Have a look at my new life!
29 March 2017
Model school came toward the end of PST. For two weeks, we went to local schools and taught lessons to classrooms of eager volunteer students. For coming in and playing guinea pigs to a cohort of PCTs, the kids got a brand new notebook and pen each.
In some ways model school left me feeling totally unprepared for teaching, because I didn’t have to assess my students, follow a continuous curriculum, or teach subjects besides English. In other ways, it threw me into a harder situation than I’ve ever had to face in class—classroom management with twenty students feels like a breeze after working with sixty to ninety every day in model school.
We taught model school classes in groups, sometimes observing each other’s lessons and sometimes stepping in to help.
Because you always need more photos of Simbi and Nziza playing.
Mama wanjye ni mwiza cyane. My mama is very beautiful.
Part of coping with PST involved giving myself a lot of time to write and a lot of chances to sit in the avocado tree.
In November, we trekked to the Hub around 4:30 in the morning to spend the morning watching the BBC news coverage of the presidential election.
We took a group trip to Kigali to visit the Genocide Memorial there. Each of these concrete slabs covers a mass grave. The experience left us sobered and silent.
On my second umuganda in Rwamagana, the village held elections for new leaders, and I got to see that Rwandans vote very differently than we do in America. Instead of writing out ballots, the candidates stand with their backs to the group, and the people form queues behind them. Whoever has the longest queue wins the election.
Thanksgiving was a high point for us. Despite pouring rain all day, a limited number of pots, knives, and imbabura, the turkeys being swamped with mud while cooking in the pit, and around seventy people waiting to eat, we managed to produce a feast of turkey, vegetables, breads, and pies.
Moving out of Rwamagana involved shopping sprees to pick up items we would need at site. We all took multiple trips from the market to the Hub carrying bulky buckets, basins, boxes, and brooms. Most of us made some effort to kwikorera—carry on the head—although none of us is any good at it.
My host family and I took last-minute family photos before I moved out—and I learned that my family actually included one sister I’d never even heard about! Meet Fiona, the oldest sister who is usually away at school in Uganda.
Fancy events (such as host family farewell) call for family photos.
Like I said, family photos.
On my last night with my host family, we exchanged gifts, the most appreciated of which was a giant bag of Jolly Ranchers. They were sceptical at first, but were quickly won over by the hard, sticky, sugary goodness.
PST ran us ragged, but it also left us enough time to occasionally lounge.
More last-minute awkward family photos. Mama and Papa wanjye were truly fantastic host parents.
Though less fancy than swear-in, we got pretty dolled up for the host-family farewell ceremony, most of us sporting brand new igitenge for the event.
Host family farewell was our matinee performance of our dances for swear-in. We learned traditional Rwandan dances for the event, which involve a lot of rhythmic stepping and big arm movements.
The host family farewell was a little long for these cuties, and it was freezing cold that evening, but they perked up after we danced for them.
Peace Corps gives us a mattress each. When we moved out of Rwamagana, this meant stacks and stacks of mattresses on the porch at the Hub.
In December we packed up our lives and moved out of Rwamagana. That process involved hauling suitcases, taping boxes, labelling belongings, and forming human chains to pass mattresses into lorries.
For swear-in we all dressed up in our fanciest igitenge outfits, put on makeup—for some of us, including me, for the first time since coming to Rwanda—listened to speeches, and performed American and Rwandan dances for an audience of training staff, Peace Corps staff, and Rwandan and American government officials.
Ignoring the house in the foreground, here’s a shot of my village. My house is toward the top a little to the right of centre.
My neighbour kids love to visit my house, sit on my couch, and touch literally everything I own.
My school doesn’t have any kind of assembly hall or indoor space, so whenever there’s an announcement or speech, the kids sit on the side of the hill.
My neighbour, Mama Lysette, the wife of my landlord, is a godsend. She checks on me every few nights, takes me shopping, helps me communicate, and gives me fresh milk from her cow. She also comes over any time I have visitors, introduces herself, and makes charming conversation. She speaks better English than most people in my village and always tries patiently to teach me Kinyarwanda.
This deserves to be in here so I can tell you that this is agatebe—literally “small chair”—and they’re not available for purchase in my market or in any shops. Instead, I was told to find someone selling them in the road. One day on the way home from school, I saw a man with three on his head. I crossed the street, asked if they were for sale, argued about the price, and then walked the rest of the way home carrying the chair. They’re surprisingly comfortable for short periods of time and great for the kitchen.
