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Monday, January 31, 2011

Some Q&A

I was going to wait awhile before updating again but I’ve received some letters and emails with questions about my situation at site and I think it’s most convenient for everyone if I answer them here.

Some of you asked me what amenities I have at site. I have to admit that my situation is pretty luxurious as far as Peace Corps Rwanda goes. I have electricity in my house most of the time which allows me to charge my phone and computer on a regular basis and to read at night without having to use a kerosene lamp or a candle. It also means I can cook with electricity if I want to and I do have a hotplate that I use for quick-cooking things like rice but I don’t like to use it too often because it ends up costing a lot if I do. I do most of my cooking on a charcoal stove called an imbabura. It’s messy and a bit of a hassle but since matches cost next to nothing and charcoal is less than two dollars for a big bag it’s by far the most cost-effective way to cook. I do not have running water in my house so I have to fetch water from the rain tankard next door. I keep my water for cooking and dishwashing in jerry cans and my water for bathing in a big bucket in my bathroom. I do not heat my bathing water. Cold bucket baths are a great way to wake up quickly and most days I wake up before sunrise so I need all the help I can get.

A few of you also asked if I have access to television or other media. The answer is yes and no. I live next door to a convent and the nuns own a television, so when I have dinner with them I get to watch one of two Rwandan TV stations. One has news and the other has music videos and that’s it. I have sporadic internet access via a thumb drive modem that uses the same network as my cell phone and I’ve been using that for email, blogging and occasionally reading the news, but it costs per amount of data sent so I can’t download or upload things very cheaply. My shortwave radio works quite well here but it only picks up local stations. Occasionally I can pick up French radio stations and very occasionally I get the BBC, but it’s almost inaudible with all the static. I do not have a way to access movies or music other than what I have on my computer. If there’s a movie theater in Kigali (I’m pretty sure there is) I have no idea where it is or what kind of movies are shown there. Chances are I’ll be two years behind in movies and music when I come back to the States, but those are fun things to catch up on so it doesn’t worry me too much.

I think someone asked me in an email about the local wildlife. Truth be told, there aren’t a lot of exciting animals at my site. Most of the more exotic faunda - monkeys, gorillas, that kind of thing - inhabit the far west and north, but I’m right in the center of the country. My neighbors own things like goats and cows and chickens and there are lots of colorful little birds and beetles but that’s about it. Oh, and there are tons of honeybees. They like to come in under my door at night and crawl into bed with me which is a little unnerving, but since they’re by far the most dangerous animal in my immediate vicinity I consider myself lucky.

Things are still going well at site, but I’m realizing I have a lot to learn yet. There’s a phrase in Kinyarwanda that people use to describe gradual progress - buhoro buhoro. It means “slowly, slowly.” So, buhoro buhoro I am getting to know my community and the people who live in it. Yesterday my colleague Anonce showed me a small village adjacent to Gihara where people make pottery. They had everything from giant clay pots for storing traditional sorghum beer to tiny ceramic gorillas to sell to tourists. We hiked to the edge of town where we could see out over a vast green valley with a river running through. She told me that some day she will take me down into the valley to see the crocodiles in the river. She also told me that sugarcane groves grow on the riverbanks and promised that she will find me some raw sugarcane so I can see what it tastes like. I told her I feel lucky to know her, which is true.

I haven’t organized an English club yet largely because I found out that another teacher has been assigned to help me but I don’t know who he is. I asked my dean of studies who gave me a physical description, so now my mission is to hang out in the teacher’s lounge until I see him. I’m kind of glad I can’t get started right away because it means I can focus on teaching and getting to know my students. I’ve been trying to learn their names but I’m having quite a lot of trouble because I have almost ninety students in total and about six of them are named Jean Claude. Another six are all named Clementine. Another dozen never say anything in class so when I run into them in town they have to remind me that I’m their teacher, which is thoroughly embarrassing. But I’ll get to know them eventually.

I’m impatient to get started on a project or several so I can start giving back to this community that has been so good to me, but whenever I start to wonder, “Why am I not organizing English classes for the nurses at the health center? Why am I not tutoring the other teachers at my school? Why haven’t I written the midterm exam yet?” I am reminded in some way or other that I’m still incredibly new to this place and that I need to take the time to find my way around. Buhoro buhoro, nzabimenya.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Urabwira Iki?

Hi again, just wanted to let you all know that I have a personal post office box now. The address is:

B.P. 216
Gitarama, Rwanda

If anyone has sent anything to my old address within the last three weeks it’s not a problem, just let me know so I know to check for my mail in Kigali and not in Gitarama (they’re about two hours apart by bus). I tried on Thursday to get a box set up in Kigali to keep things simple but after getting there, locating the post office, having a friendly but unduly long chat with a post worker and finally getting directed to the appropriate desk, I was told that no post office boxes are available in Kigali and that I should try back another time. I didn’t feel like waiting so I got one in Gitarama yesterday.

