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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.