I’ve Moved!

I’m excited to invite you to come along on my adventures on my new website!

Since returning to the U.S. in December, I’ve thought a lot about how I want to interact online, and my website has a close focus on writing and editing. But I know a lot of you care deeply about what’s happening in my life, and I want to keep sharing my experiences, ideas, and growth with you. If you want to keep up with me, you’ll want to sign up for my newsletter, where once a month I talk about important events in my life, highlight books you might want to read, and share short pieces of fiction.

I appreciate every single one of you who reads my blog and cares about where I’m headed, and I hope you’ll continue to follow along. Feel free to comment or message me if you have any problems signing up—and thanks!

Peace Corps Rwanda As Famous Literature

When you’re about to COS and you need to procrastinate cleaning and packing, you make a list of book titles to describe the expierience of Peace Corps Rwanda as famous literature.

I had a lot of fun with this—if you have more titles, send them my way!


isombe
Like the Dr Suess classic, about all the foods you think you do not like, but you try them here, you try them there, it turns out you have to try them everywhere—and in the end you like them. (Actually, I still dislike isombe.)

imbabura
Like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” the story of a PCV slowly starving to death while trying in vain to light a charcoal stove.

 

twege
Basically Kerouac’s On the Road but actually just about a PCV who takes two hours to make what should be a fifteen-minute trip in a cramped van with someone’s elbow in their ribs.

inyoni
“Inyoni” means “birds,” and like Poe’s “The Raven,” it’s about a PCV haunted by phantom knocks at the door when really it’s just pied crows landing on the roof.

swim
Like the Dostoyevsky classic, but nobody dies; a PCV swims in Lake Kivu and gets schisto.

hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, except instead of that, the epic tale of what should have been a quick trip to the nearest regional town.

fish
Like the Dr Suess story, but more honest. (I mean, unless you have money to buy fancy food in Kigali. I don’t. Luckily I don’t have a deep love of fish, either.)

lessonplans
Similar to Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, but instead of all the relationship problems and films, just a PCV alone in a house at night with no electricity trying to prep for tomorrow’s classes.

web
Actually nothing like the E.B. White classic, because instead of friendship and laughter, just a true story about me avoiding my shower room because it’s infested with spiders.

 

The One Where I Sat on a Caterpillar

Hi there, friends, family, and bot-followers! I’m back with a fun list to say sorry for disappearing for several months.

The excuse for my disappearance is not even an exciting adventure—I’ve been busy, life hasn’t seemed interesting enough to blog about, the internet has been bad, etc. But the story behind this post is an adventure, mostly involving me using a flashlight, mirror, and tweezers to pick stingers out of my butt at two in the morning.

My options were: (a) cry, or, (b) try to laugh at the situation. I chose option B and began brainstorming titles for the Peace Corps memoirs I will (probably) never actually write.

**Disclaimer: There are, like, 4 typos. I didn’t count, but I’m pretty sure that’s an accurate number. I apologise. I’m not going to fix them. I made these images using a trackpad and my trackpad finger has caterpillar stingers in it. Consider the typos to be an artistic choice, showing you my authentic, messy life.


1 peace corps memoir showers
Showers Are Optional But Shoes Aren’t (unless you want jiggers or worms)

This one is the only one that isn’t based on an experience I’ve actually had—others in my cohort have gotten jiggers, but the worst I’ve gotten was scolded by the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) for being barefoot.


2peace corps memoir door
“Your Children Keep Shoving Rubbish Under My Front Door” Conversation Starters to Help You Integrate

This happened yesterday. The kids really love it when they shove junk through the 2-inch crack under the door and my dog grabs it out of their hands, but then they would not stop and I had to go tell my neighbour and get her to scold them.


3peace corps memoir multilingual
I’ll Have the Beans and Laundry: Adventures in Multilingual Miscommunication

This one happened to me during PST. I did, in fact, say this to the waiter at a restaurant. In my defence, the word for “clothes” (imyenda) and the word for “meat” (inyama) are somehow similar.


4peace corps memoir luck
Let That Kid Pee On You! Good Luck Customs Around the World

To be fair, no kid has actually peed on me. On my couch, yes. On my porch, yes. On my floor, yes. But when I called up a language and culture facilitator to ask how to explain that I don’t want kids in my house if they’re not potty trained, I learned the fun tidbit that in Rwandan culture, it’s good luck if a kid pees on you, because it means you will have many children. None for me, thanks…


5peace corps memoir toilet
Anything Can Be A Toilet If You Need It Bad Enough

I am not the worst about this, but, let’s be honest, if you have to run through pouring rain in the middle of the night to get to your bathroom, aren’t you going to find a better solution?


6peace corps memoir poop
Bird Pop & Other People’s Vomit Accessorising Your Peace Corps Wardrobe

I have done both of these. They are not fun. Fortunately the bird poop happened right outside a little shop that had napkins, and white bird poop matched my white shirt. But still.


7peace corps memoir occupied
This Seat Is Occupied! How to turn your body and belongings into blunt instruments to fight off manspreaders on the bus

To be fair, this is a problem worldwide, not just in Rwanda. Fortunately for me, many hours on the buses have taught me how to throw elbows and swing heavy bags with the best of them.


8peace corps memoir muzungu
Muzungu in the Mist Charcoal Smoke and Dry Season Dustcloud

Full disclaimer: I intend to buy a muzungu in the mist t-shirt before leaving this country.


9peace corps memoir caterpillar
Wet Toilet Seats, Spiky Caterpillars, and Other Things I Regret Sitting On

So the caterpillar story goes like this: after many hours of no electricity, a good portion of which I spent fighting insomnia, I finally got to sleep, only to be awakened around 1:30am by a dog barking. I got up to check whether it was my dog. It wasn’t. Sharp pain when I got back into my bed alerted me of the presence of one of the little fuzzy caterpillars that have begun to take over my house since dry season began. These little guys are covered with fur that looks soft but is actually entirely composed of tiny poisonous barbs that are almost impossible to get out. Segue to me sitting on the floor with a flashlight, a mirror, and tweezers, picking caterpillar stingers out of my butt in the wee hours.


91peace corps memoir waste
Just Chuck It in the Shower: A guide to waste management at site

To be perfectly honest, I have been chucking rubbish in my shower for most of my service. I have a high compound wall, so I can bathe outside in the sun. There is no good solution to trash at site. Hey, at least I’m not burning it all, right?


92peace corps memoir bump
Things That Go BUMP in the Night (or whenever you happen to be on the bus)

In interest of fairness, shoutout to Rwanda for having an incredibly functional public transportation system and amazingly well maintained roads for this part of the world. But still.


