Sunday, August 31, 2014

Diversity and the commitment to my discomfort

I read this article yesterday. Actually, I skimmed it. Then, I threw my iPad at Ben, and ordered him to read it and report on his thoughts. The sentences I skimmed in a hurry made a huge impact on me. I was fascinated by the principle presented on pursuing diversity, even though, it kind of seems obvious. If diversity is a priority in my life, ministry, organization (what have you), than I will be committed to my own discomfort. I will prioritize my dissatisfaction, and I will not whine when I experience it. I will offer up my preferences to Jesus for another who is different than me, and I will do it in praise.

I read this from the standpoint of someone whose main ministry responsibilities outside of the home have involved conference planning (heavy on musical worship, prayer and Bible teaching). I have worked on teams where we have put A LOT of thought into reflecting and encouraging diversity - in a context that is not super diverse. The context is important, because reflecting diversity is easy (I would imagine) if you have it. For instance, if I was to put together promotional materials for KICS, it would be a natural thing requiring no effort in photoshop to reflect diversity in our student body. It's just there. Showing it and celebrating it are easy. In my last ministry assignment, there wasn't a lot of diversity to reflect, but we had a desire to encourage it, and facilitate it. Of course, there was a tiny bit of ethnic diversity in our conference rooms, and honoring and respecting those brave souls (because, it takes courage, people, to be the glaringly invisible one in the room every day at your job) and their backgrounds, cultures and preferences was important.

I also think about this issue from my current situation - a minority in a foreign country. This situation also requires complex distinctions, because in my current context, minority does not equal marginalized. I'm an ethnic minority, but my relative wealth still grants me a power and privilege that are likened to the white privilege I bore at home. (Pause for a conversation on intersectionality....) In my Rwandaful world, there is a community of ex-pats that is the most dangerous size: small enough to know everyone in it and large enough to adequately meet my social needs (taking away the need to burst the bubble and interact with people who come from a background significantly different than my own).

My point is, there or here, living a life that reflects and encourages diversity requires intentionality.

So, this church, East End Fellowship in Richmond Virginia, has a rule:
When we gather together to worship on Sundays, everyone should be happy with no more than 75% of what is happening during the worship service. Why such a strange rule? Because we realize that in our culturally diverse congregation, if you are happy and comfortable with more than 75% of what is going on, it most likely means that your personal cultural preferences are being dominantly expressed. So we’ve decided that no one cultural form will be dominant and everyone will be equally unhappy with the worship!
What if I approached my conference planning with that goal in mind? What if I scanned the post-event evaluations with an eye toward holding myself accountable to that? What if our emcee informed the group at each session that each person in the room would only be happy with 75% of the night - in deference to another?

In church. What if I ran away from a church that scored an A+ on my comfortability scale? What if I sought out a church that made me roll my eyes a minimum of five times a service or squirm in my seat - but where I looked around and my brother and sisters had their hands raised in Allelujahs?
What kind of bravery would it take to intentionally fall short of people's expectations - a whole 25% of the time?

More importantly, what if I trusted Jesus to transform my rolling eyes into thank offerings and my squirms into dancing?

My Jesus calls me to a life of self-sacrifice, and I willingly offer that to him in so many areas, but I cling to my preference on worship. Hymns! I demand. With their original melody! Stop changing the tunes! If you don't know what the words mean, google them, don't change them! How can you sing Glory Hallelujah with your hands in your lap? Why the repetition? I cry out, like it's for justice instead of vain preference.

What if I made a decision to be "equally unhappy" for the sake of another - and it led to us both being more deeply satisfied? What if I applied that "rule" - 25% of mine for more of yours - to my finances, my time, my marriage, my parenting?

Happy Sunday from Team Thomas!

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Rwanda has a very interesting take on community service. The last Saturday of every month is called umuganda, and the city shuts down for the morning for neighbors to come together to work for the betterment of the area. We still are learning about how this works. We first experienced umuganda in 2010 when we were here for our adoption. We had limited time to complete some important errands and got up early one Saturday morning to learn that we couldn't leave the hotel until noon. 
This morning is umuganda. With no construction work being done across the street, no buses or Moto taxis running, no shops doing business, the quiet feels almost noisy. 
I think the way it works is that each community plans a group activity and makes an announcement of the plans in the morning. We asked Eddie to scope the situation last night and he thought the official umuganda activity was maybe not intended for families. Mzungus are not specifically expected to participate, but we do want to be a part of our community as much as possible. 
So, after breakfast, we headed out our gate armed with bags to pick up trash. Kigali is relatively litter-free. 
There are some interesting official and unofficial laws that keep this city clean and orderly. (Plastic shopping bags are illegal here.) 
Yet, in 10 minutes the six of us collected 4 grocery bags of bottles, wrappers, parts of shoes, and other assorted items. 
A few roaming locals were definitely surprised to see us out there. With the gate and our car, a normal but unfortunate barrier exists between us and the rest of our world. 
What are your thoughts? I think the idea of umuganda is both inspiring and beautiful but the compulsory part is new to me. I can't help but think it would never fly in America where we hold individualism so close to our hearts. But what would our cities look like if we were compelled to take responsibility for them together? If we were all required to spend three hours a week picking up trash? We'd at least probably litter less. 
(Behold, the fruits of our labor)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

It's different here.

