Sunday, September 18, 2011

"But I think in America they have machines for all of this." - J

As my Peace Corps service draws to a close, I find myself frequently wondering how this experience has really affected and changed me. What kind of person will I be when I return home from an African village to all the luxuries I knew in all of my 22 years before Peace Corps? How will my experiences throughout the two years I spent in Rwanda be evident in my daily American life? Will they be evident at all?

Though I certainly have ideas for answers to these questions, for the most part, I really don’t know. I’ve never moved back to the United States after living in Africa for two years before, so I really have absolutely no evidence or past experience on which to base my speculations.

I’m happy to report that one of the benefits of my two years of hard-earned street-cred is not completely up in the air, though. There is one aspect of life here that I am confident I want to bring back with me, and it can be succinctly labeled as food. I know, shocker! As much as I’ve whined about missing all my favorite American (or American-modified international) foods, you’d think the last thing I would include on a list of things I like about this place is food. But hear me out.

It’s not the food itself I want to take back. Don’t get me wrong, I love the unsweet corn and will certainly be sad to leave behind my new favorite fruit that I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen in Texas. But it’s no secret that even the blandest of eaters will choose to just go without supper every once in a while to spare themselves another consecutive night of beans and potatoes. So, no, it’s not the food itself. But the way food works here is something I’ve really grown to appreciate.

For example, I love knowing that my kilo of muddy, small potatoes was grown right here in my community. I love that when I’m offered roasted corn at a neighbor’s house, I know it was plucked off a rope hanging from their roof with all the other corn from their most recent harvest. I love that when my favorite grandmother next door offers me a big bag of beans, I can bet they’re the same beans I watched her plant a few months before. And I love that the milk I drink and cook with comes from a cow I actually see every day (even if she did charge at me and Rafiki).

To be fair, agriculture here is not perfect. A lot of people do use potentially harmful pesticides and there’s a good chance they’re not cultivating the most appropriate crop for their soil type. But they did grow it themselves, and in many cases, I actually watched it grow. And when I buy food from my neighbors and my community, I’m directly contributing to the economic growth of my neighbors and my community. My food wasn’t grown and harvested thousands of miles away by a person I don’t know and then shipped here by a gas-guzzling truck, causing the price to sky-rocket and putting my neighbors out of business.

Basically, this system of food just makes so much more sense to me now. Of course farmers’ markets, CSAs, community vegetable gardens, and the like existed long before I came to the Peace Corps, and there are ample opportunities available in the States for people to get local, fresh produce. And that’s just it: we have these options! We have the luxury of the variety and the personal benefits of buying locally. But I personally didn’t take these opportunities seriously enough or appreciate them enough before I left. Living in Rwanda has made me want to become a much more conscious and intentional consumer when it comes to my food. When I’m back, I want to make healthier food decisions that boost both my health and my immediate economy.

Of course, produce isn’t the only thing we eat. Many of us also eat meat, and my perspective on meat has changed during my time here as well. While my ideas about fruits and vegetables have changed as a result of positive observations, my ideas about meat have unfortunately come about in a more negative way.

Especially since Ryan and I adopted Rafiki, I have struggled immensely with the way people here treat animals. While some animals, like cows, are greatly appreciated for what they produce, in general animals are treated with very little integrity. Many are beaten and kicked, if not outright then in an effort to keep them in line while traveling. Most are not washed or brushed, leaving them dirty, cold and infested with fleas and ticks. Even cows are often tied up in the same place for a while, which means they stand in their own waste for days. Understandably, many are malnourished. Cows, goats, sheep, and chickens are piled by the dozens into the backs of trucks with no regard whatsoever for the dangers and discomforts of being crammed so tightly and made to stay that way for hours of travel.

The saddest thing about this is that this happens all over the world, including in the United States. Meat in the States is often mass-produced from animals that are treated without any compassion and with no respect for the fact that they are living, thinking, fearing, feeling creatures. They grow in crowded quarters, sometimes never even seeing daylight. I love my steak and chicken just as much as the next person, but there’s no reason an animal should have to live such a miserable life so I can satisfy a craving.

All that being said, though, there are better options for meat available at home as well. Many local farmers aren’t only growing produce; they’re also raising animals in a compassionate way and working to ensure they have as painless a death as possible. I know it’s often more expensive to buy these types of meats, and maybe they don’t taste like what we’re used to. But most of us don’t need as much meat as we’re getting anyway, and I’m willing to adjust to a slightly different taste if it means supporting a farmer who shares my beliefs about the rights of living creatures.

