Sunday, November 11, 2012

rhythm of life

perfectly clear and still last day in Rwanda

Before I came here, various people kept saying to me, “You’re going to be changed when you come back.”  When a friend visited me in April, she said, “I thought you would be changed by now,” seeming a bit disappointed that I wasn’t somehow different from before I had moved here.  I didn’t understand what anyone meant, and I found the word “change” to be frustratingly maddening in a way.  I didn’t really want to change when I came here, I certainly didn’t venture to Rwanda in order to change, and quite honestly I didn’t feel as though anything was wrong with me that needed to change.  Here I am nearly one year later and I now understand the transformative nature that Agahozo and Rwanda have had on me. 
Something that I have said consistently since walking away from things in the States is that nobody on this journey knew me before I lost my brother, therefore nobody missed the old version of who I was, and who I could no longer be.  For better or worse, the old version of who I was and who I had become over the course of 31 years, died with my brother.  Everyone I met and have interacted with over the past year knows me only as Barrett.  They have nothing to compare me against and that freedom is refreshing.  There are so many people back home who either consciously or involuntarily hope that my year away will help me convert back to who I was before my world was shattered.  I will save all of you from the suspense – it hasn’t happened, and it’s not possible.  Yes, this experience has “changed” me, but it has not brought me back around to who I was before.  This experience has allowed me to pick up the pieces of myself and reshape the puzzle.  I cannot even begin to explain the level of frustration I have faced while trying to redefine my sense of self and figure out who I am and what is important to me, and it is still something I work through each and every day. 
The distance from friends and family has also helped me to rewrite my address book, so to speak.  All the grief books speak about the fact that so many people surround you during the first few weeks after tragedy strikes, but then the true test begins and you quickly see who is going to be by your side for the long-haul and who has just moved on with their life, forgetting about you while you wallow in the depths of sorrow.  I have had some amazing people support me over the past year and others who seemingly disappeared into the nether regions of the world.  At first it bothered me that so many people seemingly forgot about me, but then I began to see it with a fresh perspective.  I liken it to cleaning out a closet full of clothes, tossing out the clutter, freeing up space and starting new.  I have found new sources of strength from people I never thought to lean on before, and I have gained valuable insight from others who seem to have come along on this journey with me, understanding me for me and not wishing I was somebody else. 
What aspects of me have been redefined or discovered?  I am not sure where to begin.  My reaction to setbacks has diminished quite a bit and if it’s possible, I think that I am more laid-back.  I have learned to let go of my desire to control that which I cannot, and just go with the flow.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of frustrations each day that seemingly send me over the edge, but just recently my dear friend (and fellow year-long volunteer in the Village) Maytal said to me, “imagine how you would have reacted 11 months ago!”  Growth.  “Buhoro buhoro” is a common saying here, meaning slowly by slowly.  EVERYTHING happens slowly here; to the point where I think things have a tendency to move backward before inching their way forward.  Not only have processes evolved and matured with policies and procedures that I have helped to introduce over the past year, but I have evolved and matured ... slowly.  This is a place where you can’t fight the flow – you just have to ride the current sometimes and see where you end up, much like if you fall out of a raft in the middle of a class 5 white water rapid :)  Do I still get annoyed when certain things don’t go according to plan or communication appears to have come to a screeching halt?  Absolutely.  I am not above admitting that I am still a work in progress, but the annoyance and disappointment does not linger and fester inside of me for very long, which is an immense change from when I arrived here in December.  I have learned to let things go, move on, and tackle other crusades.  The other day I said that I wish I didn’t care so much about the work I do, but the fact is that I do care.  I care a lot about everything I touch, whether living or inanimate.  I am not wired not to care, and although that very essence of who I am drives me crazy at times, it is who I am and I have learned to accept and embrace it.  I like to right wrongs, improve malfunctions, and put my all into everything I pursue.  I have also become more selfless.  The Rwandan culture has a way of making what is mine, yours, and I have adopted that sharing mentality.  I have come to appreciate the challenges that I face on a daily basis here in Rwanda, and I more wholly understand how others saw this journey before I even began here.  This experience is not for the weak, it is not for the apathetic, and it is not for the imprudent.  This is the type of place where I have learned how to solve problems under the weirdest of situations and now have the confidence to deal with any kind of stress or situation back in the real world.  I have discovered that a minimalist existence is not so bad.  Yes certain creature comforts are just that – comforting, but they are not necessary to live.  I have endured just fine without a closet and 2 dressers full of clothing, without shopping malls, without a car, without close-toed shoes (yes I wear flip-flops EVERY day), and without home d├ęcor.  This term I have also learned to adapt without water!  Yes, my last “shower” in Rwanda was in fact a sponge bath of sorts, using jerry can water because the running water has not been functioning for days. 
