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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Murakaza Neza, Welcome Home

Happy belated Easter, everyone! I’m back in my village, and I have to say it feels a lot like I’ve come home. It’s strange how much I missed my two little rooms, the garden, all my neighbors. I assumed no one would miss me that much but when the nurses at the health center saw I was back they all stopped what they were doing and came out to give me hugs and kisses. My friend Claudine gave me a bear hug and a huge kiss on the cheek when she saw me, an unusual display of affection even for her. I haven’t felt so welcome in Gihara since I first arrived in January.

Last post I promised to talk about visiting people. I said there was a whole elaborate ritual to it but in reality I guess it isn’t much different from visiting people in U.S. except that it’s done more often. The other major difference is that visitors never bring gifts. Instead the host is always expected to provide something, either food or drink, regardless of how informal or unexpected the visit is. I try to avoid visiting people at mealtimes because if they don’t have food it stresses them out and if they do have food they always insist that I eat too much of it. I also try to avoid visiting poorer families, especially families of students, because I don’t like to take their food and I don’t like being used as a status symbol or as a means of provoking jealousy in people’s neighbors (sounds strange, but it happens). However, on a couple of occasions I’ve received such forceful invitations I’ve had to break this rule.

One example stands out in my mind. At St. Dominique where I teach there is a student named Pacifique, a deceptively soft-spoken, incredibly bold little girl of nine or ten. She decided early on that she wanted to befriend me so she figured out where I lived and started showing up on my doorstep after school a couple times a week. Initially I greeted her and went about my business but she would linger on my porch, sometimes for an hour or more, so eventually I told her that I don’t receive students at my house. She said, “Then you will visit my family.” I said maybe. She nodded and went on her way and I thought that was the end of it.

It wasn’t.

The following weekend I was in the middle of cooking dinner when Pacifique showed up on my doorstep again. I asked her if she’d come to visit me. She said, “I’ve come to accompany you.” I asked her where she intended to accompany me. “To my family’s house,” she said. I was floored. What determination! I told her I couldn’t go with her because it was close to dark and I was in the middle of cooking. She said, “Then you will visit tomorrow.” I said, “Yes, I promise, I will visit tomorrow after mass. Now go before it gets dark.” She nodded triumphantly and ran off.

The next morning it was pouring rain and I was relieved. I had no idea how to find Pacifique’s house and while by Rwandan standards that was an insufficient excuse not to visit, the rain certainly was, or so I thought. I was sitting in mass thinking this over and trying to decide whether to feel guilty for evading her invitation when I noticed a small child sitting one row over and behind me, clutching an umbrella at least as tall as he was. He caught my eye because he was a miniature replica of Pacifique, but even more adorable. The resemblance was so striking I thought he was a hallucination. I blinked and he was still there. When he saw me looking at him he blinked back me and smiled.

I turned around and whispered, “Are you Pacifique’s brother?”

He nodded emphatically.

I said, “You are a Catholic? I thought your family was Pentecostal.” He whispered back, “We are Pentecostal.” I asked him, sincerely puzzled, “Then what are you doing in a Catholic mass?”

He said, “I’ve come to accompany you.”

This time there was no escaping. I wasn’t about to disappoint two adorable children in one weekend. Once the mass was over the rain had let up so off we went, over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house, quiet literally. Even though it wasn’t that far in kilometers his family lived off the beaten path on the side of a steep hill, so we spent close to an hour slipping and sliding in the mud and picking our way through bean fields to get there.

It was a good-sized house with several rooms and a tin roof, but the walls and floor were mud and there were few windows so the interior was disconcertingly dark. Smoke wafted out of a room near the entryway that housed an indoor cooking fire. I was led through the house to a sitting room that was somewhat more finished-looking with a low table and chairs and a cement floor. I sat down and waited while Pacifique’s brothers, her mother, her grandmother and a bunch of children from the surrounding area filed into the room to stare at me. When I visit colleagues I’m very rarely put on display but with students’ families this almost always happens, which is partly why I avoid such visits.

