Two days ago, I had purchased airtime (credits that I can convert into talk or text for my Rwandan phone) from a vendor just across the street from the University. The vendor was out of the scratch-off cards that I usually purchase, reveal the code, and load into my phone (kind of like you would load an iTunes gift card). I agreed to let him send me the airtime using “me-to-you” – which meant giving him my phone number and waiting for the confirmation message from the phone provider to arrive. While waiting, the vendor and I introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries. Finally the message arrived that I’d received the airtime, I paid the vendor, and we went our separate ways. I’ve done this before – many times actually – and its worked quite smoothly.
This time, however, the vendor must have saved my phone number, because my phone had been flooded with texts and calls from him ever since. I learned the vendor’s name was Evereste, and he was determined to meet up with me. The messages continued to pile up in my inbox, and every time I checked my phone there were multiple missed calls. When my attempts to explain to Evereste that the way he’d gotten my number was highly unprofessional didn’t put an end to the situation, I decided it was time to get help. I sent a message to Gady, one of the theology students at PIASS and my first friend in Huye, asking him to come over and give Evereste a call on my phone. Within an hour, he was at our door (think of this as Rwandan super speed). Gady used my phone to call Evereste and ask him to give me some space.
“I told him that he was disrupting your purpose for being here, and therefore he was disrupting the work of God,” Gady took a sip from the mug of coffee I’d prepared for him. “I think he was confused at first.”
Gady recounted the conversation. Evereste said he didn’t remember Gady or me. Gady told him that he had bought airtime from him earlier in the day and that his sister went later in the day and bought airtime on the phone he was calling from.
I laughed, “You could have asked him if he remembered the muzungu who bought airtime from him two days ago. I’m guessing I was one of the only ones.”
Gady picked up a paper napkin and selected a chocolate cookie.
“You know, I am your big brother. And that is the most important for him to understand,” he explained.
I couldn’t respond. I took a sip of my own coffee so he wouldn’t be able to see that I was choked up.
You see, Gady has eight siblings. The the last thing he needs is another sister. But, he chooses to include me in his family regardless. Kay, my host mom, often refers to Gady and me as “the siblings,” and he has become a part of my Rwandan family.
Over the past 8 months, the word “sister” has come to hold new and significant means for me.
Teta, my 9 year old best friend, often refers to me as her older sister and I’ve found myself transitioning from calling her ishuti yange (my friend) to muramuna wange (my little sister).
Walking through the market, vendors shout to me, “Sister! Sister!” as they hold up pineapple or papaya. The elderly man who sells animals carved out of wood greets me in the cross walk “Sister! My sister!” and he pulls a carving of twin giraffes, necks intertwining, out of his satchel. The man at the kiosk where I buy chapatti sees me walk in the door and begins putting two into a paper bag while greeting me “hello my sister! It has been a long time!” (he will say this even if I was there just the day before).
I receive an email from the ELCA, addressing the YAGMS as “Dear Sisters and Brothers.” I open an FB message from an old friend. The message is long and closes with the 6 letter acronym we’ve been using since middle school: LYLAS – love you like a sister. I open a letter from a camp friend, and am more than a little surprised to find that it contains “the sisterhood of the traveling baby sock.” I meet up with my four other YAGMs at Mese Fresh, the Chipotle knock-off in Kigali, after months of separation and am reminded that Kate introduced us to the Lutheran Church of Rwanda as “sisters and daughters.”
I look at my bedroom wall, where I’ve hung pictures of people I love from home, and I am reassured that no matter where I am in the world or how frequently we communicate, Tara (my biological sister) will still be my sister. I’m reminded of the bond we have – one that surpasses all friendships – that can only be explained by the fact that she is my sister.
I think about my college roommates and I know that we acted as sisters for each other. I think about my coworkers at Luther Crest Bible Camp and all my sisters in my camp family. I think of my Bible study ladies finishing up their senior year of college and the sisterhood we have in that group.
