Oct 1, 2016

That Time We Got Cancer.

I often wish I could go back to before August 29th.

Before the deluge of supplements, the expensive juicer, the articles on holistic health, and the gallons of alkaline water. When "active" was my online shopping habit and "dormant" was Mushu my cat between the hours of 10am and 5pm. When I was home to help my parents with the burden of being alzheimers caretakers and meant to be looking for a job "in a big city on the East Coast." 

Before we got cancer. 

(I've read that a person doesn't get cancer, a family gets cancer. And that is exactly the truth.) 

We didn't see it coming, not a little, not at all. A few weeks before C day, I had accompanied my dad to a routine bone marrow tap because the doctors had found some weird numbers in his yearly blood tests. It was thought to be arthritis and the doctors said over and over again, "It's not an emergency, it's not cancer, we just want to know what's going on." 

So my dad scheduled the bone tap and I went with him, at my mom's request, to the Florida Cancer Whatever office and waited in the waiting room during the procedure. I marveled at the lobby while the Indian doctor (noteworthy to me because I love Indians so much thanks to a glorious India backpacking trip in 2011) plunged a thick needle into my dad's spine in a back room. The lobby was so clean. It had a flat screen tv scrolling news and advertisements and a stack of books on a shelf - more books than an entire Rwandan village has. I listened to the patients come in one by one, greeting the desk manager and passing American sincerities back and forth. I recalled the last time I was in a doctors office - during a bout of horrific stomach parasite while in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia a few months ago. I was taken to an "American hospital" to get the best care possible. But like most things labeled "American" in the third world, it was American only in name. Privilege can't be replicated. 

So there I sat, marveling at the office, when a little old lady called me back to dad's room. There was blood all over the testing screens and she had me sit down while going on and on about how she had just come out of retirement because the office was so short staffed. "Great," I thought, "At least we won't have to come back here again." If I only knew. The doctor sent us on our way, reassured my dad yet again that it was no big deal, and we jumped in the car, me in the drivers seat. I focused on the road while my dad opened a conference call right away on his phone. He made no mention that he had literally 5 minutes prior to the phone call been laying on a table with a needle in his spine oozing blood. "Is Jim there? Kathy? So and So? Ok good, let's get started...." in his "business dad" voice. I made a mental note to be more tough. I would surely have milked that procedure for sympathy and attention. Dad just moved forward with his responsibilities. "Be stronger and tougher and more professional like dad," I thought. 

Two weeks later it was a normal Monday. My dad was working from home that day, aside from his quick trip to the doctor for his results, and I was off doing errands and job hunting from my usual perch at the dining table. We passed each other randomly, but I didn't really pay attention to anything because everything was supposed to be fine. That evening mom and I went to her spinning class at the local YMCA. And class was HARD. I thought she had had a rough day at work, since we usually don't get a lot of quality time before spinning to chat. It turns out my dad had pulled her aside before spinning to pass off the news that the doctor had told him his blood cells in his spine were "malignant" aka cancer. I guess there is no good time to tell your chosen life partner that you were diagnosed with cancer that day. But I can't help but think that if I was writing our lives as a story, my mother wouldn't have found out with no time to process. So we did spinning - her fresh off of horrific news and me completely unaware. After returning home, I grabbed my computer and sat on the living room floor to answer an email. My dad came and sat on the couch with a usual bad news preface. And then..."I have cancer." I reacted in a way you'd expect me to react - loudly and verbally processing. Wanting answers to every question under the sun. Processing the fact that disease just got a generation closer and we now not only have old people to take care of, but the caretaker also is a patient. The one in charge of leading the care-taking mission of others must now be cared for. A few minutes later my sister in Los Angeles called me. My dad had not told her yet, so I just sobbed into the phone like a maniac and eventually hung up on her, completely unable to play it cool but knowing it wasn't my news to tell. "Will someone tell me what is going on?" she texted me. I messaged her back, "Sorry, bad news is coming." 

