Not too long ago, I was explaining Murphy’s law to my student Tanita. We had just had a singularly horrible day together, so it was an appropriate time to reconcile our misery with the humorous theory than anything that can go wrong, WILL go wrong. While Murphy’s law holds true for a number of my experiences in Rwanda, today was about another rather unfortunate law: Naomi’s law of things that sting.
As I was closing the library this afternoon, a student requested a bag. I keep a stash of bags in the inch of space between my wooden shelving unit and the wall, so I stuck my hand in to grab him one. Um. OW.
As the side of my hand filled with pinpricks of white-hot pain, I ran over to the window to investigate what I was sure was a splinter. Much to my surprise, I discovered several dozen tiny brown shards of something sticking out of my hand. This is an odd set of splinters, I thought, maybe I’ll ask maintenance to sand the side of my shelf so this doesn’t happen again. As I started to pull the barbs out of my hand, I realized they were not coming out as easily as they should be. Tanita happened to be in the Library along with another student and the two girls rushed over to see what was causing my yelps of pain.
“It’s ok, it’s just a splinter,” I said.
“Nope,” Tanita said. “Not a splinter.”
“Well then what is it?!”
“A caterpillar!” Diane said.
Just then a third student, David, who had heard my shouting from the dining hall, took one look at my hand and confirmed – “Naomi, this is definitely a caterpillar.”
David went back to the source to find the little nasty. Three inches long, with hair that would make Rapunzel jealous, the beasty looked like some kind of porquipine – tumbleweed lovechild. Not cute.
Ok great, multiple experts consulted, diagnosis confirmed. Treatment?
“You’re not going to like this,” Tanita said, as she picked up the large rock I use to keep my door open. Tanita majors in physics, chemistry, and biology, and has medical aspirations, so naturally she was prepared to perform my surgery. Diane held my hand out and twisted it toward the light, while Tanita took a deep breath. I closed my eyes and screamed as Tanita took her rock and ran it up and down my hand, essentially ripping the barbs out along with the top layer or two of skin. A few moments later, my hand was a bit raw and a bit dirty, but totally free of caterpillar barbs.
Which brings us to Naomi’s law of things that sting: If it has fangs, spikes, or venom of any kind, it will find me and it will bite me. From ants, to spiders, mosquitoes, to bed bugs, and now caterpillars, no centimeter of my skin is safe from the things that inexplicably always seem to want to eat me. Ugh.
I’m sorry in advance. Or after the fact. I’m not sure which one makes more sense in this situation. Either way, there’s a ton of things that at one point or another, Stella expressly told me I should not do. I’m coming to the end of my time here in Rwanda (t-minus 11 weeks!) and I’ve been feeling reflective, which has inspired me to think about all the things I’ve done over the past two years that I maybe shouldn’t have done. #sorrymom
Left the house without sunscreen
Got dehydrated. Pretty much every day.
Forgot to take anti-malarial medication every day in year 1
Decided not to take anti-malarial at all in year 2
Skipped a shower (or two. Ok fine sometimes three. Whatever, we live in the middle of nowhere)
Delayed filing my absentee ballot, which prevented me from voting. Leave me alone, I live in a reliably blue state.
Talked to strange men
Walked outside barefoot
Wore leggings to work. Many, many times.
Got less than 8 hours of sleep. As in, I live with 525 teenagers, and I can count on two hands how many solid nights of sleep I’ve had in this place.
Ate french fries and ice cream for dinner
Told strangers where I come from
Told strangers where I live
Told strangers what hotel I was staying at
Left personal items unattended at the beach
Got into cars with strangers
Rode in the back of a truck
Rode in the back of a truck, while hitchhiking
Walked alone at night
Allowed my cellphone battery to die
Traveled without a cellphone
Spent money on expensive flights
Traveled to Malawi
Traveled to Tanzania
Traveled in Rwanda by myself
Got drunk in a foreign country
Ate strange fruits and vegetables from local markets
Ate strange fruits and vegetables from local markets without washing them first
Stayed in hostels
Failed to bring my own pillowcase to hostels
Failed to wear shoes in the shower
Bought only one of things, instead of two (Stella has a thing for buying things in pairs. Don’t ask.)
Failed to call home at least once a week
Went places by myself, without telling anyone else where I was going
Allowed someone else to wash my underwear
Used plates and silverware that were questionably hygienic
Drank tap water
Rode on motos
Ate bread on Passover (smite me, oh mighty Smiter!)
