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?

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The First Year Excerpts

So it’s been a year since we landed in country. I thought you might like to see my year in review via snippets of my journal entries. This is a bit long, because a year is hard to capture in brief. Hopefully the photos break that up.


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Wednesday, 21 September 2016

. . . We had probably the smoothest, least painful flights I’ve ever had. Kigali smells like smoke. It’s warm and humid, there are familiar plants and building styles everywhere, armed guards on the street corners, and I love it. It feels like a close approximation of home.

 

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Everything is overwhelming, but so far nothing is horrible. I’ve just gotten used to the hotel, but this morning we packed up for the drive to Rwamagana, and here I am.

. . . I’m not totally sure who everyone [in my host family] is, honestly. I’m the fifth volunteer they’ve hosted, so I’m sure they’re used to dumb Americans needing lots of help. Still, it feels awkward and it would be nice if I could talk to anyone besides my host father, who speaks English.

There are a lot of people all talking outside my window, but I don’t understand a word. I hope they’ll all be nice to me, as ridiculously petty as that sounds.

I don’t know when I’m supposed to come out or not. I don’t know when dinner is or how we fill the time until then. Tomorrow I need to do my laundry; I still don’t know where to get water, though, or soap. I need a second basin, I think, for rinsing, but I don’t know where to get it.

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Sunday, 25 September 2016

First full day with a host family. So far, so good—much better now because we’ve gotten sort of comfortable with each other. I know where I’m supposed to do some things and who to ask. I’ve learnt a few new words. The children are no longer shy of me. I successfully did my first load of laundry and scrubbed my floor. I hauled my first water and filled my filter and remembered to add the bleach way too late but did it anyway. I hope it’s fine.

I feel like we’re a batch of puppies fostered out, and our new families love us and are trying hard to house train us, but we don’t understand everything they ask of us, and we want to please but we’re also slightly scared and confused.

I saw my first cockroaches today—big orange ones in the latrine. I’ve never felt so vulnerable as when I had to drop my trousers with them watching menacingly from the upper corners of the wall!

(Note: this entry ends optimistically with, “Maybe tomorrow I can buy a pillow!”, an aspiration significant only because little did I know it would be three months before I had a chance to buy a real pillow.)

 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

My head occasionally hurts from learning. Today we were supposed to just learn “what is your profession” and a few job terms. But, of course, I had a million questions, and we descended into verb tenses and conjunctions and the beginnings of noun cases/prepositions. The saving graces of Kinyarwanda are that there’s no masculine/feminine and there are no article adjectives.

I guess we’ll all get there, though. Eventually we’ll all actually know this language, more or less. We’ll all be fine. Ni byiza…buhoro buhoro.

 

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Last night I was allowed to help with supper—as in I was allowed to stir the beans… I also discovered I’m definitely a child—Mama gave me a mug of the porridge they incessantly feed the children in order to make them “grow fat,” as Papa says. It was pretty good, actually. Mild and milky and very hot.

. . . I feel alternately impatient with how slow things go and overwhelmed by how quickly things move.

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Thursday 29 September 2016

Nights with the family are getting better. I’m figuring out how to play with the children and sort of help with the dinner. I understand some of what people say. I’m writing down everything, even if I don’t know what it means, and asking later.

. . . We’re a loud, large group, and I don’t know anyone well yet. I find it kind of exhausting. I like most of the people, but I’m still looking for anyone I really click with.

I guess I didn’t expect this group here to feel so much like a group of Americans on holiday, but it really does. I feel so suffocated by the way they talk about the culture and food and customs and language. They’re all always craving American food, for example. It’s been…a week. Two.

(Note: I, too, now crave American food often.)

 

Friday 30 September 2016

The end of my first week in Rwamagana. Isn’t that crazy?! I speak exponentially more Kinyarwanda than I did a week ago, but still only a fraction of what I need to know.

So far it’s been good, though. I’m getting accustomed to the culture, to cold bucket showers, to the family interactions and the stares on the streets.

 

Monday, 3 October 2016

The little things are beginning to wear on me, like tiny bits of grit in my shoe, or constant dripping digging a hole in cement. The exhaustion of having the food I take or don’t take questioned at every meal. The feeling of Kinyarwanda always being just one word or grammar rule beyond my grasp. The isolation from lack of good internet. The distance I have to go to do anything with the group. The guilt when I hide in my room. The desire to be a “good PCT” conflicting with my need for personal time. The rain making it impossible to do my laundry. Never feeling clean, even in the shower house.

Honestly, there are so many good things here. There’s so much I love. So much I’m excited for. It’s just that sometimes I have to also recognise the things that contribute to this occasional exhaustion and discouragement so I can dismantle it when it appears. Or at least so I can know it’ll disappear again.

. . . Today everything is muddy. My trousers are muddy. My feet are muddy. I feel gross. I don’t usually mind mud, but the mud here…the mud gets everywhere. The rain doesn’t clean it; it just turns it into a pervasive orange. It’s everywhere. It sticks to everything. It becomes clay and doesn’t wash off. It’s not the kind of mud I expected. It’s not the kind I know how to deal with. It’s frustrating.

. . . I feel confident in my language—what I have of it—until I have to use it. Then I forget everything and panic. It doesn’t help that I seem to be a day behind on the vocab everyone else knows.

 

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

I got my laundry done today—finally!—after realizing that I’ve spent several days asking if I could guseka rather than kumesa. I think my exact wording last night was, Nshobora guseka ijoro cyangwa umunsi gusa? —“Can I laugh at night or only in the morning?” –facepalm-

So that would be why I got no good answers since Sunday… So once I realised the problem, it all worked out. I got it all done before class this morning, and now I’m just hoping someone took it in before it started pouring an hour ago…

I’m feeling really isolated in the noise today. I can’t figure out how to make conversation and I find myself withdrawing yet wishing someone would approach.

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Wednesday 5 October 2016

We have new chairs! This is worthy of being the first sentence because I spend like six hours in them every day. I’m so happy. Soft seats. A little flex in the back rest. I’m in heaven.

I got home last night to find my laundry taken down, but it apparently didn’t dry because of the rain, so my event of the evening was making a clothesline out of dental floss, and my room is now strung with damp clothes. They didn’t dry overnight, but I’m hoping they’ll all be dry by tomorrow, because I’m wearing my last dry clothes right now…

We’re talking about language and I love it. Breaking down grammar and semantics and pragmatics and morphology…it’s beautiful. It’s the first thing I feel totally competent in.

 

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Microteaching was yesterday. It was scary and exhausting and, ultimately, boring. I’ve never before spent that many hours pretending to say Hello and Good morning and Nice to meet you and I basically hated it. Long. Boring. Exhausting.

 

Thursday 13 October 2016

Last night I was understanding most of what the family said. We were getting along. I thought that things were pretty good. Then, while I was in my room reading, Papa called me out, I thought for dinner, but it was Charles sitting on the couch. It took a while for him to even say why he was there, and his reason turned out to be telling me off for being grouchy and not wanting to practice Kinyarwanda with LCFs and in the community. He doesn’t know that the very thought of making painful small talk makes it hard to breathe. Today in class it was like it never happened, but last night I cried after he left—partly out of frustration, partly out of fear, and partly out of knowing he was right. I know I should talk to people, but I do talk when I have to, but when it’s just practice for the sake of practising, I have the words in my head but I stand there and just can’t make my mouth open.

 

Friday 14 October 2016

Everything today feels like it’s just killing time until this afternoon when we find out our site placements. We’re all excited for that and, I think, a bit apprehensive. Everything becomes more real then. Suddenly it won’t be all foggy and “you might be…” It’ll be real. You’ll have electricity or not. You’ll know what clothes to buy. Whether there’s someone there to help you transition. Whether you need to order furniture.

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Sunday 16 October 2016

It’s my birthday. Which is just a really weird thing right now. It feels irrelevant, like birthdays are something that only happen to other people, or maybe only happen in places I’m familiar with. Here nobody knows it’s my birthday, and I’m not sure why it would matter if they did. I glanced at the date last night and realised it was coming, and I woke this morning to really nice happy birthday messages from my family, but that’s the sum total of it. I’m kind of okay with it.

 

Monday 17 October 2016

We had some six hours of language already, and now Daryn is here talking about resiliency. It’s nice to be talking about something I understand instead of scrabbling for anything I get in language. I spend the entirety of my language classes trying to breathe through a growing feeling that I’m being left behind and can’t run fast enough to catch up.

. . . So also, today at Trust I told the guy that I had ifiriti n’imyenda [fried potatoes and clothing] instead of ifiriti n’inyama [fried potatoes and meat]. Woops. My first real public language mistake.

 

Sunday 23 October 2016

I’m currently sitting at a table in a dim room at the Catholic parish in Kiziguru. I have made my first attempt at using the toilet. I never thought I’d say it, but I prefer pit latrines. They let you squat comfortably and eliminate the struggle of pouring water and wishing it would flush.

 

Monday 24 October 2016

I’m recovering from a stress- and anxiety-induced bout of crying.

This morning everything seemed great. I stood around outside, greeted people—everyone seems to know my name already—and had a nice little chat in Spanish with a nice little old lady.

Padre Edouard asked if I wanted to see the school since he was going there. I said yes, of course, and we went to the school where he dropped me in the DOS’s office and promptly left. The DOS greeted me, introduced me to someone who may be called Ananias, who is an English teacher and the school mentor, and then he left, too, and I spent about two hours sitting on a bench making stilted conversation and meeting whoever happened to pass by.

