To Liberate

Kwibohora

To liberate oneself

A hundred days ago, I wrote about Kwibuka 23, the national memorial day for the beginning of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in 1994. Today is another commemoration day of a different kind—Liberation Day. Today we remember the end of that genocide.

On the 4th of July in 1994, the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) succeeded in overthrowing the government and bringing an end to a hundred days of inhumane violence.

“Every time I remember the genocide, I think that I have to love people. I give a lot of value to people. Sometimes when I’m with my little daughter, I cry, because I remember . . . what happened to other daughters. . . . I knew people who were killed, people who were killing, and still sometimes I think, ‘Did this really happen? Was it a dream?’ Because it is beyond what I can understand.”

—Kassim Ndindabahizi

A hundred days sounds short when you say it, but it feels long when you live it.

Three months feels like an eternity to me; I barely remember the long-ago days of April’s beginning—the holiday from school, the lesson prep, the visits from friends.

Imagine what a compounded eternity that was for the Rwandan people, then—over three months of bloodshed and horror and fear, of unimaginable loss and pain with no end in sight. In retrospect, we know it was a hundred days. In the moment, living that nightmare-come-reality, they had no idea when it would end. They could not count down the days to liberation; they could only count up the days of violence.

My point is not to dwell on the terrible things that happened during those three months, but to point out the impact of liberation here.

We call this “Liberation Day,” the day the genocide ended, but the truth is that liberation in Rwanda is more than a single event. It is an ongoing process that began twenty-three years ago and continues today.

“‘Every night when we went to bed, we did not know if we would wake up the next morning.’ … How can we not have hope after that, when that nightmare is over? So many things have changed that there is no way that we don’t have hope. It’s like a big dark curtain in front of you that is not only disappeared but is taken far away. It’s gone, and everything has changed… Rwandans now working together to build our country, that’s our hope. …The hope is also built by those who want to listen to us, who want to observe, who want to learn, and then who want to walk with us [to get] where we want to go.”

—Gloriosa Uwimpuhwe

1994 saw the climax of a long history of systemic inequality, division, and mistrust. Long before the killings began that April, there had been policies depriving Tutsis of educational and career opportunities; there had been strong voices propagating divisions among people; there had been a growing mistrust.

All of these things fuelled the atrocities committed during the genocide, and in its wake, the Rwandan people—liberated from the physical conflict—were left with a broken country.

Rwandans have spent nearly two and a half decades liberating their country.

Together they have worked and continue to work toward liberation from divisive ideologies, from resentment, from fear. The Rwandan people are realising a vision of their country in which all people are respected and valued and given equal opportunity, in which there are no artificial divisions, in which hatred is not tolerated.

“My hope is that in this country there is no discrimination . . . Everyone is Rwandan. Everyone can go to school. Everyone can get a job. We are living in a place where there is no longer discrimination.”

—Esperance Munganyinka

Rwanda today is not perfect. Rwandans are quick to tell the ways in which they want to continue developing their country. They are quick to acknowledge that there are problems to be solved and disparities to be evened out. Most individuals live with some form of loss and trauma that no number of years can erase.

But they are also proud of their country—as they should be.

Rwanda has made incredible progress against significant odds, constantly improving its security, successfully using a culture-specific justice system to address millions of cases related to the genocide, repatriating millions of Rwandans who had fled the country, actively working to diminish poverty and increase education, and caring for hundreds and thousands of people left orphaned, widowed, wounded, or traumatised.

“My hope is in the youth. When I have discussions with the youth, I think, ‘Perhaps this country has a good place it is going.’ . . . Different people have different perspectives on the history. . . but the youth say, ‘No, this cannot happen again.'”

—Moise Muhire

Today Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world. Children play freely in the streets because, as one Rwandan Peace Corps staff member pointed out to me, their parents know that anywhere they go, someone will look out for them. My students are quick to emphasise unity and the value of supporting one another.

