I Feel Good

Meza neza.

I feel good.

Yesterday I looked down at my feet and realised that my toenail polish had completely flaked off.

I have not reapplied it.

For the first time in what may be a decade or more, my toenails have been bare for longer than the time it takes to reapply paint.

I’ve never blogged much about appearance, body image, etc., in part because I think so many other people are doing so well at it and in part because I’ve never felt like I had much of a story to tell. If I had tried, I’m pretty sure it would’ve gone something like this:

Body image is important. It’s important to be comfortable in your own skin. That’s why I try to wear clothes that look nice but feel like pyjamas as much as possible. That’s also why I work out, because even though I drew the winning number on body type and metabolism by Western beauty standards, I don’t feel comfortable in my skin if I’m not sort of in shape. Also there are things about my body that I don’t like! Even people who look like they have it together have problems and insecurities!

It reads kind of smug and unnecessary.

But, looking down at my bare toenails, I suddenly realised that here in Rwanda, for the first time in years, I do not perpetually have some facet of my appearance about which I’m uncomfortable.

I looked down at my feet and realised I wasn’t self-conscious about my toes.

I realised that I’ve been going to work for six months now without makeup and not feeling like my face has no definition.

I don’t remember the last time I washed my hair, but I don’t feel like I should hide it.

Sometimes I go to school after lunch with my meal clearly visible in the way my stomach presses against my shirt, and I don’t fight to suck it in.

I haven’t shaved in months, and I feel no concern about my calves or armpits being seen.

IMG-20170811-WA0003
(note that I’m completely unembarrassed to share this particularly unflattering photo)

It may sound silly (or maybe you’re like me and it sounds extremely relatable)—but these are all things that I’ve been to some degree embarrassed about for years. Why am I suddenly okay with things that I’ve always been uncomfortable with?

Here’s the only answer I’ve come up with: I have no way to compare myself anymore.

In the States, I was surrounded by people who shared my same basic features, and I subjected myself to endless comparisons. It’s not like I ever sat down and said, “I’m not good enough because x-feature on me isn’t as nice as so-and-so’s,” but somewhere in my mind I kept this little running tally of all the ways other people were beautiful. Then when I looked at myself, I had this overall feeling of being not quite good enough.

But here, I can’t do that.

It’s not that I don’t keep some kind of running total of how everyone around me is beautiful; I can tell you without even thinking about it that one of my coworkers has flawless fashion sense, another has a beautiful facial structure, yet another always has well-styled hair. But I can’t compare myself to them. We’re physically so different that there’s almost no common ground to compare.

I can’t compare my skin to theirs because it’s fundamentally different colours. I can’t compare my hair to theirs because mine is straight and theirs is kinky. I can’t compare my wardrobe to theirs, because they wear Rwandan styles and I wear Western styles. I can’t even compare my muscle tone to theirs, because we keep most of our bodies covered.

In addition, there are almost no mirrors in my life. I have a small mirror, maybe four inches in diameter, on my wall in my bedroom. If I want to see whether my outfit matches, I have to go outside and stand in my compound and catch my reflection in my windows—always warped by the bars and the different panes at slightly different angles.

As a result, I no longer think much about my appearance.

I judge my style by whether it feels comfortable, smells clean, and is appropriate for the context I expect to be in. I judge my body by whether I feel healthy. I no longer notice my shape much, but instead I notice whether I can carry my full water filter, make my morning workout more difficult, or speed-walk up the hill to school without pain in my thighs and lungs (I’m always speed-walking, because while being on time is a skill I have honed, leaving on time is a skill I may never attain).

And the end result is that I feel good.

I feel good about being seen. I feel good about my body. I feel good about myself.

It’s easy to say “don’t compare yourself,” but it’s almost impossible to stop until you have no choice.

I don’t know what will happen when I stop being surrounded by people superficially unlike myself, but here’s what I hope: I hope that I will maintain this idea that really nobody is just like me, and that really, we’re all too different to draw useful comparisons.

I hope that I’ll become so comfortable in my own skin that I’ll stop judging other people’s.

Like Me

Basa nanjye.

They look like me.

