Med-evac 101: How does it work?

Peace Corps often gets a bad reputation for their treatment of Volunteers during potential medical emergencies or medical evacuations. (Often because we only hear about the cases that result in life-long conditions or worse.) I’ll admit that I had a rough go of getting my wisdom teeth extraction approved, but when I eventually did end up in Pretoria, South Africa, the entire process was smooth!

Unfortunately, that month of back-and-forth between medical officers in Washington D.C., Rwanda, and South Africa was pretty emotional and my fate in the Peace Corps was uncertain. So here’s how it all went down for anyone out there looking to self advocate for medical care during Peace Corps.

Medical Tasks Before Departure (a few months before hopping on the plane) – I expressed jaw pain to the dentist during my check-up for final Peace Corps approval. He did an x-ray and determined that all four of my wisdom teeth had made an appearance but were not moving around enough to warrant extraction.

Mid-Service Medical (around August 2015) – I had a dentist appointment in Kigali that was less than stellar, but found no cavities (yay!). My jaw was beginning to hurt more and more and I was getting headaches once or twice a month that I attributed to my shifting teeth. *** This is the point at which I should’ve expressed my jaw pain (to both my PCMO and my dentist). Instead, I assumed I could push off the extraction until I was less busy with projects.

Beginning of March 2016 – With the jaw pain and headaches getting worse, I reached out to my PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) and he agreed I should see the dentist as soon as possible.

Beginning of March 2016 – I had been scheduled for an appointment immediately and headed off the dentist. I spent about five minutes in the dreaded dental chair before the dentist also agreed that my wisdom teeth probably needed extraction. He said that I would need to set up an appointment for a panoramic x-ray (as the machine was currently not working).

Mid April 2016 – By this point, I’d been to the dentist’s office no less than four times. This was pretty difficult to arrange for a Volunteer who lives four hours away from the capital. Each time I would show up at the dentist’s office, I was told that the machine was either “out of order” or the image capture software was not working. I was getting pretty frustrated that Peace Corps continued to send me to the dentist without first confirming my appointment…and that the dentist’s receptionist had failed to call Peace Corps to let them know the machine was down. I could’ve avoided multiple expensive trips to the capital. Each time, I took note of just how many days I had left until my COS date (which was…and still is until I sign some paperwork…August 23rd, 2016). I knew that Volunteers are put on a travel restriction when they reach ninety-days-until-COS; I was scared that restriction would interfere with my potential med-evac.

April 18th, 2016 – I’d finally gotten my panoramic x-rays back and they were submitted to Washington D.C. the next day for med-evac approval. It was plainly clear in the x-ray that all four of my wisdom teeth were impacted, but that the bottom two were interfering with the nerves in my lower jaw. At this point I had 127 days left until my official COS date (well outside of the 90-day travel restriction period).

April 19th-27th, 2016 – I was told that “someone” along the medical chain had denied my med-evac request as they would not approve the wisdom tooth extraction so close to my COS date. Given that my PCMO had just told me that the cost of extraction would run an upwards of $9,000 in the States, I was freaking out. (I don’t even run in the same circles as people with access to that kind of cash.) My PCMO was freaking out for me. He was incredibly supportive and sent a pointed e-mail back asking for reconsideration since my COS date was well beyond 90 days from that point. He was a strong advocate for me; thoroughly explaining my jaw pain and the series of delays at the dentist that kept pushing back the date of the med-evac request.

The back-and-forth that ensued consisted of my PCMO advocating for the med-evac and being told no by some medical official or another (maybe in Washington, D.C., maybe in South Africa). At one point, my PCMO received an e-mail that laid out my options:

  1. Do nothing and COS like normal. Receive a medical voucher and, when I return to the States, have the extraction…possibly front the money (ha. ha. ha)…and hope that the State Department would reimburse me. I was told this was a lengthy and often unsuccessful process.
  2. Be med-evaced to my home of record (Kelseyville) and Peace Corps would pay for the procedure. Following the procedure, I would be unable to return to Rwanda and would be medically separated.
  3. Be med-evaced to my home of record, Peace Corps would pay, and I would be granted early COS (Close of Service) at the end of the 45-day medical hold period.