In perfect timing (sarcasm), my dad's doctor was scheduled to be out of the country for a few weeks following the diagnosis and so we had quite a bit of time to stew around with this news before getting any concrete details of his diagnosis. We did a body scan and some more blood tests and we waited. And waited. And researched. And cried. My dad worked on his super-important-very stressful work project which was perhaps a welcome distraction (I can't speak for him), though seemed to be quite a lot for one person to navigate on the heels of a cancer diagnosis and caring for his parents and their estate. I often found myself watching him. In disbelief that my all-powerful dad could somehow have this disease just sitting inside of him - unaware to us for how long? Also in disbelief that he could somehow handle so many stresses at once - work, family stress, me and my mom harping on him about every cancer article we have ever found on Google, and his own internal processing. (I guess it's good to point out that this blog is my own experience of finding out my dad has cancer, and not his voice or narrative. And that I mention "we got cancer" as a way to alleviate his burden through familial community, not to belittle his unique experience). 

For me, all job hunting was thrown out the window and I decided that I needed to embrace and enjoy being closer to family. In last several years, my life has been all about me. About my adventure and advancement and experiences. They've cheered me on, and it's been great. No regrets about spending my last 8 years away. But now my life is about us. About my family, and being together to make memories, and supporting each other in a tangible, non-technological way. It's really been a time of a priority shift and deciding what is important to me as I build my life moving forward. It is so sad that my sister is in California. I feel bad that I get to be here during this time while she is so far away. For sure she would love to be here too. If only we could write the story.

During the wait, we concocted the best and worst case scenarios that could exist with his bone cancer. Best: the cancer is dormant and he does not need chemo (yet). The doctors found it really early and it just gets monitored and when it does become active we strike it down and move on. Worst case: The cancer is active and in conjunction with another active cancer (very common in bone cancer) and he is one of the 1/3 people who die within 5 years of a bone cancer diagnosis. Quite opposite outcomes on the spectrum of possibilities. 

Last week was my dad's follow up visit. We were so nervous. The day leading up to the visit, everyone's cautious calmness turned into snappy jitters. Humans are so funny. We all handle stress and fear and sadness so differently. 

My mom took a half day off work and my parents went together to the doctor. My sister and I awaited the news from opposite ends of the country. She at her desk in LA and me at the small town Florida Walmart buying every makeup and beauty product ever created to mask that I was a mess inside. Not fast enough, the text came through...the best possible scenario is ours!

It's a weird thing to be thankful for dormant cancer, but this is real life. Stuff happens. If you are going to have a cancer diagnosis, dormant cancer is the one you want. Basically, the little cancer soldiers haven't figured out how to be an army yet. It could be months, or even many years until they learn how to be a mighty cancer and because we are aware of the cells now, it should be an easy chemo fix. (Not that chemo is easy....but that early detection makes the process smoother...) We feel so much relief and thankfulness. It's like God tapped my dad on the shoulder, "Hey, dude, look at this..." We are so very aware that this could be much worse, that my dad has been dealt an "easy" hand at this cancer game. Comparison is definitely the thief of joy, yet when we compare this lot in life to others, we know we have a multitude of reasons to be thankful. 

Our bodies are so finite. Getting a cancer label is such a wake up call. I hope that all of us learn from this diagnosis. My dad often says that, "Don't worry, things are staying the same." But I don't agree. They shouldn't stay the same and they can't. We have cancer. We need to be kinder to our bodies and more purposeful with our time. People matter. Nutrition matters. Hydration matters. Communication matters. Experiences matter. In a way, I hope this diagnosis scares us back to life. Not meaning that we were not alive, but that anyone could use a shake-up now and then to re-evaluate priorities, desires, and the way we choose to spend our years. Everyone has some sort of battle: being born into poverty, mental illness, difficult family members, addiction, health problems...etc. For my dad, he has been shown his battle, his fight. For the rest of his life he will fight bone cancer. What he eats, how much he exercises, the doctors he visits - it all matters. But, thankfully, he has an army with him. He's got us. 

For myself, this is affirmation of my choice to come home. I am so thankful to not have gotten this news while living on the other side of the world - dealing with faulty internet connections and time differences. To be here in the flesh is such a gift. It is not lost on me the supernatural timing of all of this. Because of the good prognosis, I have extended my job search beyond the boundaries of Florida, but I am going to be picky about something that takes me away from my family. Cities with a direct flight to Tampa get priority. And I'm not in any rush. It's hard to believe that a few months ago I was living on perpetual safari in the beautiful heart of Africa. It feels like another life ago. 

So now we move on. Into this new journey we never expected. A sad, stupid journey, but one we are strong enough for. Because a person doesn't get cancer, a family gets cancer, and my family is rock solid. Come at us, C. We got this. We understand our mortality and we know what to do with it.

