what we are recovering from

Several weeks ago, upon returning from Rwanda, I arranged to have a chat with a close family relative. I had interviewed her for a book project I started earlier in the year and so we needed a follow-up conversation. The book is a narrative-based work, weaving together the many stories and experiences of women who shaped my life into my own personal narrative.

I’m going to be real: writing a book is a hellishly-slow experience.

I try to write something every few days but when the creative juices aren’t flowing, I feel stuck. When my schedule is full it can be challenging to find time to settle and just write.

Still, I stick with it because what I know to be true about writing is that it is a labor of love and often, you must sit and exist through the progression, knowing that even in the grueling creative process, you are still moving forward.

We sipped our black Starbuck coffees leisurely and chuckled nervously about the state of the world. Apparently, in just a couple of months, a lot can happen. I filled her in with some of my Rwandan anecdotes (namely, climbing mountains and learning about the processes for TWB bakeries throughout the country) while she informed me on grassroots work she had started and various family updates.

When we shifted towards the content of her interviews and contributions to my writing, I confided that some of what she shared had genuinely surprised me.

Well, what surprised you the most?”

I paused thoughtfully and replied,

I mean, for one, I just didn’t know all that my grandmother had been through. Previously, I hadn’t fully connected that her parents were also divorced…it’s unbelievable that I really do come from a family of divorce.”

She shifted her head ever so slightly and firmly, but gently spoke,

Alcoholism. You have alcoholism in your family. You must consider why so many of these divorces have happened, you must consider the root cause. You can’t simply blame divorce as a stand-alone entity.”

Mind. Blown.

The divorces (and there have been many) are symptomatic of something much larger. Her point shifted my mind (and attitude) entirely – which, is actually crazy, because I’ve been thinking about divorce and alcoholism for most of my life. However, her perspective was new and fresh. When you have people in your life that can offer that gift to you, the gift of perspective, take it. Always, take it.

I have forgotten that a legacy of divorce doesn’t just happen. The word “legacy” is, in fact, appropriate; my parents divorced, both of my grand-parents divorced, my grandmother’s parents also divorced. Generations upon generations upon generations.

Too often, I have blamed the rampancy of divorce in my family without digging deeper. Divorce is fueled by something, though. In this case, alcohol.

Weeks since that sobering conversation over coffee, I have intentionally sat with the reality of how alcoholism has affected me; just because I don’t have the disease does not mean that I have been left unscathed.

I have lied to myself for much of my life: you are fine. It’s not your problem. Ignore it. Just be happy.

Yet, the truth persists and it will always find a way to break through.

Alcoholism has driven me to the darkest places of myself, where anger flows likes blood through my veins, and I can hardly see anything but seething, writhing pain. The crack of beer cans continues to frustrate me and can swiftly bring me to moments of confusion and avoidance from my childhood. Addiction is carried as a burden for the one addicted, but the wounds never remain internal. They spread like a sprinkler across a yard, and often, I feel like the nature of this disease has hit me, again, again, and still again. Alcohol and addiction dance like shadowy silhouettes on the walls of my life and it is time for it to be revealed and removed.

In a search for healing, Al-Anon, a support group for family members and friends of alcoholics, has been something recommended to me as frequently as I am told about a new ice cream shop around town (a lot). Typically, when someone would mention the organization, I would nod and smile, but know immediately: hell no. I don’t need help. I’m fine.

Interestingly, since coming out fully, proudly, and openly, it has been easier to understand and see myself, as if the blind spots were beginning to fade away. Identity is strangely funny like that: the more open you can be with yourself – resisting the temptation for shame – the more you can learn about yourself, too.

So, with a more transparent lens, I began to see that it was time to address this issue in my life and take responsibility for my own health – both physical and mental. I might not be able to control alcoholism, but I could take responsibility for my reaction to it. Last month, I went to my first Al-Anon meeting.

I was simultaneously nervous and completely at peace at the same time. I have never figured out how you can feel so many things all at once. The human brain and heart are incredible that way.

When I entered the room, I saw Chelsea and was grateful that she had come with me for the first week. Everyone was gathered in a circle, discreet, but kind in their welcoming expressions and invitations. I received literature about Al-Anon, mostly to review the “steps” and the purpose of the meetings and group. It was overwhelming at first – I wanted to run. But, vigilant, I sat in my own uncomfortability for the hour it required and slowly, but surely, softened to the realization that I belonged, and that I could be understood.