What's it like here in Rwanda? It's different than America. There are big differences - differences that I can't even explain in this format. But, mostly, there are a million small differences.
It's helpful for me to think through and reflect on that stuff at times, but it's also dangerous. Comparing can lead to perspective, but comparing can also lead to dissatisfaction or arrogance. Despite what my snarky, sarcastic (negative) tone might imply, I am much more prone to self-satisfaction than to dissatisfaction.  I love it here. The weather. The beauty. The school. The friends. The newness.
Let's discuss some of the differences.

We have help.
We have two workers - Eddie who is our night guard and also performs various outdoor duties. Eddie might be one of my top 25 people in the world (I think that number safely leaves room for family at the top). So far, he has hauled one guy off to jail who was trying to climb our wall during the night, he has made countless runs for Vitalo (my beverage of choice), he's killed a chameleon/iguana/lizard thing, he opens our gate when visitors stop by, and he's currently replacing all of the screens on our home windows so the mosquitos can't get it in. He smiles when I try out the two phrases I know in Kinyarwanda. He's fixed the netting around the trampoline so the kids won't get hurt. I don't know when he sleeps.

Imaculee helps me inside the house. She cleans. Everything. Daily. I mean, really. It's not even necessary to have a bathroom cleaned every day. Or your bed made. Or your exercise clothes ironed. But she does it. She also cooks for us a couple of times a week.

Having help is a wonderful thing, and I have to admit, I am ashamed at how necessary it feels to have someone clean up after us. But, I'm not comfortable with it. Nor do I really wish to be, I think. I CAN do these jobs, and in my home culture, it would fall on me and Ben to do them. Yes, we are providing jobs for people who need them, but that isn't satisfying to the deepest part of my heart that cringes at the idea that someone else is cleaning my toilet. Yes, we are kind and fair with our workers (more so than other potential employers MIGHT be), but still. It is not right. It is not wrong. It is also not comfortable. And, no thank you, I don't want advice on how to be comfortable or uncomfortable with it. It is the nature of our new life. And I am thankful for these people who are always around and who help us learn.

We also have a babysitter, Grace. Grace is a 19-year-old American third-cultue kid who comes on the three mornings a week I teach at KICS to watch Annie. She also babysits once a week for date nights.  Grace is an answer to prayer. She lives near to us and I can count on her to be on time when I need to get to school. Being a grown TCK, I love having her as an influence on my budding TCKs.

The Food.
One of things people wonder about living in a new country is the food. I've found that people associate foreign with weird and spicy and Africa with rice and beans. As a mom to four American children, I've had to develop new routines for planning, procuring, and preparing food. It's that tricky balance of leading them to embrace things that are different, while still realizing that they are kid and need to eat something.

So, there's lots of fruit. We are in a tropical location, so it's easy to get pineapple, mango, and tiny sweet bananas. Our two Rwandan favorites are tree tomatoes (Japanese plum) and passion fruit. The things we miss are strawberries, blueberries, and grapes. Imaculee usually buys our fruits and veggies at the market. These things seem a lot cheaper to me than they were in the States, obviously, because they are grown here.

Grocery shopping. Imaculee does our market shopping, but I shop for meats and dairy products at one of several grocery stores. It's not kroger. It feels about the size of a Trader Joe's. And the selection is similar too in scope, but obviously the specifics defer. I can get fresh meat (but not so fresh that I can hear moo-ing in the background), sometimes fresh milk, yogurt, and gouda cheese.

So, the challenge is finding a rhythm to shopping. The grocery stores are rather spread out and tend to carry the same things. So, either all the stores have fresh milk or none of them do. (By fresh, I mean the kind that has an expiration date). All the stores have vanilla yogurt or none of them do. Today, strawberry yogurt was what was available, so that's what I bought. Yes, I could make my own yogurt. Maybe I will, thanks.