Went for a run by myself in the dark
Forgot to floss
Ignored my student loans (the half-hearted attempts to cover the accruing interest notwithstanding)
Exercised while injured
Failed to go to the doctor when I was clearly sick
Spent the night at a hospital in a foreign country
Spent the night at the hospital without calling anyone to come help me
Lost a lot of weight really fast, without going to the doctor to make sure there was no sinister underlying cause
Got attached to my life in Rwanda, chose not to remember that my time here is temporary, allowed myself to get overly emotionally invested in a group of people that I will have to leave come November
Part of my job includes making home visits over the vacations. While I was only required to visit half of my family (mama will visit the other half) visiting kiddos in their villages is a really cool way to travel up and down and all around the country so I set the ambitious goal of visiting all 18 of the girls in my family. Most of my journeys started from Nybugogo bus station. Nybugogo is downright terrifying. An intricately overwhelming beehive of activity, it makes Grand Central look like a local train station and Mahane Yehuda seem like a well organized grocery store. The second you walk through the entrance of Nybugogo, you’re surrounded by a crowd of young men who work for the different companies. Their major job responsibility seems to be to convince travelers by any means necessary to choose their company. They shout the names of different destinations and often try to push or pull you toward their kiosk. While extremely intimidating, this is also really helpful. With its dozens and dozens and dozens of busses and hundreds of people, the bus station is nearly impossible to navigate safely unless you already know exactly which kiosk you’re looking for and where it is. Since I don’t usually know where I’m going, I stand at the entrance of the station, do my best to be hyper aware of my surroundings, and wait for whichever lucky scout gets to me first. Then I’m led by the hand (or the shoulder, or the arm, and one time pulled by my purse) through the station, narrowly avoiding being run over by busses and people and motos. My helper will lead me to his company of choice and, unless I have some objection, he’ll help me buy the ticket to my destination. He’ll then take me to the bus, make sure that I have an acceptable seat, and tell the driver where I need to be dropped off. The minutes between the time I’m seated and the time we actually leave the station are filled with dozens of people who come up to knock on the windows of the bus. They sell drinks, snacks, headphones, clothing, jewelry, and just about anything else you can carry on your head- and where I come from that means pretty much everything. Somehow the bus pulls out of the station without hitting anyone and then I spend the next two or three hours (or four if I’m really lucky) hoping that I ended up on the right bus…
Ines lives in Butare, a city in the Southern Province, about two hours away from Kigali. Butare is often called the intellectual capital of Rwanda because it houses the University and the National Ethnographic Museum. It’s also home to Inzozi Nziza which was the first soft-serve ice cream shop in Rwanda. For all the cows and milk and heat in Rwanda, you’d think there would be more ice cream, but you’d be wrong. Ines picked me up from the bus station and we took a short walk to the museum where we looked at the exhibits and chatted about everything from traditional basket weaving to ancient rain coats to whether or not we would have enjoyed being the wife of a chief.Afterward we walked to get some deliciously creamy homemade ice cream and take selfies. On our walk to her home, I asked Ines to show me her favorite place in her city. She pointed to an indoor market- nothing special, just a grocery store and a bank and a few other small shops inside.
Ines why is this your favorite place?
Because when I was young my mother used to give me some money to walk here and buy bread. She would give me 1000 francs and the bread cost only 500 so I had 500 left over to buy some samosas or capati or whatever else I wanted.
I looked at her and laughed. Ines is confident, brilliant, hilarious,and full of spicy sassiness. I was not at all surprised to hear that her favorite place was actually a monument to her first experiences with responsibility and independence.
We walked to her home, shared snacks with her younger sister and enjoyed lunch with their mother. They wanted me to spend the night, but I explained that tomorrow I have to go visit another cousin, who lives in the north eastern most corner of Rwanda- a 3 hour drive from Kigali and at least 6 hours from the south western corner we were in. With hugs and smiles and prayers for my safe journey home, the girls put me on the bus and waved me on my way.
I’m not fully convinced Esther actually lives in Rwanda. Three and a half hours north east of Kigali in the small piece of Rwanda that separates Ugandan and Tanzania, lies the small town of Matimba, where Esther and her earnest joyfulness eagerly waited for me by the bus station. Matimba is literally a stone’s throw away from Uganda- just a measly 200 meters from Esther’s house. I brought my passport with me, just in case we tripped and fell out of Rwanda. I’d love to say I watched the landscape slowly change from city to the banana plantations to the dusty savannah that Esther lives in, but truth be told I fell solidly asleep for the entire bus ride and relied solely on the kindness of strangers to get me to my destination. You have to understand, Esther compulsively and completely takes care of me. She could compete with the most neurotic of Jewish mothers, from making sure I’ve eaten enough to sending me to bed if I look tired. Needless to say, Esther was utterly horrified at the prospect of her non-Kinyarwanda speaking cousins traveling to a remote and somewhat hard to find village on busses and motos. She demanded that I call her from the bus so she could talk to my driver and make sure he would keep an eye on me, and then she called me every hour so she would know when to send her friends to pick me up from the bus station. Through her persistent checking in, I made it to her house safe and sound. We had lunch, munched on homegrown sugar cane, and walked around the village to check out the new irrigation system her village had just installed – very exciting. We walked toward the Ugandan border but decided not to cross, so instead we waved to the Ugandan monkeys hanging out on the other side of the bridge, and I embarked on my long journey back to Kigali.