So back to the subject at hand: how my Peace Corps experience has changed me. I realize all of this food talk isn’t exactly “development” oriented, and probably isn’t what a reader expects from a PCV. And regardless of how it may sound, I didn’t write this as a roundabout way of criticizing Americans’ food choices. For me, Peace Corps has basically been a huge mirror – one of those with all the lights and magnifying options that shows you every single imperfection you never wanted to see. The mirror is forced in front of me daily, and I constantly see my own country and the way I lived my life before I came here. Sometimes I love and am proud of what I see, sometimes I’m ashamed, and a lot of the time I don’t even recognize what I’m seeing.

The food system here has been among the few glimpses in that mirror I actually can recognize, and for now the way it’s changing my mind and heart is one of the most exciting improvements I’m seeing in myself. In this respect, living here has made me want to be a more informed and more purposeful citizen of my own country. And I have to say, I do believe that is worth documenting.

Corn hanging from a neighbor's roof. I know, I need a better picture of this.
Another neighbor's potatoes.

“A culture that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic, inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community and other cultures in the community of nations with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling-type mentality.”

- Polyface Farms Owner Joel Salatin in an interview in Food, Inc.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

"It's raining with no tea!" -D

I know I've been delinquent in posting, and to those of you who try to keep up with my blog, I do sincerely apologize. Rather than lament over the last few undocumented months, though, I thought I'd give you a brief recap so I can start posting about the present soon.

In late April, Ryan and I adopted the new love of our lives: our puppy Rafiki. It was actually an impulse decision based almost solely on the cuteness of another adopted puppy we saw, but 5 months later we could not be happier with our decision.

Having a dog in Rwanda is no easy task, though. Rwandans, understandably, don't typically have household pets; why worry about another mouth to feed? Unfortunately, though, many people treat these animals with outright hostility even if they have owners. It's been a struggle just to teach people to see Rafiki as a thinking, feeling creature, much less to actually warm up to her and like her. Ryan and I have both had small successes with this element of cross-cultural exchange, though, and I personally have come to consider those successes among my proudest accomplishments here.

Rafiki on the day we got her, at about one month old. Her name means friend in Swahili.

Rafiki at about 5 months old. I chose this picture not only because it shows how much she's grown, but also because it shows one of her quirky idiosyncrasies: awkward sleeping positions.

In May, Ryan and I happily celebrated our one-year anniversary. Our gift to ourselves was to finally visit one of Rwanda's most infamous tourist attractions: the mountain gorillas. We were able to get within a few feet of most of them during our hour-long visit to their home. It was an incredible experience!

Ryan and I with the Agashya group of gorillas just a few feet behind us.

In June, a group of volunteers from my class finished the pilot program for teaching English to Rwandan judges and court staff. Although we only taught the classes for four months, I think I can speak on behalf of all of us when I say what an exciting experience it was to be able to work with a group of adult professionals who were committed to improving their English skills. The pilot program was a major success and will continue next year even after my class is gone.

The judges and court staff with their certificates for successfully completing the pilot program.

July marked the last month of the painfully long second term, as well as one of my favorite holidays: American Independence Day! I try very hard to be open-minded and avoid ethnocentricity, but know this: living in Rwanda makes me very proud to be American. So Ryan, Sally, myself, and our dogs got dressed up in our most American gear and had ourselves a party.

Ryan, Sally, and I posing for the self-timer to show off our American pride on the 4th of July.

And finally, August. Peace Corps policy is to have a close-of-service (COS) conference roughly 90 days before COS. So last month our group officially came together for the last time to celebrate and commiserate. Although we all came from different places in the States, dispersed to different places after a few weeks in Rwanda, and have certainly had our highs and (very) lows throughout the last 23 months, this is a group that I am very proud to be a part of.

ED 1 celebrating the light at the end of the tunnel!

Now it's September and I'm down to one last school term and a few months at site. More to come on how that feels.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"So many Americans! But if they are like you it's okay." -H

Over the weekend I went with two of my colleagues and four of my former students to a conference in Kibuye, a nice little lake town in the west of Rwanda. A lot of the conference was information – HIV/AIDS, Sexual and Gender Based Violence – that most Peace Corps Volunteers could recite in our sleep, but it was undoubtedly an exciting and informative experience for most of the Rwandans there.

