street signs.

Summer seasons are often full of long, lazy days in the parks, taking in the sun, and the people, with friends. I love these days; they are full, but they are restful. Another part of summer, at least twice in the last two years, has been moving and changing locations.

Last year, I moved from the outer suburbs of Denver into prime real estate: Washington Park. I packed my bags and hunkered down in a 1-bedroom, sharing the house with three other young female professionals. It was exactly what I needed at the time – urban living, a fun neighborhood, and a bit more walkability to the places around me. I was close to Pearl Street and DU, so there were always exciting things happening.

Of course, in the last year, a lot has changed. And with those changes, I took another dive into a big move this summer, moving in with Chelsea. We had discussed it at length, even from the beginning of our relationship, understanding that things were, in fact, serious. We decided that as our leases eased closer to finishing (both ending on the exact same day) we would evaluate if living together was the next best thing.

And, in the end, it was. Living together isn’t a decision to be taken lightly; a lot can change, and more responsibility looms – to the relationship, and for your partner. However, I wouldn’t move in with just anyone; and knowing that Chelsea and I are a forever-kind-of-thing made this decision quite easy.

Let’s do it, we said.

We relocated to East-Central Denver, on the edge Hilltop, in the budding neighborhood of Lowry. Lowry, or Lowry Field as the neighborhood is also called, is on the site of the former Lowry Air Force Base. The Air Force Base trained military members, of all branches, for 57 total years, with a focus being air and space technology in the late 1950s. Interestingly, during this time, Dwight D. Eisenhower kept his summer home in Denver, in Lowry, with frequent stops on his plane, “the Columbine” on the base. The base closed in 1994 after it graduated 1.1 million Armed Forces. Since then, the city has initiated redevelopment efforts for the community, creating a space that is mixed-use, mixed-age, and mixed-race. Better yet, it’s home to over 800 parks and open space – about 20% of all Denver park acreage in Denver!

Our home is spacious and comfortable, with a gym on the first floor of the apartment (lifting weights just got easier). Most mornings, I write or read on our large patio, listening to the humming of the water foundation below. We’ve scoped out the nearby ice cream parlors, Rocket and High Point Creamery, and we’re game for walks at the park nearby, Crestmoor.

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 9.54.32 AM

Most of my life in Denver has been spent on the Southside (do people even say that here? Maybe?) so it is nice to mix it up, and enter a new community. Ironic, because now, we’re only blocks away from the first home I ever lived in – my parents’ home on Poplar, not far from Fairmount Cemetery. Life’s wonderfully ironic sometimes.

My favorite part of living together has been sharing meals, coming home to someone, and having easy access to my rollerblading buddy on the weekends. There’s a lot of small reasons why living together is great, but mostly, it’s just nice to share life with someone.

My drive to work from our new place is relatively straightforward; I head north on Monaco and then due west on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The drive is both tranquil and picturesque, lined with large, old, overhanging oak trees in the median and outer edges of the traffic lanes. Historic homes are everywhere in this part of town, complete with old bricks and ominous, circular pillars.

However, as I’ve adjusted to my commute, I have started noticing more and more of what’s around me. What I’ve seen, a lot more than what I used to see in the Washington Park community, is the prevalence of homelessness.

As I get closer to Northeast Park Hill (which has a median income of $37,468.06, as opposed to the median income of $88,479 in South Park Hill), I traverse through different socio-economic classes and a variance of make-ups in Denver’s community.

Intentionally, I started reading and keeping note of the some of the signs I would pass on these short drives. Some said:

“Family in need.”

“Veteran & hungry.”

“Anything helps.”

These are street signs of course, but it made me wonder, why do people write what they do on a sign that can fit 10 words – max? More than that, though, I’ve been contemplating what is happening in Denver’s migration (in and out) and how it’s affecting people who have lived here a very long time.

Just the other morning, I passed these same streets and saw a woman with a walker standing on the curb, again, with a sign. How did this happen? What brought her to this place? I felt not pity, but a helplessness that I have not felt for quite some time. I didn’t know what to say, and more obviously, I didn’t know where to look. It hurts, sometimes, to look someone with that kind of pain in the eyes. It’s important, though, I think to regard someone’s humanity in the moment. So, I looked, and the light turned green, and I drove by.

Another morning, another day.

Denver is not what it used to be. Old neighborhoods are gentrified; gangs are becoming pushed to smaller parts of historic neighborhoods and we are left with something of a huge problem. This city can only fit so much.

What will happen with the people on the margins?

