Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord

I learned this afternoon that the director of Fidesco USA, Denis Leblond, died in his sleep on Monday morning.  He wasn't sick so his passing from this life to the next is shocking.  I can only imagine the sorrow his wife, six children, four children-in-law, and five grandchildren feel with him being taken from them without warning. 

Even I, who knew of Denis as an Emmanuel Community brother for years but only got to know him during my Fidesco journey, am so saddened by his death.  I can hear his words of encouragement during my decision-making process and his continued encouragement once I was in the mission field.  I heard from him only three days ago when he said he would look over the draft of my second mission report and get back to me after the weekend, but that email will never arrive.

Once again, I am reminded that we do not know how much time we have in this life so we need to make the most of each day: tell our family members and friends that we love them; give ourselves in the service of others; dare to radically live for Jesus; live in such a way that in our last minutes we are satisfied with the life we lived. 

Please pray for the eternal rest of Denis' soul and for the consolation of his family.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

How Can Four Hours Stimulate So Much Joy?

One local project I've helped at twice since arriving and have arranged my teaching schedule this term to be free every Wednesday so I can participate in it, is a morning daycare/school for ~ eighty 2-6 year olds who are the children of women who sell at the market or are prostitutes.  This beautiful mission is run by the Servants of Mary of the Heart of Jesus, a religious congregation from Brazil that has both brothers and sisters in it, and Monday through Friday, 7:30 am – 12:30 pm, the brothers and sisters welcome the children to their property for meals, classes, games, and prayers. 

Classroom time
Words cannot describe the beauty of this mission or the effect it has on me.  When I am there, I am full of joy and love.  When I return home, I still feel full, if that makes sense; full of contentment, satisfaction, joy, peace, and other things that make one feel great.  Even looking at photos from my visits makes me happy.

Concretely, here is what the mission looks like and what I have done to help while there.  The children start to arrive at 7:30 am and once they all get there, they are fed breakfast (a roll and a banana).  I passed out the food once and the children would reach out to touch my hand or hold my arm and wouldn't want to let go.  I would caress their faces to show I was attentive to them, but then I would have to pull away to continue passing out the food.  After breakfast, there is some play time as the dining room is cleaned and then the kids take turns going into the bathroom to brush their teeth and wash their faces and then change into their school uniforms.  Once they are dressed, they divide into four classes based on age and are taught Kinyarwanda, English, and French.  My first time there, I grabbed a small white board that had the English alphabet on it and began to teach in the different classrooms.  I taught them, “A for apple, B for bird, C for cat, etc,” and the English names of the safari animals that are painted on the dining room walls.  I made animal sounds and actions when appropriate (such as “L for lion and M for monkey”) and the kids enjoyed acting like monkeys along with me.  After the classes finish, lunch is served (one time it was rice with peas, green beans, and meat mixed together) and then we all go outside to play and to wait for their parents or older siblings to pick them up.
What is so touching about the mission is the love and care I am able to give to the children.  I don't know if it is because I am white, but the kids love to be with, and on, me.  When I stand, they hug me and fight over who can hold onto my hands and arms.  When I sit, they rush to sit on my lap and gather around me.  They stroke my hair, touch my arms and my face, compare my religious medals on my necklace to theirs, pull my arms around their shoulders, and hold my hands.  I don't mind this invasion of personal space at all.  I usually laugh and offer them the affection they want by rubbing my hands through their hair (or stubble), caressing their faces, tickling their necks and sides, and letting them use me as their chair/pillow/backrest.  I look forward to having Wednesdays mostly free so I can serve weekly at this mission of joy.


Friday, January 10, 2014

The Joy of Receiving Mail!

There's nothing like being far from home to experience joy from small things, especially when they arrive in the mail! 

Thanks to an email sent out by my mom before Christmas, I was blessed to receive 19 Christmas cards and at least one is still on the way.  Sometimes there would be 3 cards waiting for me in the post office box and I would be so excited to see what was inside.  Even in the States I like receiving snail mail, but it is while I am in Rwanda that my family and friends are really stepping up to the plate.  I started taping the cards to the wall and now we have quite a festive, colorful wall in our living room.  Thank you very much!