Thanks to everyone who had been a great support over the past month. My dad is very loved, and the community that has rallied around him is incredibly encouraging. If you didn't know, you weren't left out on purpose! We are keeping the news off social media for the most part because excess attention in a non-quality way (Facebook, etc) isn't necessary at this time. 

Hug your people. Eat some vegetables. Go for a walk. Listen to your doctor. Love yourself. 

Screw cancer. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Sep 8, 2016

On Returning.

It's been 7 weeks since Mushu the Chinese kitty and I stepped off a plane into the relentless Florida summer heat. It's hard to believe - these weeks fly by.

I guess returning has been everything I expected. When you really want something - like I really want a life closer to my family and to settle down, you just push through and do what you have to do. In order to be near my family it means not being the girl on perpetual adventure. Now I dream of perpetual togetherness. Of a peaceful life.

I don't burst out into spontaneous tears anymore. So, that's good. During my first few weeks home, the smallest, most random things would trigger uncontrollable sobs. Usually the triggers were food related, which is weird. A large ice cream at Marble Slab left me sobbing snotty boogers into my sleeve, a lobster roll in Maine made me cry elephant tears for 3 solid minutes. I think it's the abundance. The ease. How no one around me seems to be worried about...survival. And also, that ice cream is just so darn good. And lobster is such a treat. To have those things, to really enjoy them and be thankful, is a gift.

I miss black people. I miss ... interesting. In my suburban Florida oasis everyone and everything seems so monochrome. It's beige. Everything is beige.

But I'm hot pink. I'm filled with dumplings and pagodas. Burmese temples and the Taj Mahal. Korean soju and Thai massages. Ethiopian coffee and Rwandan gorillas. Victoria Falls and Zanzibar sand. All a part of me. Walking the aisles of Walmart, looking at 800 variations of plastic baggies and wondering how the world got this way. Pondering disparity but not-so-secretly thankful I am on this end of the bargain. Holding these worldly experiences close to my heart with thankfulness amidst everyday American errands.

Americans are so funny. They chat about the most mundane things. Everyone being given a chance to share their opinion in conversations even as dull as the weekend weather report. Customer service is amazing, having personal space again in places like grocery store lines is such a breath of fresh air. There's constant space. It's nice. I feel as if I am in a constant sociological observation. Not fully a part of what is going on around me, but rather an observer of 'the Americans.'

I've gotten decent at deflecting most questions like, "How was AFRICA??" Or my favorite, for those one year behind on keeping tabs on me... "You just got back from China!" It takes too much heart to give an honest answer. Too much time is needed to explain what Rwanda and China mean to me. What traveling the world the last 8 years meant to me. What the thousands of students and hundreds of train/bus/plane rides, and hundreds of times I packed my backpack and headed out. Out onto the road. To the next unknown destination that will be known in due time. I appreciate that my friends have mostly been fabulous about giving me space when needed, asking pertinent and thoughtful questions, reaching out via phone and social media, and being generally interested in what life in Rwanda is like. For them I am thankful. Coming home and reconnecting with friends has been seamless and wonderful. I truly didn't realize how many people I have in my American tribe.

What I am still overcoming are the international, developing world quirks. For weeks, I kept reaching to turn off the hot water heater after I got out of the shower. But - that is not necessary - our water heaters are located in the garage and are ALWAYS ON. (Blows my mind). I wondered out loud to my family while driving under our Parkways automated, electronic toll booths, "Wow, so when the electricity is out, we all can drive for free!" They kindly reminded me that the electricity is never out. I hate plastic bags. (Illegal in Rwanda). I always scoff when the cashier puts ONLY ONE ITEM in a plastic bag, and help them fill it up more, or ask for larger items not to have a bag. WHAT IS WITH YOU PEOPLE AND YOUR PLASTIC BAGS. We are decades behind the rest of the world in this arena. I always feel like I have to hide my electronics when we go outside. I have stopped hiding my computer under my bed blanket, like I did every day in Rwanda when I left my house, but I am still stunned when my parents leave their iPhones IN FRONT OF WINDOWS and leave the house. You can't do that in Africa.

In the first month I was home, I slept like a rock. Like I hadn't slept in a year. Mostly because I hadn't. I just felt so....relieved. I am home. Home with my family, where I come from. Where things haven't changed much in 8 years that I've been gone, but maybe that's not a bad thing at all. Without the known we wouldn't have the unknown. Without the predictable, we wouldn't have strength to face the unpredictable. Without seasons of peace, we wouldn't be able to face seasons of obstacles. They all go hand in hand.

