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 décor.  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


  1. Oh Barre, this was beautiful. I am sure you will forever be changed by your time in Rwanda. It will pulse through your veins and color your vision for years to come. I'm so glad I got to follow your journey. I can't wait to hear what you decide to do next!