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Friday, November 30, 2012

On the Road

Hello from Koh Phangan, Thailand!  I feel like I ought to revise the name of my blog since it’s going to be more of a travel blog now – in the last two weeks I’ve been to three countries on three different continents and I’m just getting started!  Unfortunately I’ve also realized that it’s a lot easier to blog about my experiences when I’m sitting at site with nothing to do than it is when I’m moving around, even considering my vastly improved internet access.  It’ll be quick, sporadic updates from here on out.  But that’s better than nothing, right?

Our first stop was Cape Town, South Africa.  Leaving the airport, the first thing I noticed was the juxtaposition of the townships and slightly wealthier neighborhoods.  There would be a block or two of shanties made of old sheet metal with laundry lines strung between them and then the next block would look like an American suburb.  Once we were in Cape Town, the townships disappeared from view altogether and it started to feel disturbingly like home.  There were grocery stores and 7-Elevens and people walking dogs and jogging along the beach.  It was completely surreal.

I bought a variant on Raisin Bran and some nonfat milk at the Pick n’ Pay and lived out my dreams of having cold cereal for breakfast.  I think that was my single best moment in Cape Town.  Not Table Mountain, not the Red Bus tour, not the wine tour, not even running along the waterfront at sunrise.  Cape Point was a close second, but nothing beat having cold cereal for breakfast.

Our next stop after Cape Town was Bangkok, but in-between we had a 20-hour layover in Istanbul.  Rather than staying in the airport, we decided to venture out into the city and meet up with a couple of other RPCVs.  Istanbul was, in a word, enchanting.  Damp and cold and gray, but enchanting nonetheless.  We saw the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, explored a massive bazaar and ate some delicious baklava.  I also entered a Starbucks for the first time in two years and had my first bout of culture shock since Cape Town.  Then we returned to the airport and passed out for a few hours before boarding our plane to Bangkok.

Smells are important.  Every place we’ve gone to, I’ve had a distinctive smell-based first impression.  Cape Town smelled like the ocean.  Istanbul smelled sweetly like smoke.  Bangkok has a faint ginger-garlic smell that permeates everything, even the airport.  When we arrived the sweltering heat and humidity came as a shock, not least because they air-condition the heck out of the airport and the trains and basically every indoor place.  When you step out of the train into the street the temperature differential makes your head spin.  But heat and humidity aside, I love Bangkok.  Everyone we encountered was extremely friendly and helpful, even the cabbies and tuk-tuk drivers.  And the street food is amazing.  There’s phad thai and seafood and miscellaneous fried delicacies and iced coffee and juice and all kinds of fresh fruit sold in little plastic bags.  Coming from Rwanda where there’s no street food whatsoever – and Cape Town, where there really isn’t any street food either, and Istanbul, where the only street food I saw was donuts and baklava – I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  We tried phad thai in four different places and the best we had was the phad thai we bought from a street vendor on Khao San Road.

We only spent a day and a half in Bangkok before heading to Koh Phangan, an island off the southeastern coast of Thailand.  I could’ve spent ages in Bangkok but we wanted to get to Koh Phangan in time for the Full Moon Party.  For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the Full Moon Party is a massive beach party created by and for tourists.  I think it started with some hippies proclaiming that Koh Phangan is the best place to watch the full moon rise over the ocean and steadily evolved into what it is now, thousands of people from all over the world covering themselves in blacklight paint, drinking buckets of booze (literally buckets, they sell cocktails in buckets) and dancing on a beach until the sun comes up.  We went with some people we met at our hostel and had an amazing time that, frankly, I’m still recovering from.

So now I’m here.  In some ways I haven’t quite processed the fact that I’m no longer in Rwanda.  Cape Town made me homesick for my village, but here on Koh Phangan, with the rainforest backdrop and locals zipping around on motor scooters, I don’t feel completely out of place.  It worries me that when homesickness does hit me, it isn’t homesickness for America.  But I’ll deal with that later – for now, the sun is setting over the beach and I have a Thai curry craving that needs to be satisfied.

‘Til next time.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Painfully Detailed Chronicle of My Last Week(s) in Peace Corps, Part II

Saturday, November 10, 2012

I wake up early with the intent to go for a run, but it’s raining. Instead I make coffee with fresh ginger root and honey and write a list of things to get done that day.  Then I make banana pancakes and bring them to the convent to share with the nuns.  Over the course of the day my rooms are slowly stripped of furniture, kitchenware and other odds and ends.  I sell my chairs and the stool I use for cooking.  I give my wall calendar to the gardener.  By the end of the day the larger of my two rooms is more or less empty.  I sit on the floor and stare at the bare walls.

I expect to feel something, but I still don’t.  It’s like my head is full of white noise.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Despite my best efforts to be innocuous about leaving, visitors trickle in and out all day.  Louise comes by in the morning.  Meredith invites me to get tea with her at the market, and when I get back Valentine is there with her two younger sisters and her newborn baby.  Innocent comes later that morning with his father and sings me a goodbye song he composed himself.  Abakecuru and students come and go.  As news spreads through the health center that I’m leaving, nurses start to drop by.  With each visitor, the fact that I’m leaving sinks in a little more.  The white noise dissipates, but it’s replaced with a cacophony of divergent emotions – sadness, elation, anxiousness, relief.

Rain clouds roll in over Gihara and the stream of visitors slows to a trickle.  Then I get a visitor I wasn’t expecting.  Josias has walked all the way from his home in the valley just to say goodbye.  He’s dressed to the nines, in a secondhand suit jacket, pressed pants and leather hat.  When I ask him why he’s all dressed up he says, “To come say goodbye to you.”

I have no furniture left in my house so we sit together on a bench on my porch and watch the rain fall.  It reminds me of my first year at site when he was still a night guard at the health center.  Before I leave, I gift him two more parting gifts – a micro fleece blanket and my radio.  As he leaves I feel oddly content – I’ve given him the two nicest things I had left in my house.  It feels right to give him the best I’ve got, even if it’s less than he deserves.

A vehicle from Peace Corps drops by on its way to the office in Kigali to pick up some of my Peace Corps-issued effects.  I help load my trunk, my bicycle and my water filter.  Then I go back to sitting in my empty kitchen and staring at the blank walls while the rain lashes the windows.  I smile into space and think about going home.

Later that night I have dinner with the nuns for the last time.  They’ve baked me a cake and bought Fanta for the occasion.  We celebrate until Sister Marie Rose starts to fall asleep at the table.  Then they walk me back to my room and wish me sweet dreams on my last night in Gihara.

Monday, November 12, 2012

It rains again so I skip my morning run and spend an hour unpacking and repacking my bags.  I have a duffle full of things to bring to Kigali for other PCVs.  Everything else has been given away already except my spare pair of sandals.  While I’m standing on my porch trying to figure out what to do about them, two barefoot old women walk by on their way to the health center.  I greet them and they respond with a predictable, “What do you have to eat?” This isn’t so much a request as a convention.  I know this, but I tell them, “I have no food right now but I have these shoes.  Do you want them?” 

I smile as one old Rwandan walks away with what might be the best pair of shoes she’s ever owned.

I have tea and leftover cake with the nuns.  They ask me how I plan to get to Kigali with all of my bags.  At one point I’d had a plan for that, but I got caught up in packing and giving things away and forgot to actually arrange for a car.  The nuns suggest that I go out into the market and find a couple of available moto taxis.  Sister Donatile offers to accompany me to Kigali, but I convince her to go only as far as the main road.  I then spend a good twenty minutes waiting in the market for moto taxis to show up.  It figures that the day I leave Gihara forever is the one day I can’t find a ride.

