Hooker, Oklahoma

Hooker United Methodist Church (one of many Methodist churches along the corridors across lone highways of mid-Western America) is a beige-bricked building not far from Hooker Elementary (where bikes for them youngins’ are left unlocked!) and town center. With a population of around 2,000 people, Hooker is a small, small rural town in the Oklahoma panhandle (Texas County, to be exact). Texas is a thirty minute, corn-filled drive south, and New Mexico and Kansas are not far either. I saw a small picture in the local newspaper for last week that longingly referred to the counties in the panhandle as “no man’s land.” However, Hooker has been recently featured on the Travel Channel, so there’s certainly something to it. See link below. And no, no “hookers” were involved with the spotlight.

What’s So Great About Hooker

This is also my grandparent’s land too, as they have lived in their white house, under the most supreme maple tree for over 20 years. Lance and I came out for many summers when we were growing up. We ran through sprinklers, observed Glenda work beautifully in the kitchen, and went swimming – if good behavior allowed. I stood in the church hall a couple of days ago and realized my feet hadn’t touched this part of earth and soil for around 4 years.

That’s just too long.

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We – my bubbly and sweet Aunt Noelle and I – were helping my step-grandmother, Glenda, and her team of women put together the salad bar lunches for local school teachers. They order a customized salad once per month, have it delivered, and the proceeds go to the work of the church. Once the olives, French fried onions, and cauliflower (among many others) finished, I briefed a couple of the women and my family on Rwanda with Facebook photos and stories. It’s relatively easy now at this point to develop an unplanned presentation on my experiences abroad; in 20 minutes I can cover a quick history of the country, the training program of Peace Corps, my living situation, the food, and teaching.

After, I went to take a stab in my vegetable – balsamic salad when Grandpa’s nearly 80-year old neighbor from across the street complimented my service in Rwanda by saying thank you.

What? How often has anyone actually said thank you following an explanation of the time I spent there?

She said my explanation made her more appreciative of what she has today. As a small girl, she grew up in a farmhouse complete with an outhouse, no electricity, and no running water. “Stinky” as I would discover was the nickname given to her by her late husband (as a joke, of course), has some of those amenities today but was quick to follow-up and say that that she has never forgotten life’s previous difficulties. Humbled, I just listened. I asked more questions and she gave more answers, ending with a passionate appreciation for Hooker United Methodist Church.

“I’m just so lucky to have this church community.”

Her husband having had passed 10 years ago, “Stinky” lives alone near the county’s golf course and hasn’t seen her Indiana-residing daughter in 5 years. The church loves her, supports her, and fills her. Small town or big city, it doesn’t really matter – this is the power, impact, and positive capability of CHURCH that should inspire us.

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Fully realizing the continuous gifts of service that my grandparents provide to their church and community (they had at least 1-2 events or community projects to address daily), I also knew they had boundless knowledge of how to really work in the kitchen. Perhaps this is growing up: actually acknowledging that adults and our elders are wise well beyond our years. So wise, in fact, that’s it is so much better for us to be humbled in our lack of knowing and instead yearn to learn.

Glenda handed me “Fannie Farmer’s Country Cookbook” and I started to squeal with delight at the innate differences in milk, in cooking terms (broiled versus barbequed), and all the kinds of desserts you can feasibly create. Turns out Fannie is kind of awesome.

Who is Fannie Farmer?

For some reason, something in me just “lit up” and I began to imagine the possibility of learning to really spend some time in the kitchen. I have always loved food, and even have enjoyed cooking, but really, I just move too dang fast in life and need to slow it down a bit. Slow it down, and cooking, baking, whatever it might be – that can get it’s full due.

A few versions of the classic cookbook from Mrs. Fannie Farmer.

A few versions of the classic cookbook from Mrs. Fannie Farmer.

Glenda spent a day teaching us exactly how to prepare (and can!) blueberry jam and peach butter while Grandpa explained and demonstrated precisely how to can tomatoes. They grow their own, and believe me, you’d want to save those savory red pieces of greatness for as long as possible.

Our 4-day stay included meals and foods such as the following:

*blueberry waffles (with apple butter syrup!!)

*crab sandwiches

*steaks

*shrimp avocado salad

*fried zucchini

*blackberry iced tea

*corn on the cob

We sat down at the table together several times each day and had this delicious food along with small-town small-talk, Oklahoma’s place in the Southern contingency, and of course, their beloved kitty-cats.

