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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.