old friends.

they took a roundabout way on their return.

on a day stopover in addis ababa they see a city that kigali, where they just left, could be like in twenty years – and in some ways already is; bursting with people and aching with new construction.

next, to jerusalem. an old friend – groomsman-in-their-wedding kind of friend – studies there, shows them the sights between study groups and finals. they get a tour of the holy sites and a tour of the active oppression. they process eastern african living with one living in an epicenter of middle eastern tension, draw connections, and everyone learns.

and then to europe. they meet his parents in zurich and travel with them for a few days, crossing and re-crossing the rhine, through the black forest and alsace, into cute little country towns and castle ruins, and dodging other tourists. they part ways; the parents continue their adventure, the couple sees zurich’s spring festival, complete with parades and an exploding snowman. all in the pouring rain.

another plane trip. after a whirlwind tour of london, where they glean inspiration from shakespeare and dickens, they stay with friends in oxford, and glean more inspiration from other loved authors. then a train up the coast, the first time seeing open water in a long time, and over to glasgow. they dream of what it might be like to live in that old, burdened city. they meet friends of friends, explore parks and shops, get a feel for it all. and there are meetings with university people, helping them visualize what his master’s program would be, and what they need to do to get a visa and stay there. every detail of the program described touches on topics he has been stewing around in his brain for months or years, and gets pumped to address these things in a setting that stresses action as a part of learning theory.

and at the end of three weeks of travel he looks at her and thinks, what an awesome lady to do all this while so pregnant.

and just like that, another routine plane flight, and they’re back in their home country. the united states. it is incredibly strange to be back in places so familiar, the last two years seeming to fade into a dream world, where they have to remind themselves that those years actually existed, and that they didn’t just sleep all of a long weekend filled with a thousand strange dreams to confuse them when they awake.

in a place that actively creates systems to lose sight of distant problems, they attempt to live in such a way that honors those years, the experiences, the places, the friends. yet it is easy, incredibly so, to slip back into american ways, easy to eat too much of the flavors they’ve missed from their favorite restaurants – and easy, thus, to add some extra weight. and in places like costco they marvel at the mountains of food and materials and wonder what their friends in kiziba would think of it all. and so each day becomes a new exercise in wondering if living this kind of life is actually ok and not unjust, knowing that so many in the world do not have access to so much. and he wonders also if this american opulence is actually to be desired for all the world. he thinks back upon the world of international aid and development; and grows in his belief that aid organizations, especially christian ones, should be very clear about their goals and practices, to ensure that their goals are not entwined with the goals of economic empires, but rather with the kingdom of God.

in some way the return feels like an awkward conversation with an old acquaintance, or an unexpected disappointment. there is waiting, with undertones of aimlessness. and then there is the realization of rest. they take time doing this or that, they read and talk about being parents, they visit doctors, they play music together, honored to play soon in a wedding of friends.

he carves out space in the general basement clutter for an ‘office’ and defends his daily writing time. this work keeps him connected to the now distant friends living as refugees. though location has changed, nothing in the heart has.

many of his thoughts now are of their impending parenthood. being finished with all the madness of wrapping up things in rwanda and planning a multi-week trip, he has a lot more time, happily, to think about being a father. she takes a nap and he lays down and places his hand upon her belly, feels the child kicking and rolling inside. and he thinks, this is the first time he has hung out just he and their daughter. it is a wonderful moment.

and so in the waiting, in the subtle, creeping busy-ness, they dream and plan – for the baby, for the move, for school again. much is up in the air as to the future, but they have their ideas and their prayers and time will tell.

 

 

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the end of the matter.