It's a good, new season. Adventure, in a new form.

walk slow. xoxo.

Jul 12, 2016

On Being "Here."

I'm sitting on my Rwandan couch wrapped in a caftan from the Philippines, drinking tea  from Zimbabwe. Three large, covered in cat hair suitcases sit on my floor. Besides these bags, my house is empty. All of my things have been given away. Mushu is sleeping next to me, very aware that something big in our little sphere of life is about to happen.

Tomorrow we move home.

I "left" home one-week after turning 22. I was off to China, bright eyed and idealistic to a fault. The world was beautiful and glorious and full of hope and promise and God's light.

I am returning, 5 weeks before turning 30. Returning from Africa where the disparity between daily lives of people in my hometown and my current town is shocking and vast. I am idealistic in the way that I am still an optimist about education and women's rights. I have seen beauty and wonder and glory. I've been kept alive by miracles.

But the world is not as bright as 8 years ago when I had an empty passport and a heart full of dreams. In the last 8 years I have been to 38 countries. The world is broken. People are displaced from their homes. Poverty makes thieves out of honest men. Healthcare and educational opportunities are saved for the "haves" while the "have-nots" receive charitable handouts linked to political motives. In 8 years abroad, I've been sick, I've been robbed, I've been followed, I've been struck, I've been conned.

I've also been made alive.

Because in the cracks, that's where the light shines through.

In the dirt, in the grime, in the unfairness of life is where we find humanity at its best. It's where community rallies around those who need care. It's where you Americans go abroad to volunteer years of they life for development, it's where friends care for each other like family. It's where strangers donate goods and pray for those they've never met. It's where babies get breastfed during international conferences, and inviting someone for tea and conversation is a giant gift of love. It's where we give each other bananas when we are hungry and share teaching resources like they are gold. We laugh and light a candle when the power goes out. Because it will come back. And then it will go out again. That's life.

To be super honest, I am afraid. I am afraid I will forget. That somehow I will lose this grittiness, this ability to observe and adapt. I am afraid I will become soft and expectant. Expectant of the world around me to be easy. 24 hour hot water and electricity. I don't want to take it for granted that in America I can get a nice haircut and shop for safe foods at a clean grocery store with nice carts to put my things in. And that when I leave the store I don't have to carry everything home in my hands (China) or on the back of a motorcycle taxi (Rwanda). I don't want to forget what it is like to ration internet usage or see if I have enough internet left to watch one tv show online. Or put things in the freezer when the power goes out so it stays cold. I don't want to forget the fear of malaria or the long bus rides through banana tree fields with people taking their goats out to pasture. I don't want to take my life for granted and forget this place or this feeling of survival and simple pleasures. Oh Lord, help me not forget.

It's an odd feeling, leaving Rwanda. I am not sure if I was even ever really here. 10 months is so short. I never really was given the chance to settle, since my fellowship went wonky at exactly half way through. I spent 5 months in a village at a crappy placement with no water or security. Then, I spent the last 5 months living in the capitol city but working a few hours outside and traveling constantly. But I was here. It's in the numbers:

Presented 5 international conferences (Rwanda (2x), Sudan, Ethiopia, DRC)
Taught over 200 hours at the university
Taught 60 genocide widows basic english and motorskills
Went to 8 countries (Uganda, Tanzania/Zanzibar, Zimbabwe, Botswana, DRC, Ethiopia (2x), Zimbabwe, Rwanda)
Started a mentor program with Rwandan business leaders and created a curriculum for refugee camps to use to keep girls from turning to prostitution
Did work shops with Peace Corps and various schools and organizations around Rwanda

Personally, this final year abroad was spectacular. A friend from home came to visit, I had fabulous co-workers, I reconciled with my ex, met wonderful people in Rwanda, saw friends from China in Africa, and I had more downtime to really think, process, and be present.

I guess I really was here. Even though it feels too quick. Too soon to leave.

(There's a lot of "I's" in this post...sorry about that, just processing).

It's strange to go. Its stranger even that I was ever here. I asked for Africa, I yearned for Africa, I wanted to be here to "shake off" China and to get my spirit back. It worked. And I'll always be thankful.

Exactly 24 hours until my friend shows up to take me and Mushu to the airport. What would you do with 24 hours left in Africa??? Time to find out...

walk slow. xoxo.