Health volunteers have trainings and conferences like this somewhat frequently, but this was my first time to go to an event with people from my community. For most of the people with me it was their first time to Kibuye so part of the excitement for them was just getting to see another part of their own country. We stayed in a nice centre right on the lake and spent a couple afternoons teaching students to swim and sending them off on their first boat rides. The food was delicious and frequent, and one colleague joked that he finally understands now why I’m always so hungry.

In addition to all of this luxury, though, I’m confident that my colleagues and students left the conference armed with information that just a few days before was almost foreign to them. We discussed HIV/AIDS in numerous contexts, and it was incredibly eye-opening to see how our community members have interpreted information and come to conclusions about such a prominent issue. Some attendees, for example, understood for the first time that a person can be born HIV positive. This small and seemingly simple realization could ultimately lead to a new outlook and reduced stigma about people living with HIV/AIDS because it means that they may not have willingly engaged in any behavior that so many people associate with contracting the virus.

We also discussed Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. Unfortunately SGBV is very common in Rwanda and often goes unreported and/or overlooked. One woman at the conference was extremely persistent in getting an answer from the presenter and the attendees about why any woman should report her husband for sexually abusing their children when she knows that he is the breadwinner and all of their lives will become more difficult if he isn’t able to work and bring money home.

On one hand I think if I were a Rwandan student leaving that conference, I would be more afraid than before of what might happen to me if I chose to indulge in any of the activities that are associated with curious, hormonal teenagers all over the world. Throughout numerous discussions, declarations ranged from school leaders insisting they would expel students if they publicly announced that they were in a committed relationship, to girls saying they felt would be at least partly blamed if they were raped after consuming alcohol, to an attendee insisting that infidelity is a result of men not being legally allowed to take multiple wives.

On the other hand, though, I’d like to think that if I were a Rwandan student leaving that conference, I would see that while my community may not yet be a collective organism I could turn to, Peace Corps Volunteers are. I know my students made connections with other volunteers at the conference, and I would like to think that they left it knowing they have our support. I would also like to think they left it feeling motivated, responsible, and most of all informed and able to make a difference within their communities.

Peace Corps above all is a development organization with the aim of sustainability. Essentially anything a volunteer does – from individual tutoring to building community wells – is done with the intent that in a relatively short amount of time that same project could be maintained whether a volunteer was around or not. And that, in itself, is what the conference was for me. It was a weight lifted off my shoulders and a liberating reminder that I am only a tiny fraction of a small part of the changes that will happen in this community. It was an opportunity to watch my colleagues and students take on the social responsibility of improving people’s lives that I have unnecessarily been carrying alone. I’m back at site now feeling, probably for the first time, like maybe I’m finally starting to have the relationship with my community that Peace Corps wants me to have. Not bad for a 17 months into service, right?

All of us at the conference!

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Those poor passengers don't know whether to stare at us or the baboons." -P

They told us this in training, but I’m really starting to understand how important it is to relish in small victories. Though few and far between in the unrelenting deluge of losses, those small victories are the only things keeping me here. Yes, it’s been an incredible learning experience and I’ve met people I hope to know for the rest of my life, but I could leave now and still have those things. I could be on the next flight to the land of the free and I wouldn’t be giving up those memories or those relationships. But I won’t be on the next flight out. I’ll be here for another cycle of my nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays and spend another Thanksgiving away from my family. I’ll stay here for another nine months, hoping for just few more small victories like these:

I started this year’s English clubs earlier this month, and as I was going around to classrooms to make the announcement it was very clear that the students I taught last year understood and could respond to every word I said, whereas the students I didn’t teach got next to nothing out of the announcement. I’m sure there are numerous reasons for this, many of which have nothing to do with me. And of course I hope and will work for the best for all of the students at my school, but I have to admit it’s incredibly encouraging to be able to see and hear the tiny difference that I made for my students last year.


Two weeks ago, as part of a new secondary project between volunteers and another organization, I taught an English class to a group of Rwandan judges and court staff. This program is brand new and, as with most pilot programs, it has kinks and will be developed through a lot of trial and error. Nonetheless, spending my Saturday morning with that group of people was a joy. Watching high-ranking, professional men and women struggle courageously through group presentations and exercises, making mistakes and welcoming both positive and negative feedback from their peers and from me, reminded me of the importance of my commitment to this country and to people like them in particular.


