“oh happy day, we have milk”

“Nice to meet you – we are going to devotion.”

Of course we are. Of. Course.

These were the words first spoken from my supervisor at Urwego, the bank I am partnering with during my three-month fellowship. I smiled and enthusiastically remarked, “Tugende, let’s go!”

Prayer? Worship? Please. This comes as no surprise to me. It’s Rwanda, y’all.

*

And so I’m back. I’ve been in country for about 5 full days. Somehow, I’ve managed to not really settle back in at all. Quite the contrary, I am just getting back in the swing of things. When my flight landed we headed directly to eat burritos. Um. Yes. By Friday I was visiting the market buying vegetables (I was absolutely enthralled with the available), Saturday found me at Chez Lando relaxing and catching up with old Peace Corps friends (still around from my Education group, ED3!), and Sunday had me running around 20K up those knarley city hills. Yep, I completed the Kigali half-marathon.

The start of the week led to Monday – my first day of work at Urwego Opportunity Bank – and Tuesday brought me back to the familiar red-brown dust after a day full of work-related school visits to villages in the far North with headmasters interested in using our loan product for school renovations.

It’s been whirlwind to say the least.

*

This past weekend I also had the fortunate opportunity to visit the home of my dear friend Alisha.

Alisha is a volunteer from my group who chose to stay in Rwanda a little longer albeit outside of Peace Corps. She arranged her own teaching job at one of Kigali’s top International Schools to teach an assortment of literature and English lessons. She is one of those people that was just meant to teach and so it makes me happy that she has remained serious in keeping herself in the classroom.

She also is engaged to a wonderful Rwandan man and they invited me to come see their own abode; they are located just on the outskirts of Kigali. What I liked about it was that even though it has a conveniently close proximity to the city, it has that “rural feeling” that I probably talk way too much about. She let me explore the yard and as I gazed out over her incredible view of the banana plantations I think I finally realized that, hey. I’m here. (And also my legs hurt like hell because I just ran a half-marathon).

I came back inside and we dived right into conversation. We tried to catch each other up from the last 5 or so months which can be hard to do when you like to describe the little things, as we often do. We were sitting there, in her living room, when she gave me one of the nicest compliments that anyone has ever told me. I’m not sure she even realized that it meant a lot – and in the moment, I’m not sure that I did either – but she said, “Heather, I know that you really see people for who they are.”

While I had been running and aching under that heavy sun, in my yellow MTN shirt, I had a good deal of time to think (I finished the course in about 2 hours and 15 minutes – not bad for what many called a pretty tough course) and I kept thinking about my upcoming first day of work, my travel here, and how all of these things had lined up to kind of make this happen. What do I have to offer?

Alisha told me. Thanks girl.

*

I reminded myself of this after 40 minutes on Monday morning waiting for a bus. Sure, I live in the expat neighborhood, but I am on a volunteer budget. It’s bus or bust for me. Dozens of people had already cut me, pushing their way through, and I had to bite my tongue not to get too frustrated with the equally agitated groups of people at the bus stop. See the best in people. See the best in people. Finally, I found one and made the trek to work.

To get there, I pass by parliament and cut off around the newly constructed convention center. The amount of construction that has happened in the handful of months that I’ve been absent is nothing short of amazing. We continue to swerve on some windy roads, passing industries and various offices here and there. Eventually, we reach down-town and I get off at a stop that is only about 2 minutes from Urwego’s main office branch, where I’ll be stationed for the next few months.

My first day went something like this: devotion, more prayer, debriefing meeting with my supervisor, research, lunch with my supervisor at a neighboring restaurant, and a marketing meeting for an upcoming radio spot. It was busy. And I liked that.

My main project points or “deliverables” as the business and developing world likes to call them are:

to develop a referable document that highlights the processes of our student loan program, to implement an online application form for the loan product, and in terms of assisting in operations, I will likely be making many site visits to assess the financial literacy clubs that are being operated by students at schools around the countries. By nature of the job description, I am best termed as a “consultant.” I am most looking forward to working with students but also open to all of the tasks as chances to learn, consider, and understand better HOW THESE THINGS WORK. That’s really why I wanted to come here in the first place.