[robbie – written some time last night]

after several failed attempts to get these final thoughts out i will try again. and i’ll try to make it quick because we’ve spent the majority of the day packing and running around town and i am tired. we have a pile of stories, but only so many words. i have lots of thoughts and rants brewing, but those for another time.

so come, chirstmas songs – still the only music to which i can write now – and you, pumpkin spice candle – faithful writing companion these many months, as you slowly burn the last of yourself out of existence – let us write of the end of the matter.

at kiziba last week we used the new solar power to meet long-standing goals, and we showed a movie: munyurangabo, being a story of two friends, but covering a wide array of rwandan life, and with a powerful message. henry, much moved by the film, led a discussion with the thirty-some viewers as the rain began, the noise eventually drowning him out. they broke up into groups and continued discussing, which went well from what i understand. but as it was my last night in kiziba, i just hung out and laughed with grodya, henry, and mapenzi. it was good to be with friends.

IMG_2270the rain died down and the people left. grodya laughed that the library closing up these days at 8.30pm was early. having lights in the evening has extended the daily life of the library to 10pm or beyond.  grodya’s wife sent over some food and he, johnson, and i cleared off the small librarians’ table and shared a meal together. it was one of the best meals i’ve ever had, for a number of reasons.

the next day was my final day in kiziba and i dodged rainstorms hiking back down to kibuye. i looked back to snap one last picture of the camp.

IMG_2282on saturday i met with grodya one last time in a small café in a small hotel in kibuye and talked over coffee and blaring celine dion songs. i am glad that at our last meeting we had as much to talk about as in our first meeting over two years ago. neither of us has stopped dreaming about what good things could happen next in kiziba. which is a little sad for me, but great for grodya. i leave, but grodya’s hands and mind and heart are all still as capable as ever. and as always when talking with him i wrote down a number of brilliant quotes. one of my favorites: ‘if it is true that the spirit of God is in our churches, then we can’t teach a barren gospel. we have to change our communities.’

grodya will of course continue to lead a group of incredible people, friends, with a vision and a purpose that i have seen in few other humans. working with grodya these two plus years has been a blessing and a humbling joy that i can never fully put into words. pray for him as he continues to lead jcm and see real impact and transformation in kiziba. pray also that he leaves kiziba someday. it would be a loss for that community, but a blessing to him and his family, and a greater blessing to any community of which they then becomes a part. i will miss our conversations.

IMG_2310friends in kigali hosted a little going away/baby shower shindig for us on sunday. many more goodbyes were said. we’ve made some great friends and connections in rwanda and they will be missed. we know that with many the physical distance will not destroy the friendship.

likewise i think back on kiziba. i have a strange sense that i will see many of those friends again. and there is more than proximity that connects us now. i will still be involved with voices of kiziba and will continue writing a book based on several of their lives. but beyond those things there were intellectual, ideological, spiritual, and emotional connections made. those continue, too.

in a break from packing yesterday i met with and said goodbye to henry, who was in kigali sending some things to his brother in south africa. we had a simple lunch and then i drove him down to the bus park. and at a gas station there we embraced, reiterated our hope to see each other again soon in the states (he being hopefully near the end of the resettlement process), i handed him the small keyboard we mildly used as a gift to jcm, and of he strode into the swallowing crowds.

i think i’m surprised i haven’t cried yet, oh i who feel things very deeply. maybe there will be time for that when the stress of details and packing has been left behind. it all still feels too unreal.

as with leaving any home of years, there are some lingering regrets of not doing this or that. but missed opportunities do not define the the last two years, and certainly do not overshadow the good things that did happen. we are sad to leave rwanda, but we welcome what comes next.

after some travels, we will return to the chicago area at the end of april, plan to spend much of june in washington, and be back in illinois for the birth of our first child.

i said earlier that i would write of the end of the matter, but really it is not so much an end as another beginning.

 

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fiat lux.

