Peace Corps Rwanda As Famous Literature

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

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The One Where I Sat on a Caterpillar

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

 

Endure

Ihangane.

Endure.

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

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

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

One moment, ten years ago:

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

And I dropped.

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

Then I surge to the surface.

One moment, two months ago:

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

Ihangane.

Be patient. Endure.

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

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

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

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

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

A mild social anxiety has become gut-wrenching terror.

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

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

Take one more breath.

Ihangane.

Take another step.

Endure.

Breathe again.

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

I close my door behind me.

I exhale.

One moment, an hour ago:

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

a femur

a tibia

a patella.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s not that, either.

It’s enduring.

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

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

Humura.

Be calm.

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

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

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

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

 

 

Gratitude

Ishimwe

Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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