Why? 

​Kubera iki?

Why?

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

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

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

  • You want to save the world

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

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

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

  •  You need to feel competent

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

  • You can’t stand discomfort

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

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

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

  • You want to live a private life

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

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

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

  • You want all-or-nothing results

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

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

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

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. 

I Am a Teacher

Ndi umwarimu. 

I am a teacher. 

This is a scary identity to claim. Teaching terrifies me for many reasons, not least because it’s a task in which I might fail in front of a large group of people and then have to face them everyday and in which my failure might significantly affect their success. 

I feel underqualified and overwhelmed at every step of the process. 

I’m about to start my second week of model school. Model school consists of several hundred students willing  to show up each morning for classes at a local public school. It’s theoretically mutually beneficial—we get to practice teacing and they get a little between-terms education plus a pen and notebook each. 

The first day felt like drowning. 
There was a time, once, when I was swimming and the waves were too high and my legs were top tired and it took every ounce of effort I had to catch one more lungful of air each time I bobbed above the water and to hold it as I sank under. That is how teaching felt on my first day. 

I stood in front of about ninety primary 6 students and tried to teach them something—anything—and my hands shook and my heart tried to escape my ribcage, and I thought, This was a mistake. I can’t do this. 

But the next morning I walked back into that classroom. The students didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them, and I felt ineffective and miserable, and it was hard.  But it no longer felt like drowning. 

And by the third morning, when the kids rushed in and took their seats in a mob of pushing hands and kicking feet and shouting voices, I recognised a handful of faces. And when I stood in front of them and they chorused, ‘Good morning, teacher!’ I was able to muster an actual smile. 

Over the course of the week, I learned more than I could’ve imagined. 
I learned that the little girl in the yellow shirt knows the scientific definition for every word but may not actually understand the question. 

I learned that the older boy in the back has some sort of learning disorder and that asking him to come up and answer questions is both ineffective and unkind. 

I learned that the girl in the burgundy sweater has a vision problem but can do any assignment I give if I make sure she can see it and understand the directions. 

I learned that teaching children entirely in a language they barely speak requires patience on my part and tenacity on theirs and that learning happens when we all bend a little to accommodate each other.

I learned that this was not a mistake, and that I can do this. 

By Friday, when I said goodbye to them, I had fallen in love with that mob of bright eyes and loud laughter. 

I love their high-fives as they troop out the door, and I love the kids who circle back for a second one. 

I love the little girl who passed in the door to wink at me and the one who caught me after class to ask if I would be at the same school next week so she could still see me. 

I love their enthusiastic shouts when they know the right answer. 

I love the courage in their stammering when they know the right answer but have to frame it in a language their tongues struggle to form. 

I love that they try anyway. 

I am a teacher—not because of a qualification or a job title, but because of those children. 

Because by the end of the week,  the desk of boys at the back, who didn’t seem to understand a word for five straight days, were able to create a group project with correct ideas articulated in understandable English. 

Because I saw shy girls answering by the end of the week. 

Because they left singing the songs we had taught them. 

I am a teacher. There’s a lot to this identity. There are fears and aspirations, beliefs and doubts. There are students in my past and students to come in my future, and there’s a world of new experience waiting. 
But whatever is still to come, this identity is mine right now, thanks to a roomful of Rwandan children. 

I Should Not Have an Education: or, Why I’m Moving to Rwanda

What would you think if I didn’t apply to grad school, I texted my mother, and instead moved to Africa to teach English?

I got her answer almost immediately: Can I call you?

To be fair, she handled the whole situation better than a lot of parents might have, and over the next several hours, I laid out my reasoning behind discarding applications to a handful of top-notch universities and banking on a long-shot application to the Peace Corps.

My main reason: I should not have an education.