93peace corps memoir pcmo
Are You There, PCMO? It’s Me, Elizabeth (and I have a weird rash to show you)

Actually, I have never called the PCMO about a rash. Other things, yeah. But not a rash.


94peace corps memoir hp
Readjustment Allowance and Those 3 Kids Who Like Harry Potter (and other reasons not to ET)

Other reasons include my GLOW club leaders, my neighbour, and my dog.


95peace corps memoir milk
Milk Is a Balanced Meal and other things I learned in the Peace Corps

Actually ever since I stopped getting daily milk from my neighbour, milk for dinner is a luxury. So much protein packed into such a small space…


96peace corps memoir spider
Peace Corps’s Believe-It-Or-Not! Featuring never-before-seen 2-inch-long rat-tailed maggots and a spider the size of your face!

All I can say is thank God rainy season ended and those maggots quit crawling under my door. Google them. I am not even exaggerating. They take the prize for grossest living organism I have ever encountered.


97peace corps memoir wasp
I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream …because a wasp nested in the front door handle

The wasps did not sting me. They did sting several neighbour kids. I felt simultaneously terrible that they got stung and a tiny bit annoyed because I had told them not to come visit me while I was tutoring someone.


And there you have it! Hit me up with the facetious titles of all your memoirs!

 

Endure

Ihangane.

Endure.

Around me, students skip up and down the steep hill, but I move slowly, eyes fixed on every sandy step, plotting my course with intense precision.

Walking with crutches seemed easy in America, with its smooth sidewalks and even floors. Here, on steep inclines covered in loose sand and cut by deep water-carved gashes, it demands concentration, physical coordination, and patience.

This enforced patience separates a continuous string of experiences into individual moments as my focus narrows on the earth in front of me.

One moment, ten years ago:

Water closes over my head, cold with the frozen ghosts of the ice it once was. I had found a rhythm, fingers clutching rough rope, feet pushing off firm stone, body arcing above the deep water, pausing a moment against all the forces of gravity, and then dropping back—but I missed a beat, lost momentum, came to a dead stop hanging above the river, too far to reach land.

And I dropped.

For an eternal heartbeat, my body hangs suspended in a thrumming blue world, muscles petrified in the sudden cold, mind caught between thoughts.

Then I surge to the surface.

One moment, two months ago:

Electric buzzing fills my ears. Strange new discomfort inches down my back—a rough, oddly isolated scratching that occasionally sparks into sharp pain before subsiding. The apex of the table’s hard cushion presses against my chin as the needle deposits a word in extreme slow motion between the layers of my skin:

Ihangane.

Be patient. Endure.

Rwandans say this when expressing sympathy. If your grandmother dies, if you slip on the gravel (if tendonitis and an unstable patella make themselves known in a painful burst and require the use of a crutch for a couple weeks) this is word you are given.

In English, they say to me, Sorry, but in Kinyarwanda, they tell me Komera—Be strong—and Ihangane—endure.

IMG-20180307-WA0003

One moment, a day ago, a week ago, every day:

A deep breath fills my lungs before I step out my door and the world closes over me. I thought Peace Corps would make me brave, but under the harsh light of high yet vague expectations and the close scrutiny of friendly or indifferent or judgmental Rwandan eyes, my fears are magnified.

A chronic sense of uncertainty has become overwhelming self-doubt.

A mild social anxiety has become gut-wrenching terror.

The sun is drying the rain-soaked dirt road, but I am frozen, paralysed by the gaze of my neighbours. I am walking to the bus stop, to the market, to the school, but my projects hang suspended, caught between ideas and reality.

Every day, I fight toward the surface, and my mind spins an endless mantra:

Take one more breath.

Ihangane.

Take another step.

Endure.

Breathe again.

I finish my journey, I buy my food, I teach my students.

I close my door behind me.

I exhale.

One moment, an hour ago:

Simple words leave my mouth slowly, pronounced with painstaking clarity. My student listens, eyebrows drawn in the concentration needed to keep every word in his mind long enough to understand it and connect it with the others, to catch the meaning in my short sentences. I draw him a diagram, blue ink on a scrap page of a notebook:

a femur

a tibia

a patella.

I tell him tendons and ligaments are like strings holding the bones and muscles together. He knows “string” because we learned it last year.

Understanding lifts his features. His eyes widen, his eyebrows rise, and his mouth relaxes.

“In our culture, when someone is sick, we go to visit them,” he says, nodding, “to say, be sorry.

This student has a courage I lack: he plunges into the water and fights to swim. He strings words together until he can make meaning, even when half the words are wrong, when the grammar is a tangle, when it takes multiple repetitions for me to catch the words or to guess at the ideas they outline.

This student reminds me why I walk out into the current of stares and whispers and giggles every day, why I hobble up steep hills and pick my way across dirt with a crutch.

There’s no glamour in Peace Corps. There’s no saving the world.

Before I came, I said, At worst I’ll spend two years doing something I hate to help someone else.

But it’s not that, either.

It’s enduring.

It’s limping to keep moving. It’s swimming upward despite the cold paralysis of fear. And once in a while, it’s breaking the surface long enough to see a student’s eyes widen in understanding.

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16 Days of Activism: GBV in Rwanda

This isn’t a typical blog post. It’s a little long and very serious, and I’m not going to offer you any quick action points at the end. Trying to offer short and simple answers to GBV would be futile and insulting, reducing a complex, multifaceted issue and oversimplifying the experiences and mindsets of everyone involved. That’s not to say there isn’t a solution or that you can’t find ways to be a part of that solution, but, honestly, I don’t feel qualified to tell you to go out and take an action. I do, however, believe that awareness is vital, and I believe that ignoring a problem simply because we don’t expect to find easy answers to it is a serious exertion of privilege.

Leading up to International Women’s Day, Peace Corps Rwanda is engaging in sixteen days of activism against gender based violence (GBV), from 14 February to 1 March. I think it’s important to be informed about gender-based violence—no matter where you live—and so I want to take a few minutes to talk about it.


Rwanda regularly makes headlines for its gender equality. It leads the world in women’s involvement in government: two thirds (64%) of parliamentarians are women,* compared with only 20% in the US Congress. There are as many girls as boys in primary and secondary schools, and the majority of women participate in the workforce6. Undergirding these metrics is a commitment to gender equality at the highest levels of government and a strong interest in it at the grassroots level.         

However despite this commitment, gender-based violence (GBV) is prevalent throughout the country. Rwandan law defines GBV as “any act, perpetrated because of the victim’s gender, which results in bodily, psychological, sexual or economic harm, or in the deprivation of freedom or in negative consequences within or outside households.”3

In most cases, the victims** are women and the perpetrators are men.