I am optimistic that the relationships I have built during my YAGM year will last long beyond my visa expiration date. And regardless of where I end up living or how frequently we communicate, I will still be tied to my community here even as I integrate myself back into my communities at home. Being a sister carries with it great responsibility, great joy, great challenge, and great vulnerability – but I am incredibly blessed to know that I have family in the US supporting me, and family here taking care of me.
Tara, my biological sister (and also Doug, my biological brother)
At the corner near the soccer stadium, a dozen bike taxi drivers sit on their bicycles and scan the main road for potential passengers. I can see them ahead, and I know they’ve spotted me because they’ve all twisted around on their seats to watch my approach. I round the corner and brace myself for the question I know is coming.
“Sister! What are you running from?”
Today, the tall driver wearing a blue Rwanda jersey asks the question. I smile, and simply reply: “Muramutse!” (Good morning!) The drivers erupt into collective laughter, and I hear them chuckle to one another about the muzungu (white foreigner) who speaks Kinyarwanda.
Somehow, this has become a sort of game. Every morning as I pass by the corner on my sunrise run, a different bike taxi driver greets me. He’ll say good morning or ask me a question: “What are you doing?” “Where are you going?” Or, my personal favorite, the rare: “What are you running from?”
People used to ask me these questions all the time when I started running in Huye. As I ran through the residential area, guards would poke their heads out the gate windows and ask what I was running from and if I was okay. The women sweeping the gutters would straighten their backs and watch me pass. Children would shout ugiye hehe (where are you going?), and men walking down the street would comment to each other and laugh. It seemed as if people were coming out of nowhere to question what I perceived to be a very normal behavior. I would reply: “Sporo!” (I’m doing sport!) I couldn’t understand why they didn’t understand. After all, I am living in a town with three universities – I thought running would be a common activity for students.
What I came to realize, though, is that my behavior was not normal to my community. A woman doing physical exercise for no particular reason didn’t fit into their understanding of femininity. Rwandan women are strong – but most of them gain their strength from working in their fields, cleaning their homes, and carrying their children on their backs, not from hitting the gym. Additionally, in Rwanda big equals beautiful, and many women want to become big so they can achieve this cultural standard of beauty. Many Rwandans understand their physical size to be an indication of their family’s wealth – if you are large, clearly you can afford to eat well. In fact, a common compliment here is: “My, you look very fat today!” When I first came to Rwanda, I was shocked when someone said this to me (and to be honest, it still makes me feel uncomfortable). I’ve learned, however, that it means: “You are looking healthy and beautiful.” And that is something to give thanks for – especially since many crops failed this season due to lack of rain.
With all this in mind, it is easy to see that running to stay fit clashes with Rwandan cultural norms, conceptions of femininity, and standards of beauty. My community wasn’t trying to ask questions to frustrate or embarrass me – they were genuinely curious, and sometimes even concerned. They didn’t know what I was doing.
To be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing either. I didn’t know how to meet my needs within the norms of the community. So, I stopped running for a while. It was safe and comfortable, and I enjoyed the extra hour of sleep. After some time, however, I began to feel trapped by my situation. In a culture where time is not of the essence, I found myself wanting to speed up. I wanted fresh air and endorphins and movement.
I mentioned my struggle to my friend, Thibaut. He expressed a similar frustration – he wanted to go running more regularly but had no one to go with. We decided to start a running club, and I’ve been running every morning with Thibaut at 6am ever since. While it remains just the two of us, despite our many efforts to expand the club, it is my favorite part of the day. We talk about everything from our families to our cultural traditions to current events. Thibaut is from Burundi, the country touching Rwanda’s southern border, and we’ve bonded through discussions about differences and similarities among American, Burundian, and Rwandan cultures.
We have gone running enough times that our community has accepted our recreational endeavor, and we enjoy the game of greeting the bike taxi drivers every morning. We know we are not running from anything, we know our runs are not an escape; they are a time for us to challenge ourselves physically, yes, but also culturally.