Tanita lives in Gikondo, which is a neighborhood of Kigali so she was easy to get to. A quick moto ride brought me into a dusty neighborhood where Tanita and her adorable little brother were waiting for me. She wanted me to have the ‘real experience of her daily life’ so we walked down to the corner store to buy beans, tomato paste, and charcoal. As soon as we got home, we got to work, chopping up onions and cooking the rice. While our sauce was thickening, we played with her little neighbors. I’m used to it by now- the big eyed awed expression of the little ones who don’t usually see white people, let alone actually get to play with them and touch their hair. One of the Village mottos is ‘don’t pay me back, just pay it forward’ so I asked Tanita, who’s a naturally talented teacher, if she and her brother had started teaching the little ones some English words. She answered that she hadn’t thought to do that, so we got right to work. Twenty minutes later, little Caleb knew the words for eyes, ears, mouth, and nose and not-so-little Tanita understood that even though she hasn’t yet graduated, she has incredible potential to be a change-maker and she can get started right on her own front steps.
Fiona and Annet
Fiona and Annet live in small villages in the Eastern Province, close to the Tanzania border. Neither of them speak very good English, so my visits were brief and full of selfies. Even though communicating wasn’t so easy, it was still really nice to see my girls and meet their guardians. We munched on cookies while I toured their homes, meeting their goats and chickens along the way. Plus, both girls got to feel like A-list celebrities as they paraded their Muzungu cousin though their villages so that’s always nice too.
Fiona & Siblings
Berthe lives in Gastato, a neighborhood of Kigali. A short moto ride led me to the bottom of a very steep hill, which Berthe and I climbed for about 20 minutes until we reached the dusty top. She explained that because she’s so far uphill, there’s no running water in her house, so instead they have to pay for water to be delivers each day – about 6 cents for a jerrycan of water. Berthe lives with her mother and four of her six siblings. The oldest two are half siblings who live in Burundi. Berthe herself spent most of her life in Burundi. Her father died when she was young, so she and two of her siblings were sent to live with aunts in Burundi in order to make life more affordable for her mom. When war broke out, she was sent back to Rwanda where she could safely remain in school. Each member of her family speaks a different combination of languages, from mom who grew up in Congo but now lives in Rwanda, to older brother and younger sister who grew up with Berthe in Burundi, to the young ones who have never lived outside of Rwanda but learn English in school. Their common denominator is Kinyarwanda, but Berthe admitted she often mixes in a little Kiburundi because the languages are so similar. When I asked Berthe what she enjoys doing on vacation she looked at me with her broad smile and sparkly eyes and said she loves sitting in her living room with all of her siblings, because until last year, she’s never been in the same room with all of them at the same time. “They make a lot of noise, Cousin”, she told me, “but it’s a good kind of noise. That’s why I am glad to be home- because I now have time to getto know my siblings.” She took me outside and said proudly “When I stand here, I can see all of Kigali.”As she pointed out each of the neighborhoods of the city, I couldn’t help but remember one of ASYV’s mottos – ‘if you see far you will go far’. Berthe, who fluently speaks five languages (English, Kinyarwanda, Kiburundi, Kiswahili, and French, in case you were wondering), can see incredibly far. “I want to write a book about my life,” she told me decisively, “but first I have to know the rest of my family.”
Diane and Diane
I have two Dianes in my family – we refer to them as Tall Diane or Small Diane. Small Diane lives in Kigali, so a short moto ride brought me to her modest house. Unfortunately, her Aunt wasn’t around when I came to visit, so instead we drank Fantas and watched a movie until it was time for me to move on to my next visit. Tall Diane lives in Nyamata, a village about an hour south of Kigali. Nyamata is home to an incredibly moving Genocide memorial so my visit to Diane needs more than a few sentences to describe. You can read all about it here.
Adelphine, Egidie, Theophile, and Delice
The day started in Kigali, where Mama Ernestine met me at the bus station. We hopped on a bus to the Eastern province of Rwamagana, just a stones throw away from the Village. We met Adelphine’s adorable grandma and had our first (of many) Fantas of the day. From there, we walked to Egidie’s house to meet her mom, have lunch, and enjoy Fanta number 2. A rainy bicycle ride took us to Theophile’s house where we were treated to lunch number two and Fanta number three – that’s three sodas and two full meals within about four hours. We had planned to go to Delice’s house, but the sudden downpour made that impossible sooo instead we got comfortable and cracked open a bottle of homemade Urwagwa and waited for the storm to pass. Urwagwa is a cider type drink made of fermented bananas and is very much a part of Rwandan culture. It’s extremely strong and drunk at room temperature. Theophile’s uncle had so much fun watching me drink it, that he insisted I take a liter home.
The next day, Mama met me at the Village and we traveled for about an hour to get to Delice’s house. Delice lives in a simple but clean hut with her mother and sisters – all of whom look identical with their big eyes, trim physiques, and matching hijabs. We shared a hot cup of tea and a piece of sweet bread and took a short walk around her village while Mama Ernestine listened to Delice’s mother share their family’s story, starting with their experience in the Genocide. Delice lives on the side of a beautiful hill and she took me through her favorite path. Neither Delice nor her family speak much English,dec so before long, Mama and I set off for a rainy journey home.
