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Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Thread in the Loom of Life

My grandfather, Elden Hughes, was an exceptional man. He died on December 4, 2011 in his home in Joshua Tree, California. He was 80 years old. On Monday morning, December 5, I read in an email from my parents that he had died. Then I read his obituary in the LA Times. He was rather famous for his conservation work with the Sierra Club, so it was more of a feature article than an obituary. It was a beautiful article but it didn’t comfort me much.

Normally I wouldn’t write about the passing of a relative anywhere on the internet, much less on a blog dedicated to my Peace Corps experiences. But like I said, my grandfather was exceptional. He was always the perfect grandfather, old and wise and grandiose and unchanging. He sort of reminded me of a big old oak tree. He liked to tell stories and was excellent at it. He had many stories but he tended to tell the same ones, especially ones about Native American basket weavers. While I always enjoyed hearing his stories they were mostly about people I’d never known and places I’d never been to and consequently I’m not sure how often I really listened.

Then I joined the Peace Corps and he started writing me letters. Elden was a prodigious letter-writer. I suppose you don’t get as far as he did in life without being a prodigious letter-writer. I gave him and a number of other relatives my mailing address because I thought they might want to send me Christmas and birthday cards. Elden immediately sat down and wrote the first in what was to be a series of nearly 60 letters I’d receive throughout my first year of service.

When I arrived in Rwanda, Letter #1 was already waiting for me. I think I was the first volunteer in my training class to get any mail from home.

Through letters, I got to know Elden and he got to know me. He wrote to me about all kinds of things, about Native American basket weavers but also about my father and uncles as little boys, about books he’d read, about geological work he did in Mexico. He told me about raising pigs to put himself through college. He told me about graduate school at Vanderbilt, how it starts raining so suddenly in that part of the country and how he always seemed to get caught in the rain without an umbrella. He told me about his work with the Sierra Club and how he sometimes received death threats for his efforts. He also sent me pictures of himself. They’re mostly recent ones of him with his many pets, but there was one photo of him shaking hands with President Clinton.

Every time I went to the post office in Gitarama there were at least three letters from him waiting for me. They were printed on nice stationery with his personal letterhead. I responded via email because it was the only way I could keep up with him.

In one email I told him I was running out of ideas for things to do with my English club. He told me that if my students wanted to write to him, he’d be happy to respond. Twelve ended up writing letters, eleven of which got sent. They asked him lots of difficult open-ended questions, like “How can I succeed in life?” and “How can I come to America?” He not only responded to each one individually, but his answers were helpful and sensitive and written in English they could easily understand. Since a large part of my job in the Peace Corps is to communicate complex ideas with rudimentary English, I knew this was no simple task.

Elden told me on several occasions that I ought to read Moby Dick. He told me in high school that I ought to read Moby Dick. He told me again in college that I ought to read Moby Dick. I never did. When I came to Rwanda, I brought a copy with me and told him I planned to read it. “If you don’t get through the whole book,” he said, “there’s one chapter in particular that you need to read. It’s called The Mat Maker. Queequeg is weaving a mat, beating down the threads. It’s the perfect metaphor for life. You have the long threads of the warp. Those are the things in life you can’t change. Then you have the shuttle passing through the long threads. That’s free will. And then - WHACK. Chance!”

I made it a little more than halfway through Moby Dick before giving up on it, but I did read the chapter called The Mat Maker. When I opened my email on December 5 and saw that Elden had died, for a good twenty minutes the only thing I could think was: WHACK. Chance!

I’m lucky in that I haven’t experienced a whole lot of loss in my life. I’ve lost a few relatives whom I loved very much, but Elden’s passing is the first time I’ve lost not just a loved one but a friend. His letters a consistent source advice, encouragement, even companionship, and I relied on them during my first year of service. I realize now how lucky I was to get to know him that way and how much more difficult things would have been if I didn’t have his letters to look forward to.