There are no longer systemic divisions; instead each person says proudly, “Ndi Umunyarwanda”—“I am Rwandan.”

“I find hope in the progress that Rwanda is making. I was here in 1994 after the genocide. It was like chaos. Everything was kind of destroyed. Even people were fearing each other. But now the progress in unity is so high. If you look at 1994, 1995, 1996, there is always something more in Rwanda. When I meet foreigners, they always say, ‘Kassim, do you realise how Rwanda is a good country? Do you see how it is progressing?’ I don’t always see that, because I live here and I see things as normal, but people from other countries, when they see how . . . Rwanda is developing—they keep telling me, ‘Kassim you are lucky, you have a good country.’ That’s what makes me feel hopeful. And because I know how things have been progressing from the worst to the best.”

—Kassim Ndindabahizi

Today in Rwanda, there is hope.

And today I feel incredibly privileged to be here, to know these people, to witness the progress they have made and continue to make. I am inspired by their optimism and determination. I am touched by their unity and strength.

I am encouraged by their hope.

 

If you want to learn more about the history, stories, or current events surrounding the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in 1994 or the liberation on July 4 1994, this is a great place to start.
An extra reminder that this is my personal blog sharing my personal views. While I strive to make any factual assertions accurate, please remember that the ideas I present and those shared in any quotes I include reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the views of the Peace Corps, the American government, or the Rwandan government.

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.

​You know you’re in Peace Corps Rwanda when…

This experience is challenging me and changing me in ways I never expected,and I try hard to share those metamorphic experiences with you, but ​I don’t have something important to say all the time. Sometimes all I can do is look at where I am and who I’ve become and laugh. 

This is a list I’ve been adding to since PST. If you’re in the Peace Corps, especially here or somewhere similar, you may see yourself in these items. If you’re not, you can probably get a more realistic picture of my life from this than from any of my thoughtful posts.

Without further ado, you know you’re in Peace Corps Rwanda when…

  • You have strong feelings about the best types of pit latrine
  • You have a stockpile of paper bags because you know market vendors will charge you for a bag
  • You get really excited about balanced meals

  • You fear schisto but will probably swim in a lake at some point during your service
  • You have no qualms about someone sitting on your lap on the twege
  • Your fantasies include ice, berries, varieties of cheese, and cold milk that won’t give you TB
  • You can’t remember the last time you left the house in shorts and you feel marginally indecent in a sleeveless shirt
  •  “I’m so glad I’m not on a bus” is a sentiment you feel frequently
  • You no longer assume that a library will actually have books in it
  • You assume everything will start an hour or so behind schedule 
  • You have a favourite method of lighting your charcoal stove and are suspicious of any other way—bonus points if that method is not “bury a candle in it”
  • You’ve accepted that at some point in your service you will be on a bus with someone else’s vomit on you
  • You own multiple igitenge clothing items, probably in Western styles that no self-respecting Rwandan would actually make out of igitenge
  • You know all the best places for American food in Kigali
  • You’re semi-seriously hoping for a mild medical emergency so you can see South Africa on PC’s dime
  • Your excuse about why you’re not married/don’t have kids yet is so automatic you could answer personal questions in your sleep
  • You’ve found sneaky ways to get alcohol into your house without your neighbours noticing that you drink
  • You can discuss diarrhoea like a champ
  • You understand my village is exceptional when I say, “I’ve seen at least ten dogs,” and you know it’s really spectacular when I add, “And nobody throws rocks at them”

  • You either love or hate foods like isombe, ibitoki, and ubugari
  • You have the malaria symptoms memorised
  • You know that 7000 is exorbitant for a single burger, but you’re still willing to pay for it every time you go to Bourbon
  • You no longer equate free WiFi with functional service
  • You consider any trip under an hour to be “not bad,” especially if it doesn’t involve tweges
  • You don’t even question the presence of that 23-year-old in your Senior 4 English class
  • You skip work if it’s raining 
  • And you acknowledge your muzungu-ness any time you do have to walk through the rain
  • You’ve almost forgotten the existence of fridges
  • You know that every PCV falls into one of two categories: those who wear their giant PC-issue moto helmet and those who don’t
  • “Subiramo?” (“Repeat?”) is a staple of your vocabulary
  • You look at any rice sack as a potential teaching aid
  • You know that no event is complete without Fanta

Feel free to add in the comments if you think of more I’m missing! 