I have found a new home, but I can’t help but wonder and ask what will happen with others. I see these street signs popping up and I don’t know what to do. The signs point to something larger, and perhaps, like old prophecy, we are left to decipher and await new meaning for what’s happening to our city, and hence, what’s happening to our people.

We assume people on the side of the road are after drugs or haven’t tried a shelter. That could be true, but I am left with a stronger sense of I don’t know. I don’t know what their stories are. We, if we are to be honest, don’t know as much as we think we do.

Our city is changing, and changing fast. The average rent, for a one-bedroom is $1,413, monthly[1]. There are a lot of reasons to come here, to be sure, but I hope that the swiftly changing demographics of our city doesn’t to continue to harm only certain groups of people.

I’m a beneficiary of these changes, I can afford rent here – at least for now.

However, it’s still difficult to see individuals (and families), stuck in the middle of somewhere in between, unable to make ends meet. Moving has opened my eyes up to this, and I will continue to keep my eyes open, waiting, watching, and looking for a way to find the answer for what we do amid all these tensions.

[1] https://www.rentjungle.com/average-rent-in-denver-rent-trends/

hope.

“Nothing can stop me.” – Yvette*

Kayonza is a sleepy town in Eastern Rwanda, though it maintains a solid supply of milk and bananas, so long as the harvest is good and the cows are healthy.

IMG_1582Last week, I zipped on a motorcycle across the small town, towards the bus station.I passed the internet café that I spent hours at for correspondence when I lived without electricity. The old coffee shop I frequented is now re-constructed into a larger hotel development. It seems the only thing that has remained the same is the dinky ATM I withdrew cash from (when it worked) and the large cow statue in the middle of the town’s roundabout. This part of the Eastern Province is nothing special to most, but for me, every time I pass through, there is something that buzzes inside of me.

Last Friday, I meandered through the Kayonza bus park to find a ride to my nearby Peace Corps community. This is my fourth, possibly fifth, visit to my village since I completed my service at the end of 2013. I’m fortunate, blessed, and simultaneously, recognize the unique opportunity I have been given.  With each time that I do return, my neighbors exclaim proudly, “wibuka ni wacu” (you remembered us). I nod with gratitude, humbly agreeing that returning means a hell of a lot to people, no matter the background, culture, or geographic location.

I hop on a bruised, dented bus that is, quite literally, falling apart. The motor, it appears, will die at any moment, and there are at least three extra people stuffed inside. The man in front of me is holding two chickens. The driver is desperately smoking a cigarette. There are numerous older women grasping their walking sticks as we roll along the hills of our town.

Standard situation.

I shift my backpack so it does not hit against the person next to me. As I re-organize, I hear a meek, but enthusiastic call for “Heather!” I turn around and behind me, waving joyfully, is a student that I taught English during both years of my service. We shake hands, laughing, and I tell her that I’m on my way back – but first have plans to stop and pick up Yvette. I’m staying the weekend at her house and I can hardly wait to see her again. This student smiles and shouts, “Yego! Karibu teacher!” (Yes, welcome, teacher).

I take a deep breath as I call for the driver to pull off at my stop. He looks at me quizzically. I smile, and assure him, that yes, this is where I want to be. I am meeting Yvette at our main junction before we continue to her home where I will be spending the weekend.

The first thing I notice is her hair. My sweet Yvette, who I began teaching when she was 16, now has a thick, long, black weave in a multitude of braids. This is an outward sign of mobility; paying to have your hair done  is not a frequent occurrence where we lived. I let the braids fall through my fingers as I shout loudly, and with so much happiness, “Yesu we! My dear you have become mature. You are looking so smart.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. Yvette is 20 now, and she’s completing her student teaching at a school adjacent to the start of our long, dirt village road. She’s teaching nursery school students while taking courses on educational psychology and teaching methods. I literally could not be prouder.

I am visiting my community again, but things are different than visits in the past. My students are beyond their coming-of-age; they have either dropped out of school or graduated. Most, I learn, have not finished their secondary education, however. For the few that have, the reality of finding a job feels ominous in a rural community sustained through subsistence farming. Harnessing an income feels overwhelming without existing purchasing power or economic capacity. Now, instead of questions about how to finish school, the girls are asking questions about budgeting, planning, and thinking through exactly what they want as young women – not as students. This “new life” as one of my girls calls it, “is not easy.”

Yvette and I ride in unison on separate motorcycles to her family home. I pass through the banana trees, knowing that once again, I am home. I soar on my moto, it seems, hearing mixed shouts of “Julia” (the newest Peace Corps Volunteer in our village), “umuzungu” (white person), and “Impano” (my Kinyarwanda name). The older kids tend to know who I am; the younger ones are now using umuzungu. So goes the passing of time. I notice that the bananas, beans, and cassava have all died. It’s a stark sight to see; a plethora of plots, yet all with an empty harvest. I would find out later that it didn’t rain in this village from April to December last year. Hunger, scarcity of resources, and food security are now even larger, more pressing issues.