And when I decided at last I would just leave, I got called back “to be introduced” in a meeting, because the sector officers were there. Except I didn’t get introduced. I sat on another bench while the sector officers made an hour’s worth of speeches and Padre walked in and out at whim, and then after the sector officers left, he introduced my name, that I was a “new mentor” and that I’m with “Peace Corpse”—which at that point was feeling fairly accurate—and then told me to “make your presentation” and walked out yet again.

Having prepared no presentation, and not knowing what he expected, I stood, said hello, repeated my name, told them I studied writing and would be teaching English, that I was working on Kinyarwanda very slowly, and that I hoped we could all learn from each other and work together. As I sat down, Padre came back in to ask in surprise if I was done my presentation. When I said yes, he told me to “tell them your programme.” I still have no idea what he meant by that. I told them I would be here til Thursday meeting people and getting got know the community and that I would be back in December or January. He seemed to think I should say more, but I didn’t know what and had anxiety rapidly constricting my throat, so I made my escape as politely as possible, had a cry in my room, and here I am, trying to process and cope and move on.

 

Tuesday 25 October 2016

I’ve already had a good cry this morning.

Padre Edouard didn’t show for breakfast. Last night after dinner I caught him and reminded him that I needed to get some things done while I’m here, and he said of course, and we agreed to look at my list this morning after breakfast. But, of course, I never saw him. After breakfast, I asked Padre Innocent and he said Padre Edouard was already at school. I managed to convey that it was fine, that I did not want to walk to the school, that I would wait.

I hate moments like that. The feel of my heart beating too quickly, of my words tumbling half-formed over each other, of my eyes beginning to burn and my fingers shaking, an odd isolation as if my head were separated from both my body and everything else in the world by a cold fog…

So I returned to my room and lay down to cry. Then I told myself it was time to be done crying, to stand up and do what I could. Since nobody was taking me in hand, I would simply have to take hold of the situation.

But I’ve been faced here in Rwanda more than ever before with the magnitude of my own fear. I lay on the bed asking myself, What would a brave person do? And I decided the answer was that a brave person would ask one of the other men to guide her around town and, if nobody could be found, would go alone and introduce herself to as many people as possible.

I am not that brave.

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Friday 28 October 2016

I’m home. And today “home” means a brown cement-over-mud-brick house and a red iron gate in Rwamagana.

Simbi was grinning before the gate was open, and Nziza must’ve heard my voice, because by the time the gate was closed, I could hear her in the house shouting my name. It was very nice to come home and be welcomed and feel missed. Papa fed me. Nziza happily taught me a dozen words I already knew. Mama, over the malaria, came home while I was finishing my laundry and let out a pleased, “Ehhh!”

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Tuesday 8 November 2016

People stopping me on the street is seriously an ordeal for me. I never know what they want or whether my response is right or wrong—or whether the way they approach me is normal or not. For example, last night a row of guys heading toward town accosted me on the way home. They led with “muzungu” and the one in front of me led with an outstretched hand and when I kept on without answering he actually put it on my shoulder as if to physically stop me passing, and the whole thing felt very threatening, but anyone unexpectedly stopping me feels threatening no matter what, and maybe they were just saying hi. And I know not greeting people is super rude here, but I think them accosting me in the street is also maybe rude? Especially leading with “muzungu” instead of “mwiriwe”? But when I passed, they said “okay, okay,” as if I were the rude one, which all left me feeling uncertain and shaken and semi-guilty and semi-angry and overall just tired.

 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

It’s Election Day and nearly everyone in the room is or has been crying.

We all came to the Hub early this morning—I left my house around 4:30 after barely sleeping and walked to the Hub through the black pre-dawn and the early birdsong and wheeling crows. We were all expecting to watch Hillary win. JD came and got coffee and hot water for tea going, and he’d bought a 4G router and subscription for BBC, and we all crowded in on those hard wooden chairs in sweats and socks, cuddling mugs of hot drinks, watching the numbers shift and the map change colours and stocks and economies around the world fall as Trump slowly but steadily pulled ahead.

By the time it was light, Ryan and Tai were making crepes on the back porch and the election had reached a kind of stalemate, with them refusing to call some critical states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Everything kept slanting in Trump’s favour. People began crying. Hillary’s person told everyone to go home and implied that she would not be conceding. And then, suddenly, there was everyone saying she’d conceded. The phrase “President elect Donald J Trump” got actually spoken on a live international broadcast.

We all sat in shock. The people who hadn’t skipped their language classes got told over group text. Dr Laurent sent a message that he’s available to conduct or facilitate counselling for anyone who needs it. We have been given the afternoon off—as a day to mourn and cope. The staff here has been wonderful so far, understanding that this is a hard day for us, modifying the schedule to give us time.

. . . How did this joke in bad taste become reality? How did we elect such hateful rhetoric, such blatant disrespect and narcissism and misogyny and racism and xenophobia? Lori put it well when she said, with tears in her eyes, “How can I face Rwandans?” How do we talk about empowering women when we’ve just elected a man who devalues them at every turn? How do we promote peace and international friendship with xenophobia sitting in the oval office?

I’m so grateful not to be in the country right now. I’m so glad to be here for two years. But I don’t know what I’m going to tell people who ask me. I’m dreading the comments and questions.

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Saturday 13 November 2016

We’re at the genocide memorial, and I’m crying. All of us are crying. We just walked through the reflection of hell. I saw time-yellowed photos of families, all dead now. A photo of a woman teaching her child to walk. A young boy careening around a corner on a bike too big for him. Siblings holding hands. The last words of a ten-year-old who was killed with machetes, the favourite food of a two-year-old smashed against a wall. A large photo of a little girl stabbed through the eyes. Children. There are a million stories—literally—of torture and killings and death and betrayal.

But there are also a thousand stories of people protecting each other and sacrificing for each other and coming together. It’s too much. There’s nothing in me with the capacity to accept or understand that this happened, much less why. And there’s an entire floor of information about other genocides around the world. How does this happen so often? How does such hate proliferate? How does this keep happening? And how is it always, always followed by denial? To commit such horrific atrocities and then to claim they never happened?

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Saturday 19 November 2016

Site change: Apparently the house they had found for me is in a big compound that’s still under construction, meaning people would be coming and going all the time. So instead of fighting that, they decided it would be better to do a site change. So now I’m placed in the south. Here is what I know: It’s in the south, and the house is already approved and is, according to Kassim, beautiful. I’m feeling pretty good about the entire situation, though. I’m sorry to be losing all the work I did to know my site and the people in the east. But I’m also excited to see a new site and to officially have a house and to see Butare.

 

Monday 21 November 2016

It’s an actual Clint Barton day and I have no Pizza Dog to comfort me.

I felt really good about my lesson [for model school], but when I went to do it, things fell apart. I tried to take on some disciplinary issues that I probably should have just ignored, and then things devolved. It felt like a sinkhole. I was waiting for it to end.

 

Tuesday 22 November 2016

This morning was definitely better than yesterday. My class specifically went really well, I think. We scaled way back and just tackled sunny, windy, cloudy, and rainy. They understood the crossword puzzle after the first round and I’m trying to figure out how to make it an individual activity. But it went well and tomorrow we’re talking about past and present and future tenses in context of the weather. Hopefully that’ll go well and give me a good idea of how to handle Thursday and Friday, because on Friday I’m being evaluated.

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Friday 25 November 2016

It’s my last day in P6 and I find myself feeling surprisingly sentimental about it. I’ve gone from abject terror and wishing the morning over to feeling like they really are my students. I like recognising their faces, knowing when they get it and when they don’t, knowing when a kid getting the right answer is a big deal for them, being able to divide the room into strategic groups so there’s a decent English speaker in each group. I let a few of them stay during the break to finish taking notes off each other’s group projects, and one little girl paused going out the door, opened it a crack, just far enough to wink at me before she closed it.

I think the whole TPI went pretty well. And even if I didn’t get good marks, I’m happy because the group of boys at the back who never seem to get anything, ever, did a pretty good job on their group project—definitely some grammar and usage problems, but overall they came up with solid ideas and managed to communicate them, and I’m proud of them.

So I’ll finish my story about my embarrassing fall: I was heading home from the Hub about ten minutes late, so I was booking it. I must have not lifted my foot high enough, because I hit the curb, thought I could recover, realised midair that I couldn’t, and hit the pavement hard.

I was up in mere seconds, and I was halfway to the corner before I realised my skirt was split down almost an entire side seam. Then when I looked down at it I realised I couldn’t see, and I had to walk back just hoping my glasses were somewhere, just hoping they hadn’t been stepped on—hoping I wouldn’t step on them trying to find them in the dark.

I’ve never felt so vulnerable as when I managed to mbabarira [“forgive me”] a couple of mamas into stopping and said, “Ushobora kumfasha? Naguye, kandi imarinete…” [“Can you help me? I fell, and glasses…”] they understood the significance immediately, and I got some very sympathetic “Mana weee!”s before a uniformed big-gun-toting policeman brought them to me, cradling them in his hands like a baby bird, saying, “So sorry. So sorry.”