To Remember

Kwibuka

To remember

The seventh of April is a day of poignant significance in Rwanda. 

Twenty-three years ago, in 100 days beginning on 7 April 1994, over a million people were murdered in Rwanda, not because of anything they had done, but because of who they were.

“Genocide means . . . acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group…”

From Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (source)

Every year on this anniversary, the nation shuts down for a day of united mourning and memorial, and today I, an American for whom this day holds no memories, was invited to stand in solidarity with those who remember.

My neighbour Theophile took me to the Gahana cell office near the town centre where most of the residents of our area were gathered, sitting in desks brought over from the school. Aside from quiet greetings, the crowd sat silent—a rare occurrence among Rwandans, who are, in my experience, generally social, jovial, and unselfconscious. 

We opened with a prayer by one of the local church leaders and some remarks by a local cell leader, describing to us the theme of this year’s memorial—remember, unite, renew. The theme, as he explained it to us (and as Theophile translated for me, since I understood only some of what he said) is to remember the genocide against the Tutsi, fight against genocide ideology, and continue to build up the country. 

The speaking was punctuated intermittently by a men’s choir from the nearby Adventist church. From what I could understand of the lyrics, they sang that the genocide happened because love was cold, that this earth is old and we must journey, that someday there will be no death.

 “Genocide is possible when the messages of hate from would-be perpetrators go unchallenged and when the people at risk fall outside the awareness—and/or the sense of moral obligation—of anyone who could help to ensure their protection.”

(source)

After this, we all walked to the memorial site. Every area has a genocide memorial, usually a building and a small landscaped space, often including mass graves. Ours is in Songa, a distance of about two kilometres from my village, and together we took what Theophile referred to in English as “a walk of remember.” 

Mostly silent, collecting people along the way, we walked together, shoulder to shoulder the width of the road, moving feet and bowed heads as far as I could see ahead and behind.

A primary student from my school, apparently with no adult supervision and one of the few children I saw, came up beside me and stayed quietly through the whole of the event. He was born after the genocide, but he will grow up remembering these memorials every year.

A few neighbours and teachers shook my hand in passing. Nobody else seemed to notice me. On this day, in this place, my foreignness ceased to be important. I never heard “umuzungu,” and no-one looked at me as if I should not be there.

As we neared the memorial, Theophile nudged me and pointed off to the left. The trees broke to give a stunning view of the hills and valleys rolling away to the east. This, he told me, was where the abatutsi in this area were brought to be killed.

“Over the past century, more than 200 million people died as a result of state-sponsored mass murder.”

(source)

At the memorial site, we gathered, as many as could fit inside the fence standing pressed together, more lining the fence outside, some sitting across the road on the grass. Theophile and I stood next to a low wall separating the walkway from one of the mass graves, and he whispered to me that in this place were buried 43,000 Tutsi.

The leaders of three different churches prayed, and various community members and officials gave speeches. One speech—whose words I understood none of—was presented in short passages over and in between the constant sound of a choir I could not see, who sang over and over in Kinyarwanda, “Rwanda nziza—ntuzongere.” 

“Beautiful Rwanda—never again.”

Someone turned on the radio and we listened to the official broadcast—speeches in Kinyarwanda, French, and English detailing the history of Rwanda and of the ideology that lead to the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, reminding us of the immense progress made since then, and urging people to be unified as we move forward. 