I finally acquire two motos and send them ahead of me back to the convent.  Sister Donatile meets me at the gate and helps load my giveaway bag onto one moto.  We quickly realize that we’d need a third moto to transport me, her and all my things.  I tell her, “Don’t worry.  It’s better to say goodbye here than at the bus stop.  This was our home.”  She takes my hand and puts it against her cheek.  We spend a good minute just looking at each other with tears in our eyes.  Then I get on the moto and I’m off.

I expected to feel good on my last ride out of site, but I cry silently the whole way. 

When I get to the main road I realize I have no idea how I’m going to get myself and my bags onto a bus.  Fortunately for me, the motari recognizes the hopelessness of my situation and immediately goes in search of a car taxi.  He finds me a driver named Bosco who agrees to take me all the way to the Peace Corps office for 10,000 francs.  It normally costs more like 15 or 20 thousand.  I thank him and ask him in all candidness why he didn’t try to overcharge me like taxi drivers normally do. He says, “You’re leaving Rwanda, yes?  You need to go with peace in your heart, and we must send you away with love.”

I wonder at the benevolence of Rwanda.  For a moment, the anxieties and frustrations of past weeks melt away.

I arrive at the Peace Corps office, unpack and take a lukewarm shower. 

Tuesday, November 13 – Thursday, November 15, 2012

Since Monday is a national holiday, none of us can begin our COS process until Tuesday.  Things go alarmingly smoothly.  I manage to turn in all of my Peace Corps stuff, get my paperwork signed off on and see the PCMO before noon on Wednesday.  When it finally dawns on me that I’m no longer a PCV, I feel the same blankness I felt before leaving site.  It’s too much to take in.

Wednesday and Thursday night are spent out on the town with other COS-ing volunteers.  There’s a lot of benevolence and nostalgia but not too many tears.  One by one, we start leaving for the airport.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bags have been packed, francs have been exchanged for USD, boarding passes have been printed.  It doesn’t occur to me that I’m actually leaving until I’m hugging people goodbye.  In the kitchen at the Peace Corps office, Kay tells me she’ll miss me and I finally burst into tears.

I realize that the silent crying I did on the moto out of site really didn’t count as much of a release.  Now, this is real.

Jed, Shawn, Jamie and Keira accompany Brittany, Caroline and I to the airport.  We discover that our flight has been delayed by five hours.   By sheer luck, we won’t miss our connecting flight from Jo’burg to Cape Town.  It’s a fitting start to our adventure.

And now I find myself here.  In an airport in Kigali with Caroline and Brittany, waiting for a 1 am flight.  Goodbye, Peace Corps service.  Goodbye, Rwanda.  Goodbye, ibitoki and cold showers and abasabirizi and abakecuru and abanyeshuri, spiders and lizards and filtering our own drinking water, Peace Corps rules and Peace Corps guidelines, to everything and everyone familiar from the last two years.

Hello, the rest of our lives.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Painfully Detailed Chronicle of My Last Week in Peace Corps

For those of you who are interested.

Sunday, November 6, 2012

4:45 am.  I wake up in pitch darkness.  The call to prayer tells me I’m still in my room at the Dayenu Hotel in Nyanza.  It’s the day after our COS dinner and going-away party.  My bunkmate, Brittany, is still asleep, so instead of showering I get up and look through the photos I took the previous night. 

Then I get out my laptop and look through photos from the last two years.  I expect to feel something, but all I can think is how different we all look now.

8:00 am. Breakfast is comp’ed so I eat way too much toast.  I spend an hour on the hotel balcony uploading pictures to Facebook and watching rainclouds drift in over the undulating green of Nyanza.  I think about how spectacularly beautiful Nyanza is and wonder if I’ll ever get to see it again.

2:00 pm.  I say goodbye to some of the other volunteers and head out into the rain with Jed, Shawn and Nicole.  We have a Rwandan buffet lunch at Café Ideal for the last time.  On my way to the bus stop I say a quick goodbye to Jed’s host brothers from training.  They reply, “See you next time.” I hate that people keep doing that.  They know there isn’t going to be a next time.  Don’t they?

3:00 pm.  I catch a bus to Kigali with Shawn.  We have an intense conversation about how Peace Corps feels like a simulation of reality, maybe because you can opt out of or into it like a game.  

4:45 pm.  I get into site.  It’s dark and rainy.  I dump the damp contents of my backpack onto my bed. Since it’s too much effort to put things away, I crawl under the pile and fall asleep.

9:00 pm. I wake up feeling cold.  I watch Money Ball on my netbook and go back to bed.

Monday, November 5, 2012

5:30 am.  I wake up to pouring rain and think, “Nope, not yet.”  Back to sleep.

6:30 am.  I wake up, imagine saying goodbye to more people, and think, “Nope, not yet.”  Back to sleep.

8:00 am.  I wake up, see the time and try to jump out of bed.  Instead I get tangled in my mosquito net and go crashing to the floor, taking the net and probably a chunk of the ceiling with me.  Not an atypical start to my day.

9:00 am.  Bucket-bathed and breakfasted, I still don’t feel ready to go into school.  There’s no telling what can happen in the absence of scheduled classes.  Instead, I head out into the banana groves to visit a woman named Mukecuru.  We sit in her mud-and-thatch house and talk, mostly about my plans for the future.  She tells me I should stay in Rwanda, get a job and marry a Rwandan man.  I tell her that no Rwandan man would accept me.  She said, “Why not? You’re a beautiful girl.”

My well-rehearsed response: “I expect my future husband to cook, clean and take orders.”  Mukecuru almost falls over laughing.

She sends me off with a bag full of fresh chicken eggs and ample blessings.  At the road she tells me, “You will have a wonderful journey home, and a wonderful life after.  Goodbye.”

I think, thank God.  She understands.

11:00 am. I arrive at school with my students’ graded exams in hand.  At the door to the teachers’ room, the dean of studies, Clement, stops me short.  He says, “I need your other exams.” This week is second sitting, the week that failing students can retake certain exams. 

Never, not once in the last two years, have I been asked to write anything for second sitting. I always assumed our school didn’t do one.

I say, “I don’t have any other exams.”

Clement: “Why?”

Me: “You never asked me to write any.”

Clement: “Mm.”

Me: “When do you need them by?”

Clement: “Now.”

After some negotiating he agrees to let me use his office while he goes home for lunch.  An hour later I lock up for him.  I leave him two exams, a grading rubric for each and a thank-you note decorated with stickers.  I’m not sure what I’m thanking him for, but it seems like the right thing to do.

2:00 pm.  I climb down into the valley where Josias lives, slipping in the mud as I go.  With me, a woven mat and an envelope full of photographs.  They’re parting gifts for my adopted Rwandan grandfather, the best ones I could come up with.  I wish I had more things he could actually use, but such is life.

Josias’ wife greets me at the door and welcomes me into their living room.  Josias emergs a few minutes later taking careful steps .  Last week he was trampled by one of his cattle and suffered a few broken ribs, but he seems to mending well considering the gravity of his injuries and his relatively advanced age.

He asks, “Are you happy to go back to America?”  I say, “Yes and no.  I’ll miss you and everyone.” He says, “Yes, but you’ll be with your parents and in your own country and that will be good.  You’ll be happy.  You’ll be very, very happy.”  There are tears in his eyes.

Two hours later he follows me out to the road.  It’s a custom in Rwanda for hosts to accompany their guests.  At the point where the path gets steep and treacherous, I insist that he turn back.  He embraces me – not a custom in Rwanda – and says, in English, “Bye bye.”

I discover how much it hurts trying not to cry while climbing up a steep hill.

5:30 pm.  With nothing left to do for the day, I resort to burning old exam papers in my imbabura.  I also burn some worksheets from COS Conference, a guide to Kinyarwanda noun classes, the remnants of a compromised debit card, some photos I brought with me from college, copies of my passport, and two pairs of old socks. 

