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Friday, December 31, 2010

Nzaba Umukorerabushake wa Peace Corps!

This week was the homestretch to becoming a volunteer. We had a series of exams on language, cultural knowledge, health, safety and Peace Corps policies culminating in the final LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) on Thursday. The LPI is apparently a huge stumbling block for a lot of trainees - basically how it works is, you go into a room with an LCF and have a conversation in Kinyarwanda and if you understand most of what's going on, you get to swear in. If you don't pull that off, you don't swear in.

Well, today I found I passed all my tests - including the LPI - with flying colors. I will be going to Kigali on Sunday with the rest of the trainees and staff and I will officially swear in as a PCV on January 3rd. The ceremony will be held at the ambassador's estate and a Rwandan television crew will be present - it will be quite an event. In a moment I'm heading off to a local seamstress to pick up my dress for the ceremony (hopefully it's finished!) but before I do, I want to make a brief statement in Kinyarwanda:

Icyumweru gitaha, nzarahira na nzaba umukorerabushake wa Peace Corps. Nzakora indahiro gufasha abantu wa Rwanda. Nishimiye cyane. Nzakumbura abariumu banjye na bagenzi banjye - nzabasura mugihi ndi mu Rwanda - ariko ndashaka kuba kuri site yanjye. Ndakumbura umuryango wanjye muri Amerika noneho - ni kubaberako ndi hano, kandi ndabakunda cyane.
My apologies to any native speakers who read this - I'm still working on my use of object pronoun infixes. Thanks all, happy New Year!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Noheli Nziza (Merry Christmas)

Merry Christmas, everyone! It's probably 90 degrees here but we're doing our best to get in the Christmas spirit.

Last night we took over a local restaurant and had a giant game of white elephant, followed by a talent show (a time-honored PST tradition) and dancing. We had some fantastic gifts with very creative wrapping - American candy and Nutella purchased in Butare, second-hand t-shirts and ugly Christmas sweaters from the local market, Rwandan jewelry, apples imported from Europe and so on. The talent show was also pretty spectacular. There was a fantastic rendition of a Flight of the Concords song, some spoken-word poetry, and some traditional Rwandan dancing. I and my friend Genevieve performed a duet, "Angel from Montgomery," and she accompanied us on ukulele. Overall, it was a success.

The last day of model school was also pretty awesome. Since it was the day before Christmas eve, I decided to spend the entire class period teaching my students about wassailing. Then I taught them a traditional wassail song. They got really into it - by the end of the class period they knew almost all of the words and had the melody down. I wished I'd had time to teach them a harmony. There are lots of church choirs in Rwanda, but schools generally don't have choral groups. I'm dying to start one as a secondary project, but we'll see.

I'm definitely homesick for my family today but all of the PCTs feel the same, so it's not so bad. We're going to celebrate today by baking spice cake and watching Christmas movies at the training center. I hope you all are having a great Christmas back home and I hope it's cold!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Card Embargo

This post will be quick and dirty because I plan to update again after Christmas. I will not be sending any cards home because apparently there is some kind of embargo on mail going from Rwanda to the U.S. and Canada. I can still receive mail, I just can't send anything out. I've yet to figure out why - I tried Googling "Rwanda-U.S. mail" and came up with nothing. If anyone can find out what's up, please email me and let me know. The other trainees will thank you!

Also, as I may or may not have mentioned before, I have been posting a lot lately because there is free wireless at the training site in Nyanza right now. I still plan to buy a modem before I go to site in January, but it will cost me actual money to load blogger so I will not be posting as often - probably once every two or three weeks.

Okay, that's all for now. I miss you all and hope to talk to some of you over the next couple of days - and I'll let you know how the festivities progress here!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Umunsi Mwiza

Well, I'm 23! I had an awesome birthday. We took a field trip to Butare again so I got to have ice cream and it was just as magical as my first encounter with Butare ice cream. I will be dreaming about it every night at least until I go to Kigali for swearing-in, where ice cream can also be found. Supposedly. We shall see.