One of the biggest and best changes in my life lately is the acquisition of a kitten and a puppy. This is Carlos. She’s small and perfect (excuse me—purrfect). She sleeps with me and wakes me in the mornings. She’s an avocado addict and I love her.
As I mentioned in my updates, the kids love coming over to see the books. Right now they can’t understand them at all, but I’m optimistic.
Early into my time at site, a nearby PCV invited me to visit for the day. We hiked to her Rwandan friend’s farm, visited a lake, and took the long way (like, 20km) home on accident.
This is (1) a blurry photo, (2) taken very early on Christmas morning, (3) using too much flash in a dark room. But the salient point here is that we got to travel for Christmas and spend a few days eating food, watching movies, and revelling in the company of friends with no cultural barrier.
Among our favourite things to do when we get together is try to make American food using only Rwandan ingredients and equipment. In this case, we managed to make a massive batch of doughnuts that wound up tasting more like coffee cake than doughnuts, and we were not even mad.
On my first umuganda day in the village, my headmaster invited me to join the school community working to dig a volleyball court out of the hill behind the primary school. We managed to clear the entire hill of coffee trees and dig a decent chunk out of it by noon.
My neighbourhood kids are the best. A lot of other volunteers struggle with kids who come into their homes uninvited, walk out with things, or constantly ask for money. These kids knock on my door, leave when asked, obey rules, and are always thrilled for Monday night Disney movies or afternoons drawing in chalk on my porch.
They don’t hold still well for photos, but these kids love being photographed and always want to check the result.
It’s rainy season again, and it’s been pretty chilly lately. I spend a lot of time in my sweatshirt and fuzzy socks, drinking hot beverages while marking students’ papers.
6 November 2016
Boutiques are tiny convenience stores. Some of them are decent sized shops selling various food items, toilet paper, toothpaste, etc. Most are barely big enough to step into and carry an unpredictable selection of fruit, bottled drinks, tea in thermoses, and homemade breads. This is one of the nicer ones, featuring places to sit and a really friendly old woman who sometimes saves ipure—a puffy fried bread—for me because she knows I don’t like amandazi—the ubiquitous Rwandan cousin of the doughnut.
This is your reminder that in between language study and drinking tea in boutiques and hiding on my bed with my laptop I’m also in all-day sessions. Some are about language and culture. Others are about not dying of malaria/parasites/other nightmarish things. Many are about the Rwandan school system and teaching methods. As you can see, most are fairly interactive, involving lots of calls for ‘umukorerabushake’ (a volunteer) or splitting off into groups to present material in the form of a skit.
Obligatory grammar book shot. A few of the things that make Kinyarwanda so hard to learn include: 20 or so verb tenses, 16 noun cases, 6 possible variations on vowel tone—all spelled the same and often making the difference between very different and sometimes offensive words.
For some reason they really like to pretend they’re sleeping. They aren’t. They’re posing, and a second after the photos were snapped, they were up to see how they turned out. Cute little fakers.
They also really like to do this dance to an English song. I’ve never heard it before but it seems to involve a lot of finger shaking, twerking, and repetitions of ‘now wash my car’??
They’re into sitting on the porch with me before I go to school. On this particular morning, Simbi was carefully selecting pieces of grass to add to Nziza’s handful. This seemed to make perfect sense to both of them, and they went at it very intently until I left.
One thing I love is that kids are kids everywhere. They like attention, do silly things, and have no respect for that line between real and imaginary. For example, this is Nziza’s house, built out of jerrycans she stole from us while we were hauling water. It has walls, a door, and a chair, and she was pretty proud of it.
Site visit happened last week! I travelled a couple of hours to Gatsibo district and spent about four days meeting people and seeing the school and community where I’ll be working after swear-in. I have no idea as to my permanent housing; my headmaster initially wanted me to live in this guest room, which is nice but does not meet Peace Corps security standards, so its all up in the air. Still, I enjoyed the space in this room for a few days—it’s the size of my family’s living room in Rwamagana—and appreciated having a private indoor bathroom with an actual toilet that sometimes flushed on the first try. And a shower with running water that poured itself out of pipes instead of me pouring it out of my hands!
I stayed at the Catholic church that runs my school. I spent a lot of time chatting in Spanish with a handful of priests who had studied in Argentina—who knew I’d get that treat in Rwanda?!—and admiring the beautiful gardens around the buildings.
I never did get a good picture of my school, so instead here’s a mediocre picture of the church. It was built in the late 1930s and is really quite beautiful.