My grandfather Elden did a lot of incredible things in his life. There are many, many people who know what he did for the Mojave Desert. There are only a few who know what he did for me. If I’ve made any contribution to the advancement of Rwanda, I owe it at least in part to his love and support.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Last Days: GLOW Pt. 2

The last days of camp kind of blur together in my mind because I woke up on Thursday with horrible stomach cramps that refused to go away. I slept through part of a career panel featuring a female police officer and a local nurse. I also slept through an SGBV (Sex and Gender Based Violence) seminar led by some local health workers. Thursday night we had an all-camp talent show. I was present for the first half, so I got to see some awesome dancing and singing. There were also a few girls who did standup in Kinyarwanda. Apparently I missed a pretty awesome fashion show featuring clothes the girls made and a spirited Macarena performance by the camp facilitators.

Oh, and I almost forgot - at the behest of some of the facilitators, I did a solo acoustic performance of Beyonce’s “Halo.” I’m pretty sure it was a hit.

Friday morning the sector officials returned to the camp to make a closing speech and each of the girls were given certificates of completion. Everyone said they were sad to leave the camp. A few girls even cried. When I asked one of the girls from school about the crying, she said, “It’s because everyone is so nice here. It’s so much easier to make friends here than at school.” I realized then that camp had been a safe place for me, too. Normally my status as “muzungu” means I’m treated differently, but at camp I was just a mentor and a friend. It was an incredible feeling. I felt like a human being.

I left Bugesera that day feeling worn out but fulfilled. Not only was GLOW an incredible success, but I found that the messages of the camp - female empowerment, healthful living, reconciliation - resonated as much with me as they did with the campers, and I returned to site on Saturday feeling stronger, more confident, and more at peace with myself and my neighbors. Everyone has been telling me how well I look since my return. I guess that’s the GLOW glow.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Why Nothing Good Comes Easy: GLOW Pt. 1

Last week was GLOW week in Bugesera. My body is bug-bitten, stomach-sick, achy and exhausted, but in heart and spirit I’m in better condition than ever. Not only was our camp an incredible success for the campers, it was an equally incredible experience for the volunteers who organized it. In fact, it was undoubtedly the best week of my Peace Corps service thus far.

Of course, “incredible success” doesn’t mean “flawless,” hence the exhaustion, stomach sickness and bug bites. But I’ll get to that.

I mentioned Camp GLOW in my last blog post but I never got a chance to describe exactly what GLOW is or how the camps are organized. GLOW, or Girls Lead Our World, is a Peace Corps initiative that started in Romania in 1995. The idea is to bring young women together in a camp setting to foster a sense of empowerment and discuss pertinent topics like sex, health and self-esteem. The GLOW initiative is new to Rwanda. There have been trial programs in Kigali and Gitarama but this year was the first year to see multiple regional camps happen simultaneously.

I participated in a regional camp in Bugesera, a district immediately east of Kigali. Our campers and facilitators came from six different schools in the Kigali-Bugesera area. We had guidelines Peace Corps and funding from PEPFAR, but it was up to us volunteers to actually make the camp happen. Four volunteers served as camp administrators. They secured a location for the camp, acquired materials, drew up a schedule, wrote lessons, planned activities and coordinated the staff that did the cooking and cleaning. I was one of six volunteer facilitators who recruited campers, taught lessons and supervised activities. We also had Rwandan co-facilitators and junior facilitators who we recruited from local schools.

During the camp we divided our days between small-group lessons and large-group activities. There were six groups, each named after a different famous female. I was the facilitator for the Michelle Obama group. There was also a Wangari Maathai group, a Mother Theresa group, an Oprah group, etc. Each morning, the small groups met in different classrooms for lessons on various topics. The theme of our GLOW Camp was HIV awareness so a lot of our lessons had to do with HIV prevention, but we also had lessons on things like decision-making, goal-setting, love and relationships. In the afternoons and evenings the girls convened to do sports and other activities. Sometimes we had multiple activities happening simultaneously, allowing the girls to pick what they wanted to do.