In front of me, sitting on the low wall by the grave, five abakecuru—old women—sat with their hands to their faces, wiping tears away for the entire three hours that we stood there under the sun in that place of grief and memories. Beside me, Theophile occasionally let out an audible sob.

During 100 days in April 1994, over a million people were murdered. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped, many intentionally infected with HIV/AIDS. Thousands of children were orphaned.

(source)

We held a minute of silence to remember those who had died. President Kagame told us that we must live our lives by remembering what happened, accepting that we cannot change the past, and making it our task to prevent such a tragedy ever occurring again. I thought of the way radio was used in 1994 to stir up hatred and violence, and of the way it was used today to encourage peace and unity.

And then, together, we walked home, no Hutu, no Tutsi, only Rwandans—and me.

Today I felt the weight of the privilege I have of living with these people; of being invited into this country, this culture, this village; of being welcomed, not as a visitor, but as a member of the community; of standing united with those who remember.
If you want to learn more about the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in 1994 or about the memorials held in Rwanda during this time, you can go to one of these websites:

National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide

Kwibuka 

Aegis Trust 

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. 

Q&A

​Thanks to everyone who sent in questions! I’m excited to tell you more about my life here. 

Who are your best friends? 

It actually took me quite a while, and sometimes I thought I would spend two years feeling very alone—but partway through training I found my place with three friends: 

  • Colin, who constantly makes us laugh and is surprisingly quick to listen to other people’s opinions
  • Claire, who knows more philosophy and literature than the rest of us and constantly forces us to think hard and re-evaluate our ideas
  • Emily, who has all the practical knowledge under the sun and encourages all of us. 

We laughingly call our group Safety Dance and are planning a family reunion sometime in the next month or two.

The four of us take family photos whenever big things happen, such as this one at host family farewell.

What are you reading? 
I’ve been trying to keep it varied:

I’m slowly working my way through St Augustine’s Confessions and Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. I just finished Beloved by Toni Morrison and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and I’m halfway through Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller. 

(I also didn’t sleep for two straight days because I was reading Luminosity and Radiance, a Twilight reimagining along the lines of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Don’t judge; just go read it.) 

What do you wish you had known before travelling overseas? 

I’ve done quite a bit of travelling before, but I’ve mostly been to European countries where there’s never a question of whether or not my bank cards will work or what conveniences I can find. Here I’ve been told that my bank cards will probably not work—meaning I have to work out alternative ways to access my bank account if I want to, say, hike Kilimanjaro (I want to) or see the gorillas (I want to)—and while I was told my internet would be sketchy at best, I really didn’t have a good grasp on what that would mean or how many aspects of my life would be affected by that lack.

What’s been the hardest adjustment you’ve had to make? How are you overcoming it? 

Socialising! Relationships are a cornerstone of Rwandan culture. Greeting people is significant—to refuse to greet someone implies that they don’t exist for you—and Rwandans love to visit and be visited. 

And I am an introvert with social anxiety. If I’m not careful, trying to meet the standard of being friendly to everyone leaves me exhausted, both physically and emotionally. 

Overcoming this is mostly about pacing myself. Instead of trying to greet every person on the street, I limit myself to people I know, people who greet me first, and old women and children, unless I’m feeling particularly energetic and friendly. I only force myself to leave the house once a day. It’s also growing easier as I get to know more people in my village; I now have several friends with whom I feel comfortable almost all the time, so I can socialize with them and not feel like I need to sleep for a week when I get home.

(A close second is constantly having to defend being single and the principle that it’s okay to be single/to want to be single. In this culture, there’s no word for “woman” separate from “wife.” You’re either a girl or a wife. It’s emotionally and mentally more tiring than I expected to constantly tell people that I’m not married, that I don’t particularly want to be married at the moment, that I don’t plan to marry the first Rwandan man who asks me, that I might never get married.)

How can I send you mail? 

I’m glad you asked! Check out this page, which has my mailing address and some advice about the best ways to send things. Some volunteers have had problems with missing mail, but so far all of my things have arrived in good shape in a more or less timely manner.