This photo doesn’t do justice to the gorgeous views along my town’s main road, but it gives you an idea. My town is built along the spine of a hill, and as you walk through town, between houses and trees, you can see for miles across the surrounding hills and valleys.
After site visit, we all met for regional meetings. We managed to almost but not quite avoid the downpour and wound up wet and laughing crammed into a twege to our hotel—I tried to count how many of us there were and wound up with maybe 18 or 20 before I lost count. We think the Rwandans who crowded in with us probably regretted it once they had to get out and wait while a never-ending stream of Americans disembarked with backpacks and sleeping bags and oversize moto helmets.
Regional meeting turned out to be about 1% business and 99% hanging out, getting to know each other, swapping stories and advice and things on hard drives, and enjoying expensive but delicious food. But this photo is your proof that we did initially conduct some business.
Also our hotel had the most beautiful views across terraced rice fields and hill after hill.
Among the treats at regional meeting that we can’t generally get here, chocolate muffins and lattes featured prominently, followed by pizza.
There’s no reason you need this picture of Nziza scrubbing her (half a) doll, but it was too cute not to give you. This was the day I got home from site visit, and she spent about three hours teaching me the names of objects I already knew, and I loved it.
Forgive the back lighting, but this is Hiro drawing while I studied. She doesn’t have homework anymore since classes have let out, but she likes to sit and do responsible things with me.
Umuganda Day is the last Saturday of every month. On this day, all the people come out to work together for the common good. The word used to refer to an old tradition in which, when a young man was to be married, his whole community would come out to help him build a home. Since this is no longer the tradition, the word has been adapted to refer to a whole community working together to take care of the village. In our village, that meant digging drainage ditches along this road.
Obligatory Umuganda shot. That’s my ‘wow it’s hot and I just dug a lot’ face.
And this is ShaDon’s ‘integrating like a boss’ face.
Gratuitous photo of Hiro because she’s beautiful and I love her and I don’t take enough photos of her because she’s often gone and doesn’t pose for photos the way the little ones do.
This is Simbi’s dancing face. It’s pretty consistent.
Whereas Simbi dances mostly for attention, Hiro dances because she loves to. I’ll come out and see her in the corner of the compound singing and dancing all by herself, and she’s good at it, too.
“I feel rain. Do you feel rain?” “I feel rain, too.”
We painted our nails, because what good is an American big sister if she doesn’t share nail polish? Mama thought it was hilarious and even Nziza held her fingers very carefully until they dried.
Once the nails were dry, though, it was back to the green mangos. If you didn’t live somewhere tropical, you have no idea how much this moment felt like my childhood.
I said, “Are you supposed to sit on the table?” and she repeated “Tebo!” over and over and laughed uproariously at me for the next five minutes.
16 October 2016
I love so many things about living here, but sometimes it’s all too overwhelming to deal with. My bed has become my place of comfort when I need to hide, and my kindle, American snacks, and stuffed puppy have been solidly supportive.
I never realised what a big deal laundry is until I moved to a place where I have to haul my own water and scrub clothes by hand. I don’t actually mind the chore itself, but setting up to do it is a serious process, my family thinks I don’t scrub properly, and I’ve managed to get my drying laundry caught in a couple of downpours. Oops!
Although we need every break we get, we also need every minute of studying, and the two often coincide. Lunch finds us all eager to hit the boutiques, market, bakery, or restaurants, but soon after it finds us reviewing vocab.
Rainy season seems to be either all rain or no rain. We go days with only sunny skies, and then we get a downpour. The downpours tend to line up with my laundry days.
Did I mention my walk home is beautiful?
My walk home is also muddy. I finally bought rainboots because I walk five minutes through a swamp any time it really rains.
Power outages are an almost nightly occurrence. Sometimes they last a few seconds. Sometimes they last all night. We finish out the evening by flashlight and candlelight and sometimes, if a flashlight is handy, I don’t take the excuse to quit my homework.
Nziza likes to be eating or drinking something at all times (except meal times, when it’s a fight to make her eat anything). She can often be found with a slice of papaya dripping down her hand or with her face hidden in an enormous mug of porridge or chai.
Papa got out an English Bible to show me. Nziza immediately took it away, saying, “Zanamwigishe!” (“Let me teach you!) and proceeded to make up words for a few minutes while flipping pages.
On Thursday nights, we have extended curfew. This is nice considering our usual curfew is 6:30pm, leaving us no time for almost anything. Our VATs (this stands for something but I don’t know what; they’re nice PCVs who help us out) plan various events which have so far included apple pie baking, Fanta drinking games, and an Olympics night featuring games such as amandazi eating competitions.