I'm starting my second week of model school and it's still going decently well, but it's not easy. We're actually losing students at an alarming rate because it's their vacation right now, so they're attending voluntarily (or their parents are making them attend) and our lessons haven't been interesting enough, relevant enough or comprehensible enough to maintain an audience. I reacted to this problem by reading through the national exam for S3 students and writing a lesson plan based on the content therein, namely social issues in Rwanda, summarizing passages and writing paragraphs. In theory it was a great idea, but despite my best efforts the discussion of social issues was awkward and the vast majority of my students have no idea what a paragraph is. I'm taking a day off teaching tomorrow to do a double lesson on Wednesday, and by then I hope to have some ideas for how to teach a lighter class on a similar topic.

On an entirely unrelated note, I had the opportunity to visit the Murambi Genocide Memorial last Sunday. It was my second trip to a genocide memorial - we visited one in Kigali but it was very different. I am willing to share any information of interest about either of them, but I'm reluctant to do a whole blog post about them because most of what Americans know about Rwanda involves the genocide. I also feel that the story of the genocide is not my story to tell, at least not in my blog. If any of you have any questions feel free to email me and I will tell you whatever you want to know.

I will say briefly - the Murambi Memorial is located in an old school building where Tutsis took refuge during the genocide and were slaughtered en masse by Interhamwe militia. The school grounds contain several mass graves and the old classrooms contain the preserved bodies of victims. The bodies have been mummified with limestone so they are pale and skeletal and not at all horrifying, just difficult to look at. Eventually there will also be an informational display like the one in the Gisenyi Memorial in Kigali, but it is still being constructed. I can't succinctly describe my thoughts on the memorial but I will say that I'm glad I went. I think it is important for us as educators to at least have some small awareness of what this country - and many of our students - have been through. Again, email me with questions if you have them.

One final bit of news - I got packages today! Thanks Mom and Dad - I'm so happy to have an advent calendar it's not even funny. Also, I got another letter from Grandpa - thanks to you too, I enjoy reading your letters very very much. They are a tiny oasis of peace in an otherwise overwhelming environment.

I'm still working on sending paper mail home. Ni hangane, everyone.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

You Can Call Me 'Teacher' If That Is Easier

Week One of Model School complete! It wasn't a total disaster and I count that as a small but significant victory. My class is wonderful - I teach 37 S3 (ninth grade) students for an hour every day and they are super sweet and engaged but also very shy. They're very reluctant to ask questions or to respond to my questions unless they're sure they have correct answers. As a result I've been seduced into teaching content that is probably way too easy - we spent most of the week drawing family trees and naming the different family members. I plan to step it up next week.

I've been surprised by what is challenging about teaching and what isn't. I have absolutely zero stage fright in front of my class, which is good - I definitely expected to shake like a leaf on the first day, and I didn't. I also thought writing legibly on a chalkboard would be difficult, but it's easy and surprisingly fun. The hard part is knowing what to teach (we don't have textbooks and the national curriculum is pretty unspecific) and how to teach it in a way that engages everyone and keeps class's energy level up for the whole hour. It's also hard to get a wide range of students to be responsive, in part because they're so shy about giving wrong answers. A couple of times I've tried calling on students who don't raise their hands - it works in the States, so I assumed it would work here. Wrong! If you try to force a response out of a student, you'll get a horrified stare and silence. Maybe with practice it will get better, but right now I'm not sure what to do about that.

It's also hard to know what name to use. In Rwanda, professionals are usually called by their titles and not their names - for example, a judge will be referred to simply as "Judge," and a teacher is simply called "Teacher," not Mr. or Ms. I have asked my students to call me Ms. Gelsey or Teacher, whichever they prefer. In general they don't refer to me by name but I want them to at least know who I am. I haven't bothered telling them my last name because the spelling is so confusing, but many of the other trainees have asked to be called by their last names, or modified versions of their last names. Model School is great for this kind of minutiae. It's an opportunity to see what works and what doesn't.

On an entirely unrelated note - I've been blogging/emailing a lot lately because there's free wireless internet at the training site right now! Internet access isn't perfectly reliable but it's pretty good, so if any of you want to try Skyping please email me and we'll set something up. I still plan to buy a modem before I go to site but I don't know how well it will work, how much it will cost to use or if I'll even have a a fully-functional computer by then, so I'm trying to take full advantage of reliable free internet while I have it.

One final thing - sorry I haven't sent any paper mail home yet! I've figured out how to do it, I just haven't gotten around to it because internet is free for me right now and I've had lesson plans to write. I guess I've also just been lazy about it. I probably won't get letters out in time for Christmas but at SOME point I'm going to locate my address book and send some.

