Eastern Province, Kirehe District
“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which, aided by several detours-long hallways and unforeseen stairwells-eventually puts you in the places you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight-there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, ‘What now?’”
-What Now? By Ann Patchett
I have lived in Rwanda for just under 22 months. I have 4 months to go. The time I have spent here isn’t enough time to fully understand Rwandan culture or Rwandans. It’s enough time to take a glimpse. Twenty-six months of observations, conversations, boring days, exciting days, days full of waiting, days full of crying. Or hoping. Or just…trying.
I read this excerpt, sent to me by my oldest best friend, and I think back to my pre-Peace Corps days, the days when I was first researching the agency, the days when I was working to make my resume as professional as possible, the days when I was applying and waiting. I knew it was what I wanted and needed, and I felt called to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know my village yet, I didn’t know my future co-workers (my brothers whom I joke with about…everything), I didn’t know my future students (my girls who speak very candidly with me about their situations and their boy problems; my boys who imitate Chris Brown any chance they get), I didn’t know Samuel and Emelyne, my landlords (my older siblings who look out for me and listen to my Kinyarwanda patiently, understanding what I mean even if I don’t exactly know how to express it). I didn’t know much of anything about Rwanda. I look behind in my path and I see those bread crumbs – those conversations and interactions that led me to open each door that eventually led me to this place – and I am thankful. What I now know about where I am has enriched my life and changed my perceptions forever.
The most notable lessons that I’ve learned have occurred when I wasn’t looking for them, as if I opened a door, leading to a straight hallway, but then it took a sharp curve and I found myself seeing and hearing and feeling something that took me by surprise, took me on a new course of action.
One of those moments happened 15 days ago.
One of my students, Chantal, visited me. I thought she was just going to drop off an assignment to me, but she lingered, wanting to see my family photographs. We got to talking, and she, in her nearly perfect English, told me her life story.
She’s a 15 year-old orphan, who lives with her 80-year-old grandmother with her two brothers. They live in extreme poverty in very bad living conditions, sometimes going three days without food. They do everything they can to survive, so Chantal’s older brother has sacrificed his education, quitting school to find work.
These few facts tell you just a smidgen about who Chantal is. Chantal is at the top of her class. Three years ago, she received the highest score in the Eastern Province on the P6 National Examination. She speaks English at a higher capacity than most teachers at my school. Chantal has confidence. She has no fear, coming up to me or any of the other teachers, asking for clarification about a lesson. She has respect for her fellow students, not letting her high test scores attribute to a big ego.
She very humbly told me her story, speaking about her struggles of not being able to afford $5 shoes or of not having enough money to regularly shave her head.
I listened, and my heart ached for her, spoke loudly for her.
Peace Corps Volunteers have these moments, when we’re witnessing something or hearing about something and our whole bodies scream, “SOMEBODY HELP ME FIX THIS PROBLEM.” Most of the time, the problem isn’t fixable. It’s beyond us in some way, much like knowing that one person can’t snap their fingers and bring World Peace or End World Hunger or Cure HIV/AIDS.
But in this moment, with my student Chantal, something different happened. I remembered a school, called Gashora Girls Academy. Google it. Pretty remarkable, am I right?
It’s a possibility for Chantal. There are essays to write, financial aid forms to fill out, term 3 of the school year to finish, and a S3 National Exam to be had. Knowing that she has a good chance and knowing that I can help her get into this school has my body screaming, “PLEASE. THIS HAS GOT TO HAPPEN.” If she gets into this school, she will undoubtedly continue her education. She won’t have to drop out of school like her older brother did. And once she finishes secondary school, the chances she will have will be limitless. I see her potential futures in my mind. I see those breadcrumbs going from this eastern valley to the highest peaks in Rwanda. I see her closing the door to her grandmother’s dirt floored house and opening one to an office. With a view. And a desk. With her name on it.