[robbie]

several weeks ago, benjamin met me in kiziba with a small truckload of school supplies for the upper secondary school (as you may have seen already on voices of kiziba – i love oscar’s smile in that picture). we held a small ‘ceremony’ with members of the unhcr and adra, and other school leadership personnel, carrying the boxes into temporary storage and saying a few words each. benjamin passed out documents to be signed, explaining that the supplies were not all that the school would need for the whole year, but that they would be enough to get them all started. the adra representative was thankful, but looked almost confused, or worried. the unhcr representative not-so-subtly expressed his own concerns that the materials would not be used as intended, encouraging oscar to honor the gifts and intentions. then they all looked at me and i said something along the lines of it being a blessing and joy to work alongside someone with such vision and ability like oscar. and here i almost wept. i think it was the emotional buildup of the last two years of working to improve education in the camp summed up for myself in that one sentence. and the fact that with this hand-off of materials i was essentially bowing out of overseeing the project from the iteams side of things.

i slowly step away, benjamin slowly takes on more. and this is a good thing. benjamin lived many years in the camp, and now that he has been supported through university and works with us in kigali, he is in a great position to help coordinate international teams’ assistance in kiziba. he speaks all their languages and knows the camp intimately. walking around the camp with him after delivering the materials i got to see just how many people know him, recognize him, greet him. i saw how easy it was for grodya and others to talk to him. benjamin told me later that people in the camp were thanking him specifically for the school materials, as if he bought them all himself, for people saw him as one who was able to escape the life of the camp, but who decided to return to help improve the lives of others. benjamin told me that people were glad of his help, that they told him that he was the only one who truly understood their situation. it has been a blessing also to work with benjamin in these last months.

but school supplies were not the only materials to be happily introduced to the camp recently. after a year of bothering all the readers of this blog for funds with which to bring solar power to the kiziba community library, we finally brought solar power to kiziba community library.

this is exciting for a very large number of reasons. solar power at the library was one of the big things i had hoped to see before the departure and i am not angry about seeing this dream – years in the making – realized. we have a system there now that will meet all of the realistic desires and needs of the library staff – a photocopier and film projector being beyond our solar capabilities for the present. but they can power several computers (which are on the way), hold evening reading hours and classes with more than enough light with which to see, show movies and news on a small television, and even charge cell phones as a side business. and iteams and jcm will use the remaining funds to continue the expansion of educational opportunities as is needed.

during installation, with one light going up every so often as the technician and johnson placed the maze of wires, the sun began to set, but the inside of the library remained bright. well into the dark evening a man, pictured below, kept studying, ignoring all the noise we were making and being one of the first to realize the potential of expanded hours and the new lights.

we thank again all who contributed to this project. we are ushering in a new world of possibilities.

i posted a couple pictures on the facebooks already, but here are more.

in other news, steph and i moved out of our house of two years as previously announced. i continue work on the book while still listening to christmas music. steph uses her free time to be with friends and help out around our community. she is also ever increasingly pregnant. we plan our journeys back to the states, seeing friends and family on the way, and hopefully getting a good feel for glasgow, where we plan on moving later this year. two friends (plus child) who have been close to us these many months left this weekend for the states, anticipating the arrival of their second child, and will not return to kigali until after we have left. this was the first of our goodbyes.

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subject to change.

[robbie]

‘we live in a thrift store.’

these words from stephanie as she surveys the garage sale decor of our home’s main room. the dining table has been sold and removed over the weekend and we have lined the walls with neat-ish little piles of things we need to get rid of before we depart. a red blanket, that may or may not have been recently taken from an airplane, is laid in the middle where a table once was and is crowded with folded clothes.

i am reminded every morning of our current transitional limbo. i blearily step out of the kitchen with a bowl of cereal and a french press ready to seat myself for my morning reading at our table—-oh yeah. we sold the table. this happens more often than it should.

but it makes sense, in a way. we have lived with a set of things and routines for the last two solid years. our minds are used to those pathways. and now we reach for things that are no longer in our house. we use this or that object gingerly because someone has claimed it and will acquire it soon. we live now with an ever-dwindling amount of things and every day is a small exercise in creativity and problem solving, learning to live without.