Though things went smoothly for the most part, it was definitely an adventure. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning:

The camp started on a Monday, making Sunday orientation day for the facilitators. I left my site at 6am because I had no idea where I was going or how long it would take. I knew only that I had to be at a school called G.S. Rango in Bugesera by 11am. It was a hot, dusty trip on bad roads in an overstuffed minibus. When I finally arrived at the school we only had time for a quick lunch before jumping into an orientation meeting that lasted hours. After dinner, we continued the meeting. I was so exhausted at the end of it I could have passed out in my chair.

The school had been infested with bedbugs during the year so the headmaster and his wife had provided us with new mattresses to sleep on. When we got to the dormitories I collapsed onto a bed and, assuming I was safe, slept a sound, dreamless sleep.

Two hours later I awoke to a sharp itching. Assuming I was imagining things, I tried to ignore it. When the itching persisted, I turned on my flashlight to investigate. To my horror, the mattress in the bunk above me was crawling with bedbugs as big as ticks. I rolled onto my stomach, inadvertently coming face-to-face with some that had fallen onto my sleeping bag. I squished one with my thumb. It left a long, bloody streak. On the other side of the room, a couple of people were frantically disentangling themselves from infested sheets. We rushed our mattresses outside, brushed them off, and spent the rest of the night on the floor of the supply room on the other side of campus.

Fun fact: bedbugs can live in wooden bed frames as well as mattresses, and they can lay their eggs in sheets, clothing and sleeping bags. In most cases, washing with cold water will not kill them.

Before the start of camp I had volunteered help round up campers coming through Nyabugogo, Kigali’s main bus station. So it was early the next morning, I had to take a minibus back to Kigali. I went with Mike, an administrator, and Grace, a junior facilitator. We left well before breakfast. As we hurtled back down the bumpy, dusty road, I silently cursed myself for ever volunteering to make such an awful trip twice and for forgetting to bring a personal supply of instant coffee with me.

For those of you who have never been to Rwanda, Nyabugogo deserves an explanation. I described it as Kigali’s main bus station. It is also by far the most chaotic place in the entire city. There are dozens upon dozens of minibuses, charter buses and taxis, some labeled and some not. These create an indecipherable maze of vehicles through which hundreds of travelers and street vendors are constantly streaming. The maze is bordered by shops and the offices of various ticket agencies. There are about ten agencies, at least two of which sell tickets to Bugesera.

Some of our campers knew to come find us in front of the Kigali Safaris ticket agency, but some had no idea where to go. To help them out, we’d made posters that read “Camp GLOW” in colorful block letters. We were supposed to collect seventeen girls and leave for Bugesera by 10am. By 9:30 we only had eight of them, so I decided to take a lap around the outer edge of the bus station with my sign. I tend to get harassed in Nyabugogo just for being a lone white women, so you can imagine what happened when I decided to walk around by myself with a big, colorful poster. By the time I made it back to the ticket agency I’d accumulated a crowd of hecklers and the poster was almost torn in half.

We had only sixteen girls by 10am and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t stall our driver. We ended up finding the last girl and leaving with her at 10:45. By that point I was actually grateful to be getting back on a bus. I had become so famous throughout Nyabugogo that people were trying to get me to sell my Camp GLOW poster.

When we arrived back in Bugesera I discovered that the school’s custodial staff had washed all of our bedbug-infested clothing and sheets. They had also washed our pillows and sleeping bags, including the ones stuffed with down feathers. The staff was convinced that our things would dry. I was convinced I’d just lost a $200 sleeping bag to someone else’s good intentions. Fortunately I had no time to be angry. We jumped right into lessons that day, and I met the eight young women who would be my family for the week: Vestine, Jacqueline, Djamila, Ancille, Angelique, Martine, and my co-facilitator, Lucy.

I slept that night wrapped in someone else’s spare sheet with a damp towel for a pillow. We had all relocated to supply room, leaving us without mosquito nets to sleep under. It wasn’t ideal, but have to say I much prefer mosquitoes, katydids, dampness and cold to the predation of bedbugs. Few things are worse than rampant bedbugs.


Tuesday morning was a cold, misty morning, but I decided to take an outdoor bucket bath anyway. We were expecting some sector officials to come and speak and I wanted to look presentable.