Jul 5, 2016

Lessons on Being American: Part I.

What an incredible privilege it is to be able to dictate the course of your own life. What an impossible burden and blessing. Again in my life I find myself faced with the same problem that very few in the world's population get to address: Where in the world should I go? What do I want to do? Who do I want to be?

A year ago, I answered with, "Africa." So I came here, and it was the greatest decision for that time. I am so thankful. 

Now, the answer is, "Home." 

After 8 years abroad, I have a one-way ticket to America. And no plan. I want to sit on the front porch and drink coffee with my dad. I want to go to an American breakfast place and order scrambled eggs and bacon. I want to go for evening walks on paved roads. I want Vintners Red wine from St. Augustine and hot showers whenever I want. 

I want a routine. Simplicity. Calm. 

I want to cook dinner with my mom and read magazines on the back patio. I want to call my sister on an actual phone and catch up with the friends who have lived so far away for so long. I want to buy strawberries by the quart and cook with an oven. I want to go to the library and order from Amazon Prime. I want clean hair and feet. 

These things all feel like little luxuries in my head. A world of possibility and comfort. 

The way it works out, there are only a few days home before my family leaves on family vacation together. (Nothing says, "Welcome back to America" like a trip to Canada). So, I have been online shopping so that I can have some much-needed debrief time at home while also getting some things I need. 

Last year when I left China, I gave almost all of my belongings away. Now, that is happening again here in Africa, as most of the shoes and clothes I came with have been ruined by the dust and hand washing and I want to give extra things to my African friends rather than taking stuff home. I find my self in a funny position: starting over in America with practically nothing. 

Truth: I have no idea what Americans use and need. I have a running list of what I "need" as an American...health insurance, a phone and phone plan, a french press, a cat scratch tree for Mushu, Birkenstocks....just to name a few things, ha. 

A few days ago I was on Amazon looking at coffee machines and broke down in tears. I have no idea why coffee products made me cry. I guess it is just going to be part of the experience of the next few months - reacting to my new reality and accepting that reaction for whatever reason it has occurred. 

I think it is that for 8 years I have lived with less and been very ok. The abundance of America is daunting, even from 8 days out. 

I guess it's all part of learning to be American. How lucky am I to be able to make this choice, the choice to go home. Those without a family, those who are refugees, those who are bound by debt or corruption or difficult life circumstances...they don't have this liberty. The grandness of returning home is not lost on me. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Jun 22, 2016

Currency Exchange and Chats Above the Clouds.

I sat in my seat on Ethiopian Air and checked the seat back pocket in front of me. Same Selampta magazine as the last international flight I took a few weeks ago. I’ve spent so much time on Ethiopian Airlines flights this year that I know that they always serve the same meal - chicken with rice, and that they don’t routinely change out the magazine in the seat back pockets. 

These past months have been insane. It seems I don’t stay in the same city long enough to let the dirt settle under my feet. It all happened strangely, the plans to hold conferences in 3 countries in May and early June. It’s been exhilarating yet also exhausting. 

With a few weeks left of the fellowship I was flying to Addis Ababa to relax and close a chapter of my life that has spanned over 4 years. I love Ethiopia. I love a few people in Ethiopia. And I knew that this was the place I wanted to spend the remainder of my time in Africa. Addis Ababa is the closest place to “home” I have on this continent. 

Addis Ababa is a hub for Ethiopian Airways, the largest carrier in Africa. The clientele are always diverse and unique. There’s the Chinese business people, usually middle aged men, greasy, yelling across the plane at each other and jumping up once the plane wheels touch down to grab their bags from the overhead bin while we are still zooming down the runway. There are the white business people in their smartly dressed attire, expensive “comfortable” shoes, and grass woven baskets purchased at an NGO bazaar for 300% up charge of the local markets. There are the church groups, in their matching shirts, overzealous/eager/wide-eyed smiles with at least 1 guitar as a carry-on. Then there are well-traveled Africans ordering beer from the flight attendants and resting peacefully alongside the Africans who have never flown before and have no idea how to make a connection or where to get their luggage. It’s a fascinating crowd and I have had some of the most fun conversations amongst these groups on flights across Africa. 

Last Saturday was no exception. 

After my initial disappointment in inflight entertainment, I ended up having one of the most entertaining flights of my African career. 