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is the most common form of GBV. According to the UN World’s Women Report, over half (55%) of Rwandan women will experience physical or sexual violence within their lives. Of the women who report IPV within their lifetimes, the majority of them also say they experienced IPV within the last twelve months.

For context, consider the statistics cited for Europe in the same report. Here, we see the number of women who experienced IPV within their lifetimes is much higher than the number of women who experienced IPV in the last 12 months. This shows that in Europe, most women faced with IPV are able to escape the situation. In Rwanda, by contrast, most women who experience IPV continue to face it repeatedly throughout their lives.7

IPV
This data is compiled from several tables in the UN World’s Women Report; this includes a representative sample of high, medium, and low percentages. For full tables including data for many more countries, check out the full report, especially figures 6.7 and 6.8.

One reason for this is that for Rwandan women, it is especially difficult to leave abusive relationships. Most women in Rwanda are unwilling to seek support for intimate partner violence because they expect severe legal, social, and economic repercussions if they do.

Legally, women worry about losing custody of their children if they pursue a divorce.

Socially, they fear the stigma that surrounds IPV. One study2 notes that “[w]omen feared revealing the abuse to anyone . . . as this would bring shame to the family and worsen their overall life situation.” The same study2 points out that women consider seeking support from formal institutions to be “equivalent to revealing the abuse to the entire community, thus bringing shame to the family.”

Economically, many women are dependent on their abusers. As one married woman said, “Where [can I] go when I bring my husband to prison? I still have to bring him food while he is not bringing anything to the house. I better keep silent about the problems in the house.”

Patriarchal Culture and Colonialism

Beneath this violence is a culture in which men have historically been dominant. The Rwandan government recognises that gender inequality is a deeply rooted aspect of Rwandan society. The National Gender Policy4 asserts that

Rwandan society is characterised by a patriarchal social structure that underlies the unequal social power relations between men and women, boys and girls. This has translated into men’s dominance and women’s subordination. Gender inequalities have not seen [sic] as unjust, but as respected social normality [sic].

In the view of the Rwandan government, this male domination is largely a result of colonization4. In pre-colonial Rwanda, women had a greater role in household decision-making and greater control of domestic resources. They had primary responsibility for farming—though men also helped—and in a purely agrarian economy, women’s control of agricultural and domestic resources translated into significant social and economic power.

But colonial rule shifted the balance of power away from women.

Belgian colonisers instituted a sudden change to a “monetary economy based on paid employment and a formal education system.” Whereas money hadn’t been used in precolonial Rwanda, it suddenly became a “key resource”—one that only men could access and control. Further weakening their position, women were unable to access education5 or open bank accounts without permission of their husbands9.

In the government’s view, the psychological effects of colonisation exacerbated gender-based violence directly: “[T]he violence and brutality undergone by men in their contact with European rule was reflected in their attitude towards women and children.”4 While the policy does not delve deeply into the evidence for its view, it’s plausible that colonialism continues to contribute to gender inequality today.

Cultural Attitudes

Regardless of its causes, the cultural expectation that men should dominate women is widespread in contemporary Rwanda. The National Policy Against Gender Based Violence recognises as much, holding that “Gender-based violence . . . serves—by intention or effect—to perpetuate male power and control.”3

A study of attitudes toward gender roles in 2010 found that most women and men agreed that “A man should have the final word about decision [sic] in his home” (52.8% and 65% respectively).1 Most women (53.3%) and nearly half of men (45.5%) also agree that a wife “has to be submissive to her husband and accept everything.”1 Close to a third of both men and women (32% and 28% respectively) agreed that “A wife who earns more than her husband provokes violent [sic].”1

The UN estimates7 that roughly half of men (55%) and a quarter of women (25%) agree that a man is justified in beating his wife if the wife does one of the following: burns the food, argues with her husband, goes out without telling him, neglects the children, or refuses to have sex with him.

The results from another study1 are grimmer still: most men (60%) and even more women (70%) agree that “[violence against women] is needed to control a wife and women sometimes deserve to be beaten.”

statements graph

Steps Forward: Policies and Metrics

Although gender-based violence is a significant problem in Rwanda, it’s one that the government has been actively working to address throughout the last decade.

In 2008, Rwanda passed a law making all forms of GBV illegal. By the time of one study in 20101, 85% of participants understood the law, and many believed it would have significant social impact.

In July 2010, the government released a comprehensive National Gender Policy, which sets out a vision of a gender-equitable future, an assessment of opportunities and challenges, and a set of targets and responsibilities distributed across sectors of the government.

In 2011, that policy was followed by a National Policy Against Gender Based Violence, which expresses the government’s commitment to eradicating GBV and lays out strategies for doing so. The Policy Principles section of that document is of particular interest at a moment when gender-based violence within the American government is a matter of international attention.

The Government of Rwanda does not condone any acts of gender-based violence;

The Government of Rwanda recognizes gender based violence as a violation of human rights;

The Government of Rwanda strongly believes in, and promotes gender equality, equity and empowerment of women as a crucial human resource for social and economic development;

The Government of Rwanda is committed to using its fullest powers to fight, prevent and provide response to all forms of gender-based violence in society; and

GBV interventions and responses must be conducted in all social, economic and political sectors.

In addition to these policies, in a part of the world where comprehensive statistics in general are hard to come by, the Rwandan government has collected an impressive amount of information about gender disparities.8 Gender equality targets are integrated into the metrics and evaluation for social services like schools and health centres, providing gender-specific data regarding malnutrition, various diseases, school enrolment and dropout rates, and teenage pregnancy from each school and health centre in the country.

The government also tracks indicators that are not tied to a specific service, such as the hours that men and women spend on unpaid labour, the rate at which male and female heads of houses have electricity, and the overall access men and women have to smartphones and other technology.

This abundance of data provides a solid footing for combating GBV.

More Steps Forward: Programming

In addition to policies, Rwanda has a wide range of programmes to address gender-based violence.

Gender is a cross-cutting issue in the school curriculum, meaning that teachers are expected to integrate it into any lesson where it’s relevant. For example, in a lesson on community resources, a teacher would be expected to address gender-specific resources like girls’ rooms (a government-mandated facility in each school where girls can deal with menstrual hygiene. Though implementation is slow, the Ministry of Education puts constant pressure on schools to integrate gender equality into school policies and classroom instructions.

The Rwanda National Police have also been leaders in addressing GBV at the community level.