Ange and Delphine
Ange and Delphine live in the Eastern province, about halfway between Kigali and the Village. A quick bus ride and a treacherous moto trip brought me to Ange’s home. Her mother died when she was young, so now she lives with her maternal uncle, his wife, and their children. Her yard is filled with the cheep cheeping of baby chickens, and after greeting her three cows and having a light lunch of green bananas, we set out to find Delphine’s aunt’s house. Once we got there, we munched on sweet bananas and marveled at the resemblance between Delphine, her cousin, and her aunt. We took a short walk around the house, and I was sent home with a papaya one of their trees produced.
I had a ball with Hope’s family. She lives in Kigali with her mom, older brother, and two younger sisters. Her brother graduated from ASYV the year before she joined, and the whole family speaks fluent English, which meant that I was actually able to interact with everyone without needing translation. When I arrived, lunch was being prepared so the only thing to do was put on a wrap and get to slicing. About an hour later, we had created a bona fide feast! We sat around the table and had a meal that could compete with Thanksgiving, complete with profuse prayers for everyone’s health, safety, and success.
Annoncee lives in the village of Shorezo, about halfway between Kigali and Musanze, way up in the Northern Province. After a long walk up a steep hill, we arrived at the small mud hut she shares with her ancient and adorable grandparents. Annoncee ran to fetch her toddler cousins to say hello, which had the immediate effect of all three children violently bursting into tears of terror. I pacified them by pulling out my phone and using my camera to show them their reflections. Annoncee’s grandparents also wanted a look and the expressions on their elderly faces told me that its been quite a long time since they last had an opportunity to see their own reflections. You could almost hear the thoughts running through their minds – ‘goodness I’m getting old, is that what I look like now?’ On my walk back down the hill, we passed Annoncee’s uncle, who, she explained, provides her the money she needs to get back and forth to school. As we shook hands, I took a moment to appreciate all of the people who barely have enough to sustain themselves, yet come together to contribute what little they have in order to support the younger members of their families.
Liliose and Ratifa
Liliose and Ratifa live in North bumblefuck, just outside of Musanze in the Northern Province. My friend Daniel was visiting over vacation, so we combined the trip to the girls’ houses with a hike up Mount Bisoke and a trip to Lake Kivu. We decided to rent a car rather than dealing with busses, which was a great call considering how hard it was to get to Liliose’s home. 40 minutes up a dirt path of volcanic rock, and we found ourselves in a tiny village with a breathtaking view of Lake Ruhondo.
Liliose lost both her parents in a terrible accident about 11 years ago, so she lives with four of her five siblings. The eldest sister is married and lives in Musanze, about an hour away by car, but probably closer by moto, since they handle the treacherous dirt paths much more easily than our car did. Liliose is the youngest student in our family, so it was fun to meet her younger sisters. She has only one brother, whose about 8 years older than she is and excitedly told us all about his post-high school volunteer work that was filling his time while he waits for news about university admissions. They still live in the same house their parents chose before their deaths, and incredibly all 6 of the siblings speak fluent English. We shared some pineapple, snapped a selfie, and set off for Ratifa’s house. We tucked Liliose into the backseat and I was hit with an overwhelming wave of protective instinct as I struggled with her seat belt buckle.
We drove down the dust path, through Musanze, and out the other side to reach Ratifa’s house. With no surviving parents, Ratifa lives with a guardian who took her and another orphan into his home. He’s a kind man who works for the hospital and spent the entirety of our visit thanking me profusely for the work we do for vulnerable children. While he’s right, the work we do is difficult, critical, and deeply impactful, the time we spend supporting our student pales in comparison to the sacrifices and impossible decisions their guardians have had to make on their behalves.
Having met and shared smiles with all of my girls’ families I’m truly grateful for the people who will protect them, feed and clothe them, and guide them once my time in their country comes to an end. Though saying goodbye to my Rwandan cousins will be impossibly hard, that’s what I’ll have to do in just a few short months and it’s incredibly reassuring that every one of my girls has at least one person in their lives who will be there to take care of them once I’m gone.
Malawi, a Chichewa word which loosely translates to “Land of Extremely Long and Sweaty Bus Rides” hosted two travelers for their term break. This is their story.
The travelers began their journey with a day in the capital city, Lilongwe. They explored the markets and marveled at the strange fruits and vegetables they encountered there. They tasted a local dish, nsima (prounounce see-ma), which is made of maize flour and is a staple in Malawian cuisine. After a day in the city (there’s really not much to do there) the travelers embarked on a six-hour bus ride from Lilongwe to Cape Maclear.
Cape Maclear was a paradise the likes of which the travelers had not experienced in quite some time! They stayed at a charming and beautiful lodge along the shores of Lake Malawi. They spent their days gorging on delicious food, splashing in the cool waters of the lake, and buying souvenirs for their friends and families. They took a boat ride out to the various islands of the lake, they fed fish-eagles, watched monkeys play in the treetops that line the shore, and snorkeled with the brightly colored cichlids. In the evenings, they feasted on freshly caught fish and homemade smoothies. The lake was a perfect place for the two travelers to rest and reflect.