There are aspects of Rwanda that I won’t miss.  I won’t miss public transportation and having to sit so close to other people that there is barely room to breathe.  I was acutely aware of the contraction of nearly every kind of germ there was when I first arrived, but a germ-a-phobe would never survive here, so I had to quickly adjust my ways of thinking.  I will not miss the food.  I am not a picky eater and the vegetarian diet has jived with my preference for not eating meat, however most meals have the nutritional value of a burlap sack and a staple of the Rwandan diet, cassava has the added bonus of having trace amounts of cyanide.  The cooks in the Village do a tremendous job of cooking 3 meals a day for 600 people, yet they overcook each meal to the point where the flavors are nearly indistinguishable.  There are so many complex carbohydrates in each meal that although it fills your stomach, you feel as though you’ve ingested a plate full of rocks instead of actual food.  I will not miss the flies or the mosquitoes (one was trapped inside my mosquito net the night before last and it nearly drove me batty!).  I won’t miss the toilet paper situation in this Village, or the crappy (no pun intended) quality of toilet paper in this country when it is acquirable.  I won’t miss the smell of perspiration. 
I have become indifferent to the cold showers, doing laundry by hand, and the feeling that I’m never truly clean because as soon as I step out of the shower, I seemingly walk into a red fog of dirt that sticks to every inch of my skin and makes everything feel gritty.  I don’t mind having to boil my water, or unplugging my electronics each time I leave the room for fear of power surges when the electricity comes on and off.  I don’t mind having to walk long distances to get anywhere, or waking up each time it rains during the night because of the immense noise the water makes when it hits the metal roof.  I don’t mind the slow internet (imagine dial-up slow), or eating food off of a plate and fork that were washed in not-so-clean water. 
There are far more pieces of Rwanda that I will dearly miss.  I will miss the friends I have made, most especially my “partner in crime” Maytal. 
my last full day in Rwanda was spent at Lake Muhazi
She began this journey with me and rarely do we spend a day apart from one another.  People actually regularly call us each other’s names because we are apparently one-in-the-same.  She knows my pulse, what makes me tick, what makes me smile, and she has been such an instrumental fixture in my life over the past year. 
my Rwandan big sister
I will miss Mable, my Rwandan big sister.  She has taught me so much, been so kind and loving, and made me feel welcome from the first day I met her back in December 2011.  (see photo of Mable and me below)  I will miss the safety and security that I feel in this country.  Everyone was so fearful of me coming to Rwanda, yet I have never felt safer in my entire life.  This is a country where everyone looks out for everyone else, violent crime is nearly non-existent, and white foreigners are a bit of an anomaly and are revered.  I will miss the endless vistas and beautiful landscapes across this entire country.  For a place so wrought by a violent past, there is so much peace and tranquility in the air here and I will miss that.  At night the air is filled with the sounds of crickets and frogs and a quiet stillness that seems to make the world pause.  I will miss the open-air markets.  I will miss the culture of this country.  To be surrounded by such patriotism that is unrelenting and consistent is admirable.  I will miss the little joys that I find in each and every day.  Sometimes it’s the discovery that the internet works or that there are bananas in the kitchen – it’s the little things in life that fill each day with bits of delight.  I will miss the amazing sights – seeing ladies lugging baskets filled with things atop their head while toting a baby on their back.  As described in The Poisonwood Bible so accurately, “the women are pillars of wonder, defying gravity while wearing the ho-hum aspect of perfect tedium.  They can sit, stand, talk, shake a stick at a drunk man, reach around their backs to fetch forth a baby to nurse, all without dropping their piled-high bundles upon [their heads].”  I will miss the colors of this country.  The trees and grass are the most brilliant shade of green my eyes have ever seen and the dirt is the most striking rust color imaginable.  The traditional tapestries are brightly printed pinks and oranges and greens and blues (see the photo of my present from my Rwandan family below). 
Maytal and me posing with the earrings and traditional fabric from our family
The fabrics are festive and joyful, even when they are covered in several layers of dust and dirt, and the fabrics are printed with some of the oddest things (imagine President Obama’s face plastered amid an orange and green paisley print).  I will miss the carelessness of clothing coordination.  Young and old alike wear plaids, polka dots, floral and gingham together as if they all complement one another.  It’s a tremendous sight to behold!  Most of all I will miss the kids in this Village.  They arrived with eyes that were filled with happiness and sorrow at the same time.  They were unexcited by anything and were mere passengers in life.  They had never had the opportunity to be kids and play, and rarely had felt the kind of love and affection that every child deserves.  Over the course of the year I have seen the students here emerge from their broken shells and transform into drivers of their destiny.  They are precious in every way imaginable.  I have come to love them for so many reasons and I have learned to let them love me.  Saying goodbye to them as they left the Village yesterday was absolutely heart-wrenching.  I was sobbing like I was sending my kids off to University!  They appreciate the work being done in the Village and the opportunities they have.  To have a student say to me, “thank you for being a part of my life” and “I will look at you as one of my best friends forever” is powerful.  To be told that my being here was “life-changing” for someone is astounding.  Understanding the kind of love that I gave and received here is something so very special that I hope to hold on to for the rest of my life.   