IMG_1555Yvette’s mother holds her hands high with kwishimira (praise to God) for my arrival. She hugs me tight and she smells of sweat, firewood, and soil. Her day has alternated between the land, the kitchen, and the road. Yvette’s  grandmother does the same. I smile because I realize that after all these years, I don’t even know Yvette’s grandmother’s name. Rather, I call her mukekuru (grandmother). That’s it. We share a moment and there is a glimmer of joy and appreciation that strikes me; I’m so happy to be back. Mukekeru jokes that she is still alive for my current visit. We giggle because the woman is now 85 years old. I jokingly tell her that she has at least six or seven years left, and snarkily, she tells me that she’ll stay alive until I come back with children. We laugh some more. Touché, mukekuru, touché.

It must be said: life in Rwanda is not easy. Perhaps for some, but not everyone. Life in Kigali can mask the deep divisiveness of inequity that persist in this country. I am unsure if I became numb to the hardness of this life over the years in which I stayed insulated inside the community. Perhaps my time living back in the United States tainted the hardness of what poverty in Rwanda is like. Either way, what I saw in just the first few hours of my return was intense. It shocked me. It awoke me, once again, to the raw realities of deep, deep poverty. It was painful, but also necessary.

Yvette and I left her cemented house before dusk to go and search for a couple of beers for her family. My return, they said, warranted a celebration. As we roamed the village terrain, we stopped by her aunt’s house to say “hello.” As we did, she confronted Yvette with news of an intense infection growing on her foot. Her leg was swelling, she couldn’t walk, and I could hardly believe what I saw was real. It was night by then, and so Yvette used her phone light to examine the injury further. My stomach dropped; I knew immediately that this woman urgently needed to go and get medication and treatment. Otherwise, she would lose her leg.

We left, and instantly, I felt sick. As we entered a small center of shops and bars, I began to see old friends, old neighbors, and old church members. They greeted me, smiled, and continued to proclaim, “uri inkumi” (“you have become a woman”). Considering that just a couple of months ago I had my age checked while seeing an R-rated movie in Denver, this strikes me as wonderfully reassuring.Yvette briefed me on more news from the community.

She pointed to house after house, noting that various young girls that I used to teach have gotten pregnant and are now mothers. The climate has also been harsh and food has been inadequate. Theft has increased, and a feeling of distrust has grown. She reports that her mother, aunt, and uncle have all had thieves steal crops, food, and pots from their homes.

When we arrived back at her house, I stopped and gazed at the sky. My overwhelming feelings of melancholy seem to subside for a moment. The stars are ominous, beautiful, and vast. I said a quick prayer, asking that God would reveal Himself in this place. And that for myself, and for this family, we would remember that God is  still so present through all of this.

We ate dinner together in the dark. Yvette and I talked for three hours about what she has learnt at school and why she believes so passionately in education. As she spoke, with sauce dripping from her mouth in extraordinary excitement, I became suddenly, swiftly, and deeply moved at how much investing in one life can make a difference. I can’t always answer big questions of poverty, inaccessibility, or oppression, but I can be assured that there are bright spots everywhere. Yvette is one of them. She passionately remarks, “the two things I must always remember: a good future and self-confidence.”

Late into the night, she openly shared about other things too; things like politics, social movements, and her past. I was amazed at how well-informed she was – especially about the growing activism in the United States. She admitted that she cried when Donald Trump won the election. When I asked why, she said simply, “I can’t imagine a leader acting or talking like that. It made me sad for America.”

Enough said.

I woke up to a rooster crowing. Already, at 6:00am, Yvette’s mother was cooking tea. I stretched my legs and visited the latrine for a bathroom visit. I used to be an expert at using these things, but with passing time, my squatting abilities have faltered. Let’s just say it was a bit messy. As we say in Rwanda, bibaho (it happens).

As we waited for the sun to climb in the sky, we sipped tea and looked at photos of my niece, AnaLynah. Mukekuru is obsessed, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the lovely photographs. She was quick to remind me, again, that I must come back with children.

When we share a mid-morning snack of ubugali (cassava bread) and potatoes with sauce,Yvette’s mom prayed over the food. She commented sheepishly that she had “nothing to give me.” This broke every piece of my heart. I assure her – I don’t need or want anything. Just love, and only love. As we ate,Yvette asks, “Heather, when we tell you that you are a blessing to us, you keep telling us that we have been a blessing to you. How?”