When I graduated from college and told people I was moving to Rwanda, I think many of them thought I was running away from something. I remember running into (no pun intended) a friend from high school’s dad at a coffee shop in my home town about a month before I left. When I told him I was preparing to leave for my YAGM year he said something like: “Oh… Weren’t you just in Africa? It’s already time for you to go back again?” Words like these haunted me. I hoped my YAGM year would be completely different than my study abroad experience. And while I would be returning to the continent of Africa, I would be going to a very different country – a country with a new culture, climate, language, and tradition.
While many people offered me overwhelming support, there were several who struggled to understand. You see, choosing to spend a year of service and simple living in a foreign country does not fit into our American cultural norms. A girl with a college degree should be searching for her first career position, earning a self-sustaining salary, and working her way up the ladder of success. Why would I want to move far away from everyone I know and love, far away from opportunities to network in the twin cities, doing a job that was quite distant from any I hope to have in the future? I must be running! And I must be running from something! Maybe I was running away from responsibility – from finding a “real job” and paying back my student loans and calculating the cost of utilities in a drafty Minneapolis apartment. Maybe I was running away from commitment – from committing to a career, from committing to a location, from committing to people. Maybe… But I didn’t think so…
Yesterday, Thibaut was gone and I went running alone for the first time in a while. I listened to my breathing and the rhythm of my heartbeat, the sound of my shoes against gravel then cobblestone then pavement then dirt. When I reached the corner where the bike taxis wait, I was lost in my own thoughts.
“What are you running from?” a driver wearing a green and white stocking cap shouted.
“Banality!” I shouted back.
I must confess to you all, I am running. And any time we run, we run away from one thing and into another. I’m running from banality and complacency and comfort, and into unfamiliarity and challenge. I’m running from indifference and into empathy and accountability. I’m running from tradition that excludes and alienates and into an illumination of institutional structures of oppression. I’m running from a single story, limited scope, and narrow mindedness, and into listening and love. With this new distance I’ve gained perspective, and I continue my journey, hoping to see the complexity of our world more clearly each day.
Kristy and I had the opportunity to lead a Bible camp in Cyangugu for a week in early December. In Rwanda, the gap between school years goes from October to January, so this was the perfect time to share the joy of summer camp with some incredible kids. Our days were filled with crazy activities. Here are a few pictures from a typical day.
(All my LCBC readers, say it with me!)
And now! It’s time! For your day camp… SCHEDULEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
8:00 a.m. – Morning Circle
9:00 a.m. – Games I
9:30 a.m. – Music
10:00 a.m. – Games II
10:30 a.m. – English Party (Aka – English Class)
11:00 a.m. – Free Time
11:30 a.m. – Bible Stories:
11:30 – Quiet Games:
12:00 p.m. – Art
Around 12:30 p.m. we ate lunch. After the kids finished their plates of rice and beans, they worked together to clean the school. They swept and mopped each classroom, washed all their lunch dishes, and swept the courtyard area. Our five-year-old host sister, Reign, was the most committed helper of all, and she was always the first to grab a mop and get to work. I’ve never seen kids who are as independent and exhibit as much initiative as these campers.
After each day of camp, our host siblings took us on an adventure. We saw Lake Kivu, the boarder between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a forest that had an uncanny resemblance to northern Minnesota, and downtown Kemembe.
Our generous host family!
Our host brother, Goeffry, showed Kristy and me his favorite place – a forest that looks like one in the U.S.! (His little brother tagged along for the trip.)
Igikoma (porridge) and macaroni (spaghetti noodles with tomatoes) – it’s what’s for breakfast.
Innocent and Mucho show Kristy and me Lake Kivu.
Our host brother, Muhire, takes us on a walk to downtown Kemembe.
Muhire showed us the river that separates DRC and Rwanda.
Fisherman on Lake Kivu (probably catching “those small fish”).
Cyangugu squad = Mucho, Muhire, Innocent, and Kristy.
Mamma Muhire poses with some porridge.
