These children have contagious smiles. And good news: they smile a lot.
As Jake and I approach the basketball court in Nyamirama, eyes widen, feet shuffle, chatter erupts. This is our first court visit and the local crowd, I notice, quickly matches our excitement. We are greeted with handshakes, high fives, and thoroughly practiced sayings such as “Welcome to Rwanda” or “Thank you for coming to us” or “We are happy to have you here.” Seldom, a koala-like hug around the leg from a little one keeps me cemented in place.
(We get a lot of love here)
As badly as I wanted them to fade, my western habits would remain for some time. The bus ride to the court was crammed and smelled of stale sweat. My stomach growled and my throat craved a single drop of liquid. The chair I was unfortunately assigned to was digging into my back and my legs were bent awkwardly atop luggage belonging to another traveler. The flies took a liking to my face and the bus driver took a liking to the brake. As these displeasures persisted on this never-ending bus ride, I tried to focus my attention on the beauty of the hills outside these dust-covered windows as we trudged along to the east.
I hated the thoughts I was having, but it was hard to rid them of my mind. Believe me, while living in Israel last year I experienced a lot of uncomfortable situations, but after being home all summer in the states, this first week in Rwanda still hit me with some discontentment. Just as I was getting used to having everything, for the most part, as I wanted it this summer in Boston, I left it all and headed to the airport for a full day of travel, food poisoning my first week in, and this here bus ride to the rural villages of Eastern Rwanda. Silent complaints zipped through my head as I made my way around during the first week, but I knew this would eventually change, and it did…so quickly.
(Smells don’t phase me anymore, but they still do for some)
As swarms of bright smiles engulfed me that first day on the court in Nyamirama, all these unwanted thoughts that I had previously despised myself for thinking about seemed to vanish. The foul smells evaporated, the hunger and thirst disappeared, the lingering fatigue that I thought my muscles would never recover from after a 30-hour travel day had magically left. I felt incredibly rejuvenated, and I think I can speak for Jake as well. These kids were simply a joy to be around. I saw past their dirty clothes and bare feet and instead admired their huge smiles and respected their wanting to be a part of the on-court activities. These kids were changing my irritated attitude. What I didn’t realize at this given moment, but what I now realize going through my fourth week out here, is that these kids are unquestionably my personal remedy for any troubles I may endure (and I have already endured quite a bit) during this upcoming year.
(Some of our Nyamirama family)
I’m beginning to understand my role here. For those of you at home, I’ll explain. I wake up around six every morning because this is when the goats and the chickens and roosters and cows and kids and sun get up. I exercise, I shower, I eat, I listen to music, I stare out onto the hills of Rwinkwavu from my porch. I walk 15 minutes down the reddish brown dirt roads of my village to our Shooting Touch basketball court and I get my day started with morning practice. Clouds of dust shoot up around children’s feet with every dribble and a thunderous boom echoes with every underdeveloped shot that clangs off the medal backboard. A fast-paced practice filled with laughter and heavy breathing and conversations in Kinyarwanda that I attempt to understand happens from 9:30 to 10:30 am. This is followed by a quick meeting with the local coaches of that court to make sure they are on top of everything they should be on top of (attendance, practice plans, social issues if any, etc.). I go back up to the house, record everything that happened at practice that morning, relax, eat, plan for afternoon practices and future events, contact the coaches at my other court (the Nyamirama court as mentioned before) and then I hop on the back of a moto for 25 minutes and head to that court for practice. I have two practices in the afternoon. I have a second youth practice but before that I have a women’s practice I attend. Older women show up to the court and LOVE to ball. They have more energy than the kids sometimes. “It’s a place to clear my head and relax when everything else is going on around” Furide, one of the women from the Nyamirama court, responded with when I asked her why she’s always smiling at basketball practice. Boy do I love that. Women’s practice goes from 4 to 5pm and then a health lesson is taught to the all women and all the children (we are on the malaria unit this month). After a short health lesson, the women leave and the children practice until the sun sets. I say my goodbyes in the dark and I thank my coaches for doing their job before my tired self hops back onto a moto to take me back to my house in Rwinkwavu. I eat, shower, record data, check in with the Rwinkwavu coaches to make sure the health lesson and practices at that court went well and then I prepare for tomorrow to do it all again.
(Practice before sunset, Nyamirama)
(View from my front porch, Rwinkwavu)
(My morning walk to work, Rwinkwavu)
Whew. Okay. So as you can see, it’s a lot. This is why I’m in bed every night by 9pm. I’m in charge of these local Rwandese coaches who are in charge of all the practices and health lessons for these women and children, which in turn makes me in charge of all the practices and health lessons for all these women and children. It’s a lot of responsibility but it’s all fun responsibility so a positive and patient mindset is what it takes. Obviously we hit obstacles from every direction that can slow down a day. For example, torrential downpour, or flat basketballs, or issues amongst the kids, or even some short and unexpected inconveniences like a screaming goat running through our three-person weave the other day as the kids just carried on with the drill. All of this aside, this job is fun. It’s teaching me new life skills and I hope I’m teaching these kids, coaches, and women some life (and basketball!) skills as well.
(Atop the hoop, best or worst seat in the house?)
Making an impact in this world can come in so many shapes and sizes, but what I appreciate most about this place is that the smallest of deeds can go so far. Just today, as I sat down to begin writing, three little heads popped through the library window to stare at my shiny laptop. With a bit of a cute distraction in my peripheral, I reach into my bag and grab a tennis ball. I stick my hand through the window, hand them the ball, point to my watch, and put my finger in the air to indicate one hour. They nod, say thank you, and run away. Thirty minutes or so later, as I break to rest my eyes from the screen, I notice laughter in the distance. A lot of it. I peak my head out of the window and see at least a dozen kids running around the basketball court, tossing this single tennis ball around. Pure joy. Simple joy. I smile, sit down, finish writing, and about a half hour later, a knock on the same window with the same three kids notifies me that the hour of play is up. The ball that was once green, is completely brown, but these trusting kids are smiling and sweating and I’m feeling good about living in this community. Really good.
(Floating around at afternoon practice, Rwinkwavu)