This circle of strangers knew what it felt like to be present to a disease that manifested in beer cans and hard liquor bottles. These everyday people likely knew what it felt like to transform into a monster when reacting to bouts of drunkenness. These humans, none of whom I even know, could relate to the heartbreak of wanting someone to be fully, completely, healthy and yet having no control over that kind of healing.

I was heartbroken, I fathomed for the first time, and I had found a place that might be able to give some stitches, of sorts.

There are hundreds of these kinds of groups everywhere, each week. The sheer size of the group amazed me. The circle had at least 20 people, and in doing some reading before-hand, learned that 7% of Americans suffer from alcohol addiction. That is a lot of people, and that is a lot of lives touched.

Part of the meeting involves a theme or message, and the other half invites people to share and reflect on their stories of alcoholism. While individuals bravely spoke, I witnessed a faint but still consistent narrative. Instead of victimizing themselves in their own story, they acknowledged the impact of the disease, and focused more on the role they have in the situation. The focus was not the alcoholic themselves – it was understanding where freedom exists for us (the witnesses to alcoholism) within the arduous situations we all face, releasing any perceived control of the situation.

I don’t typically speak about alcoholism like this; for me, it’s often been framing the conversation about the pain I have experienced and the ridiculousness of words, situations, or traumas that have occurred. This is not inherently toxic, but when we fail to see the alcoholic as a person with a disease, we rob them of their humanity.

I am guilty of doing this.

Like I said, this disease has forced me to look in the darker places inside me and try to find what I hope to be possible: liberation.

Initially, this confused me. So many sentences of these stories began with, “my recovery…” and I mused defensively, wondering, “what, exactly, are we recovering from?”

It only took me a week to find out.

Recovery, in this context, means living in freedom, even while alcoholism persists. Recovery means reclaiming myself and releasing the blame I have previously claimed. Recovery means recognizing and overcoming the damage it has done in my life. Recovery means letting go.

Recovery removes my expectations of what should happen.

Most importantly, recovery acknowledges that I cannot save the people I love. Yet, I can still love them – regardless of the choices they make.

This does not insinuate a resignation of hope, or of love, or of the past.

After just a couple of Al-Anon meetings, I grasped that this chapter of healing has been (and will be) demanding and gritty and grueling.

Alcoholism is a terrible, unfair, and horrendous disease.

However, we persist. We must always persist.

Recovery is always an option – for everyone.

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20 questions you should always ask.

20 Questions You Should Always Ask

So, it turns out that I am (proudly) in my late twenties (holler).

A strong marker for reaching this age (somewhere in that fuzzy window between 25 and 35) is that you have likely attended at least a dozen awkward, slightly uncomfortable networking events.

Just gonna be real, here. For the most part, I enjoy going out and meeting new people. However, I must be honest and say that I am so, totally, completely, whole-heartedly over the trite question that permeates networking events everywhere,

“What do you do?”

You know, that dreaded, standardized and bastardized “getting to know you” inquiry that pervades nearly every schmoozing event known to man-kind.

I might be being dramatic, but I think that you know what I am talking about.

It’s not a horrendous question, I admit. However, if we are trying to get to know who people are, it has often confused me that we start with someone’s profession and employment, not insights about the person themselves.

Yes, our work matters.
Yes, our work can tell a lot about our interests, talents, abilities, or preferences.

However, sadly, I think we place too much stock in who a person is based on the job they hold. The employment written on our resume, Linked In, or name-tag has come to equate the value a person has. And that’s not a good thing, in my opinion.

I’m guilty as anyone.

For a good chunk of my life, I committed myself zealously to one thing, and to one thing only: I must change the world. And, obviously, this can only happen through my job or the work I do.

I’m being facetious, but this line of thinking was and has been 100% true.

Lately, instead, I’ve been trying to think “outside the box” and consider that perhaps, maybe our lives (and our jobs) don’t always need to be solution-driven. Our work doesn’t have to exist only in direct opposition to a problem that persists in the world.

Most of the time, our work is much more nuanced and complicated than this. What about researchers? Waitresses? Graphic designers? Bus-drivers?Principals? Ministers? Economists? Manufacturers? Car Salesmen?

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A lot of the time, our work is providing services, skills, projects, or tasks that are value-adds to economies (globally), to education, to business, to communities, to health services, or other kinds of sectors that then might be helping with the world simply by being a part of a collective work. We can change the world because we are a part of it and addressing injustices, gaps, and wholes in all kinds of ways.