That's all for now. Thanks for following!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Letters from Home

Hi all! There isn't much to report, but I did want to let everyone know that I finally received my first batch of mail from home this week. I got a postcard from Sonya, letters 2 and 3 from Grandpa, a letter from Mom and Dad with photos from our trip to Boston and my travel guitar. Thank you all so much for sending me mail, and a HUGE hug and kiss to Dad for building a case to send my guitar in and going to all the trouble and expense to actually send it. I love having it, not just because I can play it whenever I want but because I have something to share with other volunteers. Thank you thank you thank you!

Next week I will begin teaching model school and I'm freaking out. Model school is exactly what it sounds like - the training staff recruited kids from Nyanza to act as students so the trainees can practice teaching. Half of the trainees have already started model school but I don't start until Monday. It's been kind of nice having the extra time to plan lessons etc, but since I have no idea how much English my class will know I'll probably have to redo any plans I make now. I'm developing a much greater appreciation for all of my middle school teachers, I'll say that much.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! I'm sad I can't be with y'all for the most indulgent of American holidays.

I and the other trainees are doing our best to bring Thanksgiving to Rwanda. The embassy gave us some turkeys and we're currently cooking them over hot coals in a giant pit we dug yesterday. I guess it's supposed to work like a really big dutch oven - we'll see how successful it is. We're also making apple crisp, mashed potatoes, African sweet potatoes and mango-pineapple upside-down cake. We have only local ingredients and charcoal stoves, so improvisation has been key. We wanted to make pumpkin pie but we could only find one pumpkin in all of Nyanza and it was green. But, hakuna matata. It's going to be an awesome Thanksgiving, with or without pumpkin pie.

I have photos to upload, mostly of Nyanza and the training site, but my computer has been acting up. Every time I try to do something that requires hard disk space I have to wait thirty seconds to several minutes, even though I have plenty of hard disk space and my hard drive is defragged (de-frag-ed?). If anyone has any suggestions as to what I can do, please email me at I really don't want to have to send my computer back to the States to get it fixed.

That's all for now. Love and peace!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Un Paysage Jolie

Hi everyone! I'm back from my site visit in Kamonyi District - the name of my sector is Gihara, for those of you who want to look me up on Google Maps (if Google Maps covers Gihara - I honestly have no idea). I had an incredible week.

If you all could see my site, you would be jealous. I have a tiny two-room house all to myself in the garden behind a Catholic convent. I will be teaching at a day school, GS St. Dominique, that's a five-minute walk from my house. The school has 2000+ students, grades 1-9. I will be teaching either 8th or 9th grade English - I don't know which yet. Apparently my schedule will be determined at the beginning of the next trimester. The school is tiny but gorgeous - the classrooms are little brick buildings and the entire campus sits at the edge of a cliff that overlooks a coffee grove, rolling hills and in the not-so-distant distance, the capital city, Kigali.

My house wasn't ready for me to stay in this week, so I stayed in a room in the convent and ate all of my meals with the nuns. I count them all as friends now and I think they feel the same way about me. In the very least they find me entertaining. On my second day at the convent I managed to lock myself in the latrine and had to call for help. They had a good laugh at my expense over that. It took three of them and a spoon to get the door open.

I tried to meet other people in my community, with limited success. I was introduced to the headmaster and director of studies at St. Dominique and I was able to parce things out with them in French. I attempted to talk to my other neighbors in Kinyarwanda but conversation was difficult due to my limited vocabulary; right now I know how to say, "Hello, my name is Gelsey, I will be teaching English at St. Dominique, I am a Peace Corps volunteer," and that's about all. That and "please pass the salt."

I'm almost out of time, but thanks all for reading, and please email me if you have any further questions.

Friday, November 12, 2010


This will be a brief and unrevised post. I've finally gotten to the internet after another week of floundering. It's been a great week, though. We took a field trip into Butare to go to the bank and found one of Rwanda's very few ice cream shops. I think there are only two in the whole country, one of which just happens to be in Butare. Ice cream has never tasted so good. I got a huge bowl of it with chunks of fresh papaya and banana. I will be dreaming about that ice cream for weeks, but man, it was worth it.

We will be going on individual site visits next week. Apparently we are being accompanied part of the way, staying for a week at site, then returning on our own. I'm very excited to do something independently - I love my fellow trainees, but going everywhere with 67 other people gets to be a little much after awhile. I think most of us feel the same way.