This is something I feel without even considering it when reading most books or watching most movies. Finding characters with whom I identify—who in some way represent some significant portion of my experiences or beliefs—is so easy that I never even think it might be a privilege. Specifically, I have never struggled to find characters who look like me.

So for an entire month, I chose to only read books or watch movies written by or about people who do not look like me.

It happened this way: I wanted to show video clips to my Senior 4 general studies class. We were wrapping up a unit on communication, and I thought they deserved to have a little fun with their end-of-unit review. Making them apply all the concepts they’d learned by analysing and critiquing some interactions in movies seemed like a good idea.

Choosing clips to show them, though, turned out to be a time-consuming and frustrating task. It’s difficult to find brief interactions that are understandable without knowing the slang used, details of the culture, or the broader context of the film.

But the biggest challenge I faced was finding clips that portrayed diversity.

Because none of my films are Rwandan, I was inherently presenting a series of tiny glimpses into American culture. And yet it seemed every example I could find (that wasn’t peppered with slang or dependent on culture and context) showed the same thing: white upper- or middle-class Americans living white upper- or middle-class lives.

Now, in interest of full disclosure, I do not have the entire internet at my disposal. I could not simply open my browser and search specifically for films portraying more diverse realities. And I’ll be quick to admit that my collection of films is likely not representative of the entire body of Western entertainment.

But… I have nearly 550 films and TV shows on my hard drive. I ran some numbers, and here’s what I came up with. Of those ~550 films:

  • 349 feature an entirely white main cast
  • 61 have a mostly-white main cast featuring one or two token characters of colour
  • 26 feature a character of colour in the lead (sometimes sharing that space with a white character)
  • 97 feature what I deemed a diverse cast
  • 63 of those diverse casts feature white lead characters
  • 22 include no white characters
  • 15 feature a majority of characters of colour

film data

Factors that should affect the conclusions drawn from those numbers:

  • I did not include sequels (so, for example, seven diverse Fast and Furious films only total one point for diversity)
  • many of thse include characters of colour fulfilling (usually negative) stereotypes
  • the numbers do not account for minor background characters of any colour
  • some are international films and by default include entirely non-white casts (such as my small Bollywood collection)
  • some are set in a time/place in which racial diversity would be incorrect (i.e. Jane Austen films)
  • some, especially animated films, include characters of colour played by white actors
  • at least six of the “majority-non-white-characters” films arguably portray white saviour complexes

Twist my numbers however you want, but I don’t think you can work out a way to make them match up to US demographics, especially if you remove the Japanese and Indian movies, which make up the bulk of the “POC Lead,” “Majority POC,” and “All POC” columns in my spreadsheet.

There’s a difference between knowing that entertainment features and often propagates a lack of diversity and experiencing firsthand the frustration of actively looking for diversity and not finding it.

At this point, a friend and I decided that for the month of June, we would only read books or watch movies that were created by people of colour, featured a person of colour as the main character, or included a majority non-white cast.

I quickly became frustrated with my movie options. Not only were they severely limited in number, but they were also seriously limited in genre. If I wanted an action film, Denzel Washington or Jackie Chan had my back. But try finding a chick flick that isn’t about white people. (J-Lo saved me there, but my point stands. You can only watch Maid in Manhattan so many times in a month.)

I’ll be the first to concede that not every film should include racial diversity (as I’ve mentioned above, I own an insane number of period dramas, which in general do not and, for historical accuracy, should not include racial diversity)—but there should be more.

We need more.

I should see people who don’t look like me across the spectrum of genres and across the spectrum of character types—not just the bad guy, not just the soldier, not just the inner-city kid. I want more than the token Asian guy, the sassy black woman, or the expendable first-to-die-in-any-horror-film.

And people who don’t look like me should be able to see themselves in media. They should see themselves portrayed honestly, not boxed into stereotypes. They should see themselves in every genre and every form and every personality. They should see themselves breaking boundaries without overtones of white saviour mentality. They should see themselves as complex villains and complex heroes.

Creators of fiction, whether in print or on film, have a responsibility not only to portray the world as it is, but to portray the world as it could be.

We aren’t limited by the demographic statistics. We aren’t limited by reality. We have the freedom to dream up and share the world that we want to see.