The elderly man in the middle seat pulled out his phone as soon as we took off and turned it on. I have stopped worrying when practically everyone on the plane ignores the “phones off” rule. It seems air culture is the same as on-the-ground culture in Africa - anything goes. He checked the time and showed me, 3 minutes until 6pm. Our flight had taken off late and he was concerned with breaking fast on time. He explained to me that dates are best for breaking fast and as soon as the seat belt sign was off, he hopped out of his chair and grabbed a bag of dates from the overhead compartment. After about 30 minutes, the flight attendants finally stopped at our seat to serve us drinks and the man had his first taste of liquids of the day. 

Ramadan Iftar. At 30,000 feet in the sky. 

It turns out me seat mate, turned friend, is Mohamoud from Khartoum. He was flying home from a conference in Kigali, via Addis, on the same flight I took to Khartoum just a few weeks earlier. When he told me where he was flying, I was so excited. I sensed a business deal in the making and set to work making it happen. 

As it happened, there was some confusion when we were preparing to depart Sudan in mid-May. We had heard from a friend and also read online that there would be a “departure tax” and that it would be stressful and time consuming to obtain. Knowing that this tax was looming, each of us Fellows saved about 60$ worth of Sudanese pounds. When we were going through the airport to leave, no one mentioned the tax. We were stamped through immigration and still were asking, “Don’t we need to pay a tax?” Nope. Leaving Sudan was easy and cost us no money. This was great, but also meant that we were left with an excess of money that is impossible to exchange outside of Sudan thanks to sanctions. 

I tried to find someone in Rwanda to exchange the money but was fruitless. Then, I was given the tip that there are many Sudanese who do business in Addis, so at the last minute I threw the Sudanese pounds in my passport pouch, hoping to find someone to exchange with, but not exactly sure how that would work. 

When Mohamoud explained he was heading home to Sudan, I asked him if he would like to exchange some Pounds with me since I had just spent some time in Sudan and needed to get rid of extra cash I had saved and ended up not needing. Outside Sudan, the pound is basically worthless, so my new friend understood my predicament. He seemed possibly interested in a possible exchange, but was much more interested in telling me stories of his 3 years in America in the 1980's, "Well before my time." (he misjudged my age, in my favor). It turns out, Mohamoud was the proud owner of a Ford Mustang purchased for 600$ in 1985 and re-sold in 1988 for $750. He spoke fondly of the American family who hosted him while he was a student in Missouri on an American government charity scholarship. He studied agriculture, and has made an impact on his home Sudan in the area of crop rotation. His 4 sons have turned away from the agriculture path, however, and though they have university degrees, they cannot find work in Sudan unless they are affiliated with the "corrupt government." Mohamoud expressed that he hopes his sons will one day become winners in the American green card lottery that is held the world-over, as he hopes that they can live a better life free from living under a war-lord controlled state. He said he would love to end his life in the country that was so monumental in his education - America. 

Then...he asked the question I have become tired of answering, but knew was coming. "Do you think Trump will become president?"

"I hope not," is always my answer, "He is embarrassing and I am sorry for what he says." 

"That's good. Because if he is president, I will not trust you Americans anymore. And I love you Americans. But what are they thinking?" he said, pointing a finger at me - which while seated in neighboring airplane seats, feels very close.

"I honestly don't know." I hoped for a change of topic. Apologizing for Trump's awfulness while a Sudanese man breaks his Ramadan fast for the day at 30,000 feet was not how I wanted to spend the next 2 hours flying to Ethiopia. 

Thankfully, the conversation turned back to the wad of money in my purse. "I only have 20 dollars," he said. 

"That's fine! 20 bucks is more than 0 bucks." And then we traded cash. 60$ worth of Sudanese pounds, worthless outside of Sudan, for two folded up American 10 dollar bills. 

"But I still owe you money," he said sheepishly, while trying to wave down the flight attendant for more coffee and sustenance. 

"We are both coming out on top, because 20$ is more than I would have if I never found anyone to trade money with me, and also to remember the kindness of Americans no matter what happens with our government." 

"Yes, people are not their government. This is the truth of Sudan," he said. 

"And America, too." 

This is how I spent the 2 hour direct flight to Addis last weekend. Sharing with a new friend, exchanging money on the black market for less than half of its worth, and finding understanding that corrupt governments do not mean corrupt citizens. This is how we counteract the bigoted news coming from America. Person to person. One reminiscent conversation of a Mustang in 1985 at a time. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

May 26, 2016

B-O-O-K. Book.