Are there restrictions on what I can send? 
I’m sure there are. You should check with USPS if you’re not sure about something, since I don’t have the rules memorised, but here are a few things I do know: 

  • You’re not supposed to send liquids
  • You’re not supposed to send money
  • Packages take a long time so anything perishable will stink by the time I get it 🙂 


Do you feel your training prepared you for site? 

Yes and no. I don’t think anything could have fully prepared me for the experience of standing alone in my own house with no furniture, matches, or charcoal, knowing nobody, in a place I had never so much as visited. At the same time, here I am, two months later, beginning to feel really at home in my village. I haven’t starved and I have made friends. I could not have survived here without the training I was given on both a cultural and a practical level. And while I think my language was (and still is) hugely lacking, there’s also only so much you can learn of a complex new language in just three months. There are some practical concerns that I wish had been addressed during training, but it where explicit information was missing from training, I gained cultural and language skills and a flexible attitude that make it possible for me to now solve problems as they come up. 

I should also add that other PCVs and PC staff have been available to answer all my questions and my neighbours and coworkers have gone above and beyond to help me out of any jams I’ve gotten into. 

Do you have time to draw? 

Sometimes. I haven’t drawn much since coming here in part because I’ve had a lot of other things taking up my creative energy (such as lesson planning with no resources!) and in part because I couldn’t bring my favourite medium—my collection of coloured inkwells—with me. 

Here’s a quick doodle I did during a training session—I walked home behind these three women one night. Also I can’t get my phone to rotate the picture, so you’ll have to rotate your heads. Sorry.  

How have you adjusted to using different currency? 
Having no frame of reference for what was expensive of cheap was really difficult at first. The conversion rate hovers around 1USD to 850RWF (Rwandan francs), so the prices don’t look even slightly similar to American prices. During PST I started viewing all prices in relation to an average meal at my favourite cheap restaurant, which helped. Now I have a much clearer sense of what prices are expensive in relation to each other and to my income—and to the average Rwandan’s income—and I usually don’t even think about it.

What has been the hardest thing you’ve had to experience so far?

The level of poverty. Abject poverty is the norm here, not the exception. It’s hard having children dressed in literal rags visit me and tell me they don’t go to school because their parents can’t afford to buy them a uniform, or having a child walk several hours to go door to door through my village asking for work because he’s hungry. “Eliminate poverty” is the first answer my students give to almost any critical thinking question I pose. It’s incredibly difficult to live among these people knowing that even my meager income is higher than theirs and that I can’t do much for that aspect of their lives. 

What new food have you liked?  
I like a lot of food here, but my biggest surprises have been igikoma—porridge—and ubugari—a gelatinous “bread” made of cassava flour. In both cases, seeing the texture made me expect to be stifling a gag reflex, but igikoma became my favourite snack during PST and ubugari has a mild, woody flavour that makes it a great base for sopping up sauces.

What have you learned about yourself, and the individuals you’ve met, during your time there so far? 

About myself: 

I am a lot less patient and flexible than I thought! Being here has pushed me to limits I didn’t know I had. I’ve gotten angry about miscommunications and I’ve given way to frustration with coworkers, friends, and supervisors. I constantly have to check myself and my reactions.

About the individuals I’ve met: 

The thing that has been constantly impressed on me is that they’re just that: individuals. Culture can predict a lot about how someone will react, what they’ll say, etc.—especially in a place like Rwanda that’s small and mostly homogenous in a way the US isn’t—but people here are just as unique and individual as anyone else. Control-freak me wants to be able to predict and navigate all social situations by understanding culture, but that’s not how it works. It’s simple and profound, but the truth is that these people, just like all other people, are not their culture; they’re themselves. 


Feel free to keep sending me questions via Facebook, comments, or direct messages! I’ll collect them and keep answering until they run out.

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.