The First Year Excerpts

So it’s been a year since we landed in country. I thought you might like to see my year in review via snippets of my journal entries. This is a bit long, because a year is hard to capture in brief. Hopefully the photos break that up.


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Wednesday, 21 September 2016

. . . We had probably the smoothest, least painful flights I’ve ever had. Kigali smells like smoke. It’s warm and humid, there are familiar plants and building styles everywhere, armed guards on the street corners, and I love it. It feels like a close approximation of home.

 

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Everything is overwhelming, but so far nothing is horrible. I’ve just gotten used to the hotel, but this morning we packed up for the drive to Rwamagana, and here I am.

. . . I’m not totally sure who everyone [in my host family] is, honestly. I’m the fifth volunteer they’ve hosted, so I’m sure they’re used to dumb Americans needing lots of help. Still, it feels awkward and it would be nice if I could talk to anyone besides my host father, who speaks English.

There are a lot of people all talking outside my window, but I don’t understand a word. I hope they’ll all be nice to me, as ridiculously petty as that sounds.

I don’t know when I’m supposed to come out or not. I don’t know when dinner is or how we fill the time until then. Tomorrow I need to do my laundry; I still don’t know where to get water, though, or soap. I need a second basin, I think, for rinsing, but I don’t know where to get it.

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Sunday, 25 September 2016

First full day with a host family. So far, so good—much better now because we’ve gotten sort of comfortable with each other. I know where I’m supposed to do some things and who to ask. I’ve learnt a few new words. The children are no longer shy of me. I successfully did my first load of laundry and scrubbed my floor. I hauled my first water and filled my filter and remembered to add the bleach way too late but did it anyway. I hope it’s fine.

I feel like we’re a batch of puppies fostered out, and our new families love us and are trying hard to house train us, but we don’t understand everything they ask of us, and we want to please but we’re also slightly scared and confused.

I saw my first cockroaches today—big orange ones in the latrine. I’ve never felt so vulnerable as when I had to drop my trousers with them watching menacingly from the upper corners of the wall!

(Note: this entry ends optimistically with, “Maybe tomorrow I can buy a pillow!”, an aspiration significant only because little did I know it would be three months before I had a chance to buy a real pillow.)

 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

My head occasionally hurts from learning. Today we were supposed to just learn “what is your profession” and a few job terms. But, of course, I had a million questions, and we descended into verb tenses and conjunctions and the beginnings of noun cases/prepositions. The saving graces of Kinyarwanda are that there’s no masculine/feminine and there are no article adjectives.

I guess we’ll all get there, though. Eventually we’ll all actually know this language, more or less. We’ll all be fine. Ni byiza…buhoro buhoro.

 

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Last night I was allowed to help with supper—as in I was allowed to stir the beans… I also discovered I’m definitely a child—Mama gave me a mug of the porridge they incessantly feed the children in order to make them “grow fat,” as Papa says. It was pretty good, actually. Mild and milky and very hot.

. . . I feel alternately impatient with how slow things go and overwhelmed by how quickly things move.

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Thursday 29 September 2016

Nights with the family are getting better. I’m figuring out how to play with the children and sort of help with the dinner. I understand some of what people say. I’m writing down everything, even if I don’t know what it means, and asking later.

. . . We’re a loud, large group, and I don’t know anyone well yet. I find it kind of exhausting. I like most of the people, but I’m still looking for anyone I really click with.

I guess I didn’t expect this group here to feel so much like a group of Americans on holiday, but it really does. I feel so suffocated by the way they talk about the culture and food and customs and language. They’re all always craving American food, for example. It’s been…a week. Two.

(Note: I, too, now crave American food often.)

 

Friday 30 September 2016

The end of my first week in Rwamagana. Isn’t that crazy?! I speak exponentially more Kinyarwanda than I did a week ago, but still only a fraction of what I need to know.

So far it’s been good, though. I’m getting accustomed to the culture, to cold bucket showers, to the family interactions and the stares on the streets.

 

Monday, 3 October 2016

The little things are beginning to wear on me, like tiny bits of grit in my shoe, or constant dripping digging a hole in cement. The exhaustion of having the food I take or don’t take questioned at every meal. The feeling of Kinyarwanda always being just one word or grammar rule beyond my grasp. The isolation from lack of good internet. The distance I have to go to do anything with the group. The guilt when I hide in my room. The desire to be a “good PCT” conflicting with my need for personal time. The rain making it impossible to do my laundry. Never feeling clean, even in the shower house.

Honestly, there are so many good things here. There’s so much I love. So much I’m excited for. It’s just that sometimes I have to also recognise the things that contribute to this occasional exhaustion and discouragement so I can dismantle it when it appears. Or at least so I can know it’ll disappear again.

. . . Today everything is muddy. My trousers are muddy. My feet are muddy. I feel gross. I don’t usually mind mud, but the mud here…the mud gets everywhere. The rain doesn’t clean it; it just turns it into a pervasive orange. It’s everywhere. It sticks to everything. It becomes clay and doesn’t wash off. It’s not the kind of mud I expected. It’s not the kind I know how to deal with. It’s frustrating.

. . . I feel confident in my language—what I have of it—until I have to use it. Then I forget everything and panic. It doesn’t help that I seem to be a day behind on the vocab everyone else knows.

 

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

I got my laundry done today—finally!—after realizing that I’ve spent several days asking if I could guseka rather than kumesa. I think my exact wording last night was, Nshobora guseka ijoro cyangwa umunsi gusa? —“Can I laugh at night or only in the morning?” –facepalm-

So that would be why I got no good answers since Sunday… So once I realised the problem, it all worked out. I got it all done before class this morning, and now I’m just hoping someone took it in before it started pouring an hour ago…

I’m feeling really isolated in the noise today. I can’t figure out how to make conversation and I find myself withdrawing yet wishing someone would approach.

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Wednesday 5 October 2016

We have new chairs! This is worthy of being the first sentence because I spend like six hours in them every day. I’m so happy. Soft seats. A little flex in the back rest. I’m in heaven.

I got home last night to find my laundry taken down, but it apparently didn’t dry because of the rain, so my event of the evening was making a clothesline out of dental floss, and my room is now strung with damp clothes. They didn’t dry overnight, but I’m hoping they’ll all be dry by tomorrow, because I’m wearing my last dry clothes right now…

We’re talking about language and I love it. Breaking down grammar and semantics and pragmatics and morphology…it’s beautiful. It’s the first thing I feel totally competent in.

 

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Microteaching was yesterday. It was scary and exhausting and, ultimately, boring. I’ve never before spent that many hours pretending to say Hello and Good morning and Nice to meet you and I basically hated it. Long. Boring. Exhausting.

 

Thursday 13 October 2016

Last night I was understanding most of what the family said. We were getting along. I thought that things were pretty good. Then, while I was in my room reading, Papa called me out, I thought for dinner, but it was Charles sitting on the couch. It took a while for him to even say why he was there, and his reason turned out to be telling me off for being grouchy and not wanting to practice Kinyarwanda with LCFs and in the community. He doesn’t know that the very thought of making painful small talk makes it hard to breathe. Today in class it was like it never happened, but last night I cried after he left—partly out of frustration, partly out of fear, and partly out of knowing he was right. I know I should talk to people, but I do talk when I have to, but when it’s just practice for the sake of practising, I have the words in my head but I stand there and just can’t make my mouth open.

 

Friday 14 October 2016

Everything today feels like it’s just killing time until this afternoon when we find out our site placements. We’re all excited for that and, I think, a bit apprehensive. Everything becomes more real then. Suddenly it won’t be all foggy and “you might be…” It’ll be real. You’ll have electricity or not. You’ll know what clothes to buy. Whether there’s someone there to help you transition. Whether you need to order furniture.

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Sunday 16 October 2016

It’s my birthday. Which is just a really weird thing right now. It feels irrelevant, like birthdays are something that only happen to other people, or maybe only happen in places I’m familiar with. Here nobody knows it’s my birthday, and I’m not sure why it would matter if they did. I glanced at the date last night and realised it was coming, and I woke this morning to really nice happy birthday messages from my family, but that’s the sum total of it. I’m kind of okay with it.

 

Monday 17 October 2016

We had some six hours of language already, and now Daryn is here talking about resiliency. It’s nice to be talking about something I understand instead of scrabbling for anything I get in language. I spend the entirety of my language classes trying to breathe through a growing feeling that I’m being left behind and can’t run fast enough to catch up.

. . . So also, today at Trust I told the guy that I had ifiriti n’imyenda [fried potatoes and clothing] instead of ifiriti n’inyama [fried potatoes and meat]. Woops. My first real public language mistake.

 

Sunday 23 October 2016

I’m currently sitting at a table in a dim room at the Catholic parish in Kiziguru. I have made my first attempt at using the toilet. I never thought I’d say it, but I prefer pit latrines. They let you squat comfortably and eliminate the struggle of pouring water and wishing it would flush.

 

Monday 24 October 2016

I’m recovering from a stress- and anxiety-induced bout of crying.

This morning everything seemed great. I stood around outside, greeted people—everyone seems to know my name already—and had a nice little chat in Spanish with a nice little old lady.

Padre Edouard asked if I wanted to see the school since he was going there. I said yes, of course, and we went to the school where he dropped me in the DOS’s office and promptly left. The DOS greeted me, introduced me to someone who may be called Ananias, who is an English teacher and the school mentor, and then he left, too, and I spent about two hours sitting on a bench making stilted conversation and meeting whoever happened to pass by.

And when I decided at last I would just leave, I got called back “to be introduced” in a meeting, because the sector officers were there. Except I didn’t get introduced. I sat on another bench while the sector officers made an hour’s worth of speeches and Padre walked in and out at whim, and then after the sector officers left, he introduced my name, that I was a “new mentor” and that I’m with “Peace Corpse”—which at that point was feeling fairly accurate—and then told me to “make your presentation” and walked out yet again.

Having prepared no presentation, and not knowing what he expected, I stood, said hello, repeated my name, told them I studied writing and would be teaching English, that I was working on Kinyarwanda very slowly, and that I hoped we could all learn from each other and work together. As I sat down, Padre came back in to ask in surprise if I was done my presentation. When I said yes, he told me to “tell them your programme.” I still have no idea what he meant by that. I told them I would be here til Thursday meeting people and getting got know the community and that I would be back in December or January. He seemed to think I should say more, but I didn’t know what and had anxiety rapidly constricting my throat, so I made my escape as politely as possible, had a cry in my room, and here I am, trying to process and cope and move on.

 

Tuesday 25 October 2016

I’ve already had a good cry this morning.

Padre Edouard didn’t show for breakfast. Last night after dinner I caught him and reminded him that I needed to get some things done while I’m here, and he said of course, and we agreed to look at my list this morning after breakfast. But, of course, I never saw him. After breakfast, I asked Padre Innocent and he said Padre Edouard was already at school. I managed to convey that it was fine, that I did not want to walk to the school, that I would wait.

I hate moments like that. The feel of my heart beating too quickly, of my words tumbling half-formed over each other, of my eyes beginning to burn and my fingers shaking, an odd isolation as if my head were separated from both my body and everything else in the world by a cold fog…

So I returned to my room and lay down to cry. Then I told myself it was time to be done crying, to stand up and do what I could. Since nobody was taking me in hand, I would simply have to take hold of the situation.

But I’ve been faced here in Rwanda more than ever before with the magnitude of my own fear. I lay on the bed asking myself, What would a brave person do? And I decided the answer was that a brave person would ask one of the other men to guide her around town and, if nobody could be found, would go alone and introduce herself to as many people as possible.

I am not that brave.

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Friday 28 October 2016

I’m home. And today “home” means a brown cement-over-mud-brick house and a red iron gate in Rwamagana.

Simbi was grinning before the gate was open, and Nziza must’ve heard my voice, because by the time the gate was closed, I could hear her in the house shouting my name. It was very nice to come home and be welcomed and feel missed. Papa fed me. Nziza happily taught me a dozen words I already knew. Mama, over the malaria, came home while I was finishing my laundry and let out a pleased, “Ehhh!”

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Tuesday 8 November 2016

People stopping me on the street is seriously an ordeal for me. I never know what they want or whether my response is right or wrong—or whether the way they approach me is normal or not. For example, last night a row of guys heading toward town accosted me on the way home. They led with “muzungu” and the one in front of me led with an outstretched hand and when I kept on without answering he actually put it on my shoulder as if to physically stop me passing, and the whole thing felt very threatening, but anyone unexpectedly stopping me feels threatening no matter what, and maybe they were just saying hi. And I know not greeting people is super rude here, but I think them accosting me in the street is also maybe rude? Especially leading with “muzungu” instead of “mwiriwe”? But when I passed, they said “okay, okay,” as if I were the rude one, which all left me feeling uncertain and shaken and semi-guilty and semi-angry and overall just tired.

 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

It’s Election Day and nearly everyone in the room is or has been crying.

We all came to the Hub early this morning—I left my house around 4:30 after barely sleeping and walked to the Hub through the black pre-dawn and the early birdsong and wheeling crows. We were all expecting to watch Hillary win. JD came and got coffee and hot water for tea going, and he’d bought a 4G router and subscription for BBC, and we all crowded in on those hard wooden chairs in sweats and socks, cuddling mugs of hot drinks, watching the numbers shift and the map change colours and stocks and economies around the world fall as Trump slowly but steadily pulled ahead.

By the time it was light, Ryan and Tai were making crepes on the back porch and the election had reached a kind of stalemate, with them refusing to call some critical states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Everything kept slanting in Trump’s favour. People began crying. Hillary’s person told everyone to go home and implied that she would not be conceding. And then, suddenly, there was everyone saying she’d conceded. The phrase “President elect Donald J Trump” got actually spoken on a live international broadcast.

We all sat in shock. The people who hadn’t skipped their language classes got told over group text. Dr Laurent sent a message that he’s available to conduct or facilitate counselling for anyone who needs it. We have been given the afternoon off—as a day to mourn and cope. The staff here has been wonderful so far, understanding that this is a hard day for us, modifying the schedule to give us time.

. . . How did this joke in bad taste become reality? How did we elect such hateful rhetoric, such blatant disrespect and narcissism and misogyny and racism and xenophobia? Lori put it well when she said, with tears in her eyes, “How can I face Rwandans?” How do we talk about empowering women when we’ve just elected a man who devalues them at every turn? How do we promote peace and international friendship with xenophobia sitting in the oval office?

I’m so grateful not to be in the country right now. I’m so glad to be here for two years. But I don’t know what I’m going to tell people who ask me. I’m dreading the comments and questions.

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Saturday 13 November 2016

We’re at the genocide memorial, and I’m crying. All of us are crying. We just walked through the reflection of hell. I saw time-yellowed photos of families, all dead now. A photo of a woman teaching her child to walk. A young boy careening around a corner on a bike too big for him. Siblings holding hands. The last words of a ten-year-old who was killed with machetes, the favourite food of a two-year-old smashed against a wall. A large photo of a little girl stabbed through the eyes. Children. There are a million stories—literally—of torture and killings and death and betrayal.

But there are also a thousand stories of people protecting each other and sacrificing for each other and coming together. It’s too much. There’s nothing in me with the capacity to accept or understand that this happened, much less why. And there’s an entire floor of information about other genocides around the world. How does this happen so often? How does such hate proliferate? How does this keep happening? And how is it always, always followed by denial? To commit such horrific atrocities and then to claim they never happened?

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Saturday 19 November 2016

Site change: Apparently the house they had found for me is in a big compound that’s still under construction, meaning people would be coming and going all the time. So instead of fighting that, they decided it would be better to do a site change. So now I’m placed in the south. Here is what I know: It’s in the south, and the house is already approved and is, according to Kassim, beautiful. I’m feeling pretty good about the entire situation, though. I’m sorry to be losing all the work I did to know my site and the people in the east. But I’m also excited to see a new site and to officially have a house and to see Butare.

 

Monday 21 November 2016

It’s an actual Clint Barton day and I have no Pizza Dog to comfort me.

I felt really good about my lesson [for model school], but when I went to do it, things fell apart. I tried to take on some disciplinary issues that I probably should have just ignored, and then things devolved. It felt like a sinkhole. I was waiting for it to end.

 

Tuesday 22 November 2016

This morning was definitely better than yesterday. My class specifically went really well, I think. We scaled way back and just tackled sunny, windy, cloudy, and rainy. They understood the crossword puzzle after the first round and I’m trying to figure out how to make it an individual activity. But it went well and tomorrow we’re talking about past and present and future tenses in context of the weather. Hopefully that’ll go well and give me a good idea of how to handle Thursday and Friday, because on Friday I’m being evaluated.

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Friday 25 November 2016

It’s my last day in P6 and I find myself feeling surprisingly sentimental about it. I’ve gone from abject terror and wishing the morning over to feeling like they really are my students. I like recognising their faces, knowing when they get it and when they don’t, knowing when a kid getting the right answer is a big deal for them, being able to divide the room into strategic groups so there’s a decent English speaker in each group. I let a few of them stay during the break to finish taking notes off each other’s group projects, and one little girl paused going out the door, opened it a crack, just far enough to wink at me before she closed it.

I think the whole TPI went pretty well. And even if I didn’t get good marks, I’m happy because the group of boys at the back who never seem to get anything, ever, did a pretty good job on their group project—definitely some grammar and usage problems, but overall they came up with solid ideas and managed to communicate them, and I’m proud of them.

So I’ll finish my story about my embarrassing fall: I was heading home from the Hub about ten minutes late, so I was booking it. I must have not lifted my foot high enough, because I hit the curb, thought I could recover, realised midair that I couldn’t, and hit the pavement hard.

I was up in mere seconds, and I was halfway to the corner before I realised my skirt was split down almost an entire side seam. Then when I looked down at it I realised I couldn’t see, and I had to walk back just hoping my glasses were somewhere, just hoping they hadn’t been stepped on—hoping I wouldn’t step on them trying to find them in the dark.

I’ve never felt so vulnerable as when I managed to mbabarira [“forgive me”] a couple of mamas into stopping and said, “Ushobora kumfasha? Naguye, kandi imarinete…” [“Can you help me? I fell, and glasses…”] they understood the significance immediately, and I got some very sympathetic “Mana weee!”s before a uniformed big-gun-toting policeman brought them to me, cradling them in his hands like a baby bird, saying, “So sorry. So sorry.”

They were unbroken. I put them on, said, “Murakoze cyane,” [“thank you very much”] and, because they seemed amazed when I added, “Bibaho” [“it happens”] to their continued Mana we-ing and so sorry-ing, I booked it home. I had a cardigan to wrap around my waist to hide the split skirt, and it wasn’t til I got to my room to change that I realised I had two skinned knees, a skinned shoulder, and blood all over. Yesterday I realised I also skinned the back of one wrist (?? how??) and everything is pretty bruised.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and I keep forgetting about it except when I see it listed on people’s Facebook statuses or when people message me to say happy Thanksgiving and I have to explain that we don’t get the holiday, but we do get to slaughter eleven turkeys…

 

Monday 28 November 2016

I spent Saturday morning doing umuganda. Papa and I helped make a road with hoes and machetes, from which I have a blister on one hand, and then we stood about in the woods for a very long time while the village voted on new leaders, of which my Papa is apparently one. They gave short impromptu speeches and then the nominees stood in a row with their backs to the group and everyone else queued up behind whomever they wanted to vote for and someone counted them, and that was the extent of the formal voting.

I did my laundry because my clothes were beginning to smell funny and it was hot and there were no dark clouds in the sky. Then I left my laundry on the line and went to the Hub to lesson plan. It was so hot and I was congratulating myself on having finally after two months picked a non-rainy day to do my laundry. I’d been at the Hub all of maybe fifteen minutes when it started pouring. So much for my laundry.

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Tuesday 29 November 2016

I am tired. Lesson prep took much longer than I expected last night, and life in general here still takes much more effort than life other places. I know my way around now and can more or less communicate, but I’m still being watched every moment, even at home, or at least that’s how it feels, and I’m on a very rigid schedule that I can’t control, and I’m on a steady diet of miscommunication from people in charge, and it’s exhausting.

I’m grouchy today, though. I’m not always this grouchy. And I really do love being here. For everything I get annoyed with there are a dozen things to love. For example, my latest favourite thing is dignified older mamas wearing traditional dresses in ironic igitenge [local patterned material]. The little old lady in faded Power Puff Girls print; the woman on the street covered in dollar, pound, and euro signs; the tall woman at umuganda covered in pictures of mosquitos in slashed circles in between word clouds saying that we can eradicate malaria in Rwanda (or something like that; it was in Kinyarwanda—I only understood most of the words).

 

Wednesday 30 November 2016

The date for swear-in has changed yet again—we now have a week and a half. We all have to get packing and shopping in a hurry. Suddenly everything is getting real and this strange host family/PST limbo is ending. LPI is on Wednesday. We leave for Kigali on Saturday, we swear in on Sunday, and then we start shipping out to our sites on Monday. I’m in a state of lowkey panic.

 

Saturday 20 December 2016

This week has felt strange, unreal. Not like one last push to the end, the way finals feels, but like everything is a lackadaisical rehearsal—like we’re just filling time and going through motions. . .

I spent about an hour last night packing and sorting and now I think it will be the work of twenty minutes tonight to finish organising the suitcase and putting the last few items in.

It’s crazy to think PST is over. Tonight will be my last night with my host family. Suddenly everything will be real.

What then?

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Thursday 15 December 2016

I probably should’ve written days ago. I meant to, but I’ve been so exhausted lately. Everything got really, really busy. We went to Kigali on Sunday, which involved an obscene amount of everyone’s luggage being loaded into Peace Corps cars, unloaded at the Hub, loaded into big lorries, and unloaded at the hotel. Then there was shopping, eating ice cream outside Nakumatt, being called a spy by a man on a bus…

Monday was the swearing in ceremony. We all looked fabulous despite the rain, danced pretty decently I think, ate delicious food, and swore to uphold the Constitution and, basically, the Peace Corps legacy.

Tuesday most of us shipped out for site installation, including me. That turned out to be a long process involving several stops for mattresses and gas stoves, a rushed market visit in Huye, and a longer-than-expected period of watching the driver and my landlord talk while Holly and I stood by waiting.

And then they were all gone and I was left with a house and a lot of keys and all my things in a pile on the floor.

I spent several hours getting all my things more or less organised and didn’t eat until noon yesterday, when I finally boiled water for ramen. I did all my laundry except my sheets and towels that morning and walked into town in search of protein. I wound up with ten eggs—I’m already sick of them, but there’s no helping it until I get peanut flour and beans.

My landlord’s wife has stopped by every night to ask how I’m doing and remind me to ask if I need anything. Last night I asked where to buy charcoal, and this morning I woke up to a phone call from Theophile saying he had someone on the way with charcoal. He’s been a fantastic neighbour/landlord so far.

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Friday 16 December 2016

Here are some things I have done and seen since coming to site:

I’ve seen a woman carrying an entire banana plant on her head as she walked down the road. I’ve seen three or four dogs, none of which seem to hate or fear humans, which makes me optimistic. I’ve seen seventeen episodes of Friends, which I find very soothing at this point in my life. It’s a brief journey back to a world I almost lived in but never quite did—one I spent years wishing to be in before realising it didn’t exist and that I’d hate it if it did.

I’ve swept and mopped my whole house, then swept it again after carrying a filthy urwego—ladder—through to pound nails into my ceiling to hang my mosquito net. I’ve lit my imbabura for yesterday’s lunch, which used up a whole box of matches and several hours, and then spent several more hours and another entire box of matches failing to light it for yesterday’s dinner. I’ve bought more matches and a handful of candles, which have relieved me of the time, stress, and uncertainty related to lighting the coals as well as the pride and satisfaction related to having built a fire using nothing more than matches, air, skill, and paper-ish products probably coated with pollutants.

I’ve walked to town by myself twice. It makes me far more anxious than I had expected. That’s probably partially a result of walking through a strange, people-filled place alone and partly a result of town feeling like an eerie old memory, like half a dream. Like I may have once been there as a child. It’s all dirt; strange, steep, water-cracked rolling spines of dirt, all built over with wooden-slat shanties and shacks, all cracked and weathered and clinging to the steep dirt, wide spaces glaring between the boards, fading signs advertising them as restaurants or shops when they barely look like more than oversize fruit crates, doors open or half-heartedly covered with thin sheets or curtains, sullen, suspicious people pausing to watch me as I pass, barely answering if I greet them or ask a question. Like a set of the California Gold Rush or the Great Depression.

Anyway. Today I tried to go to the market, which is a lot of rickety wooden tables covering a wide dirt plain, but that’s all it was when I got there—empty wooden tables. I asked Mama Lysette and she said the market doesn’t start til 4:00, which makes some sense now but was very confusing at the time and left me returning home feeling very defeated.

I spent all day inside apart from that adventure. Mama Lysette came by to ask why I hadn’t come to visit and tell me that it’s bad to be inside alone all day, to which I tried to explain that I’d gone by but she hadn’t been there and that I had been out several times. That ended in me trying to tell her that I’d gone out to buy milk and her saying, “You want milk? I have milk. In the morning, at night, if you want milk, just ask, I give you milk.”

And then, before I went inside, she came back and said, “Come, I give you milk now.”

That ended in me having a pitcher of fresh milk and, because she wouldn’t hear me explaining that I had already bought eggs, she said, “I give you two eggs for tonight,” and sent me home with six.

She’s so motherly that I just do anything she says.

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Wednesday 28 December 2016

It’s apparently only been a couple of weeks since I wrote, but it feels like a lifetime. This little town is beginning to feel more like home. I experience only normal levels of anxiety when I leave my house, and as long as I keep moving I’m generally fine.

I’ve been back and forth between really good and really bad. Some days I think I’m making friends and learning my way around. Other times I cry because I can’t understand what the neighbour’s umukozi is saying about my lights.

It’s not the physical difficulties of living here that get to me, or even the language and culture barriers; it’s feeling like I have to be social and make lots of friends or Peace Corps will think I’m doing it wrong. I’m fine with knowing a few people and not interacting much, but IntegrationTM seems to mean I have to go everywhere and meet everybody and I am just not good at that.

 

Sunday 1 January 2017

It doesn’t feel like a new year. I mean, last year didn’t either, or the year before that—it never really does—but this year especially I have nothing on which to pin a sense of time’s passage. I spent last night watching movies til midnight, but aside from staying up that late, it felt like any other night.

Well. Not any other. Yesterday was one of those days. My water was out intermittently all day. My electricity went out. Mobile banking refused to let me pay for more, so I didn’t have electricity til after dark, when Theophile sent me a code to put in the meter.

I think what it is, is failed expectations. I think I had expected myself to be somehow further, to have done or be doing more. I’m trying really hard to let go of that, to let myself do this in a way that works for me and to let Peace Corps’s expectations for exactly what my life here will look like fall by the wayside. Not easy, but I’m trying.

 

Thursday 12 January 2017

I may be mitigating my loneliness in about two months. There’s a PCV whose dog is due any day now. I still have to check with Theophile, but I’m really hopeful. The company would be really nice. I’ve even tried harder to leave my house to prove I deserve a puppy. Which, I know, is pathetic, but I’ve been trying.

Also Lysette seems to have taught my name to most of the children on the street, and there’s that little boy who runs to hug me any time I’m out.

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Monday 23 January 2017

I have survived my first day of Rwandan school.

Yesterday I managed to get told to show up at 8:00. This morning I showed up at 7:50 to find all the teachers in the teacher room with the headmaster saying something or other to them in Kinyarwanda.

I was introduced, and over the course of the next several hours I saw the library; stood around a ton; met about a hundred students, all of whom were compelled by Alexis to tell me their names and “what you like in general,” which they did for the most part inaudibly, and some of whom he compelled to ask me questions and then sing and dance for me; talked with all the English teachers—all of whom are male and all of whom tried hard to show off their English; received my timetable; had lunch at home.

I went back at 2:20 anticipating being taken to my next class, but Alexis ignored me and I spent the last two hours of school sitting with a group of mostly maths teachers and chatting off and on. I think we made friends. We laughed a lot at least and I remember some names.

 

Tuesday 31 January 2017

What should I say about the past week? I’ve had ups and downs, usually alternating every minute or so.

Things I have done:

  • taught a lot of classes with marginal success, but more success than I really expected
  • met probably every child in this village
  • made friends with a woman named Violette who is unfortunately going back to Kigali in a week to study ophthalmology and is therefore not a viable person to ask to be my tutor in Kinyarwanda
  • marked a lot of really rough English exercises
  • watched my garden grow, fretted over the curled leaves on my cucumbers, and murmured encouragements to my tiny but apparently thriving basil and oregano (Note: I never did get to harvest my baby crops; about a month later the neighbour’s umukozi killed them when she cleaned my yard, apparently not knowing they were food. I mourned.)
  • finished reading Beloved and started Good Omens, which is already hilarious and is a good chaser for Beloved, which was frustrating and dark and important but frankly unenjoyable

Things I have learnt:

  • stopping to explain and define every single word is necessary but when the students actually understand, they do participate
  • the library is a mess and there are no books for my classes and the only non-textbook books are a series of African authors which is good but (1) does not broaden these kids’ understanding of the world beyond Africa and (2) are mostly way beyond these kids’ comprehension level
  • there is an electric piano at the school which I’m allowed to play if I can ever find out who keeps the keys to that room
  • there is already an English/debate club run by the language teachers
  • if I don’t have enough cash the lady at the milk store will let me take the oil and pay her back on Monday
  • agatebe should cost 500RWF, not the thousand I paid the man on the side of the road, but I don’t mind and didn’t have a 500 note with me anyway

Today I thought I heard a kitten crying and went out the front door to see, but it was just a kid with some kind of squeaky toy, but then three children ran onto my porch, so I couldn’t just go back inside, so I didn’t know what to do besides keep standing there but then I remembered I have all these tiny lumps of chalk that I won’t actually use in school, so I brought them out to let the kids draw and wound up with half the neighbourhood on my porch doodling in chalk on the concrete. Integration checked off my list for the day.

At some point I did go over to pay for the milk and Mama Lysette flatly refused to take it. She insisted that it’s free and that as long as she has milk, I will have milk—despite earlier having quoted me the price of 150/half litre and stipulated that I should pay monthly not daily. And because the woman has two abakozi, two cows, two incomes, and a fridge, I have no qualms about taking the free milk and being humbled by and grateful for her generosity.

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Thursday 17 February 2017

Today I left class early. I looked at my watch, got confused, my brain shut down, and I decided we were done. Twenty minutes early. And I realised it was 20 minutes early before I ever left the room but I just couldn’t make myself stop.

 

Sunday 19 February 2017

I’m lying in bed with my mind spinning, and part of it is just the kind of day it is, and part of it is this: I’m very suddenly about to own a kitten. I mean I’ve been planning to get a kitten as well as a puppy for…well, ever since I found out they were both options. But I haven’t heard anything about available kittens so I figured I’d be waiting six-ish months until Irene’s cat has hers. But then tonight I saw a photo Giulia posted of her new kitten, so naturally I asked where she got it. Turns out some expat in Kigali has two kittens left.

I messaged her and am very suddenly looking at a very full week: Tuesday, shopping in Nyanza for food dishes and a kitten basket and fish to feed it, Thursday, after school, going to Kigali for a kitten.

There’s a part of me that has deep reservations about all this. What if I’m being too hasty? What if this is bad timing or an overall bad decision and I’m being equal parts stupid and selfish, getting what I want now and ignoring the long-term commitment? But part of me thinks that’s really not valid, that I can solve problems as they arise, that I’m so tired of being alone and that if I don’t do this now I’ll never do it. And that’s the part I’m listening to. Plus this will be a great excuse not to visit people if I don’t want to—sorry, can’t, I have Carlos and Cecil to look after.

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Monday 27 February 2017

Today I have:

  • docked an entire class points because a kid talked after I said “if anyone talks again I’ll dock points”
  • walked home in the rain for lunch
  • walked back late because of the rain
  • had a Rwandan teacher say, “Wait, let me do like you,” and then take exaggeratedly long strides and say, “Such power”
  • drank a half litre of icyayi [tea] that I didn’t want because I had an hour to kill between my last class and the English club debate
  • not had a debate because the ground was too muddy for anyone to sit and watch, which nobody bothered to tell me til I showed up looking for them at 4:00
  • wondered as I left whether I should have stayed to do other English club-type things
  • bought eggs, amandazi, and a Kinyarwanda Bible from Festine
  • had a very friendly confusion over price because I had the words for “five” and “six” mixed up—again
  • left without paying the last igihumbi [thousand] because when she says “Uzagaruka” [“You will return”] I can never figure out how to say, “I don’t need this now, so I could come back for it and not owe you money”
  • told two children they could gusura nyuma yo koza inzu [“to visit after to wash house”] and hoped they understood in spite of my bad (lack of) conjugation—they haven’t knocked again so I guess it’s fine?
  • admired the views around my community, first buried in clouds and fog and rain, looking like Brigadoon rising from the mist, then glistening in the sun
  • breathed wind rising off the valley so fresh that I felt sure it had been born in the mountains and flown down to visit me in a fit of exhilaration
  • cuddled Carlos, pet Carlos, talked to Carlos, kissed Carlos, played with Carlos

 

Sunday 5 March 2017

On Friday I went to get Cecil, which was a long trip that involved a dozen people looking at her through the basket while I waited for a twege, a very long, very bumpy twege ride, a long wait for a bus, and then a long bus all with a puppy in a basket.

Violette brought her son to visit. They started out very wary of the animals but made friends. The WASAC guy came and called them good animals. Yesterday when Cecil first came home all the neighbour kids came to visit, rapidly got over their fear, and watched the end of The Jungle Book while intermittently trying to pet either her or Carlos. And Theophile and Mama Lysette came over to see her and agreed that she’s very small and sweet and not scary.

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Thursday 9 March 2017

I’m feeling rather inadequate lately. I’m having trouble thinking I’m worth that 5USD a day. I feel so guilty about all the things I have and the space I take up. I had a moment today when I had to consciously remind myself that my village is not losing anything by my presence—that they’re not paying me, or housing me for free, or feeding me (with the exception of the milk). Nobody’s unemployed because of me, assuming PC regulations are being followed. Even at my bare minimum I bring more benefits than costs to the people here.

But I still feel like a drain on everyone. I teach a quarter of the time other teachers do. I don’t do half the things they do. Today the headmaster told me there’s a training on how to use computers in teaching and when he said I didn’t have to go, I just didn’t. I also came up with an excuse to skip the sex ed/AIDS prevention thing earlier this week. I did go to English club that one time, but I’ve never gone back (it keeps getting cancelled). We talked about a choir, but then never did anything about it. I have books now. But I’ve not talked to anyone about it or found a way to share them with people. I have dreams of making my living room into a neighbourhood-friendly study room, but at the same time my anxiety spikes when anyone comes in my house. I feel ineffective in the classroom and find myself resenting the students for not understanding and the school for having no resources and the curriculum for demanding that we work on complex concepts so far beyond the students’ comprehension—of both the content and the language it’s conveyed in.

I love so much about my life here and think that’s part of why I feel guilty. I think I’m afraid that my focus is on my comfort, not my work, that I’m somehow not good enough to deserve this—living for the first time in my own house, with a puppy and a kitten; and IST is in two weeks and I haven’t talked to my sector officials, and I haven’t prepared exams, and I haven’t finished planning revisions, and my CNA isn’t done, and the thing is that I get opportunities to do other things, but they all seem so exhausting, and I keep thinking I should do them—should want to do them—but I just…don’t.

 

Monday 20 March 2017

It’s exam week. I must confess myself still at a total loss as to how the exams are administered here. Alexis took me down to a room filled with teachers and papers clearly organised in some manner or other, though I couldn’t get a proper view through all the teachers. He then invited me to watch the 8:00 exam he was supervising. I went with him to a classroom full of students from at least five different secondary levels—though not all the students of any level—and proceeded to hand out various exams to them and then tell me I could wait in the teacher room. So my brief glimpse of the examining procedure left me more confused than otherwise.

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Monday, 10 April 2017

Friday was the seventh of April. The twenty-third anniversary of the first day of the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. Rwanda commemorates the genocide every year—for all of April, to some degree, but specifically on the 7th.

It was…a long experience. It involved a lawyer telling us about what not to say about ideology, the men’s choir from the Adventist church singing surprisingly beautiful songs about hope, unity, Jesus, something about rukundo ryirakonje and the earth being old and us journeying. It involved a near-silent “walk of remember” to the Songa memorial a couple of kms away, involving so many people I could see them around the hills. We stood at the memorial for two or three hours listening to speeches and singing and Kagame talking on the radio. It was very moving.

 

Sunday 16 April 2017

It’s Easter. A strange Easter; I’m not at school, I’m not on chorale tour, I’m not with friends, I’m not home. I’m not in church. I’m not putting on pretty clothes. I’m not eating ham or mashed potatoes.

Here’s what I am doing: I’m curled up on the couch with my puppy, my journal, and my phone.

Last night I considered going to church today, since it’s Easter, but I’m not sure what time the service is or if I could find the church again by myself, and also I didn’t feel like leaving the house. I read part of the crucifixion passage in Kinyarwanda before bed and called it good.

And today is…rough. I woke up, fed the animals, did a 7-minute workout, felt great, and I decided to drink coffee and listen to choral hymns. And here’s where things began to be wrong.

First off, I have no matches because I failed myself this week, so no way to make breakfast. (Actually, I wound up eating tuna and mustard out of a tin. Yummy, but still.) And a few things happened all at once: my stomach began seriously hurting; Cecil and Carlos fought; I realised my room smells slightly of decomp and worried a bird had died in the ceiling; Cecil went under my bed and it turned out it wasn’t a dead bird, it was that Carlos had pooped under there.

So here’s me on Easter, curled up on the couch with stomach pain and no food.

It’s really not terrible. I just want to curl up and sleep the day away. And I might.

 

Friday 28 April 2017

Two weeks in and school isn’t a disaster yet. In fact, I think things are going better than last term, probably due in part to my decision to slow down a ton and not worry about whether we finish anything on time.

This week I finally talked to Jonas about tutoring me.

I also talked to the headmaster about logistics for a choir and made an announcement about it to the kids at lunch yesterday.

And the one from Congo, the one whose name I can never remember, asked me when I would start teaching him English, so I think it’s time to start an English club of sorts for teachers if I can figure out how or when to do it.

Oh—and after several weeks of not knocking on my door—probably because I spent several weeks ignoring them—I had kids ask for a film a couple nights ago, and more kids than fit on my couch showed up to watch The Lion King.

Still, yesterday was rough. I woke up with that pre-sick tickle in my throat. I clamped down hard and, to be honest, a bit mean on some classroom issues. I nearly cried at a totally reasonable change to my schedule, and nearly cried again when I got confusing information from people just trying to help me. In a fragile state of rising fever and headache and affective barrier, I pled ill, came home for lunch, and didn’t go back. Instead I cuddled with my babies, watched four straight episodes of Daredevil, ate a box of chocolate-covered pretzels and a protein bar, read most of Through the Language Glass, discovered my water was out, told children to go home because “ndarwaye” [“I’m sick”], fried an egg, and went to bed exhausted by nine.

I slept til 8:30—bless Carlos for not waking me early—and had a leisurely morning despite my sinuses definitely being swollen. I have water again, so I had the luxury of doing my dishes and bathing after my workout. I cleaned and swept, and I’m no longer feeling the extreme hopelessness or that sense of inevitable insufficiency I did yesterday.

I never consider ET-ing, but I have a near-constant fear of being told to leave because I’m not doing enough. It’s probably irrational and unlikely, but on days like yesterday, it feels very reasonable and real.

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Saturday 27 May 2017

It’s been a surprisingly good week all around. I feel like all my literature classes are beginning to catch on. My English class got really involved the other day, the S5 kids did a great job on their debate, and the video clips were a hit in S4. I successfully bought goat scraps for Cecil, which she happily buried all over the yard like she was performing some dark ritual and then ate with gusto when I dug them up and boiled them for her.

Yesterday Kassim dropped by with an hour’s forewarning to do a site visit, since he was in the area. Overall I’m apparently doing well. Points of interest:

  • my headmaster and sector officials think I’m getting good results with my classes
  • they all thought I was a spy until they saw that I come to work on time and care about the kids (I guess spies are chronically tardy and heartless?)
  • some people still think I’m a spy because I’m quiet, so I have to say hi to people more or something (?)

 

Sunday 28 May 2017

That Sunday night dread is back. That feeling like my life is not in control and will never be in control. This is compounded this week by the fact that last night I bought the abused puppy from across the street. I didn’t do it spontaneously. I mean, I didn’t see it coming, but I did sit and think about it a solid 10 minutes or so before I told the kid yes. It went like this in my head:

  • The kid does not want the puppy; the kid does not take good care of the puppy. The kid probably can’t afford to feed the puppy.
  • I can currently afford the puppy. I cannot take the puppy to America. But I can almost certainly find someone to adopt her within the next year and a half.
  • I’m tired of hearing sad/hurt/scared puppy yips from across the street. I’m willing to pay to have that stop. The kid probably needs the money.

Things I did not consider:

  • puppy has fleas or ticks—I think fleas
  • puppy takes time because I have to create a new routine.

And now I’m tired and I feel unsuccessful and insufficient. I’m worried that the puppy—Dana—was a bad idea. I’m concerned that maybe I’m just not responsible. I also burned my beans today and have no veggies and feel underprepared for tomorrow.

Sometimes I really just don’t know what I’m doing here. Why I thought I could do this.

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Monday 12 June 2017

I would like to state for the record that tonight I do not feel insufficient, out of control, or unsuccessful.

 

Friday 23 June 2017

The weekend felt too short, probably a combined result of Saturday’s emotionally taxing excursion and my decision to make a board game for my S2 students. The board game itself wasn’t too bad, but I had to make multiple copies of it and write out something like a hundred chance cards by hand, and make dice, and I wound up spending most of Sunday and Tuesday on it and still wound up making game pieces on Wednesday morning while gulping my coffee and watching 7:00 creep nearer.

On the bright side, the game was a massive success, at least on a having fun scale, and I think it got them engaged in the idea of different post-secondary-school options.

Other things that happened this week include:

  • Having choir in the kitchen room because the other room is being renovated, and it turned out okay
  • S5 not sucking at an admittedly poorly designed and vaguely defined economy roleplay game and winding up really invested—no pun intended
  • Getting stung by a caterpillar when I reached in my bag for something
  • Ordering a bookshelf

Oh, and I’ve asked Esperance to help with polite ways to say that only potty-trained kids can visit me and learnt this gem: in Rwandan culture, it is good luck if a child pees on you, because it means you will have many children. …this is an aspect of Rwandan culture that I will not be adopting.

Today things feel okay. They feel manageable. They feel somewhat predictable and organised and controlled. Today I do not feel like a failure.

 

Friday 7 July 2017

I’m slightly laughing seeing the end of that last entry. The next day was the worst. It went like this:

  • My original plan to go to Huye early and do ThingsTM was overturned by waking up to discover it was umuganda and I therefore couldn’t travel till 11:00ish
  • I had to wait so long for a bus because I lost the “which bus company will accurately tell me when a buss is coming” roulette
  • My umuriro went out before I left my house and I twice tried to purchase cash power and twice got I&M notifications that the payment had been made but never got a token number
  • I got to Huye to discover nobody in either Horizon office had a package for me
  • The people selling cash power were all closed and in trying to find them I twice got harassed by a guy in a bar
  • I eventually went back home having successfully done nothing except make a long, anxious, frustrating trip

Relevant follow-up information includes the fact that I did eventually get cash power via mobile money.

This week felt highly successful. This is probably due in large part to two factors: (a) I had a 5-day weekend thanks to Independence Day and Liberation Day, and (b) we watched Mr Bean’s Holiday in almost every class this week. I also taught my S2C kids Heads Up 7 Up, which they seemed to love despite being an entire roomful of shameless cheaters.

 

Monday 17 July 2017

Revisions week was long and short at the same time. And then it was over. My weekend went fast and busy. Friday I spent most of the day sorting out marks for the term.

Then Sunday—yesterday—I went to Kigali to take Dana to her new home. In some ways the trip was amazingly easy. I got a Ritco bus, meaning comfy seats, not too full, nice leg room, USB charger ports. We didn’t make a ton of unnecessary stops, although we did have to stop a few times for vehicles coming from Kagame’s campaign in Huye.

But problems included…well, mostly there was one problem: Dana apparently gets motion sick. She was on a gross cycle of vomiting, eating the vomit, and vomiting again the entire way there, including the taxi ride from Nyabugogo. I’m also pretty sure the taxi driver overcharged me, but I just didn’t question it. I got back home in the dark on another Ritco bus, nearly fell asleep on the bus, and went straight to bed (at 19:30) upon reaching home.

Walking home included passing scads of people presumably coming from the campaign and also getting passed by some six or seven lorries packed completely full of police. Between the bunting draped everywhere, Kagame’s face on every flat surface, and the excess of cops, election season is definitely an experience.

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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.

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 

Q&A

​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.

The four of us take family photos whenever big things happen, such as this one at host family farewell.

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. 

Here’s a quick doodle I did during a training session—I walked home behind these three women one night. Also I can’t get my phone to rotate the picture, so you’ll have to rotate your heads. Sorry.  

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? 

About myself: 

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.

In America… 

​“Mur’Amerika…”

“In America…”

Sometimes we PCVs say to each other things like, “Do you remember in America when we had hot water?” or, “Do you remember in America how berries existed?” It’s partly us missing the conveniences, culture, and cuisine, and partly reminding each other that we’re in a place we never really thought we would be.

We’re so immersed in life here that sometimes we have to sit back and make ourselves consciously notice all the things that are unique to this place, all the details of our settings and experiences that tangibly mark our adventure here as patently different from where we were before.

I could write you a blow-by-blow description of my daily life, but perhaps you will have a better holistic understanding of my situation if I tell you about the things that have happened in the past few weeks that would not happen in America.

In America, opening conversations with strangers would not include the following questions: 

  • “How old are you?” (followed directly by “You’re just a child!”)
  • “Are you married?” (followed directly by “Why not?” or 
  • “When will you get married?”) 
  • “Do you still have both parents?”

In America, my white skin would not cause ripples of whispers and hisses and whistles and shouts, and nobody would immediately assume that I speak French. I would not be hugged by random toddlers in the street, mothers would not point me out to their children, and babies would not burst into terrified tears at the sight of me. 

In America, I would not walk into the third day of school and hear that the administration still has not made an academic calendar or official timetable. I would not try to find the curriculum for my classes three days after beginning teaching, and I would not have the subjects I teach changed a week into the schoolyear.
In America I would not walk home for lunch surrounded by fifty or so unsupervised three- to ten-year-olds.

In America, I would not see a man carrying three stools on his head, and if I did, I would not cross the road to ask if they were for sale. He would not then tell me a price higher than the going rate, and I would not then counter with a lower price. He would not unbind the chairs and have me sit in each of them right there on the side of the road. I would not then walk home carrying a chair.

In America, I would not consider taking a bus to the nearest large city just to get internet, and I would not hoard my non-burnable rubbish to carry to that city—the nearest place with receptacles for waste disposal.
In America, I would not wake to roosters cackling, cows bellowing, and goats shrieking in the streets, nor to the distinctive sound of magpies fighting for prime perches on my roof.

In America, I would not stay home from work because it was raining.

In America, I would not walk to an open-air market several times a week for basic groceries, and I would not carry those groceries home in a backpack.

In America, I would not coax charcoal into flame in order to cook. I would not pay close attention to my protein intake, and I would not eat cabbage in nearly every meal. I would not—along with about a dozen other PCVs—nearly burst into tears at the sight of homemade chocolate-chip cookies.

In America, I would not feel obliged to introduce visiting friends to all of my neighbours, and little old ladies in the market would not feel obliged to inform those friends that I am “muzungu wacyu”—“our foreigner.”
In America, a shopkeeper would not send me home with goods I have not paid for, saying, “You’ll come back tomorrow.”

In America, children would not show up at school on a Saturday armed with machetes and hoes and proceed to cut down all the coffee trees and dig a volleyball court out of the hill behind the nursery building, and in America, I would not join them if they did.

In America, a stranger would not meet me in the street, ask if I live alone, and then appear in the evening to visit with me because “it is not good to be alone.”
In America, my neighbour would not give me beans and milk purely because she has them and I do not. My neighbour would not check on me every few nights to ask if I’m doing alright, and she would not teach the neighbourhood my name. My boss would not consider it his duty to make sure that I “live well” in my neighbourhood.

When I stop to think about it, there’s very little of my life here that would happen in America. Some of it is hard. Some of it is so easy I almost don’t notice it. Sometimes the culture here feels like a puzzle I’ll never fit into, and sometimes it takes my breath away with its kindness and welcome.

The important thing isn’t what would be happening if I were in America right now; it’s that I’m not. I’m here, in Rwanda, living this life with these people, and I love it.

No Problem

Ntakibazo. 

No problem. 

It’s the unofficial slogan of Peace  Corps Rwanda. The number of things that are not a problem in this country constantly amazes me. 

Transportation is ntakibazo. 

When the bus takes us to the wrong place, when we spend three hours looking for a ride home, when a friend can’t find a bus to her site and needs to stay with me for the second unplanned night, when a four hour trip turns into an eight hour trip… Ntakibazo. 

 Integration is ntakibazo. 

When I’m alone in a new village without matches or charcoal, when strangers come to the door and I understand only a few of their words, when I cannot find the market for two weeks, when anxiety paralyses me in my house until my neighbour comes to my rescue… Ntakibazo. 

Teaching is ntakibazo. 

When I don’t know what classes to plan for until after the first day, when I can’t understand my students and they can’t understand me, when there are no textbooks, when I don’t know the rules, when my timetable changes for the fifth time in three days… Ntakibazo. 


I’ve come to understand that the reason so many things are ntakibazo is that no matter where I am or what predicament I find myself in, someone will help me. This is a culture that believes in fostering community, in supporting one another, in cultivating a strength that comes only from unity. 
Transportation is ntakibazo because when I cannot find my bus, a stranger will walk me across the bus park. Because when I don’t know my stop, the driver will point it out for me. Because when I need to be somewhere and the bus schedule is off, two competing bus companies will collaborate to get me to the right place at the right time. 

Integration is ntakibazo because when I cannot find the market, my neighbour will take her morning to help me shop. Because when I stop by the umudozi—seamstress—for cushion covers, she will introduce me to her whole compound. Because when I feel like a stranger, the little girls next door will teach my name to every child on our street. 

Teaching is ntakibazo because when I am lost, someone will show me to my classes. Because when one day the students are terrified and refuse to answer questions, the next day a few brave ones will speak up. Because I feel out of my depth at every moment, but together we will grow and learn. 

The day before school began, our Ed8 group chat exploded with texts about our fears, our doubts, our incredulity at the total lack of communication and the total impossibility of our job, and my friend Claire spoke up:

Y’all, we can do this. It’s no more absurd than the first day of model school, or the way they rewrote the TPI the day before, or when PC told us we were responsible for making our way back from site visit with barely any language training about transportation. This is not even the most ambiguous, stressful thing we’ve been asked to do in this country. We’re all gonna be alright.

And she was right. 

Because Rwanda has taught me that no matter whatnot gets thrown our way, when you support one another, everything is ntakibazo. 

One Who Works Willingly

​Ndi umukorerabushake. 

I am a volunteer. 

Umukorerabushake” is perhaps the longest Kinyarwanda word I know, and I learned it early on by memorising its parts:

Umu: the singular prefix for a person

Korera, derived from gukora: to work

Ubushake: a will or desire

Put all together, it literally means “one who works willingly.”

This is something I understood when I applied to come to Rwanda, that I would be working willingly. 

I remember saying once, “In the worst case scenario, I find out it’s hard and I hate it, and I work really hard for two years to do something that helps someone else.” It sounded noble at the time, but more than that, it sounded feasible. 

Today I’m lying on my bed, alone in my house, the only American in my village (although I keep hearing about a French guy in town?), and the term umukorerabushake seems very far away. Work seems like an abstract concept. Until school starts in about three weeks, my only work is integrating—a small word that carries a big punch in the Peace Corps. 

On paper and in PST lectures, “integration” means walking every road in my village, meeting everyone I can, visiting houses, attending religious and social functions, asking questions, memorising names, learning everything I can about the village, it’s people, and my place in it. 

But in real life, integration is much less standardised and much more personal. 
For some of my friends, it has meant joining church choirs, playing sports, or hiring local kids to haul water. For me, it has often meant simply opening my front door every day. 

Some days, of course, it means more than others. Sometimes it means walking down the street to another teacher’s house and having a conversation on her couch. But sometimes I consider it successful integration if I manage to return my neighbour’s milk jug in the morning. 

On Tuesday it meant greeting everyone I passed on the way to the market and learning the name of the girl who helped me find garlic and potatoes. But then it meant not crying on the way home before I locked myself in the house for the evening. 

A sense of guilt hangs over me, a pressure to do more—to know more names, go more places, to ask more questions. Somehow the freeing idea of working willingly gets lost in this heavier idea of doing all the right things. 

But this isn’t about “all the right things.” Someone pointed out a while back that, “we are the resource Peace Corps sends,” and if they wanted to check off a box, they could ship in some materials, hold a week-long training, and walk away. But they don’t. They ship in us—individuals. Scared, excited, uncertain, hopeful people with a mediocre grasp on the language and a passion for some aspect of this job and a lot of quirks.

Some of us have convenient quirks, like enjoying visiting strangers. Some of us have inconvenient quirks, like anxiety. But we are all here to work willingly. 

In a few weeks, when school starts, that working will involve lesson plans, counterpart teachers, and classrooms full of students, and we will do that willingly. 

Right now, though, sometimes that work involves walking out the door and breathing at the same time. And that, too, we find a way to do willingly.