Oct 31, 2015

On Being Alone. And House Tour.

It's a conversation that has happened multiple times in the short time I've lived in Rwanda. Always going a little something like this...

Random Human: "Are you married?" 
Me: "No." 
Random Human: "Oh, I'm sorry." 
Me: "I'm not sorry." 
Random Human: "You have someone to take care of you?" 
Me: "I live with my cat." *pulls out phone to show pictures of cat*
Random Human: "You are......alone?!?!?!" *cue shock*

The truth is, I don't really think of myself as alone. Sure, I get lonely. That's different. Everyone gets lonely, whether you live in a random town in Rwanda or a huge city in America. It's life. Sometimes we are lonely and sometimes we are not. I don't need anyone to "take care of me." I am perfectly functional on my own. 

But being alone. That is something I keep contemplating thanks to the daily reminders from Rwandans that I am in fact...a single woman living in a house alone with her cat in the heart of Africa. 

Truth is, I've lived "alone" for 8 years. But it hasn't felt like it. In China I was either in a dorm or in a relationship or had such a tight knit community that I never felt "alone." I had my space, but I was not an island trying to make my way through life. 

Here in Rwanda, I did not come alone either. There are 3 fellows in Rwanda, the most of any African country who hosts fellows. The other two are 2.5 hours away in the capitol, and I am here in the boonies. They are never more than a whats app message away and I see them all the time. I talk to my family every day and keep up with friends in China via We Chat. I really don't feel alone at all. I woke up this morning lonely as hell, but then some kids came to my window and hollered at Mushu and it made me laugh and I was reminded I am part of a community. However challenging that community is. I get to be the white lady with a white cat who is entertaining to children. That's cool. 

The not being married bit is a little harder to swallow and incredibly irritating. Unlike many single women my age who make the life choices I have to live abroad and become invested in foreign communities for various reasons - I have dreams of a family. Before leaving China, I was in a relationship that was quickly heading towards marriage. He is an incredible man who loved me dearly and I wish the best for him. But, I left him for many reasons, one of which was to come to Rwanda. I want to tell these Rwandans who inquire about my marital status, "I could be married if I wanted to be, but I chose to come here to you instead, so be kind and stop judging." The truth is, I want the best for myself (and all the women in my life). And right now the best for myself is living in Rwanda, overcoming new challenges, observing a new continent/country/culture/way of life, being the best teacher I can be, and...living alone while doing it. I can do this alone. Because I'm really not alone at all. 

The idea of "being alone" is something I have been contemplating. It's fascinating to have a whole culture describe me as something I don't describe myself as. 

In the same vein, here are some photos of my newly improved house. I feel much better, though not great, about the situation. It is hard not to compare to fellows who have much nicer accommodation than I do. I'd do almost anything for a hot water heater, some cabinets, no rats, clean walls and some privacy. But - I've gotta let some things go about what I think I deserve and be thankful for my cute (and free) house. 

new fence to keep all the friends back a few feet

Bao Bei likes his home

Front room, table for cooking/laundry/everything

art bought at Inema Studio in Kigali, done by street children

guest bedroom with a giant Florida on the wall

my bedroom (cat included) 

my favorite part of the house - my "vanity" area with woven basket and necklaces from Rwanda

other side of my bedroom - laundry hamper and books on the floor, red pattern on the wall from China 

my bathroom - buckets of water and a bucket for my showers (I boil water and pour into the bucket then pour on my head)

new Africa panel

more street kid art 

lots of friends visiting Mushu 

gas stove, spices from america on the window ledge

"kitchen" area, more water buckets on the ground for washing dishes (no sink)

And that, my friends, is how the lucky single ladies (ok, just me) live in Eastern Province, Rwanda. 

walk slow. xoxo.

Oct 29, 2015

slamming my face into the ground and other funny things.

Two days ago I met a handsome RDF soldier on a bus from Kibungo to Kigali.

(Isn't that how all great stories should start?)

I was planning to come to Kigali to help my friend with a workshop she created and was happy to find a fluent in english, easy on the eyes, interesting person to chat with. When we exited the bus in Kigali, it was very hectic in the station. We had formed a bond and he asked me if I wanted to walk with him to meet his sister who could drive me to my friend's house. "Of course!" I responded, free ride and a connection to this cool political family. We walked along the sidewalk and I happily chatted away, watching everything that was happening around me and just being very Jessica.

And then I went SPLAT.
And suddenly I realized I was face first on the concrete, bleeding, and not exactly sure what was happening.