We sat in silence for a minute. Then the grandmother began asking me questions about myself in rapid, mumbled Kinyarwanda. I told her several times to speak slower and she repeated herself several times at exactly the same pace until I gave up understanding and started asking her questions instead. I tried to discern which of the children in the room were hers and which were Pacifique’s siblings. She indicated a toddler that I think she said she’d adopted because I asked her if he was her child and she said, “No, I’m too old, I can’t nurse anymore!” Then she removed one of her sagging bosoms from her shirt and flapped it in my direction to make sure I understood. I had no idea how to respond to that so I went back to sitting in silence while a couple of the smaller children tried to climb up into my lap to tug on my hair.

Pacifique emerged from another room carrying a huge thermos and five plastic mugs. She set the thermos on the table and her mother opened it and filled each of the mugs with what I imagine was supposed to be drinking yogurt, though it looked and smelled more like cold, chunky sour milk. In medical sessions I’d learned not to drink uncooked dairy because it can carry tuberculosis and other nasty viruses, but to refuse food or drink is probably the rudest thing a guest can do. I tried to come up with excuses while Pacifique filled my mug literally to the brim. Then Pacifique’s mother began offering a prayer. It struck me that this milk was probably the only thing the family had to eat that day, making refusal even more infeasible. The prayer ended too quickly. Pacifique’s mother was urging me to drink. I didn’t know what to do. Should I lie and say muzungus can’t drink yogurt milk? Should I make a run for it and hope that Pacifique wouldn’t try to come find me again? Should I just refuse and risk insulting the whole family? Should I drink it and risk catching some horrible illness?

My dieus ex machina arrived in the form of a phone call from America. David, if you’re reading this, thank you so much for calling me. You may have saved me from death by sour milk.

I picked up, told David to hold, and explained rapidly in Kinyarwanda that I was very sorry but I had to go right away because my friend in America was spending lots of money to call me and I had to take the call. They said, “You’re going?” I said, “Yes, but I will come back another day!” They said, “No problem, let us accompany you!” I’d forgotten that in Rwanda good hosts always accompany departing guests. I tried to tell them that it wasn’t necessary to accompany me since I had to take a phone call but they’d hear none of it. I left the house with the entire family in tow, plus several additional children. They followed me, the grandmother and the mother and Pacifique and her brothers and the children, for almost half a mile while I talked on the phone. Then, at what seemed to me to be a completely arbitrary point, all of them about-faced and went back home.

Elements of this experience repeat themselves whenever I visit a new family. I frequently find myself surrounded by staring children, force-fed huge quantities unidentifiable food and interviewed about everything from my parents’ professions to what people eat in America. Northing quite competes with Pacifique and her family, though. She still shows up on my doorstep from time to time, though it’s been awhile since she’s asked me to visit.

Her brother is a different story. I saw him at school today and the first thing he said to me was, “Uzasura ryari?”*

*When will you visit?
** All the dialogue in this post was actually in Kinyarwanda, but I thought it was too cumbersome to have a bunch of footnoted translations so I paraphrased in English.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spring Break!

I’m writing this from the Centre St. Bethania in Kibuye and it’s so beautiful here it’s almost too much to take in. The hotel is right on the eastern bank of Lake Kivu. From where I’m sitting I can see a gorgeous stretch of sparkling blue-green water (a rare sight in a landlocked African country) and on the opposite bank, the eastern border of DRC. In between there’s a smattering of little dark green islands. The temperature has been perfect for swimming these last two days but the staff have forbidden us from going in the water due to schistomaosis. Stupid water-borne parasites.

I’m in Kibuye for a week-long in-service training session. So far it’s been incredibly beneficial, despite how aggravating it is to sit inside for hours in such a beautiful place. We spent the entire first day sharing our individual successes and challenges at our sites. It’s incredible what a range of experiences we’ve had in our villages, especially considering what a small country Rwanda is. That said, we seem to have a lot of the same concerns and objectives and it’s been wonderful having the opportunity to share ideas. I apologize for how vague all of this is but were I to try and describe all the disparate things we’ve been discussing I’d go on for volumes, so all I can really say is it’s been good.