I got a taste of that in only my second day. When my supervisor told me he would be out in the field making some visits to prospective clients who are headmasters looking to take out large loans for school projects I practically wrote myself the invitation and sent it off. Oh yeah, I totally invited myself to go. Which made sense, really. If I plan to effectively create a document that highlights the entire process of our program, it may be best to get a first-hand look with our clients. We had a lot of fun. We drove to the far North of Rwanda, near Uganda and the string of volcanoes that hold those mystical gorillas, and spoke with two headmasters. My supervisor demonstrated commitment and dedication to his job and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to observe and just take it all in. Plus, we were back in the school environment, eating Rwandan food (always love the hospitality of this country), and getting “fresh air” as they like to say from the city life.

When over lunch a headmaster we had met with started singing “oh happy day, we have milk” to the tune of “Happy Day” I then proceeded to snort, laugh, and spit out a couple of the beans I had been chewing on from our slew of cassava, beans, potatoes, sauce, and meat.

Oh yes, I have arrived.

*

on our way up North for the school visits.

on our way up North for the school visits.

my supervisor and a prospective headmaster discussing a school renovation project.

my supervisor and a prospective headmaster discussing a school renovation project.

muhabura volcano - I am told.

muhabura volcano.

laboratory.

laboratory.

chemistry supplies.

chemistry supplies.

students on break during our visit.

students on break during our visit.

20140520_102513

it’s time.

I would like to proudly proclaim that I was a big fan of the now immensely popular band Imagine Dragons before they exploded all over the Top 40 stations in and out of the United States.

I’m sure you read that and think, “um. Who cares?

But HEY! It’s a rare thing for me to know about a “cool” thing before it’s actually deemed “cool” by the rest of society – often propelled by strong contingencies of hipsters.

This isn’t just the case because I was abroad in 2012 and 2013 – no, even when trends happened before, I was usually late to the taking.

                Giga pets and pods when I was a small child

Bell bottoms when I entered middle school.

Even facebook when I was about to go into college. I had no idea.

Granted, I will admit when it comes to Imagine Dragons, I didn’t discover them because of my own cultural trendiness. I was introduced to the band by my Peace Corps replacement, Margaux. She visited me at home in Rwanda when she was first assigned to come and work there following my departure later in the year. She came to learn the ropes of our village and towards the end of her visit, I practically begged her for new tunes. I had exhausted my One Republic, The Fray, and country playlists. We did some good ole media sharing and she passed along all of Guster’s albums, Imagine Dragons, and Grizzly Bear.

I started dabbling in this eclectic collection, particularly as I did my household chores. There is something wonderful, I have found, about cleaning and enjoying good music at the same time. It’s cathartic or something.

One day, I remember Divine and I cleaned my house top to bottom and listened to their third song on the album, “It’s Time” on repeat. We both seemed to like it a lot. We shared old rags as we scrubbed on our knees, later mopping, and moving around furniture. And we listened to this music the entire time. That’s friendship.

*

So this is what you mean when you said that you were spent?

And now it’s time to build from the bottom of the pit right to the top, don’t hold back

Packing my bags and giving the academy a rain check

The sounds and words played as Divine and I moved room to room doing what we needed to do to clean my house up to the very high Rwandan standards of cleanliness. It was a Wednesday, I think. I was leaving my village – for good – on Friday.

The cool, wet concrete of the floors refreshed my feet as I moved around barefoot. I sat on my mattress for a moment to catch my breath. Sweat laced my forehead and I glanced at the now empty walls where photos, bags, and artwork had hung for so long. It had been quite a journey, hadn’t it?

I saw Divine washing my jeans in the room over. Scrubbing, rinsing, and scrubbing again. You must be smart and dressed very super when you go back to your family in America, she had said.

I had started the whole-Peace-Corps-thing without a clue in the world. When I came to Rwanda, I couldn’t have begun to imagine the type of life I would live.

Now, I was packing just a couple of bags and it was time to start again, this time leaving a place that had markedly changed me forever. It was time to begin – and to say goodbye – and I think I could finally understand what Imagine Dragons meant when they sang, “the path to heaven runs through miles of clouded hell.”