After three days though, the travelers grew restless. What else is there to see in this country, they wondered? With that, they took a seven-hour bus ride to the Zomba Plateau, a region in the south. They stayed at a truly terrible hotel, ate two of the worst meals in recent history, and took off for a hiking adventure, desperate to redeem their time in the area.
Oh! Were the travelers treated to such beauty! On the plateau, they discovered vendors selling sweet berries, which the travelers gobbled up until their stomachs protested. With berries in hand, the travelers spent two butterfly- waterfall- wildflower filled days exploring the plateau and enjoying a break from the heat. They hiked over boulders, through fields, and under pine trees.
On the second day they followed a guide, who along with extensive knowledge about the plateau and the country, also shared a love for food. The travelers were so excited! They wanted to learn more about cooking nsima and other local foods, and they wanted to introduce new recipes to their friend. One thing led to another and it was decided that the travelers would join their new friend and his girlfriend at their home to share a meal.
As soon as the travelers came down from the mountain, they rushed to the market. What fun they had, picking out the ingredients they would need for their evening! They gathered everything they needed and prepared themselves for their dinner. Within two minutes of arriving at the modest but beautiful home, the travelers were outfitted for meal preparations, and they began washing and chopping and roasting. Three hours were spent together, with the four friends cooking and teaching and learning. Such a feast they created! The travelers showed their friends how to cook shakshuka and babaganoush and they learned how to make nsima and banana cake. The travelers were giddy with excitement! They couldn’t wait to try these new recipes back in Rwanda. The four friends sat together and ate and ate and ate until they thought they would burst! They shared stories and laughs and they appreciated the rare joy that such a serendipitous evening creates. When they parted with smiles on their faces, the four friends knew what a special moment they had shared. Though the travelers knew they would not likely meet these friends again, they knew the memory of the evening would remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Having thoroughly explored Lake Malawi and the Zomba Plateau, the two travelers decided to return to the city to prepare themselves for the long journey home. They opted to split the ten-hour travel into two parts, so they wouldn’t have to spend so long on the bus. Little did the two travelers know what was in store for them….
They boarded their bus early in the morning. The bus was relatively empty, but this didn’t concern the travelers. Two hours later, they were still sitting in exactly the same spot. Tired and frustrated, the travelers tried to investigate what was going on. As it turns out, the driver had no intention of moving the bus until it was so full that the last several passengers would have to stand! The travelers were flabbergasted – in their home country of Rwanda, this has never happened. They decided to take action. Several moments of juggling later, and the travelers were doing their best to attract other passengers to their bus. Finally, after another hour, the bus began its journey.
Two hours later, the travelers were informed that they needed to transfer busses. With a final kick in the backside, the travelers sent their bus on its way. They demanded front seats on their next bus and settled in for four more hours on the road. By the time they reached their destination, they had just enough time to eat dinner and dip their toes in the water before falling deeply, deeply asleep.
The next morning, the travelers boarded their very last Malawian bus. They arrived back in the city and stopped by the market one last time to fill up on roasted sweet potatoes, fresh guavas, and one final serving of nsima. The next day, having done their part for the Malawian local economy and sufficiently worked on their tans, the two travelers boarded their plane and returned home, rested and ready for their work to resume.
It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’ve fallen soundly and deeply asleep against the window of the bus. I’m woken by a gentle tap, tap, tap on my shoulder. “Sister,” he says, “This is where you need to get off. Have a safe journey.”
Zipping though the city on the back of a moto. HONK HONK. Another driver motions to mine that we should pull over. He shouts something at us in Kinyarwanda as he flies by, something that causes my driver to turn around and look at me. What’s happening? My driver looks down at me and pulls my legs further up on the foot pedals so I’m more secure. We don’t pull back into traffic until he’s satisfied I’m sitting as safely as possible.
We’re at the market, eyeing a bundle of fresh mint leaves. We’ve never bought these before so we don’t know what a reasonable price should be, but we know we’re definitely being overcharged when the vendor says 700 francs. We haggle, and bring him down to 500. Just when we’re about to pay, a voice whispers in my ear.
“Don’t pay a franc over 200,” the voice says with a wink. I look up and see the vendor from the next stall has come over to interfere with the transaction. Thank you, we say to him, as we insist on the lower price. The vendor rolls his eyes and accepts our 200 francs, while his neighbor returns cackling to his own stand.
The bus pulls over to let the young mother get off. She’s struggling with two bags and a small baby. She can’t manage the baby and the bags and we can see panic and frustration rising in her face. Like a well oiled machine, the people sitting closest to her spring into action. A split second later, the baby has been taken out of her arms and passed over to me, the closest passenger with two empty hands. Her bags are lifted out of the bus and a hand is offered to help her step over the other passengers and their various belongings. She steps off the bus, adjusts her bags, and looks up for her child, who is being gently and carefully passed through a window into her waiting arms.