Option #1 was clearly not an option. I had no way of knowing how the payment process would work and I just couldn’t risk having to pay that amount of money or live with the pain. Option #2 was not an option as there was no way I would take anything less than official COS (Close of Service). I’d been in Rwanda for 23 months at that point and had had a service’s worth of accomplishments built up. I wasn’t about to be medically separated at the home stretch. So, Option #3 it was. I tried to mentally prepare myself to leave Rwanda at the end of May, when they would med-evac me back to California. That would’ve allowed me a little less than one month to pack up my entire life, tie up my secondary projects, and say goodbye to everyone who had come into my life over the course of the last two years. Instead, I broke down into tears in my PCMO’s office and basically didn’t stop stressing out for the next 12 hours. I was not ready.

April 27th, 2016 – I happened to be in the capital for a committee meeting, so I met with my PCMO about my options. Recognizing my hesitancy, in no uncertain terms, I was instructed to bring my Country Director into the mix. Since medical records are obviously confidential, she was unaware of the situation (though she has the most pull at this Post). I gave her a call and explained the whole situation; I also told her (and my PCMO) that they had my permission to discuss the details of case with one another. I wanted everyone involved to have as much information as possible in order to fight the med-evac denial. My Country Director graciously offered to take this on and advocate on my behalf.

April 28th, 2016 – I  walked up to the medical office to get an Aspirin for my jaw pain and as soon as I did, was greeted by a smiling PCMO who said, “Follow me.” He led me to his computer and read aloud a two-sentence e-mail that said, “PCV Melissa Denton is approved for med-evac to Pretoria. Her med-evac confirmation number is…” You’d have thought I won the lottery by my reaction. My PCMO and I hugged it out and he explained what had happened to change the RMO’s (Regional Medical Officer’s) mind: My Country Director had poured over every Peace Corps manual she had in order to find the exact wording on medical evacuations and their relation to COS (Close of Service) dates. Whatever she found and included in the e-mail to the medical officers was apparently enough to have the RMO (Regional Medical Officer) immediately approve my med-avac and wisdom tooth extraction. I called my Country Director, elated, and thanked her for whatever she wrote on my behalf, explaining that it’d worked and I was good to go for the procedure. I also profusely thanked my PCMO since none of it would’ve been possible without his  suggestions on how I dealt with the bureaucracy of it all.

May 10th, 2016 – After thirteen days of stressing that I might not actually get on that plane (who knows what could happen while they were supposedly scheduling my flight to Pretoria), I headed to the airport!

May 11th, 2016 – I woke up in the comfiest bed, smelling bacon, in the cutest little guesthouse in Pretoria, South Africa. (Shout out to The Rose Guesthouse!) This place serves as a guesthouse to all PCVs coming for medical evacuations from East and South Africa. (West Africa countries evacuate to Morocco for medical care, while European and Asian countries evacuate to Thailand. Obviously, Latin American countries evacuate back to America.) I met some of the other PCVs in town for medical care while nomming on delicious (and free!) french toast and coffee. Around 8:30 every day, a Peace Corps driver is sent to pick up all the PCVs who have to head to the office…so away we went! (I should also mention at this point that there was another Rwanda PCV in Pretoria while I was…which made the whole transition really easy…thanks, Henry!) After I saw the RMO (Regional Medical Officer), Dr. Erfan, I was scheduled for an appointment with Dr. Manfred Swanepoel, Maxillo-Facial and Oral Surgeon the next day.

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Home sweet home for ten days…

May 12th, 2016 – I was driven forty-five minutes away to Unitas Hospital where I met with Dr. Swanepoel. This guy is the most interesting character, y’all! I was briefed by Dr. Erfan the day before that he is not a talker…but boy was that an understatement. After spending approximately fifteen seconds in Swanepoel’s super fancy ortho surgeon chair, he told me that my bottom two wisdom teeth needed to be extracted. However, he also explained that my jaw pain was not a result of the shifting teeth…but rather of knots in my maxillo-facial muscles. Apparently I was to massage my jaw muscles daily or I could be referred to a facial masseuse in America for when I returned from service. Anyhow, I was scheduled for wisdom tooth extraction for the next day at 11:00AM.