It feels therapeutic, though it’s probably just carcinogenic.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

5:30 am.  I wake up, stumble out of bed, lace up my trail runners and go for a lazy jog through the cornfields.  When I get home I think about taking a bucket bath but instead I fall back asleep on top of my covers.

8:00 am.  BOOM.  I sit up sharply, thinking for a minute that the ceiling’s falling in.  It always sounds like that when a magpie lands on my tin roof. 

9:00 am.  While I’m heating up water for coffee, Louise calls.  She tells me that her sister, Anna, is visiting and that I should come over to have my hair done.  Anna works in a salon in Kigali.  For weeks she’s been after me to let her braid my hair “Rwandan style,” i.e. in cornrows.   I acquiesce without much of a struggle. 

12:00 pm.  Anna finishes braiding my hair.  I look like a more stereotypical Peace Corps volunteer.  I like it for its novelty, but I know I’m going to take it out as soon as I leave Gihara.  Hopefully it won’t take the full three hours to undo it all.

2:00 pm.  It starts raining again.  I crawl back into bed with my paperback copy of Moby Dick.  I might even finish it before the week is out.

9:00 pm.  I make stir-fry and watch a fascinating documentary on the secondhand clothing business in Africa.  I feel even more convinced that Peace Corps service isn’t a self-contained experience, but a starting point for something bigger.  What exactly I’m not sure, but it’s a good feeling.

10:30 pm.  My mom calls.  I ask her how the election is going, then realize it’s still early afternoon on the West Coast.  Results won’t be in until tomorrow my time.  I sleep fitfully.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 

5:30 am.  I’ve put my alarm clock on the other side of the room specifically so that I’ll have to get out of bed to turn it off.  Instead, I wait for it to stop beeping and fall back asleep.

7:00 am. I wake up to Jean Paul yelling nonsense at Saverine across the garden.  I eat a banana and head into school to see how second sitting went, only to discover that no one is there.

10:00 am.  I’m hanging my laundry out to dry when Baptiste runs up to me with his portable radio and tells me that Obama won the election.  The entire health center is celebrating.  I smile and thank him, internally feeling unsettled that the American presidential election is this important in Rwanda. 

12:30 pm. I visit Mama Valentine and her daughter Fanny and give them some photos I had printed in Kigali.  Unlike most families in the area, they have their own TV.  The results of the American election are playing on a Rwandan news station.  They, too, congratulate me on Obama’s victory.  “We like him because he’s African and because he wants to work with other countries,” they tell me.  Again, I’m unsettled by the apparent importance of American presidential elections in Rwanda.  I feel like telling them that Obama isn’t actually African, but I decide to keep that fact to myself since they probably won’t believe me anyway.

2:00 pm.  I cook an omelet with some of the eggs Mukecuru gave me.  My neighbor, Brigite, stops by to ask when I’m leaving.  I tell her that she gets my imbabura when I leave.  I’ve already pawned off or given away my furniture and most of my kitchen things. 

5:30 pm.  I give some of my clothes to Ingabire, the convent housekeeper.  She thanks me and leaves.  Five minutes later she comes back and asks what else I’ve got.  I die a little inside.

9:00 pm.  Meredith calls to ask if I’ll be going to Kigali in the morning.  I have my COS interview in Kigali and she has some errands to run, so we make plans to travel together.  I try to sleep, but end up watching the second season of Arrested Development until midnight. 

Thursday, November 9, 2012

5:30 am.  I actually wake up to my alarm and throw on my running clothes.  Halfway through my run, a thick fog settles over Gihara.  I’m thankful for the concealment – no children try to run after me – but by the time I’m home I’m freezing and wet.  The power is on so I use my kettle to heat bathwater. 

6:45 am.  Meredith stops by to find out when I’m leaving for Kigali.  She can’t call because signal is unattainable.  Not an atypical problem at our site.

8:00 am.  I wake up to Meredith knocking on my door.  I don’t remember going back to bed.

9:00 am.  Meredith and I part ways at the Peace Corps office.  My interview isn’t until 11 am so I try to return my Peace Corps medkit at the med office, only to discover I need the GSM to sign for it.

10:00 am.  I’ve found the GSM, but now I can’t locate my medkit.  The med office secretary has disappeared.

10:30 am. I discover that the med office is unlocked.  I sneak into the secretary’s cubicle, retrieve my medkit, take it to the GSM, get his signature on my property checklist, and restore the medkit to the secretary’s cubicle.  It took me an hour and a half to return one article of Peace Corps property.  I still have to return my Peace Corps bicycle, trunk and water filter, close my bank account, get the PCMO to sign off on my COS physical, and have about half a dozen other papers signed by various PC administrators.

I begin to wonder if I’ll actually COS on schedule.

11 am.  I have my interview with Brian, our new PM, who’s standing in for Steve, our Country Director.  Steve broke a tooth and had to leave the country.  Brian and I have a wonderful getting-to-know-you conversation.  He then bids me a fond farewell and wishes me luck with the rest of my COS process. 

1 pm.  Shawn and I get lunch at Mr. Chips, a fast food restaurant run by a Canadian expat.  I reflect on the fact that most Rwandan food is at least as fattening as the burger and fries I’m eating but not nearly as delicious.  Suddenly I’m overwhelmingly eager to get on a plane out of here.

2:30 pm.  I close my bank account.  The whole process takes 45 minutes.  I spend 5 of those minutes actually closing my account, 40 of them trying to withdraw the funds I still have with checks that are apparently expired and a national ID that confuses the bank staff because it isn’t a passport. 

3:30 pm.  I use the free Wifi at a café downtown to send some emails, check Facebook and research things to do in Malaysia.  Having done everything productive I needed to do, I start looking up low-calorie recipes that I could never make in Rwanda because the ingredients don’t exist here.  The words “braised chicken” make me drool on the table.

6:00 pm. Having returned to site, I brew some herbal tea and organize my COS papers. 

7:00 pm.  Mom and Dad call.  We talk for a really long time.  Afterwards, I get the first good sleep I’ve gotten all week.

Friday, November 9, 2012

5:30 am.  I wake up but it’s raining, so instead of running I do some sun salutations.  Then I get back under the covers and revel in the coziness of my little room.  Suddenly I’m preemptively homesick for Rwanda.

It’s weird.

9:00 am.  It’s the last official day of the school year.  I go into school where I expect to find teachers handing out report cards.  Instead I find teachers frantically typing up report cards. 

The headmaster calls me into his office and I sit for half an hour while he reprimands one of my students for fabricating a report card with fake marks.  He asks me if I have anything to say to the student in question.  I say in Kinyarwanda, “If you’re going to cheat this skillfully, you should put marks that we can believe.”

My headmaster is not amused.

10:00 am.  Teachers are still typing report cards.  I read Moby Dick, then take a nap on a bench in the teachers’ room.

11:00 am.  It’s still raining and teachers are still typing report cards.  I tell Damascene to call me when they’re done and head back home to make some tea.

2:00 pm.  I’ve returned to school and waited another two hours for the last of the report cards to be signed and printed.  Finally, everyone goes down to the meeting hall.

Once the teachers are seated, the director goes over the program for meeting.  He gives a list of talking points that must be covered and explains that at the end of all of our official business, I will be saying a brief goodbye as I’m returning to America soon.  Mistakenly thinking I’ve been called upon to say something, I jump up and launch into my goodbye speech.

 A minute later I note the confused looks on everyone’s faces and realize I’ve made a fool of myself for probably the ten thousandth time in Rwanda.  I sit down and spend the next hour staring at the floor and blushing furiously.