It’s late at night and I’m on my way back to the Village. I’ve already made arrangements to make sure there will be a moto waiting for me so I don’t have to stand alone at the station. I step off the bus and hear the familiar beep-beep of a moto. He takes one look at my short sleeve t-shirt and hands me a jacket to wear before we take off into the darkness.
I’m lying in a hospital bed with a fever of 102. I’m asleep and awake at the same time and am suddenly aware of gentle hands smoothing my blankets. I open my eyes and discover that the mama from the next bed has come over to tuck me in. She brushes the hair out of my face and readjusts my pillow. A short while later, the young man she came in with comes to check on me.
I heard the nurses say that you don’t have a caretaker with you – is that true?
Yes, but I’m fine.
You? You are not fine. Look at you. You are definitely not fine. But that’s ok because I’m here now and I’ll take care of you even though you think you are fine.
We’re traveling through a busy city. The bus pulls into an unfamiliar station and I look up just in time to notice the man sitting next to my sleeping friend reach his arm across her body. I’m immediately alert and tense until I realize he’s just closing the window she’s resting against. He notices me watching him and says simply, “Someone might reach in and steal her phone.”
We’re not lost, not yet anyway. We’re trying to explain to our moto drivers where we need to go, but it’s a bit outside the city and all we have is a simple map. No major landmark, no other way to explain where we need to go. We’ve never been there before, so we can’t even direct the drivers on the way. As we’re trying to explain, more and more drivers approach. They discuss, they debate, they’re still unsure of where we need to go. A well-dressed man sees the commotion and comes over to investigate. His English is good and we explain where we’re trying to go. He knows the place and quickly explains to our drivers how to get us there. Thank you, we say, thank you so much.
Don’t thank me, he says to us. This is what we do. We take care of our families, we take care of our neighbors, and we take care of our guests. This is just what we do.
6:45 – arrive at school, observe welcoming ceremony for the official start of Term 1
7:15 – mobilize the Ministers to help get our first year students to their classrooms and help distribute school supplies. Watch with obscene pride as Ministers organize themselves, anticipate the needs of the people around them, and work together to meet those needs and solve problems in real time
9:15 – teach
10:00 – solve library-related problems
10:55 – teach
12:30 – lunch
1:30 – walk back up the hill to school
2:15 – teach
2:55 – walk home from school, stop in the Dining Hall to take cover from the pouring rain
3:30 – turn off phone, yoga for 1 hour
5:00 – meet student in Library to work on an application for an incredible opportunity that’s due….tonight
6:53 – finish application (it’s perfect! Go us!)
7:00 – stare in disbelief as the computer we are using logs out of the student’s account and won’t let us log back in because it’s past 7 pm
7:01 – call the tech guy and try to problem solve
7:02 – lots of deep breaths
7:03 – accept that there is nothing we can do to log in to the student’s account until tomorrow morning
7:04 – go to dinner
8:00 – meet student to rewrite entire application – this time on my computer where nothing unexpected or unsolvable is likely to happen
8: 44 – finish application (thank God)
8:45 – submit application
8: 47 – have critical conversation with student about how wonderful she is, how great it will be if she wins, and that she should manage her expectations so she won’t be crushed if she isn’t accepted
8:50 – organize one last stack of books, glance over lesson plans for tomorrow, realize that I have literally not stopped moving since 5:30 in the morning. Reflect on how every second of this day was completely jam packed with productive and enjoyable work. Think about all the perfect faces I saw today, all the hugs and high-fives I gave and received, all the little moments of love in between the tasks of the day. Decide that I’ve done enough for one day, and that I should go to sleep, so I can do it all again tomorrow.
What a difference a year makes! The Cousins have been in Rwanda for two weeks and oh my goodness is it so much easier this time around! Our travel was smooth and uneventful, all of our luggage arrived in tact, and we made it to Kigali without shedding a single tear. After a few days of jet-lag induced late night chats, our little Cousin group is already starting to feel like family. While the new Cousins got to know Rwanda, I spent time catching up with some of my Kigali-based kiddos, which was beyond delicious. Peter cooked up a beautiful Christmas eve/ first night of Hanukkah dinner and we spent Christmas Day cloud watching at the Hotel Des Mille Collines.
A very Rwandan Christmas
There is no happy like ‘reunited with Ministers’ happy
We arrived at the Village early last week and amidst dozens of hugs and ‘how are yous’ we allowed ourselves to be enveloped by the undeniable feeling of home this place cultivates. We had a few days to prepare for our new students, so we spent time with the management staff of the Village learning about all the programmatic and structural changes the Village developed over the break. Suffice it to say that the management team has been extremely busy – the Village has been turned upside down and inside out. The changes seem to be moving in the right direction and while I have a feeling our older students will flip, I think things are definitely going to work more smoothly from now on. The biggest change is that there are usually 8 families per grade, and this year there will be only 6. We’ll have the same number of students, just larger families. Unfortunately, it also means that Taylor and I won’t be assigned new families. It’s a little disappointing, but it means we’ll be able to continue focusing on our families from last year. It also means I’ll have the freedom to visit different families every day for meals and family time, which will help me achieve my lofty goal of knowing all 528 students by name.