And the world that’s limited to white characters with the occasional extra tossed in to fulfill the diversity quota…that’s not the world I’m dreaming of. That’s not a world I want to live in.

My students here hold the beliefs that all Americans are white, that being white by default makes you smarter, that having lighter skin makes you more attractive, that all white people are richer than all black people.

I want to change these beliefs.

But right now, the media is not helping me.

To Liberate

Kwibohora

To liberate oneself

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

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

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

—Kassim Ndindabahizi

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Gloriosa Uwimpuhwe

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

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

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

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

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

—Esperance Munganyinka

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

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

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

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

—Moise Muhire

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

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

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

—Kassim Ndindabahizi

Today in Rwanda, there is hope.

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

I am encouraged by their hope.

 

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

Allyship

Allyship.

There is no word in Kinyarwanda for this concept.

Gloriosa, one of Peace Corps’ Rwandan staff members, explained: “In the Rwandan context, ‘allyship’ isn’t a special word, because you’re supposed to already be there for everyone. . . . There are people around you who count on you.”

But in English, we have this word. Allyship.

ally (v.) to unite for a common cause

In American culture today, this is a politically charged word. It immediately conjures ideas of minorities, systemic oppression, protests, and angry social media posts. But at its simplest, to ally means to join together for a cause.

To stand with someone. To support them.

At a recent Peace Corps conference, we discussed this idea of allyship. We talked about what it means to us and the different ways we see it—or don’t see it—in our own lives. I was struck by the intensity of the feelings revealed during this discussion, and by the unexpected bits of wisdom and poetry presented as people allowed themselves to be vulnerable.

Let me share some of their words with you.

“Being an ally is being okay with being uncomfortable . . . to help someone avoid being hurt.” – Aimee Carlson

Here in Rwanda, allyship takes on a more personal significance for all of us. In this context, in this place where we are perpetually other, we become uniquely aware of our own diversities.

Some of us are PCVs of colour who struggle against stereotypes of what an American should or should not look like.

Others of us represent diverse genders or sexualities and struggle to fit into a culture that doesn’t accept or acknowledge those aspects of our identities.

Justice will not happen “…until my pain is your pain…until I step down from my fight and you step up.” – Dominique Henderson

We may represent minority religions or no religion—both cause interpersonal discomfort in a highly religious culture.

Still others of us are differently abled physically or live with mental/emotional health problems that make daily life a unique struggle.

“Being an ally requires us to constantly manage our own ignorance.” – Claire Pennington

We come from different socioeconomic, family, and educational backgrounds but face the stereotype that all Americans are wealthy and successful.

Many of us are single and have to justify this to neighbours, coworkers, and even strangers on the bus.

“You won’t fix them. . . They don’t want you to . . . Its someone else’s struggle.” – Stina Stannik

Our desperate need for allies is thrown into stark relief against the backdrop of life in Rwanda. Our need is not merely for political allies but for personal allies, at times and in ways that we never would have imagined.

We live isolated lives here. We see each other from time to time, but in general we live alone in our villages, tiny islands of our own culture in the midst of people we love but sometimes cannot comprehend. People with whom we often cannot share our struggles or to whom we cannot explain our fears. Well-meaning people who are at times the cause of these struggles and fears.

“Absorb some of their pain into yourself.” – Claire Pennington

So we become allies for each other.

We correct stereotypes over and over, even when they don’t apply to our own identities. We listen to one another’s fear and despair and exhaustion and tell one another that it’s okay to be tired and afraid and so done with this. We celebrate one another’s small victories. We acknowledge one another’s identities. We do the small things we can do—over the phone at night after long days; over beers in regional towns on weekends; over WhatsApp in between classes and visits and lesson planning.

“I am an individual in a community made up of people who I don’t have to know to defend.” – Gloriosa Uwimpuhwe

Allyship looks different here than you might expect. We find it in unexpected places and at unexpected times, and not always in just PCVs.

I find it in the lady at the market who shields me from unwanted attention. In another single woman who tells me it’s okay not to be married. In a teacher who accepts that my dog and cat are my family here and always asks how they’re doing. In a neighbour who tells others not to ask me for money. In my headmaster who tells the teachers and students my name and asks them not to call me muzungu. In Peace Corps staff who acknowledge how difficult it can be to integrate and who remind me to take time for my own mental health.

