land locked blues.

a good friend of ours fled kiziba refugee camp a couple weeks ago, on the move again after fifteen years. we have been messaging through facebook, and that first night, after signing off with him, i thought: having a friend who is a refugee is talking to him on messenger while he and his family have fled a place that should have been safe and are struggling to find food and shelter in a new country and trying to get as much information from him and to him before his phone dies and you don’t know when you will hear from him again. and then you have to go wash the dishes and finish your reading for class.

i have stitched the following together from numerous correspondences with friends in kigali and kiziba, as well as news articles and posts made by protesters themselves on twitter and facebook as the events unfolded.

this past summer, the world food programme (wfp) switched from food rations to cash allowances in kiziba, the camp in which i used to work when we lived in rwanda. the switch worked well, at first. lots of positive changes, lots of new businesses. but in november the cash was cut by ten percent. in december the warning came that it would be cut a further twenty-five percent. many wondered, reasonably, if they could even survive on twenty cents a day.

recently, new integration initiatives were aimed at allowing refugees opportunities for work and citizenship. but to the often nationalistically loyal refugees, frustrated by and distrustful of the rwandan government, such plans made them feel they were being forced to become rwandan citizens, which to most is not desirable.

a few weeks ago the camp leadership said that if their concerns were not addressed by the unhcr they would all walk back to congo. better to die on the way or in that broken country, they said, than starve to death in the camp. no answer came from the unhcr.

and so on tuesday, february 20, a few thousand refugees left kiziba. they were stopped at the top of the ridge outside of the camp by the military and police. despite guns fired in the air to disperse them and a couple people wounded, the refugees continued their two-plus hour march to kibuye and the unhcr offices, where they camped out for two days, speechifying, singing, booing police officers using bullhorns, demanding the unhcr to talk to them. which they did not.

on thursday, allegedly because some refugees were throwing things, the cops and troops opened up to disperse the protests. tear gas first, then bullets. hearing about this, many refugees rushed from kiziba to join them in kibuye, but were stopped by police near the camp. the military denied any use of bullets, while, interestingly enough, acknowledging that some refugees had ‘succumbed’ to their wounds. by the end of the day the military said that five refugees were killed. later the claim was that eight bodies were buried. news outlets are saying eleven now. some refugees are saying twenty-two.

i don’t know how many were actually killed or wounded. but i’m in contact with a handful of kiziba refugees. i know that one of the deceased was a former english student at the library and had participated in our sports programs. and many people are still missing or hiding. and some refugees are combing the camp, trying to put together an accurate total. while things are calmer now, tension remains. the police are investigating.

the violence used does not surprise me, unfortunately. it matches the heavy-handedness rwanda has exerted in other areas, as well as the level of oppression found in the camp. i know we need to be thankful that these camps exist, keeping people alive, and i am, and acknowledge that the unhcr in rwanda is honestly, severely underfunded. but that doesn’t mean we can’t be dissatisfied with the conditions in the camp, or how, after two decades of everyone holding on to an untenable situation, making sustainability impossible, the unhcr and wfp have had to make tough decisions that lead to protests.

and this is why the work of jcm and our friends in the library was always so amazing to me, that refugees in that ‘open prison’, denied rights as citizens, caught in a mire of hopelessness, worked to build a better future. working with them, seeing their dedication, impacted me so much that i’m writing a dissertation on refugee-led community organizations in glasgow. i believe that if the world is ever going to figure out how to deal with refugee situations in ways that don’t create more kizibas or overwhelm countries, then we probably have to start listening to refugees more. and we will probably have to start changing what the terms ‘citizenship’ and ‘nationality’ mean.

in conclusion, i’ve had a terrible couple of weeks. while i have been productive in many ways despite it all, i destroyed my fingernails, and lived several days in a shaky state somewhere between wanting to weep and wanting to puke. all the while frantically refreshing twitter and facebook and messaging everyone i know in kiziba.

this recent message from one of the librarians sums up much:

‘hello my friend how are you now ? but for kiziba now not good. I am alone at library… keep praying for refugies in Rwanda .bye we are hungry and no peace in [kiziba] camp.’