While the other Cousins were settling in, I was ready to hit the ground running. I reset the Library to its pre-winterization glory and I organized the 200ish books I had brought with me from the book drive. I’m sad I wasn’t able to bring all of the donations with me, but the rest of the books will make their way over with different visitors over the course of the next few weeks, so no worries. Our new students will spend the next three weeks in orientation English classes, so I got to work on creating fun and engaging lesson plans for the other Cousins to help me teach. We prepped the family houses for the new students and welcomed them on Thursday morning. After a full weekend of name learning and game playing, the kids were ready to start English classes.
Unlike last year, I actually know what I’m doing this time around which, to be honest, is really refreshing. Monday marked the beginning of my fourth year of classroom teaching, and if the year turns out to be as successful as our first day of school was, I will be one happy Cousin. The kids (who showed up 30 minutes earlier than expected) were quickly organized into their classrooms and ready to learn. The Cousins executed the lesson plans beautifully. The materials were prepared, problems were solved, and the kids walked away feeling like the school is a place of safety, learning, and fun. As I checked in on each classroom throughout the morning, I was just blown away by the incredible team of fellows I get to work with and the amazing students I’ll have in my classes this year. Already we can see that their levels of English are significantly higher than last year’s group, which means my job will be significantly easier this time around. I’ll spend the next three weeks planning word games and confidence building activities to prepare the kids for real classes, which will start on the 23rd. I’ll also be working with a consultant the Village has hired to support the teachers and help me develop the English program into a sustainable curriculum. I’ll be putting all of the new kids into the library software so they can check out books, and in my spare time, I’ll be marinating on how to include more leadership development programming for my ministers. Words simply fail to capture how truly and thoroughly happy I am to be home, and how hard I am ready to work for my kiddos this year. I’m so looking forward to a new year with new students, new Cousins, and new adventures, all while applying the lessons and skills I learned last year. Having six weeks at home was nice, but it’s time to roll up my sleeves, put my dirty sneakers back on, and get back to work.
“Are you strong?” she asked, and with her big brown eyes she asked me again, this question which has never been afforded to the young ones of Rwanda, let alone the genocide victims we were approaching. “Cousin, are you strong?”
April is the month of mourning in Rwanda, and this year the country marks the 22nd anniversary of the 1994 Genocide. I’m in Nymata, visiting one of my girls, and after a day of chatting and eating with her various family members and neighbors, her sisters and I walked the quietly peaceful streets of her village until we arrived at the Nyamata church. The walk, maybe half a mile, took us over 30 minutes because we had to stop and greet every passerby. Greeting is very important in Rwandan culture – I have seen meetings literally come to a screeching halt when a newcomer arrives, in order for that person to individually greet everyone in the room with a hug and a handshake. Greeting is particularly important if you are a Muzungu, because, after all, it’s not everyday a white woman walks through town.
Arrival to the church is abrupt; one moment you’re in town, shooing away the men trying to sell used clothing, cell phone credit, or snacks, and the next moment you’re entering a genocide memorial site. It’s fitting when you think about it, because April 6th 1994 ended quite normally with a typical Rwandan sunset, and by noon the next day hundreds of innocent men, women, and children, were being hunted down and brutally murdered by their neighbors and friends and family. Only one hundred or so days later, hundreds of thousands of people had been slaughtered in their homes, workplaces, on the streets, and everywhere in between all across the hilly countryside of Rwanda.
The Nyamata church was no exception. Most Rwandans are deeply deeply deeply (I cannot emphasize this enough) deeply religious, and on April 10th, hundreds of Tutsi civilians fled to this house of God, thinking this place would be safe from the madness sweeping the country. Devastatingly, they were mistaken. The genocidaires threw grenades at the iron gates, shot through the corrugated metal roof, and the 10,000 or so innocent people were slaughtered in their church as they did the only thing imaginable under such circumstances: prayed. The church was preserved in order to allow survivors the opportunity to mourn and pay their respects.
The church is a small building. Maybe it accommodated two hundred worshippers and it’s easy to imagine how they would have filled this space with their joyful songs every Sunday. The walls are white (well reddish-white, because not even church walls are spared from the layer of clay-dust that covers literally every surface in Rwanda) and the exposed brick creates a simple backdrop for the small statue of the Virgin Mary. She hasn’t been moved, by the way, since the day she watched her community’s murder, and now she stands solemnly and greets the memorial’s visitors. The pews of the church, where once sat a lively mixed community of both Hutus and Tutsis, are now covered in the clothing worn by the victims of the Nyamata Massacre. Reminiscent of the shoes which line the pathways of Yad Vashem, the clothes and jewelry left behind are an undeniable testimony to the lives abruptly cut short. They were real people. They really lived and they really died, right here on these very seats, while you and I were having lovely spring days in April.