“Before taking action, we need to listen to the problem, understand the problem, and accept that a problem is there.” – Esperance Munganyinka

In some ways, each one of us has it easier than the others. In some ways, each one of us has it harder. We find it essential to stand for each other—to join together for a cause.

My time in Rwanda has taught me many things, but this is one that I’m just now realising—the value of allies. The inevitability of each person having some unique aspect of identity that puts them in need of someone to stand with them.

The simple yet elusive truth that each of us needs allyship in a different way.

“What people want is for other people to not be afraid of their diversity (but not be stupid). . . to walk into the world with them.” – Claire Pennington

For many, it is political. For many others, it is personal. For all of us—no matter our identities, no matter our diversities, whether in Rwanda or America or anywhere else—it is vital.

So today, stand with someone. Stand for someone. And maybe find someone who stands with you and tell them thank you.

Illness

Indwara

Illness

Today is World Malaria Day, and I want to take a break from talking about me and talk instead about some other people. 

About half the world’s population is at risk for malaria.(source) 

See, malaria doesn’t affect me directly. 

Thanks to Peace Corps, I have a good mosquito net treated with insecticide. In case that don’t keep me from being bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito, I have a handy little pill that I take every morning, a prophylactic called malarone, that keeps me from developing a case. And, just in case I somehow still manage to contract malaria, I have a couple of do-it-yourself diagnostic kits and a round of malaria treatment, and, to be extra safe, I can get Peace Corps to come pick me up and take me to the infirmary, where trained medical staff will do a proper diagnosis and give me proper treatment and care until I’m well. 

If everyone had the same benefits, we’d be done with malaria. But they don’t.

There are an estimated 212 million new cases of malaria every year, resulting in 429 thousand deaths. 

(source)

During PST, my host mama got malaria. She was fortunate—the family is well enough off that they could afford treatment, and well enough off to be a single-income family, meaning that they didn’t directly lose income by her being unable to work for days on end. She recovered without any significant loss for her or the family.

For most people affected by malaria in Rwanda and other developing countries, the story is much different. They may not be able to travel to a clinic in the first place, much less afford diagnostic tests or treatment. During the time that they’re ill, they may lose income by being unable to work. 

Many Rwandans are subsistence farmers, and if they cannot tend their crops, they face huge losses. Younger people may miss school—devastating in a culture where education is one of the key steps toward upward mobility. 

All too often, a person with malaria dies.

80% of deaths from malaria are in children under five years old.(source)

Malaria may seem distant, but not that long ago, malaria was prevalent throughout Europe, northern Australia, most of Asia, and the western United States. In fact, as recently as the 1930s, around a million cases of malaria occurred annually in the U.S. 

So what happened? 

To put it plainly, well-off people in developed countries didn’t like malaria, and they did something about it. 

They combined research, efficient infrastructure, and affordable medical care, and by the 1950s, we had wiped out malaria in the United States.

Malaria is the leading cause of death and disease in sub-Saharan Africa, and the most affected people are young children and pregnant women. (source)

Meanwhile in Africa, malaria is generally a question of “when,” not “if.” The people I’ve talked to refer to getting malaria the way we might refer to getting the flu—a bad thing that will probably happen to you once in a while.

Why are malaria and death from it so common here? A combination of factors contribute:

  • The female Anopheles gambiae mosquito, which is the insect responsible for spreading the malaria parasite, lives here
  • The type of malaria parasite most common here is Plasmodium falciparum—which also happens to be the type most likely to cause death
  • The climate allows for year-round transmission
  • The lack of resources and socio-economic stability makes it difficult to prevent and control the disease

Let me tell you a few ways this last item plays out.

  • Lack of nets—One of the key prevention methods is the use of mosquito nets. Unfortunately, many people, especially poorer people in rural areas, don’t have access to nets and don’t have instruction on how to hang and maintain them. The government distributes nets, but there are always more people than available nets.
  • Lack of diagnosis—Many people can’t afford to go get a blood test done, as I mentioned, and in some cases doctors are not properly trained on how to perform the tests or analyse the results.
  • Lack of treatment—Many people cannot afford medicine.
  • Lack of accurate information—Information about malaria and its prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and effects may not be available for many people. In some cases misinformation is spread, leading to inaccurate ideas about the disease.