I witnessed, saw, and was a part of a lot of extraordinarily difficult things. Some of these things I will probably never quite process. But, in the end, the positive always outshone the negative. Darkness never wins.

*

It’s time to begin, isn’t it?

I get a little bit bigger, but then,

I’ll admit, I’m just the same as I was

Now don’t you understand?

That I’m never changing who I am?

For the first time in weeks, I opted out of church this morning. Instead, I slept in. Drank coffee in bed. And cleaned. I left the window of my room open to filter in fresh, crisp air as I removed the clutter that had infiltrated my drawers and closet the last couple of months. I stripped my bed and washed sheets. I got rid of old clothes. I gallivanted around my bedroom in my worn, pink slippers. My playlists of music were playing loudly and eventually I had to put on Imagine Dragons – my ‘go to’ for cleaning and lounging around the house.

“It’s Time” came on and it’s always amazing to me how music has the ability to transcend time and place and yet maintain that very personal meaning for each of us. Here I was, back home, cleaning my room, and that very song affected me just as strongly has it had as my time in Rwanda was winding down.

A bit differently, however.

Instead of reflecting on a life lived over the course of months and years, I thought a bit more about what lies ahead.

I’ve been discouraged lately by what’s happening in my life. While having a variety of options is a blessing and an extraordinary luxury, it’s also deeply disappointing and stressful when things don’t really line up in the way that you imagine it will. I’ve been aghast, wanting to simply give up.

Which, believe me, is a good thing.

You read that correctly. It’s good for me to give up – and by this I mean to give up the plans I construct for myself. I can make them, I should make them (after all, goal setting is incredibly important), but I must be open for God to take me elsewhere. Sometimes, our ideas for our lives are illusions and not exactly what we should be doing. God has always taken me right where I need to go – why would that be any different now?

So, yeah, I give up.

What is important to hold onto, I’m learning, is to not let go of being who you are, standing by your values, and what you believe to be true. Don’t settle. Don’t accommodate. You don’t have to. Even people who live in the worst conditions imaginable have the choice to live their lives fundamentally connected to what they believe to be true. We all have this power. And the last thing that I want to do is to give up all the way in my weariness for what the future might bring. If you believe in something, keep going.

never changing

It’s too easy to accommodate your dreams to the reality of the world. In tears, I recently told my best friend that perhaps all this time I had been naïve. I had been soft. I had been fighting for something that just might not make sense. That’s not the way the world works, I kept telling myself.

Those are all lies.

And while I give up my control to God – in the best way that I can – so that I will live a life that honors Him, there is nothing wrong with holding onto passions and a belief that even in our unclear, unforeseeable future, we will make a difference.

It’s time to begin, and don’t you understand? That I’m never changing who I am?

the 8 to 5 thing

beautiful

 

It’s a beautiful Saturday (sunny and cloudless in the middle of January, no less) and yet I’ve been lying in my bed, under three large comforters, all day. I haven’t moved much. My longest journey has been to the kitchen sink to fill my water bottle.

I know it’s a beautiful Saturday because I have my window open just a smidge. The sunshine wants to come in but I’ve given the blinds only about an inch so it doesn’t come slamming into my room and swing hard at my already pounding head.

I’m sick, and on the aforementioned beautiful Saturday, it sure isn’t ideal. However, it’s given me plenty of time to read, skype, write, and do some applications for summer opportunities.

I’m tempted to blame this bout of feeling icky to what I like to call 8 to 5 syndrome. That is, becoming physically ill from the demanding transition to a full-time, 40 hours per week JOB.

Of course, that’s not it. I mean, at least I don’t think it is.

I’m sick with some body aches, headaches, a slight temperature, and the general I-just-don’t-feel-very-good-sort-of-thing.
Thank the good Lord for a comfortable bed. It is doing wonders for me. Being home and sick is a lot different than being sick alone in a foreign country.

So.