Last week I wrapped up the first term of my new role at school: full time teacher-trainer and advisor to teachers. Since each term ends with exams, I decided to make the last session a methodology training about writing assessments. I was very impressed with all of the thoughtful questions teachers asked at the end of the session and felt like the term ended on a high note. While I was walking home, one teacher came and thanked me for all the sessions we’ve done. He told me that when he saw there would be some methodology training, he couldn’t imagine what there could possibly be to learn about teaching. “But now I am seeing there are many things to learn about being a good teacher,” he said, “and it is very interesting to me.”


Maybe how ‘small’ these victories are is debatable, and maybe ten years from now I’ll realize I should be giving myself more credit. Or maybe I’ll realize I’m not really accomplishing anything and my time in Rwanda has little to do with development and is more about personal connections and experiencing another culture. Either way, these are the types of things that keep me going.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

"This year with you, I think it will be my chance." - E

In the beginning when I was preparing for life in Rwanda, I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t come home during my service. You always hear that going home makes you not want to come back to your host country and that it’s better for you emotionally if you can just tough it out. “Two years is not that long in the grand scheme of things,” I told everybody who asked about my travel plans. And, while that statement is certainly true, as the one-year-in-Rwanda mark approached, toughing anything out for any reason pretty much went completely out the window.

So Ryan and I found good deals on tickets out of Tanzania and decided to come home together and make a real adventure out of the whole trip.

It started with an approximately 27-hour bus ride from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Rwanda is such a tiny country that only three of those hours were actually spent driving here, whereas all the rest were in Tanzania. Ryan and I were surprised to find that people piled into this bus – sitting on armchairs (mine), standing and sleeping in the aisles – as though they were getting on for a quick trip down the road. We did manage to snag a $3 bed for a few hours at the midnight rest stop, but I’m pretty sure all that comfortable sleep was completely negated by the physical and mental toll it took on us when woke up realizing we hadn’t set our phones forward an hour and were running an hour behind.

Ryan studied abroad in Dar es Salaam in college, so we were warmly greeted by his host family at the bus station when we arrived. They were so kind to us, cramming our huge bags into their compact car and taking us back to their house for a quick meal before we had to get back to the port to catch a ferry to Zanzibar.

ZANZIBAR! I can’t decide if I want to tell people to try to go and risk it actually becoming a commercial tourist attraction, or keep it to myself so it could potentially be the exact same when I’m able to go again. Zanzibar is an island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. It’s paradise, literally. The sand is white, the water is clear, the weather is perfect. Ryan snagged us a room in a guesthouse, and fortunately for us the guy who manages it is also a local fisherman. When we told him we wanted to go snorkeling, we paid a few bucks to tag along on a fishing boat, watching as they caught octopuses and fish with their bare hands, speared eels, and spotted obscure poisonous creatures that had me convinced my time in paradise would have a tragic end. The following day, we went swimming with dolphins in the Indian Ocean! I am still so completely in awe of that experience; nothing I could say would do it justice. They were so close we could see them perfectly even when they were scratching their backs on the ocean floor, and never seemed affected at all by our presence. It was incredible!

Being back in the States was overwhelming but amazing. My only regret is that it was such a short, whirlwind trip. We spent a little time in DC on both ends of the trip and visited Texas and Seattle in between. Everyone in both of our families went above and beyond anything Ryan and I could have hoped for in terms of making us feel welcome and comfortable. And yes, coming back was absolutely excruciating. And yes, it was worth it.

After a number of delays and a few choice words with airlines about baggage fees, we landed back in Tanzania with just a couple of hours to spare before we had to get back on a bus for another 25+ hour ride. We actually did almost get left behind at one point on this trip, but thanks to Ryan’s unparalleled ability to chase buses while simultaneously running sideways and calling my name, we barely made it.

This time, because of bus schedules, we had to go up through Kenya and back down through Uganda to get into Rwanda. Since we would’ve had to pay the visa fees either way, we made plans with two other volunteers to spend New Year’s Eve in Uganda together. The other two volunteers went white water rafting while we tried to get our heads back on straight, and then we all went bungee jumping together on New Year’s Day. Ryan and I did a tandem jump, which is absolutely the way to go if you need a little push. It was incredibly thrilling and surprisingly painful, but certainly an exciting element to add to an already amazing trip!

After another nine hours into Kigali and then three more to my site, I was back in my house and back to my Rwandan life. School started about a week later and we’re now a couple weeks into the first term. I miss home and it’s lonely at site, but things are slowly getting back to normal. Whatever that is.

