On being held

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Thibaut greets me in the library (and then agrees to stage this photo)

I’ve always valued words above all other forms of communication. Living in Rwanda, however, has taught me that words are only one way to connect with others. Rwandans often speak quietly, and many times they will hold an entire conversation without facing one another. While they may not always hold eye-contact, they often physically hold one another.

I don’t think I ever realized how comforting it can be to receive a hug from someone who cares about me. The combination of my cultural context, living situation, and general social awkwardness means that sometimes I will go weeks without much more physical human contact than a handshake. You’d better believe that during the sharing of the peace at church on Sundays, I’m going in for the classic “hug and THEN a handshake” maneuver (emphasis on the hug).

Sometimes, though, I’m smothered with hugs and kisses and endless handholding. Greetings always include some sort of physical contact. Sometimes my Rwandan friends greet me with a handshake. Sometimes, if one of us is holding something in our right hand, we will just touch wrists. Sometimes they grab onto my arms, just above my elbows, in a sort of half-hug. Sometimes it is a real, two-arm hug. Sometimes they kiss me on the cheek once, and sometimes they kiss me on the cheek three times. I’d tell you the level of contact during the greeting is based on how well I know the person, but that simply isn’t true. Some of my best friends always greet me with a handshake, and often complete strangers greet me with multiple kisses.

The physical contact does not end during the greeting. Often, people hold my hand the entire time they speak to me (this can make the journey down the stairs from the chapel after morning devotions a little tricky). Many women I’m friends with love to play with my hair when I visit their homes. Children often greet me with a hug and then cling to my arms as I walk to town.

Before coming to Rwanda, I valued my personal space. In fact, in the United States, we will say that someone who gets too close to us is “violating” our personal space. In this culture of sharing, however, being close to another person is not a violation, but rather a sign of being in community. Sometimes I find myself sitting on a bus that is so crowded one of my shoulders is in front of one person and my other shoulder is behind another. Sometimes a woman will place her baby into my arms in the middle of the church service so she can sing in the choir.

I became acutely aware of the importance of touch earlier this year. In December, I became kind-of-really sick. I kind-of-really didn’t want to go to the local clinic. I tried to continue working and staying busy, but I found myself talking long naps between each scheduled activity. Eventually, I gave in, and allowed Gady to bring me to the doctor. Just as I feared, the nurse told me she needed to draw blood for a malaria test. Those of you know me know that I hate blood, and I hate needles, and I hate needles that are used to draw blood. I was in an unfamiliar place, my head and stomach hurt, and now the nurse was poking a huge needle into the crease of my elbow. Unable to reach a vein, she decided to take another approach. She took a rubber glove, tied it around my arm, sanitized my wrist, and began drawing blood from there.

It was too much – I couldn’t stop the downpour of hot tears. Gady immediately took my hand in his own and put his other arm around my shoulders. He had studied medicine before thelology, and I could see in his eyes that he didn’t understand why I was so upset by this standard, simple, blood-drawing procedure. But, he didn’t ask any questions. He just held me as I tried to pull myself together.

Being held is uncomfortable. It involves trust and vulnerability. It means letting go of some of the aspects of my home culture and embracing (literally and figuratively) aspects of my host culture. However, being held also signifies acceptance. It is more than an act of courtesy – it is an outward sign of compassion and care.

I think about all the times Mama Teta has taken my hand as we’ve walked around campus, squeezing a little tighter when she has exciting information to share and pulling down as if to share the weight of her burdens with me when she has sad news. I think about baby Promise, who loves to snuggle in my arms while her mom works on an assignment, reaching out to clutch one of my fingers. I think about Bénita, my favorite toddler in the world, who often wanders up to me during church and raises her arms – a signal that crosses all language barriers and means she wants me to pick her up so we can dance together. I think of my friend Solange who always greets me with a hug and three kisses – often leaving her arm wrapped around me as we catch up on the events of the past weeks. I am sitting in the library as I write this, and I’ve had to stop multiple times to greet and shake hands with students as they come in (it is common for them to enter a room in the library and individually greet everyone before settling into a table to study – quite the cultural difference!).

When the Beatles said, “I want to hold your hand,” they knew what they were talking about! At the end of the day, sometimes someone holding our hand is all we need to know that we are not alone. That we are part of something bigger than ourselves. That we are human. That we are connected. That we need each other.


If you want to write about Rwanda

Lake Kivu and the hills of Kibuye, Rwanda


If you want to write about Rwanda,

You should probably start with the title.

Make sure it includes something about genocide –

Words like “machete” will also suffice.

How else will you get people to read it?


