Kate McKenzie

Unexpected Courage

Squat toilet

Courage can take many shapes and forms.  For me it did not take too much courage to go down class 5 rapids on the Nile River, it also did not take a lot of courage to record a song with Rwandan musicians or to start up conversations with people that I had never met.  Instead what took the most courage for me in the last couple of weeks was going to the bathroom!

I knew that sooner or later in this adventure I would have to use one but I was hoping to put it off for as long as possible!  I would always ask somewhat apprehensively where to find the washrooms and would breath a sigh of relief when I saw the porcelain toilet!  So as I stared down the first squat toilet, trying to figure out how exactly I would avoid making a giant mess, I started to summon all the courage I had.  It wasn’t just the lack of a toilet that scared me, more it was the thought of what might be in there.  The idea that anything could at any point jump up and eat me!  I know it sounds ridiculous but squatting down for the first time, for me, took way more courage than most everything else I had done so far!

What I am learning is that what takes courage for one will not take courage for another.  I think it’s why community is so important.  When we have each other we can get through these times that are difficult by holding hands and helping each other.  Or at least having someone to laugh with after we have faced our fears.  It’s made me realize how important it is to be compassionate with others about their fears.  Although their fears may seem completely and entirely irrational to me, to them, they are real.  It has made me think about how I can help others to feel safe around me, how I can communicate that they are with a safe person even when I don’t speak their language.


After visiting a grandmother and an elder here in the small village of Kampella, I realized that sometimes this kind of deep communication is simple.  I was working through a translator at the time and was trying to communicate how deeply her story had touched me and how much I appreciated her inviting me into her home.  She answered back through the translator, “I can see how you feel through your eyes and I feel what are you are saying to me before he [the translator] says it.”  Amazing that we can give others this sense of how much we value and appreciate them even when we do not speak the same language.  It is making me realize that even the act of being willing to listen to someone share their story can be one of the most important things we do.

Listening to another young woman, Guadencia, reminded me that courage is often not in one heroic moment but in living life daily.  Guadencia is the daughter of a widow and is the first person in her entire family to go to school.  She has had to work hard her whole life to scrape together the funds she needed to go to school.  Guadencia has had to be even more courageous since her mother has HIV and is often too sick to help with the work.  Guadencia told me proudly that she had finished Senior 4 which would allow her to go onto to doing training to become a nursery school teacher – her dream.  Her eyes lit up as she told me how she was planning on saving her money from working for the family I was staying with to allow her to pay the fees to take another year of education.

L-R Fausta, Guadencia, Shiba(winking), Kate

All of this she told me while we stirred the family dinner over an open fire the smoke filling our eyes with no power or light to see what we were doing.  This is courage.  Guadencia did not once complain while I was with her instead she was always asking me “Do you want to learn another song?” And so, while we toiled to make our dinner and she told me a story of perseverance that most would find impossible, we sang.  Perhaps that is the secret to courage, not in mustering up huge amounts of determination in one moment but rather finding ways to sing and connect with others through the difficult moments of each day.

4 thoughts on “Unexpected Courage

  1. Awesome story. It really puts us into perspective to realize our own fears and what we are hesitant about doing, the restrictions we place on ourselves. We acknowledge that we require people and experiences in order to overcome these fears. According to the passage, the Rwandans show us that anything is possible. The young girl in school, she had limits, she surpassed them. When you put your heart to something, the sky is the limit and courage keeps on building.

    I literally laughed out loud when I read the toliet segment of this passage! But as I kept reading, my heart felt warm and I smiled at my computer screen while others surrounding me glared over at me for laughing and now smiling with myself. But truly, if you can smile with yourself, then you can smile with others. Smile with others, share, connect and learn with others–we can conquer anything beyond this point.

    So proud to say I know someone like you Kate. Your entire journey is a courageous one! Can’t wait to read more about your experiences!


  2. I think it’s wonderful that you gave the gift of yourself and without language the elderly lady could see that in your countenance. Our presence with people is huge and often undervalued. I too laughed at the “pit” story. I have worried when I’ve been in outhouses too! Mom

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