Throughout the country, women facing violence can seek support from One-Stop Centres, which provide free integrated medical care, emergency accommodation, psycho-social support, and legal aid to victims of GBV or domestic violence. The One-Stop Centres are organised by the police and have been expanded over the past decade with the goal of putting a One-Stop Centre in each community health centre.3

The police also run community-organising programmes to prevent and address GBV. The campaign, supported by the UN, consists of “a club, a mentorship program and a 3 months [sic] training module,”10 allowing police to disseminate information, train community members, and intervene in relationships where GBV is present.

Last year, the Rwanda Peace Academy organised a training on sexual and gender-based violence for military, police, and civilian officers from five countries in the region. The training focused on understanding the humanitarian impacts of GBV during and after conflicts, and on strategies to prevent and address GBV in conflict zones.11

In addition to the government-run programmes, various NGOs focus on grassroots prevention of GBV. One organisation deserves particular attention: The Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre (RWAMREC) focuses on engaging men to support gender equality and prevent GBV.

RWAMREC’s study on attitudes toward gender and gender-based violence is exceptional in providing a clear window into the cultural attitudes, beliefs, and histories that affect gender in this country’s unique context. RWAMREC also runs a programme called “Boys for Change” that engages secondary school boys in gender equality, healthy lifestyles, and sustainable development.

In addition, they offer a programme called Positive Masculinities focused on “sensitising men towards gender equality by challenging traditionally held notions.”9 As a part of this, for example, women and men are asked to switch household chores for three days.

RWAMREC constantly challenges men and boys to question their preconceptions and strive toward a more positive masculinity that aligns with Rwanda’s cultural ideals of unity, equality, and dignity for all people.


*This does not extend to all areas of life; women are a minority in other high positions. (Check out this table.)

**In Rwanda, the term “survivor” is reserved for those who survived the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. In the context of GBV, the term “victim” is preferred.

Also: A huge thanks to Claire Pennington for co-authoring this blog post with me. You should check out Claire’s blog.  


Citations

1Henny Slegh and Augustin Kimonyo, “Masculinity and Gender Based Violence in Rwanda: Experiences and Perceptions of Women and Men” (Rwanda Men’s Resource Center, 2010).

2Aline Umubyeyi, Margareta Persson, Ingrid Mogren and Gunilla Krantz, “Gender Inequality Prevents Abused Women from Seeking Care Despite Protection Given in Gender-Based Violence Legislation: A Qualitative Study from Rwanda,” (2016).

3National Policy Against Gender-Based Violence, Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (Rwanda), July 2010, http://www.migeprof.gov.rw/fileadmin/_migrated/content_uploads/GBV_Policy-2_1_.pdf.

4National Gender Policy, Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (Rwanda), July 2011, http://www.migeprof.gov.rw/fileadmin/_migrated/content_uploads/National_Gender_Policy-2.pdf.

5John Mutamba and Jeanne Izabiliza, “Role of Women in Reconciliation and Peace Building in Rwanda: Ten Years After Genocide” The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (Rwanda). May 2005, http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un/unpan031033.pdf.

6The Statistical Yearbook, 2014 Edition, National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, November 2014, http://statistics.gov.rw/publication/statistical-yearbook-2014.

7World’s Women 2015: Trends and Statistics, United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Statistics Division, 2015, https://unstats.un.org/unsd/gender/worldswomen.html.

8National Gender Statistics Report, 2014 Edition, National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, September 2014, http://statistics.gov.rw/file/3647/download?token=bX071OKj.

9Nishtha Chugh, “A drive to beat Rwanda’s gender-based violence,” The Guardian, November 22, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/nov/22/rwanda-gender-based-violence.

10“A partnership to end Gender-Based Violence,” United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Rwanda, June 19, 2014, http://www.rw.undp.org/content/rwanda/en/home/presscenter/articles/2014/06/19/a-partnership-to-end-gender-based-violence.html.

11“Rwanda Peace Academy trains officers on sexual and gender-based violence,” Igihe, January 18, 2017, http://en.igihe.com/news/rwanda-peace-academy-trains-officers-on-sexual.html.

Be Calm (or, How to Cope in the Peace Corps: 24 tips from an introvert)

Humura.

Be calm.

Have I mentioned Peace Corps is the hardest thing I’ve ever done?

It’s isolating and exhausting—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Half the time it’s incredibly rewarding, and half the time it feels thoroughly futile, and on top of everything, you can’t buy a pint of ice cream when you have a bad night. After over a year of this, I think I’ve become something of a pro at coping.

From one anxious, introverted PCV to you, here 25 things I’ve found essential:

