What Our Bumper Stickers Say About Us

Since the Spring of 2016, I have driven my Subaru Legacy around with a royal blue and yellow Human Rights Campaign (HRC) sticker on the right-hand side of the trunk, just above the bumper.

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The HRC logo, depicting equality for all, was released in 1995 by the HRC, designed by Stone Yamashita.

I got the decal during Denver Pridefest and knew, immediately, that I wanted to put it on the back of my car. For some reason, it felt easier to put the sticker on the rear of my car first, and then, subsequently, tell my family and friends that not only did I support marriage equality, but that I too was gay. When I decided that this was the marker I wanted to put on my car – for all to see – I thought it would be best to do so with a handful of other stickers, too: the Rwandan flag, a Peace Corps logo, and a simple cross.

 

Aha, I thought.

Now people would be really confused, wondering, who is this person driving around with progressive Christian flag-focused stickers? Exactly. Like a declaration of identity, I wanted to spread the word that we could be all kinds of different things, all at once.

But, again, what was so compelling about presenting my identity through the medium of a vehicle? Couldn’t I have been happy enough with having conversations about these sorts of things? Why did I feel it necessary to stick adhesive on my trunk in order to say, “Hey! Look at me! This is what I stand for!”

I suppose a great deal of this drive is to identify or stand with something. Perhaps, subconsciously we can feel “in” when someone else sees the stickers and acknowledges that we are a certain kind of person. We feel validated, like our stickers subscribe us to a larger set of values or pillars. Unspoken, of course, as most of the time cars that are around us, speed down roads and highways, interchanging lanes, paying no attention to us anyway.

Bumper stickers aren’t all that old in the broader view of things; bumper stickers weren’t really a “thing” until after World War II. In an upgrade from “bumper signs” that were made from paper and string, Forest Gill was able to invent a new kind of adhesive combination that made for an actual bumper sticker. In the years following, these became incredibly popular for campaigning. By 1968, 20 million stickers were printed from the presidential campaign for Alabama Governor George Wallace, the famous segregationist. They were a big deal. Now, many historians and manufacturers alike believe they are on the decline, with political campaigns focusing more on the televised process, rather than the rally-like “hurrah” days.

More screen time equals less bumper stickers.

In some ways, however, they’re still booming around the city, especially Denver, with political affiliations (be it Obama or Trump), and also, things that are declarative like, “University of Colorado Mom”, “Proud Parent of an Honor Roll Student” or wishful thinking like “Coexist” or “Peace Not War.” There’s some a bit more on the defensive side, like, “9/11 was in Inside Job” or “Fear the Government that Fears your Guns” or “Put the Cellphone Down and Concentrate on Being a Shitty Driver.”

Really. I’ve seen it all.

Then, I know many people who claim that they would never and I mean, never, put a bumper sticker on their car. Maybe their water bottle. Maybe. Millennials certainly enjoy putting them on the back of their computer, so that’s always an option as well.

But for the resistant, what’s the hold up? Perhaps, in ways, it feels crass to declare our ideas or belonging simply with a paper stuck on our car. Isn’t that the function of social media these days? Isn’t Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest enough?

Also, it takes a long time to get bumper stickers off cars. I should know. Just this last week I removed two of my bumper stickers out of the feeling of wanting a clean slate. I was tired of having a trunk-full of stickers, and so, I decided to leave only two. But that is the thing: it took at least 45 minutes to remove them both. Is it really worth it? It’s kind of a funny store, too: driving through rural Kansas, Chelsea and I stopped for gas at a Shell station. As the gas poured into my tank, I took a ice pick and furiously began scraping the stickers off my car. Of course, in this moment, I was removing the cross, which I am sure, looked just fabulous in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure bystanders were wondering about what kind of heathen I was. Oops.

Moreover, bumper stickers, at least from my travels, are curiously a phenomenon in the United States. We love being a place of free speech, so hey, why not use one of the many canvasses we have. Additionally, we likely spend more time in our cars than anyone else, so why not decorate as we wish. There’s one problem that I’m noticing, though, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t want the back of my car loaded with stickers, especially of the political kind.

Bumper stickers – more commonly the political ones – create visceral reactions in the people around us. Okay, so maybe it’s just me, but if I see a sticker that rubs me the wrong way, immediately, I build up improper, incorrect, uninformed, and rude ideologies about the person behind the wheel. Let’s be clear: I don’t even know this person. So, perhaps, less of a problem than the bumper sticker itself is our reaction to it. As an already dangerously divided nation, we keep marking territories of “us” vs “them” faster than we can do anything else. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone, and yet, if I have to be honest, I would say that I’m really tired of everything being so divisive. I’m tired of hate. I’m tired of disunity. I’m tired of rancor. I’m ready for something a little deeper, and a lot more sustainable.