They were unbroken. I put them on, said, “Murakoze cyane,” [“thank you very much”] and, because they seemed amazed when I added, “Bibaho” [“it happens”] to their continued Mana we-ing and so sorry-ing, I booked it home. I had a cardigan to wrap around my waist to hide the split skirt, and it wasn’t til I got to my room to change that I realised I had two skinned knees, a skinned shoulder, and blood all over. Yesterday I realised I also skinned the back of one wrist (?? how??) and everything is pretty bruised.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and I keep forgetting about it except when I see it listed on people’s Facebook statuses or when people message me to say happy Thanksgiving and I have to explain that we don’t get the holiday, but we do get to slaughter eleven turkeys…

 

Monday 28 November 2016

I spent Saturday morning doing umuganda. Papa and I helped make a road with hoes and machetes, from which I have a blister on one hand, and then we stood about in the woods for a very long time while the village voted on new leaders, of which my Papa is apparently one. They gave short impromptu speeches and then the nominees stood in a row with their backs to the group and everyone else queued up behind whomever they wanted to vote for and someone counted them, and that was the extent of the formal voting.

I did my laundry because my clothes were beginning to smell funny and it was hot and there were no dark clouds in the sky. Then I left my laundry on the line and went to the Hub to lesson plan. It was so hot and I was congratulating myself on having finally after two months picked a non-rainy day to do my laundry. I’d been at the Hub all of maybe fifteen minutes when it started pouring. So much for my laundry.

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Tuesday 29 November 2016

I am tired. Lesson prep took much longer than I expected last night, and life in general here still takes much more effort than life other places. I know my way around now and can more or less communicate, but I’m still being watched every moment, even at home, or at least that’s how it feels, and I’m on a very rigid schedule that I can’t control, and I’m on a steady diet of miscommunication from people in charge, and it’s exhausting.

I’m grouchy today, though. I’m not always this grouchy. And I really do love being here. For everything I get annoyed with there are a dozen things to love. For example, my latest favourite thing is dignified older mamas wearing traditional dresses in ironic igitenge [local patterned material]. The little old lady in faded Power Puff Girls print; the woman on the street covered in dollar, pound, and euro signs; the tall woman at umuganda covered in pictures of mosquitos in slashed circles in between word clouds saying that we can eradicate malaria in Rwanda (or something like that; it was in Kinyarwanda—I only understood most of the words).

 

Wednesday 30 November 2016

The date for swear-in has changed yet again—we now have a week and a half. We all have to get packing and shopping in a hurry. Suddenly everything is getting real and this strange host family/PST limbo is ending. LPI is on Wednesday. We leave for Kigali on Saturday, we swear in on Sunday, and then we start shipping out to our sites on Monday. I’m in a state of lowkey panic.

 

Saturday 20 December 2016

This week has felt strange, unreal. Not like one last push to the end, the way finals feels, but like everything is a lackadaisical rehearsal—like we’re just filling time and going through motions. . .

I spent about an hour last night packing and sorting and now I think it will be the work of twenty minutes tonight to finish organising the suitcase and putting the last few items in.

It’s crazy to think PST is over. Tonight will be my last night with my host family. Suddenly everything will be real.

What then?

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Thursday 15 December 2016

I probably should’ve written days ago. I meant to, but I’ve been so exhausted lately. Everything got really, really busy. We went to Kigali on Sunday, which involved an obscene amount of everyone’s luggage being loaded into Peace Corps cars, unloaded at the Hub, loaded into big lorries, and unloaded at the hotel. Then there was shopping, eating ice cream outside Nakumatt, being called a spy by a man on a bus…

Monday was the swearing in ceremony. We all looked fabulous despite the rain, danced pretty decently I think, ate delicious food, and swore to uphold the Constitution and, basically, the Peace Corps legacy.

Tuesday most of us shipped out for site installation, including me. That turned out to be a long process involving several stops for mattresses and gas stoves, a rushed market visit in Huye, and a longer-than-expected period of watching the driver and my landlord talk while Holly and I stood by waiting.

And then they were all gone and I was left with a house and a lot of keys and all my things in a pile on the floor.

I spent several hours getting all my things more or less organised and didn’t eat until noon yesterday, when I finally boiled water for ramen. I did all my laundry except my sheets and towels that morning and walked into town in search of protein. I wound up with ten eggs—I’m already sick of them, but there’s no helping it until I get peanut flour and beans.

My landlord’s wife has stopped by every night to ask how I’m doing and remind me to ask if I need anything. Last night I asked where to buy charcoal, and this morning I woke up to a phone call from Theophile saying he had someone on the way with charcoal. He’s been a fantastic neighbour/landlord so far.

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Friday 16 December 2016

Here are some things I have done and seen since coming to site:

I’ve seen a woman carrying an entire banana plant on her head as she walked down the road. I’ve seen three or four dogs, none of which seem to hate or fear humans, which makes me optimistic. I’ve seen seventeen episodes of Friends, which I find very soothing at this point in my life. It’s a brief journey back to a world I almost lived in but never quite did—one I spent years wishing to be in before realising it didn’t exist and that I’d hate it if it did.

I’ve swept and mopped my whole house, then swept it again after carrying a filthy urwego—ladder—through to pound nails into my ceiling to hang my mosquito net. I’ve lit my imbabura for yesterday’s lunch, which used up a whole box of matches and several hours, and then spent several more hours and another entire box of matches failing to light it for yesterday’s dinner. I’ve bought more matches and a handful of candles, which have relieved me of the time, stress, and uncertainty related to lighting the coals as well as the pride and satisfaction related to having built a fire using nothing more than matches, air, skill, and paper-ish products probably coated with pollutants.

I’ve walked to town by myself twice. It makes me far more anxious than I had expected. That’s probably partially a result of walking through a strange, people-filled place alone and partly a result of town feeling like an eerie old memory, like half a dream. Like I may have once been there as a child. It’s all dirt; strange, steep, water-cracked rolling spines of dirt, all built over with wooden-slat shanties and shacks, all cracked and weathered and clinging to the steep dirt, wide spaces glaring between the boards, fading signs advertising them as restaurants or shops when they barely look like more than oversize fruit crates, doors open or half-heartedly covered with thin sheets or curtains, sullen, suspicious people pausing to watch me as I pass, barely answering if I greet them or ask a question. Like a set of the California Gold Rush or the Great Depression.

Anyway. Today I tried to go to the market, which is a lot of rickety wooden tables covering a wide dirt plain, but that’s all it was when I got there—empty wooden tables. I asked Mama Lysette and she said the market doesn’t start til 4:00, which makes some sense now but was very confusing at the time and left me returning home feeling very defeated.

I spent all day inside apart from that adventure. Mama Lysette came by to ask why I hadn’t come to visit and tell me that it’s bad to be inside alone all day, to which I tried to explain that I’d gone by but she hadn’t been there and that I had been out several times. That ended in me trying to tell her that I’d gone out to buy milk and her saying, “You want milk? I have milk. In the morning, at night, if you want milk, just ask, I give you milk.”

And then, before I went inside, she came back and said, “Come, I give you milk now.”

That ended in me having a pitcher of fresh milk and, because she wouldn’t hear me explaining that I had already bought eggs, she said, “I give you two eggs for tonight,” and sent me home with six.

She’s so motherly that I just do anything she says.

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Wednesday 28 December 2016

It’s apparently only been a couple of weeks since I wrote, but it feels like a lifetime. This little town is beginning to feel more like home. I experience only normal levels of anxiety when I leave my house, and as long as I keep moving I’m generally fine.

I’ve been back and forth between really good and really bad. Some days I think I’m making friends and learning my way around. Other times I cry because I can’t understand what the neighbour’s umukozi is saying about my lights.

It’s not the physical difficulties of living here that get to me, or even the language and culture barriers; it’s feeling like I have to be social and make lots of friends or Peace Corps will think I’m doing it wrong. I’m fine with knowing a few people and not interacting much, but IntegrationTM seems to mean I have to go everywhere and meet everybody and I am just not good at that.

 

Sunday 1 January 2017

It doesn’t feel like a new year. I mean, last year didn’t either, or the year before that—it never really does—but this year especially I have nothing on which to pin a sense of time’s passage. I spent last night watching movies til midnight, but aside from staying up that late, it felt like any other night.

Well. Not any other. Yesterday was one of those days. My water was out intermittently all day. My electricity went out. Mobile banking refused to let me pay for more, so I didn’t have electricity til after dark, when Theophile sent me a code to put in the meter.

I think what it is, is failed expectations. I think I had expected myself to be somehow further, to have done or be doing more. I’m trying really hard to let go of that, to let myself do this in a way that works for me and to let Peace Corps’s expectations for exactly what my life here will look like fall by the wayside. Not easy, but I’m trying.

 

Thursday 12 January 2017

I may be mitigating my loneliness in about two months. There’s a PCV whose dog is due any day now. I still have to check with Theophile, but I’m really hopeful. The company would be really nice. I’ve even tried harder to leave my house to prove I deserve a puppy. Which, I know, is pathetic, but I’ve been trying.

Also Lysette seems to have taught my name to most of the children on the street, and there’s that little boy who runs to hug me any time I’m out.

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Monday 23 January 2017

I have survived my first day of Rwandan school.

Yesterday I managed to get told to show up at 8:00. This morning I showed up at 7:50 to find all the teachers in the teacher room with the headmaster saying something or other to them in Kinyarwanda.

I was introduced, and over the course of the next several hours I saw the library; stood around a ton; met about a hundred students, all of whom were compelled by Alexis to tell me their names and “what you like in general,” which they did for the most part inaudibly, and some of whom he compelled to ask me questions and then sing and dance for me; talked with all the English teachers—all of whom are male and all of whom tried hard to show off their English; received my timetable; had lunch at home.

I went back at 2:20 anticipating being taken to my next class, but Alexis ignored me and I spent the last two hours of school sitting with a group of mostly maths teachers and chatting off and on. I think we made friends. We laughed a lot at least and I remember some names.