I started a job this week. And I am so lucky and grateful to have it! It’s at a wonderful company with really people oriented advisors and leaders. Two people on the leadership team are dear friends for my mom and step-dad and so they are definitely great people to work for.

I work in a fast-paced investment firm that helps people with accounting services, financial planning for the future, tax preparation, and that kind of thing. On my large notepad that I received from the office on my first day, I almost immediately started making a list of “financial language” because seriously y’all, this world incorporates its own sense of jargon, phrases, and linguistics.

Soon, I’ll be speaking about 401K rollovers, cost segregation analysis, investment portfolio reviews, and business valuation as if these are just casual conversational topics. However, in the meantime, I’m just barely trying to stay afloat by absorbing as much as I can. It’s a great learning technique and it’s a darn good thing that I’ve always loved school because in a lot of ways, starting this new job is an educational experience.

More than the words, or the seemingly endless amounts of software programs I will need to be familiar with, it’s quite difficult to get used to this job thing.

I know that sounds, well, weird, but I’m coming off a job that was demanding and difficult in completely different ways. Yes, on paper I only taught 20 hours per week (which at my school, involved even fewer hours) but I was almost always “on”. That is, being so tangibly different and continually trying to fit in took a lot more from me than 20 hours really conveys. On top of that, I spent a lot of my extra time continuing other efforts, like GLOW Club, and making friends, that believe me, were quite taxing. It wasn’t a job in the traditional sense, but a lot of what I was doing in Rwanda was in fact, a job. It was just a strange mixture of work and life, whereas now my work life and everything else is kept quite separate. There’s this transparent but incredibly obvious line; I work from this time until this time and when it’s finished, well that’s when my “other life” begins.

The culture shock continues and now it extends into the way we organize our lives and how we live them out.

The first day of work, this last Monday (also my best friend’s birthday!), I recall walking into the office, on the 4th floor of a multi-use building, nervous and a bit unsure. Be courteous. Be serious. But above all….girl**, be professional.

My office has a glass-door entry way and I entered with a smiling and bright face. I put my coat on the dark mahogany coat rack in the large conference room and got to work right away. I was shown the overly complicated coffee machine, how to place the beans correctly, and that because of the internally located grinder, it will sound like an airplane taking off when you start to brew. Good to know.

Soon after, my training began. I’ll be a receptionist of sorts for this firm, and so this involves scheduling appointments, answering the phone, greeting clients, data-entry, and having an intense understanding of our many clients-whether they have prepared their taxes with us, own a small business and we do their payroll, or if they have investments by way of one of our advisors. I was slightly dizzy when my predecessor was telling me all of this. That was before being shown all of the inter-workings on the computer. There’s a software program for this, and a software program for that, and my goodness, there’s all these clouds and I’m not speaking of the white things in the sky sort of thing. Technology is crazy, y’all. There’s a certain process to transfer calls and you better communicate primarily through email; there will be as few interruptions for our advisors as possible. They are busy. My goodness, everyone is so busy.

Each day got a little better and a little less confusing but I remain confident that this will be a pretty hard job for me.

This, coming from someone who was most recently employed by the government to go live and integrate into a rural African village. But seriously. We’re all different, right?

The good news there is a lot to know and I think I could learn some pretty valuable things from this company. As of late, I’ve developed a strong interest in microfinance and lending and social enterprise (perhaps from some great books I’ve read, like: The International Bank of Bob and Rwanda Inc. and from reading on Kiva by recommendation from Rachel, which is a non-profit, microfinance institution) and while this particular company doesn’t focus on these things, being immersed in some realm of the financial world is a good place to start.

My first day as a teacher in Rwanda was shocking too, you know. That time around I was a bit overwhelmed by the obvious lack of things. I couldn’t believe the kinds of classrooms I was in. I didn’t understand how I was supposed to teach with just a piece of chalk. This was really it? Most of all, I thought to myself, “how in the world did I get here? And TEACHING? Seriously? I can’t be a teacher…I am not qualified…” But after two years, I did it. It’s probably a bit debatable as to what I actually taught, but I did it and that’s what matters.