I’m not asking that everyone puts “love” stickers on the back of their cars. I’m also not suggesting that no one should have bumper stickers at all. I’m just noticing that they are there, and so are we, and that we can’t help ourselves to reacting. We think these stickers are saying something about us, but it’s possible, even likely, that the stickers are saying more about the drivers around, and how we’re reacting to all of them. I’m keeping my HRC sticker on my car. I’ll hold on to my Peace Corps one, too. These come from points of pride, honestly, and I like the way they look against the sky-blue color of my car. Sure, I could put the logo of the party that I voted for, or some smart-ass comment about our President, but right now, the most important thing to do is to find the right forum. Create discussion. Encourage conversation.

We don’t have to be defined by the labels – or stickers – we put around us.

We can always be more, always learning, always striving for what’s beyond the boundaries we create. This doesn’t mean agreeing in a kumbaya circle. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of hate to overcome, and a lot of healing to pursue. So, let’s find meaningful action, not assuming that a bumper sticker or a Facebook post or an Instagram picture is going to move the needle.

We need to read, to listen, to move. We need to become informed citizens, ready to articulate what is happening around us. We need to understand our history and what’s come before us. We need a lot of things, but divisiveness is not one.

I love a funny, good bumper sticker. Just next time you put one up, think about what you are putting out into the road, and therefore, the world.

You really just don’t know, until you think about it.

Drive Safe – and enjoy the view.

ubukwe | wedding

I’m not too good at singing; nor am I capable of discipline when eating ice cream, but, I can say with certainty that I have a strong knack for getting invited to Rwandan weddings.

This, literally, is what I do. Even in Denver.

When I attended a 300-guest East African wedding last week, I expected the small nods to Rwandan culture. You know, the traditional dress of umushanana (fabric draped over the shoulder in all different styles; a dress central to the heritage of Rwandan social ques). Maybe the proper foods (I’m thinking plantains, rice, and beans) would also be present, as well as demonstrations of Rwandan-style dancing.

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Plantains, Potatoes, Cassava Leaves, Fruit, Chapati, Rice, Cassava Bread, Doughnuts, Beans – just to name a few. 

I expected these things, but what I also (wrongly) assumed was that a glass-like wall would separate the nuances of an East African wedding in the United States.

I was incorrect to think that geography can mitigate the love for culture and tradition. Geography, I learned, has very little to do with the identity of the heart.

In fact, in the nearly 50 Rwandan weddings I have attended (yes, I have a “wedding tracker list”), this most recent wedding in Denver might have been the “most Rwandan” of all.

So, that begs the question, what makes it “Rwandan” exactly?

For 15 hours, I observed, took part, and engaged in conversation that re-aligned my original thinking. You see, this family and larger community were committed to creating a Rwandan ceremony because they are so far from home.

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“I do.”

My brain could hardly handle the layers of culture, connections, languages, and traditions played out in front of me.

The smells of the room; the accents of language; the babies wrapped in loud fabrics on the backs of many women; the selections of beer; the handshakes of new friends – all of it. It felt like I was in a world not here, and honestly, not there either. It was altogether new.

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Moreover, I realized how malleable culture can be even in a determination to stick closely to it; I met young men and women who could speak Kinyarwanda, but do not have memories of living in their home country. Instead, they grew up in refugee camps and have a deep longing to return home someday. They asked me about what it is like to grow up around cows and banana beer and Sunday church. Y’all, it was weird. Talk about a new kind of culture shock!

One gentleman, Mugema, shed tears as he explained the way he carries Rwanda in his heart here. He lives in a more rural part of Colorado and he doesn’t know many people. His community places identifiers on him – “Tanzanian” or “African” – but he insists, “Through and through, I am Rwandan.”

I came to see that the purest expression of our culture is extraordinarily natural. Numerous individuals approached me and asked, “are you Rwandan?”

They asked this in spite of my skin color. And, this wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek sort of thing. It was a real question.

They said that, “We see you interacting with our family, our friends. You know how to do it! Sure, you speak our language, but somehow you are one of us.”

The things is, I wasn’t really trying that hard. It was natural. It was learnt. It was exposure. It was what is inside my heart.