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every power wide awake.

the autumnal season passes into deep winter darkness. christmas creeps up and passes us by. the constancy of school considerations and assorted events/classes with refugees/asylum seekers keep us busy. and only mere days before the glorious, holy celebration, we realized how late in december the days had reached. and then a new year comes.

these months have seen us becoming involved in the functions of three churches, an integration network, and a night shelter. while i’m in class on tuesday, steph hangs out with asylum seekers and refugees at a church drop-in cafe, and helps with the charity shop afterwards. she is back there on wednesdays for a sewing group while i watch ivy, and i sometimes help out with an afternoon english class when schoolwork isn’t piling. thursdays sees us both out at parkhead nazarene to help with another english class. we share a meal with refugees and asylum seekers before the lesson begins. it’s a long bus ride, but we are growing into the community there to such a degree that we regularly contemplate relocating.

a couple weeks ago, one of my favorite musicians, local washingtonian john van deusen, released new music. after a decade of hearing him sing about relationships, nuclear war, and drug use, this album is a drastic change. he has often explored and struggled with religious themes in his music, but these songs are nearly church-worthy, born from his morning prayers, and very, very christian. ‘Jesus is alive, His reign will never end. oh hallelujah to my God and my friend’, is the line swimming about my mind recently, for an example. there is an honesty in this music that is almost awkward to hear, but such passion is striking, moving.

as i study community development in a secular environment, it is easy to get swept into a very secular view of the world. we toss around the weighty, vague terms like anti-discriminatory, counter-hegemony, criticality, praxis, problematizing, consciousness-raising, social justice, empowerment, etc., but the struggle to implement lasting change continues. i read book after book of how the people with power are slowly but surely making life harder for everyone else on the planet with tragic impunity. we want, and work towards, a different world than the one being made for us. but even when discussing the world we want to see it is easy to be hopeless.

i’ve been reading this season of God’s working in this world, and eventual workings. passages such as isaiah 40:4 (‘every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low’), or luke 1:52-53 (‘He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty’.) help me to remember that this desire we have in the community development world to work for a more just and equitable society is not just hopeful talking, or a good idea, but the very movement of the Kingdom.  i think of what my friend grodya from kiziba once told me: ‘if it is true that the Spirit of God is in our churches, then we have to be changing our communities.’

i see too much correlation between the driving motivations for secular community development and the themes the gospels show us are important. such themes are what gave me passion in past work, though that passion sometimes seems lost in academia now. though i am gathering skills and tools with which to attempt to enact change, transformation, the problems in this world are still too looming.

yet, i was encouraged yesterday by friends speaking in church about God as refuge in the madness, about intentionality in the coming year. and when i settled down this morning, after coffee and bible time, to read of nicholas nickleby’s ongoing adventures, i read the following:

‘Hope to the last…Always hope, that’s a dear boy. Never leave off hoping, it doesn’t answer. Do you mind me, Nick? it doesn’t answer. Don’t leave a stone unturned. It’s always something to know you’ve done the best you could. But don’t leave off hoping, or it’s of no use doing anything. Hope, hope, to the last!’

in someway i feel this sentiment reflects the call of the gospels. no, we won’t change everything, people will still be jerks, but for heaven’s sake, don’t stop!

a new year, friends. let us hope to the last.

 

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no country.

a week and a half ago, after five nights with new friends, we were handed the keys to our new flat. and four busy days and an ikea trip later we had just about everything unpacked, built, organized, ready. though it still seems unreal, i can confidently say we live in glasgow now.

and we settle into life here. we walk, ride the bus, explore old churches, buy cheap necessities at the ubiquitous charity shops, visit parks, acquire library cards. the little things of life, of learning a new place.

and school. all week i’ve been attending orientations, meeting folks, making connections, all giving a clearer picture of what happens when classes begin on monday. i’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. the program director spoke to the assembled community development cohort of the overall aims of the course, the work that follows, of seeking out the marginalized, undermining oppression, and all those heavy, incredible things to which i feel the pull. i tried not to tear up as he spoke. i am not daunted by the long reading lists, i embrace them. i am glad of the chance to read not only because i am interested in the subject (and would probably do all that reading in my own time otherwise), but also because it is necessary for my academic advancement. i hope i do not regret these words in the following months.