So sure, starting this whole 8 to 5 business is really hard. And it’s different. And it adds to all the strangeness of coming back to America. But it’s a starting point and it will pay the bills and it will fill my time as I continue this whole process of coming home.
The adjustment will never end, I’m beginning to think. And that’s okay. It’s just the way it is.

I’m planning a bit for the future in learning more about some potential exciting opportunities. And for now, I’m doing the “8 to 5 thing” and getting by, being crazy and working out at 5:00am, and just trying to show up and do the best I can.

It’s crazy to jump from a job where I was working with people who are some of the poorest in the world and then sifting through files that may have touched the wealthiest of the wealthy, so to speak.

That’s weird.

I’m sure I’ll process that. Someday. Eventually. Maybe.

But for now, I’m just going to watch some Parks and Recreation, drink more Emergen-C, and get in tip-top shape for Monday. No time to be sick. After all, on Monday it’s back to the grind and the “8 to 5 thing” all over again.

**I should note here that one of the greatest challenges I am having in “being professional” is limiting my use of “girl” at work. It’s not easy. It slips all the time. And to be sure, it’s quite embarrassing. It’s a work in progress.

dreams

 

coffee

“the real world”

For the first time since I was a teacher in Rwanda, I walked into a high school classroom. And because the last couple of months in Rwanda were on holiday, I hadn’t entered a classroom since late October. Not to mention, this classroom was a bit different. Each student sat at their own, personal desks glancing my way as I entered the room.

It was particularly cold this Wednesday morning and so most students wore jackets, coats, and vests to stay warm. I smiled nervously as my dad exclaimed proudly, “everyone say ‘hi’ to Heather. This is my daughter, as you know, and she’ll be telling us about Rwanda today.” I placed my computer on dad’s desk and pulled up my PowerPoint presentation. I was going to talk about my 2 year experience in one hour. And really, I had even less than that as I had prepared a popular African dish the night before to share with the students.

Dad and I had ventured to about 4 different international markets around the Aurora/East Denver area in order to find the perfect African ingredients. We finally found everything we needed at a place close to the intersections of Parker and Peoria; the place was called Nana’s African Market. Perfect. I felt giddy upon entering the small store. I saw cassava leaves, the right flour to cook a plantain dish, and all sorts of packages and labels that I had been used to in my adventures in both Ghana and Rwanda. I spent about 3 hours preparing this particular meal for Dad’s students. It wasn’t exactly cheap either, as Dad spent about 40 bucks for three boxes of ‘fufu mix’, frozen cassava leaves, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and spices. It was so fun to cook! Divine would have been so proud.

ingredients all ready! tomatoes, flour mix, tomato paste, onions, peppers, oil, and cassava leaves.

ingredients all ready! tomatoes, flour mix, tomato paste, onions, peppers, oil, and cassava leaves.

ready to mix the sauce with the cassava leaves. rwanda food? nta kibazo! (no problem!)

ready to mix the sauce with the cassava leaves. rwanda food? nta kibazo! (no problem!)

And so I started to tell my story.

I told them a bit about the Peace Corps (of course showing a picture of my mosquito net over my bed and an image around the back of my house) and my motivations for doing it. I had prepared the presentation the night before and it took a long time. Mostly because I didn’t really know where to start. What photos should I choose? What anecdotes should I share? Which videos will best exemplify this country that I have tried so hard to get to know?

Around midnight, after finally finishing to cook and taking a hot bath, I decided to choose the photos that made me happiest and the videos that made me smile. That way, talking would be easy.

And it was.

I didn’t need notecards. I didn’t need reminders. I just talked about my life there and you know what was great about it? It wasn’t difficult. Sometimes I feel like I get it wrong or I don’t adequately explain what Rwanda has meant to me. But, in front of these students, I didn’t feel limited or constricted – it was literally just explaining my time there. Can I cover 2 years? No. But I can give a little glimpse, which is better than nothing. I showed them videos of me hanging out in the village, of me teaching, and of some of my students dancing and singing. I told them my job boiled down to four components: teacher, mentor, village member, and friend.

That hour came and went before I knew it.