We can’t explain how these things happen. How people’s lives and journeys cross and align and create this amazing mixture of life. Culture is life, and honestly, I can’t get enough of it.

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Waiting for the groom and bride to arrive. 

My feet were sore as I drove home. I turned off my music, preferring silence in the twilight hours of morning. I prayed a prayer of gratitude, feeling as if I had returned to a really special place in my identity. I let the thoughts flow freely from my mind – I was overwhelmed by the number of stories I had heard about moving and finding oneself in a new place.

I’m excited to be a part of this. Whether it’s here or there, it doesn’t really matter. Because who we are is not bound by the lines we have placed in the world.

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The getaway vehicle. It’s Colorado, so clearly, a Jeep.

cops, community, culture & doughnuts

“Can I be straight honest with you?”

With blue-rimmed Oakley sunglasses, a Denver Police Officer glances at me as the sun scales the sky. I’ve been sitting with this man for 45 minutes, eating a Voo-Doo doughnut, and watching Afghani women learn how to ride bicycles at community celebrations for World Refugee Day. We sit together at a white folding table and continue chatting – most particularly about the needs for every refugee child and family to access quality education, a safe place, and an opportunity for employment.

Sarcastically, with a sweet smile, I mutter, “I mean, yeah. I’m not wearing a device or anything.” I grasp my loose t-shirt to prove the validity of my claims.

“These communities…frankly, they have to assimilate. They move here. They have to assimilate. They – “

“Hold on. I understand where you are coming from, but be careful with your words. “They” is too much. There are far too many stories to fit under one narrative of ‘they.’”

I can’t believe I’ve interrupted a cop to correct him. Oops? I shrug and continue.

“Assimilation fits within the much larger process of acculturation. Ideally, new community members embrace the culture of their new country and begin the journey of becoming bi-cultural. It doesn’t happen overnight. Integration and identity are tricky – and they take a long time. These aren’t simply semantics; these are the parts of the process of entering and becoming part of a new community.”

“Oh…okay, that makes sense. I just know there is a lot of fear that groups of foreign communities will settle here and remain insular and extraordinarily tight-knit. We have reason to believe there is a plethora of extremism.”

I am the first to acknowledge that I do not have any kind of secret intelligence. I don’t know what the cops or government officials do – honestly, I’m not sure I would want to. What I do know, however, is that extremism, as it’s aptly named – is just that. Extreme. You can’t lump groups of people into boxes simply because of fear.

“If you are afraid of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ than you may want to push your own self to enter into communities that you wouldn’t necessarily try before. Most importantly, you have to follow the lead of the communities themselves.”

As I’m talking the zing of a “light bulb” idea hits my head. I swallow the rest of my doughnut – washing it down with a slug of coffee. It might be 98 degrees outside – in the middle of June – but coffee holds no time stamp.

What if the Peace Corps model applied to immigrant, refugee, and multicultural communities in the Unites States? What if a year or two of service meant an individual lived within a group of people and was responsible for showing them the ropes? This volunteer would humbly lead a family through the process of becoming a part of America – and yet still holding onto their culture of origin. Isn’t this what “makes America great” – the beautiful blend of so many different cultures simultaneously pursuing values of freedom, equality, and liberty?

Unable to articulate all of the ideas bopping around in my head, I do the thing that comes the most natural. I invite this 17-year veteran police officer to a Rwandan wedding. Obviously.

“Listen. You’ve expressed a desire to restore positive relationships in these communities that are unfamiliar for you. What if you came to a Rwandan wedding with me? An event put on by the community itself? There’s one happening in two weeks – just over off Colfax.”

I think I surprised him as much as I surprised myself.

“You know, actually….yes. I think I might be able to do that. Will you email me the details? I will definitely see what I can do.”

I pass him one of my business cards. He gives me a Denver Police brochure – complete with all of the services that community resource officers provide: mediation, protection, check-ins, support. A broad range of services are listed, I can’t help but think that this could be the most under-utilized resource at the disposal for communities all over Denver.

He thanks me for the conversation and wisdom. I echo the same sentiments, particularly in gratitude for the number of years he has served the Denver area.

The conversation stuck with me the rest of the weekend.

It stuck with me as I took a Burmese friend of mine back to her apartment in North Denver. I carried some of her food back into her apartment. As we opened her small, rickety door, she explained in broken English that the landlord had ordered a twice monthly bug-spray prevention. That means, she elaborated, that she can’t keep her apartment organized. It’s always in disarray. Things are never put away. She’s never quite settled. She chuckles though and assures me, “don’t worry. My room is next to the office – at least I am safe.”