Gifts from the Magi in my life
The other thing that is funny to me is how gifts that would be really lame to receive in the States reign supreme in their ability to bring me great joy over here.  Most of the time they are practical gifts for the house, things that could easily be found at Target or Walmart but aren't easily available here.  The packages I received on Monday from my cousin, Nicole, and a Denver friend, Tanya, are great examples of this principle.  These were mystery packages, meaning I didn't know what would be in them, but I squealed with delight as I read the customs lists on the front of the boxes. 

What type of things made me so happy?  First of all, two red cloth and silicon pot holders, to which you say, "Really?  Pot holders were the best part?"  YES!  We use the stove three times a day and most of our pots need pot holders to handle because they don't have handles or have metal ones.  Imagine using thin hand towels to handle these hot pots and you can appreciate pot holders that are reliable.   I was so happy to get them.  Another example: two calendars, one from the Archdiocese of Denver and the other from Holy Protection Byzantine Catholic Church also in Denver.  Not only can I know what the date is easily, but I am reminded of the friends and churches in Denver and the saints that are celebrated each day.  These calendars connect me to life back home.  I was also thrilled to receive other products for the kitchen (like chicken bouillon, chocolate, and resealable plastic bags) and things to share with the students (like movies and snow in a can).  The students have probably never touched snow in their lives; they might have seen it from afar if they live near the mountains in Volcano National Park in the northwest.  I also laughed out loud at the Christmas-themed gifts: a stocking, three pairs of Christmas socks, two ornaments (seen on our sad tree which we will keep up until Feb. 2), and of course, the snow in a can.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Christmas, the New Year, and Everything In Between

I pray that your Christmas and New Year were blessed.  I was able to do and experience many things since I last wrote, including my first Christmas and New Year's Eve in Rwanda, another trip to Kigali, and traveling to one of the three national parks in the country.

First, Christmas in Rwanda.  I was worried that this would be the hardest Christmas I ever lived because of the language barrier, but that was not the case.  Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were very joyful.  Rita and my Christmas Eve celebration didn't begin until 10 pm.  We waited for the sisters next door to get home from Mass and then we went over to their house for a late dinner.  Earlier in the week, the head sister had asked what is traditionally made for Christmas in the US and I told her that for my family, the tradition is to make pizza (my mom's side is Italian).  So she told me to make pizza and the sisters would take care of the rest.  Little did I expect that they would adopt my tradition themselves, but they did.  When Rita and I arrived at their place, there was our American pizza and their Rwandan version of pizza to eat.  I was very touched that they took on my family's tradition.  Before eating, though, we gathered in front of the Nativity scene, prayed, and sang the refrain to "Angels we have heard on high."  After thanking God for the birth of Jesus, we stuffed ourselves with pizza, salad, and desserts Rita had made from our garden's pumpkin.  Sr. Marie Rose, the head sister, surprised the rest of us by disappearing before dessert and returning with gift bags for all of us.  Each bag contained an apple, an orange, and a chocolate bar (it might not sound like much, but all three are pricey so we rarely, if ever, buy them).  

I spent Christmas Day with the local members of the Emmanuel Community, the international Catholic community to which I belong.  120 of us went to a nearby Benedictine monastery and spent the whole day there.  We sang praise songs, had Mass, watched the children perform a Christmas play, ate lunch, played games outside, and danced.  During an interlude between activities, I was even convinced to sing and play guitar for a few songs (how happy I was to play a guitar for the first time in 5 months).  One thing I noticed during the dance is that with the Emmanuel Community members, and in Africa in general, I am willing to risk looking dumb or uncool or whatever.  Normally I don't like dances that are free form, people dancing in a circle, etc.  I always felt insecure and like I wasn't a good dancer, but here, I soon got over it and enjoyed myself.  I think it's because the Rwandans are impressed whenever I participate in their cultural activities so that gives me some street cred no matter how I look or sound.