That day the schedule was packed with activities and some rather technical lessons on HIV and the immune system. We had allotted about an hour for the sector officials and assumed it would be plenty. This was a typical American mistake. In the United States people of high standing are more punctual than average. In Rwanda, the more important you are, the later you can afford to be. The later you can afford to be, the later you are, and everyone is expected to wait for you.

Naturally, the sector officials were late. To our credit, we waited for an hour and a half before assuming they weren’t coming and proceeding with the day’s lessons. Everything seemed to be going fine until around 2pm when some visiting Peace Corps staff approached a volunteer. They told her that the school’s headmaster was extremely upset. He thought we hadn’t waited because we didn’t want to hear from the sector officials, and he was so ashamed of us he couldn’t bear to approach us about it himself. We immediately contacted the sector and reiterated that we wanted them to come and that we’d rearrange our schedule as necessary.

At 3:30 we put our afternoon activities on hold to have the “official opening” of Camp GLOW by the sector. It was what I’d call a exemplary cross-cultural experience.

Misunderstandings aside, everything worked out. The executive secretary gave a very nice speech and our schedule didn’t get too far off track. We got through all of our lessons and most of a team-building ropes course. That evening I paired up with another volunteer and taught a beginning salsa class, which turned out to be a big hit. All in all a successful day.


Wednesday was condom demonstration day. This was a big hurdle for me. I had never done a condom demonstration before in my life and I was nervous. It wasn’t just that I worried about maintaining a straight face, though I admit that was part of it. I also wasn’t sure what to expect from the campers and I had reasons to fear the worst.

Condom usage in Rwanda is an unnavigable area of controversy. On the one hand, there’s a huge push on the part of the government to combat HIV transmission. On the other hand, the possession of condoms is frowned upon, especially for young girls. In extreme cases I’ve heard of students getting expelled for having condoms in their book bags. Some of our initial GLOW Camp lessons discussed condoms as a means of preventing HIV but I still had no idea how the girls would react to the sight of an actual condom. I ran through all the possibilities in my head - giggling fits, horror, stunned silence, a mass exodus from the classroom - before I went in to teach that day. Nothing could have prepared me for what actually happened.

We began the lesson with an activity. The girls were each given a sheet of paper. The sheets said things like “check the expiration date of the condom,” “pinch the tip of the condom to keep air from getting trapped,” “roll the condom down to the base of the penis,” etc. The girls had to arrange the sheets in chronological order. When they got it right, we taped all the sheets to the wall. I explained that at Camp GLOW we do not encourage girls to have sex, especially since abstinence is the only way to be 100% safe from diseases like HIV. I explained that we want there to be safe, healthy options for girls who choose to have sex, which is why we talk about condom usage. Then I took out a condom and a banana and ran through each of the steps.

Not only did the girls listen attentively and respectfully, but when I gave them the option, every single one of them took a condom and practiced the steps themselves. No one seemed uncomfortable. To my amazement, two of the girls told me afterwards that it was their first time to ever see a condom. One girl told me that she’d seen a condom demonstration before but that it hadn’t been as effective. She said that even though she wants to abstain from sex until marriage, she’s glad to know how to use a condom because she can teach others. Hearing that was probably the single most fulfilling moment I’ve experienced as a Peace Corps volunteer.

That night we had a dance party in the main hall. While the girls boogied down, we built a bonfire outside and set up a table with marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers shipped specially from America for making s’mores. The s’mores were a huge hit. We tried to limit the girls to one apiece but a few kept sneaking back inside to grab more marshmallows.

As we stood around the fire eating, a few girls started singing softly. Others slowly joined in, and soon the entire group had erupted into a beautiful three-part harmony. Their voices were powerful yet sweet, building to crescendo that broke like a wave over my heart. I’ve heard a lot of choral singing in my life but I’ve never heard anything quite so beautiful as that one spontaneous song.

In Rwanda it’s considered indecorous to cry in public, even on happy occasions. I turned around and hid my face in another volunteer’s shirt so the girls wouldn’t see my tears.

I’ll share the last two days of camp with you later. I think I’ve given you all enough to read for now.