4:00 pm.  Official business has been concluded, drinks have been distributed and I still haven’t given my goodbye speech.  My director is already two beers into the evening.  Deciding to be bold, I stand up, tap two bottles together, and announce that I’m going home to America in a few days and that I would like to say goodbye.  Then I launch into the same speech I’d begun earlier, but with more emotion, confidently enunciating the Kinyarwanda I so painstakingly prepared ahead of time. The words flow and the teachers get misty.  Their reaction emboldens me and I stop following my notes.  By the end I’m crying a little, but so are the others.  One by one, they stand up and thank me for my service. 

I think, “Thank God.  I didn’t blow it.”

5:00 pm.  The last speech is given by the director.  He presents me with an agaseke basket and urges me to take the good and the bad I have seen in Rwanda and put them in it for safekeeping.  He tells me that in Rwandan culture, a child is named eight days after it enters society.  He says that while my initial eight days in Rwandan society are long past, it isn’t too late to christen me with a Rwandan name.  He gives me the name Umwari, which means a girl who is educated, cultured and discreet.  I tell him that he couldn’t have given me a better gift – meaning the name.  He shoots a confused looked at the agaseke basket, then shakes my hand. 

The teachers commandeer my camera and spend the next half hour taking pictures, mostly of each other walking up the stairs outside the meeting hall.

8:00 pm.  I stop by my headmaster’s house to drop off some photographs and say a final goodbye.  I end up sharing a glass of urwagwa with his wife and chatting with the two of them for several hours.  He tells me that he feels privileged to have worked with me.  I feel a mix of emotions.  Mostly I wonder if he’s been hyperbolic on purpose.

~ To Be Continued ~

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What It's Like

Exams started on Tuesday.  No matter how hard I try, they always catch me off guard by a week.  The official start date for exams is October 27th.  A Saturday.  I guess I should’ve known better.

It’s funny – I keep expecting things to be different because I’m leaving, but nothing changes.  Exams caught me off guard by a week, the proctoring schedule hasn’t been written yet even though we’re several days into it, and I keep getting stuck at school for things like recording exam grades and filling out report cards.  In a couple of weeks I’ll start getting rid of my household effects – cookware, furniture, things I don’t intend to take with me.  Then I’ll get on a moto taxi and leave.  It’ll be just like any other weekend trip to Kigali.  

Except that I won’t come back.

Last week I visited the training site to take a language assessment and meet some of the trainees.  Rather egotistically, I was anticipating all kinds of questions about service, but I guess that’s what Volunteer Assistant Trainers are for.  I only got asked one question.  They wanted to know what it feels like to be so close to finishing.

I said, “Exciting and scary.  Mostly scary.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m looking forward to going home and seeing all my friends and family again, not to mention all the hot showers I’ll take and all the cheese I’ll eat.  I swear I’m going to put cheese on everything for awhile after I get back.  It’s going to be fantastic. But the prospect of re-integration into American society still freaks me out.

For those of you back home reading this blog, I figure I should make a short list of things that intimidate me about America so you can help me out when I get back.  Or, you know, laugh preemptively at my strangeness.  Whichever.

Fear #1: Overprotective Mothers

In the United States, mothers freak out when their kids run out into traffic, stick metal objects into electrical sockets or wander away with total strangers.  Not so in Rwanda.  It’s not that Rwandan parents are indifferent to their children’s wellbeing – they just have different expectations.  In Rwanda, parenting is a communal thing.  If a kid runs out into the street, someone else will swoop in and rescue them from getting run over by a bicycle.  And if not – well, that kid won’t run out in the street again anytime soon, will he?  Getting hit by a bike hurts.

In my village, I’ve regularly gone on walks with other people’s kids, picking them and carrying them for miles before re-depositing them where I found them.  I’d like to believe that I won’t pull this stunt in America, but if I get arrested for kidnapping within a month of returning home, you guys will know why.

Fear #2: Not Being Special

Rwanda is a tiny country with a remarkable degree of ethnic, linguistic and cultural homogeneity.  I’m an oddity in the cities and a minor celebrity in my village.  The fact that I speak Kinyarwanda makes me even more so.  When I say things, people listen.  When I ask for things, I usually get them.  And I always get VIP treatment at weddings, ceremonies, baby showers and formal functions. 

I hope that my temporary and underserved celebrity status hasn’t made me a pain to be around.  There’s no telling until I get back home and try to function in my native culture, where I’m effectively a nobody.

Fear #3: Smart Phones

True fact: I have never accessed the internet from a phone before.  The last phone I used stateside had a plan for calls and texting and that was about it.  I don’t even know what a smart phone is, much less how to use one – all I know is that my friends back home miraculously have Facebook access everywhere they go.  I’m so intimidated by smart phones, I considered Googling “smart phone” to see if it’s two words or one.

I’m going to need some serious help in this department.

Fear #4: Being Fat and Getting Even Fatter

Contrary to popular belief, a lot of PCVs actually gain weight during service rather than losing it.  This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa where the local diet consists of starchy roots and tubers cooked in excessive amounts of palm oil.  In Rwanda, a typical meal consists of three or four fried starches, a little bit of fried meat, and if you’re lucky, a small serving of veggies, also cooked in oil.  I exercise, I snack on fruit and I try my best to limit my portions despite everyone’s well-meaning attempts to overfeed me, and I’ve still managed to gain a shameful Peace Corps Fifteen.  I’m terrified that when I get off the plane, people will be like, “Seriously? You got fat in Africa? What did you do, eat your village?? Wow.”

Since I gained weight in Rwanda, I’d like to believe I’ll lose it automatically went I get home, but I’ve been deprived of American food for two years so that’s a feeble hope at best.  Like I said, I plan on putting cheese on everything.  If you guys want to get me a Christmas gift I’ll appreciate, maybe you should look into gym memberships and hire me a personal trainer.

Fear #5: American English

There are days when I swear I forget my own language.  It’s part of the reason I maintain a blog – to keep thinking in complete sentences.  Granted I do teach my classes in English, but it’s not the English I used to speak back home, it’s a weird hybrid of Rwandan-accented English, Kinyarwanda/Swahili words and French.  What can I say?  It’s the only “English” my community understands. 

Despite my best intentions, I just know I’m going to get home and say something awkward.  I have this recurring nightmare where I’m in a restaurant and instead of asking for the check, I say, “You will bring the facture, sawa?”

If I think of more of these, I’ll keep posting them.  Trainees beware – two years from now, this is what you’re in for. 

Friday, October 12, 2012


One month left until COS.  Twenty-seven days until I leave Gihara for good.  I’m sitting indoors right now and rain is lashing at the windows.  It’s been raining in brief spurts, not enough to fill the rain tankards but enough to trick the villagers into planting beans that won’t have the water they need to grow.  On Monday it rained hard enough for me to fill a bucket with runoff from the convent roof – I expected everyone else to be as excited as I was, but instead I got chastised for standing outside with my bucket and getting soaked. “You’ll get malaria,” someone yelled across the courtyard. No, I thought, for the millionth time, you get malaria from mosquitoes. Not from standing in the rain.

In one month, I’m leaving.  Really, truly leaving.  I haven’t fully accepted this as fact.  My village hasn't accepted it at all.  When I tell people they say, “Oh good, when will you be back?” They think America is a place you can visit for a weekend.  When I say I’m not coming back, they think I’m being facetious. 

There are a handful of people who understand. My best friend at site, Louise, understands and I know it because it’s all we ever talk about now.  Every time she sees me she greets me with, “How are you, Gelsey? I will cry when you go to America.” I’ve told her I’ll cry too, but it doesn't seem to make any difference to her whether I’ll cry or not.  Either way, I’m going.