New memories made with my aunt, long roads of country terrain seen, and home-cooked meals every day, I was truly in a joyful place while visiting little Hooker, Oklahoma. That’s how your grandparent’s house should feel. I slept better than I had in months, gained at least 5 pounds, and have a nice, healthy sunshine glow on my skin. That’s family time in the summer, y’all – or at least that’s what I would hope it would be for me. God, I’m glad I’m back.

Really. Fully. Finally.

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Josy’s Ibitoke

So. It’s no secret.

I love bananas. It IS the food of Eastern Rwanda, where I spent so much of my time while a volunteer. And even since being in Kigali, I’ve continued to cook the stuff. A couple weeks ago, our helper around the house taught me her method to her recipe. I have always loved cooking them, but every Rwandan does it a little differently. Here’s her approach. Oh, and they are frickin’ delicious.

What you need

4-5 bananas per person eating

3 beautiful red tomatoes

3 small eggplants

1 green pepper

2 medium sized onions (I believe you can never have enough onion!)

3 tablespoons of olive oil

1/2 cup of water (for peanut flour mixture)

1 cup of peanut flour

A hungry stomach (these babies will fill you up!)

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Start with a group of green bananas. Wash thoroughly  to remove outside "sticky stuff" that can leave stains on your hands. Choose around 4-5 bananas for each person. Especially if you are hungry!

Start with a group of green bananas. Wash thoroughly to remove outside “sticky stuff” that can leave stains on your hands. Choose around 4-5 bananas for each person. Especially if you are hungry!

Peel with a knife the green skin to leave the banana clean and soaking in a basin of water.

Peel with a knife the green skin to leave the banana clean and soaking in a basin of water.

Here is what the peel should look like "post-cut"; makes for great compost!

Here is what the peel should look like “post-cut”; makes for great compost!

Place cut bananas in a pot of hot water. Bring to a boil and let cook for 20 minutes. You want the bananas to be very soft for mashing later in the process!

Place cut bananas in a pot of hot water. Bring to a boil and let cook for 20 minutes. You want the bananas to be very soft for mashing later in the process!

While the bananas are cooking, begin to cut the vegetables. Cut onions and green pepper together. Keep eggplant separate.

While the bananas are cooking, begin to cut the vegetables. Cut onions and green pepper together. Keep eggplant separate.

Using the olive oil, begin to  cook vegetables, starting with the onion and pepper. Simmer, but cook to keep crispy.

Using the olive oil, begin to cook vegetables, starting with the onion and pepper. Simmer, but cook to keep crispy.

After about 8 minutes, add tomatoes, over low heat. Stir together and let cook for an additional 10 minutes. You can also add the eggplant at this time.

After about 8 minutes, add tomatoes, over low heat. Stir together and let cook for an additional 10 minutes. You can also add the eggplant at this time.

Here is Josy working her magic!

Here is Josy working her magic!

While the vegetables roast together, you can mix peanut flour in a cup with water. Once the mixture is dissolved, you can add it together with the cooked vegetables. Add spices. Let the sauce simmer and cook for an additional 15-20 minutes for flavor.

While the vegetables roast together, you can mix peanut flour in a cup with water. Once the mixture is dissolved, you can add it together with the cooked vegetables. Add spices. Let the sauce simmer and cook for an additional 15-20 minutes for flavor. Add additional water as needed.

While sauce is developing flavor, you can now remove the water from the bananas! They should be soft and ready for mashing.

While sauce is developing flavor, you can now remove the water from the bananas! They should be soft and ready for mashing.

They will look something like this.

They will look something like this.

Begin to "mash". Unlike other Rwandan cooking methods, you approach the bananas in a "up and down" approach. Mash quickly, moving up and down, not in circles. This creates a solid mixture of nanas! Add a tablespoon of olive oil so it will act as an adhesive to keep the banana mash together.

Begin to “mash”. Unlike other Rwandan cooking methods, you approach the bananas in a “up and down” approach. Mash quickly, moving up and down, not in circles. This creates a solid mixture of nanas! Add a tablespoon of olive oil so it will act as an adhesive to keep the banana mash together.

Once finished, the mixture should be stable together. You can place a plate over the pot and flip it upside down so the bananas form together in the plate as shown here.

Once finished, the mixture should be stable together. You can place a plate over the pot and flip it upside down so the bananas form together in the plate as shown here.

Voila! Finished!

Voila! Finished!

The sauce should now be ready for tasting. Add salt and pepper as necessary.

The sauce should now be ready for tasting. Add salt and pepper as necessary.

“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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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