 

May 13th, 2016 – Surgery day! I was again driven to Unitas Hospital where I was admitted around 10:30AM and sat in a tiny hospital gown feeling entirely too naked for three hours until I was wheeled into the operating room. Let me just say, this is where my nerves of steel went right out the window. I was excited that I’d be under general anesthetic as I already have a fair hatred of the dentist…but being wheeled into the operating room was a tad bit scary. I had an IV drip put in and then waited for the gas to put me under. Juuuust as the mask was going over my face, the anesthetist made a joke about Michael Jackson and comparing me going under to MJ’s drug use. (Great timing, bro.) I was forced awake just thirty minutes later, with the procedure done, slurring my words as I tried to thank all the nurses around me. I had a completely numb jaw, so I probably sounded like a complete idiot.

May 13th-15th, 2016 – I laid in bed, doped up on the most minimal Codeine, while the rest of the merry gang (the other med-evaced PCVs) went about their weekend…rugby games and eating solid food and such.

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I laid in bed for most of the weekend post-surgery…

May 16th, 2016 – I went to the Peace Corps office and met with Dr. Erfan for my check-up. I explained that I felt great, the surgery went fantastically, and I was ready to go back to Rwanda. He said, “Hold up”, and I was scheduled for my actual follow-up with Dr. Swanepoel on Wednesday.

May 17th, 2016 – I went to the famous Lion Park in Pretoria with Henry (fellow Rwanda PCV) and Jatin (Namibia PCV)!

May 18th, 2016 – After my final forty-five-minute drive out to Unitas Hospital, I waited about an hour until I was ushered into Dr. Swanepoel’s office. He spoke to me for literally two minutes and then I was free to go back to the guesthouse. I waited another hour for the driver to return (pretty common, since our AMAZING driver George was responsible for taking all six of us med-evaced PCVs to and picking each of us up from our appointments and physical therapy sessions and surgeries and such.)

May 19th, 2016 – I ate. A lot. And shopped for food. A lot. At this point, three of the other PCVs who had been med-evaced had either returned to the host countries or been sent to America for further treatment. The rest of us pigged out on delivery Dominoes.

May 20th, 2016 – After painfully saying goodbye to my perfect little room at the guesthouse, I got back on a plane to Rwanda and was back in my regional town by 4:00PM that night.

And that’s it! That’s how my med-evac played out.

I do want to mention that, though my experience with staff at my Post was beyond supportive, that’s not always the case with PCVs. Some of the other med-evaced PCVs had an even worse time getting their med-evacs approved…while others were sent immediately to South Africa upon injury or diagnoses and then directly back to America. Every med-evac is different, as it should be based upon the case and the individual. But not having a consistent, streamlined plan of action can convolute treatment for some PCVs who don’t have obvious injuries or symptoms.

I guess my point is…that med-evacs can happen, but sometimes you’ve got to fight for your voice to be heard. We often get placed into these childish roles while serving in the Peace Corps. We’re babied (whether by choice or not) and that’s frustrating when it comes to our own medical care. We should be able to advocate for ourselves, but are instead sidelined while officials who don’t even know us decide what’s best for our bodies. It’s important, if you feel like you need medical attention, to consistently and professionally advocate for yourself. The PCMOs don’t know your body like you do. And the RMOs and officials in D.C. certainly don’t even know you. Reach out to someone who can attest to your character (like your PCMO or your Country Director) and ask them to further advocate if you’re not seeing the results you want.

April in Rwanda: A Foreigner’s Story

It’s been twenty-two years since Rwanda’s Genocide began. Twenty-two years ago nearly one million Rwandans were killed over the course of one-hundred days…all while the world watched, still.

As for me? I hadn’t yet turned three and was safely tucked away in Northern California with my parents…who I’m sure couldn’t even have imagined that two decades later I’d be living in the very same country they were watching on the television.