What if individuals and community members crossed boundaries and entered these homes? How, exactly, could they be transformed?

It stuck with me as I marched with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Colorado along the Pride route from Cheesman to Civic Center. My sunglasses hid my tear-stained eyes. I was in awe of the encouragement, positivity, and palpable sense of unity around me. It was one of the most tangible experiences with community that I have had. With thousands lined the street, shouting, cheering, and clapping – I also prayed silently.

Enough. Enough marginalization. Enough hate. Enough. Enough. Enough. Let us live into the joy prepared for us. Let us proclaim the righteousness of life itself. Let us give thanks for the greatest gift we have received. Life. Life. Life. Always life.

I lost my voice from cheering so loudly. I was proud to proclaim that loving people – really, sacrificially, and honestly – could perhaps be the most powerful thing we ever do to make the world better. God loves His people. I hold unswervingly dear to this. Just because we are broken doesn’t mean we can’t keep going. The gospel is a working, active acknowledgement that yes! We are free.

This isn’t a “bleeding heart” speaking – this is me. A woman totally smitten by Jesus – and by the people He has continually brought into my life at just the right time. Whether it be cops, Rwandans, family, refugees, or friends at the Pride March, I accept and embrace it all. This, my friends, is life.

Honor World Refugee Day.

May we support, honor, strengthen, encourage, and most importantly, be-friend individuals and groups seeking a new home and community.Multiculturalism, built with genuine hearts, can be a very beautiful thing.

You never know what someone has been through. My friends have seen the horrors of war; have felt the pangs of famine; and have been victims of the most unimaginable social injustices, from oppression, to rape, to persecution. No narrative is the same – listen, and you will see. Listen, and perhaps your world will be changed permanently.

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diaspora, denver style.

Cramped in the corner of a living room in the center of a Denver housing project, I watch 20 Rwandans and Burundians discuss a community wedding back and forth, like a game of ping-pong. Holding treasured blue and black pens, with a tentative agenda, the leader of the family reads necessary purchases to be made: “rice, plantains, meat, beans, cassava, soda, beer…”

Like a quick lesson in school, I learn the various places in Denver and Aurora that members of the African community shop for their preferred items: some consumer goods are available in bulk at Sam’s Club; others are carried at smaller African markets; still others are found at one of the restaurant depots for shop owners. Jacqueline, the wife of the appointed leader of this discussion, explains that because the venue, AfrikaMall will cost the family nearly $4,000, they are trying to discuss how to budget the food costs accordingly.

Everyone will contribute, that much is clear, and I smirk, realizing that culture is so powerful in its ability to take root anywhere even if existing in diaspora.

I lean in close, with a cool beer in hand. The bottles of Heineken, Leffe, and Coke create a centerpiece by which everyone operates. Men, predominantly, sit on the brown, leather couch, while women are stationed in the back of the room. I sit with Terese, Jacqueline, Maria, and Charlotte. They gaze at me – but they don’t stare. When they realize I can understand a great deal of what’s happening (who knew Kinyarwanda could be so useful?), I don’t hear calls of “umuzungu.” Instead, the women nod their heads in agreement, “ari wacu.” She’s ours.

Watching with intrigue, I felt like I was drinking up the culture like a large glass of cool lemonade; refreshing, sweet, and oddly familiar. The movements of arms; the gestures of body language; the smells of food cooking in the kitchen with stuffy air filling the room – it was all recognizable. I could hardly contain myself. I forgot how deeply embedded my passion for Rwanda is.

It smelled like Rwanda. It felt like Rwanda. It sounded like Rwanda.

The accents were like my friends greeting each other with hugs and handshakes; the colorful, traditional fabrics brought back the clothing choices you see on a Sunday morning in Rwanda; and most powerfully, it felt as if I had transplanted another world I knew into the world I had grown up in.

The collision of culture is a wonderfully fascinating thing; I admired the way in which this sub-culture was maintaining their identities in a world so different from their own.

As the family meeting came to an end (with a chosen date of June 26th for the wedding), I had a funny notion that overwhelmed all of my thoughts; what if all of that had somehow prepared me for all of this?

That being my life in Rwanda; this being the life I have now – and the new community I had just discovered.

