Finding your place away from home

Diaspora is a condition of fragmentation not only of place, but of time.

diaspora is moving, always moving.

diaspora is being tugged in several directions all at once. diaspora is giving in to one of these directions but then feeling the others pull – maybe viscously, maybe weakly, but feeling the pull all the same.

diaspora is being at home-but-not-home, and being at not-home-but-home.

diaspora is longing. diaspora is making do with the present. diaspora is holding out for a future where ‘home’ doesn’t need any qualifications or modifiers or conditions.

diaspora is absence.

diaspora is yearning to be whole. diaspora is wanting to gather pieces of self scattered all over. diaspora is travelling large distances to collect what’s been shattered by and lost in time.

diaspora is negotiating homelands and host countries, pasts and futures.

diaspora is here. diaspora is now. – Author Unknown

Don’t you feel sometimes that words were written just for you, waiting for you stumble across them, bring them to life and give them meaning? Like some lyrics to your favourite song that bring you to a specific time and place, and fills you with more emotions that you think you can take in? Well, that’s exactly how I felt after my friend shared with me the above quote about being part of the diaspora. Hi, it’s me! Words, I’ve been looking to formulate all my life…

Finding a place away from home has always been something that I’ve struggled with. When I was little, I always thought that once I went back to Rwanda, my soul would just click back into place, the unfamiliar would be familiar, the pain would stop, the tears would dry up. And though I knew that no amount of praying would bring my Rwandan parents back, I hung on to the idea that returning, would mean going back home.

What happened, was more complicated.

I had spent so long not fully fitting in to my ‘adoptive’ life, and arrived into Rwanda not feeling I was fitting into the Rwandan one either. One foot in, one foot out, and my heart splattered somewhere in between.

My skin finally matched, but my language didn’t. I looked Rwandan from the distance, yet as soon as people got closer, they instantly realised there was something different.

Now, after several visits back (and a lot of therapy and life in between), I’m reclaiming what it is to live in between two places, and make a home out of both. I’ve built a life that I’m pretty proud of here, though my heart strings will always be pulled back to Rwanda, even though I don’t have any keys that open to  house there.

I’ve learnt how to navigate between those two spaces, even though there’s moments my heart would make me book a one way ticket, yet still want to hold on to what I’ve come familiar to.

This is why the diaspora community is even more important, so you can have access to home, without a 6hour+ flight for the homecoming.

Despite the distance, in our eyes, you remain a reflection of Rwanda, of it’s people, its culture, and its potential – H.E. Mrs Jeannette Kagame, the First Lady of Rwanda

IMG_20170624_174443_320Attending the Women and Youth Empowerment Conference offered a place away from home, and I’m going to be honest, a bubble that I didn’t really wan to step out of. Like a comfort blanket you want to wrap yourself in and never take off. Though living in the UK is what I am most familiar to due to life circumstances, there’s something about being around other Rwandans, and hearing music played loudly, watching traditional dancing, that wakes up my soul in a way that no career or life success that I’ve achieved since leaving Rwanda could measure up to.

Listening to the words of the First Lady talking about the important role that we, as the diaspora have a place in Rwanda really hit home.

Know where you’re from so wherever you are, you’re standing strong. Remember that the whole county is routing for you. – H.E. Mrs Jeannette Kagame, the First Lady of Rwanda

Another of those, Yes, it’s me! moments, and heavens, I need those reminders.

When I was younger, I hated when people asked me where I was from. I always tried to divert the answer, and mumble ‘Africa’. It was easier than saying ‘Rwanda’ and then seeing their faces drop, and embark on a conversation that went from broken hearted awkwardness, to insensitive and intrusive questions about the genocide. I used to wish I could make up on the spot a completely different back story, for the days that I didn’t have the emotional energy to carry the full weight of what it meant to the outside world to be from Rwanda. For many years I only felt the scars and pain.

Do not fear or shy away from holding your Rwandan flag up high. – H.E. Mrs Jeannette Kagame, the First Lady of Rwanda

Having a deep sense of self anchors you.

Regaining a true love for Rwanda has enabled me to reclaim a fundamental part of myself.