IMG_1646(1)

most of the large items, furniture and the like, besides the car, have been sold or claimed. little things remain now, as you can see from the picture above. and this is the weirdest part, the piecemeal removal, the slow erosion of the various piles. every day friends come over and walk away with more of our stuff. as they leave we think, wow! they bought a lot! and then we turn around and see the piles have not changed their shapes much at all.

but these are all things, objects, menial possessions. there are bigger things we will leave behind. many who have been through the watson living room thrift store have expressed some sadness that though they have some neat new things, we are leaving. i guess that says something good about the community we have grown into here.

this has been the past week. last wednesday, we bid farewell to our faithful, happy, overly-boisterous, joy of a dog, little mac. logistically, what with the coming abundant changes to life, we could not figure out a way to keep him with us. we found him a new home with other expats. everybody loves him over there, we hear, and he is well-behaved. and he has a huge yard to run around in, which he certainly needs. we’ll miss him, but are glad to know he is in a great place.

and so here we sit now, the night before we hold our little moving sale on the lawn of j.lynn’s where hopefully a swarm of expats seeking bagels and donuts will carry away the last of our superfluous goods. our thrift store is packed away in boxes and suitcases. the debris of moving strewn and cluttered, left to be picked up sometime. cleaning will come later.

we leave this house late next week and will spend our last month and a half in rwanda in a house on the other side of town, used often for transitional phases such as ours. we will go with only the few bags that will fly with us in april.

and in those last weeks we hope for some peace. with the worries of moving dealt with we hope for a time before we leave in which we might both rest and finish the work here well, say our goodbyes and all that. we’ll get there. later. right now i just want to sleep. tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.

 

 

 

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pages.

[robbie]

last week at the kiziba community library we started cataloging every book upon those many crowded shelves. five of us, with assistance from a couple helpful visitors, wrote down titles and authors and numbers, book by book. there are thousands of books, all donated from various places, and they combine to create a very full library. it took me alone over six hours to catalog the young adult fiction section.

as a side note, i will wonder at how some young adult books get published. their subject matter is often absurd. if people on the other side of the world, say in a refugee camp in central africa, were trying to understand american culture by looking through the young adult section of a library they would think that all americans are obsessed with pets, horses, really quirky kids, and teenage relationship drama. which may be true. here’s to you, america. sometimes there would be books with a ridiculous amount of qualifying titles. like: mary barfword’s bellford high: heartbreakers club: boy chasers book 3: a mindy diary: boyfriend battle. i kid you not there are actually books like this.

but that little rant is hardly the point of this story.

last thursday i got up to the camp a little after nine to find johnson, soki, and grodya already focused on their respective shelves and genres plugging away. it was weirdly silent. they greeted me and then got right back to work. henry had been there earlier, finishing the section he had been working on the day before, and he was to show up again later after an appointment. i pulled out my computer and started as well, marveling at books i last saw when i was eight years old, and laughing at how many books have been written about magical puppies.

we were working hard, perhaps each lost in our own worlds, when we all become aware of the rising level of noise in the library. after summoning johnson’s attention to help several kids pick out books, i realized that the library was full of people. every several minutes there was another person at the window in the thin dividing wall between the main room and where the books are kept, asking for this or that.

there were kids of all ages and several adults. some were flipping through old national geographic magazines, some through spider man kids’ comics, some were teaching themselves how to draw, or laughing at the weird pictures in a guinness world records book. there were middle aged men with textbooks and dictionaries, piecing together a partially known language into useful information, and students with epics of african literature reading in preparation for the nearing resumption of classes. and covering it all was the constant, buzzing mumble of a dozen or more little voices slowly sounding out english words.

many of the library crowd returned several times to exchange one book for another, but there was also a steady stream of new people arriving over the course of the hours i was there. i sat at a small, cluttered table near the little window in the diving wall. i helped some people and called johnson over when the particulars of the language barrier became too much. the window is above waist level on me, which means it is not the most accessible thing for the smallest of the kids present. sometimes i would see just a pair of eyes peeking in, or sometimes a tiny arm holding a book over the edge and i would laughingly call to johnson out from his focused cataloging to help the young lad.

i say ‘young lad’ purposefully because while there were dozens of people in the library over the course of several hours not one of them was female. this fact is a constant frustration for those who work in the library. it is a cultural hurdle over which we are still attempting to leap. but this could be a long blog for another time.

this was an encouraging day for me. and all i am attempting to show you with this little post is that the library in kiziba is alive. people are using its resources for learning and fun, the purposes for which it was built. there are dozens of men and women, young and old, attending english and bible classes, and we pack that place out every time we hold a special event.

and more is coming. to all of you who have donated to help us bring solar power to the kiziba community library, we at international teams rwanda and jcm give you our great thanks. because of your commitment we are going to be able to expand and make better everything we do at the library. the fundraising goals have been met and we will begin to take those expanding, hopeful steps soon.