  1. Keep some clothes that make you feel most like yourself, even if you can only wear them inside your house. In any country with rules about your wardrobe, Peace Corps comes with some identity disconnect, days where you feel like you’ve dressed up as someone else for so long that you can’t remember who you are underneath. Give yourself a break sometimes. I keep a handful of tanktops, short dresses, and leggings on hand. (And honestly half the time I walk around my house in my underwear.)
  2. Exercise regularly, even if it’s only a few minutes a day, even if you hate it while you’re doing it. Exercise really does release chemicals that help regulate your emotions and make you feel better, even if you don’t feel them at the time. Plus, with the total change of diet and lifestyle, Peace Corps makes a lot of people’s bodies change in ways they may or may not like. Exercise gives you control over your own body.
  3. Figure out the easiest ways to eat a balanced meal at site. It’s no walk in the park trying to get a balanced meal; I’ve never paid so much attention to my protein intake or craved vegetables so often before in my life. Figure out not only what’s easy to get at site but what takes the least effort to make. Get into routines with your food. Keep yourself nourished.
  4. Stay in touch with people who refresh you. Pay attention to which people don’t drain you when you talk to them, which people make you feel heard and supported and encouraged. Talk to those people.
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  5. Take lots of photos, even if you don’t share them, and look back on them from time to time. It’s fun to look back on where you’ve been. It’s encouraging to see how far you’ve come, to remember the good days and to see that the bad days ended. Plus you’ll want to look back on these in the future, when you’re back in the world of delivery pizza and fast internet.
  6. Keep lots of water bottles full of potable water so staying hydrated isn’t a chore. Dehydration is sneaky, and it ruins all sorts of things about your life, from your energy to your mood to your health, and there’s nothing worse than having to haul water and wait for your filter before you can quench your thirst.
  7. Write down the small successes. Record the moments that make you feel good, the small events that make you glad you came here, the little things that feel like you’re not failing. Keep that list where you can read it sometimes to remind yourself that you’ve done things right and made progress.
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  8. Play music in your house, and have impromptu dance parties by yourself. Trust me. It makes you feel better. You may look ridiculous (I do; my cat has told me so many times), but a few minutes of spinning and bouncing and swaying will get your heart rate up and put a smile on your face, even if it’s just because you’re laughing at your silly self.
  9. Keep your kindle charged and loaded. You never know when you’ll need a book, whether it’s during an unexpected wait because scheduling doesn’t exist in your host culture (hey there, Rwanda), on an lazy weekend afternoon, or while your rice is boiling.
  10. Figure out the things that make you feel most like yourself and make space for them in your life. For me that includes keeping a few physical books on hand, making time for lingering over coffee in the mornings, and keeping in touch with writers groups whenever my internet works.
  11. Figure out what you can control. Maybe it’s your diet, maybe it’s your hobbies, maybe it’s your bedtime. For me it’s my workouts and writing events like NaNoWriMo. Even if it seems insignificant, it’s something to hold onto when it feels like everything in your life is spinning into chaos.
  12. Stock up on toilet paper, pepto bismol, and ibuprofen. Trust me. You do not want to be stuck at home with endless diarrhoea using notebook paper because you can’t walk into town for toilet paper.
  13. Keep snacks on hand for emergency coddling on bad days. Hoard your care package goodies—I keep an “emergency American food” trunk in my kitchen—and pick up treats for yourself when you visit a town. Save them for the days when you need a little extra love.
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  14. Keep a makeshift clothesline easy to set up indoors for rainy laundry days. It’s bad enough having to run out in the rain to collect your month’s worth of laundry off the line without having to leave it all in a sopping pile while you try to figure out where/how to hang an indoor clothesline.
  15. Always round off a list of complaints with one good thing. Don’t pretend everything is fine when it’s not; air your grievances and acknowledge your frustrations, but don’t end there. Force yourself to find something good that happened during the day, the one thing that went right or at least wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Even if all you come up with is, “I don’t have malaria,” that’s something. (I’ve had those days. They’re real.)
  16. Make some physical spaces yours. The corner seat in the local tea shop, that one walk with the pretty views, the living room of that neighbour you really like—wherever it is that you feel comfortable, make yourself a little home.
  17. Sleep in sometimes. Or I guess if you’re not a night owl like me you could go to bed early sometimes. Or do both. Sometimes I go to bed by sunset because lying down sounds nice. Give your body and mind a break. Rest.
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  18. Journal. You don’t have to write sweeping paragraphs, but write something. Dump your anxious thoughts when your mind is spinning at night. Bullet point the ideas that feel strongest or the details that seem most important. Write lists of events or aspirations or moments that made you laugh. Skim your old entries sometimes; see where you were and how far you’ve come.
  19. Make your living space as comfortable as possible. Shell out for the nicer couch cushions, buy some soft blankets, keep the milk and sugar for your coffee within reach of your armchair. Protip: it is worth it to buy a slightly more expensive lightbulb that will actually brighten your whole house. So many things in your life will be uncomfortable in Peace Corps. You have to make your own happy places.
  20. Take self-care days. Do whatever it is that replenishes your spirit. For me, it’s staying in my PJs and refusing to answer my door. Maybe for you it’s travelling to the nearest town to have a meal that you didn’t have to prepare for yourself while squatting on the ground. Whatever it is, give yourself a break. Don’t check your email, don’t work on projects, don’t worry. You can tackle your M&E and your action plans and your problems tomorrow.
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  21. Always know what you’re looking forward to. Whether it’s an international vacation or just some down time on the weekend, you should always have something on the horizon, some rest stop where you can get your breath, have a drink, and do some self-assessment before you dive back into the turmoil of life.
  22. Keep flashlights and headlamps all over your house. There’s nothing worse than losing power in the evening and not being able to find your flashlight. I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve given up at five in the evening multiple times because I couldn’t figure out where I’d stashed my flashlight.
  23. Define ‘successful’ your way. Let yourself be unhappy sometimes. You’re not a failure if you don’t love your site, your counterparts, or your job every single day. Decide what you want success to look like and work toward that. Never mind what everyone else is doing or what the VRF says. If you are at your site, getting out of bed, walking out your door, making an effort to do your job, you’re a good PCV.
  24. Tell yourself, just one more. And then one more. Take one step at a time, one word at a time, one breath at a time. You don’t have to do your whole day, project, or service at once. Right now you just have to take one more breath. And then another.

 

 

Hakuna Matata, or: how to do Zanzibar on a Peace Corps budget

Hakuna matata!

No problem!

Apparently this phrase is more than just a catchy song from The Lion King. I just got back from a much-needed vacation in Zanzibar with a couple friends, and we were surrounded by friendly Tanzanians unironically saying “Hakuna matata!” every time we turned around.

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The thing is that we actually had a lot of problems on that trip.

First off, have you ever tried to plan an international holiday while living without internet? We had to make expensive trips into town specifically to do things like researching things to do, booking a place to stay, and buying plane tickets.

Next, we spent several hours wandering the winding streets of Stone Town trying and failing to find our AirBnB, despite the best efforts of Google Maps and a lot of asking strangers for help. (Turns out there are a million places called some variation of “Stone Town Zanzibar Hotel” and ours didn’t have a sign.)

One of us immediately developed some kind of infection from a seemingly innocuous bug bite, which turned into a painfully swollen ankle and foot and orders from Peace Corps Tanzania’s doctor not to put it in the ocean—so much for our plans of spending a solid week at the beach!

The booking website for the boating outing we wanted to do had some internal glitches that resulted in several days of customer service emails to get our booking straight, and, on top of that, it turns out our phones got terrible (or no) reception everywhere in Stone Town, leaving us reliant on restaurants far out of our price range—the only places we could find good WiFi.

We were harassed everywhere we went—honestly, I have never before in my life experienced such constant, intense, intentional harassment in my life. (Shoutout to Rwandan culture for, it turns out, being much more respectful than anything we encountered in Zanzibar.) None of the tourist blogs prepared us for this (hey, anyone planning to go to Zanzibar—if you’re white and a woman, heads up for lots of catcalling).

But that constant phrase—hakuna matata—turned out to be pretty true, once we averaged all our experiences. For every problem we ran into, there was someone (or, often, multiple someones) helping us out of it. By the end of two days, we were so overwhelmed by the number of people who had put themselves out to make our lives a little easier that we began keeping a running list of daily shoutouts.

So here you go: here’s the summary, complete with what we hated (so you don’t go do that) and what we loved (so you can go do that), and daily shoutouts to the people who made our holiday great.

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Day 1:

A frenzy of picking up necessary documentation (passports, WHO cards) and changing money into Tanzanian shillings.

