I like to think of life as a mosaic of moments, with each individual piece colored and designed to match the mood of that moment. I envision at the end of my life this vibrant work of art representing all of the meaningful moments I’ve lived. It’s why I treasure and value the present so much. I want as few blank spaces on that mosaic as possible. I want it to show that I’ve truly lived the moments life has given me. And I’m happy to share some of the past year’s with you…
After returning to my village following a week-long New Year celebration in Zanzibar, I greet my neighbors sitting in their front yard on wooden chairs and woven mats. They always greet me with this enthusiasm and excitement, as if I’m their child who’s been off at university for several months. Jeannette is the same age as my mom in the states, and Anastase has quirks that are way too similar to my father’s for it to be coincidence. We sit together and speak only in Kinyarwanda. We wish each other “Happy New Year” and talk about how much (or how little) rain there has been as we look at the maize and beans lining the property. Their 9 year old adopted daughter sits with me and practices her English. They also adopted a little boy named Regis. He is maybe 5 or 6 years old. He can’t walk or speak, but boy does this little guy have a personality. You can always tell how he’s feeling, and his big bright smile and contagious giggle has given light to some of my darker days here in Rwanda.
He’s having his own version of a “tea party” using empty containers and dirt. He’s thoroughly entertained until he gets super excited about the yummy porridge he just made and absolutely needs someone to pretend taste it. He scoots up to my criss-crossed legs and hands me a container, looking up at me with his big brown eyes. I play along and grab a blade of grass to use as my straw to drink Regis’ Fanta in true Rwandan fashion. “Mmm. Delicious!” The smiles his parents used to give me when I first started hanging out with Regis used to say, “Thank you for giving him some attention. It’s nice of you.” But now they say, “I’m glad you’re such good friends.”
I take my blade of grass “straw” and turn it into a grass whistle. Cody taught this to some kids in my village when he visited, so I try to remind the little girl, Alliance, how to flatten it between her thumbs and get the noise to come out. She tries a few times but struggles. Her dad clicks his tongue and shakes his head (just like my dad used to) and grabs the grass from her in frustration as if saying, “You’re not doing it right. Do it like this.”
He’s a tall and thin man, usually showing gray scruff on his face and wearing clothes a bit too big for him. He uses a walking stick to go back and forth from the community water tap that he is in charge of. When everyone is going about their daily business, I usually find him sitting on a wooden chair in the corner of his front yard, legs crossed, people watching, smiling and shaking his head at Regis, who is always putting on a show.
He hastily brings the grass and thumbs to his mouth expecting it to make a whistle sound. After he lets out a deep blow of empty air, completely missing the grass, he bellies out a laugh and reaction I can imagine being similar to how he laughed as a kid. His wife joins in, laughing and rolling her eyes at her husband. The kids and I start laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. I take a mental photo. Simplicity. Communicating through expression. Pure joy. I go to my house and think to myself how happy I am to be home.
“We Can Be Decent”
To get to my regional town of Musanze, I usually have about a 30 minute hike down my mountain to the place where the small buses run. On this particular day, I’m not treated any differently than usual. When I exit the mountain and approach the place to wait for the bus, I get a variety of greetings. “Hello my sister! You are welcome!”… “Give me money” … “Muzunguuuuu”. I feel hands on my arms as I walk through a crowd of people. When I shake the hands off me, a group of children run away giggling, probably to tell their friends they touched the white person’s skin. As I sit, waiting for the bus to fill up and leave, I overhear a man saying to another, “She says she has no money, but she has lots of money. She takes this bus, but she has enough money to pay for a moto, or even her own car. She has lots of money.” These are all normal occurrences that I usually am able to ignore. But on this particular day, I’m in a different frame of mind. The date is November 12th.