My handsome soldier friend pulled me up and into a school yard gate directly next to us. He disappeared into the school and I franticly tried to assess how much was emotion/embarrassment and how much was actual physical issues/pain. I wiped the blood from my face with a wet wipe while looking into my iPhone camera screen (haha) and then my soldier appeared with a bucket of water and a swarm of little Catholic school children in uniform. Who proceeded to approach me and hug me en mass. It was so cute. I stood bleeding from my face while little children hugged me and a solder tried to clean my feet and hands and face.

(Now that I am ok, this is a hilarious, awesome story.)

Soon nuns showed up and inquired what I am doing in Rwanda and how they could help me. They told me to see a doctor (ya, right) and told the soldier to watch after me (which he already was).

So now there is a soldier, hugging children, and nuns in my story. It just gets better and better.

In the end, I am totally fine. Just dealing with some scratches on my face, scratched glasses, and a horrible headache. I didn't have a concussion and I have a haggle of awesome humans who cared for me, and are still caring for me. I had a great friend with bottles of tylenol to stay with and a nurse friend who I gave a call to. People are checking in on me and it is so nice to know that if I am hurt on the street, Rwandans will come to my rescue (this is not the case in most Asian countries, including China).

Now that I know that I am ok, this story is hilarious. I have a new soldier friend, got hugged by cute little kiddos, and I have a great story about the kindness of the Rwandan people. Even the bucket of water given by the school to a stranger was a great kindness - water is a precious resource.

Tomorrow morning I head back to Kibungo via the same bus station. But don't worry, I will look where I am walking this time.

haha. Can't let me out anywhere.

Here, have some photos for fun....

the aftermath of letting me loose on the streets of Kigali

A text from a student. The most perfect thing ever. 

selling bananas from a truck

Kimironko Market in Kigali 

grading papers with Mushu in Kibungo on our porch 

fish brochettes and "chips" = YUM

I found a man selling jackfruit from his bicycle! I love jackfruit! 

The event in Kigali has gone super well (more on that later) and I am happy to head back to Mushu in Kibungo for a little relaxation before the insanity of weekend classes starts.

Watch where you are walking. :)

walk slow. xoxo. 

Oct 23, 2015

While Marta Mops the Floor.

As part of my housing, the university cleaning ladies come and mop my floor and take my trash to where all the trash gets burned. Marta is the lady who comes by most often and sometimes her 4 year old boy is in tow. I haven't gotten his name yet because every time I ask his name he replies, "Baby," and this is all I've heard Marta address him as. So I call him Baby, too.

Today Marta came by to bring Baby to see Mushu and mop the floor since I've been gone and the concrete has acquired a layer of dust. When Marta comes over, she moves slowly. Mopping the floor of my tiny house takes an hour and a half. Since I can't really go anywhere during this time, Baby and Mushu and I hang out.

I think all three of us have fun.

walk slow. xoxo.

Oct 22, 2015

A Homecoming. Of Sorts.

“And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire --
clearly I'm not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
-from The Buddha's Last Instruction” 
― Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1

Mushu and I have returned to Kibungo via embassy motor pool and I am overjoyed to finally begin teaching tomorrow evening. When I teach, I am filled with endorphins and a sense of purpose and that I actually am good at something, so I know that beginning my work will have a huge impact on my overall life satisfaction. 

(But is life satisfaction necessary? Ponder that one for a bit, as I have been...) 

It was a wonderful, though unexpected, few weeks in Kigali. I formed connections and relationships, had fancy dinners with other human beings who are interesting and smart, became a moto-taxi regular, bought tons of dried goods (lentils, coffee, chickpeas, rice cakes, etc.) to bring to my city in the boonies, got to assist and observe some very meaningful projects, and overall enjoyed getting to experience my first impressions of Rwanda with friends rather than alone. It was truly a gift. Out of precarious circumstances can sometimes come the greatest experiences. 

I have returned to a home that is safer, has (cold) running water, and a toilet that flushes at the push of a button! I feel like a queen. Or at least some version of a demented royal. There are still rats running around, after all.

Yesterday was spent going to the market alone for the first time and stocking up on produce, flour, sugar, TP, and random things like nails to hang art I purchased in Kigali and rope to make a clothesline. All along the way through the market I was keenly aware of everyone's eyes on me, and was lucky enough to find people to help me make my purchases at most stalls. When someone wasn't around to translate, I had sellers write prices on a piece of paper. This was very amusing to the masses. "I'm not afraid to look stupid, I just want some mangos, please, and stop giving me white man prices" may have exited my mouth at some point. 