 

Tuesday 31 January 2017

What should I say about the past week? I’ve had ups and downs, usually alternating every minute or so.

Things I have done:

  • taught a lot of classes with marginal success, but more success than I really expected
  • met probably every child in this village
  • made friends with a woman named Violette who is unfortunately going back to Kigali in a week to study ophthalmology and is therefore not a viable person to ask to be my tutor in Kinyarwanda
  • marked a lot of really rough English exercises
  • watched my garden grow, fretted over the curled leaves on my cucumbers, and murmured encouragements to my tiny but apparently thriving basil and oregano (Note: I never did get to harvest my baby crops; about a month later the neighbour’s umukozi killed them when she cleaned my yard, apparently not knowing they were food. I mourned.)
  • finished reading Beloved and started Good Omens, which is already hilarious and is a good chaser for Beloved, which was frustrating and dark and important but frankly unenjoyable

Things I have learnt:

  • stopping to explain and define every single word is necessary but when the students actually understand, they do participate
  • the library is a mess and there are no books for my classes and the only non-textbook books are a series of African authors which is good but (1) does not broaden these kids’ understanding of the world beyond Africa and (2) are mostly way beyond these kids’ comprehension level
  • there is an electric piano at the school which I’m allowed to play if I can ever find out who keeps the keys to that room
  • there is already an English/debate club run by the language teachers
  • if I don’t have enough cash the lady at the milk store will let me take the oil and pay her back on Monday
  • agatebe should cost 500RWF, not the thousand I paid the man on the side of the road, but I don’t mind and didn’t have a 500 note with me anyway

Today I thought I heard a kitten crying and went out the front door to see, but it was just a kid with some kind of squeaky toy, but then three children ran onto my porch, so I couldn’t just go back inside, so I didn’t know what to do besides keep standing there but then I remembered I have all these tiny lumps of chalk that I won’t actually use in school, so I brought them out to let the kids draw and wound up with half the neighbourhood on my porch doodling in chalk on the concrete. Integration checked off my list for the day.

At some point I did go over to pay for the milk and Mama Lysette flatly refused to take it. She insisted that it’s free and that as long as she has milk, I will have milk—despite earlier having quoted me the price of 150/half litre and stipulated that I should pay monthly not daily. And because the woman has two abakozi, two cows, two incomes, and a fridge, I have no qualms about taking the free milk and being humbled by and grateful for her generosity.

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Thursday 17 February 2017

Today I left class early. I looked at my watch, got confused, my brain shut down, and I decided we were done. Twenty minutes early. And I realised it was 20 minutes early before I ever left the room but I just couldn’t make myself stop.

 

Sunday 19 February 2017

I’m lying in bed with my mind spinning, and part of it is just the kind of day it is, and part of it is this: I’m very suddenly about to own a kitten. I mean I’ve been planning to get a kitten as well as a puppy for…well, ever since I found out they were both options. But I haven’t heard anything about available kittens so I figured I’d be waiting six-ish months until Irene’s cat has hers. But then tonight I saw a photo Giulia posted of her new kitten, so naturally I asked where she got it. Turns out some expat in Kigali has two kittens left.

I messaged her and am very suddenly looking at a very full week: Tuesday, shopping in Nyanza for food dishes and a kitten basket and fish to feed it, Thursday, after school, going to Kigali for a kitten.

There’s a part of me that has deep reservations about all this. What if I’m being too hasty? What if this is bad timing or an overall bad decision and I’m being equal parts stupid and selfish, getting what I want now and ignoring the long-term commitment? But part of me thinks that’s really not valid, that I can solve problems as they arise, that I’m so tired of being alone and that if I don’t do this now I’ll never do it. And that’s the part I’m listening to. Plus this will be a great excuse not to visit people if I don’t want to—sorry, can’t, I have Carlos and Cecil to look after.

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Monday 27 February 2017

Today I have:

  • docked an entire class points because a kid talked after I said “if anyone talks again I’ll dock points”
  • walked home in the rain for lunch
  • walked back late because of the rain
  • had a Rwandan teacher say, “Wait, let me do like you,” and then take exaggeratedly long strides and say, “Such power”
  • drank a half litre of icyayi [tea] that I didn’t want because I had an hour to kill between my last class and the English club debate
  • not had a debate because the ground was too muddy for anyone to sit and watch, which nobody bothered to tell me til I showed up looking for them at 4:00
  • wondered as I left whether I should have stayed to do other English club-type things
  • bought eggs, amandazi, and a Kinyarwanda Bible from Festine
  • had a very friendly confusion over price because I had the words for “five” and “six” mixed up—again
  • left without paying the last igihumbi [thousand] because when she says “Uzagaruka” [“You will return”] I can never figure out how to say, “I don’t need this now, so I could come back for it and not owe you money”
  • told two children they could gusura nyuma yo koza inzu [“to visit after to wash house”] and hoped they understood in spite of my bad (lack of) conjugation—they haven’t knocked again so I guess it’s fine?
  • admired the views around my community, first buried in clouds and fog and rain, looking like Brigadoon rising from the mist, then glistening in the sun
  • breathed wind rising off the valley so fresh that I felt sure it had been born in the mountains and flown down to visit me in a fit of exhilaration
  • cuddled Carlos, pet Carlos, talked to Carlos, kissed Carlos, played with Carlos

 

Sunday 5 March 2017

On Friday I went to get Cecil, which was a long trip that involved a dozen people looking at her through the basket while I waited for a twege, a very long, very bumpy twege ride, a long wait for a bus, and then a long bus all with a puppy in a basket.

Violette brought her son to visit. They started out very wary of the animals but made friends. The WASAC guy came and called them good animals. Yesterday when Cecil first came home all the neighbour kids came to visit, rapidly got over their fear, and watched the end of The Jungle Book while intermittently trying to pet either her or Carlos. And Theophile and Mama Lysette came over to see her and agreed that she’s very small and sweet and not scary.

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Thursday 9 March 2017

I’m feeling rather inadequate lately. I’m having trouble thinking I’m worth that 5USD a day. I feel so guilty about all the things I have and the space I take up. I had a moment today when I had to consciously remind myself that my village is not losing anything by my presence—that they’re not paying me, or housing me for free, or feeding me (with the exception of the milk). Nobody’s unemployed because of me, assuming PC regulations are being followed. Even at my bare minimum I bring more benefits than costs to the people here.

But I still feel like a drain on everyone. I teach a quarter of the time other teachers do. I don’t do half the things they do. Today the headmaster told me there’s a training on how to use computers in teaching and when he said I didn’t have to go, I just didn’t. I also came up with an excuse to skip the sex ed/AIDS prevention thing earlier this week. I did go to English club that one time, but I’ve never gone back (it keeps getting cancelled). We talked about a choir, but then never did anything about it. I have books now. But I’ve not talked to anyone about it or found a way to share them with people. I have dreams of making my living room into a neighbourhood-friendly study room, but at the same time my anxiety spikes when anyone comes in my house. I feel ineffective in the classroom and find myself resenting the students for not understanding and the school for having no resources and the curriculum for demanding that we work on complex concepts so far beyond the students’ comprehension—of both the content and the language it’s conveyed in.

I love so much about my life here and think that’s part of why I feel guilty. I think I’m afraid that my focus is on my comfort, not my work, that I’m somehow not good enough to deserve this—living for the first time in my own house, with a puppy and a kitten; and IST is in two weeks and I haven’t talked to my sector officials, and I haven’t prepared exams, and I haven’t finished planning revisions, and my CNA isn’t done, and the thing is that I get opportunities to do other things, but they all seem so exhausting, and I keep thinking I should do them—should want to do them—but I just…don’t.

 

Monday 20 March 2017

It’s exam week. I must confess myself still at a total loss as to how the exams are administered here. Alexis took me down to a room filled with teachers and papers clearly organised in some manner or other, though I couldn’t get a proper view through all the teachers. He then invited me to watch the 8:00 exam he was supervising. I went with him to a classroom full of students from at least five different secondary levels—though not all the students of any level—and proceeded to hand out various exams to them and then tell me I could wait in the teacher room. So my brief glimpse of the examining procedure left me more confused than otherwise.

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Monday, 10 April 2017

Friday was the seventh of April. The twenty-third anniversary of the first day of the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. Rwanda commemorates the genocide every year—for all of April, to some degree, but specifically on the 7th.

It was…a long experience. It involved a lawyer telling us about what not to say about ideology, the men’s choir from the Adventist church singing surprisingly beautiful songs about hope, unity, Jesus, something about rukundo ryirakonje and the earth being old and us journeying. It involved a near-silent “walk of remember” to the Songa memorial a couple of kms away, involving so many people I could see them around the hills. We stood at the memorial for two or three hours listening to speeches and singing and Kagame talking on the radio. It was very moving.

 

Sunday 16 April 2017

It’s Easter. A strange Easter; I’m not at school, I’m not on chorale tour, I’m not with friends, I’m not home. I’m not in church. I’m not putting on pretty clothes. I’m not eating ham or mashed potatoes.

Here’s what I am doing: I’m curled up on the couch with my puppy, my journal, and my phone.

Last night I considered going to church today, since it’s Easter, but I’m not sure what time the service is or if I could find the church again by myself, and also I didn’t feel like leaving the house. I read part of the crucifixion passage in Kinyarwanda before bed and called it good.

And today is…rough. I woke up, fed the animals, did a 7-minute workout, felt great, and I decided to drink coffee and listen to choral hymns. And here’s where things began to be wrong.

