Keys, please!

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The yellow gate in front of the PIASS Guest House

 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.   

– Matthew 7:7

Every morning, on the way to 8:00 a.m. devotions, I unlock the yellow gate and walk through it. At night, I go through the gate and lock it behind me. Since coming to Butare, the yellow gate has become a symbol of safety and security. Recently, however, it has also become a metaphor for separation.

Last night, after walking home from cooking dinner with a friend, I found myself locked outside.  I knocked and waited, and knocked and waited, and knocked and waited, but no one came to help. As the mosquitoes began to thicken in the night air, I could hear the women in the house chatting with one another. Surely they could hear my knocking! At this time of night, however, they were not under any obligation to open the gate to a potential stranger. Only the width of the metal gate separated me from them, yet I was completely alone.

Eventually, through a social media miracle, I was able to connect with the manager of the guest house and ask him to send someone to unlock the gate for me. Soon, a woman opened the gate and let me inside as she apologized profusely for accidentally locking the door early.

As I got ready for bed, I thought about how frustrating it was to be locked outside – how excluded and forgotten and generally freaked out I felt while on the other side of the gate. I thought about my own gates – about the barriers I put between myself and others when I am in a new context in order to protect myself.  I thought about how those barriers might be seen as off-putting or separating, and I thought about the ways I might open myself to others in new ways this week.

During orientation Kristy and I chatted with the other YAGM Rwanda ladies about Minnesota manners. We come from a state that prides itself in passivity – where it is considered good manners to turn down a cup of coffee a few times before accepting it, where “that’s different” means “I don’t like it.”  Rwandans, too, celebrate a culture of indirect communication. Over the past week, however, I’ve had to learn to ask for what I need and to accept the openness of others. I’ve learned that it is okay to accept a cup of tea on the first offer and that if someone says “come over for dinner” they really mean it. I’ve learned that comments from new acquaintances about my physical appearance – the shape or size of my body, the clothes that I’m wearing – come from a desire to connect rather than to critique. I’ve learned that, for the sake of building community, allowing myself to be accompanied by strangers is worth the sacrifice of my independence.

Every house on my street sits behind a gate. Already, so many of my neighbors have unlocked their gates and invited me in. I’ve been reflecting on the vulnerability and generosity it takes to invite a stranger into your home, the energy it takes to communicate with someone in a language that is perhaps your third or fourth, and the patience it takes to relate to someone who struggles to pronounce your name. This week, I hope to find new ways to open myself to others and to accept the openness of those I meet with a renewed sense of grace.

(And also, now I have my own key to the yellow gate, so hopefully I won’t be locked out again.)

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All is Fair in Love and Bananas

According to my calendar, I’ve been living in Rwanda for almost one month. According to the email I received from WordPress this morning, I have followers who want to hear about this past month of my life. I don’t know how accurate that is – but I understand I’ve been procrastinating a formal update.

After a week of orientation in Chicago and three weeks of in-country orientation in Kigali, I’ve finally moved to Butare – the place I’ll be living for the remainder of the year. I’ve been here for almost a week, and already I’ve been overwhelmed by the hospitality and kindness of my neighbors, the faculty of the University, and the students. Classes will begin in October, so for the time being I’m staying busy getting to know my neighbors, the campus, and the city.  Every day, one of my new friends teaches me Kinyarwanda and then I teach him guitar.

Soon, I will write more about the university and my work there, but for the time being, I want to share a story with you from my favorite day of orientation.

On our second Saturday in Kigali, we met with several women from the Kigali perish at Pastor Kate’s house for a cooking lesson. Mamma Fred, Monique, and Pastor Veronica taught us how to cut vegetables without a cutting board and how to peel cooking bananas. Taking our hands in their own, the women taught us to guide the knife so that we didn’t waste food while peeling and cubing the vegetables.

It took us nearly three hours to prepare our meal, and by the time our food was done we were ready to eat. The main dish contained ibitoki (bananas), igitunguru (onions), karoti (carrots), and inyanya (tomatoes). We also made peanut sauce and greens. We filled our plates with a banana, some of the greens, and drizzled a spoonful of peanut sauce over the top. Mama Fred took one look at our plates and laughed. She asked why, if we were so hungry, had we taken so little food.

“You must eat two ibitoki, at least!” she instructed.

For Mamma Fred, food is a symbol of hospitality. Sharing food (and eating food people share with you) is a gesture of love. If you’ve never eaten a Rwandan banana, let me share with you that it is basically the equivalent of two potatoes – aka, it is incredibly filling. Pastor Kate helped us explain that the women could show us love by allowing us to eat what we needed (however much or little that may be).

Over the past few weeks, it has become clear to me that this is going to be a year about learning to love in new ways – how to love people, how to accept love from others, how to identify love in the midst of conflict or distance or cultural difference. I’m already a little overwhelmed by the love and hospitality I’ve experienced so far, and I know this is only the beginning.