There is a strong correlation between poverty and malaria. In Africa, only half of people suspected to have malaria actually receive a diagnostic test. (source)

But should you really care about malaria? There are about a zillion different good causes floating around demanding your attention, and you don’t have the time or energy to care about all of them. 

I think the answer is yes—malaria deserves your attention.

Here are a few reasons you should be invested in the fight to eradicate malaria:

  • Malaria eradication is not another hopeless cause. Malaria is preventable. It’s occurrence and mortality rates are falling steadily—between 2000 and 2015, for example, mortality rates among children fell by 65%, according to UNICEF, and in 2018 the world’s first malaria vaccine will be administered in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.
  • Malaria affects children. I’m not pulling a poverty-porn move on you; I’m asking you to think about the future of our world. Children will grow up to effect changes, to develop their countries, to participate in politics and economics and science and everything else. My students love to discuss ways to develop their country, help the ecosystem, and make a better world—but if huge numbers of children are dying before they turn five from a totally preventable disease, who will be our future?
  • Malaria could come back to the U.S. I don’t think this is a good reason to care, or even a particularly likely occurrence, but if you need a reason that it could affect you directly, here it is. The US has climates suitable to malaria transmission and there are instances of malaria in the US, even among people who haven’t travelled to malaria-prone countries. 
  • Malaria is expensive. It is estimated to cost up to 1.3% of African GDP and its costs include travel, medical supplies, public health interventions, lost labour, lost opportunities for tourism, and, sadly, burial expenses. More than that, it costs the global economy. When one country improves, everyone wins, and ending malaria would offer opportunities for development of new markets around the world.
  • Malaria evolves. The parasites continue to become resistant to various treatments. The longer we take to deal with this problem, the harder it gets to solve.

The good news is that there are small, significant things you can do to help end malaria.

One way is to donate to an organisation that works toward prevention and treatment of the disease. Here are three:

Malaria No More works to distribute nets and diagnostic tests in Africa

Nothing But Nets distributes mosquito nets—for $10 you can send a net to someone at risk for malaria

The Global Fund works with local experts in preventing, treating, and eradicating AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in affected countries

Another way is to spread awareness. I know you’re not all activists, but consider sharing a link to a malaria prevention organisation on your social media today in honour of World Malaria Day.

Better quality of life anywhere makes a better world for all of us. It sounds cheesy, but I believe it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Remember

Kwibuka

To remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(source)

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

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

“Beautiful Rwanda—never again.”

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

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

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

(source)

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

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

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

National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide

Kwibuka 

Aegis Trust 

To Work Well

Gukora neza

To work well

I used to believe that anything worth doing is worth doing well until I realised that it’s a lie. The truth is that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, and anything worth trying has to be worth failing.*

I have now been in Rwanda for six months and at site for three, and my first term of teaching is over.

I have done many things, and I have done many of them badly. In many instances, I have tried and failed.

And I think that the things I have done and the things I have tried were worth making a muddle of, and here is why: Something is always better than nothing.

I tell myself this when I go to market with a shopping list and leave with half of the items because anxiety made it impossible for me to face one more vendor. If I have a single item of food that can tide me over until tomorrow, it is enough. Something is better than nothing.

I tell myself this when I walk into a classroom feeling inadequate and inexperienced. Even if my students learn nothing, hearing English spoken by a native speaker is more than they would have otherwise. Something is better than nothing.

During staging, we were asked to list things we feared. Our lists included:

  • Host families hating us
  • Parasites
  • Having to ET (Early Termination**) because we couldn’t handle the pressure
  • Failing to learn the language
  • Food poisoning

We could all think of an endless stream of specific ways we might fail.

Then we were asked to list our expectations for success. Suddenly our stream of ideas dried up.

We wound up with vague ideas like, “We want our students to learn,” or, “We want to make friends in the village.” In fact, I can only remember one specific, measureable goal on our list of successes—“I want to become a regular patron at a local coffee shop.”