First off, I have no matches because I failed myself this week, so no way to make breakfast. (Actually, I wound up eating tuna and mustard out of a tin. Yummy, but still.) And a few things happened all at once: my stomach began seriously hurting; Cecil and Carlos fought; I realised my room smells slightly of decomp and worried a bird had died in the ceiling; Cecil went under my bed and it turned out it wasn’t a dead bird, it was that Carlos had pooped under there.

So here’s me on Easter, curled up on the couch with stomach pain and no food.

It’s really not terrible. I just want to curl up and sleep the day away. And I might.

 

Friday 28 April 2017

Two weeks in and school isn’t a disaster yet. In fact, I think things are going better than last term, probably due in part to my decision to slow down a ton and not worry about whether we finish anything on time.

This week I finally talked to Jonas about tutoring me.

I also talked to the headmaster about logistics for a choir and made an announcement about it to the kids at lunch yesterday.

And the one from Congo, the one whose name I can never remember, asked me when I would start teaching him English, so I think it’s time to start an English club of sorts for teachers if I can figure out how or when to do it.

Oh—and after several weeks of not knocking on my door—probably because I spent several weeks ignoring them—I had kids ask for a film a couple nights ago, and more kids than fit on my couch showed up to watch The Lion King.

Still, yesterday was rough. I woke up with that pre-sick tickle in my throat. I clamped down hard and, to be honest, a bit mean on some classroom issues. I nearly cried at a totally reasonable change to my schedule, and nearly cried again when I got confusing information from people just trying to help me. In a fragile state of rising fever and headache and affective barrier, I pled ill, came home for lunch, and didn’t go back. Instead I cuddled with my babies, watched four straight episodes of Daredevil, ate a box of chocolate-covered pretzels and a protein bar, read most of Through the Language Glass, discovered my water was out, told children to go home because “ndarwaye” [“I’m sick”], fried an egg, and went to bed exhausted by nine.

I slept til 8:30—bless Carlos for not waking me early—and had a leisurely morning despite my sinuses definitely being swollen. I have water again, so I had the luxury of doing my dishes and bathing after my workout. I cleaned and swept, and I’m no longer feeling the extreme hopelessness or that sense of inevitable insufficiency I did yesterday.

I never consider ET-ing, but I have a near-constant fear of being told to leave because I’m not doing enough. It’s probably irrational and unlikely, but on days like yesterday, it feels very reasonable and real.

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Saturday 27 May 2017

It’s been a surprisingly good week all around. I feel like all my literature classes are beginning to catch on. My English class got really involved the other day, the S5 kids did a great job on their debate, and the video clips were a hit in S4. I successfully bought goat scraps for Cecil, which she happily buried all over the yard like she was performing some dark ritual and then ate with gusto when I dug them up and boiled them for her.

Yesterday Kassim dropped by with an hour’s forewarning to do a site visit, since he was in the area. Overall I’m apparently doing well. Points of interest:

  • my headmaster and sector officials think I’m getting good results with my classes
  • they all thought I was a spy until they saw that I come to work on time and care about the kids (I guess spies are chronically tardy and heartless?)
  • some people still think I’m a spy because I’m quiet, so I have to say hi to people more or something (?)

 

Sunday 28 May 2017

That Sunday night dread is back. That feeling like my life is not in control and will never be in control. This is compounded this week by the fact that last night I bought the abused puppy from across the street. I didn’t do it spontaneously. I mean, I didn’t see it coming, but I did sit and think about it a solid 10 minutes or so before I told the kid yes. It went like this in my head:

  • The kid does not want the puppy; the kid does not take good care of the puppy. The kid probably can’t afford to feed the puppy.
  • I can currently afford the puppy. I cannot take the puppy to America. But I can almost certainly find someone to adopt her within the next year and a half.
  • I’m tired of hearing sad/hurt/scared puppy yips from across the street. I’m willing to pay to have that stop. The kid probably needs the money.

Things I did not consider:

  • puppy has fleas or ticks—I think fleas
  • puppy takes time because I have to create a new routine.

And now I’m tired and I feel unsuccessful and insufficient. I’m worried that the puppy—Dana—was a bad idea. I’m concerned that maybe I’m just not responsible. I also burned my beans today and have no veggies and feel underprepared for tomorrow.

Sometimes I really just don’t know what I’m doing here. Why I thought I could do this.

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Monday 12 June 2017

I would like to state for the record that tonight I do not feel insufficient, out of control, or unsuccessful.

 

Friday 23 June 2017

The weekend felt too short, probably a combined result of Saturday’s emotionally taxing excursion and my decision to make a board game for my S2 students. The board game itself wasn’t too bad, but I had to make multiple copies of it and write out something like a hundred chance cards by hand, and make dice, and I wound up spending most of Sunday and Tuesday on it and still wound up making game pieces on Wednesday morning while gulping my coffee and watching 7:00 creep nearer.

On the bright side, the game was a massive success, at least on a having fun scale, and I think it got them engaged in the idea of different post-secondary-school options.

Other things that happened this week include:

  • Having choir in the kitchen room because the other room is being renovated, and it turned out okay
  • S5 not sucking at an admittedly poorly designed and vaguely defined economy roleplay game and winding up really invested—no pun intended
  • Getting stung by a caterpillar when I reached in my bag for something
  • Ordering a bookshelf

Oh, and I’ve asked Esperance to help with polite ways to say that only potty-trained kids can visit me and learnt this gem: in Rwandan culture, it is good luck if a child pees on you, because it means you will have many children. …this is an aspect of Rwandan culture that I will not be adopting.

Today things feel okay. They feel manageable. They feel somewhat predictable and organised and controlled. Today I do not feel like a failure.

 

Friday 7 July 2017

I’m slightly laughing seeing the end of that last entry. The next day was the worst. It went like this:

  • My original plan to go to Huye early and do ThingsTM was overturned by waking up to discover it was umuganda and I therefore couldn’t travel till 11:00ish
  • I had to wait so long for a bus because I lost the “which bus company will accurately tell me when a buss is coming” roulette
  • My umuriro went out before I left my house and I twice tried to purchase cash power and twice got I&M notifications that the payment had been made but never got a token number
  • I got to Huye to discover nobody in either Horizon office had a package for me
  • The people selling cash power were all closed and in trying to find them I twice got harassed by a guy in a bar
  • I eventually went back home having successfully done nothing except make a long, anxious, frustrating trip

Relevant follow-up information includes the fact that I did eventually get cash power via mobile money.

This week felt highly successful. This is probably due in large part to two factors: (a) I had a 5-day weekend thanks to Independence Day and Liberation Day, and (b) we watched Mr Bean’s Holiday in almost every class this week. I also taught my S2C kids Heads Up 7 Up, which they seemed to love despite being an entire roomful of shameless cheaters.

 

Monday 17 July 2017

Revisions week was long and short at the same time. And then it was over. My weekend went fast and busy. Friday I spent most of the day sorting out marks for the term.

Then Sunday—yesterday—I went to Kigali to take Dana to her new home. In some ways the trip was amazingly easy. I got a Ritco bus, meaning comfy seats, not too full, nice leg room, USB charger ports. We didn’t make a ton of unnecessary stops, although we did have to stop a few times for vehicles coming from Kagame’s campaign in Huye.

But problems included…well, mostly there was one problem: Dana apparently gets motion sick. She was on a gross cycle of vomiting, eating the vomit, and vomiting again the entire way there, including the taxi ride from Nyabugogo. I’m also pretty sure the taxi driver overcharged me, but I just didn’t question it. I got back home in the dark on another Ritco bus, nearly fell asleep on the bus, and went straight to bed (at 19:30) upon reaching home.

Walking home included passing scads of people presumably coming from the campaign and also getting passed by some six or seven lorries packed completely full of police. Between the bunting draped everywhere, Kagame’s face on every flat surface, and the excess of cops, election season is definitely an experience.

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A Journey

Urugendo

A journey

I want to share an entry from my journal. This happened about a month ago (of course, because I’m absolutely not on top of blogging, sorry). I was in Huye, a local regional town, for what turned out to be a long, tiring morning, and I headed home, wanting nothing more than to curl up in bed with a good book. Instead, when I got home, I had this to write:

I get to the gare (bus station) and do my usual thing where I tell the first bus employee who approaches me what town I want, let him put me on a bus, and give him money to buy me a ticket. The bus guy puts me on a bus, brings me my ticket and change, and assures me it is the correct bus. I put my change away, put my ticket somewhere, and realise my leftovers from Chinese are beginning to leak oil through the box and bag, so I scramble to get it out and into a second bag before it can make a mess in my backpack where my cardigan, laptop, and notebooks are.

I finish that and realise I have no idea where my ticket is.

I check all my pockets and every part of my backpack two or three times in a mounting, disbelieving panic. I never lose my ticket; I’m a very careful person, and yet I can’t even remember what I did with it. All I remember is seeing it in my lap while I put my change away. I check all the pockets again, stand up to check my seat, the floor under my seat, the aisle…

People near me ask what I’m looking for. I tell them, and they look, too, but we find nothing. A six-inch-long ticket has magically disappeared.

When the convoyer comes, I tell him I lost my ticket and offer to pay again. He says it’s no problem.

I’m so flustered about the ticket that I don’t pay attention to where the bus goes. Suddenly I look up and realise we’re on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. We should be on a paved road through towns and forests.

In Kinyarwanda, I ask the guy next to me, “This bus goes to Nyanza—is it true?”