Our singular job title will never tell the whole story. It adds to the story, I think. Usually, people are in a line of work for a reason: perhaps they need the paycheck only, but sometimes, they’ve selected that industry or sector because they are passionate, want to help, or are hella smart. Yes, I said hella.

This year, I have started writing a book that is focused on influential women in my life. The concept is still evolving, but the main idea is to capture the power that stories have relationally: who we are inherently affects the people around us. Writing a book that tells the stories of others has meant a lot of interviewing and asking questions – and my, oh my, I love asking questions.

In my handy-archive of questions that I enjoy asking to new friends, old friends, and strangers on the street (that’s not an exaggeration), here are the 20 that I love the most.

If you would like to change the conversation too, then hey, these questions are a great place to start. These questions help brighten those occasionally mundane and stuffy networking events – especially if there is cheese and wine – so have fun, and be bold. They help bring out stories – not resumes – and to me, that’s always a move in the right direction. These are good for those spaces – but also for friends, grandparents, neighbors, and co-workers.

You never know what small questions might lead to.

Good luck, and happy conversations.

What is the earliest memory you have?

 

When you were a kid, what did you want to be? Did it change?

 

Have you been in love? What was it like?

 

Do you believe in soulmates? Why or why not?

 

Who had the greatest impact on you in your life?

 

If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life what would it be?

 

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?

 

What three adjectives would your friends use to describe you?

 

What is the one thing you have always wanted to do in your life but

haven’t?

 

If you could only have one super power what would it be?

 

Describe your biggest fear.

 

Where would you go if you could go anywhere for one day?

 

In your world, what does “balance” mean and look like?

 

What makes you most sad about the world and do you think that issue or problem is solvable?

 

How would you describe “home”?

 

Share a moment from your life when you were completely, totally free and/or happy.

 

What do you like most about yourself?

 

What is your greatest weakness?

 

What do you think the point of life is?

 

What will always make you laugh?

 

OP ED: Let’s Not Politicize Everything

Learning things starts with one important attribute: curiosity.

Recently, as I’ve been trying to better understand the life, stories, and experience of being a refugee in our current climate, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I’ve read articles from the New York Times, The Heritage Foundation, and The State Department.

What strikes me most rapidly in our current discourse on refugees is that we have politicized every part of the issue. I understand there are different ways to implement policy on people moving to this country. I also believe we must consider the social, economic, and cultural implications of integrating our country.

But, I believe in it. And, more importantly, I believe there are some parts of the issue that don’t need to be politicized. For many of the individuals relocating to the United States, they are coming from violence, war, and pain. They have been forced to leave home. In fact, they don’t have one.

And, when they do finally get a chance to come to this country, you can see from graphic below that it is not easy. The likelihood of foreigners attacking us is a narrative that is promoted to incite fear. It’s hard to ignore in these days of ISIS and attacks happening globally. I get that, and it’s true, it is scary. But in fear, we shouldn’t blame the vulnerable, marginalized, or other.

Sometimes, the issues that we face aren’t “issues.” Instead, they are people. They are stories. We can’t forget that. It’s easy to paint over the complexities of people and war when we don’t come face to face with it.

So, in addition to reading about the process of for refugee screening, I want to publicly encourage people to get involved in knowing refugees in their local communities. Reach out to organizations working within these communities. Get involved. Go outside your bubble. When you do, you realize that politics is unnecessarily stripping people of their humanity, and when that happens, we are at risk for forgetting what community, unity, and peace can actually look like.

America, we can do this. We can do this. I believe, and I always will.

I have much more to say but for now, I will simply hope these words and hopes are sufficient, and that the America I know and love will come together in these uncertain, questionable times.

We have a big opportunity to grow as people and communities, and I hope we do just that. Get informed, read, learn, and make friends. You won’t regret it.

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when education is not enough.

I come from a family built solidly and firmly on the bedrock of education. Becoming an educator is a source of deep pride; my father, for example, attended Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado (a member of the first graduating class) and after receiving his education license during his undergraduate studies, he returned to Overland to teach and has been there ever since.

For nearly 30 years, my father has been teaching a diverse, multi-cultural student body in geography, history, and social studies. Much of his life has been formed within the confines of a classroom, and honestly, I think it’s super badass. He’s inspired me to know the incredible gift that education holds.

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That matters because I grew up noticing and observing and then believing that education was the tool. For me, it was. I attended school systems with resources, qualified teachers, and supportive add-ons to enable the highest student potential to be met. This extended into college too, as if education was assumed to always be present and existent in my life.