We gave ourselves a clear picture of failure, but we had hazy ideas of success. We left ourselves no way to see the something, and that left us facing the idea of nothing.

So I resolved to give myself reasonable goals and to pay attention to those moments when I moved toward them. I began a list of somethings—a list of good moments, of steps that did not in themselves achieve my goals but that were not nothings.

I want you to know that at the end of one term, I have not achieved any of my big goals.

And this is okay, because I have not let that paralyse me into doing nothing.

I want to share with you some items off my list of somethings.

  • Held a small conversation in Kinyarwanda
  • Had a student understand that I wanted ideas and opinions, no matter whether right or wrong, without my saying so, and offering to translate that concept to the class without my asking
  • Navigated Kigali by myself for the first time and didn’t get lost
  • Retaught an entire lesson—this is a success because I realised that the initial lesson had been a failure and I took the time to do it again instead of pushing them to move on to the next idea
  • Had students ask me to explain English words they’ve come across outside my classes
  • Made friends with the bank teller
  • Started weekly film showings in English for neighbourhood kids (using “started” pretty loosely—kids show up a lot asking for movies, and I tell them they can come back for one on Monday)

  • Had a student start calling me out on minor inconsistencies between the questions I asked and the answers I accepted
  • Lit my imbabura with a single match without using a candle
  • Got the number of a reliable umumotari (moto driver)
  • Had a student with particularly low English abilities give a solid answer when I told her I was coming back to her for the next question
  • Went to an English Club meeting
  • Adopted a puppy and possibly increased integration due to everyone visiting to see her (in Rwanda, that’s a serious consideration—most Rwandans dislike and/or fear dogs, in part due to dogs’ having been used to hunt people down during the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, and PC rules state that we may only get a dog with the permission of our village and with the provision that it does not inhibit our integration)
  • Had a student make inferences about culture in literature without being told to
  • Paid my rent
  • Made students laugh by standing on a desk to reach the window latch to demonstrate the difference between closed and locked
  • Got invited to a wedding
  • Wrote final exams
  • Visited a teacher and genuinely enjoyed it

I’m sharing these things because I want you to know the kinds of experiences that feel significant to me here in this place and these circumstances—and to encourage you to be aware of the small things that feel significant to you in your place and your circumstances.

They are not same as mine, but they are just as valid, and just as important.

Because no matter where you are or what you’re doing, this much is true: anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Anything worth trying is worth failing.

And something is always better than nothing.

*Message me sometime if you want to discuss whether I am or should be including in that generalisation things like skydiving, in which you die if you fail.

**I know that’s a noun, but we use it as a verb

Why? 

​Kubera iki?

Why?

Lately I’ve had some discouraging days. I’ve looked at other volunteers’ work and felt insufficient beside their accomplishments. I’ve looked at the tasks ahead of me and felt incompetent to complete them. I’ve looked at the students before me and felt incapable of teaching them. 

I’ve had to sit myself down and remind myself of the reasons I’m here—and, more importantly, of the reasons not to be here. I had to hold up a lot of expectations and desires, consider them, and then throw them out.

So without further ado, here are some reasons not to join the Peace Corps:

  • You want to save the world

Joining the Peace Corps sounds so heroic. It carries a connotation of sacrifices made for the good of others. It’s used in movies whenever a character needs a generic Good Thing in their past. It seems like a way to really make a difference. And honestly the stats showing PC’s impact on the world are impressive. But you won’t see those numbers. You’ll be inside the situation, one person facing billions, and the problems even just in your village will be too numerous and expansive for you to tackle on their entirety, never mind fixing the whole world’s issues. You can give important-sounding labels to your work—developing capacity maybe, or spreading literacy, or increasing gender equality—but really much of your service will come down to the everyday tedium of small, unheroic tasks done well. Cleaning your floor, or talking to a neighbour, or going to the bank, or getting to work on time. Don’t get me wrong: you will make a difference. But you will not save the world. 

Here’s what my world looks like at the moment. Observe that I have not saved it.
  • You need immediate affirmation in your job

If you need someone to tell you you’re doing things right as soon as you do them, this is not the job for you. While there are plenty of short-term accomplishments, PC jobs work toward long-term improvement. You may only see your triumphs in retrospect. You may feel like a failure in the moment. You may go a long time without anyone telling you you’re doing well, and you have to keep working, keep watching for the tiny successes that tell you you’re getting there, and keep trusting that one day you’ll look back and see that something you did somewhere along the line made some kind of a difference. 