I blinked slowly and scrambled to find the right, adequate words.

You’ve given me friendship. Community. A place to come back to. Purpose. All of you girls have motivated me to know what is important in life. If God gives me the opportunity to support others, I must take it. And, with all of you, you have demonstrated what it looks like to be welcoming and loving to anyone.”

We walked dusty trails in the western part of the sector, towards Liza’s* house. When I saw her, I gasped, amazed at how “grown” she has become. Liza detailed what it felt like to finish her schooling. She talked at length about representing her school at a national debate, and how she overcame her fear of pursuing her coursework in the sciences. She wants to go to university, but she doesn’t know how to proceed. The national government will announce scholarships in the coming months, and if she doesn’t receive one, she can’t continue. We prayed about this together, in her small, musty living room.

We also visited Yvette’s uncle, all with more food and more questions. Families often ask. “where is your husband?” and now, being in a very happy relationship with my girlfriend, I feel stuck in knowing what to answer. I can’t tell them the truth, and I also hate to lie. I feel in a different kind of a “closet” than I did before, and this is stressful. I get flustered and simply reply with a coyness, “God will give His answer.” This seems to be enough, at least for now.

The hard part of coming back, I realize, is that my new life doesn’t easily integrate with the old. I must grieve this and be patient with this, too.

One of the hardest part moments of my trip was seeing a baby with a disability going untreated. One of Yvette’s family members brought this baby to the house. I assumed the child was only two or three weeks from its birth. When I realized it’s actual age (9 months!) Yvette’s mom unwrapped the child from a small, blue blanket. As I tenderly held the small, floppy limbs in my hands, I fully grasped the limitations in each part of its body for this little one.

The child went to a hospital, but was referred to a specialty clinic. Because of transport fees, the family hasn’t yet gone. With urgency, I insisted that they must go soon. If the baby can access some physical therapy, the body can still develop some muscle strength. I excuse myself to the latrine, again, but not because I need to relieve myself.

I stand on the wooden logs, with tears in my eyes, unsure of what to do. Why God, why God, does this happen?

On the final day of my visit, I met the current Peace Corps Volunteer, Julia, who is simply, a gem. She’s connected strongly with Yvette, and her family too, and we share stories about teaching and what it’s like to live inside of this part of Rwanda. We walk to her home together, and I squeal in delight when I see my timeworn painted walls of turquoise. My old home looks largely the same, and with all the other stressors I experienced, this was comforting.

IMG_1586Yvette and I walked the five kilometers out of the village so I could soak the place up as much as possible. I was sad to go our separate ways, but we quickly made plans for her to visit the bakery in Kigali the following weekend. I thank her for all that she has given and shared with me. I thank her for being her. She shyly thanks me too, and she goes.

Then, like magic, I’m back on a bus, surrounded by colorful fabrics, women with babies, and bible-carrying men, to return to my current life. It feels like I took a step out of time and went somewhere else. I’m processing these experiences, people, and stories still, and it’s challenging.

It’s hard to reconcile our lives with one another sometimes. However, even in the difficulty, it’s a worthy process. I’m learning a lot from this visit, feeling affirmed in my work, and considering what it means to resist, persist, and keep going no matter what. I am thinking about those kinds of things, mostly, because more than anything, that’s what I want for my girls, my loved ones, myself, and my children one day: that is, to hold both the joyous and heart-breaking pieces of life together, knowing that life is neither one or the other. It is both. Always, both.

IMG_1594

My community, my village, my home always serves as a benchmark for a part of my life that allowed me to understand and know a bigger picture in this world. Life can be immensely difficult for all of us, as we each face unique challenges. I can’t move forward and forget these things. Instead, we are called to hone what we can and advocate for each other, wherever our gaps may be. We all have them. But, we can all help one another, too.

I don’t know what to do about what I saw: the paucity of food; the lack of education; the scarceness of jobs; the propensity of medical issues; there is just so much. Too much.

But, I am assured, knowing that I can continue to stand with my girls, with Yvette, believing that opportunity does provide the most valuable kind of a return on investment: HOPE.

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of these stories and the individuals involved. 

empowered, to empower.

Friends since 2007, Rachel and I together have ventured through the intensity and magic of Disney World, the coast-lines of Ghana, and questionable neighborhoods in New Orleans.

This last weekend, however, we had one of my most favorite adventures to date.

12494011_10154569587623902_1747448338386142315_o

Montgomery, Alabama.