My site is the northeastern corner of the southern province. The district is called Kamonyi. I know nothing about it other than the location and that there is apparently a primary school nearby, so there will be children everywhere. I'm excited to learn more and post about it here! For now, that's all. If you have any questions, feel free to post them or email me. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Murabeho, everyone! I'm sorry it's taken me so long to finally write a new post - internet here is slow and they charge by the minute. Last time I tried to blog I spent twenty minutes waiting for the page to load before I gave up. But today, success!

Rwanda is beautiful. It's all rolling green hills, and the weather is like Hawaii - warm and wet. When it rains it pours, but only for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. The air always smells pleasantly of burning charcoal and there are goats and chickens everywhere.

It's hard to describe everything that's happened, there's so much that's different. Right now we are at a training site in Nyanza, a few hours outside of Kigali. Instead of living with host families, we live in houses of between two and ten volunteers with one to four LCFs (language and cultural facilitators). The LCFs are sort of like our Rwandan R.A.'s. They are Peace Corps employees recruited in Rwanda to teach us Kinyarwanda, live with us, and basically show us the ins and outs of everyday life here. We have been taught how to wash our clothes by hand and how to cook with charcoal stoves, although we're learning with varying degrees of success. The houses have some amenties, but it varies from house to house. My house has electricity most of the time and running water out back, but not in the bathroom. We take "bucket baths," which basically entails hauling a bucket of cold water into the house, soaping up, pouring the water over yourself, and mopping the water out the door. It's not as bad as it sounds. I miss orange juice more than I miss hot showers.

The city of Nyanza is, for lack of a better phrase, pretty nice. Everything is impressively clean, especially considering there is no state-organized trash pick up. Apparently plastic shopping bags are illegal - it's part of a government effort to reduce litter. I think that's the most interesting piece of trivia I've learned so far.

Although we don't have host families, we have "resource families" that live in the area. We are required to visit them twice a week for meals and to practice Kinyarwanda. Some families speak some English, some don't. My resource mama speaks a little French, but as I've discovered, it's incredibly difficult to parce things out in bad French. Fortunately I also have a sixteen-year-old resource sister who speaks incredible English. She's basically my only means of communication with the rest of the family until I learn more Kinyarwanda. I know "good morning," "how are you," and "I don't understand," but that's the extent of my vocabulary right now.

Again, there's so much to say I'm not sure what to say - if you have any questions, please post them here, or email me ( and I'll respond the next time I get around to checking my email. Eventually I'll get a modem (when I can afford to) but for now the only way to consistently contact me is by phone, which I'm sure is prohibitively expensive. I also have a mailing address:

Gelsey Hughes
BP 5657
Kigali Rwanda

It takes three weeks to a month to receive anything, but I will be very appreciative of letters! I also plan on sending letters as soon as I can afford postage.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Staging in Philly

This is going to be a short post.  I just wanted to announce to the world that I went to staging in Philadelphia today and I have never, NEVER felt so comfortable in a group of total strangers.  Everyone has such interesting stories.  And everyone is so friendly!  It sort of feels like freshman orientation all over again, except less awkward because we're older and awesomer and we can go out to bars together.

Rwanda tomorrow.  Aaaah!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A (Brief) Story of Stuff

Well, I forgot to bring postage stamps.  I'm not sure I'd be able to use U.S. stamps in Rwanda anyway.

I'm currently in Boston visiting my brother, Silas, at Olin College.  I've gone from Seattle to my parents' house in California to here and I've been packing and repacking and shedding stuff along the way.  Initially I was excited to pack for Rwanda - it was the first thing I'd done that made my commitment seem real - but I've since become completely disillusioned with the whole process of gathering STUFF.  People have so much stuff.  I had no idea how much stuff I had until I had until I had to part with most of it.  I'm down to about 70 lbs. of stuff that will come with me to Africa, and while I only packed things I thought I'd need or sorely miss, it still feels like way too much and I'm tempted to abandon all of it at Jefferson Airport.