The beautiful beach in Jambiani, Zanzibar.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"If I were pilot I would eat banana in atmosphere." -J

I have officially taught for an entire academic year in Rwanda! The hours and days have crawled by but somehow the year has flown.

Reflecting on the past year, I can say without a doubt that I have learned more than I have accomplished, as I’m sure will be the case for the rest of my Peace Corps experience. I feel like I know more with every day that passes, which of course means I still probably know essentially nothing. Nonetheless, it’s really incredible to think about how different next year will inevitably be with what little knowledge I do have going into it.

On one hand, I’m absolutely ecstatic about the ideas I have for improving my school next year and the possibility of seeing any of them manifest into real, effective projects. On the other hand, I have so many of these ideas that part of me reacts to it the way some of us do when our to-do list is too long to finish: retreat and do nothing. I can’t get away with that, of course, neither personally nor professionally, but I’d be lying if I said it’s not all incredibly overwhelming. It certainly makes me appreciate even more the value of being here two years as opposed to one; I didn’t know anything when I got here and I can’t imagine how defeated I would feel if this experience were ending now, right as I’m scratching the surface of how to potentially have an impact.

As much I’m pinning my hopes and dreams on next year, though, this year certainly hasn’t been without its exceptional moments. I did end up having the reading stations that I mentioned in a previous blog, and I feel like I can’t even express what a pleasure it was to watch so many of my students relaxed, with books, learning from each other and enjoying reading.

I’ve also seen a number of my students become more confident in speaking English, whether or not they know as much English as some of the other students. When we were doing reading stations, one group had a book about wild animals. They wanted to discuss what the book said about hunting, so I asked them to think about whether it would be good or bad if people started killing the gorillas here in Rwanda. One of the boys, among the lowest in the class in terms of grades, exhausted what seemed like every expression he could think of to be a part of the discussion. I am so proud of him not only for trying to speak English, but also for thinking seriously and critically about the question I asked – a task that has been more difficult than expected with these students.

Overall, I couldn’t have asked for an experience that asked more of me. I know here in Rwanda I’m not on either of the extreme ends of the Peace Corps spectrum, but I am in a place where my skills, patience, and compassion are stretched constantly. Every single day I am forced to analyze what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and, most importantly, how I could be doing it better. And, in the end, isn’t that really what it’s all about?

One group of students at a reading station. This book was a big hit with every group because it has a pair of pop-up 3D glasses to examine the insects.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Teacher, so a gang is like a group of punks?" -G

Last weekend I got on a bus to go to a nearby town, and one of my students was sitting on the bus. She was sitting with her son, who looks to be around 6 or 7. She was dressed in the clothes that only women wear (to be a woman here is to be married, especially with children) and had her arm around the boy just like a mother would. My student. Keep in mind, I am teaching Senior 2, which is about 8th grade. In Rwanda, because you can go back to school whenever you’re able, it’s perfectly common for the youngest student in a class to be 10 years younger than the oldest . I have students who are 12 and 13, and I have students who are older than me, married and with children. And sometimes their children go to the same school. Imagine me, 23 years old, asking a married woman with children why she doesn’t have her homework.

Age also affects credibility. In the States, while we don’t necessarily expect recent college graduates to be wise with experience, there is a certain level of respect for someone who has finished university and has a Bachelor’s degree, even if they are only 23 years old. In Rwanda, being 23 years old and having finished university is essentially unheard of, and except to the well-educated themselves it certainly doesn’t mean a person knows anything. So it’s understandable, then, that to my colleagues, I am basically a child. And I don’t mean the kind of child that just made my mom say out loud, “But you are a child.” I know I’m young. But here I am a child.

Needless to say, this is frustrating on too many levels. When my colleagues can hardly even fathom that I could possibly teach them anything besides the English language and how to physically use a computer, it makes it difficult to make any significant changes within the school system. And when they’re not required to have university degrees to teach at the level we teach, why would they appreciate the fact that I do?

As frustrating as it is to be considered a child, I must admit it comes with its advantages. For one, I absolutely love playing with children. For an adult to do that here is pretty out of the ordinary, so the fact that I’m technically still considered a kid myself means that I can get away with a lot more playtime than I could if I were an adult. And if being so obviously not Rwandese isn’t enough, being a foreign child carries me a long way through those inevitable cultural faux pas.

And, to be fair, my colleagues are in no way disrespectful or condescending to me. It’s just that they sometimes casually avoid trainings or workshops. No big deal, right?