Kelsie Harriman: Trust Me

Most of us are very careful about who we trust.  From childhood, we are filled with a fear of strangers and friends will with ill intent. Lend someone your money, and you may never again see it; give a man your time, and you may never get it back; reveal to a woman your heart, and she may choose to break it.  Caution is the name of the game.

I’ve always approached life with a healthy dose of skepticism, which until this point, it has served me quite well.  I am  very careful about who I trust; I won’t lend my money, my time, or my heart, to someone I don’t know well.

But life is full of change and new beginnings, and there will always be times when we find ourselves in situations where we don’t know anyone well.  In these moments, the wise words of Ernest Hemingway ring true: the only way to discover if we are able to trust someone is to start trusting them.

And this is absolutely terrifying.

I grew up in a small town in Montana, where everyone knew everyone, so it was quite shocking to come to Rwanda personally knowing only five people in the country and being completely unable to communicate. If I wanted food or water or directions around the city, I had two choices: figure it out myself, or trust someone to help me. I quickly learned that the “figuring it out for myself” option was rarely a sufficient means to meet my needs, which has left me to wallow in the discomfort of my only alternative: trust.

Take, for example, transportation. One of the primary means of navigating the Kigali is by moto, which is a small motor bike with two seats and two helmets, one each for passenger and driver. Locals take motos like they drink water — but I am most obviously not a local.  I am totally comfortable with Uber, but for some reason, I find it very unsettling to get on the backseat of a motorcycle driven by a person with whom I have no means to communicate.

Up until now, the moto-riding process for non-native me has gone something like this: I flag down a moto. I greet the driver with my approximate version of the Kinyarwanda  “hello,” then dial a local friend to ask them to give directions  in Kinyarwanda to the driver. I spend the entirety of the ride going down unfamiliar streets praying all the while that the stranger I am sitting behind is a good and honest person who will take me safely to my destination. So far, my prayers worked.

If you come to visit me in Kigali, I will suggest that you take moto exactly in this manner. And if you are anything like me, you will be terrified.

Often in life, however, we have no choice but to get on the back of a stranger’s moto and pray to God that everything is going to be ok. Sometimes, we must resign ourselves to being pulled through a maze of dark and unfamiliar streets, wondering all the while why we agreed to get on the moto in the first place. The driver of our fate receives the directions form Someone on high in a language we find unintelligible, leaving us with no idea where we are going or how to get there.

You needn’t despair, however. Although I may never fully trust Kigali moto drivers, you, like me, can have confidence in the friends who give our drivers directions.  Likewise, we can have confidence in the guidance of He Who Is on High, for if it is His will that we arrive at our destination safely, surely, we will.

We will all encounter moments when we can lean not on our own understanding. In these times, we have no choice to trust in Someone who knows the right way, and jump on the bike of a stranger’s moto in faith that – Lord willing – we will arrive at the right destination.


Kelsie Harriman: The Unfinished Story

There are stories from Rwanda I have not been telling you.

There are stories from Rwanda the world has not been telling you, either.

Since relaying the saga of the missing key,wherein I was apparently locked out my house and left to wallow in tears, dust, and self-pity on my front porch, I’ve over and over again been asked the same question: was I ever able to get back into the house? The flood of inquiries has made me realized that I published an unfinished story.

The short answer? Yes, I was able to get back into my house.

The long answer? Only moments after finishing keying the final words of the story of the missing key, I phoned my friend’s sister to relay my plight. She answered immediately, offered her sympathy, then asked me to hand the phone to a passing moto driver so that she could give him directions. Within half an hour, the moto driver dropped me off at the home of the family whom she was visiting. I was warmly welcomed.

Soon after arriving, the sister and her boyfriend took me out to watch a men’s basketball game at a local sports club. They made a point to find me a seat in the overcrowded arena, bought me a chips and soda, introduced me to all of their friends, and politely answered the plethora of questions I had about the sport of basketball and Rwandan culture. After the game, the sister took me back to her home, fed me, stayed up to chat until two in the morning, and then gave a pair of her own pair of pajamas to sleep in.

I’ve only ever before experienced hospitality like that from my immediate family, and I did not know how to respond to the same kind of generosity from a girl I had met only four days previously. I resorted to saying a genuine “thank you” during every pause in conversation until she stopped me and said, “Quit thanking me. What I have, I will share. That is just how things work in Rwanda.”