We all appreciate the guitar and ukulele that made the trip with us. Occasional impromptu sing-alongs are a general favourite.
Floor scrubbing is a serious thing here. I wake every morning to the broom hitting my door and by the time I’m out of the shower, usually the whole house and back courtyard have been swept and scrubbed and she’s moved on to the porch. Sometimes she even sweeps up all the loose dirt in the yard.
Nziza doesn’t actually help much with anything. Mostly she gets in the way. But she looks awfully cute doing it!
You know those illustrations in history books, kids chasing hoops down the street with sticks? Just about every kid here has one of those, except they’re bike tyres instead of metal hoops, and Nziza likes to sit on hers and make motorcycle noises instead of chasing it. To be fair, Nziza likes to sit on anything and make motorcycle noises.
I mentioned that 90% of what I do is studying, right? I’ve already killed two pens. Bringing a multitude of colours was a great choice, though, and the flashcards and matrices are multiplying.
Last week I went to a local hotel to drink coffee and use the WiFi. The WiFi was greatly exaggerated and did not work for me at all, but chatting and studying somewhere quiet was a welcome change.
My family keeps the curtains drawn all the time, leaving the house in a cool gloom. In the mornings, though, the windows are usually open to catch the breeze, and I’ve become very attached to my breakfast view.
I have told you about my gorgeous walk home, yes?
This week we had microteaching, in which we each taught a short lesson on introductions or common phrases to a handful of other trainees. It was somewhat nerve-wracking but not as bad as some of us expected. It’ll be our baseline by which our improvement is assessed, and we’re all still waiting to hear the results.
This photo is a result of Simbi snatching my phone. Nziza’s expression is a result of the flash.
My umukozi has a three-month-old baby who is by far the cutest thing in Rwanda. I’m not sure of his name, but he has a big, slow smile, loves to stare at the moon, and makes wonderful gurgling noises when I jabber in English at him. My umukozi doesn’t like being in photos but likes having photos taken of him.
Hiro is the designated caretaker when someone needs to hold the baby and for whatever reason he can’t be on his mother’s back. Simbi and Nziza usually assume themselves to be secondary caretakers, probably charged with entertaining and/or irritating the baby to the best of their ability.
Simbi is allowed to hold him, but only when sitting.
Goats are everywhere. Driven in herds down streets, tied onto bicycles, led by strings to the market. They’re all going to be eaten, but they don’t seem to know it.
It doesn’t matter where you walk, even on the main road. I prefer the median, personally—no vehicles, fewer people than on the sidewalks.
I may have forgotten to mention I have a beautiful walk home.
That big red gate has rapidly come to mean home. If it’s open when I’m walking and the kids see me through it, they’ll come running to meet me. It’s a nice feeling.
There’s a lot of houses here, but in between them are these fields of beans and bananas, usually with a handful of people planting and digging.
Site assignment is a big deal. It came with an entire ceremony complete with banners and a sorting hat.
I got placed in the eastern region in the district of Gatsibo. I’ll be somewhere in the vicinity of this blue pin come December!
We’ll be the newest additions to the eastern region, and we can’t wait to see our sites!
9 October 2016
Meet my cohort! We’re Ed8—the 8th group of education volunteers. This photo was taken in Kigali on one of our first visits to the Peace Corps compound. (See me in the front row?)
We stayed in a hotel in Kigali for a few days and had our first experiences with mosquito nets and Kinyarwanda. My roommate and I both started journaling every night to process all the changes and new experiences. I like to think of our mosquito nets as grown up blanket forts.
My room in Rwamagana is pretty small—about the size of a king bed—but handy hooks on the wall eliminate the need for a bulky dresser. For anyone wondering what exactly my living accommodations look like, here you go!
Water—especially drinkable water—is a big deal in Rwanda. So I have a whole corner of my room dedicated to water-related things. Peace Corps provides each volunteer with a bucket for showering, a jerry can for water, a water filter (still boxed in this photo) and a jug of clean water. I’m lucky—my family has a spigot in the back yard so I don’t have to go much more than a few steps to fill my jerry can.
One of the heaviest, bulkiest items I brought is this afghan my mother crocheted. Along with my puppy who’s travelled the world with me for most of my life, it makes my bed the safest, most welcoming place in this new country.
Host families are required to feed us breakfast, but most Rwandans don’t really eat breakfast, so it’s an odd meal that most of us take alone. My family feeds me what seems to be the standard for most of us—hot tea, some form of bread, and (usually) bananas.