I don’t know how to feel above leaving.  Caught between excitement about the future and affection for the place I’m leaving, I spend most of my time feeling neither sad nor happy.  Instead I’m just exhausted.  The urge to check out completely is overwhelming.  But day by day, I’m saying my goodbyes, wrapping up my projects, and doing my best to end this thing right.

And who knows?  Maybe I’ll come back to Rwanda some day.  Just not as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

An Update! Yay!

Once again, I apologize to my small but dedicated cadre of followers.  I promised you stories from GLOW Camp and then disappeared for a month.  Sorry!  After staring at a blank document for weeks, I realized that I don’t really have any blog-able GLOW stories because I spent most of the camp sitting in the supply room scribbling notes all over the schedule.  When I wasn’t doing that, I was running around telling people about schedule changes or making announcements in the cafeteria.  There were some really great moments, but I was in the supply room for most of them.

For me, the high point of GLOW Camp was right at the end, when I met with the campers from my school to discuss the possibility of a GLOW club at St. Dominique.  We already have a club based around Nyampinga, a wonderful free publication for girls that’s available in Rwanda.  Since the themes of Nyampinga are similar to GLOW I asked if my students would be willing to teach some of lessons from GLOW Camp in their Nyampinga club.  We drew up a plan and delegated tasks.  We even made deadlines for teaching different lessons.   I gave each of my girls a big hug and told them that I can be happy to go home to America now because I know they will teach for me after I’m gone. 

I hope I was right.  We’re in week four of a six-week term and we haven’t met a single deadline, but the potential is still there.  I’m running out of time, but my girls will be around at least another year.   I just hope that someone will be around to keep them motivated.

Unfortunately, that someone will not be another PCV.  I recently found out that I won’t be replaced, or at least not in 2013.  My headmaster recently decided to fill out a late application for a volunteer, but the application can’t be considered until 2014. In the meantime I hope my site mate, Meredith, will have enough time to stay involved at my school.  She already co-facilitates an afterschool club for handicapped students there so I have high hopes.

I’m in Kigali this weekend for a GAD committee meeting.  We’ve actually been talking a lot about GLOW clubs and how to keep them going after PCVs leave.  We’re working on lessons and resources in Kinyarwanda that can be given directly to Rwandan students.  It’s a start, but we’re also trying to figure out how to ensure that the resources we provide actually get used in the absence of a PCV mentor.  As with all projects, sustainability remains the major challenge.

Project stuff aside, things are going well.  I’m enjoying myself but I’m also definitely looking forward to leaving.  I guess you could say I have senioritis.  I’m ready for new places, new people, new things…new food.  I promise to keep updating as I wrap up my service and start traveling!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

GLOW Camp Muhanga - This Time, No Bedbugs!

Hey, all!  It has been a busy, busy month.  Three weeks ago, my parents visited me for a second tour of Rwanda.  After they went home, I had one day at site before traveling out to Byimana in Muhanga District to set up a GLOW Camp.  You may remember my posts about GLOW Camp in Bugesera last year.  Well, this year I did GLOW again, but as an administrator.  And guess what I found out? Being an administrator is a lot of work!  I’m exhausted, but helping manage this thing was a perfect culmination to my Peace Corps service.  I learned a ton, and now I can say I had a hand in planning one really successful GLOW Camp, the first ever GLOW Camp Muhanga.

Am I proud?  You bet I am!  But more than that, I’m in awe of just how well things came together.  We owe it in no small part to Pamela, a PCV who works with EDC in Kigali. When Pamela approached me five-ish months ago and asked if I wanted to help put together a GLOW Camp I said yes somewhat reluctantly, not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I had no idea what it would take and I wasn’t sure we could do it.  

Over the months that followed I worked with Pam almost entirely through email to plan activities and lessons for the camp while she met with other volunteers to prepare a site for our camp, apply for funding, recruit campers and facilitators and get materials together.  Thanks entirely to Pam’s diligence, our PEPFAR grant came through on time.  Meanwhile I worked up an elaborate schedule of lesson rotations that looked beautiful on paper but that I suspected might lead to a practical disaster.  We also temporarily lost our venue for the camp and had to quickly find alternative dates that worked for all the facilitators.  The two weeks prior to the camp I continued to correspond with Pam about last-minute programming details while on vacation with my parents.  When I finally arrived at the site last Wednesday, it hadn’t hit home yet that it was all actually happening. 

Then the facilitators arrived and next thing I knew I was running all-day facilitator training sessions.  And that’s when it finally hit home.

Apparently ours was an exceptionally well-organized GLOW Camp.  It didn’t feel that way from the administrative side.  I constantly had to resist the urge to run interference when things were already going really well.  Unplanned spaces in the schedule that initially gave me heart palpitations turned out to be golden opportunities.  One night we had a game of trivia that one of the facilitators planned out that same day – question categories included America, Rwanda, music and potatoes.  Another night at dinner we tried to teach the campers how to play the cup game and the rhythmic slamming of cups on tables led to some wild impromptu dancing.  Another day we taught the campers how to play Big Booty, and they taught us how to play a game called Water-Land, where you jump into the circle when the leader yells “Water!” and out of the circle when the leader yells “Land!”  The planned activities were incredibly successful too, but if we had had an unexpected disaster – if we’d forgotten materials for the lessons or if our Outward Bound instructors had blown a flat tire or if all of our sports equipment had somehow gone missing, or some equivalent calamity – we still would’ve had a successful camp.  The combined energies of the campers and the facilitators were just that incredible.

I have a ton of stories to share about inspirational things the girls did and said, about minor crises and victories, about running around an auditorium trying to catch frogs, about fishing basketballs out of piles of pig excrement, and a gazillion other little Peace Corps moments that made this past week the hardest and best week of my service.  But it’s only been a day – I can’t think of any of them now.  School starts on Monday but as the weeks progress I’ll try to share little stories from GLOW Camp as they come to me.  I’m not done yet, but I can already tell that this was the perfect resolution to a wonderful two years of service.

Me with the campers from Gihara - Henriette, Odette, Laurence and Rose

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mwaramutse, Rwanda

I wake up and find that I’m still in Rwanda.

There’s always a period of mild culture shock following conferences.  The week and a half following COS conference has been no exception.  When all fifty of us get together, we’re like our own little version of reality, our own self-contained culture.  We retell the bizarre things we’ve experienced with humor and irony, putting a buffer between us and the realities of life at site.  But then I return to Gihara, watch the paved road shrink behind me as I moto past clusters of waving children, choke on the thick, red road dust and inhale the smoke of something burning that shouldn’t be burning, and realize that this is still real.  It’s not just a story to tell and retell.  Not yet, anyway.  I’m still here.

 Jean Paul, a village umusazi,* is outside my house talking to himself.  He used to bucket-bathe on my front porch but he’s stopped doing that since the convent ran out of water.  His incessant rambling used to bother me, but now I sit and talk with him in English and he responds in Kinyarwanda.  Sometimes I tell him my problems when I don’t feel like burdening anyone else.  I wanted to talk to him this morning, but he wandered off.  I wanted to tell him, “Jean Paul, I don’t ever want to leave Rwanda, but I also want to get on a plane tonight and never look back.  Is that strange?”

He would have responded, “Na-na-na-navuze ni umuntu mubi cyane na ndababita iyo bafata ibintu byange byose.” He’s always talking about people beating him or taking his things even though I’m pretty sure he owns nothing other than the clothes he has on.  I can only imagine what he’s been through.