Kristy and I enjoy porridge with our host sister, Reign.
The view from Mamma Muhire’s house, overlooking Lake Kivu.
It was hard to say goodbye to our host siblings and campers at the end of the week, but we are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to help with the day camp. A huge thank you to Shepard of the Hills Lutheran Church for their sponsorship!
*Photo credit for almost all photos goes to Muhire, Mucho, and Goeffry (our host brothers)
In the Mihelich family, Thanksgiving is hands down the best holiday of the year. It is a time for family to come together without the pressure of Christmas gifts or the commercialism of Easter candy. We cook a delicious meal and we invite relatives and close friends – and even though every year the guests around our table are a little different, the five of us are always together and that is a reason to celebrate.
Going into November, I was a little nervous about spending my first Thanksgiving away from home. I wasn’t really that worried about missing out on green bean casserole or turkey. I was worried about missing out on helping my mom place the raw veggies on the tray in a decorative way and laughing when we eventually (always) give up, listening to music with my brother while cleaning the house and mom asking us ever so politely to please turn it down (still not sure how we are expected to hear it over the vacuum at that level), watching my dad fall asleep on the couch about an hour after the meal, playing with my sister and our restless dog after company leaves. Sometimes it takes being away from home to realize what your traditions really are.
This Thanksgiving, however, turned out to be just as special. Kate, our country coordinator, scheduled our November retreat over the holiday so that all of the Rwanda YAGMs could be together. Everyone offered to contribute something to the meal, and the six YAGMs spent the morning chopping carrots and peeling potatoes. Kate worked her magic and found us a Turkey, and two of the YAGMs made a huge apple crisp. By the time we sat down to eat, several guests had arrived. Pastor Veronica, the pastor of Kigali Lutheran Church, has become a regular at YAGM get-togethers over the years, and she was excited to celebrate this American holiday with us. Robbin, who runs Rwamagana Lutheran School (and is also American), came with sweet potatoes and lots of thanksgivings. Michel, our Kinyarwanda teacher and non-violent communication coach, appeared eager to learn about our culture and traditions.
As is customary, we formed a circle, sang a prayer Shemiah taught us during orientation, and then went around and said what we are thankful for this year. Then we dished up our plates (after eating being served Rwandan portions of food on several occasions here, our feast seemed more reasonable in size than I remember Thanksgiving feeling at home) and took seats in the living room. I found myself sitting in a room full of people I didn’t know five months ago, but understanding I was in a unique community of people who cared about me. And for that, I was thankful.
Cooking the feast!
We enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at Kate’s house.
Kelly models with her masterpiece: an apple crisp!
Our retreat included several sessions about our journey so far, Rwandan culture, Rwandan gender norms, and communication techniques. One of the highlights of the November retreat was our visit to Akagera National Park. We spent almost six hours driving through the length of it. We saw all of the animals we expected to see, and even a few more. The most out-of-body experience was when we saw the elephants. We found a mother and baby elephant, and our guide stopped the Jeep to let us watch. After a few minutes, he said we needed to move out of the way so that other groups could see (which I thought was very courteous – but also, we could have looked at the elephants for hours). He turned the Jeep around and we headed back in the direction we had come, only to find more elephants ahead! We’d gotten stuck in the middle of a heard! Although most of the heard was far off the path – apparently, it was bath time and they were making the trek to the lake – our guide drove slowly so as not to disturb them. We watched a baby elephant trot into the water and begin bathing.
We drove past zebras that felt close enough to touch (they probably weren’t, but it felt like they could have been) and giraffes so tall they had to bend their heads down to eat leaves off of the trees. We also saw water buffalo, warthogs, hippos, and several varieties of antelope. Our country coordinator, Kate, was especially excited about a few of the birds that flew across our path. It was a successful journey, but after six hours of riding over bumpy roads under the equatorial sun, we were ready for a warm meal and a good night’s sleep.
Blue skies and sunshine.
Mamma and baby elephant!