*

When the formalities of the planning fell away, the questions about my own marital status became the focus of conversation. That didn’t take long, I thought to myself. I explained that I’m waiting and seeking a partner that loves Jesus, is adventurous, loves helping people, and can make me laugh. And, for good measure, I said they would have to have at least 100 cows in their family to give to my father. You see, the sharing of cows (read: money) is an old Rwandan tradition that I knew this family would find hilarious for me to be aware of. They laughed until beer spit out of their mouths. A good joke, indeed. When I mentioned my liking for banana beer, I think one of them might have peed their pants.

Some of the women went to the kitchen to attend to the food for the evening – cassava bread and isombe. I don’t think it was an accident that we would be eating one of my favorite foods (isombe – a leafy dish). I couldn’t stop smiling.

As the room became a bit smaller, I sat with Maria, a 27-year old Burundian mother who moved to the United States 8 years ago, by way of Tanzania. She lived in a refugee camp for 10 years. 10 years. Her family had arrived following the violence and genocide in Burundi in 1997; yet both of her parents died in the camp.

Slowly, but confidently, she shared more of her story. I didn’t have to ask too many questions, she embraced the conversation with enthused openness and interest without much prompting. She had lived in Virginia for a number of years but eventually came to Colorado after she married at 20. Now, with two children, her and her husband work to support their family tirelessly. She works at a nursing home as a cook. She loves the way she can lose herself in the process; it’s freeing for her. Still, she maintains big dreams: she wants to be an accountant. One day, she says, one day.

I asked the family what they felt like when they were in the airplane, coming to America. Some chuckled and said they thought they might die. But, Maria, she shook her head,

oh no, I felt so happy. I felt free. I felt like my life had a chance.”

 As we sat together, ready to share a meal as a family does, I mentioned that I would be happy to be a part of their small, close-knit community and help them in any way I could. Maybe that means helping with English from time to time. Perhaps, it might call for a bit of babysitting, too.

I made it clear: the time I had spent in Rwanda was possible because every day, someone helped me. That is no heavy exaggeration – I wouldn’t have made it in a new place, a new culture, without friends, support, and guidance.

Over these years, it has been brought to me in the deepest of provisions; and so, surely, I could pass it on.

“Ubuzima bwiza!”

Cheers. We clanked our bottles together, turned up the NBA basketball game, and gave celebration to the beauty of freedom and community.

As for me, I drove home that night, almost in tears. I had been praying for this – a sign of real, present community. I’ve been waiting. I didn’t know what it might look like. But that’s the kind of power that God holds; answered prayers often do not look like what we expect.

*

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nairobi, kenya.

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Monkey business – Animal Orphanage.

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Stunning. One of 32 lions brought to the Animal Orphanage for care following abandonment or inability to survive in the wild.

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No foolin’ around with this guy.

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Touring traditional hut styles from Northern Kenya at BOMAS Cultural Center, Nairobi.

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I JUST LOVE THIS. YES.

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BOMAS Cultural Center; one of 12 traditional Kenyan-style dances performed.

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At Nairobi National Museum – the highlights? Probably the oldest skull & human remains findings in the world (!) and the exhibit on Kenyan History.

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BECAUSE TREES

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Loved this architecture, heading into the city centre.

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Walking near the bridge, close to the University of Nairobi.

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Above the bridge; downtown.

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Welcome.

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Coffee & Newspapers. Because that’s a thing. And I love that! Nairobi Java Coffee – one of 37 city locations. Hello, franchise.

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AMAZING Kenyan food at the Highlands Restaurant; Githeri (beans and maize), Kienyeji (mashed potatoes with peas/maize and pumpkin leaves), and Sukuma Wiki (collared greens).

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The retrieval room at the National Archives; because my bestie is an archivist.

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TENNESSEE SHOUT-OUT HERE. Hello fish and chips…from the South? Hm.

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Keep Nairobi Fresh. Please.

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Love the ‘matatu’ designs (on the buses). Especially this one.

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ALL THE SCHOOL FIELD TRIPS. Love the uniforms & adventures. At the Elephant Sanctuary.

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Touched this bad boy.

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Itchy butt…?

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With of 29 current elephants. They are kept until age 3 – then reintroduced into the wild. At the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.

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The watering hole. The elephants are publicly viewed for only ONE hour per day (from 11 -12) so they gotta look fresh.

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Youth for Christ – Kenya.

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Upon visiting….why not bake bread? I mean, really…? They got an oven, ingredients, and a whole lot of motivation. 

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The women with all of the goods they produce at the Women’s Rehab Center. These are all skills they have acquired at the women’s life rehabilitation center. Let me know if you are interested in any – I can direct you to the right person!

kwita izina.

Milk. Marriage. Bananas. Church. Kagame. Dig.