and ministry. paul and emma showed us around this week to a handful of the various outlets to meet and support refugees and asylum seekers, the churches, organizations, individuals involved. meals, assistance to the destitute,  english classes, women’s groups, sports, the ever-present opportunities to simply meet people who may need a friend. we saw one long-established church operation that felt a lot like the food and clothing distributions of my former work with salt and light in champaign. and we met with the dynamic leader of another church offering services to asylum seekers and refugees, had a wonderful conversation on what they do, hope to do, how things might develop, our possible places. we are excited for these opportunities, for the friendships and connections to be formed, and interested also in what possibilities there are for community involvement in our own diverse corner of the city. emma gave us the rundown on the legal side of things. it is a curious, confusing, sometimes cruel system of hoops and paperwork asylum seekers must navigate. we shook our heads at the little injustices, fumbling attempts at support, the restrictions on everyday life, and how these things affect in myriad ways a family or individual.

all that to say, we won’t be idle this year.

before things really get busy i am still reading voraciously, immersing myself in texts that fuel and inform my coming research, based, often, on my inability to shake myself of our previous rwandan existence. i’ve read through the brilliant rage of fanon’s the wretched of the earth, ngugi wa thiong’o’s piercing decolonizing the mind (my first book checked out from the university library), the satirical plays of wole soyinka, freire’s wonderfully insightful pedagogy of the oppressed, and even the depressingly informative a people’s history of the united states by howard zinn. these things deepen the unease i feel in this world. and this is good. as we hang out with broken people we need this perspective. we need to see the cracks, large and small, to patch them. we must be, as tiring as it is at times, constantly unsatisfied with the way things are, which empowers us to challenge the oppressive structures around us, change them or tear them down, rebuild. i like life, i like to laugh, but i don’t think i would be doing my duty to the world if i wasn’t righteously angry at least some of the time.

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mercury and lightning.

glasgow’s an eclectic place, a mix of old and modern, hip and depressed, industry and craftiness, parks, treeless roads of crowded stone, church spires and addicts. it has the feel of other large european cities, similar smells and architecture, but has its own identity, something beaten, but looking up, hobbling away from ashes, burdened, hopeful. and rainy.

with the blessing of paul and emma, our team leaders, to get settled before we really engage in ministry, our days so far in the city have been somewhat unstructured, punctuated by periods of focused wanderings. apartment viewings mainly. we are waiting currently to hear about when we might be allowed to move into our chosen apartment. it is not terribly far from the university, on a main road laced with convenient bus routes, near a grocery store, near a library. around small bits of productivity we have been learning, learning streets and public transport, phone plans, mental currency conversions, glasgow slang. we’ve seen tourist thoroughfares and alleys and back roads through the hills, churches, museums, cafes, bookstores, parks, plenty of apartments.

and since our days in an airbnb ran out and we realized the entire region’s hotels were booked for games and festivals, we have also seen the homes of some very gracious acquaintances. we have shuffled around in the last couple days, from glasgow to stirling to milton of campsie, staying with friends of paul and emma’s who have spare rooms. it feels a bit like being homeless, but perhaps more like being a part of a larger, very welcoming community. we’re heaving luggage around we hoped would be unpacked by now, sleeping in strange but cozy beds, and making great connections, having great conversations.

and before the madness hits again, before grad school and ministry and all the time-defying extra-curricular activities those terms entail, we are thankful for this time of strange rest. these days are creating a distance between the busy last year, and setting up for the year ahead. i have to say that moving to another country this time feels oddly normal. even though little feels settled in this time of waiting, we are less unnerved than we could be. maybe that’s because of rwanda, maybe because we have begun to accept the tiny, persistent ways that God provides when we don’t expect. we are here, we are there, we are moving forward somehow; we make plans, plans change, we are moving forward. we embrace necessary fluidity. we celebrate steph’s birthday. we wait for john mark mcmillan’s new album to come out. ivy gets more steady on her feet everywhere we go. i can’t say i’m angry about how these first glaswegian days have turned out, but we readily welcome being handed the keys to our next little home.

 

 

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four winds.