So, remaining always enthusiastic to the process of education, I am faced with a deeply important and stark question: what happens when education is not enough?

Kigali, Rwanda

Inside a thick-aired upper room of a small alimentation in Kimironko, Kigali (towards the east side of town) I sat together with a Rwandan student of mine of whom I have known for six years. I hadn’t seen her since my last work trip to the country (in late 2015) and so she updated me, slowly and meaningfully, on each fragment of her life. I leaned in, listening, hanging on every word, wanting to know exactly what was happening.

With bread and fanta on the table, she chewed and sipped and told me everything.

Her mom is sick. Gravely ill. I try to imagine her lively, energetic mother withdrawn and in pain. It’s agonizing, honestly, to even imagine. This student does not have a father – her mother is her only parent. She confesses a fear of what happens if her mother dies. It will be okay, I tell her. But, really? Will it?

Her older sister, in pursuit of a job, left for Kenya without telling anyone in her family. Her family is devastated. They are waiting, hoping she will return.

Her younger sister passed the national exam last year and was selected to a reputable school two hours away from their community. They could not afford the school fees, so instead, she is attending a school that requires a 90-minute walk each day, one-way trip. The school’s education is sub-par and so, she fears that her sister will retain little, and perhaps be confined to the fields for farming for the rest of her life.

This student has the same concerns for herself; she graduated secondary school last year (a major accomplishment) but now, without an accessible (or even permeable) job market in her rural community, she feels stuck, isolated, and alone. Her fear, in addition to being single, is how she could possibly support her family without finding a job.

As she tells her story, I listen. As I listen, the same question repeats itself. This is a girl who did everything “right.” She studied hard, got good grades, and yet still, remains stuck.

How does she get out?

That’s the question, and it’s one that I cannot shake.

As she confesses all of things before me, her throat tightens as she does her best to not cry. Crying in public is quite taboo in Rwanda, and she knows this as much as anyone else. I give her a few minutes to hold it together, reminding her that I’m there for her, and with her. She is stressed and rightfully so; she worked for the last six years (even coming back to school after her father’s death so she could make a life for herself) and now this?

Now what?

How do we fill this gap?

Certainly, that’s the root of the model with my work with TWB: we seek to provide a tangible, realistic, and powerful application for an educational foundation. Yet, our program hasn’t yet reached this young woman – nor has it for all the women in Rwanda (and around the world) that enter the sphere of education but fall short when it comes to applying it. Herein lies privilege – yes, privilege, that uncomfortable elephant in the room of a word where we confront what others have (or do not have) and try to understand how we leverage our own existing mobility.

This student of mine is currently immobile – at least in an opportunistic sense.

For now, I have encouraged her to join other girls that I have supported to map out “next steps” especially as it relates to community-based solutions that would enable her to continue to take care of her family. Whether a small business (of tutoring in English for example) or seeking out educator jobs, I have instilled the hope that she can seek with diligence and confidence. She has something to offer the world and my god, she will offer it.

Yet, even in these small actions that work for a better future, we must take a larger step back and think about the education systems we promote and the larger systems of society they exist within. The strongest education, I believe, is one that is experiential and applicable. Learning can be done for learning’s sake, but it also must allow the learner to build capacity to leverage their own work ethic, knowledge, and potential for a better life.

What if we could re-work our systems and integrate the job market with what we are teaching? What if instead of teaching rote memorization skills, we built a curriculum that was alive, active and channeling participants directly into a trajectory? What if, instead of de-funding our entire system, we invested in it and compensated teachers for the value that they are worth?

I don’t have an answer for these questions, thought I genuinely, authentically wish that I did.

What are your thoughts?

How can we address the gap of education and income security?

How do we protect those, especially women, who are left with limited opportunities and yet incredible, limitless, budding possibility?

These are hard, awkward questions.

But until we ask them, we cannot discover and work through possible solutions. Let’s begin the conversation together. Let’s do this together. Let’s make education work for everyone. And I do mean, everyone.

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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.

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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. 

the power of people

Since becoming an avid fan of walking (read: my knees keep hurting whenever I run) I have found numerous ways to channel my thoughts while my legs boost me forward.

Sometimes, I listen to podcasts (the Robcast, Denver Community Church, Modern Love, Call Your Girlfriend, and Fresh Air top my favorites); sometimes I focus on the sounds around me and identify what each thing is (certainly, more applicable in an urban environment), like yelling children, sound of birds, or bicycles climbing up long, arduous hills.

