself, momentarily realizing two very important things:
Like I said, Mama Samson was euphoric. Her home, from what I could gather, is a muddish-concrete-gravel mix with give or take 3 rooms. They have an outdoor kitchen, maybe around 4 total square feet. Their home sits well off the bigger dirt road through town; they live at the cusp of a downhill mountain and so they are about as isolated as you could be in my village, which given the extraordinary high population density of Rwanda, isn’t saying much.
I sat on a long wooden bench that is common for Rwandans to have (if they have furniture—given the nature of a communal culture, most do have at least one place for guests and residents to sit) and of course, looked intently through a bundle of photos. Home visits have become something of a habit for me as of late and I have it down to somewhat of a science (as much as it really could be):
Steps to a successful Rwandan home visit:
Depending on the family, visits can take 1-4 hours. Yet, there is that occasional family that will make such a hoorah of your presence that you will arrive back home 5 to 6 hours after you left. That’s not including travel time.
Samson and Dative are in my Senior 2C class (they are brother and sister) and both ranked in the top 10 students of their class last term: Samson was number 2 and Dative was number 8. They asked if I could come and visit and according to my newly developed home visit policy (which you should know, I developed in my head a few days ago and is by no means a publicly broadcasted rule of thumb), if they ask, I go.
I have done around 20 student home visits—a large chunk of these in the past couple of weeks. A mix between the cultural emphasis of visiting, my interests in social work, as well as getting to know my students outside the classroom (the confines of a classroom wall, I have found, are rather limiting—there is far too much to know about them than can be learnt in a classroom context) that has motivated me to be available to my students outside of the school hours of 7-2. I’ve visited students all over my sector—I’ve been to parts of all 4 administrative cell areas—and have gone as far as some 5-10 km to going merely across the street from my lovely turquoise-blue trimmed abode.
There is something quite transcending, I suppose, about seeing where a person comes from. Some of my students have hard-working, close-knit families. Some don’t live with families. Some don’t have families. Some live in broken homes. Some live in homes with few problems. Some live in violent homes. A select few are “rich” by the standards of my village in Eastern Rwanda; maybe they have cushions to accompany their wood framed furniture, a painted house, or multiple cows. However, the vast majority are poor. I imagine that many families maybe make around 500 USD per year—and that’s for everybody included. Yet, the beautiful thing about my situation is this: I live among poverty and thus might be better able to address it. More so, I don’t look at my students and their families and see poverty as the defining characteristic of who they are. Many of them certainly do about themselves—almost always I hear a comment about them having no money, about them being poor. I see them as people. I can’t stress this enough: by no means do I intend to romanticize the extreme poverty around me. The noble savage is not what I’m getting at. Simply, because my community members are people that I have relationships with, I don’t perceive them as a project or another social case. Anyway, the point of all this is to say that more than anything, the best part of this home visit business is that I’m grasping a deeper sense of purpose in my role here, and that after 6 months at my site, feelings that I have for people, especially my students, are intensely real.
Okay. That might sounds similar to a one-on-one date interview off The Bachelor or some other ridiculous (and addicting) reality show, but I do mean it.
I didn’t even know how much I cared until last week.
It was Thursday—our market day—and after school I found Maisara working out the quadratic formula on the black board with a couple of other students. Maisara is a beautiful, healthy, big smile, energetic kind of girl. She was the one who became vice-student dean this past February when the onslaught of Girl Power became a thing here with my girls. I approached her with a hand on her shoulder and asked if today was a good day for me to visit. Her sister, Zahara, a senior 1 student full of intellect, spark, a bull-dog attitude on the football pitch, and a gregarious laugh, had insisted that I visit sometime soon. Thursday was a clear day for me mid-afternoon so I figured it would be a good day to go and see them and their home. Maisara suggested there wasn’t any problem and we left school together, passing the cows, the primary students, and recalling the events of the day. I asked to stop at my house to drop my heavy books and presumed she would follow. She didn’t. And when I came outside my gate, she was gone. Assuming she went on to notify her parents or something, I kept walking. And walking. For 2 hours, in one direction. People kept telling me to continue and so I did. Yet after fruitless assistance from a sweet old woman, I turned back a little peeved and aghast that my entire afternoon was wiped. Not to mention I was profusely sweating, had walked into the next sector, and was exhausted from the combination of walking, doing a run earlier that morning, and teaching all day. Would I even make it to market on time? Would I make it to market at all? I huffed and puffed for a while until at the turn of the road, where a large band of trees meets the edge of a cliff, I saw a young girl running. Maisara! And Zahara! They threw their arms around me apologizing profusely.