I wish everyone could see how beautiful Rwanda is. How strong it is. I say it every time, but I truly believe that resilience pumps through the veins of the country. And it’s fiercely pumping through mine.

A diamond is just a piece of charcoal that handled stress very well. Rwanda is our diamond. – Yamina Karitanyi, High Commissioner of the Republic of Rwanda to the UK

IMG_20170624_224404_894The stronger I’ve gotten throughout the years, the more I felt I could give back to Rwanda. It makes sense though, all good therapists (and friends!) would tell you to heal yourself before trying to heal the world. And with that, I have been on marathon training mind-set, and its been pretty exciting. As with all big dreams, you have to plan to succeed, then win on purpose.

Reflect on how you will shape yourselves, and your country, into the Rwanda we want. – H.E. Mrs Jeannette Kagame, the First Lady of Rwanda

Life, I know has big plans ahead.

Watch this space.

Moonshot thinking

As someone who loves to set goals, there’s 3 big reasons to be excited for the future right now.

  1. Being better at prioritising  my feelings

I travelled up to London for the 23rd Commemoration of the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda. This year I had told myself that I didn’t want to spend the day feel sad by myself, and distracted whilst at work, so decided it was wiser to take the day off and just be present for the day.

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A few years ago, I would have told myself that I can just power through, and glance at the proceedings of the day via my computer screen without putting my life on pause.

The most meaningful moment of the commemoration service was hearing the story of another woman who, like me had lost her family in the lead up of the genocide, and went through the same struggle of feeling able to fit her grief within Kwibuka.

Every single bit of her words resonated to me, and I was so glad her story had been chosen for that day. I had been told in the past that it wasn’t my tears to shed, that it wasn’t my story grieve. Regardless at what point of the history of the genocide you lost your loved ones – the pain is still very real.

I am so glad that I let myself feel the grief fully, and be in the moment. Grief and sadness isn’t something that we voluntarily put ourselves in – it’s unpleasant, it makes us ugly cry, and shakes our inner soul. But grief is an important part of life. There isn’t a glamourous way to experience it. It’s something that we have to let ourselves feel, so that through time we can heal.

2. Taking in the journey not just the destination

Because it has been one hell of a journey to get to now – it’s worth taking a moment and celebrating it. A few weeks ago I got to share my story in a radio show and listening back on it, I really have to pat myself on the back, because sweet heavens how I’ve grown. Ten feet tall of strength. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to recognise just how far we have come. I’ve come to a place where I feel more in control and happy with life, and all the little things in between.

“What has going back to Rwanda given you?” – Everything.

It’s given me the chance to breathe again, to see a future, and to live fully. I was living, breathing and making plans before. obviously. But it was always with one foot in the dark, which gradually overshadowed most of my life.

Instead of my story holding me back, it’s now propelling me forwards. And forwards is exactly where I want to be.

3. Dreams are meant to be lived wide awake

A few years ago I took part in a 50k trek to raise awareness around mental health after realising that my post traumatic stress disorder after coming back from my first visit to Rwanda wasn’t a figment of my imagination, but a valid emotion and state of being.

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I never really fully understood what I was signing myself up for at the time, but it led me to fall in love with running and fitness as positive and healthy way of managing my anxiety and depression. Prior to that, you would find me stress eating through a packet (large preferably) of Skittles, similarly to someone finding comfort in smoking a cigarette in a middle of a hectic day.

I never really thought that I would ever be one of those people who actually enjoys going for run, but now I don’t know how I would keep myself balanced without it. The 5k’s quickly became, 10ks, 15ks, and now after my 3rd half marathon, running has become my go to form of therapy.

So where are we now?

I’ve set myself the target of running the Kigali International Peace Marathon in 2019 as a 30th birthday gift to myself and to raise money to support young people to thrive through education. Apparently if you write a dream down, tell half the world, then it’s more likely to happen.

Running a marathon has never been a bucket list dream of mine (until recently) but being able to give back to Rwanda in any way I could has always been. So here I am.

I wish there was a system in place where children in the orphanage could be given that million dollar chance to be who they are destined to be – great. [extract from blog post: 31 July 2013]

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The most powerful way to change the world, I believe,  is through education. And that’s definitely worth a whole 26.2miles (42.1km).  I want to help set up a scholarships scheme – so that money isn’t the barrier to young people success and potential. When I started to realise that I actually enjoyed running, I told myself that if I ever was to run a marathon, it would have to be for something big. Like, really really big. Home couldn’t be bigger than that.  If you’re going to run that far, do it with all your heart. And mine has always been and always will be in Rwanda.

So, see you in 2019.

I choose life

imageThousands of people have gathered at the stadium to be a part of the 20th commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi. The stadium is full, with people sat wherever they can, to be part of this historic event. Emotions are starting to flood in like an over shaken fizzy bottle, just waiting to explode. Must try and keep it together. I’m glad that I travelled thousands of miles to be a part of this. I keep praying that my Rwandan parents are proud of me, where ever they are. I miss them so much, sometimes it is difficult to put into words. It’s an agonising feeling of emptiness that freezes over my whole body. It is important for me to be here, to pay my respects.

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I’ve been craving for a feeling of closure my whole life, and finally, this is it. I’m scared. Scared of 20 years of repressed agony suddenly having the space to breath. I remember when I was little, endlessly trying to work up the courage to ask for a funeral for my Rwandan parents. Picture this, a funeral without a body, and a child with no recollections of the person they are shedding uncontrollable tears over.

I’d wondered to myself if anyone would even show up. How can you miss someone so much when you have no clear recollections of them? Regardless, I’ve spent forever missing my Rwandan parents so deeply.

I owed it to myself, and to my Rwandan parents, to be standing here for the commemoration, however hard I knew it would be. I didn’t want to watch it online, and follow it through other people’s testimonies. I don’t want to read about history, I want to be a part of it.

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This is the first time that I feel that I have permission to grieve for the loss of my parents, and my family. And boy, it’s hitting me hard. However painful it is, it’s important to remember.

I spent all of my childhood cursing the heavens for taking away from me what I held most dear, robbing me of any memories of my birth parents, leaving me feeling so empty, and dreadfully lost. I often cried at night, asking why had God let my parents die, and spared me and my brother. Why were we made to live with the scars and the agonising sorrow. I felt betrayed and let down. What exactly was my purpose of survival, if it was to live a life feeling so horribly dead inside.

Being amongst thousands of grieving Rwandans was hard. The stadium was filled with people being overtaken by unbearable grief, making it difficult to not collapse into tears also. It was as if you could feel their pain, knowing that if their screams translated into words, it would shatter the atmosphere instantly. The grief quickly had a dominoes effect; one cry rapidly rippled across the whole stadium.

I wasn’t expecting all of this to be so hard. You don’t need to know the language being spoken to understand the grief felt throughout the stadium and across Rwanda. It is impossible to miss, and would be disrespectful to ignore.

Kwibuka for me was about taking the time to accept my history, but most importantly to look towards the future with hope.

“This is the light, the light of remembrance. And as long as I live, the spirit of Rwandan will never die.”

There wasn’t a part of the commemoration that wasn’t emotionally raw. They showed one of the most heart wrenching dramatical performances of the story of the Rwandan genocide. It felt like my heart was being broken into pieces. It was as if suddenly history had stood still. They weren’t re-telling a make belief story, this was real, and the truth was difficult to swallow.

The commemoration ended with a powerful and inspirational speech from the President of Rwanda. Something that was needed to lift the spirits of the crowd and encourage us all to look the the future. Now there, that’s leadership. Instilling hope, and reminding how resilient Rwanda has been, and will continue to be.

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After years of, in many ways, feeling ashamed of coming from Rwanda, mainly due to the looks of pity I was greeted by once I introduced myself, there, for the first time, I felt I could thrust with pride for being part of this beautiful country. People here have a strength and determination to better themselves, which is both admirable, and inspiring.

Though the memorial had broken me in numerous ways, I suddenly felt stronger inside. Sometimes you have to fall apart so you can build yourself back up again. 20 years wait to feel like this. And the feeling was just glorious. I just wanted to shout it from the rooftops. I’M ALIVE. I FEEL FREE.

Last summer during my very first visit to Rwanda, many of the children of the orphanage looked at me as one of the ‘lucky ones’ to have had a ticket out of Rwanda, just before the genocide. To be able to stand before them fairly un bruised, intact, with what seemed to them a quite perfect adoptive life. Whilst growing up, I was endlessly filled with conflicting and confusing feelings, and struggled to really feel like I belonged somewhere. I felt disjointed in the family I was put in, growing up in a white family I endlessly stuck out like a sore thumb in family photos. I wanted to identify with someone, feel some familiarity, feel at home.

When I took the journey back Byumba where I was born, for the very first time, I felt that feeling I had yearned for my whole life; I felt like I belonged. I felt at peace. I instantly fell in love with every little thing about the place. It’s surreal really, I didn’t think this would be possible. Things felt familiar, my heart was content, and I quietly whispered “Mum, Dad, I made it home. I miss you so much.”

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For most of my childhood, and up until now, Rwanda had been my weak spot, the thing I muttered under my breath when someone asked me where I was from, the thing I would prefer saying I was from “Africa” instead of “Rwanda”, just to avoid the thousands of following up questions and looks of utter despair. Enough is enough.

It’s been a rocky journey to get to here, but every bit of it has made me into the person I am today.

Finally, my history doesn’t make me crumble. It doesn’t mean that things get easier, but I’ve just become stronger. A whole lot stronger. I’ve built an armour; full of all my scars, tears, heartache, anguish, and loss.

Mamma, look at me now, I made it home, and now, I am invincible.

 

From trauma to strength

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There was always something different about this trip. A few months ago I had found myself crying for home, with deep feelings of heartbreak and loss. My soul needs regular top ups of Rwanda, it craves it, yearns for it. Though this time around, compared to my younger years, I didn’t have to just sit and feel sad. That realisation was an overwhelmingly empowering one. Rwanda is something that is attainable – I don’t have to wait on anyone to make it back home –  I have full control of the outcome of my happiness.

 

20.

I am here on the flight to Rwanda, and my heart is crying. I miss my parents so much. I wish they were still alive. I just want to see a fragment of them. I’m writing so that I don’t break down a thousand miles up in the air. I know it’s good to cry but sometimes my feelings around Rwanda are so overwhelming that I feel I can’t breathe.

It’s a funny thing what we see as home. It’s only when I go back to Rwanda that I realise how much I miss it. I want my children to love their homeland. To learn about it’s pain, joy and past. And understand the stake they have in shaping it’s future.

I wonder what my parents are up to now. Dancing, singing, laughing, being. The force that pulls me back to Rwanda every time is more powerful than anything in the world. Even though I have so few memories of the life I once had, my heart strings get pulled back time and time again. I’ve learnt to answer it’s call instead of fighting against it and wrap myself tightly in it’s arms.

I have built myself a strong and fulfilled life, one that I hope are making my parents proud. The walls are strong, I can feel the ground. I wanted to build the foundations so they were solid to support my children. There was a time that the thought of having a child, and looking at a reflection of my parents broke me inside. Restarting the family tree gave me a great feeling of anxiety and dread. And now, I simply can’t wait. I see all the goodness that I have inherited from them, and I’m so excited to pass it on.

In the midst of the tears, I am here on the flight thinking, ‘damn, I’ve done good’. I’ve pulled through. Made something of yourself. Journeyed through from trauma to strength with so much grace and class. And I’m thankful for every heartbreak and struggle, because it has allowed me to lead me to today – and today is pretty great.

21.

It feels nice to be back. Arriving into Kigali felt like a soft comfort blanket being pulled around me. The noise, smell, and life is now more familiar, more soft, more like home. The first time I got on a motor taxi, I clung onto it as if my life was on edge. Now I find a great feeling of freedom and a space to think during the journey.

I went to visit a friend for coffee. I feel very lucky to have made friends in Rwanda that over the years have become like family.

22.

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22… Actually, feeling 28! Happy birthday to me! The reason why I’m here. The best birthday gift to myself: home. Birthdays are for doing what you want, and this is it! It’s pretty wonderful to be able fly over and celebrate. I spent the day with a glass of wine in one hand and pizza in another – 16143161_10158047991620654_4477036451170018584_nwhat more could a girl want?

My time-hop reminded me that this time 4 years ago I got my first flight s back to Rwanda as my birthday gift. I remember practically crying with happiness for making what felt like an impossible dream come true. The first journey back was the hardest, but that first step literally changed everything. I’m now in my fourth visit, and I’m blessed to have re-found a home, a safe place I feel safe, closure, and a small sense of walking in my Rwandan parents steps.

23.

One of things I was most anxious about this trip was travelling around on my own. My level of Kinyarwanda stretches to about 5 words, which makes interactions interesting. I really struggled with looking Rwandan but not ‘feeling’ Rwandan a lot during my first few visits. The language barrier has been a huge challenge, with an endless imposter syndrome and feeling of only ever having one foot in and the other in limbo.

I have accepted  that I’m not going to miraculously be trilingual overnight. Realistically I would need to move to Rwanda and immerse myself in it for me to fully match the outside to the inside. Until then, I will continue to do regularly top ups of home, continue to be kind to myself, and well, you never know what the future may hold.

I took my first road trip to Musanze to see the caves. I had heard about it from someone’s YouTube channel. It was a long journey there and back, but every second worth it. The caves are at the Volcano National Park, and the views around are simply breath taking. It’s on my bucket list to make it back to trek the volcanos. There’s something captivating about the beauty of Rwanda.

To end the day I got have dinner overlooking Kigali. Whatever angle I look at Rwanda, I fall in love with it. Over and over again.

24.

Today has mainly been spent sitting very still getting my hair done. A whole 7 hours of it. I love being able to completely transform myself through my hair. It’s a stamp of identity. Abracadabra! 16195951_10158070162765654_1838641194174770667_n

25.

Today started off with eating too much breakfast, then lying very still for it all to digest. Food tastes so good here, that sometimes it’s difficult to slow down.

I decided to go visit the Genocide Memorial. It’s now my 3rd visit, and each of them have held such a special meaning. I was only planning to spend 2 hours there then head home, but found myself being there for the whole day. 16142448_10158070662025654_1488809269518643852_n

The memorial is my way of paying my respects, and to have the space to mourn for my Rwandan parents. And boy do I miss them so much. There’s times that I feel like my heart is being ripped apart. Coming to terms with loss when I was little was really hard. I just didn’t know what to do with all the razer blade feelings. I wanted to mourn, but not seen ungrateful – to cry my heart out but not seem forever unhappy. I used to wish so many times that my parents had passed away in a more convential way, where there’s a funeral, where you’re given that space to feel sad and hate on the world for as long as you need to. The memorial centre has given me permission to grease and the strength to build myself back again.

I’ve always held on to the idea that they never really left but just turned into my guardian angels. Whilst leaving me with their great genes, resilience and hope for a better life.

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26.

I had a day trip Butare to visit the National Museum. On a normal day, a visit to a museum wouldn’t be my number one choice activity, but one of the goals for this trip was to learn more about Rwanda, and discover it properly – outside Kigali.

It was so good to learn more about the history. To find out how my family lived all those years ago.

This country has an abundance of so much richness and strength. Often when you think about Rwanda, you only think about genocide – when actually the country is built on so much more than that.

Rwanda, you’re even more beautiful now I know more about you.

 

27.

It wouldn’t be a visit back without going back to where it all started. Today I journeyed to Byumba to where I was born. I’ve no real memories of it all before, other than fragments of horror like images which I’ve no idea how to work out which are the broken pieces of reality. Yet every time I go, it’s where my soul feels most at peace. I’m captivated by it’s beauty, and the soothing feeling that this is where my parents once walked. When I was a kid I wondered so much what home used to be like. I’m glad that now I have something I can touch, feel and see. Byumba, you’re just as beautiful as the first time I met you again.

I visited a friend who used to be in the orphanage with us many moons ago. Now he’s built numerous schools in Rwanda, with hopes of building a university. Education is platform for opportunity, yet not everyone has access to it. I’m hoping to work out a way to set up a scholarships fund to support young people excel through education. It’s my bucket list dream that I am slowly working towards.

One of the best things about this trip has been all the solo road trips to discover the endless beauty of Rwanda. The first trip back in 2013 left me with a bucket load of anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and a good years worth of intense depression. Sweet heavens I’m proud of the journey from then to now. Rwanda, you will forever and always have a piece of my heart. Thank you for letting me fall in love with you all over again.

28.

All aboard the homeward flight back to the UK. Everytime I leave Rwanda, I question why I’m leaving in the first place. There’s going to come a time where the sporadic visits won’t be enough, but until then, I’m glad that Rwanda is there to welcome me home every time I come back. I am so proud of myself for how much I’ve grown through all my visits. For the strength to have gotten back up after the trips and falls – and the ability to take in every step of this incredible journey.

Goodbye isn’t forever. Goodbye isn’t the end. It only means I will miss you, until we meet again.

I’m really proud that I can now say that I’ve accomplished my childhood wish of finding inner peace and feeling in harmony with my past. Not the usual “when u grow up, I want to be…” but I felt every fragment of the wish when I found myself sobbing in the middle of the night exhausted over feeling so broken. The pain of Rwanda used to hold me back from so much happiness – and now I feel an unprecedented feeling of freedom.

If that’s not something to shout from the rooftops, I don’t know what is.

I’ve built myself an armour from all the pain and turned it into something good. Mamma, I’ve made it back, and now I’m invinsible.

3 years on.

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Life spins so fast at times, that you sometimes forget where you’ve been. I’ve always found Time Hop to be a beautiful thing to get you to stop and reflect. 3 years ago today I was standing in London Heathrow waiting for my flight to Rwanda. I remember the fear, the anxiety, the excitement, the overflowing emotions.

3 years on.

I am so proud of myself of how far I’ve come, of how much I’ve pushed through life, and how much stronger I’ve grown.

I never really knew how life would be like after I returned to Rwanda. But I always knew that going  would finally allow me to breathe. After drowning under water for most of my life, it was worth taking the risk of the unknown. My everything was yearning for that moment where I felt I could start living. The kind of living where things still happen (because life is like that) but that it doesn’t hold you back. Setbacks happen, but they are only for a moment. I’ve grown so much stronger in the last 3 years, and it all started with that one moment. That moment where I decided to stop letting the pain from my scars of Rwanda to control me – and for to me to start taking control of them.

I’ve found myself with fewer heartbreaks and homesickness for Rwanda. Which has allowed to live in the present, with less frequent nightmares from the past.

Fast forward another 3 years from today, and my love for Rwanda is still pushing on. My plan is to spend my 30th birthday in Rwanda, and to fly out for the 25th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. For me, those will be landmark life moments of healing, forgiveness and growth.

Plus no doubt countless small life wins, challenges, personal goals, and hallelujah moments along the way. Because the journey is just as important as the destination.

Looking back on how much I’ve lived 3 years on, I’m pretty excited to see what the next 3 will hold. And the next, and the next, and the next.

I know that with every step of the way I will continue to make my mamma proud, now and forever.

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Heart forever in Rwanda

When your heart is aching, write. Because words are better on paper than thrown like scolding daggers to the word.

It’s the first time that I feel that my life is somewhat stable. Heck, it feels like I went through hell and back to get here though. After all those years of turbulent emotional chaos, I’ve managed to regain the reigns of my life – things are far from perfect, but this state of mind is worth celebrating.

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Amongst all that, Rwanda still stings a part of my heart. The sting isn’t as cut throat as it once was, and the waves of sadness don’t come as regularly. And even when they do, I know what to do to get things back in control.

I found myself the other day trying to find local commemorations, and failed. It breaks my heart that my comfort zones require at least 5 hours of international flight and a spare £800 in my bank account. Those moments when I just want to wrap my everything in Rwanda, feel a closer to my Rwandan parents, and get a new doze of life.

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It’s been a long and hard journey to get to a place where Rwanda doesn’t break me. It amazes me to think that my first visit back was in 2013, and just the sheer transformation that’s happened because of it. Knowing your history, and being able to be at peace with it – is one of the most precious things. Sure, there’s numerous times that I still feel angry towards the fact that the genocide happened. I find myself crying uncontrollably for the loss of my parents, and for the part of my heart what will always feel broken. It is mind numbing that humanity has it in them to create so much suffering. But if I’ve learnt anything recently, is that holding on to hot coals of anger only burns you in the long run. Forgetting isn’t the solution, but remembering. We all would choose to not have scars and battle wounds from life – but what is in our power is what life we decide to live thereafter.

I feel like I’ve inherited my Rwandan parents’ resilience. I sometimes wonder if I inherited their looks too. Their smile, their eyes, their laugh. What I would give for the warm embrace of my mother. Though it will only be once I make it to heaven. Until then, I hope that I live a life that makes them proud. Returning to Rwanda broke me into pieces, and built me back together again. There’s been so many times that I’ve cursed the heavens for surviving the genocide. Slowly, as the days go by, I feel an armour of emotional strength being built around me. I feel the presence of my Rwandan parents looking over me, and guiding me through this funny little thing called life. I’m accepting that that my story is meant to continue. My heart will always be in Rwanda – but I’m learning to, slowly, to accept that I’m still standing for a reason, and for my parents’ sake, I want to make it all count for something.

“Your story may not have such a happy beginning, but that doesn’t make you who you are. It is the rest of your story, who you choose to be.” – Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

 

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Ain’t no mountain high enough

It’s true what they say; breakdowns lead to breakthroughs. 

I’ve always had a soft spot for inspirational quotes. What I’ve discovered recently, is that inspirational quotes can only get you so far. At some point, you have to become your own inspirational super hero. You have to build your own armour. Grow your own wings. Find your own voice. 

Rwanda has taught me all of that, and then some.

I stumbled back from my first trip in an emotional puddle on the floor. Like life had chewed me up and spat me right back out. With no mercy. Because that’s how life is sometimes. 

Falling apart is one thing, finding the strength to get back up is a whole other battle. I am proud of the scars, the bruises, the tears. Recovering from Rwanda was one of the hardest things; but it’s made me into the fearseless, strong, feisty, confident, and sassy young Rwandan super hero. 

  

A trip down memory lane

This week I had the great pleasure of being part of the Time To Change Champions Conference, and was invited as a speaker to share my own experience about campaigning for better mental health in the workplace and in institutions. I’ve battled with depression and anxiety for what feels like most of my life, and have been only just started to feel in a place of relative emotional control. My trip to Rwanda played a huge part in making / breaking me, though I’m very grateful and thankful for the whole experience as it’s made me into the person I am today. I’m really excited about my upcoming Mind Charity 3000s challenge, as I finally feel in a place to use all those emotions and hardships into something good. I will be climbing 3,000ft in 24hours in the Lake District all to funds & awareness for mental health. I spent the most part of a year once I returned form my first trip to Rwanda an emotional mess & struggled so much to get my life back together. I seriously had underestimated the sheer level of emotional trauma I processed in those 2 weeks. It’s surreal that society makes you feel that there’s a time limit of how long you’re allowed to have an emotional breakdown for. It was only when I read an article on the Mind Charity website about post traumatic stress disorder that I realised that I hadn’t lost my mind. That crying nearly every day was ok. That feeling too anxious to leave the house & be around strangers was understandable after experiencing a near-miss kidnap disaster. That managing to get out of bed, shower, look for a job, get a job, and appear vaguely normal was a huge achievement considering staying in bed with the blinds shut was what I wanted to do most at the time. If it hadn’t been for that little article, I would have continued to beat myself up inside for feeling so dysfunctional. Charities like Mind give people a certain glimmer of hope. It doesn’t magically make your mental health disappear, but it fosters a society of understanding & acceptance. Once I understood what was going on in my head, it was easier to accept that the trip to Rwanda had completely traumatised me. This is why I am doing the Mind 3000 challenge; to try and offer that glimmer of hope to others with mental health. I thought I would share my speech I delivered at the conference. It’s been a bit surreal to have gone from fan girling at key note speakers at events to the person standing behind the podium.