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Kayonza, Rwanda

Occasionally, and when I’m feeling particularly contemplative, I literally put myself in someone else’s shoes.

The exercise is simple: when you find yourself in an area with other humans, find someone that catches your eye. Without being a total creep, observe them.

Ask some (or all) of the following questions:

  1. Who are they?
  2. Where are they going?
  3. Where are they coming from?
  4. Do they have a family?
  5. What has happened in their life?
  6. Who has molded their life?
  7. What goals could they hold? Dreams?
  8. What might be easy in their life? Hard?

You won’t know the answers to these questions. That’s the whole point.

The exercise is not about judgement, nor is it about feeling jealous or “sorry” for another person; it’s about thinking about all kinds of persons and what their lives might be like.

I believe, and I know, that existing outside of ourselves (even for a few minutes) cultivates a deep, abiding kind of empathy because when we realize that the moving world does not hinge upon us, we are more fully aware of what and who we are surrounded by. I started doing this a few years ago, and I’ve noticed that with time, it’s furthered my understanding that we all sit on different spectrums of everything.

There is no linear human being.

Most recently, I did this exercise on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a town named Cyangugu. The town sits on the Southwest corner of Rwanda, with just over 60,000 people living in the surrounding area. It is a lakeside town, with sambaza (a type of fish) as a preferred food type. I spent little time here when I was in the Peace Corps, as my community was nearly 8 or 9 hours away, within the Eastern part of the country.

Our TWB team was in the region to complete a bread market analysis which involved visits with other local bakeries, visiting shops that source bread for customers, and researching local preferences for consumption. To understand the place as best as I could, I knew that moving by foot would be advantageous. I think that because you can use your five senses in varying degrees, walking is the most optimal way to learn about a place. Amid our bread research, outside a crowded, local market, I decided to contemplate a woman moving hastily with charcoal on the road.

It was raining.

The moisture of the air swelled together with the dust-capped pavement, like a gust of earth touching each part of my body. I tried to squint my eyes so I didn’t fall into a ditch or misstep and run into one of many pedestrians moving from one place to another. People were moving with intention; while the sunshine might keep people in a haze, the rain acts like a buzzer for immediacy. Suddenly, whether going to the market, to the lake, or to home, the journey must be done speedily.

As the pace of the conglomerate of people around me quickens, I spot a middle-aged woman carrying charcoal. The bag rests in such a way that the top piece is strapped around her forehead and the bulk of the weight is held by her back. She was wearing royal blue fabric with yellow adornments. She was also sweating, profusely, and her muscles seem to mold to the bag as if she knows it well – perhaps carrying these kinds of things every day. Her skin is well-worn by the sun. She seems tired. Strong, but very tired.

She had a ring on her left hand – perhaps she was married – and hence, it’s possible that she was also a provider for children, too. She dropped the charcoal near a bus for loading. I watched from afar as she received a wage – what appeared to be in coins – from her presumed boss. She counted her money. She left.

Was this her day’s wage? Was it enough to buy food? Is she from around these parts?

I can’t know the answers to the questions. I know nothing about her life. And yet, I feel heartbroken.

At any given time, we are surrounded by those who have a life full of opportunity, or perhaps oppression; poverty, or perhaps money; dreams, or perhaps hopelessness; limitations, or perhaps, educational access; hunger, or perhaps food; a job, or perhaps unemployment; nothingness, or perhaps status; mobility, or perhaps subjugation; isolation, or perhaps friends; and health, or perhaps sickness.

Turns out, our privilege is mobile (we carry it with us) and it sits on a spectrum depending on where you find yourself.  If we are engaging with the people around us, we can’t always know the levels or places of their privilege, but we can assess the levels of our own – depending on the situation.

As I watched this woman walk away, with hundreds of others around me, I couldn’t help but think: why do individual lives often look so disproportionate? Is this privilege at work? Or something else?

For instance, on this trip, I walked into bakeries, asked questions, and received tours of the facility without hardly a second glance. I even went home with a free loaf of bread. It’s possible (and likely) that being white had something to do with this.

In the same trip, however, I also entered a bar full of drunk men to purchase a bottle of water. Quickly, I was made to feel small, like my place was not there. I was mocked and laughed at and felt uncomfortable immediately. A drunk man tried to touch me – I left. Here, in spaces like that, I hold very little power – conceptually speaking. It’s possible (and likely) that being a woman had something to do with this.