On Sunday, we sat in the pews of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. A center point for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began to exhort the African-American community in non-violence and agape love, I couldn’t believe we were hearing the Gospel in such a rich, history-soaked place. Bah. 

On my birthday, the day before, we trekked 50 miles to Selma, Alabama where the famous Selma-Montgomery march took place in 1965. Nonviolent demonstrators, led by King and a band of other strong, resilient, and visionaries, walked for four days to the State Capitol of Alabama to increase efforts for registration of all voters. To say this was my favorite birthday ever would not be an exaggeration; I have spent years reading about the Civil Rights Movement and yet, here I was! 12469445_10154569586913902_2271018059112534330_o.jpg

The thing is, I’m reminded, is that truthfully, the struggle is real and the struggle continues. Not only for groups in our country, but for people around the world. People don’t have choice; people don’t have a voice in their own lives.

Just in the last week, as I’ve heard about failing school systems in the Deep South, I’ve also been re-connected with friends in Rwanda who are unable to feed their families. I’ve read statistics telling me that only 2% of land in the world is owned by women; and I’ve perused reports of violence and emigration coming from the Middle East. We live in a broken world. Then – and now.

I thought about these places, these movements, these efforts as I sipped coffee this morning. Researching empowerment methodologies, I couldn’t let go of the hot-button question in development work:

 how do you literally empower another human?

The Civil Rights Movement would never had traction without the empowered individuals – and thus an empowered community – to stand up for what was right.

Nor can we live our lives un-empowered.

If we do, how can we expect to make the right choices for ourselves? How can we instill unity in our communities? How can we nurture our families? How can we know things like grace and forgiveness – essential components to the human experience?

Where we recognize injustice, we must do something.

InjusticeAnywhere640

It could be in our own lives, within our very own communities, or an issue that is happening a million miles away. That problem in Burundi? It’s our problem too. That issue in Syria? Yep, it matters in our lives. And obviously, the gun-violence down the street or even the tensions of racial misunderstanding – they affect us also. We are only unaffected if we choose to be. If we really believe in micro and macro-scale empowerment, these things, they must matter.

That’s what I think we have to do. It’s more than designing a project to fit projections, grant requirements, or assumptions perfectly. Instead, real empowerment is enabling a person to realize the capacity, value, and how to act upon it in their life. And goodness, it’s hard. It’s a lot more complex than handing out a worksheet and saying, “you mean something.” Instead, I think we have to start on a more fundamental level. You have to engage in a relationship with someone, learn about them – and their culture – and empower livelihood from a point of awareness and then to a point of action.

I love thinking about these things.

While researching this morning for The Women’s Bakery, I spent time learning about Acumen, a non-profit that invests in scale-able global projects. Acumen emphasizes the need for dignity of others as they make patient, wise, and practical investments in the skills of individuals around the world. On their website, they have their manifesto posted, and it’s a beautiful piece, highlighting the power behind doing what is right, and the humility to realize that though we might make mistakes, we still must try. The power of us even having the choice to help, well, that’s the beauty of empowerment – we can be empowered to empower. Boom.

A Manifesto. 

It starts by standing with the poor, listening to voices
unheard, and recognizing potential where others see
despair.

It demands investing as a means, not an end, daring to go
where markets have failed and aid has fallen short. It makes
capital work for us, not control us.

It thrives on moral imagination: the humility to see the world
as it is, and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be.
It’s having the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to
admit failure, and the courage to start again.

It requires patience and kindness, resilience and grit: a
hard-edged hope. It’s leadership that rejects complacency,
breaks through bureaucracy, and challenges corruption.
Doing what’s right, not what’s easy.

Acumen: it’s the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical
world. Changing the way the world tackles poverty and
building a world based on dignity.

beyond boxes.

People fear boxes.

Lost Angels, one of the many, many documentaries available to be screened on Netflix shares the story of people living on Los Angeles’ famous “skid row”, where an extraordinary amount of people live with no place to go. The term itself originated in Seattle in the mid-19th century. In fact, at that point the term referenced a saw mill area in town. A century later, the term has all kinds of connotations, most notably referring to areas of “homeless people”, “society’s rejects”, “low-life’s”, “disadvantaged”, and “poor”. The quotations may or may not be needed – your definition probably depends on your attitude.

lost angels

Residents of skid row live in housing that has served the poor for years – until being gentrified by groups of wealthier people, organizations, and movements. Skid row then shifts geographically with changing boundary lines as the people, places, and culture are pushed elsewhere. It grows, gentrifies, moves, repeats.

Case and point: New Orleans, Louisiana.