Education is an interesting thing, when you sit down to think about it. For centuries, only the wealthy or religious were educated, and the working classes were kept in their place largely by a lack of education. In some times and places, it simply wasn’t available. In others, it was illegal—consider the way white Southerners kept black slaves under control by limiting their education. Today, we consider education a necessity, but millions of children worldwide either can’t go to school or have to drop out before finishing.

Analfabetismo2013unesco

According to UNESCO, 61 million primary school-age children were not enrolled in school in 2010. Of these children, 47% were never expected to enter school, 26% attended school but left, and the remaining 27% are expected to attend school in the future.
(DoSomething.org)

I say that I should not have had an education, and maybe that sounds odd. After all, I’m a white American living above the poverty line. I learned to read and write before kindergarten and maintained high grades from beginning to end of my education, and I never once questioned whether I would go to college (though, as I later learned, my parents did).

But the truth is, I would not have had that education if it were left up to me; I’m only in my position because a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices. I succeeded in high school because my mother devoted time and energy to homeschool six children when the public school system failed us. My parents managed a tight budget to buy me books on my birthdays. I attended a fantastic college mostly on scholarships and work-study, and I studied abroad thanks to generous gifts from family and friends.

“In developing, low-income countries, every additional year of education can increase a person’s future income by an average of 10%.”
(DoSomething.org)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/overseas-development-institute/2577909266/in/photolist-4VNsBu-8HVPCM-5SVQV1-nDu143-fzviyT-9W1vid-9SCSqn-a6EB2f-7VmTTi-ptXje-5yn99M-omJjSi-aiCeyy-8ntqHo-9LQWFw-4eVLyf-6ccQXV-fPTHeV-4eRN4n-miR75-4eVLxs-5rkbrw-4eRN3v-5G4HBz-9Xh8kF-9v2KdX-9v5KgN-efdcc9-9SFKsW-2UXZzH-zc9oU-C4aBt-ai57Xe-9SCSEg-88FiwB-9SFKGS-9SFKm9-9SCSwV-9SCSPR-9SCSMP-9SCSBF-9SCSGF-9SCSz8-9SFKqA-zYJWH-3q8BFc-7yXa4L-9rju35-9Kztfc-cXp2NS

Don’t get me wrong—I worked hard for my education—but I started from a position of privilege, and it was the sacrifices and gifts of other people that put me there. And suddenly, a year ago, wading through grad school applications, I stopped and asked myself, “Why?”

Why go to grad school? Why spend that much more money—someone else’s money, of course—to spend another two years revelling in a writing-centred world of my own? Why go on to a career, to make money to pay for a flat so I could live in a city with a job where I could make money to pay for a flat to…? That day, staring at the bright pictures of classrooms and successful grad students, I thought, What a waste.

Not that education is a waste of money. I think education is one of the most valuable things we have—the chance to broaden our worlds, learn new skills, open up opportunities. But taking an education I’d been essentially given and using it merely to make myself a lucrative life? It sounded thoroughly selfish.

“53% of the world’s out-of-school children are girls and 2/3 of the illiterate people in the world are women.”
(DoSomething.org)

Literature cracked the world open for me. It gave me a place to hide, new thoughts to think, unexpected people to love. It taught me to understand and communicate with diverse groups of people, to consider every perspective, to grieve for every pain. Practically, communication skills make me more likely to get and keep a good job. Literacy gives me the chance to learn outside a formal educational structure, and writing gives me an effective self-therapy option when anxiety strikes.

And, faced with the option to spend two more years either enjoying my education or sharing it, I couldn’t fathom choosing the former.

This leads me to my official announcement: in September, I fly to Kigali, Rwanda to spend the next two years teaching high school English.

I’m thrilled. I’m terrified. I’d love to answer your questions, and I hope you’ll stick around and let me virtually take you with me on this journey.

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*This is a scary announcement because the Peace Corps gives volunteers no guarantee that they won’t be cut from the programme before arrival. My status as a volunteer could change between now and September, although obviously I don’t anticipate that happening.