Waterbuffalo in the distance!
The YAGM Rwanda Team after Akagera: Shemiah, Me, Mary, Kristy, Kelly, Linda
We spent the next day hanging out in Kayonza. We had a slow morning with devotions and check-ins, and then went to get tea. We sat in a milk hut in the rain, sipping hot tea and talking about the differences between all six of our communities. Later in the evening we went out to dinner where we had a spectacular sunset view of Lake Muhazi. We spent our second night at the Kayonza Eco Lodge, and the friendly staff lit a campfire for us to sit around and tell stories.
The stars glowed as bright as the campfire embers, and we tried to compare the constellations we knew from home to the ones we could see in the sky. Orion is about as far as we got. We spent the evening telling funny stories, relating over common challenges, and asking each other questions about things we are still trying to figure out in Rwanda. For the first time during the retreat, it seemed that everyone was fully present in the moment and that everyone was genuinely listening to each other. Away from the distractions of technology, away from the pressures of our placement sites, away from the expectations of our host communities, we could take a step back and renew our sense of meaning within the context of our YAGM years.
Taking a leap of faith
Kayonza eco lodge
Our view every morning in Kayonza.
Devotions under the tent
Carved milk jugs in the milk hut
And they’ll know that we’re YAGMs by our shoes, by our shoes…
A rare bird on Lake Muhazi
Eco lodge resturant
(Take 1 of the jumping picture)
Kayonza eco lodge
Thank you, Kate Warn, for planning an amazing retreat for us. I’m grateful for your persistence with our group and the ways you both encourage and challenge us.
Now that I’ve been living in Huye for a few months, I finally feel like the town is becoming home. I’ve learned how to overcome some of the little things that make it clear I’m new in the area – I’ve learned the appropriate amount of time to wait before crossing the street, to walk around the fleet of motos waiting outside of the market instead of through them, to have a coin ready in my hand when I walk into the market to pay one of the young boys who insists on selling me a paper bag, how to politely decline a bike taxi, which watchmen appreciate a greeting and which ones don’t. Still, every day holds something new.
Yesterday, as I walked to the market, I saw that a large section of the main road was blocked off. Women in kitenge dresses printed with the Skol (a Rwanda beer) logo and men wearing vests made of the same fabric walked between yellow tents – setting up tables, arranging piles of promotional giveaways, and stretching chords along the pavement to connect at least a dozen speakers.
At the second turnoff, a yellow semi-truck blocked the road. One side of the trailer had been rolled up to reveal that it was a sort of mobile stage, decked with massive speakers, a flashing light, and several microphones – the entire vehicle and its contents were decorated with Skol logos.
I wondered what was going on, but continued on my way. After finishing my errands (in case you were wondering, mission “buy mangoes, tomatoes, and cumin” was two-thirds successful) I began my journey back to Taba (the area of Huye where I live). I became aware that I was walking in a stream of people. Downtown is usually busy around 11 a.m., but not this busy. As I approached the main part of town, I saw that the area of the road that had been blocked off was now flooded with people. Policemen brandishing metal sticks waved the crowd toward the sides of the street. Music blared from the speakers along the road, and as I passed the Skol truck three men switched on the microphones and began speaking in excited, rapid, Kinyarwanda. Light rain began to fall, but the ever-amassing crowd pressed together and cheered. Everyone was eagerly anticipating something – I just couldn’t quite figure out what that something was.
I took my raincoat out of my backpack, pulled up the hood, and continued making my way through the crowd, my journey becoming easier the farther I got from the main part of town. The crowd thinned, but I could see another wave of people walking in my direction. As I neared the intersection, I heard a shout coming from the large white store in front of me. I turned to see Joselyne smiling and waving shyly at me.
Joselyne and I first got to know each other when I stopped into the store to buy chocolate for my students. When I approached the counter with three bars of chocolate in my hand, her eyes widened.
“You?” she asked. I tilted my head to the side and shook it, not sure what she meant.
“All!” she pointed to the chocolate. “For you?”