You might want to know: you will need to show your WHO card (proving you have a yellow-fever shot) when you get to Tanzania, and you need 100USD for a tourist visa. These things are important to remember especially if, like us, you’re going to be flying from one in the morning and landing after a mostly sleepless night.

Shoutout to: Sarah, another Peace Corps Rwanda volunteer, who was already calling a taxi for herself and did all the talking to arrange for the taxi to come back and pick us up and drive us to the airport in the middle of the night.

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Day 2:

Navigating customs through a fog of exhaustion, finding a taxi, buying SIM cards, finding the ferry, navigating more customs, walking for several hours without finding our hotel… We never did find our hotel, but we found a place to wait and we finally got hold of AirBnB customer service, who managed to get hold of the host, who sent the receptionist to find us and lead us to the correct place—it turns out the place is a block down and across the street from where Google thinks it should be based on GPS coordinates. After all that, we finally set down our bags, did some touristy wandering, and had dinner at Lukmaan’s, a place the internet had recommended and which, it turned out, was within a couple minute’s walk of our hotel.

You might want to know: waiting for the ferry felt a lot like a hellish daymare (possibly due in part to exhaustion?) and we decided the extra money required to buy VIP tickets and wait for the ferry in air conditioned comfort was definitely worth it; also you have to go through a second customs queue in Zanzibar.

Shoutout to: Adam, our taxi driver extraordinaire who not only charged us what we later discovered to be a fair rate (30USD, not the cheapest but definitely not the most expensive) from the airport to the ferry company and then, voluntarily and without asking for extra pay, walked us to the ferry office to help buy our tickets and then walked us to a phone store and did all the talking to help us get our SIM cards sorted out. (If you need a taxi in Dar es Salaam, give him a call at +255 713 671 642.)
Also shoutout to the waitresses in Zanzibar Coffee House, who taught us some Swahili, chatted with us, and let us move all our baggage from table to table for several hours while two of us at a time went out to try to find our hotel.

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Day 3:

We went back to Zanzibar Coffee for breakfast, since we liked them so much—something that became a habit during our week in Stone Town; we never found a breakfast place we liked better in terms of either the food or the prices. Then we spent hours wandering the streets, poking through art shops and curio shops. We also splashed our way down the beachfront and had drinks at the Travellers Cafe while watching the sunset—we went back to Travellers Cafe several times in the evening, despite their staff being fairly unfriendly, because the location and the cider were both nice. And, of course, we (I, anyway) spent lots of time pausing to look at/chirp at/coo at all the cats that secretly own the town.

You might want to know: the shops get cheaper and cheaper as you get farther from the fancy, touristy parts of town near the beachfront hotels. Most shopkeepers are willing to haggle over prices, and you should assume they’re quoting you half again or even double the real price when you ask how much something costs. Don’t be afraid to tell them you want to pay a very low amount and then work your way up to what feels like a comfortable price range—also, ask prices in different shops to get a feel for how much people in general are selling for. Lots of shops sell exactly the same products.

Shoutout to: the owner of a local art shop (whose name I did not get, unfortunately) who voluntarily walked us around his street and taught us interesting history about the local art and the fancy doorframes, despite our having told him we couldn’t buy anything from his shop.
Also to the guy at Shebby’s (near the Catholic church) who was the only one during our whole trip to give us the correct price for spices on our first asking him.

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Day 4:

We did more wandering, took the most unimpressive walking tour of our lives (note for next time: get a recommendation of a guide beforehand?), swam, walked the beaches, tried local street food that we don’t have in Rwanda, and had dinner at Forodhani Gardens. In the evening, it becomes a food market filled with vendors, fresh seafood, and tourists. This came highly recommended from every tourist blog we read, but we were extremely underwhelmed. We get enough brochette in Rwanda that we weren’t excited by the opportunity to try different kinds of brochette, and there wasn’t much else on offer besides shawarma—which was delicious, but didn’t make up for the lack of variety after the glowing blog reviews we’d read. In addition, we were sold a coconut that tasted rancid and were harassed and catcalled beyond our ability to handle diplomatically. Overall we came away with the impression that Forodhani caters to tourists who don’t know any better than to pay too much for street food and to accept harassment as a compliment.

You might want to know: Stone Town is by far the cheapest place to stay in Zanzibar. It’s possible to make day trips to other parts of the island from there by taxi or by public buses/dala-dala, but we mostly didn’t. While people talked up the pristine white beaches in the north and east, we were perfectly content with the beaches in Stone Town, which had the benefit of being nearly empty during the day. Shade is hard to come by after noon, since the beaches face west, but you can find shady nooks near hotel stairways. But find someone to watch your belongings, since “beach boys” often pass by looking to steal unattended stuff.

Shoutout to: the lady who sold us street food and patiently taught us the names and contents of unfamiliar foods without making us feel stupid.
Also to Samson, the security guard at Serena, who was super nice, offered to watch our stuff while we swam, and let us sit on the hotel veranda despite our being wet and clearly outclassed by all the actual hotel patrons.

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Day 5:

We got up early with the purpose of hitting the beaches while there was still some shade and spent hours swimming and reading on the sand. We all got much more sunburnt than we had hoped, but it was a successful morning nevertheless. In the afternoon, we toured the Old Dispensary, which the internet had told us was the most beautiful building in Stone Town. We decided we agreed with the internet. We also spent a long time admiring paintings in the Conservation Centre and walked along the walls of the Old Fort.

You might want to know: the Conservation Centre features art that is different from the touristy paintings that are the same in every shop. According to literature we saw there, it’s run by a group that works with local youth and artists to preserve culture. It also had signs suggesting they have live music every week (we meant to go to that and didn’t, so no review, but it looked hopeful).

Shoutout to: the white man carrying a baby on the beach who was walking by, saw some local men stopping to harass us, paused to watch pointedly until the local guys went away, and then moved on up the beach—thanks for using your position as a white male to make us feel safe.
Also shoutout to the guide at the Old Dispensary, who walked around with us, answered our questions, and took lots of photos of us when we asked him to.

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Day 6:

We had booked a trip through Safari Blue, so we got up early, had instant coffee in our room, and headed out to meet the shuttle, which took us to Fumba, where the tour began. We spent a wonderful day with a handful of other tourists (only a handful, which was great) out on a traditional boat, a dhow. We enjoyed snorkelling, lots of snacks, a delicious lunch on an island where we saw and climbed massive baobab trees, and dolphin watching.

You might want to know: I know I previously said we had trouble with booking, but the customer service was quick and friendly and extremely effective, and the shuttle was very cheap. We loved everything about the trip and thought it was a low price for great quality. Definitely do this.