"You are only as strong as your weakest link." 

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at a small workshop that a Peace Corps volunteer coordinated in her village. Because Rwanda is the smallest thing ever, it is quite funny how it all came to pass. Robert, my co-fellow in crime, was at a Chinese restaurant a few hours outside Kigali a few months ago and they met, because hey - white people in Africa. Robert invited her to one of our trainings and then she invited us to her village to assist her. She has single-handedly revived and grown the small library in the sector office. Her vision was to have a workshop for teachers in the sector to learn about the importance of reading and get a walk-through of the 3 shelf-library and learn how to use it (checking out books, books are free to read, etc.) The whole idea is new, so it was a great concept come to life. 

One of the interesting things about Rwanda is that it looks amazing on the surface. Since genocide, Rwanda is an NGO's gem and has become a symbol for fast economic recovery post-war. However, when you scratch deeper beyond the surface there are human rights violations (How do they keep the streets so clean? Beggars are put in jail) and discrepancies across the country once you leave the capital. If you only come to Rwanda (or any African country for that matter) and see the capital, you will have not seen Rwanda. I fully believe that. 

Another issue is the mis-direction of aid. There are many books on this subject (Dead Aid, When Helping Hurts - are two great ones) that highlight the negative impact or neutral/wasteful impact of aid. An example that is very obvious in Rwanda is the donation of books. It seems to be a popular thing to have embassies, NGO's, well-meaning religious groups in Western countries, send books to Africa. The problem is - getting a huge bag of books in a language you can barely understand is overwhelming! Those books typically get locked away or not even un-boxed. (As was seen at my university job, and at schools across the country). Just giving something DOES NOT HELP ANYONE. That donation needs to come with a training, a teacher, someone to explain how to categorize books, how to distribute books, how to READ. Gah, I could go one forever. 

The PCV we were working with has done a fabulous job of seeing a need (a room of books locked away and dirty) and totally revitalizing the space and introducing the library concept. We were there to discuss reading with groups of teachers. Because everything must be taught. Even the importance of reading must be taught to teachers - nothing is intrinsic. (HUGE Africa lesson right there, ya'll). 

I began my session like this: 

"To be a good driver. You must drive." 
"To be a good runner. You must run." 
"To be a good reader. You must....what?" 

And I was met with blank stares. From teachers. 

This is our Rwandan education reality, people. No CNN article telling you how great Rwanda is for it's economics could come close to touching this reality in the education system. 

When I gave enough time for thinking and gave them the answer,
"To be a good reader. You must Reeeead!" 
Their sweet faces were like, "Ohhhh!" 

But that wasn't the shocking part. (Actually nothing is shocking anymore). 

In my session with the primary teachers, who typically have lower level english than their secondary teacher counterparts, I asked them to tell me if they read books to their students. I was not prepared for the response. 

"What is...book?" 

I had to teach the word "book" to an english teacher. 

THIS is the reality of English education (and perhaps all education) in very rural Rwanda. 

It is a light on a greater problem within this country, the continent, and perhaps the world over. Because truthfully, we are only as strong as our weakest link. If the teacher in the village does not know the word, "book," how can the country be praised as a global leader? When wealth, opportunity, education, health care access, and transportation development are concentrated on one small area of elite...you cannot say the entirety of the country is successful. 

BOOK. It means freedom. It means knowledge. It means awareness. 

And we don't all know what those things are. 
Because the advancement, bright lights, opportunities...they don't reach all of us.

walk slow. xoxo. 

Integration of the World. And Heat Rash.


The intensity of pre-conceived notions is heavy.

Genocide. The president is a wanted war criminal by ICC. U.S. sanctions. Sharia Law.

When I was offered the fellowship in Omdurman, Sudan last summer I yelled at my computer, "SUDAN??" I took 24 hours to research what living in Sudan meant - I didn't want to be closed minded, but eventually I turned it down because 1. I am way too much a free-bird for Sharia law 2. HEAT, 3. Terrorist sympathizers as neighbors...ya....not so much. My next match was Rwanda, I accepted happily (moderate weather, moderate people, moderate freedom), and the rest is history.