“Heather! Heather! Please please forgive. Ah, we are so sorry. Sorry. Please forgive! Forgive me.”
I didn’t even know the reason, but they were long forgiven. I couldn’t be mad at these girls. Impossible.
We started walking up a notoriously steep Rwandan hill when everything kind of flooded our conversation at once. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
In sentences and broken phrases full of Kinyarwanda and English (and a lot of heavy breathing) the girls told me that they are in the process of switching homes. Their dad, as they put it, is “a very bad man.” He consistently beats their mother and even his children and is also a community problem—in a part of the village, I am told, that is full of not so great people. This was all from them, like I said, and so I don’t know what the details are, but I don’t question them for a minute. I would later receive confirmation that the information about him beating his family is in fact true, and that some of our school officials are aware of the problem. Now they’re living with their grandmother but are facing the problem of school feels (their mother is a subsistence farmer and makes little money, and it appears their father contributes little to their well-being; it appears, in fact, that he does quite the opposite). I listened with my mouth wide open.
The story isn’t new to me. No, I’ve faced challenging situations dealing with abuse in many different contexts and experiences—in Ghana as a teacher for children who couldn’t afford to go to school, as an intern at The Gathering Place in Denver, and at the homeless shelter in Conway, Arkansas, the Bethlehem House. Yet, not only is this striking a more personal note (I love these girls), it simply surprised me to the core. These girls—some of my best students—are victims of violence? Tears welled in my eyes. It’s not as though I didn’t believe this was happening to any of my students…it’s just…I guess I didn’t fully comprehend it can really happen to anyone, even the best and the brightest.
They walked me to the market (after treating me to the universal sign of love: a Coke) and asked me to come next week, this time to meet their mother and grandmother. I agreed without any hesitation. They giggled with delight and we started to talk about my family back home. Sensing their interest, I asked if they wanted to talk with my mom from America—they squealed with joy and agreed enthusiastically. They laughed when they heard mom’s voice and repeatedly said, “Heather is my friendy.” When mom ended our conversation with, “I love you honey,” their eyes opened wide. Had they heard that before? Had people told them that they loved them?
Today at one of our inter-class football scrimmages, I watched as Maisara in a black knit sweater dominated the field. She was everywhere! She even scored 2 goals and carried her class to victory over an upper level class. I felt like a proud mom or something. My heart was just so content to watch her play with such joy, conviction, and determination. I cheered, clapped, and yelled, because that’s the job here I take pride in the most. Teaching is beyond important and learning English is essential as Rwanda develops and becomes integrated as the leader of the East African Community (EAC) where the official language is English. However, being an agent of change starts with being a person who loves.
Martin Luther King Jr. talked a lot about love—who doesn’t?—and he lived a life within the Civil Rights Movement that exemplified being an extremist of love.
I want to be that for my students, if nothing else. To realize such a purpose is daunting and yet, completely invigorating. Love is what really matters, and it’s what has really mattered all along.
Suzi made a book for my birthday this last January—it’s called the Komera (‘be strong’) Book full of inspirational sayings, stickers, and colors for when I’m needing encouragement (love. her.). The one that is pushing me forward as I aim to be a supporter and mentor for my students is this little gem from Confucius:
Wherever you go, go with all your heart.