Shoutout to: our hotel’s cleaning ladies, who cleaned our entire room in under ten minutes when we told them we needed to be somewhere soon and were taking the room key with us.
Also shoutout to the waiter at Lukmaan’s who initially gave us the wrong takeaway order but replaced it immediately without charging us for the (more expensive) correct order.

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Day 7:

We knew we all had specific souvenirs we wanted and also that we wanted to get the best prices possible for them, so we set out with a list and walked through just about every shop in Stone Town. After that, we had lunch at Sforno, a great place we went back to several times for their delicious pizza, ice cream, and shakes, and went swimming.

Shoutout to: the woodworker at Zanzibar Crafts Garden who happily taught us how to say teacher/teachers (walimu/mwalimu) in Swahili and was genuinely interested in our being teachers from Rwanda, despite our not buying anything from him.
Also shoutout to the salesman across from our hotel, who gave us an incredible opening price on trousers with no haggling
Also shoutout Amour Aziz at Zanzibar Souvenir Shop in Hamamni Street who quoted us a fair price from the outset, did not harass us, spoke great English, had a business card, and eventually gave us a discount on what we purchased (give him a call at +255 24 223 0930 or +255 777 432 612 if you’re looking for Zanzibar boxes).

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Day 8:

The internet told us to go to Jozani Forest and see the monkeys, so we did. This involved a bus to someplace and then a dala-dala to the forest. The bus was okay. The dala-dala was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in that we all hope never to experience it a second time. It was exactly the sort of colourful African experience we all thought we were signing up for when we moved here: a brightly-painted truck with a covered bed packed full of men and women and children and bags and, of course, us. We couldn’t so much as shift our feet or shoulders thanks to being packed in so tight. We moved down the road incredibly slowly, stopping for a solid ten or more minutes at one point to have a load of lumber put onto the top of the truck, and the ride lasted an aeon or more, in our estimation. Still, we’re glad to have tried it once. The forest was a much better experience. We had a great guide who walked us beneath creaking mahogany trees, and we saw lots and lots of red colobus monkeys. They’re used to people and at times came so close we could have touched them (we didn’t, because you’re not supposed to). We particularly liked watching the babies playing—mostly running, jumping, and knocking each other off branches.

You might want to know: the internet told us Jozani had no entrance fee and that the guides were paid on a tip basis. This, it turns out, is not true (anymore? Maybe it used to be?). We paid 10USD apiece to enter (which is cheap if you’re getting your paycheck in USD but fairly expensive when you’re being paid in RWF). We thought it was worth it, but we were not expecting it.

Shoutout to: our guide, who drove us back to Stone Town himself when we asked him to help us find a taxi.
Also to the ladies at Al Jabry restaurant, who were nice to us and served us really delicious food. Definitely go there and buy their rice.

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Day 9:

On our last full day in Stone Town, we decided to buy cheap street food and spend our money on expensive drinks. We went swimming and then bought overpriced (but delicious) coffee at Serena and drank it while reading books. We bought our last-minute souvenirs and had drinks on the rooftop at Africa House Hotel.

You might want to know: Africa House Hotel was our least favourite place in Zanzibar. We did not think the view made up for the atmosphere, which was boring, loud, and overpriced. We recommend you watch the sunset over the ocean from Travellers Cafe or one of the expensive beachfront hotels, which are at least quiet and comfortable.

Shoutout to: the woodworker at Zanzibar Craft Garden—yes, the same one—who gave us a key chain even though he said he couldn’t make the box we wanted.
Also to the woodworkers in Hamamni Street who, instead of harassing us, showed us how they make the brass decorations on the boxes.
Also to the Indian saleswoman near the touristy parts of town who gave us her personal incense and incense holder because we bought incense from her and she didn’t sell holders for it.
Also to the Indian antiques salesman who sold us a brass Aladdin lamp at half his original price (which was, honestly, a fair price to start with) and made a minimum profit off it and actually tried to convince his son, who had originally bought it, to sell it at cost, and also showed us how to polish it.
Also shoutout to the man we stopped in the street to ask directions, who was interrupted in his vague directions by a woman, who gave us very exact, precise directions—he let her interrupt him and then actually said, “Excellent,” and affirmed her, which is something we see as a rarity in general and especially in East Africa.

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Day 10:

We had to catch a noon ferry, so we didn’t do much in town besides have breakfast one last time at Zanzibar Coffee. Then we made our way through customs, took the ferry back to Dar es Salaam, had lunch at a little Indian place, and waited for our taxi at a great coffee shop called Impresso Espresso. Then it was back through customs, airplanes, airports, and taxis until we were back to familiar ground in Kigali.

Shoutout to: all the employees at our hotel who went out of their way to make our stay comfortable and help answer our questions about Stone Town.
Also to the lady running Impresso Espresso in Dar es Salaam, who did not judge us for trudging into her coffee shop laden with bags, crashing in a corner, and staying there for several hours.
Also, again, to our taxi driver, Adam, who came to pick us up, helped us decide what time we needed him to come in order to get to the airport on time, and actually got us there early despite massive traffic jams.

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So the tl;dr version: We loved Zanzibar. We had problems with it. Stuff went wrong. Stuff annoyed us. Stuff drove us crazy. But we got to take a break from being Peace Corps Volunteers, take a break from being teachers, take a break from having to try to speak a second language. We swam in the ocean and saw really cool fish and said hello to monkeys. We ate some great food and saw some cute cats and made some really nice, if very temporary, friends. And in the end, hakuna matata!

Gratitude

Ishimwe

Gratitude

In Peace Corps, perhaps more so than in other phases of life, it’s easy to get caught up in the negative.

Our conversation patterns fall into a familiar cycle of complaints, implicit or explicit, as we discuss the foods we miss, the aspects of our jobs that frustrate us, the constant shifting of Peace Corps rules, the lack of comforts we took for granted back in the States. It’s harder to remember the things we’re grateful for.

I have a confession: this year I planned not to celebrate the holidays at all. I’ve been pushing my budget and my energy both to the limits lately, and Thanksgiving, especially, has sounded more like a chore than a holiday.

But a friend passing by talking about her love of Christmas reminded me of how much I, too, love the holiday season, and a couple other friends decided to visit me for Thanksgiving despite my having flatly refused to join in on their initial celebration plan, and suddenly the season didn’t seem so bleak and difficult. I’ve spent a few days making holiday decorations and hunting down Christmas music, and just like that, I’m looking forward to the holidays. And just like that, I remembered that there really are a lot of things I’m thankful for.