  •  You need to feel competent

It doesn’t matter how much training you have in the sector you work in, getting thrown into a brand new culture and a brand new way of doing things and a brand new language will leave you feeling out of your depth. If, like a lot of PCVs, you have training related to your sector but not directly in the job you’re doing, it’s even worse. And even if you feel competent in your specific job, you’re likely to feel incompetent in a hundred other ways. Trying to start secondary projects. Trying to hold simple conversations. Trying to buy food. Some days I feel incompetent just walking next door. 

  • You can’t stand discomfort

PCVs joke about “Posh Core,” but it doesn’t matter if you got lucky and have running water, or electricity, or a real toilet—you will still be uncomfortable. You will be uncomfortable talking to strangers in a new language, or bargaining in the market, or refusing to hand out money on the streets. You will be uncomfortable on your mattress on the floor the first night, and in the latrine the first time you get food poisoning, and in your job on the first day when you don’t know the people and you don’t know the routine and you don’t know the work. You’ll be uncomfortable on busses, you’ll be uncomfortable interviewing local officials, you’ll be uncomfortable attending religious services or social functions. Every time you get comfortable, you’ll be pushed on to something else hard or scary or awkward. Peace Corps is a lot of things—rewarding, interesting, challenging—but comfortable is not one of them.

Also uncomfortable: having children stare in the window while I teach.
  • You don’t want to work outside your career path

It doesn’t matter if you specifically trained for the job you’re doing in PC, you’ll be doing something outside your career path. Trained as a teacher? Great. You’re set for your primary assignment, but you’ll probably also write grants for a new basketball court or have to study up on microfinance to help local women for your secondary project. Peace Corps isn’t a normal nine-to-five where you have a set job description and you do the thing you’re told to do and then go home. Your job description in PC is to do whatever your village needs, and to learn how to do it if you don’t know already.

  • You want to live a private life

There’s nothing private about PCV life. Everyone knows you’re a foreigner. People discuss you and stare at you and ask you invasive questions and watch you to see how you handle life. I’ve had people in awe because I knew how much to pay for a twege ride that I take every few weeks. I’ve had people ask me if the reason I’m single is that I don’t have “a functional body.” People in the street comment on my wardrobe and talk about me whether or not they know I can understand them, and when I brought home my puppy, ten different people appeared to see it, marvel that I want an animal, and ask me to describe her diet in detail. 

  • You want to do something you already know how to do

You don’t know how to be a PCV. It doesn’t matter what your previous training or experience is, because every site, every job, every service is different. There will be things you didn’t anticipate and things you have no idea how to handle. You’ll get really good at shouting out for answers from other PCVs or begging your neighbours for help. You’ll learn to improvise, to be flexible, to make it up as you go along, to take criticism, and to recognise indirect feedback from the people around you. You will spend enormous amounts of time doing things you’re not sure how to do, and you’ll discover you can do them.  

  • You want all-or-nothing results

I already said you can’t save the world. But life isn’t an all-or-nothing proposal. You can’t save the world. But you can make a tiny corner of it a tiny bit better for a tiny number of people. For the one student who really takes off, or for the one woman who learns how to keep her new baby healthy, or for the one group that benefits from your secondary project. If you join the Peace Corps, you won’t end poverty. You won’t singlehandedly educate a nation. You won’t change an economy in two years. But you will open up opportunities for a few kids. You will bring awareness of different cultures to people in your village and to people back home. You will be privileged to see incredible instances of hard work and determination and compassion and teamwork winning out over circumstances. And you will find that it’s an exchange—that for everything you give, the people around you give back in ways you never expected.

These kids excited about books despite being totally unable to understand them is one of those tiny ways I’m moving forward. Maybe someday these kids will be able to sit down with a book, read it, understand it, and enjoy it.

So yeah, sometimes I’m discouraged. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing anything important. But the truth is I’m not here to do something important. I’m here to do a lot of little things well and to trust that some of those little things will make a difference.