Rwandan buzz words. Just to name a few.

I’m no expert, but if I had a word count of the words I heard most frequently in my explorations throughout these hills, that would be it. And y’all, that’s the English with no Kinyarwanda spice and flavor. That’s where the good stuff comes in.

I’m talking about abakekurus (old woman) drinking ikiviguto (the traditional milk yoghurt drink) in a sleepy, little umudugudu (village). You’ll find inka (cows) roaming around with cowboys greeting you with a smirky and clever, Amasho (may you have many herds of cows) by which you will obviously respond with Amashongore (may you have many herds of female cows). They’ll be surprised and admit that perhaps you too, are an umunyarwandaikazi (Rwandan woman).

*

Beyond words alone, names carry weight here too, like any place in the world.

Try reading off of a school attendance list, or a church bulletin, and you’ll be in a tongue twist faster than you could ever anticipate. Rwandan names aren’t intuitive to an outsider’s eye; in writing, Rwandans will most always capitalize their Kinyarwanda name (always first) and then follow with an English or French name that they may or may not have chosen. Kinyarwanda names often (not always, but frequently) involve God.

NZAYISENGA – I will worship God.

ISHIMWE – Give thanks to God.

TWIZEYIMANA – We have faith in God.

IRADUKUNDA – God loves us.

UWIMANA – God’s daughter or son.

DUSABIMANA – Let’s pray to God.

GIRAMATA – A girl who has milk.

HABIMANA – God exists.

NGABO – Fighter/warrior.

KIREZI – Someone brilliant, special or beautiful.

Heather was never an easy name to say in Rwanda, and outside of “Hida” I couldn’t expect it to be. After all, the names listed above are hard for foreigners to say, and so sometimes, names just don’t translate cross-culturally.

Impano was a name given to me by spunky, sassy Kinyarwanda teacher, Lilliose late in 2011 during our training program. It rolls off the tongue and you can’t help but smile. To me, it’s always sounded like the name for a young (probably crazy) child. The translation is simply “gift”. It was a nice name.

Yet, as my time in Rwanda has grown and developed within a few other contexts, my name has changed too. I don’t remember when it happened – or even how – but instead of Impano, eventually I was given the name, Ingabire.

For the longest time, I thought the words (Impano & Ingabire) were identical. In a way, they almost are. Yet, there is one key, very important difference. While the first name is a practical, tangible gift, Ingabire is understood more as “a gift from God; grace.” The depth and implication of meaning didn’t strike me until a couple of weeks ago. We were at the Rwanda Standards Board procuring some necessary documents for our business when one of the tellers articulately and clearly explained that Ingabire is quite different from Impano.

It’s like the difference between a lovely cardigan sweater under the Christmas tree and the value of forgiveness a friend might offer you. One is just a bit weightier. More meaningful, you might say.

Spiritually, it meant a lot to me – deeply and truly. Rwanda had represented this “present” or “gift” in my life for a number of years and yet to know that I was given the name of Grace after a time in my life where God’s grace actually took fruition in my life – I was left speechless. It’s His grace that I can be here again. It’s His grace that we have life at all. It’s in His holy grace that we love, live, and exist. No matter where our feet fall. He tells us that, blessed are the feet that bring good news and more and more I am convinced that those feet are blessed because of the grace imparted on them.

Ahem, okay. Sermon over.

Even in such a small distinction, you can see, names are always, always more powerful than you might even initially suppose. Especially in the context of place that grants so much value to giving someone a name in regards to who they are as a person and in character.

*

Ironically, this entire revelation of my own naming happened right as I was headed into a weekend known around the country as, “Kwita Izina” (to give a name).

all the people.

all the people. kwita izina 2015.

Traditionally, Rwandan families gather 8 days after a mother gives birth to discuss the baby’s name. Families announce suggestions (with fanta, beer, food, of course) and a name is selected. Often, the parents have already chosen something anyway, but in jest, it is a fun, culturally important, ceremonial thing to do.

From this old-time cultural mainstay, Rwanda has capitalized to develop an eco-tourism, conservation effort in naming newborn baby gorillas every year. It’s brilliant; starting in 2005, and partnering with various government and local partners, the national event gathers diplomats, tourists, community members, international leaders, and Rwandans of all ages for a celebration of the newborn gorillas. At the base of the Virunga Mountains, each gorilla born in the previous calendar year is given a name, just like babies year-round.