This is the unfinished story: unrivaled generosity, superfluous hospitality, and undue kindness, even from those who owe you nothing. A tale of locked doors that open easily the next morning, either because the strange man on the moto came just like he promised, or because the door was perhaps never really locked, and only jammed, in the first place. Now, I am left asking myself why I chose tell the second half of my tale – the one washed in bright colors of love and of friendship – only after being pestered about my narrative’s incompleteness.

There is a certain responsibility that comes with storytelling. Writers are the eyes and the ears of the world. If they produce only unfinished stories, their readers will soon come to believe that these partial narratives are the whole truth.

And mine is not the only unfinished story in Rwanda. Yesterday, I visited the Kigali Genocide memorial, wherein 250,000 of the one million corpses produced in 1994 are entombed. After two hours of graphic words and gruesome pictures, I wanted nothing but to get out. I actually really needed to see all of memorial’s im
ages of bloated bodies and ransacked homes, though. Sometimes, we must stop sugar-coating evil with self-serving, fabricated optimism IMG_4384.JPGand accept despair and of evil for what they really are. The Kigali Genocide Memorial understands this.

But the Kigali Genocide Memorial, just like the story of the missing key, is only telling half of the story. We must never diminish the truth of the horrors the Memorial

presents, but horror is not the only narrative. Even in genocide, there are stories of hope. Behind every man with a machete, there is another who chooses to endanger himself in order to protect his neighbor.  Behind every locked door, there is an angel who takes you in and treats you as a member of her own family.

That is just how things work in Rwanda.


Kelsie Harriman: The Missing Key and My Relative Problems

Currently, I am sitting on the floor of my dusty front porch in Kigali, Rwanda, but not in order that I may enjoy the sunset. My roommates are away for the weekend, and I neglected to ask for a house key before they left, so I’ve been locked out. I’ve contacted the roommates, and they’ve apparently phoned a man nearby who has the key and told him to bring it here to let me in. I don’t know who this man is, or when he is arriving, but I hope he comes and opens my door, because I am not sure what to do if he doesn’t.

Dependence. I thought I had learned how to speak, eat, find water, go to the bathroom, and open my own door sometime during elementary school, but that seems not to be the case.  It is frustrating and frightening to be in a place where you can’t speak the language, because there will be times when cannot help yourself and are forced ask for others to assist you. I can jimmy this lock all I want, and I speak English to anyone who will listen, but neither of these things are going to open my door. I have no choice but to sit and wait on strange man, who most likely speaks a language I don’t understand, to come and assist me.

My two Rwandan neighbors are a few yards away peeling potatoes. We can’t communicate because my Kinyarwanda is even worse than their English, but I think they’ve realized I’ve been locked out. I wonder what they think of the American girl who made a bunch of nervous phone calls, then sat down in resignation on her dusty front porch, pulled out a fancy-looking laptop, and started writing a blog for her American friends about dependence in a foreign country. I really don’t think it matters to them much; I’d venture a guess that they have more serious matters to attend to.

Relative Problems

I’ve been feeling sorry for myself for the last few minutes, and I’ve realized I need to cut the self-pity. Problems are relative, and there are a lot of people around here who’d give a whole lot to have their weekend’s biggest trouble being locked out of their house.

Yesterday, I ventured into Kigali with the help of a friend, ironically, to make a copy of my gate key (thus, why I am sitting inside my gate on my porch, and not outside my  gate on the street). When we embarked, I envisioned the key-copying process would be similar to that which I had experienced growing up: you drive to ACE hardware, and one of those guys in the red vests takes your key, puts it in a fancy machine, and returns to you an exact replica. Apparently, this is not the Rwandan way.

In Rwanda, you climb a dirt hill side of lean-to homes until you reach the key-man’s shop, which you distinguish from the structures beside it only by asking the locals loitering outside. You give the key man fifty cents, and then he begins to craft a handmade replica of your key on a smooth strip of metal with old, rusted tools. While the process is taking place, you don’t mosey around looking at lawn furniture and eating free popcorn like you do at ACE Hardware; you sit, and you wait, and you talk to the key man’s family.