Today, my community graciously allowed me to join in their memorial ceremony and asked that I share my experience with “other countries who do not know the truth about Rwanda”.

This blog isn’t going to serve as a history lesson, but if you want to learn about what happened in 1994, please go here: Kwibuka.rw.


 

Technically, I was here last April. “Technically” in the sense that I was in Kigali, far from my village, mourning the loss of my friend David. I knew that, following Peace Corps’ memorial service for David, I would be unable to give the support that I knew my community deserved. So I stayed in Kigali until the memorial week had passed and then I went back home to Kibilizi.

So this year, it was extremely important to me that I stay in my community for the entire memorial week (April 7th-April 14th). (Though, as I mentioned before, Rwanda’s Genocide was prolonged until July 4th, 1994, at which point nearly 80% of an entire group of people had been killed.) I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about how today would go. No matter how many years I spend in Rwanda, no matter how many people recognize my efforts to learn Kinyarwanda, and no matter how many people kindly say “You are Rwandan now,” … I know that I am a foreigner.

During this week in particular, I am a foreigner who hails from a country that actively stood by and chose not to intervene in one of the world’s greatest (and preventable) tragedies. Americans watched as Rwandans tore themselves apart because of an ethnic rift that Western societies deepened as they came to colonize East Africa. I’m remaining as politically neutral as I can on this topic (I’m trying, Peace Corps…), but I hope you all can understand that I woke up this morning knowing that I represent a country that failed Rwanda and its people.

I’d spent the better half of this week trying to determine which of my co-workers would be attending the ceremony in our Sector; I didn’t want to go alone. I finally set a time to meet one of my nurses at the health center this morning so we could walk to the ceremony together. Naturally, he went home to shower and change clothes (he was on duty all night) at just the time we were supposed to meet. I didn’t want to be late, so I started walking to the Sector office by myself.

Just as I was starting to second-guess the whole “going solo” thing, I ran into my friend from the Red Cross outside the Sector office and he offered to walk in with me before he had to go set up the PA system. As I walked over to the fairly small group of people, less than fifty at this point, I noticed that the benches had been set up in a half-circle underneath the most beautiful tree.

As I wandered over to the silent group, I started to sweat a bit; I had no idea where to sit. I was worried that I would end up with the Sector officials or an area reserved for widows of the Genocide. Luckily, I saw one of my co-workers and asked her where I should sit. She kindly walked me, hand-in-hand, over to a fairly empty bench and plopped me down next to a very old woman who was pretty wary about sitting next to an umuzungu (foreigner). I don’t blame her; for all she knew I could’ve been one of those awful people who decide to visit Rwanda during April specifically to drop in on memorial ceremonies, take some photos, and promptly return to their hot showers.

[Quick aside: You’ll notice that I’m not using any names and won’t be getting too specific with individual stories aside from my own. Remembering the Genocide and choosing to share stories is a deeply personal choice and I won’t be making that choice for any of my friends and co-workers.]

After I was seated, we waited about thirty minutes for more people to arrive and then got started. The priest from the huge Catholic church in my village (that was built long before 1994) started off the ceremony with some scripture and a few prayers. Then came one of the most memorable parts of the morning; the children’s choir. About thirty children (from age four to twenty) sang gospel in between sermons. I’m not really sure where our vocal chords go wrong in America, but I’ve heard church choirs before…and none of them sound as achingly beautiful as these kids’. Sitting in the morning shade and listening to the children sing about the rebirth of Rwanda moved me in a way that I hope I never forget.

The sermons and singing went on for about an hour while the Sector officials blessed our newly built Sector memorial building (with the names of those who have perished written on the walls inside). Afterward, we (the crowd, now well over five-hundred people) donated to the church and to the orphans who remain in Kibilizi. (Many of these orphans are the sons and daughters of women who were raped and succumbed to AIDS as a result of the terrible war atrocity.) Following the sermons, we all walked over to my health center (right next door) to view the newest Genocide memorial. A statue was constructed to commemorate the health center as it served as a place of safety during the Genocide and treated thousands of Kibilizi’s people.

