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:
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
Having to ET (Early Termination**) because we couldn’t handle the pressure
Failing to learn the language
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.
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.