I came home and hung my mosquito net and clothesline, cooked lentil stew over my gas stove, and spent time in the library downloading The Walking Dead and preparing for my lessons this weekend. At the end of my first day back I felt accomplished (little things matter!), proud of myself, and ready to face (mostly) whatever comes my way in this tiny town. I have a gift of better perspective and expectations for my (first?) year here in Rwanda. I am not super-teacher. I am not super cultural ambassador. Hanging my mosquito net and using pen and paper to have people write down prices of produce in the market adds up to a successful day. It is enough. It has to be enough. If I tell myself it's not enough, then I will constantly feel like a failure. Because life in Africa is just damn hard. It's beautiful and redeeming and contemplative and life giving and there's no where else I'd rather be - but it's still hard. 

I could wax on semi-poetically about Rwanda, but rain clouds are building and I have to walk 20 minutes to the post office today to send some paperwork to DC. So my ramblings can wait. (You're welcome, probably). 

Kibungo market 

Market victories 

new clothesline, whooohooo. 

Mushu greeting his fans 

the 2 hour ride to Kibungo from Kigali 

new nightly activity: gecko chasing! 

evenings in Kibungo brought to you by battery lanterns and coloring books. who needs electricity? 


walk slow. xoxo. 

Oct 21, 2015

An Evening Encounter.

After a long Chinese life, certain things are striking when returning home to America:

Big gulps of fresh air. 
Blue sky. 
Extreme amounts of personal space. 
Customer service. 
Extra Large portions. 
Ice cold water. 
No honking cars. 
Clouds in the sky. 

And stars. 

In my quick turn around and journey from China - America - Rwanda, these striking things have taken a new twist because I am comparing not only America but Asia as well to Africa. It's interesting and fun to observe myself - how I encounter different things. 

Tonight I had an entire blog post planned to write out explaining that I have returned today to Kibungo. That my job officially starts Friday and I'm readjusting to solitude and village living. 

But then I went outside down the red dirt road for the lusciously warm and squishy (my fave type of food) African dinner buffet at the Catholic church. 
And the entire town's electricity went out. 

I pulled out my mini-maglite and kept wandering towards the promise of food, careful not to trip on the uneven road, and slightly embarrassed that I needed a light while the Rwandans around me walked in total darkness seemingly fine. 

Then I noticed. 

The stars. 

I can't even explain how gorgeous the stars are tonight in Kibungo, Rwanda. 

All because the entire town is lacking of artificial light. I could see the stars so clearly and bright and shiny - celestial. They twinkle. Stars twinkle. I was so surprised and in awe that I stood for several lingering moments and just looked and breathed. 

Thanks to years in smoggy China and unreliable electricity in Rwanda for that moment of utter bliss for this American. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Oct 13, 2015

Call Me White Man.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about nouns for identity and constant "otherness."

In China, I lived 7 years being called,  老外 "foreigner" everywhere I went in public. It translates literally to "old outside" and can be described as derogatory or polite, depending on who you are talking to. Children point at foreigners and say it, it is written on Starbucks coffee cups instead of your name, and is the basic describer for all non-yellow people.

Here in Rwanda I am now, "muzungu" or "white person." My otherness is still being labeled and called to me on the streets, but instead of being identified by my obvious geographical otherness, I am being marked by color. 

This has caused some difficulty for my usual response. In China the conversations would go like this...

them, pointing: "foreigner!" 
me, pointing: (looking shocked) "Chinese person!" 

But here...that trick doesn't work when being labeled by color. 

I hear it everywhere. "Muzungu Kalibu!" "White person, welcome!" is hollered in fruit stands and market stalls. However, here it seems to be said less often than "foreigner" in China, and is said with less negative stigma. I don't feel like I am an animal in a zoo, as I often did in Asia. In Rwanda it is often sweet, said in a softer tone and usually sans fingers pointing. 

It's something really to ponder deeply. How are we called and how do we call others. It matters. Just as our response matters. 

Yesterday I was walking down a busy road in search of an ATM. I was concentrating on not slipping on the red dirt and not getting side swiped by a moto so I wasn't really paying attention to the hoards of people walking along the side of the road. So I was taken by surprise when a small school boy chirped while passing by me, "Hello, white man." In english. Very matter of fact and sweet. 

My heart leapt with laughter and I was so surprised that I just kept walking and replied in my most surprised and amused voice. 

"Hello, white man." 
"Hello, African child." 