I have three host sisters. Nziza, the youngest, took two days to warm up to me but since then seems to have decided I’m her new toy—along with whatever I happen to be holding at any given moment. She’s disappointed my kindle has no touch screen, wants to study with me if I have flashcards out, and yells ‘amafoto!’ when my phone is in my hand. Then she hides from the flash.
This is Simbi. She’s five. She’s the child who loves dancing, starts most of the games (and fights), and adores have photos or videos taken of her. She also likes to confiscate her dad’s phone and take photos of absolutely everything.
This is ShaDon, a trainee who lives next door to me. This was our first day of classes and our level of apprehension mixed with excitement hasn’t changed much, but now we know more specifically what we’re afraid of (talking to people in the community) and excited about (delicious cheap food in town).
We all walk to the Hub—the PC training facility—every day. For me it’s a 30- to 40- minute walk. It’s long, but there’s a lot to see and always a lot of people greeting me along the way!
Peace Corps trainees have been coming to Trust Restaurant for years, apparently. It’s the best and cheapest food in town—I usually get a meal for less than 1000RWF (about a dollar). Most days I show up to find a long table of Americans already chatting and pouring over the menu. The servers see one of us approaching and start finding more chairs, and they’re very patient with our slow Kinyarwanda.
Most of life happens in this courtyard. The kids like to sit directly in the doorway and not move for anyone coming in or out. Their favourite toy is this worn and much loved doll, which they can sling onto their backs just the way women here do with real babies. I came home yesterday to find Nziza had ripped its head off though, so the days of doll carrying might be over.
Simbi is the attitude of the family already. I never know what I’ll get from her, but I can usually count on a cheeky smile.
…Simbi is also the only one to appreciate the art of selfie taking. She’ll sit for multiple shots and then critique them with me afterwards.
My first big purchase in Rwamagana was this igitenge. It’s a six-foot-long cloth that wraps around me twice and reaches nearly to my ankles when it’s tucked at my armpits. It’s the traditional wrap that Rwandan women wear while walking to the shower house for a glorious (ha!) cold bucket shower. It pairs really well with the pink and orange of my beach towel which I have to wear too, because women’s shoulders are considered an ‘attractive part’ in this culture and therefore must be hidden.
Lunch has become routine, but in the first few days, it was an adventure every time. Most of us have stopped getting lost on meandering dirt roads. We all have our favourite places now, whether it’s the bakery run by a nice expat who makes the only boiled eggs in town, a trip to the market for fresh fruit, or a heaping melange platter from Trust.
We’ve also begun to find the best niches for hanging out and relaxing together. This garden bar is a universal favourite—we can always pull up another table, and it’s close to the Hub, making it perfect for a drink after sessions.
You never know what you’ll run into on the road. People walk wherever they want—on the sidewalk, on the median, in the middle of the road, it doesn’t matter—and the bike taxis and motos speed by perilously close to the pedestrians, who don’t seem concerned. Even on the back roads, the bikes are everywhere, and you sometimes run into cows.
Cooking is a time consuming task here. My family cooks in a cave-like outbuilding or in the courtyard. There are no counters, and everything gets boiled over a charcoal stove called an imbabura. Dinner is usually eaten around 8:30 or 9:00 and tastes amazing, especially considering the simple ingredients and lack of any spices beyond salt, garlic, and onions.
ShaDon usually shows up early and we chat or study until it’s time to leave for class. Sometimes his host siblings come over with him. He recently spent several days trying to catch his host brother in a good mood to get a good photo. I think it eventually worked out.
Studying never seems to end. My life is a cycle of notebooks and pens and flashcards, verb tenses and noun cases and vocabulary words. It’s paying off slowly by slowly.
Being so far from town has its perks—I have a gorgeous view across a bean and banana field from the front porch.
My walk to the main road is particularly pretty. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. The unpredictable ruts make the path scary at night, though, and it becomes a swamp in the rain.
We have language training every morning with our LCF (language/culture facilitator). His name is Charles and he’s very nice about how overwhelmingly complex the language is. He also wants to learn Spanish, so sometimes I trade him Spanish vocabulary for Kinyarwanda and he gets a taste of how we feel all day!
Rwandans do not go in the rain if they can avoid it (my host sisters actually got reprimanded right after this photo), but children are children everywhere, and it’s always fun to catch raindrops. Plus on this particular night we had no electricity for most of the night and there was nothing else to do.
Well, not nothing else. Hiro, the oldest at 8, came out with a big jar of honey, and they spent the rest of the evening pouring honey into the cap and then licking it off their fingers.