I laughed, realizing how ridiculous my purchase must seem through her eyes. Chocolate is a treat – but this much chocolate probably looked like a whole new level of indulgence.
I attempted to explain myself: “Ndi umukorera bushake nigisha icyongereza mur PIASS,” (I am a volunteer, teaching English at PIASS).
“Mmmm,” she squinted her eyes and leaned in, waiting to hear how this fun fact about my life related to the fact that I consume large amounts of chocolate.
I searched for the words to finish my explanation: “Abanyeshuri… gusangira…” (Students… to share food…). I couldn’t put the whole sentence together, but I was determined to finish what I’d started. I held up the bars, pointed at them and then in the direction of the university. “Gusangira… abanyeshuri.”
Her face lit up. “Ahh! Yego! Mmmm!” (Yes) she smiled and held out her hand, apparently having decided that this was a permissible defense of my purchase. I handed her a crumpled bill, and she handed it to a woman who suddenly appeared through a door in the side of the building. The woman took it and walked out the front door. The umucuruzi (shopkeeper) raised her eyebrows and said “mmmm,” waiting to see if I understood that the woman had left to break the bill and I needed to wait for my change. I smiled, nodded, and responded with: “mmmm.”
Let me just pause for a moment to explain that when it comes to communication, Rwandans are my people! Why? Well, let me tell you. Often, it is completely appropriate to use the sounds “mmmm” (meaning “yes” or “go on”) and “mm mm” (meaning “no” or “I don’t understand”) in place of actual phrases. Those of you who know me know that these sounds comprise a large part of my everyday vocabulary. Many Rwandans consider “mmmm” and “mm mm” to be indicators of active listening. (The one struggle has been that Rwandans seem to interpret “mmhmm,” which I frequently use to mean “absolutely,” as a variation of “mm mm.” This has become especially frustrating in my Kinyarwanda lessons when I’m trying to tell my teacher I have indeed understood the material and she starts explaining it again.)
So, there we were, waiting for the woman who had taken my money from the woman I was currently standing with to return with my change.
“What is your name?” asked the umucuruzi.
I told her, and then asked for hers. I soon learned that her name is Joselyne and that she works in the shop every day (buri munsi).
Since that day, every time I’ve gone into the store Joselyne has gotten up from behind the table with the cash register, greeted me, and then accompanied me as I walked around the store. At first, it was a little unnerving. I wondered if she thought I was incapable of shopping on my own. Soon, however, I realized that she considered us friends, and that walking around the store together was our way of getting to know one another. We communicate in simple sentences – a mix of basic Kinyarwanda and English and French – and although we miss some of the nuances and details, we always seem to figure out the gist of what the other is saying.
And so, it wasn’t really a surprise that as I passed the shop on my way home yesterday, a voice called out to me:
“Amy, my sister! You must come in!”
The hood of my raincoat cut off my peripheral vision, so I had to twist my whole body to see who had called my name. Joselyne was standing in the doorway of the shop, waving to me.
“Amy! You must come! You must come for the culture!”
Confused but intrigued, I turned from the road and walked up the stairs of the building. It would be good to get out of the rain anyway. Joselyne greeted me with a hug and a handshake.
“I’ve missed you!” she said.
I laughed. “I’ve missed you!”
She pointed out through the open doorway to the street: “There!”
People lined up along both sides of the street, crowded into the balconies of the second-story shops, squished together under the large umbrellas that mark airtime kiosks, some even climbed up billboard frames – anything for a better vantage point.
“What is going on?” I asked. Joselyne scrunched her forehead. I ventured again: “I mean, why are all of the people in the street?”
“The street? The street.” Then it clicked. “Ah! Yego! Bicycles!” she said. “It is the Tour Du Rwanda!”
We stood in the doorway of the shop, hiding from the rain and watching the street fill up with people, despite the weather. A man came up to Joselyne, shook her hand, and then shook mine as if we’d already been introduced. Then, a woman walked into the shop and did the same. Soon, the stairs leading up to the shop were packed with people, all of whom had greeted me like a friend from the past.