Having heard about this for years, I had always wanted to go. This year was the year; I had secured VIP passes, a few friends, and an official jacket for the program. Game on. We took the earliest bus we could to get to the mountains early, and in the cool breezes of Saturday morning we couldn’t wait to see the gorillas, the President, or whatever else the day could entail. As with everything in this country, you really never know.

We grabbed our seats on the lush green grass and watched as performers like Rafiki and Urban Boyz rapped away. Dignitaries and celebrities (mostly government officials) passed us by and I felt like a lame paparazzi chick for catching snapshots of the Minister of Health. VIP tickets get you a bobbly white lawn chair; though we looked on in the free, general admission section where hundreds – probably thousands – of people were standing smushed together. All for the gorillas! I kept my eyes wide-open, unsure of what might happen next.

The day “got real” when the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame arrived. With stealthy speed, he greeted and enthused crowds with handshakes, waves, and salutes. Thousands of people cheered as he would make his way to the podium; after all, this was Kagame. He’s as tall as he looks in photos and like Obama, the white hair is growing thick.

Apparently, presidency is hard no matter where you lead. He spoke on the importance of conserving Rwanda’s beautiful natural resources – gorillas included – and the crowd became antsy as the time for the gorillas grew nearer.

I dare say I was not the only one who thought this, but my impression was that once the time for dissemination of names arrived, we would actually see the baby gorillas.

President Kagame arrives in Musanze for Kwita Izina. Guards included.

President Kagame arrives in Musanze for Kwita Izina. Guards included.

Um. That’s cute. But no.

Something much better (in the most optimistic perspective possible) happened. As chosen public figures made their way to the stage to give their chosen names, nearly 50 people dressed in full-on gorilla suits made their way to the front of the stage. These suits were no joke – and some were incredibly small, adorable, and just…

I couldn’t get enough.

I took about 10 videos and found myself incessantly laughing.

Fake gorillas.

Of course this would happen. I mean, hello, it’s not like they can go and hike the volcanoes expecting to come upon these gorilla clans and remove every baby for their public debut! I definitely didn’t think that one through. It didn’t matter, however, as I was so lost in the moment of hilarity. I hadn’t laughed that hard in quite some time. The actors rolled around in the grass and picked ticks off each other as if they were the real thing. Evidently, most people knew full well this would happen – I was totally blind sighted. But no matter, like I said: it was funny, engaging, and I had never seen anything quite like it.

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the long-waited, highly-anticipated gorilla crew. 24 new babies in this last year; clearly lots to show for it.

My friends and I meandered the premises for an hour or two after wards, gorged on the free buffet, and headed back to Kigali when we finally did hitch a ride down from the Virunga Park base. The day hadn’t really been what I expected, but Rwanda never really is. My name wasn’t what I thought I understood, my time here has rarely been like what I presume it could be, and so clearly, the branded, Rwanda-proud event of the year would have to be like this. I shouldn’t even have been surprised.

When our bus eeked back into Kigali city-limits that evening, it was quickly agreed upon.

We needed pizza.

So, tired, barely awake (but hungry) we made our way to a favorite pizza in town (Sole e Luna) where I promptly ordered the 4 Formaggi option. Number 22, thank you very much. Because sometimes, that’s life. Enjoying fake gorillas with your friends and then eating goat, brie, mozzarella, and gouda cheese on perfectly crisp bread.

We have our names for a reason and we have our lives for a reason. Even if they surprise us along the way.

Chin up, there’s always more.

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Entering Virunga National Park. Musanze, Rwanda.

 

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Rafiki, Rwandan “superstar” – especially up North.

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my absolute fave. traditional rwandan dance.

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Sun and Me. Clearly I have got my Kwita Izina swag on.

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Friends.

room for stories

Hark the herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn King

Peace on earth and mercy mild…

The song was brought to a close with a pause for prayer. It’s Christmas Eve and we are crammed in the back of the church. Grandma is by my side, in her Christmas sweater, decorative pin, and holiday earrings. Always the fashionista. Dimmed lights adorn the walls and we are surrounded. People are entering every corner, it seems, and soon Pastor is having us greet our congregants. To the left, to the right. I turn around. Two young children are staring at me with a girl, around my age, by their side.

“Hi! Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas.”

“What’s your name?”

inaudible response.

“What is it?”

“Umutesi.”

Umutesi?!?!? A Rwandan name, if I ever knew one. I pressed further.

“Um….wow. Are you…Rwandan?”

“Yes.”

Muraho!”

The young girls’ eyes became wide-eyed and jolted like an alarm ringing on an early Monday morning.