[robbie]

and that was the year.

a year of waiting, in a way, but a year of waiting importantly. and learning.

i worked. i learned much about education in diverse settings. diverse in age, ethnicity, nationality, disability, academic ability, social awareness, language. this year was a chance to explore different educational outlets, a way of testing this whole master’s in education thing i go to now. and, yeah, i still want to do it.

we became parents. adding ivy to our family has been one of the greatest joys of my life. all the cliche’s about parenthood are true. i love her. she surprises me often with her happiness when i am bitter, her friendliness when i am lonely, her adventurousness when i am tired. i look forward to every day with her.

i wrote. my goal this year was to finish the book, a narrative nonfiction compilation of stories from congo, kiziba refugee camp, showing how refugees reckon with their pasts and shape the future. it’s been an emotional journey, to say the least. i miss my friends in kiziba daily. i hope my work honors their stories.

we rested. i say that after two weeks of constant motion. make no mistake, this was a hectic year, but there was peace in the busyness, a break among friends and family, a comfort in familiar places, a refueling, growing, reevaluating time.

while a part of me wishes we had been able to depart for glasgow last year as planned, i do not regret this year. it was, in many ways, necessary. it has prepared and readied us for this next step and we are excited for that. glasgow means to us a chance to better ourselves, sharpen our skills and awareness, both in the classroom and on the streets, putting theory into practice for a degree and more than a degree.

i am going to study. which means i will, hopefully, be better equipped to do what i feel called to do in this world.

we are going to hang out with refugees. which means we will again walk alongside those with heavy pasts, uncertain presents.

we are going to be parents still.

we will be visitors in a new land.

we ask for your prayers through these processes. we anticipate all the joys and depressions we know come along with this kind of life. pray that Christ would work through us, in us, steady us, provide for us. and those around us.

though i have neglected the blog this year, this new adventure calls for my words. stay here and stay tuned, join the facebook group, pray, support us and the ministry.

for, tomorrow, another plane.

 

Posted in data stream one | Leave a comment

homeward.

i have a confession to make.

i voted for hillary clinton.

and that may not be the confession that some of you think it is. though she may not have been the greatest of choices generally, i had my reasons for voting thus and we can talk about them later if you’d like. my confession is of a different sort. we’ll get there soon.

i am one of many surprised and saddened by this week’s election results. for all the battles we’ve fought in this country against racism, sexism, and bullying we just elected a racist, sexist bully. his only concrete campaign promises were about controlling minorities. he made lewd comments about sexually assaulting women; the guy who laughs at him gets fired; he gets elected president. he can’t be trusted with a twitter account. the list goes on. it sends a fearful message, whether we see all the layers or not, to anyone not white and male. all of my students are in demographics that he has insulted or belittled during his campaign and many are confused. whether he believes what he says or not, he used hateful rhetoric to gain power and that alone is heinous. 

i voted because i deeply wanted what i saw as the lesser of two evils for this country. and i voted as an american who had some duty to do so. but this duty seems to me hollow, an acting for the sake of acting, supporting a certain side of a non-choice. and i realize that in voting for clinton i was betting one set of human ideas against another and God felt absent.

throughout the bible we see often, especially in the gospels and revelation, the theme of the Kingdom of God as the opposite to the worldly empires we know. and any empire, whether babylonian, assyrian, egyptian, alexandrian, roman, holy roman, ottoman, british, or, indeed, american, is destined to fall. its ways are man’s and not God’s. as Jesus clearly demonstrates, God has some very serious issues with things like institutionalized religion and earthly empires and all the things the world convinces us make us powerful. empires fall; the kingdom is eternal.

so my confession is this: i voted for empire.

i set aside things i know to be true and thought, maybe, focusing more on america than on Christ, i can help this one country suck a little less in some ways. i willfully voted for one version of empire against another version of empire.

though i feel somewhat dirtied by this knowledge, i console myself with the thought that in casting my vote perhaps i simply gave to caesar what was caesar’s. and i will let that be that. there is a larger calling to the Kingdom which i hope i am answering.

and perhaps i come now to why i feel so down about this election. we the church operate in the world, in the ‘forgotten corners of empire’, and yet operate using very different ways and means than the empire. or we should be doing so, anyway. i don’t think we are called to use the tools of the empire for some attempted good, but act rather in the unconventional ways of Christ. but this is very hard. and i’m afraid that many of our brothers and sisters – both democrat and republican in their own ways – see their first duty to some christian fantasy version of this country, and this country as their hope in place of the Kingdom itself.  supporting leaders who talk on our preferred side of a handful of issues, we imagine we’d be a more godly nation if such things were forced upon everyone. which, of course, doesn’t make any sense if we are also talking about everyone having freedom.