Our staples have had to change. We can get cereal, but the familiar kinds are pricey, so we usually eat yogurt or oatmeal for breakfast. We can get peanut butter easily, and deli ham, so sandwiches are what the kids get for lunch.

Remember back when everyone's blog was full of pictures of what they bought at the grocery store and boasting about the deals? Well, here's my version of that. This is what I bought at the German Butchery today. (If you assume that the German Butchery is a butcher shop operated by Germans, you would be in good company (with me) but incorrect. It's kind of a chain here.)
Clockwise, starting with the brown bag on the left:
2 kilos of chicken legs: about $12
1/2 kilo beef fillet: about $5
strawberry yogurt: $1.16
Temmy's Sweet Flakes: $3.63
Honey: $6.53
Rwandan Peanut Butter: $3.19
1 bag of sugar: $2.03
a tin of popcorn kernels: $2.18
Nutella: $6.53

I passed on the cheddar and feta cheese because I thought it was too pricey for something relatively unnecessary. 
So, for a little over $40, I bought meat to get us through the next couple of dinners, some goodies for breakfast and lunches and snacks. And I'm sure I'll be back at the store tomorrow. Because we don't have wide aisles, huge carts, and a minivan with automatic doors, it is difficult to do a week's worth of shopping at one time. Yes, some people do. They're much better adjusted than I. But, I'm happy and at peace with my temporary system.

Ex-pats handle it all differently. Some shop around for the best prices at the different stores. I tend to buy what I need wherever I'm at. Just like I didn't coupon in the States, I'm not spending time on the price comparisons here. We also try to look out for each other. Today a friend found (shredded!!!) mozzarella cheese and pepperonis at a store I rarely go to, and she picked me up some. Therefore, pizza will be in our future.

Rwandan food is not spicy. We brought in our luggage a wide array of hot sauce, sririacha sauce, tabasco, buffalo wing sauce, etc. Ben is hanging in there, much as I did when we lived in India.

A lot of people have asked about Charlie. He is in pre-K, which isn't offered at KICS, so he just started at a school called First Impressions. He swears he hates it, but he seems happy. One thing I love about it is that it seems to be the most "Rwandan" setting our family has been in. I haven't seen a white kid at the school. At KICS and at church and around town, we are certainly in the minority (from a complexion standpoint), but there are foreigners like us everywhere. 

Charlie's first day of school.

School is about the same here. The kids are happy.  A few (blessed!) differences for us: no uniforms. less homework. two recesses!

Well, it's not deep, but I find these types of details interesting and it's fun to introduce you a bit more specifically to our Rwandaful life. 

Oh, I did decide to teach 6th grade Bible at KICS, at least for a couple of months until their teacher returns from maternity leave. I'm enjoying the students and imparting my excitement (if not my knowledge) about the Bible. Please pray for them to grow closer to Jesus and for Mrs. Hanlon and her baby in the States.

And, you guys, thanks for your support. Ben is shining in his new job, and I love having a front row seat. Not many people (I know of one other) can love hundreds of kids so well, but still have room in his heart for four favorites.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Many have asked what have our first 6 weeks in Rwanda looked like.  The last six weeks have been full of firsts.

The first time we set up a house in Rwanda.  The first time we ran out of water.  The first time we went to the airport to pick up friends.  The first time I played golf in Rwanda with Simon and the first time I've seen goats on a golf course.  The first time my wife called me because she was lost and I honestly had no idea where she was or how I could get to her.  The first time I took a Moto-taxi and wondered why the driver only had one hand on the handlebars as we were going downhill.  The first hike up Mt. Kigali.  The first day I sat across parents and their child as we talked about their dreams for their future (that has been a lot of fun).  The first day of admin and staff orientation with a new team.  The first day with reliable internet..and the list can go on.

Tomorrow, the firsts continues with our first day of school at KICS.  The first day of third grade for Simon.  The first day of first grade for Talya.  The first day Susie will be teaching 6th grade Bible.  The first day I will greet Simon, Talya and each student at the door as the Director of KICS.

We are thankful for all the Lord has allowed us to experience in our first weeks here in Kigali.  We look forward to many more firsts.  Thanks for your prayers as we begin the school year at KICS and officially begin this first year in this season of life in Rwanda.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Down a hill, without any language skills

Ok, so I have to be honest. I know it sounds a bit impressive that we're in Rwanda, but we don't have it that hard. Rwanda is known as "Africa Lite," basically an easy version of what people picture as "Africa." It's clean, fairly easy to get around, and there is a large community of ex-pats here to make you feel like home isn't too far away. Sure we run out of water at times, and go through many a power outage, but we have toilet paper and internet and our iPhones work.