There I stood, for over an hour, in a doorway with a dozen people I’d never met before and one person I am just beginning to get to know, waiting for something to happen.
“They will be here soon!” The mantra was repeated over and over.
We listened to the radio on someone’s phone. The announcer reported the progress of the bike race live, and my new friends eagerly translated for me. We could see flashing lights in the distance, and suddenly a motorcycle with police lights on it flew past.
Joselyne nudged me. “They are very near,” she said.
And they were! Five seconds later a group of bicyclists breezed past. The spectators screamed and cheered and jumped up and down. And then, the race was over.
We waited, listening to the radio for the race results.
“It was ARERUYA Joseph!” said one of the men. Everyone on the steps cheered again.
“He is Rwandese,” Joselyne said. “We are very happy! Are you happy together with us?”
“Yes, Joselyne,” I said. “I am happy with you.” And I was.
I said goodbye to the storefront steps crew, and once again began my journey home. It was barely raining, but just enough that I kept my hood up. I passed the man who fixes shoes, and the woman who sells avocados, and boy who always wears a purple jacket, and then I heard footsteps right behind me. I was about to turn around to see who it was when –
“Hello, Amy! It is me!”
I turned around to see Jean Paul, the student body president of PIASS, grinning and clapping his hands.
“We won! We won the race! Did you see it?” Jean Paul was so excited I couldn’t respond without interrupting him, so I just nodded. This made him even more excited. “I wish you had told me you were going to be there! I hope you weren’t alone!”
“Oh, don’t worry. I wasn’t alone.”
One of the things that has astounded me most about my community in Rwanda is that people are not afraid to reach out to each other. It takes time and commitment to build trust, that is for sure, but the more I work to prioritize my relationships with the people in my community, the more warmly they welcome me into their circles. A few weeks ago, I never would have imagined being invited to spend hours with Joselyne and her friends, waiting to catch a split-second glimpse of a race. I never would have imagined Jean Paul running to catch up with me so I didn’t have to walk alone in the rain. I’m learning that relationships are much more like waiting together for a race to begin than they are about racing toward any sort of finish line. I’m learning that my understanding of friendship is a little different than some of my Rwandan acquaintances’, and I’m learning that navigating the differences is a beautiful process. And I’m learning that when someone makes an effort to be inclusive, the answer is (almost) always: “Yes.”
Samuel nudged my elbow with his own: “He says we must stand up and dance!”
A look of panic must have flashed across my face because Samuel began to laugh. He stood up and held out a hand to me. As I rose from my seat, I turned to face the congregation. Two hundred people also stood up, smiling at us as they stretched their arms and backs.
The pianist clicked from one percussion track to the next on the bulky keyboard, finally settling on a particularly grooving rhythm. With his right hand, he began to play a simple melody, and with his left he adjusted the tempo. A young man picked up a microphone and volleyed a series of “Alleluia – Amen”s with the congregation. Then, he started to sing.
The congregation had been sitting politely for the past hour. Now, the people came alive. They shouted and clapped and joined in the chorus, instantly harmonizing with perfect balance. Two hundred pairs of feet stepped to the quickening beat. As the music began to build, the rows of benches became too constraining for jumping and spinning, and the people flooded out into the isles and rushed to the front of the sanctuary to dance more freely.
I remember thinking to myself: This is what it looks like to be free.
When Joseph called me the day before to ask me if I would visit his home with him, I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I met him at the gate at 7:45 the next morning, I was surprised to find he was accompanied by Samuel, another of the theology students. We walked down the street until we reached the house of the French-American missionary, Monique, and waited for someone to unlock her gate. When door swung open, Monique was waiting for us on the other side, physically bouncing up and down with excitement. We all piled into her car, and her driver and translator Jean Baptiste put the vehicle in gear.