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Health Center Memorial

After a moment of silence at the health center, we all returned to the Sector office for introductory speeches courtesy of the Sector officials. During the second speech, I was shocked to hear my name. When I looked up, I noticed that everyone in front of me had now turned to look my way. My co-worker, who had now found me and was sitting next to me, turned to me to start translating. After a couple seconds, the man giving the speech switched to English, introduced himself as the Deputy Executive Secretary, and proceeded to repeat his speech in English. (This is where things get a little hazy as I started tearing up and had to bite my tongue, literally, to prevent myself from becoming a blubbery mess.) The man thanked me for coming to today’s ceremony and went on to give thanks that I came to Kibilizi nearly two years ago. Then came the part that got me so emotional. The man said that he was grateful that I had given up a life in America to come be a part of Rwanda and the community in Kibilizi. He asked me if I would please act as an ambassador for Rwanda and show America what this country – his country – is really like.

I was barely holding it together at this point. And I hope you don’t think I’m tooting my own horn here, because I’m not the remarkable part of that speech. What’s remarkable is that a man who has spent two decades repairing our community through reparations and programs of forgiveness asked if I would please tell America what it means to be Rwandan. He asked me to share the truth of this culture, his people, and his home with those back in my home…those who will never have the opportunity to see this truly fantastic place and meet the kindest people I have ever known. For him to ask me that, on a day like today, reminds me why I’m so torn about going back to the U.S. It’s not that I don’t miss my family or friends or creature comforts…it’s that Rwanda has become home for me, as well.

Just after the man’s speech, another gentleman stood and introduced himself as today’s “historian”; he would be reminding us how the Genocide began and what transpired over the hundred days between April 7th and July 4th, 1994. Alas, before he could truly get started, it started pouring in true Rwanda-wet-season fashion. Five-hundred people picked up benches and made a run for the tiny indoor conference hall. And, in true confused-Rwanda-wet-season fashion, the sun came out and starting beating down on the tin roof ten minutes into the man’s story.

Thus, we spent the next three hours huddled together, shoulder to shoulder, in a tiny stifling room, listening to other historians and a few incredibly brave individuals who had volunteered to tell their personal tragedies. (I’m sure you’re wondering why anyone would volunteer to relive the worst moments of their life, yeah? Well it’s in the theme of Rwanda’s “Kwibuka” to remember, unite, and renew. A huge part of a preventing anything like this from happening again is to remember Rwanda’s immense tragedy.)

I was surprised when one of my co-workers (the same one who walked me to my seat earlier in the morning) stood up and told her story. My other co-worker, still faithfully translating by my side, started to translate but I stopped him. It took an incredible amount of courage for our co-worker to stand before a crowd of five-hundred and share her tragedy; I certainly wasn’t going to take away from her experiences just because I couldn’t pick up every last word. Her emotions were obviously heavy and, though crying is very much not a part of Rwandan culture, there were few dry eyes in the hall. Every person was reliving his or her own terrifying experiences and loss.

It was in that moment, that I felt most like an outsider.

Each of us born in the United States (or a similar developed society) has a privilege that we are almost never confronted with. We were born into a country with relative safety and nearly endless opportunity…and we did nothing to deserve it. We were just born.

I did nothing to deserve the safety I was afforded as a child. In addition to being born in the U.S., I was born white, able-bodied and to middle-class parents. While I was learning to read and trying to get along with my pre-school mates, children in Rwanda were asking where their parents were…or, worse yet, had seen the fate that befell their parents in 1994.

We are so, so lucky. So privileged.

And yet.

Despite Rwanda’s Genocide, the people of this country are compassionate, giving, and forgiving in ways I’ve never seen. The idea of “us versus them” is too often perpetuated in the development world but, in this instant, it’s necessary. Because they (Rwandans) are a kinder, gentler people than history books let on. They are remembered for tragedy that they own, yes, but that they were not entirely at fault for. They continue to strive hard, every day from before sun-up to long after dark, to provide for their families. They work to ensure that future generations will remember what happened in 1994, but not repeat the same mistakes.