The day after I got back to site I visited Uwizeyimana, a girl who was in one of my S2 classes. She stopped showing up about three weeks before exams.  Every time I saw her in street I asked her why she wasn’t coming to class anymore and she never gave me a straight response.  I only recently figured out why she stopped coming – her reasons are too personal for my blog, so I’ll just say it’s health-related. Before I left for COS I promised her mother I’d come visit her at home.  If not for that verbal contract, I might have gotten cold feet.  I had no idea what to say to her, no words of wisdom or comfort that seemed adequate. 

Uwizeyimana lives in a three-room house made of mud and thatch.  Her mother, older sister, younger brother and three other children also live there.  When I arrived she brought out tea and food she’d cooked specially for me.  We spent a lot of time talking around her “problem” in mixed Kinyarwanda and English.  I told her that every day I took roll call and found her absent, it hurt my heart. She smiled, hid her face and said, “Teacher, I’m sorry.” I told her she had no reason to be sorry, I was just happy to know why she couldn’t come to school.  I said I’d come back to visit her so we could keep speaking English together. “It’s important to learn any way you can,” I said.  She smiled again.

I told her I’ll be leaving Rwanda in November.  She said, “You will forget me.” I said, “That isn’t possible.”

Nearly four months before leaving, I’m already regretting things I haven’t been able to do.  I wish I’d visited more students at their homes, given more of them individualized attention.  I wish I’d given them more than just an English club, GLOW Camp, office hours and the lyrics to “Lean On Me.” Luckily there’s still time left, as long as I can muster the courage to keep on going.

To keep waking up in Rwanda.

Gihara on market day

Jean Paul in the convent garden

*Umusazi means “crazy person” in Kinyarwanda.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Prolonged Goodbyes

The COS conference is over.  It's an odd feeling. After three solid days of talking about leaving it feels like we ought to be getting on a plane tomorrow, but we still have three to four months left in Rwanda.  I'm grateful for the time we have left and a little overwhelmed.  There are so many last-minute things to do in Rwanda, so many people to say goodbye to, not to mention all the paperwork we have to do.

Time to begin making the most of it.

PCVs Jeff Monsma, Jed Augustine and Julie Greene

The bus ride back from the COS conference

PCVs Brittany Russel and Hope Lewis in Kibuye

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Don't Look At Me

In my last post I mentioned looking.  Only briefly, but it’s in there with the things we know we’re going to remember from service (and perhaps the things we’d like to forget but can’t): stares.

The staring. Blank looks. The stares.

We get stared at.  It’s a fact of Peace Corps life. We’re foreign, we stick out, and it isn’t considered impolite here to stop and enjoy a spectacle.  The interesting thing – the problem – is that there are lots of different kinds of looking, and they aren’t all harmless.

This all has made me think about a narrative writing workshop I attended a few weeks ago in Kigali. One of the PCVs from my training class co-hosted the workshop with her mom, a professor of gender studies and English lit.  The goal was to develop strategies for teaching Rwandan students how to write, not just coherent sentences, but full-blown stories, poems and monologues.  We modeled a number of activities we discussed. We wrote poems and stories together.  We also wrote monologues about our lives as PCVs and performed them for the group. Mine was about looking.

I considered posting my monologue here but never went through with it.  I was worried that it was too personal for a blog since it sort of has to do with sexuality.  But now, weeks after the fact, I realize I really do need to post it.  For one thing, the other volunteers who’ve heard it have told me to put it on my blog.  For another, I think that it speaks to a really common feeling amongst PCVs.  So here’s my monologue.  It’s called “Don’t Look At Me.”

I miss feeling attractive.  Of all the things I miss about being about being home in America, it’s probably the thing I miss the most.  I miss putting on a nice outfit and a little makeup and going out and having people look at me.

Not that people don’t look at me here.  When I pass by a group of young men in the street they almost always look.  But it’s a different kind of looking. It’s an aggressive kind of looking, a rude and invasive looking. Mouths open, eyelids lowered, almost like hungry animals. It makes me feel less like a person and more like a warthog amidst a pack of hyenas. Sometimes – most of the time – I don’t think they even see me. They see that I’m a girl and they want me to know that they could take what they wanted from me if they really wanted it, and that’s all. There’s no appreciation in those looks.

In my village, I don’t wear nice outfits. I don’t even wear mascara. I wear long skirts, clothes that hide my body. When I’m out in public I try to keep my face cold and blank, walking with purpose, as uninviting as possible. Part of it is propriety; in Rwanda, “good girls” don’t decorate themselves and I want to respect that. But I also don’t want to be attractive here. I don’t want to do anything to encourage those blank, hungry looks or the threat behind them – that like a warthog to a carnivore, I’m meat for the taking.

I miss the looks I used to get in America.  Sometimes – most of the time – those looks were appreciative.  They were also more tentative, waiting for an explicit invitation. I am not meat and I am not for the taking. I wish people here understood that.

Woo!  That was heavy.  A few more days left of reflection.  I’ll continue to post updates.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Back in Kibuye

Once again we find ourselves in Kibuye.  It’s our COS Conference, i.e. Close of Service Conference, i.e. getting together in a big group one last time and trying to process everything that’s happened over the last 21 months.  We still have four months of service left but that feels like barely enough time to do everything we need to do – to wrap up our projects, say goodbye to our neighbors and each other, and gracefully leave Rwanda.

The general feeling is different now than at past conferences.   There used to be a massive sense of release when we all got together, but now the mood is more subdued.  Instead of looking for inspiration, we’re reminiscing.  In sessions we’re being asked to reflect on service and it feels a bit like moving out of an apartment, sorting things into boxes. We’re trying to put words our experiences, cataloguing and labeling the things we’ve done so that we can make sense of it all later.  It’s harder to do than I thought it would be.

In the conference room, nine large pieces of poster paper have been taped to the walls.  Each one has a heading like “something I will never forget,” “something I’d like to forget,” “the biggest challenge I overcame,” ”what I liked best,” etc.  Slowly, we’ve been filling them with words and phrases, fragments of experiences that range from comical to macabre.  Some are predictable and comprehensible, some written in language that only we can understand.  Twegs. Losing my ihange. Muzungu angst. Radio. The walk to Mucaca. Bella. Power struggles. Clouds through my window. Yambis. Children. Smells. Betrayal. Friendship. Stares. The staring. Blank looks. Stares.

We had a session today on re-entry.  Our PT sat down with us and helped us brainstorm things that might be challenging about returning home.  One major point of discussion was how to help our friends and family relate to our experiences here.  What are we going to say?  How do we answer when, in the wake of all we’ve been through, we’re confronted with questions like, “So, how was Peace Corps?”

This all has really made me appreciate you guys, the people who read my blog.  Maybe you haven’t directly experienced the smells, sights, anxieties and joys of living in Rwanda, but you’ve been here with me in a way and that’s no small thing.

This is going to be a heavy week.  More updates to follow.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Oh Beautiful

July 4th is Liberation Day in Rwanda.  When I tell people that it’s also American Independence Day they think I’m pulling their leg. “But America was not colonized!” they say.  America was colonized, but things went a little differently there than they did in Rwanda.  I’ve found it’s hard to talk about American independence in a postcolonial country without incriminating the Founding Fathers. It definitely puts a new spin on the history I learned in elementary school.

But history aside, Rwandan Liberation Day/American Independence Day caused me to think a lot about my own country and what it means to be an American.  I’ve always been American, but the fact of being American wasn’t all that important until I came here.  In my village I’m the sole representative of my country and its culture, and often its government and entertainment industry as well. I’m constantly being asked questions about the United States and Americans that I know I’m not singularly qualified to answer.  Do American pop stars worship Satan?  Why do Americans like dogs so much?  Do Americans think homosexuality is evil? Why is United States so rich?

