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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.