this is folly. in spite of what is said about the religious foundations of this nation, it has always been a version of empire and is hardly in accordance with how Jesus directed his disciples to act. we irresponsibly pair the idea of freedom we have in america with some kind of moral buffet plucked from half-remembered misconceptions about the bible and suddenly an empire becomes the tool of God. though it is not unprecedented that God uses empires to his own ends, i have trouble believing that america is God’s way to bring about His Kingdom. from slavery to the genocide (and continued oppression) of native peoples to segregation to wars to proxy wars to businesses that put profits before people to institutionalized racism, and on and on, at which point in america’s history did it really reflect the call of Christ to love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves or teach and make disciples and work to bring the Kingdom here on earth?

if some are trying to make america into a ‘christian’ nation through forcing policy, how can they read the parable of the good samaritan on sunday and then vote to make sure no more syrian families fleeing war can come to this country on tuesday? the answer to this and other dilemmas is that there is more than one response. There is a fearful empire response that has to do with control and a response that hopes to see widows and orphans cared for no matter the personal cost. is there a way to reconcile these responses? should we even try to? how do i reconcile the part of me that longs to follow Christ and the part that is an american? can i even do so? perhaps the Kingdom invites us beyond such dichotomies. and perhaps those of us who get too bogged down in using politics to regulate elements of Kingdom ideals will be someday accused of holding the keys but not letting others in and not entering in ourselves.

my point is that the empire (america, in this case) cannot bring about the Kingdom of God for it is and will always be concerned with the things of the empire and the maintaining of the empire in a very earthly, worldly sense. to focus more on the Kingdom would mean giving up all that makes it an empire and thus it would cease to be. the people of america, high on ideologies about freedom and liberty, are not ready for this and probably never will be, no matter how much of a ‘christian’ nation it becomes. following Jesus, as we see in the scriptures, looks nothing like american capitalism. how can those of us who strive to be like Christ live and die for a set of faulty ideals written by man? how can we settle for anything less than the Kingdom?

so i gave my vote. i gave to caesar what was caesar’s. and though it is not an issue of salvation if we choose to cast a vote or use politics to help what we believe needs to be helped, lets just remember the government of america is not the Kingdom of God. 

some are saying whatever the election results that  God is still in control. true. but let’s remember that He is in control in His own ways and not in our worldly, fallen, human ways. and our job is to follow Christ and work to bring the Kingdom, which often means subverting any oppressive worldly power, seeking out the forgotten, and setting aside our own desires.

 —————————-

if you need a little pick-me-up this week, future of forestry just released a new album and it brims with hope and is often musically stunning.

and if you want to understand more about where i am coming from when i say all this, you could ask me about it. i’d love to talk. and because i have only poorly said what others have said well, you could also check out these books:

the politics of Jesus, by john howard yoder

Jesus for president, by shane clairborne, et al.

that holy anarchist, by mark van steenwyk

the theology of the book of revelation, by richard bauckham

searching for sunday, by rachel held evans

also the book of revelation.

and especially read the gospels.

Posted in data stream one | 2 Comments

well-dressed.

these  mornings have a refreshing crispness to them, laced with that earthy smell of old leaves. this weekend the wind blew in constant breaths and waves. the sun was warm, asserting its summertime dominion over clear skies still, but the wind, ah the wind was something else;  the wind was ice and i loved it.

stephanie and i have not experienced the season of autumn since it ended near the conclusion of the year 2013. since then we have been in a perpetual summer and i can count on one hand the number of nights i have had to bundle up to stay warm – two of which were on mountain slopes above 11,000 feet. we have been warm always, rarely needing a jacket or socks. we’d pretend on those chilly rainy kigali mornings it was fall and drink coffee under the j.lynn’s awning, watching the water drip from tropical plants, wearing sweatshirts though they were still unnecessary. and then the afternoon would bring the sun and summer would return with humid vengeance.

