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!
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.”
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
“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.
Those words rattled in my head with every bump of the crowded bus from Kayonza to Rwamagana. They bounced with my every step up familiar sidewalks and down dirt roads until I rounded that last curve by the banana plants and saw the familiar red gate rising at the end of the path.
Home is a complicated concept—a network of small towns and rising cities and beloved people around the world—and somehow in the past six weeks, it’s expanded to include a cement and mud-brick compound on the outskirts of Rwamagana town.
It’s been a rough week. For site visit, I left the comfort of my host family with my school’s Dean of Studies, a near stranger, and travelled to a different district to spend four days learning a new town and new people.
Sometime amid the tears of fear and frustration this week, I realised culture shock had caught up with me.
The name makes it sound like a sudden surprise at clear cultural differences, but the truth is it’s less of a shock and more of a pervading exhaustion. You go along thinking you’re fine, but it builds up little by little until, out of nowhere, you’re tired beyond belief.
It’s a gradual wearing down beneath the grindstone of a million tiny things you don’t even notice in the moment.
It’s the disproportionate effort required to communicate. It’s being stared at, shouted at, and touched on the street. It’s considering starving rather than take one more bite of unseasoned beans, and then taking one more bite. It’s struggling to keep my shoes clean and knowing that no matter how dirty someone else’s feet, mine are the ones being judged. It’s having to question the cultural assumptions behind any question. It’s not knowing the fair price of anything. It’s wondering whether I’ll ever have cheese or ice cream or chocolate ever again.
It’s my fight-or-flight never resting, because I have no prior knowledge by which to predict any situation.
At the beginning of this journey, someone gave us this advice:
“Fall in love with your country as soon as possible.”
Someone else (probably on Welcome to Night Vale, to be honest) said this:
“Growing to love something is simply forgetting, slowly, what you dislike about it.”
In the moments when life here feels like a storm battering me, when I think I will break if I’m bent any further, it’s all too easy to remember what I dislike about this country and to forget all the things I love.
But there are things I love, even when I’m drowning under waves of culture shock and exhaustion.
I love the rolling hills patterned with fields of beans and rice, the dry rattle of banana leaves in the wind before a rainstorm, the music rolling out the doors of boutiques and down the street.
I love the warm greetings of shopkeepers I know and the tendency of old ladies to pull me in for a hug instead of shaking hands.
I love the uninhibited joy of children and adults alike whenever there’s a game or a song or a good conversation.
I love the goats by the side of the road and the tiny, impossibly blue swallows that dart and dive and swoop bat-like and the magpies and hawks vying for the right to circle any place that might have food.
I love the sunsets and the dark storm clouds and the vibrant dirt roads.
And today, when I knocked on that big red gate and heard a patter of feet and the bolt screeching back, I discovered I love the look of surprised delight on Simbi’s face, and I love hearing Nziza chanting my name before I ever reach the door, and I love Hiro’s silent, tight hugs.
I love walking into this place, so strange to me a month ago, and knowing I’ve come home.