With all this pressure represent my country, I’ve realized something important.  I’m incredibly lucky to be American.  I’ve been told all my life that the United States is a great country, but what does that mean without a point of comparison?  Now, for the first time in my life, I can love my country on my own terms. And I do love my country. The United States has its share of problems, but it’s still a place of abundance, opportunity and relative freedom.  I love my country, not for its flag, not for its spacious skies or amber waves of grain, but for the things it’s given me.  I’m grateful for my education, for my ability to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer, for my right to speak out against my government if it fails me. The American healthcare system might leave a lot to be desired, but at least the facilities are there.  Nationwide marriage equality might be a ways off, but at least it’s up for discussion.  Quality education might not be affordable for every American, but the United States is still home to the best schools in the world.  For these and dozens of other reasons, I’m glad to be American.

I also love Rwanda.  Despite its problems and its own messy history, Rwanda is a wonderful country.  There is a kindness to Rwanda that isn’t easily found in the United States.  It’s a country that’s bursting at the seams with hope for the future.  Rwanda is a country that’s seen the worst of things and refuses to go back.  It’s also a fascinating and breathtakingly beautiful country.  I feel fortunate to have spent a small part of my life in Rwanda and I don’t doubt that this country will be in my heart forever.  But when people ask me if I want to relocate here permanently (a question people on buses seem to love asking me) I always say no.  Rwanda is nice, but the United States is my home.  And you know what, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’d rather live someplace where women can go out to at night without being called prostitutes, where basic education really is free and where self-expression is a federally protected right. 

I celebrated this fourth of July with my site mate, Meredith.  We went to a restaurant, ordered an entire roast chicken (which, as it turns out, was the most expensive thing on the menu) and spent the afternoon eating and playing cards.  Inside the restaurant, Paul Kagame’s televised address to the nation blared over ancient speakers.  He suggested several times that while Rwanda has had 50 years of political independence, it has not truly been a free country.  The ghosts the past, including its colonial legacy, have returned to haunt it again and again.  Kagame named many of the achievements of the past five decades, but urged his countrymen not to forget the work still ahead of them.  It made me think of my own country and Barack Obama saying how Americans have a lot of work left to do – so much not only to achieve, but to maintain.

The world, Rwanda, the United States – all are changing rapidly, and sometimes those changes seem more like turmoil than progress.  But amidst that turmoil, I’m still enormously privileged to be an American.  

Friday, June 15, 2012

This Time, A Bunch of Bananas

Some of you may remember Goreti, the woman who helped me bargain for a pineapple in my early months at site.  Last Sunday I fulfilled a long-standing promise to visit her.  It wasn’t my first time to stop in at her little house by the main road, but it was one of far too few visits, perhaps four or five over the last year.  Rather than accosting me for neglecting her, something everyone else in Gihara is fond of doing, she smiled when she opened the door and drew me into a warm embrace, planting a big kiss on my cheek as she did so.  I’d wanted to bring her a pineapple as a little inside joke but I couldn’t find one in Gihara, so I settled for a bunch of bananas.  She accepted them happily before ushering me inside.

She’d cooked cassava bread and vegetables in peanut sauce.  I normally hate cassava bread, but nothing about Goreti is typical, not even her cooking.  She’s tall and slender with a strikingly angular face, deep-set eyes and a uncomplaining tiredness about her.  Things have been going well for her lately.  The cow she and her husband bought earlier this year gave birth recently, which means they have both a calf and a milk cow.  She send me home with a pumpkin from her garden, a liter of homemade drinking yogurt and abundant blessings and well-wishes.  When I told her she was too generous, she told me not to worry.  “We give to each other,” she said, “because that’s what two friends must do.”

Things have been busy lately.  Between ELT-JCS, planning our GLOW camp, attending meetings for the GAD committee and our regional group and dealing with all the changes at school, I haven’t had much time to spend time with people at my site.  Usually once I’m home I just collapse into bed and spend the rest of the evening reading a book - unless I have papers to grade.  I visited Goreti because she met me in the road last week and asked me to find the time. I’m so glad I did.

What really matters in life are the people.  It’s nice to be reminded of that.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Getting Real

As a rule, Peace Corps volunteers are cautioned to keep their negative feelings to themselves. This is especially true where the internet is concerned.  “Journal on bad days, blog on good days,” they tell you at staging and again in pre-service training and probably again at in-service training.  Well, I’m not having a bad day.  I just got over a bout of stomach flu and I feel fantastic.  Thus legitimated, I am going to complain a little bit.  Hopefully this will be as edifying for all of you as it is cathartic for me.

DISCLAIMER: This post is not a cry for help, nor a call for praise, nor anything else of the kind. I’m not trying to elicit any particular reaction from anyone whatsoever.  My goal here, as with my all my posts, is simply to share and inform.

Let me begin by stating the obvious.

Peace Corps is hard.

Everyone knows this.  The fact that it’s hard is what entices some people to join as much as it deters others from even applying.  I realized I was signing up for something difficult when I accepted my invitation to Rwanda.  But Peace Corps service isn’t difficult for any of the reasons one would expect.  Within Peace Corps the idea that “it isn’t about the amenities” is another enormous cliché, but it might not be as obvious to folks who aren’t serving.  Allow me to elaborate.

Peace Corps isn’t hard because there’s no hot running water or because your toilet is a hole in the ground.  It isn’t hard because the power goes out all the time, if there is power.  It isn’t hard because you constantly have either diarrhea or constipation, or because you have to go all the way to the Peace Corps office in Kigali to restock your Pepto-Bismol.  It isn’t hard because of the mosquitoes.  It isn’t hard because of fungal infections.  It isn’t hard because it rains every time you hang your laundry out or because your roof leaks.  It isn’t hard because there are rats living in the ceiling or gravel mixed in with the rice. It’s true that all of these things are typical to the Peace Corps experience in Rwanda and lots of other countries too.  It’s also true that none of these things are pleasant and that oftentimes they’re the final straw for volunteers who already want to go home.  But they aren’t what make it hard.

Peace Corps is hard because no one listens to you.  It’s hard because your biggest assets as a volunteer, so you’re told, are your knowledge and skills, but all anyone wants from you is money.  It’s hard because when you do get support for an idea, you spend half your time and energy trying to entice people to help you implement it.

Peace Corps is hard because nothing ever goes the way you expect it to.  It always rains the day you wanted to take your class outside.  There’s always a national holiday or a staff meeting or an umuganda when you least expect it.  People don’t show up, or they show up three hours late.  Or an hour early, depending which you were least prepared for.

Peace Corps is hard because people never leave you alone.  People always want to greet you, to visit you, to ask you for money, to ask you for food, to invite themselves in for tea, to invite you over for tea, to throw things at you, to insult you, to laugh at you, to flirt with you, or, most commonly, to just stand and stare at you.  This is true wherever you are, no matter what you’re doing.  You could be walking to the market or waiting for the bus.  You could be sitting in a restaurant.  You could be sprinting down the road because you’re late for work.  You could be using a latrine with a door that doesn’t quite lock.  Whatever the case may be, people will take every possible opportunity to harass you.

Peace Corps is hard because your neighbors regularly mock you for the one thing you can’t stand being mocked for, whatever that may be.  Your height, your weight, your skin, your hair, your voluptuousness or flat-chestedness (as the case may be), your athleticism or lack of athleticism, your way of walking, your way of speaking, your native language (or a native language that is assigned to you based on your appearance), your age, your religion, your ethnicity, your gender, any physical blemishes or abnormalities.  Nothing is off-limits, and whatever bothers you the most will be the favored object of scrutiny.