perpetual summer was not bad, but I missed dearly those favorite seasons of mine when leaves turned and snow fell. i have longed for this time of year again in the northern hemisphere;  the cold, the changes. and now that such an undeniable bite is in the wind i almost fear it. my body recoils from the low sixties and trembles at the thought of fifty or, heaven help us, below freezing! i want it and i don’t. so warm for so long what are we supposed to do with cold air, when we can’t simply walk out our door in t-shirts and sandals every day of the year? i suppose we’ll adequately remember how humans should respond to the deep cold in time.

and so we embrace the early autumn. much green still lines the streets and paths, most trees still clinging to summer colors. a third of the trees around have started the change, their tops crisped and yellowed as if burned by the sun. and a smaller percentage stand naked already, their strength weakened by the cool nights, feeble branches stripped by winds unforgiving, leaving boney, spindly twig-fingers  to shake, shiver, rattle, empty. some street corners hold summer; some have succumbed to winter. the gutters gather their annual collections of tattered rainbow pieces. the prairies send up one last blossom of summer’s purples, yellows, and whites, while the green fields whither to brown.

but most trees are patient. they are in no hurry to change, their leaves in no hurry to die. they calmly, quietly, casually allow the green to seep from their long corners as they soak up the daily fading warmth, turning softly into themselves; the way enduring trees have always done for eons immemorial.

the summer job search has found me doubly employed. after we made our decision to defer admission to the university of glasgow and stay this year in the states i had hoped to find a job or jobs that would in some way connect my work in rwanda – kiziba specifically – with my studies next fall, studies in community development and education. i believe i have found such jobs.

the first is an aide position with the wheaton school district’s transition program, a place for post-high school special needs students to continue learning life skills and find job placements. i ride my bike from thence  through the windy afternoons into glen ellyn where i help coordinate after school activities and tutoring for elementary school kids, most of whom are from resettled refugee families. in both jobs i find myself learning as much as i teach – about education, about immigrant and refugee communities in the states, about disabilities, etc. i hope that the experience and knowledge continue to prepare me for grad school and beyond.

with the job question answered for the time being we have settled into the suburbs of chicago as our home for now,  until next summer takes us to glasgow. there is a strange sense of defeat in this, something i imagine many returning expats experience. ‘settling’ is a word i don’t like to use. this year is a transition, i must remind myself of this, and is not permanent. and it is a transition with purpose. i learn and work and i write and we both watch our wonderful new daughter grow. she learns humorously to use her voice and limbs and smiles often with her adorable chubby cheeks. she daily gives us joy. and she sleeps really well, which is something we are in no way angry about.

and yet a subtle unease eats at me. i have to remind myself that those two years in rwanda were real and have somehow brought us to where were are currently, and i try to live in such a way that honors that long and formative experience. yet I feel an odd lack of validation from others in that experience, which is perhaps why i have found it difficult to process. when we first returned to the states we wanted to enter back into old friendships half-buried by time and distance with a casual simplicity, a picking up of where we left off. it was in a way refreshing to not talk about rwanda and not bring it up, to be people together again without our time abroad being some glaring definition of our lives and persons. but now i feel like i have not spoken enough about what those years meant. the memories sometimes mark me like a wound,  something blatant that i feel deeply but that no one else wishes to mention.  i met someone new not long ago who asked me if it was true that i used to live in rwanda. i said yes. his next question was, what’s it like being back? as if those twenty six months on a distant continent could be explained by talking about a handful of months in america.

i feel perhaps a little too bitter about this. but realistically i have to remember that i, in writing a book based on refugee lives, in posting on voices of kiziba, in talking about my refugee friends in job interviews, am still closer to that world that anyone around me, including stephanie. these feelings are things i carry with me in a way no one else does or can. they are my stories and others’ stories and i leaf through their tattered pages daily. at times i feel sad, burdened,  overly nostalgic; at other times, emboldened, hopeful, weathered and proven.

yet this all makes sense in some way. if no one else feels what i feel having lived what i have lived then how could i expect others to talk about it if i don’t even know how to talk about it?

so the days continue, the year turns; the leaves change, the earth spins. two years living and working in rwanda, beautiful and challenging though they were, were not the apex of my life. i am not yet thirty. rwanda was a step, a big one, but talking about the now and what comes next will be just as important. some days the steps forward are just harder than others.

Posted in the thousand hills | 1 Comment