They welcome foreigners into their homes, into their lives, and all they ask for in return is for us to share the beautiful culture that I’ve come to love for all its imperfections.

From Kibilizi (and me),

thank you for sharing in this culture.

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An Attitude Adjustment

First up, two very exciting pieces of news:

Thievery – As many of you know, I was robbed (but more like pick-pocketed) last Friday, but the thief just got away with my wallet.

On Friday morning, I had a PAC (Program Advisory Committee) meeting in Kigali. Following the meeting, I headed straight to the bus station to try and avoid the busy weekend of student travel. (Many students in Rwanda, even those who don’t attend boarding schools, stay somewhere during holiday breaks outside of their school town. So, when school time rolls around, and the government assigns students one of three travel days, you have a literal flood of teenagers heading back to their respective schools.) Unfortunately, this “student travel” period fell on a weekend that had both Umuganda (mandatory monthly community service day) and Heroes Day (a holiday similar to our Memorial Day). Essentially, students would have just Saturday afternoon and Sunday to return to school. So, I opted to travel back on Friday, hoping I could miss a big chunk of the student travelers (and avoid the dreaded 3+ hour wait for a bus that I had previously experienced).

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This is the line just to purchase a ticket. Sometimes, when you get to the counter, you discover a 3+ hour wait for your bus to arrive.

When I arrived to the bus station, around 3:00PM, I was surprised by the amount of people. Turns out that many students, though assigned to a different travel day, decided to travel home on Friday…probably using the same line of thinking I was. Here’s how my Friday turned out

  • 3:00-4:00PM – Wait to purchase bus ticket. Discover your ticket is for the 5:00PM bus.
  • 4:00-4:30PM – Hang out with fellow PCV (shoutout to Maureen!) while waiting for bus to arrive.
  • 4:30-5:00PM – Linger around the area where the buses are arriving, with backpack on ground in between your legs (wouldn’t want someone pulling something…say, a wallet…out of your bag now would you?).
  • 5:00PM – Throw backpack over shoulder and rush over to large crowd of people impatiently waiting to get on their/your bus. Push through crowd for ninety seconds or so and end up seated on the bus, next to a lovely window.
  • 5:00PM-7:00PM – Enjoy a smooth bus ride to Butare, your regional town. Worry a bit about taking a moto back in the dark. Remind yourself to check headlights before hopping on.
  • 7:15PM – Go to boutique at the bus station and pick up two ramen packets (no way you’re cooking tonight). Go up to register to pay and – welp – discover your wallet is not in your bag. Mumble apology to man at counter as he says, “So sorry you can’t find your money.” Me too, man.

Given that timeline, I’m thinking I was robbed at the 5:00PM marker. The thief had probably been watching me since I had been lingering for such a long time (not than I enjoy lingering at the bus station) and snagged my wallet as I pushed my way through the crowd, bumping and jostling along the way. As many of you saw on Facebook, I’m really glad that I had just enough money on me to get home for the night.

And, now, I’m even happier becaaaaauuuuusssseeee…

A woman at the bus station (presumably at a lost and found desk) texted me a couple of days ago to tell me that…THEY FOUND MY WALLET. Following that text, a staff member offered to go to the bus station to pick up my wallet.

That’s right, ladies and gents, the thieves in Rwanda are so kind that, after they rob you of your paper money, they make sure to leave behind everything they can’t use (i.e. bank cards, family photos, coffee stamp cards, your Peace Corps ID, etc.) and then proceed to leave it somewhere so that it can be easily found and returned to yours truly. I kid you not. I’m getting back all of my bank cards, including the Rwandan one, since I’m sure the thief realized he or she couldn’t figure out my PIN. I’ve already canceled all of my cards, but my bank here in Rwanda is trying to cancel my new card so that I can avoid paying 10,000Rwf for a new one.

This ordeal has been made so much easier thanks to the kindness of strangers. Am I a fan of my thief? No. But do I blame him or her for taking what they, undoubtedly, needed more than me? No. I’m still madly in love with this country and it’s apt for kindness.