A great friend and source of strength for me (whom I met in Rwanda) told me that my grief has propelled me forward.  Without grief, this experience would have been wholly different.  Not better, not worse, just different.  The founder of this Village assured me that this would be the “perfect place” for me to heal my heart, and she was right.  There is something extraordinary that goes on inside the gates of this Village.  It can’t really be described because it’s in the air.  The energy here is unlike anything I have felt before, and that energy is filled with love and support and peace.  One of my brother Kurt’s close friends and I have been emailing each other all year and a few weeks ago I asked him what he thought Kurt would say about this journey of mine.  He said, “I hear him being thankful for the opportunity that you brought him there in the form of your person and the service that you have performed in the past year, inspired by his memory.”
final sunset from inside the Village
My parents were recently out with some friends when one of them asked point-blank, “was it really worthwhile for her (me) to go to Rwanda?”  I suppose it’s a valid (yet snarky) question.  Was it worthwhile?  How exactly can you “measure” an intangible experience like what I have had over the past year?  The truth is you can’t.  This experience and the value of it is something that can only be felt.  I can liken it to a heartbeat.  Cue the clip from Dirty Dancing where Johnny takes Baby’s hand and places it on his chest to feel the beat of his heart and the rhythm of the dance.  It took me a while, but I now feel the beat and the rhythm.   
I came here to restore the rhythm of life and indeed I believe I was successful. 

my Rwandan family

Sunday, November 4, 2012

7 Days and Counting...

Cheers!  I have 7 days left in Rwanda.  I suppose I am an analytical thinker at times, so I thought it'd be fun to tabulate my experience and show you what I have been up to over the past year.  This is what I call "By The Numbers"

Work-wise, I've been busy. 
  • Number of overnight guests: 161
  • Number of day visitors: 198
  • Number of service-learning groups: 5 
  • Number of work emails: 1,192
When I moved here, I brought a tremendous amount of toiletries with me, not knowing what I would be able to purchase in Kigali.  I went through most of it.  
  • Tubes of toothpaste: 4
  • Containers of contact solution: 2
  • Deodorant containers: 5
  • Bars of soap: 8
  • Number of toothbrushes: 3 
  • Bottles of hand sanitizer: 7
  • Number of sanitizer wipes: 50 (I call them portable showers)
This is the first time in my life where I have been afforded the opportunity to read for pleasure.  It was such a blessing.  Everywhere I went, I had a book in-hand (or my kindle, thanks to my LUAA family).  I'm addicted and I have no problem being labeled a "book worm."   The titles in BOLD were some of my favorites.  