What I didn't know is that though I turned down the chance to live in Sudan, I would be given an extraordinary opportunity to visit Sudan and collaborate with my fabulous co-fellows. It ended up that the fellow in Sudan and I became very close through messaging and emails over the first semester. When we all met in Ethiopia in February, my boss, her boss, and the Sudan fellow, Denise, were having beers one night in the hotel and Denise mentioned she wanted to plan an event and have the Rwanda fellows join her since we are close friends. My boss is great at going with the flow and throwing US dollars at our ideas, so he was quick to say yes! As was her boss. Denise was then tasked with getting us into Sudan (not an easy task) and planning a conference in the dead of summer in Sudan.

After much bribing, emails, being sent out of the Sudan embassy in Kigali, a million small passport photos sent here and there and everywhere...we were eventually granted visas to Sudan. We still aren't sure exactly how it happened - but the important thing is that it happened. Thanks to the steadfast support of the international school where our conference was going to be held. Getting international visitors into Sudan to hold a conference based on teaching best practices is not something that happens every day. The school really placed value on our attendance and apparently was willing to front a bunch of black market money to make it happen.

Leanne and I flew first to Khartoum because Robert had some trainings to finish up in Rwanda. Stepping off the plane in Khartoum the dry air hit my face like I had opened a giant oven. I smiled and laughed to myself - I was walking into Sudan! How serendipitous.

Over the next 10 days we facilitated a teacher - training conference with over 60 teachers from across Sudan. A large tent with giant fans was rented, it was bright red and looked like a fancy wedding tent (probably was). A generator was rented and we did the best we could - eventually teaching over 10 presentations each over the course of the week. It was like teaching bootcamp and there couldn't have been a better staff of teachers.

Each morning we put on our long skirts (no calves allowed), our scarves (no necks allowed), and got picked up by a driver to head to the school. After work, we went to eat amazing Lebanese food with Denise's friends or laid on her floor in the air condition and drank smuggled vodka. (It's amazing the lengths the US Embassy goes to to get alcohol into the country, like, it's not that important, guys, but thanks anyways).

It was all a hot, sticky whirlwind that concluded with a day trip to see the Meroe Pyramids a few hours north of Khartoum. In ancient times, Egypt and Sudan were one civilization and there are smaller, but better preserved and more remote pyramids in Sudan! An interesting thing about Sudan is that there are no tourists. You can't just go to Sudan for fun. (And why would you? It's hot as hell). But there are a lot of interesting things to see, which means when you go see those things (like the pyramids) you are ALL ALONE. As a world-traveler and someone who has stood in the shadow of the Great Wall, Taj Mahal, Victoria Falls etc, I can tell you that being alone and quiet in a tourist destination is priceless and rare. It was surreal. It was also surreal when my chacos literally melted into the sand beneath my feet. The heat was so hot it felt like science. Hot science whirling around you.

I was touched by Sudan. There are so many directions I could write about. And I hope I do. I just want something up on the website to commemorate the experience because these days are a whirlwind and I might soon forget. I have more "friends" in Sudan after 10 days than I do in Rwanda after 8.5 months. It's just a warmer, more friendly, outgoing culture. You would have to work hard NOT to make a friend with a Sudanese person. In this way, I was quite jealous of the Sudan fellow and wishing I had taken the job! (Also her washing machine, cable tv, and access to having international mail made it look posh.) In the end I am thankful for my time in Rwanda, as chaotic and far from what was promised as it has been. If anything, I am thankful for the experience to see Sudan with my own eyes, shake hands with the people, share tea and cake, and be taught that not everything is on the surface. International travel warnings do not a culture make. There are vague, distant warnings, and then there is humanity. I will take this lesson away from my time in Africa at large, and specifically Sudan.

During the tea breaks, I would pause and look around and often would get a sense that we were part of something much bigger than ourselves. Something that will outlast us and our little conference the desert. To the average American, Sudan is a place Osama Bin Laden used to hide. To the average Sudanese, an American is a closed-minded twat who is aggressive and Islamophobic. Both of us are wrong, in many ways. Sudan is not a place to be feared, and I, as an American, was very happy to be there with my Muslim brothers and sisters. Laughing at jokes, drinking endless amounts of tea, complaining about the heat. To be there and to be welcomed, and also to be a gracious, curious, and respectful guest, was such a powerful experience. For all. Perhaps some wayward pre-conceived notions were dropped on both sides. Inshallah. ;)

During one of the closing remarks, the founder of the international school said this,

"If you do not know the other, you will consider them something to fear. We are here for the integration of the world."


We are here for the integration of the world.

Thanks for the memories, lessons, and heat rash, Sudan. I will cherish those days in the desert.

walk slow. xoxo.