He says, “No. Are you going to Nyanza?”

I say the bus employee told me this was a bus to Nyanza.

He and several other people shout to the driver that there’s a muzungu who wants to go to Nyanza and that, also, she doesn’t speak French, which is bad, because they all speak French and not English.

The bus driver says we will turn around.

We do not turn around.

Half an hour of dust and curves later, we reach a crossroads that has motos. I try to stop the bus to get off and take a moto back to the gare. They all say no, and tell me we’re going to a gare where there will be a bus to take me to Nyanza. I gesture forward and say, “There are buses that way?”

They all say yes. So I stay on the bus.

Fifteen minutes of dust later, they stop a private vehicle going the opposite direction, and I hear the bus driver explaining that there’s a muzungu trying to get to Nyanza. They tell me the car will take me back to the gare. I tell them I am not getting into a private vehicle with strangers.

I spend a while extremely frustrated that they wouldn’t let me get a moto much closer to Huye but now want me jumping into some car to essentially hitchhike back.

We are now in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road dusty and bumpy enough to rival the backroads of the desert I left behind in America. There are no people, no houses, certainly no gare. I regret not jumping off at the first chance I had and resent these people for stopping me.

Ten minutes later, they stop a bus coming the opposite direction and tell me it will take me back to Huye. But that bus’s driver refuses to take me unless I pay, which my driver thinks is robbery; he therefore refuses to let me off.

I begin to suspect the motos were my best option and that the people didn’t want me to have to pay extra money. I try to tell them I don’t mind paying extra. I don’t know how to convince them that all I want is to quit going the wrong direction and get home as fast as I can.

An hour down this forsaken road, rattling over potholes and past foliage coated brown with dust probably kicked up by the buses that rattled by before us, we finally meet a bus that will take me back for free. I trudge through thick red sand to the other bus.

I climb on and discover it’s already filled past capacity. Most rows have five people or more, and the doorway is clogged with luggage. The passengers stand and crowd and shove and herd me toward the back of the bus where, in the next-to-last row, a young man moves over to squeeze onto the jump seat with someone else, giving me the window seat.

I sit, grateful.

I don’t cry, but I consider for the millionth time that I could have just stayed in bed today.

We begin the journey back—dusty, bumpy, crowded, uncomfortable. I breathe in dirt despite the closed windows and balance my slowly leaking Chinese leftovers in my left hand, nearly tossing it with every rock and pothole.

The man beside me introduces himself as a university student and begins asking the normal questions about where I live and how long I’ve been in Rwanda and why I wound up on the wrong bus an hour from the nearest village. And then, when I expect him to begin with the questions I hate about whether I’m married or if I’m a spy, he asks, “Are you a Christian?”

He proceeds to explain that white people brought Christianity here, but now it’s difficult to find any who actually believe. He tells me he has a friend in Nyanza who is “very serious about God.” He asks if I know other PCVs who are believers and when I explain that there are some but we don’t meet often, he says he wants to put me in contact with this friend, because God made our souls to need fellowship, and it’s difficult to be alone, especially in a country where the culture and language make it difficult to form relationships.

If there’s no shared experience, he points out, it can be hard to form relationships, but when people believe the same thing, no matter their skin or culture, the spirit can be felt there, and there is a bond.

He asks about my favourite Bible verses for different situations, and we talk about Christ coming not to condemn but to save, about Paul’s assertion that “it is through grace you have been saved,” about God as the great provider who sees even the sparrows that fall.

He points out that compared to America, Rwanda is very undeveloped; I point out that while America was developing, Rwanda was struggling with colonialism and other difficult events, and that I see the people here as very strong, very optimistic, and very courageous, working to both maintain their culture and develop their country. He asks me, when I see this disparity, what it makes me think of God. I have to admit I still don’t know that answer.

He tells me he thinks God put me on the wrong bus so I could meet him, because God did not intend our spirits to be isolated.

I think he may be right.

My life often feels like a long, uncertain bus ride in the wrong direction. Especially lately, I find myself wondering if maybe I got on the wrong bus. Today I was reminded that God has guided me this far. I have never once doubted that I am where he wants me. I’m not on the wrong bus. I may not see it through the dust and confusion, but somehow there is something he wants to show me down this road.

(Oh—and I did eventually get home, and without having to buy a second ticket.)

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I Feel Good

Meza neza.

I feel good.

Yesterday I looked down at my feet and realised that my toenail polish had completely flaked off.

I have not reapplied it.

For the first time in what may be a decade or more, my toenails have been bare for longer than the time it takes to reapply paint.

I’ve never blogged much about appearance, body image, etc., in part because I think so many other people are doing so well at it and in part because I’ve never felt like I had much of a story to tell. If I had tried, I’m pretty sure it would’ve gone something like this:

Body image is important. It’s important to be comfortable in your own skin. That’s why I try to wear clothes that look nice but feel like pyjamas as much as possible. That’s also why I work out, because even though I drew the winning number on body type and metabolism by Western beauty standards, I don’t feel comfortable in my skin if I’m not sort of in shape. Also there are things about my body that I don’t like! Even people who look like they have it together have problems and insecurities!

It reads kind of smug and unnecessary.

But, looking down at my bare toenails, I suddenly realised that here in Rwanda, for the first time in years, I do not perpetually have some facet of my appearance about which I’m uncomfortable.

I looked down at my feet and realised I wasn’t self-conscious about my toes.

I realised that I’ve been going to work for six months now without makeup and not feeling like my face has no definition.

I don’t remember the last time I washed my hair, but I don’t feel like I should hide it.

Sometimes I go to school after lunch with my meal clearly visible in the way my stomach presses against my shirt, and I don’t fight to suck it in.

I haven’t shaved in months, and I feel no concern about my calves or armpits being seen.

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(note that I’m completely unembarrassed to share this particularly unflattering photo)

It may sound silly (or maybe you’re like me and it sounds extremely relatable)—but these are all things that I’ve been to some degree embarrassed about for years. Why am I suddenly okay with things that I’ve always been uncomfortable with?

Here’s the only answer I’ve come up with: I have no way to compare myself anymore.

In the States, I was surrounded by people who shared my same basic features, and I subjected myself to endless comparisons. It’s not like I ever sat down and said, “I’m not good enough because x-feature on me isn’t as nice as so-and-so’s,” but somewhere in my mind I kept this little running tally of all the ways other people were beautiful. Then when I looked at myself, I had this overall feeling of being not quite good enough.

But here, I can’t do that.

It’s not that I don’t keep some kind of running total of how everyone around me is beautiful; I can tell you without even thinking about it that one of my coworkers has flawless fashion sense, another has a beautiful facial structure, yet another always has well-styled hair. But I can’t compare myself to them. We’re physically so different that there’s almost no common ground to compare.

I can’t compare my skin to theirs because it’s fundamentally different colours. I can’t compare my hair to theirs because mine is straight and theirs is kinky. I can’t compare my wardrobe to theirs, because they wear Rwandan styles and I wear Western styles. I can’t even compare my muscle tone to theirs, because we keep most of our bodies covered.

In addition, there are almost no mirrors in my life. I have a small mirror, maybe four inches in diameter, on my wall in my bedroom. If I want to see whether my outfit matches, I have to go outside and stand in my compound and catch my reflection in my windows—always warped by the bars and the different panes at slightly different angles.

As a result, I no longer think much about my appearance.

I judge my style by whether it feels comfortable, smells clean, and is appropriate for the context I expect to be in. I judge my body by whether I feel healthy. I no longer notice my shape much, but instead I notice whether I can carry my full water filter, make my morning workout more difficult, or speed-walk up the hill to school without pain in my thighs and lungs (I’m always speed-walking, because while being on time is a skill I have honed, leaving on time is a skill I may never attain).

And the end result is that I feel good.

I feel good about being seen. I feel good about my body. I feel good about myself.

It’s easy to say “don’t compare yourself,” but it’s almost impossible to stop until you have no choice.

I don’t know what will happen when I stop being surrounded by people superficially unlike myself, but here’s what I hope: I hope that I will maintain this idea that really nobody is just like me, and that really, we’re all too different to draw useful comparisons.

I hope that I’ll become so comfortable in my own skin that I’ll stop judging other people’s.

Allyship

Allyship.

There is no word in Kinyarwanda for this concept.

Gloriosa, one of Peace Corps’ Rwandan staff members, explained: “In the Rwandan context, ‘allyship’ isn’t a special word, because you’re supposed to already be there for everyone. . . . There are people around you who count on you.”

But in English, we have this word. Allyship.

ally (v.) to unite for a common cause

In American culture today, this is a politically charged word. It immediately conjures ideas of minorities, systemic oppression, protests, and angry social media posts. But at its simplest, to ally means to join together for a cause.

To stand with someone. To support them.

At a recent Peace Corps conference, we discussed this idea of allyship. We talked about what it means to us and the different ways we see it—or don’t see it—in our own lives. I was struck by the intensity of the feelings revealed during this discussion, and by the unexpected bits of wisdom and poetry presented as people allowed themselves to be vulnerable.

Let me share some of their words with you.

“Being an ally is being okay with being uncomfortable . . . to help someone avoid being hurt.” – Aimee Carlson

Here in Rwanda, allyship takes on a more personal significance for all of us. In this context, in this place where we are perpetually other, we become uniquely aware of our own diversities.

Some of us are PCVs of colour who struggle against stereotypes of what an American should or should not look like.

Others of us represent diverse genders or sexualities and struggle to fit into a culture that doesn’t accept or acknowledge those aspects of our identities.