Number of books read: 27
Hunger Games 1-3
Girl w/ Dragon Tattoo 1,2
Mountains Beyond Mountains
The Help
The Poisonwood Bible
The Happiness Project
The Pilot's Wife
Water For Elephants
The Art of Racing In The Rain
Discover Scotland
You Think You Know Me Pretty Well
A Rush to Violence
Blood Orchids
Every Bush is Burning
The Advocate
Three Thousand Miles For A Wish
Torch Ginger
September Fair
The Snowman
Into Thin Air
The 24th Letter
White Oleander
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

I have had a lot of difficulty sleeping over the past year, so it has been nice to be able to watch a little TV or a movie on my computer.  Luckily many of the visiting groups to the Village traded TV shows and movies with me, providing me with hours upon hours of entertainment.  
  • Number of movies watched: 39
  • Number of TV episodes viewed: 367
  • TV shows I now love:  The Good Wife, True Blood, The West Wing

Other Pertinent Numbers:        
  • Jars of peanut butter eaten: I’ll just say that I averaged 3-4 jars per month (~40 jars total) :)
  • Number of holes in my clothing: numerous
  • Items of clothing that are permanently stained the color of Rwandan earth: numerous
  • Number of flip-flops purchased: 2 (I couldn't help myself!)
  • Number of days when water, electricity and internet all functioned: less than 20
  • Haircuts: 0 
  • Pieces of Mail Received: 14 (THANK YOU!) and thanks to NPS for sending me a postcard even though I never received it :)
It is impossible to measure or sum up this experience in numbers, but this gives you a sense of some of the behind-the-scenes, mundane bits that have been a part of my life while living in Rwanda.  The more sentimental bits are coming in a future post, so stay tuned!

Monday, October 29, 2012

have a little faith

Yesterday I put on my custom-made Rwandan dress and I went to church – yes, I said church.  Faith is a huge component of restoring the rhythm of life here in the Village and until yesterday, I was not ready to face it up close and personal, in a formal setting.  My faith has certainly been tested in the past, and although it was shaken to its foundation in July 2011, I never fully abandoned it, even during the darkest hours of my grief.   I am not a religious person, but I am spiritual and there have been only a handful of days during my life when I have gone to sleep without praying and having some kind of faith.    

When I left my life back in the States to move to Rwanda for the year, a dear friend (and Rabbi) whom I leaned on quite a bit during my “questioning God” phase of grief put forward a statement as I readied to say goodbye to him.  He said that maybe my time away in Rwanda would somehow bring me closer to my faith, thus providing me with more answers than questions, and more comfort than pain.  I remember raising my eyebrows at his notion and sort of shrugging it off while skeptically saying, “maybe?”  Nearly one year later, I am starting to see his point and beginning to think that he was on to something when he spoke those words to me.  He is a Rabbi after all, and I suppose I never should have doubted him in the first place :)
Something Rwanda and this Village (and the church service yesterday morning) advocates is forgiveness.  It is spoken of at length, and there have been many times during this year that I have had to remove myself from discussions about forgiveness because I can’t help but think about my own struggle when it comes to how I think about and judge the girl who killed my brother.  I listen to accounts from students in the Village who have chosen to forgive their parents’ and siblings’ murderers, the people who decimated entire generations of their families and caused them to be deemed orphans, people who caused them unimaginable terror and trauma.  I shake my head in disbelief and amazement at their ability to forgive.  Maybe it is something they need to do in order to focus on their future and not dwell on their past.  Maybe they are more resilient than I am.  Maybe they are more kind-hearted than I am.  Maybe they have just had more time to come to terms with the hurt.  Being surrounded by a forgiving culture has impacted me and made me reflect quite a bit about forgiveness, however I am not ready to forgive, and quite honestly I don’t think I will ever be in a place where I will feel the need or ability to exonerate the girl who took my brother’s life.  I have never been one to easily, or ever forgive those who have wronged me, caused me pain, or shaken me to the core, and I am ok with that.  I don’t dwell on many personal attacks that have been inflicted upon me and therefore I see no reason to forgive those people.  I simply write them out of my life and move forward.  The girl who killed my brother is different.  She indirectly hurt me by hurting my brother.  She injured me in such a way that I will forever be a different person.  I will evermore be broken in some small way, and incomplete without my brother in my life.  She caused irreparable and irreversible damage to this world, and there is no part of me that has any inkling of forgiveness for her.  