Here are a few of them—one for every month I’ve been in Rwanda:

  1. Friends who refuse to let me be alone on holidays
  2. Furry animal babies who cuddle me and love me even when I’m grouchy
  3. Neighbours who invest in me despite the language barrier
  4. Local co-workers who are motivated and serious about projects
  5. Holiday foods—we won’t have turkey or cranberry sauce, but if we put a little effort in, we can have goat and mashed potatoes and maybe even pie
  6. My own compound with running water—I will never get over how lucky I am to have a private space with a good wall and water I don’t have to haul in jerrycans
  7. The internet—even if my access to it is limited and slow, I can still communicate with my family more or less instantaneously despite thousands of miles between us
  8. Books—I may be the only person in my village who owns books, and these gateways to comfort, escape, and enlightenment that I’ve regarded as a right for many years suddenly appear clearly to be an incredible privilege
  9. Beautiful things—this week it’s the paper snowflakes I hung from my ceiling and the candles I stuck on some empty bottles on my bookshelf; I’m mesmerised; I can’t stop staring; isn’t it lovely that we have the capacity to create and admire art?
  10. Cozy clothes—jumpers and leggings and socks and hoodies and all the lovely soft clothes that make chilly evenings a little better
  11. Coffee—in a country where coffee is an export crop but not a common drink, I can buy freshly roasted and ground coffee just a 45-minute bus ride away from my site
  12. Rainy season—honestly, during dry season I’d forgotten how beautiful my area is, but now that the rains have returned, the hills are green and the valley shimmers wet in the setting suns and the colours are vibrant without their dry-season coats of dust, and I find myself craning my neck to stare in all directions when I walk up the road
  13. My health—some volunteers have been sick more often than not here; I’ve only been significantly sick three times in the fourteen months I’ve been in country
  14. A long holiday—my mind and body are so happy to have a chance to rest a little before next schoolyear, and I’m looking forward to lying on a beach for a week in early December

Anyway, there’s my list. I hope you, too, have plenty of things to be grateful for and that you take a moment to remember a few of them this holiday season.

Me Too

Nanjye.

Me, too.

You know what I mean. You’ve seen it on your feed—one post after another, one person after another speaking up

I see them flooding my social media—some simple admissions, some angry accusations, some anguished stories, some voices for others who, for one reason or another, fear to post for themselves. 

(a screenshot of a friend’s post, shared with permission)

They fill me with sorrow and fury and understanding, because those things have been done to me, too.
I, too, have been whistled at, touched, called by endearments that made me uncomfortable. 

I have been told to smile by strangers in parking lots and grocery stores and subway stations, made to feel unsafe in my workplace, forced to listen to sexual stories I had no desire to hear. 

I have been watched in ways that made me feel unclean in my own skin.

I have been asked invasive questions about my underwear or my sexual preferences. 

I have had strangers force me to defend my choice not to engage in a conversation that made me uncomfortable, not to share my phone number, not to let a man come into my house. 

And yet, despite this, I am a lucky one. 

It makes me physically nauseous to admit that I am fortunate simply because my body has not been invaded.

But when I pretend to be on the phone walking in the dark at night, when I carry my keys between my fingers as a makeshift just-in-case weapon, when I keep my hand over my drink or eye strangers on the road or double-check my locks—I am taking preventative action based on the stories of millions of people for whom the threat is also a memory.

So I say, “Me, too.”

So I watch in unsurprised sorrow as nearly everyone I know adds their voice to the clamour on social media.

So I listen in rage to the stories around me—rage driven by frustration, fear, grief, and helplessness.

What if victims did not carry the burden of sharing their experiences? What if the hurting did not have to prove their numbers for us to make a change?

What if the responses I saw on social media were not ones of disbelief, dismissal, or denial?

I know there are many—too many—abusers, aggressors, and enablers who will never admit to their part in creating a culture that allows this many people to be victimised. And I know there are others who will not only admit but will boast of their perpetration of injustice—I’m looking at you, POTUS

But what about the well-meaning majority? What about the people who genuinely want a better world, who believe themselves to be good people, who passively allow these wrongs to continue?

What if we stood up and admitted the ways we have, knowingly or unknowingly, made possible a culture of inequality?

Here, again, I can say, “Me, too.”

I, too, have allowed oppressive systems to continue, giving permission by my silence. 

I am a victim, but I am also an enabler.

I, too, have laughed at sexist jokes and judged people by their conformity or nonconformity to gender roles. 

I have allowed harassment to go unchallenged and unreported, expected women to prove their abilities in male-dominated fields, and expressed admiration for characters whose masculinity is defined in part by their objectification of women (hey there, James Bond). 

I have disparaged things purely because they are coded as feminine. 

I have dismissed someone’s viewpoint because I have not experienced it myself, ignored truths because the speaker seemed too emotional, used words related to women as insults and words related to men as compliments.

I have questioned victims rather than believing them.

I, too, have propagated this culture.

There’s a quote attributed to Maya Angelou: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” 

We know better. We must do better.

Awareness is important. The voices of survivors are important. Revealing and acknowledging the magnitude of the problem is important: in the US, someone is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, and that’s not even mentioning those harassed but not assaulted. We need to recognise that this is absolutely unacceptable.

But we also need to take these passive phrases and turn them on their heads. We need to demand the active voice, to say not only, “This has been done to me,” but also, “I have done this.”

Until we recognise the ways that we contribute to the problem, we will never solve it.

What if all those who know better committed to doing better?

Again, I want to stand up and say, “Me, too.”

I, too, commit to change. 

I have kept silent or protested passively; now I commit to naming sexism, harassment, abuse, and aggression in all its forms, to speaking up and calling out the jokes, the slurs, the stereotypes, the microaggressions.

I commit to hearing to the voices of the oppressed, to challenging the status quo, to identifying and rejecting toxic masculinity.

I commit to supporting victims by listening to them, believing them, and speaking for them when needed. 

I commit to admitting, apologising, and adjusting when—not if—I perpetuate harmful ideologies, to accepting criticism without defence, and to changing my behaviour without complaint.

But I—we—cannot stand alone.

This week I taught my students the concepts of power balance, vulnerable people, and allyship. We discussed that some people have less voice and that those with power can help those without it. 

In a gendered situation, I am the one without power. I am the one whose voice is drowned out, whose complaints are trivialised. 

I am told I am oversensitive, that my experiences are invalid, that I am ignorant of how far our culture has come. 

I am told “not all men,” and, “it’s just the way it is,” and, “can’t you take a compliment?”

So I am calling you out, you who identify as male, you who have power, you whose voices are not ignored. I am calling you to step up in the active voice and say, “I have done this—but no more.”

I commit to learning better, and I commit to doing better.

Will you?