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. 

In General

Muri rusange… 

In general… 

I haven’t posted in a few weeks. Everything I want to tell you seems obsolete by the time I get it written. 

I wanted to tell you about finishing PST—about how I thought by the end of training I would feel confident and prepared and not like myself anymore but how instead I felt like I did the time the lights went off while I was in the latrine, leaving me in the dark with my trousers down and a family of cockroach was watching me. 

I wanted to tell you about seeing Nirere again—about how I had thought my umukozi was gone forever but how I stepped in the gate one night to see her sitting on the ground holding her baby, how before I left Rwamagana I got a chance to say murabeho—the goodbye you use when you don’t expect to see someone again—and how she hugged me and said something I translated roughly as “go with God,” and how it didn’t matter that I couldn’t entirely understand the words, because we understood each other. 

I wanted to tell you about leaving my host family—about how I never quite lost that anxiety that I was in the wrong place when I was around them but how saying goodbye felt impossibly hard anyway, how we exchanged gifts and hugs and promises to call, and how the little girls held onto me before I rode away in the back of a Peace Corps car. 

I wanted to tell you about swearing-in—about how solemn it felt with our right hands raised and phrases like defend the Constitution and Peace Corps legacy marching out of our mouths in unison but how the gravity of the situation dissipated immediately in selfies and conversations and overeating on the kind of food we won’t see again for months. 

I wanted to tell you about arriving at site—about how freeing it feels to have my own house but how terrifying it is to be alone in this beautiful little town full of staring eyes and muzungu-ing voices where I have yet to find the market or a tea shop. 

In general I wanted to tell you about everything. 

About how I spend my days in a house without furniture, slowly developing a routine, allowing myself to lie about reading or watching Friends if I’ve left the house at least once that day to talk to someone. 

About the first day here when it took me a box and a half of matches to light my imbabura for lunch and how I spent the rest of my matches without once seeing a successful flame that night. 

About the chicken that visits every day, appearing like magic in my backyard or livingroom—about how I followed it yesterday and discovered it squeezes through a drain hole in my compound wall. 

About how it doesn’t feel like Christmas here yet and might never, but that’s turning out to be okay. 

I wanted to tell you that some days I think I can’t do this—that it’s too much for me, that the feeling of suffocating every time I walk down the street is too strong and my communication skills are too weak and I don’t think I can actually help these people. 

But I also wanted to tell you that some days I think this is the best thing I’ve ever done, that my neighbour checks on me despite our language barrier, that a little boy named Gisa stops me at the end of the street to talk every time I go out. 

I’m general, I wanted to tell you that I’m still here and that right now here is hard, but it’s also good, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.