I saw the implications and consequences of urban tension when writing my senior thesis on recreational youth development in New Orleans. City dynamics altered unforgivingly after Hurricane Katrina and revealed the established and long tradition of stark separation of rich and poor. Areas like Audubon Park provide a plethora of recreational opportunities for children in the neighborhood; take a trolley down to Treme and you will find run-down, 1-acre plots reserved for parks but have been largely left by the wayside. This impacts youth development, city perceptions, and how people move about. Really, it affects how people live. At some point, you might end up with 4,000 + people living in a relatively small section of the city, all poor, nearly all suffering from mental illness, and many using drugs. That’s exactly what skid row in Los Angeles has become.

Cities all over exist with their very own versions of skid row – Vancouver, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.

It seems odd then, that on the very same day I am packing my own boxes for a move, my brother’s current location for recovery is described as “Denver’s skid row” in a conversation. Which, is true. It’s been known as that part of town for decades. More than that, it was that particular evening that I chose to watch the aforementioned documentary on skid row and I’m left thinking,

Wow. What do I actually think about all of this?

People fear boxes.

That’s what I think.

In the documentary, footage is shown of police officers scrounging up every box they can find on the city streets and taking it away. Belongings or not, it doesn’t matter.

A box carries things. For me, it carries a lot and for others it carries everything.

When we move places – homes, countries, rooms, colleges, states, jobs – we take our stuff in a box and we aim to remove it as quickly as possible. At least I do. I certainly don’t want boxes hanging around.

*

I’ve moved a million times before and yet this one feels different. It feels better.

We changed houses when I was growing up, we separated houses when my parents divorced, I left houses when I went to college, I stopped living in American houses when I entered the Peace Corps, and I was relatively nomadic at that point, unsure of where my houses, my boxes, and my idea of home fit. I was scattered.

I feared boxes because I kept acquiring more than just physical things to take with me – I was transporting memories, people, relationships, and a hell of a lot of journals. Putting a bit of myself into each place I went, I felt like I had to pack up that part of me too – somehow fitting it in my already crowded identity.

I feared them because I feared losing them.

When I moved to Hendrix in 2007, my boxes were full of high school memorabilia and knick-knacks from growing up back home in Colorado. When I left the country in 2011 for a handful of years in Rwanda, I brought the bare essentials and yet made room for photographs and letters from my college days, adding to what I had originally felt was important. When I came back from Rwanda the first time, circa 2013, I had a suitcase full of lesson books, grade books, and literally every item I could bring back that would allow me to hold on to all I had experienced in two years. I couldn’t explain it so I was going to try to do so with the things I brought with me, I thought. Then, I went back to the land of a thousand hills for the summer, and repeated the coming home process, only this time with much less.

The simple truth?

No box or suitcase can fill experiences.

It’s that realization that has made this move and this season of life so, so sweet. I don’t care about the boxes anymore. Here’s why:

I’m writing wrapped in a blanket from Ghana. I’m surrounded by a china cabinet that my mother and father had for a very long time. The teddy bear I received after having appendix surgery when I was young is next to me. The coasters from Mexico keep the sweat of my water away from my beautiful, wood dresser that I had at mom’s house. My grandmother’s jewelry and red lipstick tube fills my great-grandmother’s jewelry case and the pottery that Jordana made me shares space with the traditional pestle and mortar given to me by my mama and papa in Rwanda. Letters from dear friends, photos from Disney World, and key chains I collected from all over the country are displayed.

The secret, as probably many of you know, is that the more life passes, the more of life you have to share. You don’t have to put it into a box either; the box serves as a resting place for the mementos you pick up along the way. The way in which we live our life, yes, that’s how we carry our stories, memories, and years.

You can spend too much time worrying about your calling ahead or the callings you have already lived out. Do this too much though, and you miss what’s right in front of you. Sometimes all you can do is just put one foot in front of another.

*

For a lot of people, there is only one box. Maybe there’s not a box at all.

My brother – whether he’s near skid row or not – is at the point of no boxes.

He OWNS very little. His life could probably be put into a duffle bag that he may or may not still have. Some pairs of pants, his state championship ring, a few sets of shoes, and some notebooks.

However, despite the dismal picture that skid row initially paints, he’s not at the point of no return.

He’s not.

Skid row, the suburbs, the ritziest places in the country, and the most dead-beat corners of our land have people. Good, bad, whatever. We’re just people and we’re just trying to figure out how we live life.

It’s felt weird as I have started to unpack the last 7 or so years of my life, knowing that my brother is where he is, doing so much more than that. I’m removing pieces, fragments, and evidence from my cardboard boxes and my brother is trying to figure out how to not live in one permanently.