And on that note – it is okay to write about something other than genocide,

But make sure that it takes place during the genocide

Or that you refence the unignorable impacts of the genocide.

A good rule of thumb: at least one genocide reference per page.

(Feel free to get a little creative here.)


Before you begin writing the piece

You need to do some research.

So get yourself on a plane, book yourself a room in Kigali,

And begin setting up your interviews.

Or, just show up and start asking questions – that works too.


Now, there are really only 3 people you need to talk to for a successful book:

A Catholic priest, someone who worked for the UN,

And that guy from the movie Hotel Rwanda.

Anyone else is a bonus, but these guys are essential.

And if you decide to interview a woman, make sure to spend just as many lines

describing what she is wearing and how she looks now

as you do telling us about her experience.


Don’t waste your time traveling to distant villages,

Or if you do, don’t spend too much time in any one place.

How important could building trust with these people be?

You are only asking them to talk about death and rape and loss.

It’s pretty straightforward.


Okay, you will probably want to take a picture or two

So make sure that you stand behind a tree so the people can’t see you.

Put that thousand-dollar lens to good use and zoom on in!

If you are lucky, some children might even pose for you in a field.

And when they ask you for a coin, make sure to refuse.


(Oh, and when someone tries to take a picture of you tonight

when you are eating dinner, or having a drink, or walking to the bus station

be sure to call them out – loudly – and ask them

why on earth they have the right to take your picture without your consent.)


At this point you are probably wondering: should I study Kinyarwanda?

And my response to you is: why would you need to know a language

Spoken by 99% of the population of Rwanda (20 million people world-wide)

When you are perfectly capable pantomime?

If all else fails, just speak English more loudly and slowly than usual.


If you want to write about Rwanda,

You’ll want to make sure that you have the “real story.”

So, take the time to have all your connections check your facts:

Peace Corps volunteers, NGO workers, missionaries – They’ll be all too happy to set the record straight.

After all, they have been living in-country for a year or two.


And, finally, when you are choosing a publisher,

Don’t you worry about the ethical implications of choosing one in the U.S. or U.K.

Don’t stop to think for one second about who will profit from your book.

You just flew to Africa! You’ve done the world a great service!

(Hate to break it to you, but if you wanted a Pulitzer,

you really should have chosen a more recent conflict – South Sudan, perhaps?)


Inspired by Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece, “How to Write About Africa,” published in Granta Magazine. (click on the link to read the full text)

On being a sister

Hanging out at a wedding with Gady, Mordecai, and Benjamin (members of my PIASS family)

Gady hung up the phone and handed it back to me.

“So what did you tell him?” I asked.

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 co-workers 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.

What are you running from?

One of my favorite roads in Huye (mostly because there are usually goats on the hill)

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.

The cobblestone roads in Taba

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.

The final stretch… almost home!

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.

Camp, camp, camp it up!

The day camp fam – campers, counselors, and adult helpers

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

Every morning we gathered in a circle to sing songs and wait for everyone to arrive.

9:00 a.m. – Games I

The campers loved games that involved running. A tag game called Fanta Machine (an adaptation of Pop Machine) was one of their favorites.

9:30 a.m. – Music

We sang songs in English and Kinyarwanda. Kristy and I attempted to teach one of our personal favorites: “Give me Oil in My Lamp.”

10:00 a.m. – Games II

Innocent, one of the counselors, initiates a game of “Find the Leader.”

10:30 a.m. – English Party (Aka – English Class)

Every day we spent an hour learning some new English words. We played games and sang songs to make the learning feel more like camp and less like school.

11:00 a.m. – Free Time

The campers usually found a soccer ball and convinced Jean Bosco, the Evangelist, to play a game of Football with them.

11:30 a.m. – Bible Stories:

Jean Bosco, the Evangelist, tells the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. He reminded us that we don’t need to have a lot to have enough.

11:30 – Quiet Games:

In the afternoons, we sat in the shade to play quiet games such as “Pink Elephant,” “Wink,” and “Story Building.”

12:00 p.m. – Art

The campers weave mats out of strips of paper. We did a different craft every day.

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.

The campers enjoyed playing parachute games whenever the opportunity arose.

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.

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)

Thanksgiving in Rwanda

November in Rwanda (at Akagera National Park)

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.

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.

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.

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.

The answer is (almost) always: “Yes.”

People traveled from miles around Huye to see the end of stage 4 of the Tour Du Rwanda.

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.

The clouds darken and the street continues to fill up with people.

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!”

When the street got too crowded, people climbed on the billboards for a better view.

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.”

For more information about the Tour Du Rwanda: