Friday, March 7, 2014

How to Survive Living in a Convent for Two Years: A True Story

            Sometimes I look around me, at my life in Rwanda, and I’m just tremendously satisfied. I wonder if this is really my life, if I'm really living in a convent here in Rwanda. 

Yep, it's real, and the lovely ladies I live with are a big part of my life here. So this post is for them. 

            The sisters are Soeurs Penitentes de St. Francois, or the Penitent Sisters of St. Francis, and their motto is "to serve with joy and simplicity.” I think their motto has rubbed off on me. Right now, we have a full house. 8 nuns: Ma Mere (our Mother Superior), Sr. Alphonsine, Sr. Marie Claire, Sr. Claire, Sr. Beata, Sr. Rachel, Sr. Coretta, and Sr. Drocelle. Some work at the school as teachers and administrators, some work at the health center with me, and some are in charge of keeping the household in order. I have to admit that I had a few doubts when I learned I'd be living in a convent for two years, but it has been an incredible adventure, to say the least.

            There was the time Sr. Alphonsine, the slightly intimidating dean of studies at the school, took me into her room after dinner, shut the door, and said that we had something very serious to talk about. I was terrified that I was getting kicked out of the convent. I wracked my brain for what I could have done to have deserved such a fate: playing Lady Gaga too loudly during their night prayer, perhaps? Sr. Alphonsine cleared her throat. “We want to know how we can best accommodate your parents while they are here. How can we make them most comfortable?” She cracked a smile, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more relieved.

            On one of the worst days of my service, 150 people living with HIV/AIDS were waiting at our health center at 7 am to pick up their pig as part of my animal husbandry project. People waited around all day, with no food or water, for the pig sellers to arrive (they had promised us they’d arrive at 8 am, and kept telling me they were “right around the corner” each time I’d call them). Finally, at 7 pm, it was dark out and we told everyone they had to go home empty handed and come back the next morning; some people had a two hour journey in the dark to get home. Our pig sellers were 13 HOURS late to deliver our pigs, and I was furious. I came back to the convent weary and ready to cry, and I found two of the sisters waiting up for me. They had made waffles, my favorite, and we sat eating them late into the night while they taught me insults in Kinyarwanda. It’s important to be able to say “A curse on your father!” in multiple languages, right?

            There was the time when I groggily woke up two minutes before Sunday mass started, threw on a dress in the dark, and ran to church. It was only during mass that I noticed my dress was inside out. The nuns all thought it was hilarious, and teased me mercilessly about getting more sleep. The next morning, I found all the nuns sitting at our breakfast table with all of their clothes inside out. We all burst out laughing.

            When I’m sick, a nun comes and checks on me almost every hour, bringing offerings of hot tea and soup, and insisting that I wear a scarf around my neck at all times. And then they insist I drink copious amounts of their home-brewed banana beer, because it "heals you." When I come back to the convent after a trip from Kigali, even if I was only gone for a couple days, the sisters drop everything to welcome me as if it’s the first time they’ve seen me.

            Through the sisters, I have learned so much about compassion. There’s a crazy man in our village. He has clubfeet and ripped clothes. He is almost always dirty and has snot constantly running out of his nose. He mutters unintelligibly to himself, and I have seen people throw rocks at him before. But the nuns offer him a hot meal and a place to wash at our house whenever he comes by.

            Even though I have given up certain freedoms and some of my independence in order to live in the convent (no boys allowed!), it has been 100%, completely worth it. I may not be able to throw parties at my house or have guests without prior permission, but I love the sense of community and spirituality that pervades the walls of the convent. I love waking up every morning to the sounds of the sisters’ hymns (my bedroom shares a wall with our small chapel). I love our easy mixing of French and Kinyarwanda. I love our spontaneous dance parties. I love drinking coffee we’ve grown in our field, milk from our own cow, eating vegetables and fruits from our garden, and eggs from our chickens. Nothing is wasted.

             It has been the simple moments that I’ve cherished most here. Shelling beans at night, listening to the radio together, the nuns asking how my day was at the dinner table, me teaching them how to cook a few American dishes, singing together as we wash dishes.

            As I contemplate my next steps in life, the sisters' message of serving in joy and simplicity will always remain with me. 

True life: I've lived in a convent for almost two years, and I've loved every minute. 


  1. This really made me smile :)

  2. Omg I loved this so much it brought years to my eyes!! Claire you are experiencing God in the little places, and finding out He is magnificently beautiful! What a special journey you are on! God bless you :)!