Only part of our circle as we played games
Dec. 26 and 27 were days to spend around the house.  I spent lots of hours in the garden, including harvesting and shelling black beans.  I tried again to make a Mexican meal and again, it wasn't the greatest.  Chickpea and corn flour crepes are a great improvement on the corn tortillas I tried to make in my first weeks here, but still, they aren't to the level of ordinary tortillas.  Rita and I did venture out to have dinner at the house of an Emmanuel Cty family that is in my small faithsharing group.  They really laid out a spread, as you can see in the picture.  There were French fries, rice, green bananas, meat, sauce, and salad.  We brought a pumpkin cake, again, the fruit of our garden.

On the morning of the 28th, we headed back to Kigali for the second half of our vacation.  This time around, there was a lot of lounging around Megan's house as we talked, read, or slept.  We were graced with the presence of Fr. Mike Rapp from the Denver archdiocese.  He is currently studying in Rome and was in Uganda with a priest friend from there.  He took a short trip down to see Megan and visit the shrine of Our Lady of Kibeho.  One benefit of having a priest around is that we three ladies and Timothee, the French Fidesco volunteer working in Kigali, were able to have a private Mass in English on Saturday night.  This was super helpful to Rita, Timothee, and I because we had an early morning departure the next day to go to Akagera National Park.  Without the Saturday night Mass, which is rare in Rwanda, we would have had to make sure we were back in time to go to a Sunday night Mass, which is also not easy to find.  But since we had our intimate Mass, we were carefree as we were picked up at 5:30 am on Dec. 30 for the 2 hour drive to Akagera NP.

Akagera preserves Rwanda's savannah so we were able to go on a safari drive.  I could call it a poor man's safari because it costs significantly less to go there than a normal safari would, but I guess the animals aren't as plentiful.  I didn't mind though.  I was impressed by what we did see, which were zebras, giraffes, impalas, water bucks, monkeys, baboons, buffalo, warthogs (Pumba, anyone?), hippos, and birds.  The drive took most of the day.  We started with our guide at 8:30 am and finished around 2 pm.  Then there was the long drive back to Kigali.  Here are some of the best pictures of the animals.

Sadly, the hippos didn't get much higher out of the water for us
Two males
Impalas: one male and the rest are female
Buffalo in the background
After the trip to Akagera, the rest of the time in Kigali was quite relaxed.  I read a book about the process of forgiveness and reconciliation after the genocide.  We visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where there is a museum about the Rwandan genocide and other genocides around the world and the mass graves of over 250,000 people.  The stories really are horrific, but almost as unbelievable as the atrocities people can commit against each other is the forgiveness people have been able to offer their family members' killers afterwards.  Other than heavy stuff, Rita and I visited the home of one of our students, Lisa, who will be in Senior 2 this upcoming year.  She's the one on the right in the family picture.  The family fed us lunch and sent us home with a small bag of peanuts.  The visit with them was very warm and I truly felt the hospitality of the Rwandans and perhaps the pride they had at welcoming people from Lisa's school, especially foreigners.  It was a treat for us and we would have visited other students, but we either didn't have their phone numbers or we had incorrect ones.  I went out to eat with Megan at a posh outdoor Asian restaurant and enjoyed some curry (expensive by Butare standards, but normal for Kigali).  I had lunch with an Emmanuel couple, Edith and Silvere, who are currently serving with Fidesco in Zambia.  I went bowling with Christine and Michael and their kids (that's the Butare American family who is in Kigali after the birth of their son).  The alley has 6 lanes with real gutters and balls, but what is so funny about the setup is the man who hides behind a curtain and removes the downed pins by hand.  I spent the night of New Year's Eve at another EC family's home.  I had met the married daughter and son-in-law and a brother at the Christmas gathering.  They had me over for refreshments on the porch, dinner, and then unexpectedly, a sleepover.  Midnight wasn't a celebratory event like it is in the States, at least not in their house, so that was a bit of a disappointment.  We did drink hot milk from their cows, though, which is a sign of being given a blessing.  The next morning, I volunteered at the Missionaries of Charity orphanage and then made my way back to Butare.  Now I'm preparing for the return of the students this weekend.  I'm sure it will be great to have them back, but since they've been gone for two months, I've gotten used to having a more flexible schedule and more free time.  Surely there will be an adjustment period, especially as I begin my full schedule of teaching!
Judith, Charlotte, and I at the bowling alley.  The seats are way better here than in the US.