*

The woman with them pulled me out of the service later and explained everything. She works with Lutheran Family Services and had been assigned as a mentor to this particular family that had moved to the United States about 3 months prior.

Vitals?

Well, the family had been living in a refugee camp for many years in Rwanda. The family is Congolese in blood, but identifies also as a Rwandan – as is the case with many people on the border. The mother finally received the “lottery” – the ability to gain asylum in the US and was placed in Denver – as many refugees are. Outside of New York and Washington D.C., Denver is becoming a major immigration hub because of location, climate, and resources. Two of the three children are in school (one child is just around the age of two) and the mother is looking for work. It’s difficult, however, as she doesn’t speak English, read, and can only write very little. The job she has been offered is a night-only job; from about 8pm to 4am. This presents a major issue: who would watch the little one?

As I was briefed on their situation, the agency worker invited me to come to her next home visit. I enthusiastically came aboard.

*

I have entered many Rwandan homes in my life. Hundreds, probably. But this was only the second time doing so stateside. I was full of adrenaline and excitement. This is fun to me. We herded into the doorway and greeted the mother. When she heard me actually speak a Kinyarwanda word she looked at me in a state of confusion and uncertainty. Could this be?

I glanced around. TV, couches, chairs. By the looks of things, American. Yet, I smelt Rwandan food. I saw Rwandan flip-flops. I touched Rwandan igitenge (fabric). This was a Rwandan family, indeed.

I continued to greet her, digging up all of those Rwandan phrases I have buried somewhere in my brain, heart, and memories. She was taken aback and didn’t know what to say initially.

I showed her a couple of photographs of my home in Eastern Rwanda on my phone and she grinned.

“Eh babe we!” (Oh my goodness).

A proverbial door or gateway to make some headway in her case, I broached her for information.

How were things going? Were the kids getting to school? What did she do all do? What were some feasible job options the agency could help her find? Did she have enough medication available?

Another one of the agency volunteers brought a calendar and stickers to help her identify certain dates with certain colors. Doctor appointments? Use yellow. Agency meeting? Use green. Church? Use blue.

As I was explaining this in Kinyarwanda, I couldn’t help but flash back to my own moments of fear, uncertainty, and confusion.

I’m lying in my mosquito net with no electricity and no clue where in the world I am. The radio hums and I don’t know what it is saying. My family speaks to me but I don’t understand what they are showing me. They provide food, but I don’t know what I am eating. I have clothes but I don’t really know what is appropriate to wear. Mud cakes my legs, urine stenches in my room from having to use a bucket, and I wonder when my water purifier will start working so I have clean water to drink. What the hell am I doing? Why did I come here?

You see, Rwanda wasn’t all sunshine and sunflowers for me at times. At many points, I was stuck with this grappling sense of ISOLATION.

I come back to the present moment and am more determined to help. Countless friends, colleagues, and villages welcomed me into their lives and so certainly, I can pay it forward and do the same. In many ways, that’s what we are called to do.

I went back two weeks later.

Fear swept aside, the mother not only successfully wrote her name, but we discussed the process in how to call in her child “sick” for school should that be an issue. The school hotline was expectedly annoying, “please press 1 if you would like English, 2 if you would like Spanish,” – it’s like. Um. Do you have Kinyarwanda?…Please?

All of this requires patience, cultural understanding, and linguistic ability. There isn’t a Rwandan context for about 90% of things that this family is currently encountering. Yes, yes, as they get more settled I think the family will find a lot more similarities, but in the beginning it will feel so starkly different.

Life as an American Immigrant is hard. Intensely difficult. Truth be told, it is probably better than the life they have come from. But, because we are so engrained with our own cultures, stories, and histories, it’s hard to not have those carry through wherever we go.

One dream I have is to help people carry this through. I think that’s why I like writing so much. Like with this Rwandan woman, yes, she’s moved to America. But can she still be Rwandan? Yes. And she should be. I was still American when I moved to Rwanda and a bit Rwandan when I moved back to America, so there is always room for our stories. Always.

*

Here are some great stories & resources regarding African immigration and new life in the United States.

New York Times Article on Immigration Influx: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/02/nyregion/influx-of-african-immigrants-shifting-national-and-new-york-demographics.html?_r=0

Lutheran Family Services – Refugees: http://www.lfsrm.org/refugee-asylee

NPR: Becoming Americans: http://www.npr.org/2015/02/23/387536454/becoming-american-immigrants-tweet-their-stories

Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition: http://www.coloradoimmigrant.org/