I let what is usually something I can brush off get to me. I tell this man that he has bad culture, that even his own President says it’s bad culture to ask a foreigner for money. I tell him that I am here to teach and not to give money. This gets me nowhere, as I’m just laughed at. During the 40 minute ride to Musanze, I think about why I allowed this to get to me. I think about how a large majority of my service has been sharing American culture with Rwandans. I try to make this inaccurate picture that has been painted of America a little bit more realistic. “All Americans are white. All Americans are rich. I want to go to America because as soon as I arrive I will be rich like you.”
As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are ambassadors of our country. We’re given this powerful tool to show the diversity of America, Americans, and American culture. And in doing this, we feel like we have a pretty good grip on our country. We know it pretty well. But on this particular day, and every day since the election, I feel that powerful tool being pulled away. I feel like I don’t even know the country I’m supposed to represent. I feel confused about how to even go about talking about my country…as a place that is accepting of all people, that has made improvements in gender equality, a place where you don’t have to be rich and white and a man to be successful, and so on, while my Rwandan friends are hearing on the radio a representation of the exact opposite.
Of course it’s true that these challenges have always been present. Since the beginning of my service, I’ve often struggled with finding the balance of shining a positive light on America while also being realistic. But now, there’s a tattoo on America’s forehead, and my friends and colleagues listening to the radio in some of the poorest and most rural pockets of Rwanda prove even more true that the world is watching. I don’t really know what to do or think of that. It’s out of this confusion and anger that I react to that man.
I take a few more days to work through the anger/grieving stage. I cry in a corner of a restaurant watching Hillary’s speech thinking of my female neighbor who told me how happy she will be when we have a woman president. Then I give myself a mental pep talk one day on my beautifully scenic moto ride home. I realize that even in a small way, I am doing something. I am, in some sense and in the beginning stages of being “the change I wish to see in the world.” I want people to be compassionate, to be open-minded, to accept and embrace all people and to realize that privilege is a real thing that affects all of us every day..whether we have it or not…whether we want it or not. I want people to treat others with kindness. I realize that I, too, have a long way to go and that there’s always more we can do.
I recommit to my Peace Corps service and why I’m here. I think about a quote from one of my favorite shows, The Newsroom. “There are things we can do. Things we can do every day. Things that are free. We can be an inch nicer to each other, an inch more polite. We can be decent.” I’m going to take that a step further and say we can be more than decent. I know we can.
Finally, for the first time since the election, I feel empowered.
“Rwanda Mountain Gorillas”
On Cody’s last visit to Rwanda, we had the opportunity to go gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park. We were lucky enough to be the only tourists in our group, so it was just us, the trackers, the guide, and porters. One of my favorite moments was when the guide set us up on the edge of the path that he knew the silverback gorilla was going to pass through. He gave us a quick rundown of how to act: to stay crouched down, to “talk” to him by making low grumbling grunting noises so that he doesn’t feel threatened, and most importantly, not to look him directly in the eye.
You can imagine just how powerful of a moment it was when we saw him slowly approaching and truly felt his presence and his size, about 350 pounds. He stopped right in front of us and all I saw was the bottom half of his body as I stayed crouched down and gave a go at my best gorilla grunting. I’m assuming he did a once over to identify us as non-threatening (thankfully) and then continued on his way. The balance of scary and beautiful in that moment was remarkable… knowing that I was experiencing this wonderful animal in his own habitat, getting a close up look at his wrinkly fingers and toes with absolutely nothing between us, and at any moment he could ruin me… but he’s not. I just kept thinking “wow, what a moment.” (The main photo of this post is a shot that Cody was able to get in that moment)
Check out this video below that Cody also took of another silverback charging through the jungle, just playing, or making his presence known.
In other recent happenings, I took a trip to Namibia and it was amazing and BEAUTIFUL! I’m going to “3rd goal” Namibia and tell you to check out my Facebook album to see what I’m raving about.
As always, thanks for reading, following, and the continued support 🙂 Always happy to chat by email if you have questions, are considering Peace Corps, Rwanda, or just curious!