Although the church service yesterday morning didn’t change my stance on forgiveness, it did fill me with a heightened sense of hope, love, and joy.  The service lasted 3 hours, with the first 2 hours being filled mostly with songs of worship and praise.  Nearly 100 of us were seated on the balcony of the dining hall, overlooking the Village and the surrounding hills and valleys as a gentle breeze blew through the open-air space.  Each time the students sang, goose bumps appeared on my arms and I was filled with a strong sense of something thrilling and delightful.  The songs were sung with so much passion and heart.  The entire congregation was standing as people stomped their feet, clapped their hands, raised their arms in praise and swayed to the wonderful African rhythms.  It was absolutely glorious!  I couldn’t stop myself from smiling and clapping along as I watched the students come alive and release themselves through the power of song.  These same students are the ones I see sitting at lunch after 6 hours of school, looking so preoccupied and absorbed by stress and strife and the weight of the world.  In church these kids were liberated and uninhibited and danced, danced, danced to thank God for all that He (Rwandans strongly believe that God is a man) has given them.  

The final hour was devoted to sermons, words of thanks by individual students, and a rousing song during the “offerings” period where students came forward with small monetary donations and placed the coins in the offering basket.  The contribution that each student brought forward should make you pause – remember that these students are THE most vulnerable youth in Rwanda, a country with a staggering percentage of people living in poverty, and here they were giving an offering to the church.  It was moving, to say the least. 

One of the Village Directors always advocates for students to believe in a higher power.  He doesn’t insist on them believing in God or going to church, or having a religion, but he encourages them to have faith.  He reminds them that they are each in the Village for a very specific reason and it is not by chance that they were selected.  They are THE chosen students, 500 in total, out of a country of millions of orphans.  Each day I look around at these chosen students and can’t help but think that I too was chosen to spend a year of my life at Agahozo.  Looking back over my time here in the Village, I can confidently say that I would not have progressed the way I have through my grief without Agahozo-Shalom, the work that I have committed myself to doing, and the people who surround me each day.  I am leaving this experience in two weeks more confident in my skin, more sure of who I am, more passionate about life, more compassionate and understanding with people, and more patient, loving, and trusting.  In a way, I have found a new inspiration for living.  I think I have the kids of Agahozo to thank for that transformation, along with the friends I have made here, but I also think I have to have a little faith that somebody up above had something to do with it as well.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

I’ll start with some culture, then have some gender, and finish with a piece of literacy

We recently celebrated three very important weeks in the Village.  Culture Week embraced the unique cultural norms of Rwanda, Gender Week brought to light the importance of equity, and Literacy Week highlighted the importance of reading and writing.  Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village incorporates education far beyond the walls of the LiquidNet Secondary School that sits at the highest point on the property.  Informal education is woven into every sector, every activity, and every conversation.  This is a living and learning community, and as we help the students here heal, we teach them how to embrace who they are in order to be influential and positive members of Rwandan society.  