Hope transcends the fear. Hope is so much bigger than anything that we can contain. Like jars of clay, God has chosen to place a piece of him – a piece of His son, Jesus – in each of us.

jars

That’s the miraculous part of our lives. The boxes, the years, the mistakes, the victories, whatever it may be – it does not define us. We live in a “worn and weary land” – skid row, you might say, but we will never run dry.

Just to know You and to make You known

We lift Your name on high

Shine like the sun, make darkness run and hide

We know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives

It’s time for yus to more than just survive

We were made to thrive

-Casting Crowns, Thrive

thrive

eyes to see

*

If you catch a girl walking to the bus-stop with perfectly ironed black dress pants, 3-inch heels, and beautifully placed hair, you can be sure of one thing:

it isn’t me.

Look further. Yeah, you will have to peruse further than the nearby bus stop.

Most days, at least as of last week, I have taken to “going on walks” before I head into work. For some wild reason it helps me start the day right. Feel relaxed. Get some fresh air. Really, it’s probably a need to move since I’m currently on a running hiatus. And I sit at a desk a large portion of my day.

Yep. I’m the sweaty girl with a heavy, unnecessarily large backpack walking in converse (officially my new favorite pair of shoes) on the Kigali pedestrian sidewalks. Don’t worry, I bring my dress shoes into work (sometimes).

On one of my walks last week, I decided it would be cool to walk all the way from my house to work. No big deal…right? Well. According to google maps, I did this:

walk

It was about an 8 km walk (or around 5 miles). To be honest, it felt like a lot more, but let’s be real. It’s probably those Kigali hills. If you have been here, you know what I am talking about. The steep inclines are no joke.

Here’s another reason I’m enjoying these little adventures, y’all. Well, first of all, when I was living in the village, it was a social necessity. It was how you met people. So, perhaps it’s a bit of a habit. But also, I want to see Kigali.

Behind those towering Beverly-Hill like monsters of homes (one of which I happen to rent a room from) there are significantly poorer residences tucked away – they are actually in the same neighborhood. Though, rumor has it that eventually the city organizers are looking to move these residents out and convert this particular area into an “upper income area only.” Who knows.

As you walk along Kigali sidewalks you realize just how clean everything is, for the most part. I see parents holding the hands of their uniformed children as they take them to school. They are sure are a hell of a lot better groomed than I am at this point. If you see litter, which I doubt you will, it’s very little. I will never forget the smells and sights of roads back in Ghana when I was studying abroad; people drink water from small baggies, called sachets, and they are absolutely everywhere. Mountains of them, even. In Kigali, you will instead see hired women dressed in blue or green uniforms that are either sweeping dust or picking up even the smallest pieces of left behind paper. Knowing Rwanda how I do, this doesn’t really surprise me, though. Most Rwandans highly value cleanliness.

I pass incredibly manicured lawns of colleges and vocational schools. KIM, the Kigali Insititute of Management, for example, has red brick reminiscent of my own Hendrix College and an assortment of flowers that nearly every color can be found. These are the institutions and students that I will be interacting with for a large chunk of my time as a fellow with Urwego Opportunity Bank – once I pump out the manual, anyway. Entering my third week, I have been quite swamped putting together the PPM (Procedures and Policy Manual) for the Education Finance Program. Trust me when I tell you that it is significantly more fascinating than it sounds. For the past couple of weeks, I have used my work day to extensively research Education in Rwanda, the history of education financing in this country, and what this means for Urwego’s social approach. What can work here? What can’t? Why?

I have learned a lot. In between my research, I have developed surveys for staff in the Education program, re-constructed and tailored a financial literacy curriculum for children to air on the radio, and completed some site visits. I’ve been busy. It’s made me think a lot. And so, it’s become these morning walks that really gear me up for the day ahead and give me the time and space I need to consider the things I have learned, what I have experienced before, and what I am experiencing now. And also, where I want to go with all of this.

*

See that tree over to the left?

note papaya tree. a great place for a great conversation.

note the papaya tree. a great place for a great conversation.

It’s adjacent to the clothes drying in the sun and behind Divine’s neighbor waiting for her close-up.

That tree.

It’s a papaya tree. Last Sunday, I sat on a tattered mat for two hours, under its thin branches, and really talked with Divine. I firmly believe that in the end, no amount of Skype credit, WhatsApp messages, or video calls can replace the feeling of being able to discuss things without any time limit. It’s a rare gem in our world.

We talked about a lot of stuff.

In the past, so much of my writing has been triggered by things or nuggets of wisdom that Divine has shared with me. Apparently that continues.