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against a sea of troubles.

[robbie]

in the last months of my undergraduate studies my greek professor and i had a conversation in which he encouraged me to go to grad school. my response was a kind way of saying i never want to go back to school ever.

since then my mindset has been much the same, that grad school was for other people. i learned a lot in the following years, gained much experience, traveled, was married, moved to rwanda. i do not regret this time.

but there came a point working here in rwanda when i felt fairly lost and insignificant. i have experience, i know things, i read a lot and am not uninformed, and yet i still feel like a very small, inadequate fish in the great ocean of international development and cross-cultural ministry. there is much about the world i still did not know. and i remember thinking over a year ago, that’s it – i’m going back to school!

i looked around at some grad school possibilities, but it was overwhelming and i put that thought on a back-burner and focused on the work at hand.

before and during our return to the states to see my sister graduate university and get married in almost the same week, steph and i were wrestling with the idea of staying in rwanda for longer than our initial two-year commitment. the work here, especially in the refugee camp, was growing and we were starting to see some good and exciting things happen. it seemed stupid to just duck out when our time was up without at least a thought of staying to have a part in the continuation of those good things. so as we prayed about this, we figured that we would probably stay unless there was something else on the horizon, some clear direction, that was important enough to take us away from rwanda for a good reason. something that would be a kind of continuation of our time here, and not just leaving because our contracts were up.

enter continued thoughts about grad school.

initially my thought was to aim for working with one of those big important organizations, world vision or the like, who look for people with degrees in international development. so in such departments is where i began my searching. but when we told our team leader jen what i was thinking she said she would cry if i ever got a job with one of the big organizations. she said i was ‘too grassroots’ for that. i had to agree. as i grew into my role working with refugees in the camp i came to realize that i didn’t want to work with giant systems or think about millions of dollars or push numbers around a desk and hold meetings and never really work among the people of the communities we were trying to impact. though i see the great value in being able to implement programs that serve millions, and i don’t begrudge the big ngos for the work they do, i don’t think i am wired to do the same.

i thus reexamined my current job with the refugees and i realized that it was indeed the kind of work i would like to continue, in some capacity or another. and it wasn’t international development on a grand scale so much as, say, community development. i began to refine my searches even further by adding an education element into the mix, as – if you haven’t noticed with the last year of blogging – i have been infected by the reality that education very actively transforms communities. through the library, through the secondary school, we are doing educational development and i love it. to know how to do my job better would be wonderful.

listening to oscar, grodya, henry, and others talk i began to understand how important education is to kiziba. education for those in the camp is an active hope, real transformation, measurable growth, proof to the world that people in stunted places are not useless. some say that the way to change the world is through educating girls. some say that with education you can end terrorism. when the refugees talk about these things i see the fire in their souls and i believe it. not just because their words are sufficiently inspiring, but because i have seen the starts of these things already. i have seen growing minds thinking critically and engaging with the world in new ways; i have seen people disgusted with the violence of their homeland and seeking alternative ways to end it; i have seen how thousands of people can band together so that a handful can be educated; i have heard from parents who are beyond joyful that someone is working to keep their kids out of trouble and help them fill their minds with good things. on and on.

grodya talks about battling a leviathan when he looks at the mess of the eastern congo, at the ambivalence of the world toward refugees, at the hopelessness of camp life. and against this sea of troubles his practical answer is always increased education.