Being a Peace Corps education volunteer is hard because you’re emotionally invested in the well-being of your students but you can only do so much for them.  It’s hard because you have to penalize them for showing up late even though you know they just walked ten kilometers uphill in the rain in broken plastic sandals and no coat having not eaten breakfast.  It’s hard because they come to school with fevers and coughs and stomach aches and headaches and you can’t give them water or medicine.  It’s hard because, despite the law against it, students still get beaten by other teachers and there’s little you can do to stop it from happening.  It’s hard when a girl stops showing up because she’s pregnant or when a boy comes to class drunk at seven in the morning.  It’s really, really hard when you find out that one of your students has HIV.

Peace Corps is hard because no one ever tells you “Good job.” For that matter, no one ever reprimands you for giving up or flaking out.

Peace Corps is hard because no one understands.  Your neighbors don’t understand what it’s like to be a foreigner in a remote village because they’ve never left the remote village. Your coworkers at site think you have it easy since they all know you’re eventually going to back to America, The Land of Plenty.  Peace Corps administration doesn’t understand because they’ve never done what you’re doing, or if they have, they did it decades ago in a different country with a significantly different culture and climate.  Your family and friends back home don’t understand, and (let’s be honest) they probably dismiss you as crazy for joining Peace Corps in the first place.  Other volunteers don’t understand because they’re not you and they’re not at your site.  Even when they do understand, they have their own problems to deal with.

So if Peace Corps is so hard, why do it?  Well, like I said in my last post, there are the little things that keep you going day-to-day.  Whether it’s fireflies or a cute baby or a few words of encouragement from a nice coworker, there’s always some little bright spot to be found in even the darkest of days.  But more broadly, Peace Corps service is worth it precisely because it is hard.  In a context where everything is a challenge, the tiniest achievements are enormous victories.  Too, where there are multitudinous problems, there are endless opportunities to make a positive difference.  Sometimes just being the sole American in a homogenous community is a huge contribution because you and you alone are providing people the opportunity to meet someone from the outside.  When you’re in Peace Corps you’re important and special and you know it, even when people are treating you like dirt.

When I was a trainee, I was told that the hardest part of Peace Corps service is the first three months at site and that it’s all downhill from there.  Maybe it’s just standard practice to tell that to trainees or maybe some people actually feel that way, but I disagree.  Peace Corps service doesn’t get easier.  In the first months at site everything is overwhelming, but it’s also new and exciting.  Once volunteers enter their second year, malaise can start to set in.  Or in some cases, volunteers take on too much at the beginning of the second year and begin to burn out.

That didn’t happen to me, but I did take on a lot of new things fully expecting to continue doing everything I had been doing before.  I’m also a lot harder on myself now when I react poorly to a challenging situation or when I fail to be culturally sensitive.  And the things that used to calm me down, like walking in the coffee fields or talking to my neighbors, have lost some of their magic as they’ve become more commonplace.  I continue to show up, to chip away at projects and to do my best to be a friendly, positive representation of America, but sometimes my enthusiasm fails me and I start to wonder if I really am a “good” volunteer.

Deep down, though, I know that just being here is cause to be proud.  Why?  Because it’s hard.  As an RPCV Zaire once wisely said, if it weren’t hard, it wouldn’t be Peace Corps.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Little Things

I have a new headmaster!  His name is Sylvan.  I don’t know much about him yet, but so far I have a positive impression.  He’s a young college graduate and he speaks excellent English.  He was a science teacher for several years before he got his degree.  He likes to say that he’s a teacher first and a headmaster second.  It makes an encouraging first impression.

We had a small going-away party for Evariste/welcoming party for Sylvan at school on Wednesday.  Drinks were provided, and our school’s meager kitchen managed to provide a meal of brochettes and grilled plantains for everyone. It was impressive considering I’ve never seen anything come out of that kitchen other than fried balls of dough and small quantities weak, milky tea. The outgoing and the incoming headmasters made long speeches about teamwork, responsibility, motivation, the usual.  The dean of studies then stood up and made his own speech along similar lines.  Finally the floor was opened for teachers to say a few words.  Most teachers took it as an opportunity to voice complaints about the students or their salaries, turning the gathering from a party into an ordinary staff meeting.  By the time we disbanded, it was well after nightfall.

As I made my way slowly home in the dark, I kept slipping on muddy patches of road and stubbing my toes on rocks. I was tired and I felt a little dejected, having sat through hours of complaints at what was supposed to be a celebration.  But then I noticed for the first time that the fields around my school were full of fireflies.  It had been a long day and I was exhausted, but as I looked out over the glittering, blinking expanse, the frustrations of the day dissipated.  I know my COS date now - November 14th- and knowing that date has changed things for me somewhat.  I find myself dreaming of home a lot more often.  When something bothers me, rather than thinking “I’ll resolve this eventually,” I find myself thinking, “Only six more months!” The things that bring me back and keep me here, in body as well as mind and spirit, are those little moments of beauty.  Like noticing the cassava fields are glittering with fireflies.

So much depends upon the little things.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Zanzibar Pt. 2

Days 4-6

On Tuesday we left Stone Town and headed out to the eastern side of the island.  We checked in to a cheap but lovely resort with bungalow-style rooms.  It was an incredibly beautiful spot, all white sand beaches and clear blue ocean and coconut palms.  We thought we’d died and gone to heaven.

On our second day at the resort, it rained.  No, it poured.  It was my first experience with warm rain since Hawaii.  To the embarrassment of my travel companions, I spent most of the day in a swimsuit and a rain jacket.

We spent our last day in Zanzibar exploring the beach.  We found lots of seashells and a Masai tribesman who tried to sell us some beaded jewelry, not much else.  In the afternoon we went snorkeling.  We were taken out to the coral reef in a fishing boat by an ancient-looking Tanzanian man in tattered shorts and his nephew.  The boat had a patchwork sail made out of old blankets.  Snorkeling was fun, but nothing we saw was of greater interest than that boat and the old man it belonged to.

Day 7

On Friday we went from the resort directly to the waterfront and caught a ferry back to Dar.  For a little extra cash we got to sit up on the top deck.  It was a significant improvement from the stuffy cabin.  They had bean bag chairs up there and everything.

We checked into a hotel in Dar with crazy colorful murals on all the walls and an exquisitely cheap Indian fusion restaurant attached.  Joey relaxed in our room with his Kindle while Kelsey and I explored the city. We did a little shopping in some back alleys, got lost, found an excellent Arab-style bakery, got lost again, and eventually found our way to the waterfront where we bought some interesting trinkets from a Masai and his nephew.

That night we bought fried chicken and chips from a street vendor.  That was one of Tanzania’s biggest contrasts with Rwanda, the fact that we could buy and eat food in the street.  It was a fitting and delicious end to our vacation.

Day 8

The bus ride back to Kigali was neither fun nor particularly memorable.  I sat next to a woman who kept trying to put her three-year-old daughter in my lap, then switched seats with Joey and ended up in front of a girl who kept sticking her feet under my seat and massaging my butt with her toes.  At one point we stopped at a rest stop and I managed to lock myself in a bathroom stall.  I struggled loudly and desperately with the door for several minutes before Kelsey finally heard me and got me out.  When I emerged, there were about two dozen women there just standing and staring.  I felt like reprimanding all of them for their lack of humanity (I was sleep-deprived and already quite irritated) but instead I said “don’t worry, no problem” in three different languages and got back on the bus.

Day 9

Sad as I was to leave Tanzania, it felt good to cross the border back into Rwanda.  It was nice to know the local language again.  We also spotted some baboons playing in the grass near the immigration office.  It was hard not to smile watching them.


So now I’m back in Rwanda.  School got off to a decent start this term until the weather turned cold and stormy and all the students stopped showing up for class.  I’m in Nyanza now for the ELT-JCS project and looking forward to teaching tomorrow.  More updates to follow as more exciting things happen.  For now, mugende n’amahoro.