Oh man, this place is great. I laughed in my head all night about that interaction. The streak of otherness continues. But in a whole new context. 

Kigali in the late afternoon. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Oct 12, 2015

Rwanda's Pain.

The world is full of atrocity. 

In human history; ancient and recent. In modern day; from Syria to Iraq to Myanmar and South Sudan. Stories of pain, mass murder, terror, and prejudice are told from all corners of the globe throughout recorded time. 

Within these records are stories of human triumph, reconciliation, and the pursuit of justice. It's a cycle. World response to modern atrocity is typically politically motivated, regardless of each NGO's idealistic pamphlets. Horrible things happen - the world either responds or doesn't...people create memorials...then horrific events occur elsewhere. This will not end until the Good Lord calls us home. It's broken humanity. 

I know enough to know how little I know. But one thing I have learned - after traveling the world the past 7 years - is that there is evil and there is good in the world and through evil comes good - eventually. 

Today, a public affairs officer from the embassy was gracious enough to spend her Sunday morning driving three english language program participants to two genocide memorial churches just outside of Kigali. This officer has been instrumental in the creation of a preservation grant for one of the churches that will enable preservationists from the US to travel to Rwanda to train locals to preserve these sacred spaces. This preservation is necessary for future generations to bear witness to the dark period in Rwanda's history and to ensure that it is not forgotten or repeated. It was an honor to be with her while experiencing these places. This project is very dear to her, and it was inspirational to hear the history from someone who has invested her heart and work into this place. 

Out of respect to my Rwandan friends and readers...I don't need to get into the nitty gritty of what occurred in these churches. You can read about it here or here

The basic gist: On April 25, 1994, 10,000 Tutsis who had sought refuge inside the Catholic church, considering it a sacred space, were brutally murdered. They were mostly women, children, and the elderly. In 1994 there were 32,000 Tutsis living in the area of the church. Only 2,000 of those Tutsis in this area are known to have survived the genocide. Behind the church is a mass grave that houses 45,000 bodies - earthly remains of souls that have left this cruel earth. Inside the church, the alter cloth is blood stained. The pews are covered in victims clothing. The ceiling is riddled with bullet holes and blood splatters. Rows of exposed skulls line an underground passage. Coffins are piled randomly, some covered with a family name written on a cross, some unmarked. 

Genocide is dirty and senseless and leaves a mess for those who survive. 

It's hard stuff. As a visitor, you wonder whether it is even appropriate to be there, to turn this atrocity into tourism. But, our embassy officer reminded us of the importance to tell the story. To learn and listen and repeat it to those willing and able to hear. To write this blog, to tell our friends. 

Horrific events occurred in Rwanda in the years leading up to and culminating in the 1994 genocide. Unspeakable, unfathomable acts. A reality that my neighbors, moto taxi drivers, students, and friends live every day with. A reality I will never pretend to relate to or understand. This is their story. This is their pain. 

As we stood in the garden beside the mass graves, I asked our tour guide why she became a tour guide. I was, and still am, mystified that she could tell the story over and over without some kind of serious mental instability. She replied that as a genocide survivor, she has the responsibility to tell others what happened here. She said that this is her history and it cannot be repeated. By telling the story of the thousands who died in that church - she is somehow helping others to bear witness to the events and honor the dead. 

For 20 years after the genocide, the town of Nyatarama did not have a church. Their church was a mass grave - an important memorial, but still not a functioning church. But in 2014, a new church was finally built only 400 meters from the place where just one generation ago a majority of the town was slaughtered. They have their church back. They are rebuilding. Memorializing. Preserving. And at least on the surface - reconciling. 

I will never, ever understand the events of April, 1994 in Rwanda. 
I don't need to. 

But I do need to show you these pictures, let you know that this church exists, and spread the hope that by awareness, human horror can somehow be stifled. Or at least let those living with this reality be honored. 

The world is full of monstrosity. North, South, East, West, no corner is immune. 
This is Rwanda's unique pain. 
Let's bear witness and honor her. 

'For the dead and the living, we must bear witness," -Elie Wiesel. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Oct 10, 2015

One Month Update.

"The willingness to show up changes us, 
it makes us a little braver each time." 
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly. 

One month ago, I packed way too much stuff into three luggages and flew across the world with my cat, again. This time the destination was one I have dreamed of for many years and for many reasons: Africa.

The last four weeks have been everything and nothing I anticipated. They have been boring and exhilarating, uplifting and heartbreaking, eye-opening and mystifying.