Justice will not happen “…until my pain is your pain…until I step down from my fight and you step up.” – Dominique Henderson

We may represent minority religions or no religion—both cause interpersonal discomfort in a highly religious culture.

Still others of us are differently abled physically or live with mental/emotional health problems that make daily life a unique struggle.

“Being an ally requires us to constantly manage our own ignorance.” – Claire Pennington

We come from different socioeconomic, family, and educational backgrounds but face the stereotype that all Americans are wealthy and successful.

Many of us are single and have to justify this to neighbours, coworkers, and even strangers on the bus.

“You won’t fix them. . . They don’t want you to . . . Its someone else’s struggle.” – Stina Stannik

Our desperate need for allies is thrown into stark relief against the backdrop of life in Rwanda. Our need is not merely for political allies but for personal allies, at times and in ways that we never would have imagined.

We live isolated lives here. We see each other from time to time, but in general we live alone in our villages, tiny islands of our own culture in the midst of people we love but sometimes cannot comprehend. People with whom we often cannot share our struggles or to whom we cannot explain our fears. Well-meaning people who are at times the cause of these struggles and fears.

“Absorb some of their pain into yourself.” – Claire Pennington

So we become allies for each other.

We correct stereotypes over and over, even when they don’t apply to our own identities. We listen to one another’s fear and despair and exhaustion and tell one another that it’s okay to be tired and afraid and so done with this. We celebrate one another’s small victories. We acknowledge one another’s identities. We do the small things we can do—over the phone at night after long days; over beers in regional towns on weekends; over WhatsApp in between classes and visits and lesson planning.

“I am an individual in a community made up of people who I don’t have to know to defend.” – Gloriosa Uwimpuhwe

Allyship looks different here than you might expect. We find it in unexpected places and at unexpected times, and not always in just PCVs.

I find it in the lady at the market who shields me from unwanted attention. In another single woman who tells me it’s okay not to be married. In a teacher who accepts that my dog and cat are my family here and always asks how they’re doing. In a neighbour who tells others not to ask me for money. In my headmaster who tells the teachers and students my name and asks them not to call me muzungu. In Peace Corps staff who acknowledge how difficult it can be to integrate and who remind me to take time for my own mental health.

“Before taking action, we need to listen to the problem, understand the problem, and accept that a problem is there.” – Esperance Munganyinka

In some ways, each one of us has it easier than the others. In some ways, each one of us has it harder. We find it essential to stand for each other—to join together for a cause.

My time in Rwanda has taught me many things, but this is one that I’m just now realising—the value of allies. The inevitability of each person having some unique aspect of identity that puts them in need of someone to stand with them.

The simple yet elusive truth that each of us needs allyship in a different way.

“What people want is for other people to not be afraid of their diversity (but not be stupid). . . to walk into the world with them.” – Claire Pennington

For many, it is political. For many others, it is personal. For all of us—no matter our identities, no matter our diversities, whether in Rwanda or America or anywhere else—it is vital.

So today, stand with someone. Stand for someone. And maybe find someone who stands with you and tell them thank you.

To Work Well

Gukora neza

To work well

I used to believe that anything worth doing is worth doing well until I realised that it’s a lie. The truth is that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, and anything worth trying has to be worth failing.*

I have now been in Rwanda for six months and at site for three, and my first term of teaching is over.

I have done many things, and I have done many of them badly. In many instances, I have tried and failed.

And I think that the things I have done and the things I have tried were worth making a muddle of, and here is why: Something is always better than nothing.

I tell myself this when I go to market with a shopping list and leave with half of the items because anxiety made it impossible for me to face one more vendor. If I have a single item of food that can tide me over until tomorrow, it is enough. Something is better than nothing.

I tell myself this when I walk into a classroom feeling inadequate and inexperienced. Even if my students learn nothing, hearing English spoken by a native speaker is more than they would have otherwise. Something is better than nothing.

During staging, we were asked to list things we feared. Our lists included:

  • Host families hating us
  • Parasites
  • Having to ET (Early Termination**) because we couldn’t handle the pressure
  • Failing to learn the language
  • Food poisoning

We could all think of an endless stream of specific ways we might fail.

Then we were asked to list our expectations for success. Suddenly our stream of ideas dried up.

We wound up with vague ideas like, “We want our students to learn,” or, “We want to make friends in the village.” In fact, I can only remember one specific, measureable goal on our list of successes—“I want to become a regular patron at a local coffee shop.”

We gave ourselves a clear picture of failure, but we had hazy ideas of success. We left ourselves no way to see the something, and that left us facing the idea of nothing.

So I resolved to give myself reasonable goals and to pay attention to those moments when I moved toward them. I began a list of somethings—a list of good moments, of steps that did not in themselves achieve my goals but that were not nothings.

I want you to know that at the end of one term, I have not achieved any of my big goals.

And this is okay, because I have not let that paralyse me into doing nothing.

I want to share with you some items off my list of somethings.

  • Held a small conversation in Kinyarwanda
  • Had a student understand that I wanted ideas and opinions, no matter whether right or wrong, without my saying so, and offering to translate that concept to the class without my asking
  • Navigated Kigali by myself for the first time and didn’t get lost
  • Retaught an entire lesson—this is a success because I realised that the initial lesson had been a failure and I took the time to do it again instead of pushing them to move on to the next idea
  • Had students ask me to explain English words they’ve come across outside my classes
  • Made friends with the bank teller
  • Started weekly film showings in English for neighbourhood kids (using “started” pretty loosely—kids show up a lot asking for movies, and I tell them they can come back for one on Monday)

  • Had a student start calling me out on minor inconsistencies between the questions I asked and the answers I accepted
  • Lit my imbabura with a single match without using a candle
  • Got the number of a reliable umumotari (moto driver)
  • Had a student with particularly low English abilities give a solid answer when I told her I was coming back to her for the next question
  • Went to an English Club meeting
  • Adopted a puppy and possibly increased integration due to everyone visiting to see her (in Rwanda, that’s a serious consideration—most Rwandans dislike and/or fear dogs, in part due to dogs’ having been used to hunt people down during the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, and PC rules state that we may only get a dog with the permission of our village and with the provision that it does not inhibit our integration)
  • Had a student make inferences about culture in literature without being told to
  • Paid my rent
  • Made students laugh by standing on a desk to reach the window latch to demonstrate the difference between closed and locked
  • Got invited to a wedding
  • Wrote final exams
  • Visited a teacher and genuinely enjoyed it

I’m sharing these things because I want you to know the kinds of experiences that feel significant to me here in this place and these circumstances—and to encourage you to be aware of the small things that feel significant to you in your place and your circumstances.

They are not same as mine, but they are just as valid, and just as important.

Because no matter where you are or what you’re doing, this much is true: anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Anything worth trying is worth failing.

And something is always better than nothing.

*Message me sometime if you want to discuss whether I am or should be including in that generalisation things like skydiving, in which you die if you fail.

**I know that’s a noun, but we use it as a verb

Why? 

​Kubera iki?

Why?

Lately I’ve had some discouraging days. I’ve looked at other volunteers’ work and felt insufficient beside their accomplishments. I’ve looked at the tasks ahead of me and felt incompetent to complete them. I’ve looked at the students before me and felt incapable of teaching them. 

I’ve had to sit myself down and remind myself of the reasons I’m here—and, more importantly, of the reasons not to be here. I had to hold up a lot of expectations and desires, consider them, and then throw them out.

So without further ado, here are some reasons not to join the Peace Corps:

  • You want to save the world

Joining the Peace Corps sounds so heroic. It carries a connotation of sacrifices made for the good of others. It’s used in movies whenever a character needs a generic Good Thing in their past. It seems like a way to really make a difference. And honestly the stats showing PC’s impact on the world are impressive. But you won’t see those numbers. You’ll be inside the situation, one person facing billions, and the problems even just in your village will be too numerous and expansive for you to tackle on their entirety, never mind fixing the whole world’s issues. You can give important-sounding labels to your work—developing capacity maybe, or spreading literacy, or increasing gender equality—but really much of your service will come down to the everyday tedium of small, unheroic tasks done well. Cleaning your floor, or talking to a neighbour, or going to the bank, or getting to work on time. Don’t get me wrong: you will make a difference. But you will not save the world. 

Here’s what my world looks like at the moment. Observe that I have not saved it.
  • You need immediate affirmation in your job

If you need someone to tell you you’re doing things right as soon as you do them, this is not the job for you. While there are plenty of short-term accomplishments, PC jobs work toward long-term improvement. You may only see your triumphs in retrospect. You may feel like a failure in the moment. You may go a long time without anyone telling you you’re doing well, and you have to keep working, keep watching for the tiny successes that tell you you’re getting there, and keep trusting that one day you’ll look back and see that something you did somewhere along the line made some kind of a difference. 

  •  You need to feel competent

It doesn’t matter how much training you have in the sector you work in, getting thrown into a brand new culture and a brand new way of doing things and a brand new language will leave you feeling out of your depth. If, like a lot of PCVs, you have training related to your sector but not directly in the job you’re doing, it’s even worse. And even if you feel competent in your specific job, you’re likely to feel incompetent in a hundred other ways. Trying to start secondary projects. Trying to hold simple conversations. Trying to buy food. Some days I feel incompetent just walking next door. 