I'm a total wimp, and I've been doing pretty great here. I've been driving around, which has been stressful because of not knowing where I'm going, but the driving itself is not anxiety-inducing like it is in India. Many of the roads are not paved, and while that's bumpy, it's fine. When people ask how I'm transitioning, I feel like I'm able to reply, both honestly and enthusiastically, "great!" I usually follow with the caveat that there may be a day when I don't do great.

It was bound to happen. Today is that day.

With all the kids in the car, I followed a friend to another friend's house, where I've never been. It wasn't far, and it wasn't far off a main road, but I didn't pay close attention to where I was going because I was following. But, due to the normal and universal circumstances of motherhood, my friend had to leave an hour early to pick up a sick kid, and I was left to drive home by myself. Which shouldn't have been a big deal.

But I went downhill when I should have gone uphill. I blame it all on Simon. He is my navigator and he totally fell asleep on the job. Anyhow, I was not on a paved road and it was narrowing quickly. It wasn't bumpy; it was mountainous. On these types of roads, it's very hard to turn around, and usually better to just keep driving forward until you get out to another road. So, I kept driving. Down. I heard the bottom of my car crashing against the mountains sticking up out of the road. Charlie and Annie were playing some sort of squealing game, which works wonders on my sanity. I ended up in a valley, surrounded by a large number of Rwandan children screaming "Mzungu!!!" (white person) Truly, I couldn't have looked anymore Mzungo than sitting in my car on a road that was never intended for vehicles with four wheels, nearly crying, and muttering under my breath. I had to stop my forward progress when I came to a bridge that was narrower than the width of our car. I had steep ravines about one foot from each side of my car.
Accompanied by my adorable yet annoying audience, I completed a one-million-point-turn to go back up the hill. My audience followed, laughing and begging for money. And then I got to the part of the road that was narrow, mountainous and both dusty and muddy. The tires started spinning. Rwandans were howling with laughter. My kids were looking uneasily amongst themselves. I scanned the crowd, and was pretty positive that no one in this valley spoke English (why should they?) or drove a car. Certainly, if they were able to drive, they'd be too smart to bring a car where I'd attempted to bring one.

I called Ben and asked him to pray for me. I wanted to ask for help, but as I had no idea where I was, I couldn't very well direct anyone to my location. In Kigali, there are street numbers, but no one knows them or uses them. I'm actually not sure what they're for.

A guy (an answer to prayer?) flashed his wallet at me, giving me a glimpse at what I think was a driver's license. So, desperate, I flung my door open and let a stranger in my car with my keys and my  4 kids. (Mom, how are you doing?) 

I had mixed emotions as I watched him grind and spin the tires deeper into the dirt. 1) Vindicated, that it wasn't just me, and 2) ashamed that I'd brought my car down this stupid path that wasn't a road.
Eventually, he got out of the rut and took off up the hill. I scrambled up in my flip-flops, after my kids, and was given back the keys and the driver's seat.
My new friend having not much more luck than I.

the rut I was stuck in.

help to the rescue!

After a morning like that, it's ice cream for lunch.
And, still, I had no idea where I was, or how to communicate with anyone in the vicinity. But, I did learn my lesson. I announced to the kids: "New rule: we never go downhill, only uphill." I called Ben and began shouting the words on random signs I was passing, but ultimately decided to just keep driving. Uphill.

I ended up on top of a hill that seemed to be overlooking Kigali, which meant I'd gotten myself outside of the city (I think). So, I went back down to a backseat chorus of, "Mo-om, we're going downhill!! You said we can't go downhill anymore!!!" I found a mototaxi driver and called Ben. Between my mototaxi driver and Ben's kinyarwanda-speaking waiter, we arranged for me to follow the driver to a location I knew. Guys, it took a long time to get there. I have no idea where I was.

Anyway. I truly love it here. But today, Africa got the best of me.* Although, I can't blame Africa. I was the one dumb enough to not ask for directions before I left the driveway.

For those interested in the details, we drive a pimped-out Rav4 with sweet rims but not enough seat belts. It's the school's car, but they've allocated it to our family. We are currently exploring some changes to our transportation situation, but doggedly making this work in the meantime.

A mototaxi is a motorcycle that operates as a taxi. That is how Ben generally gets to and from work. It works great for one person, less great for 6 people.
mototaxis waiting for riders.

Next on my to-do list: find a kinyarwanda teacher.
There are many ways that my amazing husband is like my amazing dad (aside from the new vocational similarity). One of my favorites: they answer the phone when I call. Even if they're in a meeting.
*Africa didn't beat me, because Africa is not my opponent. Today, what got the best of me was my own foreign-ness, ignorance, and insistence on independence.