My fellowship has not begun in the way that I was expecting, and this has brought many twists and turns and a "fly by the seat of my pants, be ready at any minute for anything" lifestyle.

As many of you, dear friends of the internet persuasion, have noticed - I am not in my host city anymore. I spent 9 days in Kibungo before temporarily re-locating back to the capitol of Rwanda, Kigali. There are many issues with my placement including security, water, and politics. What is required in order for my Fellowship to take place is not set up yet. It has been a learning experience to see how these issues are tackled within the Rwandan context. Trial and learning by fire. I am thankful that I was removed from the situation by the US Embassy. For now, I am staying with another fellow in the big city who has been generous and kind and patient and every other positive adjective towards myself and Mushu as we crash her humble abode.

This means that I am homeless and without work for the moment, which is a huge blessing in disguise because I have been able to spend time in the city getting to meet people, start to build a network, and join in as the fellows based in the city begin their work. I have had the pleasure of constantly observing and making mental notes, as well as planning a few small scale events - which will benefit me as the months go by. I am thankful for this time, even though it comes with it feelings of stagnancy and frustration.

Hopefully, I will be able to return to Kibungo soon. It could be tomorrow, it could be in two weeks. I have no idea. There are many ducks that need to line up in order for the move to happen, but I know that eventually everything will work out. It has to - there is no other option.

Overall, I am incredibly thankful to have been placed in Rwanda, even if it means this temporary challenge here in the beginning weeks. Rwanda is clean, fairly easy to traverse, full of nice people, and safe. Not to mention - absolutely, breathtakingly gorgeous at every glance. And the team of English Language Fellows and Fulbrighters = rockstars. I really love it here.

Hopefully I will have some better news for you soon. But for now, I am just winging it here in Rwanda.
(But aren't we all just winging it?) 

walk slow. xoxo.

Oct 6, 2015

Morning Thoughts in Haiku.

In or out please choose 
safe under the net we sleep
then you meow again 

try new things, even 
if it scares you. but tell your
moto please slow down 

red dirt red hair red
is everywhere. you might
think this is china. 

will the lights work this morning 
water is bonus 

there are not enough 
baby wipes in the whole world 
to make me feel clean. 

small kids begging, as
I walk home to make dinner
this life is not fair 

be as curious
about the world as Afr'cans
are with redhead folk

on three continents
my cat has travelled with me 
global companion

deodorant is
useless when you haven’t done 
laundry in two weeks 

why did I bring so
much makeup to Africa
send me chocolate

I know I'm tasty
just ask the spider who bit
my leg for his lunch 

one person will not 
change the world, but isn't it 
our duty to try? 

in fifty years my 
grandchildren are going to 
think I'm a badass. 

walk to the market, 
sense overload? Nah, I would 
rather watch Netflix.

remind me again
why do others suffer while
I sit on the couch

how can it be real
that twenty years ago, blood 
flowed like a river 

is it ultimate 
forgiveness or ultimate

so many unknowns, 
what is Rwanda? I can
just scratch the surface. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Oct 2, 2015

A weekend in Kayonza.

Rwanda is really stinkin' cool. 

It's a teeny-tiny country with a lake, volcanoes, safari park, and gorillas all packed into it's tightly woven borders. It seems that there are too many great places to see - that perhaps a one-year contract could only scratch the surface of discovering Rwanda. 

With this in mind, (and a desire for a hot shower - #truth), my fellow fellow and I booked our second weekend in Rwanda in a "luxury tent" at the Discover Rwanda Eco-Lodge in Kayonza. No better time than now to get going and get seeing. 

Or sitting and relaxing, which is basically what we did all weekend. 

The Discover Rwanda Eco-Lodge is a business run by Women for Women International. Genocide widows from across Eastern Province are trained in hospitality or culinary arts to find jobs or are taught basket weaving and have their goods sold in a shop for a 50% split profit with the lodge. Their children take free classes at the lodge and it the place is run entirely by Rwandans, which was nice. 

For a meager 60$ a night, we got a comfortable bed, hot amazing shower, a composting toilet, huge breakfast, and amazing views of the valley. It was incredible and very much needed after how intense this move has been. My fellow fellow was an incredible listener and we had a great time sharing stories, reading, and just looking at the valley. 

A peaceful retreat

Fanta break! So African of us. 

"Yes We Can!" 

a sentimental dress that means so many things to me, finally worn in Africa 

Eastern Province countryside 

getting' her weave on

my spoils. 

It was wonderful. Thanks, Kayonza, for being a wonderful first stop in my year-long exploration of this country! 

walk slow. xoxo.