After intentionally thinking about this woman – and the realities and possibilities in her life – I came back to our hotel room and cried.

I cried because I am maddened by inequity. I’m angered by lack of opportunity. I’m aghast at the nature of cyclical poverty. I’m saddened by loneliness. All of it – it’s so much to absorb and understand. It seems, tapping into this ONE woman’s life for 15 minutes allowed an outpouring of questions, thoughts, concerns, and opinions to rise from deep within me.

I can’t forget the way this feels.

If I forget, I become numb to justice.

If I forget, together, we will not overcome.

If I forget, we cannot acknowledge where we are limited, but where we have power.

I want to understand, know, and dissect the privilege I have. I also know, intimately, that there are areas in my life in which I’m not privileged. Learning to know these places is just as important.

And so, I will keep going on my walks and will maintain awareness of the people around me. For me, people serve as markers and reminders of all the powerful, incredible diversity of humanity, and still also the work we have ahead to ensure human rights are met for everyone.

Justice does not imply equality and that life is the same for everyone; justice, instead, necessitates equity – that we all can build a healthy, prosperous, supportive life, all within the context of our God-given place on this Earth. Whether in small-town Indiana, or on the shores of Thailand, all of us, as people, must know more about others, and then take hard-looks at ourselves, too. We must not be afraid to see our own privilege (and limitations) and then address it head on.

How does our privilege perpetuate systems?

How do acknowledge our mobile privilege and do something about it?

How can our privilege influence change?

These are the questions that this exercise ignites in me.

This is the power of people.

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Cyangugu, Rwanda

muhabura

On the first day of 2017, Chelsea and I penned (nerdily) “bucket lists”, outlining goals and hopes to accomplish within the year. This is a favorite practice of mine, as setting forth possibilities simultaneously allows us to appreciate our experiences and relationships held in the past.

In this list, I included trips I wanted to take (visiting the East Coast, for example, to reunite with my girlfriends from college), writing projects I wanted to do (beginning a book!), and commitments I wanted to engage with (joining Denver Community Church).

I also jotted down highlights of the past year, grateful for so much that had happened – even in a turbulent year of change and uncertainty.

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I believe in holding loosely to plans, of course, but I do think there is something intentional and progressive about jotting down the pieces of life you are consistently striving and working towards.

This includes climbing insane mountains.

I knew the first couple of months of my year would be in Rwanda since I was scheduled to be with The Women’s Bakery team at our headquarters in Kigali.

Knowing I would have weekends to gallivant the country or do things I’ve left undone in previous visits, Mount Muhabura topped the list of activities I wanted to do. It’s been on the back of my mind for literally, years. When I was in the Peace Corps I often thought about tackling this brute of a mountain, but frankly, didn’t want to fork over the money for it. This actually makes a lot of sense since I was living on a stipend of around $250 monthly and the costs for a permit to hike Muhabura is $100, at least for a non-resident. Regardless, I let Muhabura slip away from me and decided at the start of this year that I would finally, finally attempt this trek.

A dormant volcano, Mt. Muhabura is the second highest point in Rwanda at 4,127 meters (over 13,500 feet). It is also a part of the Virungas, a series of peaks across three countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo. The Virungas are made famous for a few reasons, namely, Diane Fossey and Gorillas in the Mist. The Virungas have a more controversial history too, as the epicenter and convergence for military and international conflict between countries in this part of the world.

Muhabura can be approached via Rwanda or Uganda – with the easier side known to be Uganda. With a small crater lake at the summit, the total hike involves over 5,000 feet in elevation gain. Muhabura translates as “the guide” so naturally, when I arrived back in Rwanda this winter, I knew it was time to go and finally find my place. To be guided, if you will.

My colleagues and friends, Meg, Julie, and I initially planned to arrange our permits for two Virunga hikes.  Ambitious and perhaps slightly naïve, we originally intended to complete the Muhabura climb on a Saturday, followed by a hike to the top of Mt. Gahinga the following day. When we arrived at the Rwandan Development Board in Kigali, though, we decided to focus on one hike. After all, upon purchase of our permits, every official seemed to repeat the same thing: “you must be fit.” To be honest, I approached comments like that with loads of laissez-faire, confident that my daily walks and occasional weight-lifting would be enough to get me up (and down) the mountain.

We bought our tickets, packed our car, and left for our short trip away.