“Are you strong?” she asked. She didn’t bother asking her 12 year old sister who had come along. “Cousin, are you strong?” pleaded her 22 year old sister, as she looked around, and prepared to shield me if my face showed any trace of fear or weakness. “Are you strong?” my 17 year old cousin asked once more, as she took my hand and let me down the steep white tile stairs to a small basement below the church. There, laid out on the glass, were displayed dozens and dozens and dozens of skulls and bones. These are the people who died here, the girls explained. Some of them have coffins but many, too many, are left so open and exposed that one could reach out and touch them if they wanted to. It’s impossible not to think about the Holocaust in such a place, and I caught myself thinking ‘These survivors are lucky to know exactly where their loved ones’ remains are’.
Are they though? Are they lucky? Walking through the mass tomb reveals a simple truth, known to anyone who knows anything about the Rwandan genocide: these people died horrible, violent, impossibly personal deaths. The tools used to slaughter them are displayed on what used to be the alter of the church: government supplied machetes, kitchen knives, sharp tools, and just about anything else that could be used to tear apart a human being. You don’t need a degree in forensic anthropology to infer the trauma these people experienced and they pain they must have felt before their deaths. Many of the skulls have grisly cracks, while others are missing huge chunks – revealing, of course, that these people had been struck at close range with machetes, presumably wielded by a neighbor and in some cases, even a family member.
No, I decided, I would not feel lucky if my friends and family were displayed in such a way. And yet, there were my three Rwandan cousins, holding my hands, leading me through the darkest moment of their personal history, saying quiet words of remembrance to the members of their community whom they would never have the chance to greet along the dirt roads of their quiet, peaceful village.
We paid our respects to Antonia Locatelli, an Italian citizen living in Rwanda, who vocally protested the genocide and worked to alert the global community as to the horrors being carried out in every village and city across the country. She was murdered for her efforts, and now she rests alongside those she tried to save.
The girls led me away from the memorial and began to explain the details of their family’s experience. They wanted to know- had I noticed their mother’s scars on her arms and legs? No I hadn’t, because everyone in this country older than 22 has been affected by the genocide in one way or another, and my American political- correctness has trained me not to dwell on noticing physical differences like scars or missing limbs. Did I realize that their eldest sister is 28 years old and the second born is 22? She was born in January, just three months old when her government made a series of decisions which forever changed the narrative of her country’s history and future. Just three months old, when her mother fled to this very church in an attempt to protect them from their neighbors- turned- murderers. Just three months old, when her mother was beaten, left bleeding, and sentenced to death by machete. Just three months old, when they somehow escaped- a young mother, her six year old, and their brand new, three month old baby.
My girls walked me out of the memorial, holding my hands, and (despite my protests) buying me chocolates for my journey home. Had I enjoyed my visit? How had I found their village? Would I come back and visit again soon? Of course, I smiled, as they hugged me and put me safely on the bus back to Kigali.
Have a safe journey Cousin! Stay close to this person, he’s our neighbor, he’ll take care of you, but for the love of God won’t you please zip up your bag? Rwanda is a safe place, but come on, you’re going into the city!
I zipped my bag, blew one more kiss, and as we pulled out of the station, began to reflect on the one question which has baffled me and many others in the years since the Genocide: how how how how HOW could a person survive something as bloody and horrific as the massacre of hundreds of civilians in a community church and then return with their family to that very village to peacefully live out the rest of their days? How can you ever trust your neighbors, when you have seen these exact people become the worst versions of humanity? I pondered this question, which has been echoed time and again after nearly every example of the horrible ways in which humans hurt one another, across the eras, cultures, and geographies that make us who we are, from the beginning of time all the way up to today- why do we keep coming back? Why do we return to places where horrible things have happened to our ancestors and to us? Why do we refuse to leave places like Juarez, like Detroit, like Sderot, like Gaza, like Pyongyang, places which are not safe, which haven’t been safe for a long time, and won’t be safe for even more time, just because one day, some long ago relative decided this would be home? Why would you live there, amidst violence and corruption and terror, when there are places in this world like the white sandy beaches of ZANZIBAR for crying out loud?!
As I thought about this question and tried to put it in the context of my own unending desire to be in Israel, a place which often meets the criteria of ‘why the hell would you live in such a dangerous place?’ I happened to look out the window. I saw, of all things, a brilliant rainbow piercing through the dark clouds of what will surely be a heavy afternoon rain. How fitting, I thought, to drive away from this genocide memorial site and see a rainbow, which, for those of you who never heard of Noah and his ark, is a widely accepted symbol of forgiveness. Forgiveness, then, seems to be a force greater than anger or hatred or vengeance or any of the other hundreds of human emotions that we use to fuel obscene and horrible actions. Forgiveness is why we keep coming back and why many of us refuse to move in the first place.
Are you strong? they asked me, over and over again.
Yes, I said, I’m strong. But not nearly as strong as you.
This post is my own and does not necessarily reflect the views of the JDC or the Agahozo- Shalom Youth Village.