Other than the new mailing address there’s not a whole lot to report. I’m slowly getting into the swing of things here. Last week I sat through a four-hour staff meeting that was conducted entirely in Kinyarwanda. About three hours in I gathered that they were selecting teachers to be in charge of various after-school clubs and that someone had nominated me for traditional dance. I explained in French that I don’t know anything about traditional dance but that I could be in charge of an English language club. My headmaster said in English, “We don’t have one.” I said, “Would you like one?” This was met with cheers and applause. I’m not entirely sure what I’m expected to do to get started, but I’m meeting with another teacher tomorrow for lunch and I intend to bring a notepad and ask a lot of questions.

I’m learning how to cook Rwandan food with the help of one of my neighbors. So far she’s taught me how to prepare beans, cabbage, potato soup, fried plantains and “frites.” She offered to show me how to cook meat but I’m terrified of buying meat so I told her I don’t like to eat it. I’m also terrified of buying unpasteurized milk so I’ve been vegan for the last two weeks except for the occasional egg. I successfully made some banana pancakes this morning and shared them with my neighbors who seemed to enjoy them. Next I’ll introduce them to French toast.

I guess that’s all for now. One final note: thanks, Grandma and Grandpa, for the Christmas package! It finally arrived last week. I’d almost forgotten what chocolate tasted like and now I have more than I know what to do with. It’s a nice problem to have.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

So, I'm a Volunteer...

Hey everyone! It’s been awhile, as predicted - I still have internet access via modem, but it’s unreliable because it uses the same network as my cell phone and the signal isn’t very strong here. Also, it actually costs me money to go online now. I’m still going to try and post once or twice month or whenever there’s anything important to report - like my new mailing address.

About that - I’m currently in the process of figuring out the process of setting up my own P.O. box. I can still receive mail at the Peace Corps mail box (BP 5657) but the Peace Corps has asked that all volunteers try and set up a different mailing address within a month, otherwise they’ll charge us exorbitant amounts to retrieve our mail. Or something like that. So if you want to send me anything, hang on - I should have a new mailing address within the week and I’ll be sure to post it.

Anyway, I’m a volunteer now! I was “installed” at my site on Friday and I began teaching on Monday (technically, anyway - more on that later). All in all, it’s been pretty great. When I came here for site visit in November the village seemed claustrophobically small, but now that I’m living here I feel like there’s infinite territory to explore. There’s a maternity center, a family planning center, a Catholic church, a tailor and a number of shops not just within walking distance of my house but literally within sight of my front gate. Every Saturday there’s a market where you can buy fresh vegetables and fruit, clothes, sandals and other odds and ends. I’m still navigating my way around, but my neighbors are very eager to help me out.

I learned today that the shop where I bought airtime during site visit occasionally sells bananas and avocadoes. Things like this are cause for endless excitement, especially since I haven’t figured out how to effectively shop for food yet.

Coming here was an experience unto itself. Unlike PCVs in many countries, we weren’t required to use public transportation to get to our sites (and thank God, because I had way too much stuff to take with me on a bus). Instead we were driven to our sites in small groups. I rode with four other volunteers and Kassim, our Program and Training Assistant Director. We only took about an hour getting to Kamonyi from Nyanza but we spent an additional hour and a half going up various dirt roads to find the district office so Kassim could alert the authorities of my presence. At one point we came to a spot in the road that was covered with felled eucalyptus trees. We stopped and Kassim got out to talk to a group of shirtless axe-wielding men who were presumably responsible for the roadblock. After some very rapid Kinyarwanda was exchanged, Kassim got back in the car. I thought we were going to go back, but instead our driver shifted gears, revved the engine and drove right over the felled trees. Then Kassim turned to us and said, “This is a four-wheel drive.” No kidding.

The first day of classes was a little chaotic, as anticipated. My first class simply didn’t happen because the students were mopping out the classrooms. Then no one showed up to take my place at the end of my second class (in Rwanda, teachers go from classroom to classroom, not students). I taught for an extra twenty minutes and eventually left to find the headmaster. I never found him, but on my way to his office I collected a herd of about 200 children from the primary school, all of which wanted to touch my skin. I found out later that my schedule actually involved teaching two two-hour blocks three times a week instead of two one-hour blocks five times a week. I’m still not sure if something had gotten lost in translation or if my headmaster just didn’t want to tell me that he didn’t know the class schedule.

Scheduling mishaps and small children aside, I’m completely enchanted with my site and my job. My headmaster and Dean of Studies are incredibly supportive and my colleagues and neighbors are very friendly. The nuns from the health center and the women who work at the maternity center check on me several times a day, which means that I generally have no privacy and plenty of food. Everyone I meet is always asking me when I will visit and I haven’t yet figured out if they’re serious or not, but either way it’s nice. And Gihara, my cell, is beautiful. There are mango trees, corn groves, coffee groves and banana groves in abundance. It’s sunny every morning and rains almost every afternoon. I like it.

I miss everyone back home, though. I taped some photos to my wall yesterday and it made me really happy. If and when I get a P.O. box I’d love for people to send me more photos to put up.