Only a 2 ½ hour drive, our launch town was Musanze, in the Northwest corner of the country and a popular outdoorsy stop for tourists. For locals, the North is characterized by the thinner, more brisk air, potatoes, and green rolling hills of tea. The beauty in this part of the country is stunning; in fact, while driving, it’s hard to even absorb the fact that the views are real and you come to the stark realization that no matter how many photographs you take, you will not capture the essence of the terrain.

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Our guesthouse at Kinigi (just outside of Musanze town) was quaint, welcoming, and perfectly simple. Adorned with black and white cow-colored stones and red brick, I appreciated the homey-ness of the place after a trip out of the city in a 4×4. I was ready to relax and mentally prepare for our formidable task ahead. We were welcomed by Faustin, a young gentleman with exceptional customer service. Sometimes, finding accommodating and helpful service in Rwanda can be difficult, however, he not only had our rooms ready, but customized our orders for dinner and was beyond friendly for the extent of our stay. It was refreshing, honestly.

As we settled into our room and ordered brochettes and stews for the evening, the girls and I put our feet up (literally), read our books, and sipped hot ginger tea. I began reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (lovingly given to me by my dear friend Jordana) and I was hooked immediately. We read for nearly an hour until dinner arrived. As the evening slipped away, we were in bed by 8:30pm, anxious for the adventurous day to come.

Sporting my beige Columbia boots and black fleece (acquired 2 years ago at a gorilla naming ceremony, naturally), I was hiking-ready. We packed nearly six liters of water and a healthy load of snacks (Whole30 compliant as Julie and I started the natural cleanse this month) in our daypacks for our day on the mountain.

From snooping on other blogs and doing extensive web searches, we had heard that the predicted time to summit would be around 6 hours. Because of the time-intensive nature of the trail, we wanted to get as early of a start as possible. So, we ate breakfast right around 6:15am. After coffee, eggs, and bananas, we met with our guide, Patrick, and drove to the presumed “base” of the mountain.

“Base” was an overt exaggeration; Patrick claimed that the size of our car (think mid-90’s jeep, Pajero) would be unable to pass some of the steeper, rockier parts of the path. Normally, this would hardly be an inconvenience, however, this created an additional 40 minutes of walking time (one way) from where we parked the car to where the entrance of the trail was marked. Nonetheless, we begun. Stubborn at first, we weren’t entirely sure about hiring a “porter” to help carry our bags. Meg was quick to agree with Patrick that it would be helpful and so for the equivalent of $18 we paid Damascene to join our crew on our journey. In my opinion, it was the best investment of the day – without question.

Along with Patrick and Damascene our motley crew continued to grow. We were also accompanied by 5 military officials, tasked with the job to “watch out for buffalo.” They hiked the entire way with us, usually veering off the path. Even now, I’m a bit aghast that they could hike the mountain with guns (think huge rifles) dangling over their shoulders while wearing heavy camouflage. When in Rwanda, I guess?

At right around 9:00am, we crossed a creaky wooden bridge and Patrick announced, “this is it.” And so, we started the official climb, just past tremendous fields of wheat and the extensive, green forest before us. Reminiscent of Fern Gully, I was slightly full of trepidation as we started. I mean, the first 40 minutes of walking was hard, so what in the hell was I going to be like for the remaining day? I wondered these things as I had a “short call” off to the side in the bush.

Here goes nothing.

The forest instantly captured my imagination. It was like a dream; green forestry surrounded us entirely and though we were already climbing at what felt to be a 45-degree grade, it was beautiful. It was hellish, though, after we acclimatized, because my body was not quite ready for the steep incline. Julie and I had done a relatively intense gym workout just two days prior and so my muscles were already sore.

I focused on my step, my muscles, my mind, and my surroundings. It was kind of a spiritual experience during the first part of trek, actually, because I was absorbing everything around me. The first two hours was brutal. I tried to leverage my body with existing roots of trees and pre-planted steps, but my small legs had to take big leaps at times. We took breaks every 45 minutes or so, ready to catch our breath. I loved having Julie and Meg with me, knowing that we were doing this together helped me stay focused and motivated even in the most difficult parts.

At around 11:30am we reached a point by which we would be taking lunch. We sat on the cusp of the upcoming rocky terrain and looked at the horizon upon us. It was the closest I had ever felt to seeing all of Rwanda – at once. It was a relief – to be sitting, but also to feel like Rwanda wasn’t so daunting, hard, and complicated. It reminded me, again, that Rwanda is also beautiful and expansive and I loved being able to take it all in at once.

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Patrick asked us a lot of interesting questions while we were eating our carrot sticks and previously roasted sweet potatoes.

“What can Rwanda learn from other places?”

“Why is customer service lacking?”

“What do you see in other countries in the region that is unlike what you experience in Rwanda?”

I mused over our answers and tried to breathe as much as I could, as if I knew I would be in short supply as we went up in altitude. At this point, he remarked that we were about 45% complete with the climb to the summit. When I looked up, I didn’t feel assured by this – the next part was completely vertical.

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The terrain switched fast; out of the forest, we were now climbing on grey, volcanic rock. Forget your standard switchback, we ventured straight up the mountain. Meg, Julie, and I alternated carrying our two packs and I was glad for this. We also each had sticks to help us, though one of them was hardly useful. Considering these things, we attacked the incline like beasts. We hit another “false peak” but we were not dismayed – the summit was in sight. Together, we finished the last part of the summit together. I had to take a few moments to motivate myself and to do so, I remembered what I always repeated in my head during field hockey games:

Leave no doubt. The words came from Remember the Titans, and they always inspired me to give my best in everything. I might not BE the best (which is totally, completely fine) but I will give my best efforts. I had a few more rocks to overcome and I was going to do it. I summited, along with the girls, at around 1:15pm.

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Julie, Meg, and I took pictures together at the top. Turns out, per Patrick, in his 6 years of guiding hikes on this mountain, we are the first team to finish together. Usually he leads groups of one or two and in the case of two, someone either takes more time, or turns back. Needless to say, our adventure was a strong team-building activity.

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At 2:00pm, we began our descent. For the lack of a better term, it was hell.

It would take us over 4 hours to get off the mountain, and to be honest, there were moments I wasn’t even sure I could get off. My muscles were so tired that with each step, I wasn’t sure if it would hold up. Several times, my legs completely gave out and I fell on my ass. Tears came fast when this happened. Not out of pain, but out of frustration. I pride myself on being strong and this mountain was making me feel so very weak.

For probably 30% of my descent, I had to hold the hand of our porter, Damsascene. He was kind and gentle, assuring me that we would get down, we just needed to go slowly. I am convinced I wouldn’t have gotten down the mountain without him. I prayed multiple times – mostly that I would be able to find enough strength to finish – and tried to engage in light chatter to distract myself from the pain. We talked about food, Donald Trump, and cultural norms in Rwanda.

The military men behind us snickered at times, baffled by how slow I was going, but I had to ignore them and keep on going. Meg and Julie were ahead with Patrick, so I simply did my best to move quickly, but also move within the pace I had set for myself. I fell at least 6 times and cried at least 7. Turns out, adventures on a mountain does feel like a life journey, full of ups and downs (literally). Julie got altitude sickness on the way down and so she had to deal with an excruciating headache. Clearly, at least for us, the first two hours of the hike were the most difficult, and the entire descent was incredibly challenging – physically and mentally.

When we entered the clearing, after the forest, I was so happy and relieved.

We made it.

I was accompanied through a small village center by Damascene and the soldiers. For a small, remote mountain village, you can imagine the kind of spectacle this created. I encountered plenty of drunk people (apparently, since Sunday is a day off from the fields, many people rest by drinking plentiful amounts of home brew) and was even asked jokingly if I was a gorilla. Sometimes, these things just don’t seem real.

As we got closer to refuge (the car), I shook the hands of an older woman with a stick. We exchanged pleasantries and she asked where I had been coming  from. I simply commented, “Navuye hejeru. Nasuye Imana.”

Translation: I am coming from heaven. I visited God.

It didn’t feel like a smart-ass remark. It seemed appropriate given the fact that we had hiked straight into the clouds and sky. She laughed and raised her hands in humor. In these kinds of situations, if you can simply make people laugh, you’ll be good to go.

When I did reach the car, reunited again with Meg and Julie, I just wanted to sleep. I was so glad we had done the journey, but it was one that I’m not sure I would do again. Scratch that. I don’t think I’ll ever want to do Muhabura again. However, I’m incredibly glad I did it.

It feels empowering to accomplish things that you set your mind to. I didn’t realize how much of my body, mind, and emotions I would have needed for this climb, but luckily, I came ready.

Muhabura, like life, isn’t for the weak. It’s a formidable mountain, one that should be taken seriously. But with grit, perseverance, and strong legs, you can climb it. You might have to crawl up at times, or perhaps slide through mud and rocks on your way down, but it can be done.

Cross that item off the bucket list. Huzzah.

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