Lesson One: You are a small piece of the puzzle (keep humble, my friend).
The afternoon brought me back to an incredibly familiar Kigali road. I don’t know the name exactly, but it’s the one wedged between the blue, yellow, and green AMAHORO (translated directly as ‘peace’) Stadium and the colorful, eclectic, and over packed market of Kimironko. I was on a business mission; bouncing from revenue authority to local authorities’ offices to remain compliant as we forge forward in our organizations’ operations. Mid-afternoon places a glowy sweat on my skin, but I bounce around on the broken pavement any way. Coming from the most recent US Peace Corps Rwanda group’s swearing-in ceremony at the ambassador’s residence, I was energized with inspiration, motivation, and really good food (we’re talking deviled eggs, carrot cake, fresh fruit, and unlimited sparkling water, oh hey). I looked to my left as I moved steadily forward, taking in the pedestrian-driven city full of business men, shopkeepers, street cleaners, drivers, and old women. Just like it always is.
Yet, something different caught my eye. A woman with highlighter yellow shoes, a stick, and a medium-sized black paper bag waved me over. Instead of just smiling and continuing my jaunt by, I obeyed and stepped over the ditch and went to sit alongside her.
I greeted her, shook her hand, and in an old, tired Rwandan voice she mumbled something rather inaudible.
I pressed further, “Ma, ugiye he? Wabaye iki?” (Where are you going? What happened?)
She told me she was going out of town – out of the city proper. Somewhere indecipherable. Old women have always been good friends of mine – especially in Rwanda – but their accents, age, and traditional slang often leave me clueless in the world of cross-cultural translation.
Internally debating, I asked, Lord, what do I do? She asked for 500 RWF (about a dollar – okay, really, it’s less than that when you complete the exchange) and I still pushed to question the amount based on her destination. Typically, on bus, Kigali journeys are around 300 RWF – and yet she reiterated that she was going to visit someone by the name of Eric, someone who did not reside in the city limits. I smacked the faded fig lipstick against my teeth and just knew she was speaking truth. I found my red and green African-fabric’d wallet and couldn’t find enough change. Loose coins from Mexico, the US, and Rwanda didn’t add up enough and so I glanced only at the two remaining options at my disposal – the 2000 RWF or 5000 RWF bills I had tucked away. The 5000 RWF bill was for any extra food purchases I might need to get at the grocery store. The 2000 RWF was for my impending cup of coffee. Should I do it?
Of course I should, of freaking course. She needed this far far more than I ever would. And so, I handed her the purple bill of 2000 RWF into her shaking hands. I think she was surprised by the amount, but I can’t be sure. I told her that Jesus loved her and she proceeded to wish blessings upon my future. I simply nodded and got up to leave. I didn’t want to make a scene; I didn’t want her to feel like she had anything to owe for me. It was simply an act of obedience that I know I was guided to follow.
I felt far more humbled in those few steps away from her than I have felt in a long time. Over the last couple of days I have talked to numerous people about the hardness of life, about dis-empowered situations that people find themselves in, and of the incredible need that exists in our world. I only walked for about 5 seconds before spinning back around, eager to get the woman’s name. I had forgotten to ask; and I certainly wanted to pray for her and for the journey she had ahead. I took just a couple steps back on that very road and poked my head behind the sign she had been hiding behind.
Nothing. No sign of anything in sight. There’s absolutely no way that she could have moved that quickly. The woman could barely walk and the bus stop was nearly 100 feet down the road. I checked back further. Again, no sign of any old woman in sight. I laughed aloud in the streets. Alone, in Rwanda. I laughed. I’m absolutely certain I looked crazy, but in that deep humility I began to felt an even deeper awe and respect. Exactly who was that? What was the moment actually all about it?
I really just can’t be sure. But I do know it was what I needed. A strong spoon of humility and a stark reminder to keep your eyes open. Always. You never can expect what might be coming your way.
Lesson Two: You’re Not the Only One Changing.
One of the first weekends I spent back Rwanda-side of the world was actually in Tanzania where we spent a couple of days checking in on a couple of bakery groups and projects that had been trained earlier this spring. Tanzania gave us time on the road – 10 hours each way – and I was excited to have spent that time with my new co-workers, getting in-depth field observation of what we do, and a taste of Tanzania to boot. Our trip was encouraging and full; we got to witness the actual baking process that some of our women are taking part in a couple of times a week, and taste a newly developed product that is being seen in some of our small local markets. It’s an exciting time for our team and for the Women’s Bakery, and so particularly on our drive home, I was basking in loads full of gratitude.
That same basket of gratitude came in handy just a week later.
Awaiting the arrival of Maisara and Zahara at the madness of the bus station, my heart was racing. I hadn’t seen the girls for nearly a year! Last time around, I was here working for a local bank and had visited their home in my village. This time, they were both passing through the city, headed to their last term of school for the year, and so we had a way of intersecting, even for just a few hours, so we could catch up.