Yesterday found pasty-white-ace-hardware-patron me sitting in the key man’s shop. My Rwandan friend was with me, and he translated what the key man’s family was saying:

Key Man’s Wife to Rwandan friend: She’s from America?

Rwandan Friend: Yes, she’s from America.

Key Man’s Wife: Do you think she’d take my children from me and raise them America?

Rwandan Friend: Kelsie, will you take this woman’s children from her and raise them in America?

Kelsie: (Nervous laugh) Ha! Funny.

Rwandan Friend: Kelsie, she’s not kidding.


I looked again at the key man’s children. One was chewing on his sandal; the other was petting a sickly-looking cat. Both were covered in dirt. Their house had no door. May the fifty cents I had given the key man was all that they had to buy breakfast tomorrow, I didn’t know. If I was the key man’s wife, I’d probably want the visiting white lady to take my kids and raise them in her rich country, too.


Since arriving in Rwanda, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve considered to be my life’s challenges. I used to be terrified of spending the night away from home – because I had a family who loved me, and on whom I could depend. I struggled with disordered eating – because I had the money and luxury to be choosy about my food. I’ve complained that my university is unduly stressful — because I fail to appreciate that there are people who would give anything to have the opportunities my education affords me.

When you come from a world of fancy machines and flawless replicas, it is easy to cry when you do not have a shiny new key when you need one. The walls of that world which I formerly inhabited are falling down around me now, however, as I sit on my front porch in Rwanda, waiting indefinitely for the strange man to bring me a key that may or may not even open my door.

It’s time I get out of this dust and my tears and go try to make conversation with my potato-peeling neighbors because if I learn to understand their stories, I am sure I would see that the missing key and the locked door are, in fact, not problems at all.


Kelsie Harriman: Not My Race to Run

Today, over two years after leaving competitive running, I have begun to decipher the cryptic comments of a former cross country coach. The words are wise, and they contain meaning far beyond the context in which they were first spoken.

          Don’t worry about your competitors. Run your own race.

While running competitively for my high school, I sorely misinterpreted what these words meant. In those days, when my coach would stand with me on the starting line and urge me to “run my own race,” all I heard was “You probably aren’t going to do that well, so please don’t be too hard on yourself.” This, of course, is not what my coach meant. But this is what a young girl, who fed off of competition and was paralyzed by her own insecurities, decided to hear.

I just finished my second year of college, and I am now beginning to see the race that is before me. My race, not the race of the others around me. I came to college ready to better myself and build my successes, convinced that at the end of it all, I would possess the power and prestige that my elite education promised me. I’ve spent two years running that race – the scramble to the top of the ladder that the world, and my peers, and my educational institution told me I should be running – and I felt very out of place. I wanted desperately to compete in the contest of achievement in which the people around me were engaged, and I felt behind and unhappy until just recently, when the words of my coach, which been dormant in my life since the day they were spoken, resurfaced in Hebrews 12:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

 The problem is not the race in which I am participating, but rather that I am trying to run it someone else’s way. God put me in a contest of accomplished, educated, career-driven intellectuals, and then He asked me to fix my eyes on Him and not the people around me. I’ve often wished that my competitors were running the  same way that God has asked me to run, so that when I look left and look right, I could discern what ought to be done from others around me. God has not done this for me, however. Maybe He knew, like my coach did so many years ago, that if I am able to model my behavior based on someone else’s example, I will. And I’ll never learn to run a race for myself.

Tomorrow, I leave for Rwanda to start the next leg of my race, the one that has been specially marked out for me to run. If look left and look right, I see a sea of competitors running to large cities and prestigious careers, but I know now that that is not my race to run. God has asked me to run much differently, and I am setting out to do so with as much courage and perseverance as I can muster.

Where ever you are at today – whatever race you happen to be running – remember that God has put you there for a reason. Maybe, like me, at times you feel totally out of place –your competitors are outpacing you, and the terrain you are crossing feels too rough or too steep for you to traverse. You look left and right at the people around you, and you are sure you are running exactly the wrong way.

I encourage you to stop looking around, and start looking up. The race you are running and the people against whom you are competing matter nothing. Wins and losses matter nothing. All we can do is run with perseverance the race that has been marked out for us without too much concern for how the rest of the  world is running.


I’ve thought about running one’s own race well before; see also my graduation speech from 2014: