​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! 

It’s Good

“Ni byiza.” 

“It’s good.”

We learned this phrase in our first language session, and over the past few weeks, I’ve caught myself repeating it over and over. 

In the beginning, I didn’t know a better response for almost any question I was asked. How was I doing? Ni byiza. How was the food? Ni byiza. How was language learning? Ni byiza. 

I still catch myself saying this often, especially when discussing some quirk of Rwandan culture of some embarrassing language or cultural mistake. 

This whole experience is beginning to divide into categories in my mind. 

Things I expected:

  • Hot sun and dusty roads 
  • Lots of staring
  • Rice and beans
  • Noun classes
  • Sunburns and bug bites
  • Bucket showers and pit latrines 
  • Slow/nonexistent internet 
  • Cows and chickens on the roads
  • Haggling in the market 
  • House help
  • Long lessons
  • Language barrier 
  • Fear of standing in front of a classroom

Things I didn’t expect:

  • Reserved culture—Rwandans are nice but more standoffish than I’d expected
  • Chilly days
  • Almost total lack of non-meat animals (aside from ubiquitous giant magpie-looking birds) 
  • Almost total lack of coffee
  • Extremely supportive PCVs constantly on hand to answer questions and ease our transition 
  • Lack of daily rain during rainy season
  • Lack of humidity
  • Effort involved in acquiring water 
  • Brushing teeth with a water bottle and spitting into a latrine drain
  • Total inability to connect laptop to internet 
  • Extreme ease of texting/calling family and friends in the States 
  • Being unable to buy a pillow for weeks on end
  • Mixed consonants
  • Another TCK in the group 
  • Receiving preferential treatment from my host family—I still get fed first and take my tea out of nice mugs that nobody else in the family uses

Things I’m still uncomfortable with:

  • Bucket showers
  • Being stared at/followed/called “muzungu”  (“white person” or “foreigner”) 
  • Being uncertain whether any given child approaching will ignore me, follow silently, great me politely, or demand money
  • Constant people and social pressure wearing me out 
  • The concept of me as a teacher
  • Dichotomy between cultural emphasis on cleanliness and lack of some forms of hygiene—significantly hand washing 
  • Verb tenses 
  • Pressure on women to dress/behave properly 
  • Many cockroaches and a rat in my latrine
  • People talking very quietly 
  • Cooking over a charcoal stove

Thinks I’m surprised to discover I like:

  • Pit latrines—you never actually touch the facilities, so it feels cleaner than a toilet and smells better than any outhouse I’ve ever encountered
  • Market shopping—overwhelming, but satisfying and comfortable now that I know a few vendors
  • Repetitive food
  • Learning about the Rwandan school system
  • Porridge
  • Green bananas
  • Evenings at the garden bar with 40 other Americans 
  • Eating supper at 8:30 or 9:00
  • Watching the news in Kinyarwanda and understanding every fifth word 
  • Trying  to converse with my umukozi despite a complete language barrier 
  • Chatting with passing strangers on the walk home
  • Kinyarwanda’s complexity

    These lists grow and shrink moment by moment, experience by experience. Ultimately, to each item, I find myself saying, “Ni byiza.” 

    The expected and the unexpected are equally good. Recognising what I dislike is as valuable as noticing what I enjoy about this new life. Ni byiza, all of it. 

    The more I say it, the more I realise it’s not a judgment I get to pass on the culture or situation, but a position I take. It’s a choice to see each of these things as somehow, in some way, good. 

    I don’t get to choose any of these things. This is where I am, and this is the way things are, and the choice I have when faced with this is to recognise all of it and say, “Ni byiza.” 

    Halfway

    A. A. Milne wrote a poem called “Halfway Down.” The second verse goes like this:

    Halfway up the stairs
    Isn’t up
    And it isn’t down.
    It isn’t in the nursery,
    It isn’t in town.
    And all sorts of funny thoughts
    Run round my head.
    It isn’t really
    Anywhere!
    It’s somewhere else
    Instead!

    Tonight I find myself on that halfway stair.

    stairs

    I’m halfway here or there—halfway home or not—halfway staying or going—halfway beginning or ending.

    All of my things are packed, either inaccessible in suitcases to be locked in checked baggage, or carefully situated in my carry-on, or safely tucked away in storage bins to await my return. This puts me in a strange position, just for twelve hours or so, of having nothing.

    It’s a feeling of rootlessness I know too well and yet am always surprised by—this question of where I live, where I belong. At the moment, it’s easy to pinpoint; I certainly don’t live here anymore, but I certainly don’t live in Rwanda yet.

    Sometimes it’s more subtle, not marked by where I’ve settled or not settled but by a quiet awareness inside me. Sometimes it’s the unexpected distaste of filling my office with personal items. Sometimes it’s the reluctance to actually unpack a suitcase, since I’ll probably be packing it again soon. Sometimes it’s a fake smile when I meet a new friend, or a longing glance at a world map on a passing wall.

    My halfway stair is clear to see at the moment, dramatically bookended by two very different countries, by an obvious before and after. It’s all too clear that this is the step breaking my life in half—my childhood and my adulthood suddenly splitting away from each other in the scanning of a boarding pass.

    But there have been other halfway stairs. Sometimes it feels like my whole life is a halfway stair, frozen between something and something else—I seldom know what. My whole life feels like that moment between a long sigh and a sudden inhale.

    Neil Das wrote a “Haiku on Moving—For Friends Newly Moved”:

    home’s the skin we live
    in, moving its shedding; you
    now new and tender

    they say you leave your
    heart, i say your lungs; it may
    take some time to breathe