For anyone interested, here's a rough list of what I'm bringing:

- Some dress shirts, skirts and slacks for working in
- Long-sleeve and short-sleeve cotton tee shirts
- A couple pairs of cut-offs for biking in
- Two pairs of jeans
- Sports bras, cotton bras, cotton socks and about a dozen pairs of cotton underwear
- My Chacos
- Two pairs of comfortable dress shoes and one pair of hiking shoes
- Fleece and a waterproof jacket
- Some cotton scarves and bandanas
- A handful of office supplies
- A water filter bottle (gift from Dad)
- A small transistor radio (also a gift from Dad)
- Some cookware for camping, because it's compact/nonstick
- A compact sleeping bag
- Sheets and a towel
- My Swiss army knife and Leatherman multitool
- Deodorant and conditioner, since those are apparently hard to find in Rwanda
- Solar-powered flashlight (yet another gift from Dad - thanks Dad)
- This netbook
- My camera
- A money belt and my wallet
- Photos of people I left in Seattle
- My iPod (I figured it will at least be useful on the plane ride over)
- Earplugs and a sleep mask
- A small backup med kit I put together myself, containing things like Benadryl, ibuprofen, Neosporin, cold meds, bandages and lip balm
- Several half-pound bags of my favorite cooking spices
- A Kinyarwanda translation book, a French-English dictionary, a book on English grammar, and a few novels I've been intending to read for years but haven't yet

I hope someone finds this list and uses it for something, whether it's what to bring or what not to bring.  I'm sure I'll end up reporting on which of these things I actually end up using.

Oh, and for the record, I'm also taking a pair of flannel pajama pants I stole from my roommate and I'm already glad I have them.  Thanks, Tyler!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Getting Down to the Wire

I will be leaving Seattle in exactly two weeks.  There's not much left to do but pack, which has been an interesting process thus far.  I feel a little bit like a small child venturing into the woods with a Nerf gun and a flashlight - that is, I keep packing things that will make me "feel prepared" since I have no idea what will actually prepare me.

Well, not NO idea. The Peace Corps does provide prospective volunteers with country-specific packing lists. They also provide links to relevant travel websites and books that might have suggestions.  (I recommend So You Want to Join the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go by Dillion Banerjee, although it was published in 1994 and consequently has nothing useful to say about internet or telecommunications.)  I'm glad to have these resources - otherwise I probably would have packed for a camping trip and neglected such items as formal clothes, pictures of family and postage stamps - but I still feel more or less in the dark.

It's interesting how little available information there is about contemporary Rwanda.  I've found out that Rwanda's climate is only somewhat warmer than Seattle's, that Rwanda is one of the few places in the world where mountain gorillas can still be seen in their natural habitat, and that tourists should probably steer clear of the Rwanda-DRC border. That's about it.  Even pictures are difficult to find - at one point I ran a search and came up with pictures of Uganda and Benin.  It's difficult to find books on Rwanda's most ubiquitous language, Kinyarwanda.  In fact, most books about Rwanda focus on the 1994 genocide.  When I tell people I'm going to Rwanda I can tell that their first thoughts are of the genocide.  This is both depressing and exciting. I wish I knew more about the country that is soon to be home, but I'm also looking forward to facilitating what seems to be a sorely-needed exchange of information.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

32 Days and Counting...

Muraho, blogosphere! I've never blogged before, so bear with me. These first couple of posts are going to be a little awkward.

Well, alright. As of September 10th, I am a Peace Corps Invitee and a prospective Peace Corps Volunteer, scheduled to depart for my orientation on October 19th. I'm excited and a little freaked out. In theory I've been mentally preparing myself for Peace Corps service since this time last year when I first filled out my application. I interviewed with Melissa Lawent (RPCV Romania) in October, spent a few months accruing additional hours of volunteer experience, became a nominee sometime in March (I think) and spent most of the late spring and early summer filling out medical forms. I considered the Peace Corps a serious - but eventual - goal. And then suddenly I had an invitation. It felt a little bit like being thrown in head-first, not least because I was given only five weeks' notice of my departure date, which I understand is a rushed timeline. I thought, what should I do now that this serious-but-eventual goal is an immediate reality?

Start a blog, I guess.

I'm not sure exactly what to do with this blog. A more authentic do-gooder would probably use it to educate others about the Peace Corps, ask for donations for side projects, things like that. It might become exactly that eventually, but right now it feels like a more legitimate version of LiveJournal, i.e. a way to share my thoughts and feelings about Peace Corps service with lots of people at once. Like I said, I've never blogged before, so bear with me.

PS. According to someone else's blog I read, "Mwaramutse" and "Muraho" are greetings in Kinyarwanda, the maternal language of Rwanda.