Let me take you on a down memory lane. It was one of those breakdown moments. Those slow car crash moments, where you can see your life falling apart in front of you. Let me take you down memory lane, where after bursting into tears at work one time too many, I started to feel in total despair as to why I even got out of bed that morning. Have you ever tried to appear normal at work? Do you know how much energy you use up trying to hold it together? When all you want to do is cry. And cry. And cry a little more. When you know you should feel grateful for all you have yet inside you feel so lost? That day, I asked to go for coffee with two of the senior managers. I was armed with the speech I was going to deliver, after spending most of the night before trying to find the easiest way of announcing my breakdown. I was mentally prepared to finish the conversation with an awkward silence, and being asked nicely to leave the organisation that day. There and then. I had had breakdowns before, but now I couldn’t see how I could continue a job where it required me to look after everyone else, when I could barely look after myself properly. I had done some background reading via the Time To Change website, on how organisations dealt with mental health. I had the memorised the dialogue, all of the facts, though after reading some bad stories on other websites I was left not too sure which side of the story to believe. The responses of my managers made me cry that day. And it formed the very start of my activism with Time To Change. They asked what they could do to help. They valued me as a person, not just stereotype the mental health and didn’t shrivel at the conversation. They allowed me to be flexible with my work hours so I could go back to weekly therapy sessions. Most importantly they made me feel that I was strong enough to have a job, and have mental health. I just had to be patient and be kind to myself. They showed me there was another option than just walking away from it all. I signed up to be a Time To Change Champion sooner after, and then went on to look at ways I could bring that glimmer of hope to other people at work. I started small. With running awareness days  on campus, and getting students behind it. I had been on the receiving end of the impact of an organisation “getting mental health” and it had changed my life. Being in an elected role within the organisation, I had a unique influence over its direction, and was able to propel Time To Change to the top of the priority. We signed the Time To Change that year, and the next went get the university behind it. That conversation was interesting. “Louise, we’re not there yet. Not like you. To get staff to be open about their mental health. It’s different for you.” Organisational engagement isn’t an overnight magic trick. You have to understand the structure, what makes the organisation tick. After two years of work, we had successfully got the Students’ Union and the university to sign the Time To Change pledge, and we were starting to be known for that. Both locally and nationally. I was lucky to be able to be part of the National Union of Students to sign the pledge, which then created a domino effect for other institutions to do the same. If you want to know what makes an institution tick, it’s public perception and robust policies. You can’t achieve this by an ambush. At the end of the 2 years the Students’ Union and the University Human Resources department received the Strategic Partnership Award for successfully working together to achieve change for both students and staff. A gold star recognition from the Vice Chancellor himself. We were finally making waves. As the African proverb says “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” However, organisations don’t always get it right. After I returned from Rwanda in 2013, and tried to make sense of the traumatic events of the trip, I spent the next year gripping between normality and an epic mental breakdown. Being a Time To Change Champion, not disclosing would have gone against my values, and everything I believed in. Though disclosing doesn’t always go right. It very much depends on who you talk to. Disclosing on this instance led me to feel so much shame for having mental health. When I had worked so hard to appear “normal”. Discrimination is solely due to ignorance or fear. Discrimination is solely due to ignorance and fear. Mental health doesn’t mean you’re incapable to work, it just means you need a bit of extra help. I strongly believe that organisations can’t sign the pledge and not proactively do something about it. You have to at least try. Even if the wave is small, or you think it’s insignificant. Someone is probably quietly thanking the heavens for you speaking out. Shifting the culture of a whole organisation isn’t easy. But change starts by one person standing up, and believing things should be different, and doing something about. Organisations need to go beyond lip service, and put practical, measurable, and impactful things in place. Mental health impacts too many people for organisations to not take it seriously.Though often you have to break through the tedious bureaucracy before you’ve even started the battle. But the battle is worth it. After all, we spend 75% of our time at work, we have the right to enjoy being there.