Anyway, after my last post a few people asked me in emails what it’s like visiting people. In fact, there’s a whole elaborate ritual to being a visitor in someone’s house. I promise to write a post about it before the week is out. Right now the beach is calling J

Saturday, April 2, 2011

My Average Day

Someone recently asked me in a email what my “typical day” looks like here. I haven’t blogged about my day-to-day routines much because I don’t find them interesting, but now that I think about it I imagine the mundane aspects of Peace Corps service are probably very useful to prospective Peace Corps volunteers, so in the spirit of utility I will give you all a detailed description of my average day during the school year. No hard feelings if it puts you to sleep.

My day begins at 5:30. I wake up early because I like to go running in the mornings but if I do it after my neighbors are awake people gawk at me and children run after me. This still happens occasionally, but the difference between 5:30 and 6 is the difference between one or two children tailing me and a group of ten surrounding me and making it difficult to run. If I’m on schedule I usually get home at around 6 or 6:15 which means people at the health center next door see me in shorts from time to time but they’ve gotten used to it so they don‘t hassle me much. Once I’ve stretched and scraped the mud off my legs I fill up a bucket with cold water from the rain tankard next door and use it to take a shower. Most mornings I try to eat breakfast, usually just tea and bread or oatmeal if I have it. Then I read for a little while before heading to school.

Weekdays I’m at school by 7:30 whether I’m teaching or not. I teach two sets of two-hour classes in the morning, three days a week. I go home around 11am to cook lunch, which takes about two hours on an imbabura. If I can borrow hot coals from a neighbor I heat up whatever I cooked the night before and use the extra time to take a power nap. Then I go back to school. On Tuesdays I teach another class in the afternoon and on Wednesdays I stay after school to supervise my English club, but most afternoons I just sit in the teacher‘s lounge and grade papers. I’m only permitted to teach fifteen hours a week because the Peace Corps wants me to have time for secondary projects, but since I’m only in month three of my service I have no idea what those projects should be. Eventually I’ll be giving English seminars for teachers and doing whatever else my director thinks I should be doing but right now I’m enjoying the extra free time.

I spend my evenings walking around and visiting people, which is actually a fairly important part of my job. Peace Corps stresses “integration” into our host communities, both because its important for us to have friends at site and because one of the major goals of Peace Corps service is cultural exchange. If I don’t have someone specific to visit I walk around until someone either stops me to talk to me or invites me into their house. I’ve learned a lot of Kinyarwanda this way, and I’ve also gotten to know my village pretty well.

I head home by 5:30 at the latest because I have to be inside my gate before dark. I don’t know how it is in big cities but in the villages women do not go out alone at night, both because it’s unsafe and because to do so is to risk one’s reputation. This used to bother me because the nights here are cool and clear and great for walking in, but lately I’ve learned to enjoy my nights in. I have a night guard named Josias who shows up at my house around 6pm so I usually talk with him for a little while or play guitar on my front porch (Josias loves it when I play guitar) and then I go inside and write lessons or read until I’m tired enough to sleep. If I need a reprieve from solitude I’ll have dinner with Louise, which is great because it means I don’t have to cook.

My Sundays are a little more interesting. On Sundays I wake up before 5am to play soccer with some of the young men in my village. My headmaster invited me to play with them once about a month ago and I’ve shown up every week since because if I don’t people ask me why I wasn’t there. It’s daunting because I’m the only female and I’m also terrible at soccer but the guys I play with are really encouraging and a lot of them aren’t that good either so I usually have a good time. We play until 8 or 8:30. Then I go home, shower, make breakfast, and go to mass. Yes, I go to church. It’s actually not that unusual for nonreligious PCVs to attend church because it’s a way of integrating, and it’s also an opportunity to be out in public without people staring at you or trying to poke your skin or pull your hair.

So there you have it, my typical day in Rwanda. A lot of this doesn’t apply right now because I’m in between trimesters so I don’t have a job, but certain things (the waking up at 5:30, for example) are still accurate. If anyone has any further questions, please let me know - like I said, to me this is all mind-numbingly boring but that may not be the case for everyone back home, I don’t know. Thanks for reading!