Though they were nearly a couple of hours late – because it’s Rwanda – the joy of reunion was inescapable. Giggly and enthusiastic, it was as if distance and time had never really existed. The girls and I had a few hours to share together and we would do so at their uncle’s house. I had expected he lived in the city. Um. No.
We traveled by motorbike about 15 minutes away and then crossed a rickety, oddly spaced bridge across one of the largest rivers in all of Rwanda. As if it would be any different.
We sat together, shared a Fanta, and they told me story on top of story of what had transpired in the prior year. A new home built, increased problems with their father, innovative teacher training for Zahara as she pursues her dream of becoming an educator, and a continual commitment for Maisara in her sports’ leadership roles. I sat back in awe for most of the conversation, again, appropriately humbled.
I wasn’t the only who had changed. These girls had changed too; if not more!
Most proudly of all, they proclaimed that they had both decided to become Christians. Quite intimately, they shared with me how they engaged in that process, how they had started singing songs from a Kinyarwanda hymnal, and spoke with their mother about this change in their lives. Unsurprising to me, their mother supported and felt strongly they should have the choice where they would pray.
In their storytelling and adamant commitment, I could feel lines of joy forming in my face. I knew the kind of freedom they were talking about. I just didn’t know it would be with them that I would have that kind of conversation, and I sure didn’t expect it to be on a rainy Saturday in Kigali, Rwanda.
Change is never just for you. Ever.
We parted ways that day in peace. Somehow, an understanding that near of far, we are united by something far greater than ourselves. They are growing up, maturing, becoming the women they are meant to be, and I feel more than honored that I can bear witness.
Lesson Three: Timing is everything.
One of the co-founders of The Women’s Bakery (and an old friend and Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda), Julie, helped me bake a yeast bread one of the first days I arrived back in country. With training, curriculum development, operations management, and business decisions ahead of us, it was also important to get a bearing on why we do what we do. We bake. We sell. We empower.
Obviously, a girl needs to learn how to make a solid loaf of banana bread if I’m going to keep up with these women!
Julie taught me the proper way to knead (significantly harder than it looks!) and the recipe nuances and flexibilities that do exist. One thing that seemed non-negotiable? Time. It must bake just perfectly as to capture the right moisture, texture, and taste.
It was like that in taking this job back in Rwanda, but it was also like that in how our daily life pans out – from the friends we meet, the things we see, and the words that are spoken to us. One thing that consistently draws me back to Rwandan culture, I think, is this unwavering trust in what is (or isn’t) provided is precisely how it’s supposed to be.
On hazy Kanombe roads (a subset of Kigali, just a mile or so from the international airport) a few evenings ago, I was meandering the curvy paths with Lilliose. Lilly, as I lovingly refer to her, was my Kinyarwanda teacher in Peace Corps from yes, four years ago. Now old friends, we share stories of weddings, life changes, moves, and professional moves as if we had experienced them together. The sun was barely present in the black – orange night as she showed me the place she took her civil ceremony vows with her husband. Rwandan weddings traditionally involve three different ceremonies, with the civil being the involvement and recognition by the government and country as officially married. She chuckled as she remembered nervously seeing her husband that day, and how she was so uncertain about what her life would hold.
She divulged her insecurities about how the finances would work, how they would adjust as a family unit, and biggest of all, when her desire to be a mother would be fulfilled. Made to be a mother, it was something she had always wanted. Yet, she was waiting. And had been waiting for a long time.
Lilly remarked, “I just had to ask God, please. Show me how you can make this happen. How can I have a child? And still have to pay rent? How is this possible?”
She indicated she was drawn into an intensive season of waiting. She knew what she wanted, but she knew also that it had to be given in the precise moment. I nodded silently, understanding. There has been much of what I desired in life that couldn’t work. Largely, too, because of timing. We turned towards the gates of the authorities’ office to move closer to the restaurant we would share at least four fantas later into the evening.
She murmured, “But God is good! We have started to build our new home – one that we will own – and will be ready for next month….
And we are expecting….I now have a baby in me for now two months!”
I leaped, shouted, and again, did some weird things in the middle of these darn Rwandan roads. What a beautifully, wonderful way to share the way God has provided in her life. An expanding family, a stable living situation; not because it’s perfect, but because the timing is. She waited, and God came through. That’s faith, if I have ever seen it.
I’m learning that lesson again (and again). You can never learn it enough, I think. Our lives move in these patterns that draw us to places we don’t expect. While along for the ride, just wait. Abide. You never know what element of perfect timing is next.
Because that’s when the bread will rise, the timer will ding, and it will be time to eat. That’s when all will be right and for a small moment, you’ll understand why some things really do fit together.