Sunday, June 28, 2009

Here's to the Friends We Love, Here's to the Friends Who Love Us!

One of my biggest fears when I decided to leave Las Vegas to pursue life in Rwanda was leaving all my friends behind and making new friends in Rwanda. I had no idea what to expect when I landed in Kigali almost ten weeks ago. I did know what I was leaving behind, an eclectic mix of friends, mostly cyclists, who have been my only sense of community in the six years I have lived in the very transient and isolated landscape that is Las Vegas. They are my friends who have supported me, loved me and encouraged me. They have supported the spirit of Project and Team Rwanda with their energy, enthusiasm and money. I am blessed to be a Las Vegas cyclist.

I have heard that if at the end of your life you had five very good friends, relationships that transcended all the life events of each person you would be fortunate. I am beyond fortunate. Will the friendships I have formed so quickly and so strongly while in Rwanda transcend the distance that will inevitably separate all of us? The lives we choose to live abroad impact our loved ones at home and impact the new relationships we forge while planting our feet for a couple of months in a foreign land. Will Johnny Umuzungu remember his counterpart, Blondie after the word Umuzungu is a faint memory?

I remember the first day I met the infamous Johnny Muzungu, a big blonde teddy bear of a guy from the Midwest. I was at our local hangout having drinks with another friend and he sees Johnny walking into the hotel. He waves him over and introduces me to him. “You’re Johnny Muzungu!”, I practically screamed as I shook his hand. Johnny Muzungu is a legend in these parts. He’s big, blonde, hysterically funny, easy going and so good to the Rwandan’s, whose lives he improves every day. Everyone knows Johnny Muzungu.

His American name is John Huston. He works for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project and works mostly with cows and livestock in Rwanda. He lives two houses away from me around the corner and has a TV and a large collection of DVDs, a priceless commodity in Rwanda.
One night while drinking at the Murhabura, I became “Blondie Muzungu” and our friendship was sealed. We are quite the sight in this small town in the Virunga mountains, tall, big and blonde, both of us with so much passion to help the people of Rwanda that it often takes a deep personal toll.

Friday night I went to Johnny’s for movies and popcorn. I had just spent almost a week in Kigali and I was exhausted. I just wanted to chill. I popped some popcorn, cracked open a Coke Zero (still can’t find real American Diet Coke) and plunked down on the janky foam cushioned, wooden Rwandan couch. Johnny was across the coffee table from me on the same janky foam cushioned, wooden couch. Rwandan’s do not know furniture.

After watching three episodes of Always Sunny in Philadelphia, he broke out the chocolate a girl from the US had sent to him in a care package this week. You could tell this girl means a lot to him and it wasn’t just because she sent chocolate. You could see it in his face. Love from home is sweet yet sad. It bolsters your spirit while at the same time reminding you of who you have left behind in pursuit of this life.
Two episodes later, covered in a blanket I made him grab off his bed, I am sound asleep on the JFCWRC (Janky Foam Cushioned Wooden Rwandan Couch). Can I tell you how much it felt like home? For those couple of hours, I felt like I was in Las Vegas, chilling on my couch just doing normal American activities except for the wood from the JFCWRC digging into my hip. I looked across the table to see Johnny asleep on his JFCWRC.

When I was leaving we started talking about the past week. I am not doing a good job anymore of hiding my emotions, something that Is difficult for me to reconcile myself to. The gap between really good days and really bad days is infinitesimal. I talked to him about the isolation I had experienced with someone and the uncertainty of the foundation on which I stand. Johnny and I are very similar. Maybe it’s the Midwestern work ethic gene we both carry. We both are passionate about what we do, we work extremely hard, get results but sometimes forget to step back and realize all the good we have accomplished as we forge on to the next result.

Here’s to Johnny Muzungu!

Last night, I got home after working the entire day and grabbed my bottle of expensively cheap nasty wine to have a glass while making dinner only to find that I had no cork screw. The travesty! So I called Johnny and luckily he was home so off around the corner to his house and the key to unlock my relaxation elixir.

When I walked in the door I knew something was wrong.
Johnny’s cousin’s wife, a young woman in her 30’s with three kids, had died. She had a cold, took some cold medicine on Thursday, went to bed and never woke up. She had been in a coma and they had tried to relieve the pressure in her brain but it was too late. Johnny’s cousin had to pull the plug. Johnny’s family is small and very close. The gravity of the grief was palpable. The red eyes, the empty bottles of sprite, coke and gin littering the table indications of the extreme sadness that overtook his world. Adding to the sadness, is the reality that Johnny cannot be there. Leaving Rwanda is difficult on a well planned trip with weeks and months to prepare. Leaving Rwanda on a day’s notice, near impossible.

We all know in the back of our minds that having tragedy strike at home is a reality. It is life, people become sick, our loved ones pass away, sometimes suddenly. Our unspoken truth of the situation is we all know there is a possibility we will not make it back in time. That is difficult to accept. The people at home are the ones who support us with their love and encouragement and even their money. They make our dreams a reality and when something happens to those friends or family members, we may not be able to be there to honor their lives, the lives that made pursuing our dreams possible. That reality brings a deep sadness. I pray every day to keep my friends and family safe back home. I pray for the families and friends of those here who I have grown to know and love. I pray to God to comfort Johnny in his grief.

Johnny said to me last night as I was getting ready to leave, “Kim, don’t forget to enjoy the moments and look at everything you’ve done here. If I can give you any advice, since we’re a lot alike, take time to list the things you want to do in the morning and then make a list of things you accomplished at the end of the day. Do this for a week and at the end of that week look back and take time to look at all you’ve done. You will see how much of a difference you make.” That is why Johnny is here. He is far from the ones he loves dealing with the incredible sadness of not being able to be home when that’s the only place he wants to be at this moment.

Here’s to the Friends we LOVE…..

Here’s to the Friends who LOVE us….


  1. Kim,

    I love reading your blog. It reminds me of why I am here sometimes.

    Be weary of how much you give emotionally, this place will suck you dry and spit you out. If you want to last more than a few months then find the balance.

  2. Kim - Thanks. Talking to you really hit the spot last night and being your friend is cool.
    Johnny Umuzungu