traditional clothing worn by students during a sketch
Each night during Culture Week we discussed various topics that covered traditional and historical Rwandan cultural values, cultural norms that need and should be embraced and continued by today’s youth, and the do’s and don’ts in Rwanda when taking culture into account.  The week concluded with a Cultural Celebration where the Village elders wore traditional Rwandan clothing, traditional Rwandan music was performed, traditional Rwandan food was prepared and served, and traditional dances were presented on stage.   
I often find myself stupefied when students ask me to talk about American culture because I don’t know that such a thing actually exists in a singular form like it does here in Rwanda.  America is filled with so many cultures and ethnicities that each family seems to have its own traditions, customs, and rituals that have been handed down over decades and perhaps even centuries.  There is not a “one America” as there is a “one Rwanda” meaning that we don’t all blend together as one unit.  As I tried to explain this to the students, I found myself thinking that most customs and traditions seem to be drawn from religion in America, versus our cultural heritage.  Rosh Hashana fell during Cultural Week, so I shared a bit of wisdom about the Jewish Holiday and interwove it into a cultural celebration of sorts not for Americans, but for Jewish people all over the world.  
traditional Rwandan attire during a performance

Gender Week was about encouraging each and everyone in the Village to embrace who they are, love their whole selves, and hold on to the idea that gender will not stand in the way of their achievement.  The Village is comprised of 60% female, 40% male students, as that is equal to the ratio of female/male orphans in Rwanda.  Even though the females outnumber the males, there is still a male dominated overtone when it comes to achievement in school, and showcasing talent in music, dance and poetry.  The boys are far more outspoken and comfortable with their own voice, they do not shy away from trying new things, and they seemingly push themselves harder and achieve higher marks in school.  Do not get me wrong, there are some all-star females in our Village, but they are often overshadowed because they stand few and far between the boys.  Gender Week was about empowerment and bravery and being able to stand toe-to-toe against anyone, no matter their gender and have your voice be heard and your strengths shone.  It was about pushing past stereotypes and identifying what fits, not what is supposed to fit, or what has traditionally fit when it comes to gender roles.  It was about finding an inner strength and believing in yourself and your abilities, identifying your strengths, recognizing your weaknesses, and exploring your potential.  It was not about one gender being dominant over another, nor was it about equality, as men and women are not equal genders when it comes to every ability and task.  BUT, each gender has a purpose and each gender can and should achieve great things.  

a traditional painting by a first-year student
Literacy Week was all about reading.  I have been a reading fanatic since arriving in Rwanda, and for the first time in my life, I have really loved to read.  It offers a beautiful escape and adventure, while soothing my mind and soul.  On 5th October, 2012, the first ever Rwandan Public Library opened in Kigali.  In America, I believe that we take our libraries for granted and do not stop to think how many people in the world do not have access to books, let alone thousands that are housed in many of our own communities in the States.  One of my favorite conversations of the week happened during family time when my family discussed the importance of literacy for a developing country and its people, and we created a list of ways to increase the literacy among the Rwandan population.  At Agahozo, we have a small, yet adequate library housed inside a room in one of our club houses.  In my mind, we could greatly use more book donations, but even with the small amount we have, the girls in my family came up with the idea of sharing our books with the local Rubona community members.  They described a Rwandan-style book mobile concept, where we could take a wooden cart with wheels, load it with books, and go into the community to share our resources.  They talked about the danger of ignorance and how, “the more you read, the more you know.”  I loved that quote and even wrote it down in my personal journal.  The students at Agahozo understand the importance of reading and writing and have this insatiable thirst for knowledge and information.  I love looking around a room and seeing kids with books, reading to one another, asking questions, searching for answers - enjoying the gift that is literacy. 
Literacy Week came to a spectacular close with a Village-wide spelling bee where the top male and female speller from each grade battled it out for the title of top speller.  Although English is a foreign language to the students at Agahozo, and many of them have far more knowledge of two or three other languages, the vocabulary they were asked to spell was not elementary.  While sitting in the audience, spelling each word along with the contestants, I paused and thought to myself, "never did I think I would be in the audience of a spelling bee, cheering on the participants!"  I was really embracing and enjoying the moment.   

Each week has been so unique and special, and I can't help but respect how the Village stresses such important topics and lessons and infuses educational tidbits into the everyday lives of everyone who resides here.   Rwanda may be deemed a "developing country," but in some respects, it is far more developed than those at the top.