We drove for about two hours, and then we turned off the main highway. Jean Baptist skillfully navigated the unpaved roads, and soon we found ourselves in front of a church.
“This is my congregation,” Joseph said.
This was by far the largest chapel I’d seen, and through the open doorway I caught a glimpse of the many benches, packed with people. I suddenly became aware of the fact that both Joseph and Samuel were wearing full suits. What are we doing here? I wondered.
Jean Baptiste opened the trunk of the car, and several men came out of the church to help unload the stack of large cardboard boxes inside. The elders emerged from the church, greeted us, ushered us inside, and insisted we sit in the front of the chapel – facing the congregation. They had set up four seats behind a large table, and Joseph, Samuel, Monique, and I took our places behind it.
Since coming to Rwanda, I’ve found myself in many situations that I would consider outside of my comfort zone. This, however, was so far outside of outside of my comfort zone that I could feel my body tensing up as it tried to physically resist. Because the congregation knew my three companions, pastor asked me to stand up and introduce myself. I took a deep breath and stumbled through my rudimentary Kinyarwanda introduction (the one I’ve rehearsed a thousand times, but still seem to forget the words when I am in front of native speakers). By the time I reached the end, I could feel my cheeks burning red, and I humbly sat back down in my seat. To my surprise, the congregation burst into applause and delighted laughter, apparently impressed with my attempt. The pastor began speaking rapidly, and the congregation laughed and clapped again.
Samuel nudged my elbow with his own: “He says we must stand up and dance!”
And so, I did.
Monique thanks the congregation for their hard work during the Spiritual Gifts Workshop
Younger members of the congregation formed a dance circle and took turns teaching each other dances
A young girl receives a Bible
Bibles and certificates, ready for distribution
A young man smiles as he finally recieves his Bible
Joseph and Monique begin reading the names on the certificates
A woman receives a Bible, and then bursts into a song of thanks
It wasn’t until the elders began opening the boxes that I fully understood what we were doing. Each box was filled with small, red, Kinyarwanda Bibles. The congregation cheered as the men unloaded the boxes.
Joseph, seeing my confusion, leaned over and explained. He told me that one of Monique’s primary ministries is planning and facilitating seminars about spiritual development. Participants of the short programs are given a certificate (which is an important honor in Rwanda) and a Kinyarwanda Bible (a resource that is difficult to find). This was the last day of the seminar, and we had come to distribute the bibles. During the three-hour ceremony/worship service/dance party, Joseph and Monique handed out 200 Bibles to an overjoyed congregation. After every 50 or so, we all stood up to sing songs and dance. And every time, I leaned into my discomfort and did my best to copy the steeping patterns and arm motions of the women in front of me. By the end of the last song, Joseph and Samuel and I were out of breath from dancing and laughing. With glistening eyes, listened to the closing blessing, and then walked through the congregation to shake hands with everyone (and I really do mean everyone).
After the service, two women approached me and began thanking me profusely for bringing them Bibles. I tried to explain to them that I was simply accompanying my friends today and that the women should really be thanking Joseph, Samuel, and Monique, but they insisted on continuing to thank me.
They told me that these Bibles were an answer to their prayers. When I asked them to tell me more, they eagerly explained.
Now that they had their own Bibles, they would be able to read the Word on their own for the first time in their lives. And if they could read it on their own, they explained, they could think about it on their own. No longer would they have to wait for the men of the church to read to them and interpret scriptures for them.
“We will be able to study – to study and to think about it by ourselves,” said one of the women.
“And our children will also be able to study – to study and to think and to know,” said the other.
And I remember thinking to myself: This is what it looks like to be free.
Eventually, we did go to Joseph’s house. His brother (center) translated for his mother (left) as Monique (far right) and I listened to her stories.
Joseph’s father (far left) and mother (far right) tell us welcome us into their home
Joseph’s niece decided I was her favorite chair. She tried to share her sucker with me on more than one occasion during our visit.
*Photo credit for all of these pictures goes to Samuel and Joseph, who insisted on documenting this day for us.