I can’t stop the violence here single-handedly. I can’t rebuild broken homes. I can’t expect to make things better simply because I’m American or simply because I want to.
But, at the very least, I can be here, and I can love. I can love my students, remind them that they do matter and that no matter what happens, I’m here for them. To me, that’s the best job you could ask for. It’s the job I wanted in the first place, and the job I want to continue to have as long as I’m willing and able. And so, that’s why I do the home visits in the first place: they matter. The students matter. And that’s something far more important for them to learn than any subject you will find in the school curriculum.
“What an opportunity–to live in Africa, to have your own small piece of this incredible continent…it’s different. And for you, probably very difficult, coming from America. But, you’ll see. You’ll leave and want to come back. Rwanda is a special place. And you are doing good work. Yes, what an opportunity.”
Do you believe that sometimes, instead of our dearest and closest loved ones, it’s actually complete strangers who gives us tidbits of extraordinary wisdom that we didn’t even know we were looking for?
I heard this encouraging and perspective-loaded sentiment from an old man with a white beard on a bus. Typical, right?
I had picked up a package from Jessica, did my weekly internet, and was meandering home. I recognized the guy who runs the internet cafe on the large white express bus (I usually pay the extra 50 cents for the more spacious and expedient transport) and amidst explaining how I was participating in the Kigali Peace Marathon at the end of May, the old man next to me asked why I liked to run. Before I knew it, this very old Rwandan man (en transit from Arusha, Tanzania)–who resides full time in Vancouver as an oil businessman–was speaking all the right words in all the right places. He went on at length about how Africa is a unique place–there is nowhere in the world like it, he said. He actually reminded me a lot of one of my new favorite authors, Alexander McCall Smith (thanks to TL Brown who sent me two of his books!).
Smith has an entire fictional series called the Ladies No.1 Detective Agency (I WOULD like something like this…) that centers around the only woman detective in Botswana. The series is wonderfully mysterious, but what I enjoy most is his beautifully worded insights on African culture. And he would know. He was born in what is now Zimbabwe and has spent most of his life between Scotland and parts of Southern Africa. He somehow captures the continent with just enough grace and truth, without overgeneralizing or over-idealizing (as it can be easy to do).
“….I think I can say that I had never been happier in my life. We had found a country where people treated one another well, with respect, and where there were values other than the grab, grab, grab which prevails back home. I felt humbled, in a way…people suffered here, and many of them had very little, but they had this wonderful feeling for others. When I first heard African people calling others–complete strangers–their brother or sister, it sounded odd to my ear. But after awhile I knew exactly what it meant and I started to think the same way…I was learning lessons. I had come to Africa and I was learning lessons.”
Strangely, I read this from Smith’s book Tears of the Giraffe the same day the man on the bus exclaimed at what a blessing I have in living and working in Rwanda. The world appears to be aligning, and so this week I’ve found myself in a spirit of gratitude for where I live, the people I live with, and the job I get to do. I could write forever and a day on the challenges and difficulties, and often, the frustrations as an American in Rwandan culture (why are you staring at me? why are you touching my hair? why are you laughing as I try to speak your language…). This whole living in Africa thing has already been one of the most difficult things that I’ve done in my life. I’m so far from the people I love, I’m alone, and I’m an outsider. However, it’s been equally rewarding. When you open your eyes, really open them, you began to really see.
It’s uplifting to gather and reflect on what makes this place beautiful. Smith writes,
“this is what Africa could say to the world: it could remind us what it is to be human.”
Rwanda is far, far from perfect. And yet, in a week where I talked about relationships, gay marriage, and sex in some of my classes, ran for 90 minutes straight into parts of Rwanda where a white person has never before been seen, shared tea with my neighborhood kids, helped prepare beans in a mud shack along the road in my village, and hugged a record number of ‘mamas’, I mean it when I say I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.