early on in my searching i had stumbled across the university of glasgow’s international development program as an intriguing option. after refining my thinking i looked again and found they had a community learning and development program, being community development focused through education. something clicked in my head and heart. after stewing over it and some other programs for a while, i applied. within the month i was offered ‘unconditional acceptance’ to the university of glasgow.

all this to say that i want – as always, in everything – to know more. i want to be able to understand the work of education in underdeveloped and under-resourced areas better, to be able to work more efficiently and effectively. and in that i hope to never lose sight of the key to the whole process that is the relationships we make in those forgotten corners.

so we leave in april, visit some friends on the way home, and – visas allowing – we move to scotland in september to start a twelve-month grad program. after that, well, we’ll see. because a master’s degree isn’t an end, it’s another step.

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the least expected places.

[robbie]

He has shown strength with his arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

-luke 1.51-53

mary proclaims the above words (and more) in joyous response to the work of God in her life, and she sees far beyond herself to the ways that God works in a broken world. God coming to a poor teenager in some small corner of the roman empire is a continuation of the theme throughout history of God using the unassuming and unknown for great things. and this theme continues in the life of Jesus who operates under the blanket of oppression, often in just such forgotten corners. and His disciples continue in that vein, spreading the message abundantly without the help of worldly empires and kings.

and isn’t it incredible that God would show His strength in this world by upsetting the oppressors and lifting up the lives of the poor? what a hopeful refrain for so many. the mighty, the proud, the rich are humbled, the chains of their power broken. this is what God does throughout history and promises to continue. the mountains laid low, the valleys filled in; justice, an equalizing, a leveling. these and more are the marks of the Kingdom, a new way of seeing and interacting with the world, where the power of God is really in control and we see the structures of this world for the broken attempts at control that they really are.

during advent and christmas we reflect on the coming of the light that shines in the darkness, this new way of relating to the Father and the world around us. we celebrate now in kiziba for we have raised all the necessary funds to bring solar power to the community library, and we look forward to bringing light in figurative and literal ways. because – and i’m going to make some bold connections here – under the blanket of oppression, in forgotten corners of the world, our refugee friends operate, and, outside of the systems of man, they work to bring alternative access to education, to bring light to dark places. and in this work we see the marks of the Kingdom.

grodya says:

‘this library should be a light in the camp…[the library can] give a light to their [refugees’] hearts, for people here are hopeless.’

grodya talks about how we are using guns in the camp, not physical guns that fire bullets, but spiritual and intellectual guns. and he says that with such guns ‘we can’t kill people, but we can kill hatred. we can kill darkness.’

we focus on education in kiziba because we believe that education is not just a good idea; we feel that education is the next step to a changed world.

if you look at the lives of the people with whom we work in the refugee camp then you will see the impact that dedicated and thoughtful people can have when they work together. and next year, as a result of their teaching and leading, there will be a dozen more thoughtful and dedicated people, and the year after that a hundred more, and on and on, and i dream that people from places like kiziba are going to show the world the ways to peace and are going to change central africa. we can work towards bringing the Kingdom here on earth and part of that is building up communities that move beyond the violent mistakes of the past, the complacency and subtle cruelty of the present, who lean on Christ and listen to Him and don’t trust in the systems of man, building up people who see the world very differently.

i believe that people like this have always and will always exist in the shadows of empire, mostly unnoticed, but always impactful. we get glimpses when someone writes a book or something.   you probably know some of these people. some of you probably qualify. we believe that true change comes from the least expected places, it begins in places like a bethlehem stable. maybe it grows out of the mire of pools of stagnant water.*

i realize that in terms of the world and its sweeping poverty i am fairly wealthy. we who are rich need to ask ourselves if we are the proud or the oppressors. we must consistently identify, adjust, learn, and grow. and then ask ourselves how we can, in big and little ways, work for the Kingdom of God, not for earthly structures, work to subvert oppressive systems, and continue the beautiful work of Christ.

let’s think on the forgotten corners of the world, and seek them out, this Christmas. let’s be inspired and moved by those doing much with very little, and against all expectations.

 

*the meaning of kiziba.

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