We were talking about some of the work I was doing in Kigali, with the bank, and soon the conversation shifted to some broader experiences I was seeing in the city. Namely, the blatant concentration of wealth. As I tried to explain some of these observations carefully and delicately, Divine continued to scrub dust-ridden clothes between the crevices of her hands. She remarked,

“…poverty is not only about money.”

I looked up. She wasn’t looking at me. Instead, she was intensely focused on my blue jeans she had been soaking in suds to remove the stains from beans the previous day. Yeah, okay, I’m a messy eater. She went on,

“Heather, poverty is a lack of something. In the heart….in the mind….you can find the poor everywhere.”

Of course she was telling me this, of course. She has always been one of the more practically insightful people I have known; she’ll just start spewing out really interesting observations about how the world works as if she’s just having a regular conversation about tea or something.

I told her that ironically, the bank I am working for takes the very same approach to constructing their idea of poverty and what they are fighting against. Taking directly from Urwego Opportunity Bank’s official beliefs:

UOB views poverty as a multifaceted, interconnected, and dis-empowering system that is the result of the fall of the four foundational relationships that God established for each person (i.e. relationships with God, self, others, and creation).  When defined in this way, all people are fundamentally poor in the sense of not experiencing the fullness that God intended for each of these relationships.  For the economically poor, these broken relationships often include shame, a marred identity, and social isolation.  For the economically rich, these broken relationships manifest themselves into pride, selfishness, workaholic tendencies, materialism, etc., which result into a variety of individual and social ills.

*

I didn’t tell Divine this, but it was hard for me to sit there, considering how I have been moving in between two worlds that are quite different yet very much in the same country.

Imagine.

By Monday morning I am working alongside educated, university-attended Rwandans. I have sat at roundtables and lectures and presentations that highlight researchers’ and experts’ newest ideas about how to decrease poverty in this country. It might be from the financial world, from a context of charity, or from the basis of education. In the city there’s a lot of ideas. Some are really good. And for others, I feel like the roots of poverty itself are hidden deep behind the rhetoric. Buzz words appear often when you speak with people in development: the rural poor, girls, access, indicators, outcomes, projects, impact analysis….I could go on.

These things aren’t bad, they really aren’t. And you know what? I like talking about this kind of stuff more than anyone. And to be quite frank, Rwanda is an exemplary example of development. It really, really is. There are goals here (the health care scheme, universal primary education, ICT, and increased agricultural productivity) that have become realities. A simple ‘google’ search of Rwandan development will provide plenty of reading material to prove it so. Perhaps that’s why so many people come to work here; something is going right.

However, I suppose as I was laying under that papaya tree discussing poverty with someone right there, experiencing extraordinary financial limitations right in front of me, I felt a disconnect between those words and the lives being lived.

So much of the need is decided by people who have risen above. Is it good? Is it bad? I don’t know. I’ll tell you this much. Living in Rwanda in a different context certainly makes you consider these sort of dynamics.

*

And later that evening, when the sun had set and the stars came alive (along with a fresh brew of that old-time banana beer – some things really never change) I had a conversation that rocked me a bit.

I don’t feel comfortable posting exact details but I will say that it highlighted poverty – and the major wealth gap that exists in this country. This person commented on some obvious dissension with “power structures” in Kigali and it took me by surprise. They expressed a dissatisfaction that I haven’t seen so obviously from most Rwandans I have met; most of the time, Rwandans are pretty guarded about personal opinions or ideas. So when I heard what I did, my eyes widened a bit. Woah. There’s something going on here.

I had been sharing some of my stories of what some people had to say about “the village” while living in Kigali. A few people I have talked to seem to lump “the village” together as one entity. It’s as if Rwanda is two things: Kigali and the village. And in terms of a rural and urban breakdown, that can be true, but don’t be mistaken to think that “the village” is the same in the East as it is in the North as it is in the South. Even in a country quite homogenous like Rwanda, at least with some traditional values, language, and religion, places are different. And like Divine pointed out, poverty is different too. Whether you’re in Kigali, near Tanzania, or living volcano-side in the North.

*

Going back to those walks I love taking, I went on another long one yesterday on my way to work. I was thinking about all of this. I was praying one thing over and over again,

“Lord, let me see what you want me to see here.”

I think it’s begun.

I don’t think it’s going to be easy at times. In fact, I think as the next couple of month’s progress, I will be challenged to reconcile differences and disparities. I’m working, sure. I’m having fun in the city. I’m enjoying weekend visits to old friends. But, I’m also being directed, educated, and presented with things I have yet to ever consider.

That’s a summer worth having.

*

IMG_5451

IMG_5329