  • You can’t stand discomfort

PCVs joke about “Posh Core,” but it doesn’t matter if you got lucky and have running water, or electricity, or a real toilet—you will still be uncomfortable. You will be uncomfortable talking to strangers in a new language, or bargaining in the market, or refusing to hand out money on the streets. You will be uncomfortable on your mattress on the floor the first night, and in the latrine the first time you get food poisoning, and in your job on the first day when you don’t know the people and you don’t know the routine and you don’t know the work. You’ll be uncomfortable on busses, you’ll be uncomfortable interviewing local officials, you’ll be uncomfortable attending religious services or social functions. Every time you get comfortable, you’ll be pushed on to something else hard or scary or awkward. Peace Corps is a lot of things—rewarding, interesting, challenging—but comfortable is not one of them.

Also uncomfortable: having children stare in the window while I teach.
  • You don’t want to work outside your career path

It doesn’t matter if you specifically trained for the job you’re doing in PC, you’ll be doing something outside your career path. Trained as a teacher? Great. You’re set for your primary assignment, but you’ll probably also write grants for a new basketball court or have to study up on microfinance to help local women for your secondary project. Peace Corps isn’t a normal nine-to-five where you have a set job description and you do the thing you’re told to do and then go home. Your job description in PC is to do whatever your village needs, and to learn how to do it if you don’t know already.

  • You want to live a private life

There’s nothing private about PCV life. Everyone knows you’re a foreigner. People discuss you and stare at you and ask you invasive questions and watch you to see how you handle life. I’ve had people in awe because I knew how much to pay for a twege ride that I take every few weeks. I’ve had people ask me if the reason I’m single is that I don’t have “a functional body.” People in the street comment on my wardrobe and talk about me whether or not they know I can understand them, and when I brought home my puppy, ten different people appeared to see it, marvel that I want an animal, and ask me to describe her diet in detail. 

  • You want to do something you already know how to do

You don’t know how to be a PCV. It doesn’t matter what your previous training or experience is, because every site, every job, every service is different. There will be things you didn’t anticipate and things you have no idea how to handle. You’ll get really good at shouting out for answers from other PCVs or begging your neighbours for help. You’ll learn to improvise, to be flexible, to make it up as you go along, to take criticism, and to recognise indirect feedback from the people around you. You will spend enormous amounts of time doing things you’re not sure how to do, and you’ll discover you can do them.  

  • You want all-or-nothing results

I already said you can’t save the world. But life isn’t an all-or-nothing proposal. You can’t save the world. But you can make a tiny corner of it a tiny bit better for a tiny number of people. For the one student who really takes off, or for the one woman who learns how to keep her new baby healthy, or for the one group that benefits from your secondary project. If you join the Peace Corps, you won’t end poverty. You won’t singlehandedly educate a nation. You won’t change an economy in two years. But you will open up opportunities for a few kids. You will bring awareness of different cultures to people in your village and to people back home. You will be privileged to see incredible instances of hard work and determination and compassion and teamwork winning out over circumstances. And you will find that it’s an exchange—that for everything you give, the people around you give back in ways you never expected.

These kids excited about books despite being totally unable to understand them is one of those tiny ways I’m moving forward. Maybe someday these kids will be able to sit down with a book, read it, understand it, and enjoy it.

So yeah, sometimes I’m discouraged. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing anything important. But the truth is I’m not here to do something important. I’m here to do a lot of little things well and to trust that some of those little things will make a difference. 

In America… 

​“Mur’Amerika…”

“In America…”

Sometimes we PCVs say to each other things like, “Do you remember in America when we had hot water?” or, “Do you remember in America how berries existed?” It’s partly us missing the conveniences, culture, and cuisine, and partly reminding each other that we’re in a place we never really thought we would be.

We’re so immersed in life here that sometimes we have to sit back and make ourselves consciously notice all the things that are unique to this place, all the details of our settings and experiences that tangibly mark our adventure here as patently different from where we were before.

I could write you a blow-by-blow description of my daily life, but perhaps you will have a better holistic understanding of my situation if I tell you about the things that have happened in the past few weeks that would not happen in America.

In America, opening conversations with strangers would not include the following questions: 

  • “How old are you?” (followed directly by “You’re just a child!”)
  • “Are you married?” (followed directly by “Why not?” or 
  • “When will you get married?”) 
  • “Do you still have both parents?”

In America, my white skin would not cause ripples of whispers and hisses and whistles and shouts, and nobody would immediately assume that I speak French. I would not be hugged by random toddlers in the street, mothers would not point me out to their children, and babies would not burst into terrified tears at the sight of me. 

In America, I would not walk into the third day of school and hear that the administration still has not made an academic calendar or official timetable. I would not try to find the curriculum for my classes three days after beginning teaching, and I would not have the subjects I teach changed a week into the schoolyear.
In America I would not walk home for lunch surrounded by fifty or so unsupervised three- to ten-year-olds.

In America, I would not see a man carrying three stools on his head, and if I did, I would not cross the road to ask if they were for sale. He would not then tell me a price higher than the going rate, and I would not then counter with a lower price. He would not unbind the chairs and have me sit in each of them right there on the side of the road. I would not then walk home carrying a chair.

In America, I would not consider taking a bus to the nearest large city just to get internet, and I would not hoard my non-burnable rubbish to carry to that city—the nearest place with receptacles for waste disposal.
In America, I would not wake to roosters cackling, cows bellowing, and goats shrieking in the streets, nor to the distinctive sound of magpies fighting for prime perches on my roof.

In America, I would not stay home from work because it was raining.

In America, I would not walk to an open-air market several times a week for basic groceries, and I would not carry those groceries home in a backpack.

In America, I would not coax charcoal into flame in order to cook. I would not pay close attention to my protein intake, and I would not eat cabbage in nearly every meal. I would not—along with about a dozen other PCVs—nearly burst into tears at the sight of homemade chocolate-chip cookies.

In America, I would not feel obliged to introduce visiting friends to all of my neighbours, and little old ladies in the market would not feel obliged to inform those friends that I am “muzungu wacyu”—“our foreigner.”
In America, a shopkeeper would not send me home with goods I have not paid for, saying, “You’ll come back tomorrow.”

In America, children would not show up at school on a Saturday armed with machetes and hoes and proceed to cut down all the coffee trees and dig a volleyball court out of the hill behind the nursery building, and in America, I would not join them if they did.

In America, a stranger would not meet me in the street, ask if I live alone, and then appear in the evening to visit with me because “it is not good to be alone.”
In America, my neighbour would not give me beans and milk purely because she has them and I do not. My neighbour would not check on me every few nights to ask if I’m doing alright, and she would not teach the neighbourhood my name. My boss would not consider it his duty to make sure that I “live well” in my neighbourhood.

When I stop to think about it, there’s very little of my life here that would happen in America. Some of it is hard. Some of it is so easy I almost don’t notice it. Sometimes the culture here feels like a puzzle I’ll never fit into, and sometimes it takes my breath away with its kindness and welcome.

The important thing isn’t what would be happening if I were in America right now; it’s that I’m not. I’m here, in Rwanda, living this life with these people, and I love it.

One Who Works Willingly

​Ndi umukorerabushake. 

I am a volunteer. 

Umukorerabushake” is perhaps the longest Kinyarwanda word I know, and I learned it early on by memorising its parts:

Umu: the singular prefix for a person

Korera, derived from gukora: to work

Ubushake: a will or desire

Put all together, it literally means “one who works willingly.”

This is something I understood when I applied to come to Rwanda, that I would be working willingly. 

I remember saying once, “In the worst case scenario, I find out it’s hard and I hate it, and I work really hard for two years to do something that helps someone else.” It sounded noble at the time, but more than that, it sounded feasible. 

Today I’m lying on my bed, alone in my house, the only American in my village (although I keep hearing about a French guy in town?), and the term umukorerabushake seems very far away. Work seems like an abstract concept. Until school starts in about three weeks, my only work is integrating—a small word that carries a big punch in the Peace Corps. 

On paper and in PST lectures, “integration” means walking every road in my village, meeting everyone I can, visiting houses, attending religious and social functions, asking questions, memorising names, learning everything I can about the village, it’s people, and my place in it. 

But in real life, integration is much less standardised and much more personal. 
For some of my friends, it has meant joining church choirs, playing sports, or hiring local kids to haul water. For me, it has often meant simply opening my front door every day. 

Some days, of course, it means more than others. Sometimes it means walking down the street to another teacher’s house and having a conversation on her couch. But sometimes I consider it successful integration if I manage to return my neighbour’s milk jug in the morning. 

On Tuesday it meant greeting everyone I passed on the way to the market and learning the name of the girl who helped me find garlic and potatoes. But then it meant not crying on the way home before I locked myself in the house for the evening. 

A sense of guilt hangs over me, a pressure to do more—to know more names, go more places, to ask more questions. Somehow the freeing idea of working willingly gets lost in this heavier idea of doing all the right things. 

But this isn’t about “all the right things.” Someone pointed out a while back that, “we are the resource Peace Corps sends,” and if they wanted to check off a box, they could ship in some materials, hold a week-long training, and walk away. But they don’t. They ship in us—individuals. Scared, excited, uncertain, hopeful people with a mediocre grasp on the language and a passion for some aspect of this job and a lot of quirks.

Some of us have convenient quirks, like enjoying visiting strangers. Some of us have inconvenient quirks, like anxiety. But we are all here to work willingly. 

In a few weeks, when school starts, that working will involve lesson plans, counterpart teachers, and classrooms full of students, and we will do that willingly. 

Right now, though, sometimes that work involves walking out the door and breathing at the same time. And that, too, we find a way to do willingly.