I was far more intimidated in this technologically infused and brightly decorated American classroom than I remember being in Rwanda, but I suppose that’s the nature of time – we can get used to anything and when presented with something new, it can be like entering a cold pool for the first time. Sometimes you just have to jump on and trust that it’s going to be okay.

*

Rwanda isn’t continually around me only when I’m giving presentations like this or specifically speaking about my friends or family there.

It’s just naturally with me.

I’ll be driving on a long stretch of highway and remember the bananas that framed the Rwandan “black road” out East by my house.

I’ll think of Divine when I’m praying, wondering what she would make of my American church. There’s so many instruments, stage lights, and chairs for every person to sit in.

I even read some of the Christmas Story at our family Christmas Eve celebration in Kinyarwanda. I’m pretty sure it was the first time we had ever read in another language, and it was a fun experience for everyone to gather round and listen to the story of Jesus in the best Kinyarwanda I could muster. And hey, if I made a mistake, it’s not like anyone would really know. That’s the huge advantage of having an English-only speaking family – I could speak the worst Kinyarwanda in the world and they would still think it’s pretty darn cool.

*

Life is continuing to glide by here. Some days harder than others. Some days are quite enjoyable – easy, even – but sometimes I have to remember all of this is a life transition and that the adjustment won’t come in days, weeks, or even months. It’s going to take a while. And maybe I fear that I’ll never be quite “comfortable” again. But I realized praying this past week that maybe that’s totally okay. My perspective has been tweaked a bit, and if it has changed the way I see the world then what’s really wrong with that?

*

I spent my birthday – and all of last week, really – with my Hendrix girls. (Oh yeah. I turned 25. I’m officially a middle-twenty-something. I am no closer to having any answers about life. Other than that good friends and family are the answers to most things.)

Ali, Michelle, Lauren, and Jordana all made the trek out to Colorado last week for a visit. We spent time at home in Aurora, in Estes Park, and a bit in Denver too.

Being with them was like taking a vacation from re-adjustment and I needed that. I didn’t really think about how DIFFERENT everything is for me right now. Instead, I just tried to soak up being with the girls whether we were all reading in the couch, staying up late talking, or cooking together. It was an alternate reality, a vacation, and something I really needed.

We drove through Rocky Mountain National Park on a really sunny and beautiful (albeit windy!) day. We took “Rhonda” on those windy mountain roads and made it to some stunning photo locations. We took it all in, amazed at just how gorgeous nature could be. The best parts of our week together was actually our chats. I just loved being able to share, to catch up, and to better understand how our lives have played out for the last couple of years – especially since I hadn’t been around.

*

I start work next week. A job. Like, one that I’ll need to be on time to. A job that will require intense organization and an American-standard work ethic. I’m excited to be doing something different for the time being – as I await answers from graduate school. And let’s be real, I can’t live off my Peace Corps adjustment allowance forever. I have a car, loans, a phone, and some real things I have to pay for. Welcome to the real world.

If I’m going to be perfectly honest, however, I don’t really know what my ‘real world’ looks like anymore. I thought for a long time that life in America, in school, going along the path that will provide stability was what I should do. What I needed to do.

However, as I consider my future, I’m not sure what I’ll do. There are a lot of opportunities in the world and I suppose now, more than ever, I’m really open to anything.

“The real world.”

Each day I’m getting a little bit more of it. Some I like, some I don’t. But I have my family and friends around and that, above everything else, makes the adjustment completely worthwhile (and a bit easier). I even have Divine and all the girls via skype and for now, it’s enough.

It certainly gives a plentiful amount of people to soak up America with:

free refills!

clean water!

55 choices of cereal!

what the hell – I have to pay loans?!

what is a “cloud”?

music streaming & gym memberships!

wi-fi every place, every day.

Cars.cars.cars.cars.cars.

infrastructure.

why is everyone moving so quickly?

Yeah. I am still in that phase of where everything is weird and quite fascinating. I’m also easily entertained and can enjoy most things. I just hope I don’t lose my grip and find myself in all of it. I want to be able to apply a lot of the things I learned in Rwanda. It sure won’t be easy, but if the experience means as much as it did, I think it’s important to do.

*