My neighbor, David – In my last blog, I spoke a little bit about David and wanting to take him to one of the Africa Cup soccer games. Unfortunately, I couldn’t because he returned to school in Gisenyi (a lakeside town about three hours away)…or so I thought.

As it turns out, he went there only to gather his belongings and then hopped on a bus back to my village. He now lives here at the Red Cross, permanently, and will be attending our local school! After school, he’ll return to the compound to care for his sister. I’m honestly too excited. He is a wonderful kid and I was going to miss him being around the Red Cross compound. David reminds me a bit of another David I knew; always smiling and whistling and eager to help out in any way he can.

Though David doesn’t speak more than two or three words of English, he reads at a proficient level and I’ve begun helping him with comprehension. In fact, today he asked for a book and, when I told them that I only had difficult-to-read books, he said no problem. He wasn’t kidding. I handed him The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and he immediately (and quickly) read the entire cover and the reviews on the back. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I miss about not being in the Education Program is not being able to form lasting bonds with the teens in my area. Now, that issue seems to have resolved itself!

Now on to the real juicy stuff (I know you’re riveted):

After posting about my robbery, I received some very gracious comments about my seemingly sunny disposition. Some people commended me for remaining upbeat. It got me thinking about my day-to-day disposition and if I give an accurate description of what I’ve felt throughout my service. Am I a bouncing ray of sunshine or am I gloomy ‘ole Eyeore?

The truth is that I’m a bit of both on any given day. The thing I’ve noticed, over the course of my service, is that Volunteers become hyper aware of their own feelings. (One of my colleagues wrote a more detailed blog about her own emotional journey…check it out.)

As we venture out into our villages, we’re constantly mindful of how we are being perceived. Am I smiling enough? Am I smiling too much? Did I laugh too loudly at that joke? Did I do something to make that child cry? It’s all a very precarious balancing act until you get far enough into your service that you stop caring. And that moment that you stop caring? That is the moment that something glorious happens. You become integrated enough into your community that you morph from this foreign “American Volunteer from Peace Corps” into a neighbor or a co-worker or a host child with real human feelings. You leave behind those attempts at giving the right impression and move on to giving whatever impression you damn well please.

It’s at that completely-unknown-to-me point in my service where I stopped monitoring my emotions and realized that I was content in focusing my energy on the good. I let go of the bad by releasing it in whatever form I wanted to (without worrying about if I was giving the right impression). Sometimes, it came in the form of skipping a day (or two) of going to the Health Center while I focused my energy on a different project in the community. Other times, it came in form of turning off my phone for the day and immersing myself into a new book series. Over time, I’m not sure that I’ve become any cheerier of a person…I’ve just gotten better at knowing my moods and knowing what things do make me happy. I guess mood monitoring is just another perk of Peace Corps that you don’t know about until you’re almost done.

So what have I been doing lately?

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I went to two of the Butare Africa Cup games and watched Cameroon both times. They beat DRC during the first game and were subsequently stomped on by Ivory Coast. Before going to the second game, I went to a bar with two other Volunteers and watched Rwanda lose to DRC. With a beer in hand and the big screen in front of us, it was all very “bro moment”, but enjoyable nonetheless. (Especially when Rwanda scored and the whole bar went insane.)

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A couple weeks ago, I had a big meeting with all of my WASH Club leadership team members and the outcome was…well, unexpected. While most of the villages were behind schedule, as I’d assumed they would be given the long rainy season, two of the villages were already finished and asking for a “review day” of sorts. Since some of the Club members missed important lessons, they wanted to briefly review all the material…so as not to miss an important health message. Moreover, I was told that each of the Clubs has around 150 members (50 more than the target population).

No matter what the data shows (when I’m finally done with these truly exhausting WASH surveys), I feel that I’ve made an impact in the health care in my community. This labor of love is now one that the whole community stands behind. The Club leaders are talking about moving on to other Cells, despite there being no more grant money to pay them, just because they feel the lessons are so important. I won’t know until the end of March if I’ve lowered the rates of water born illness, but I know now that the idea of community-based learning has made a difference here in Kibilizi.

Back to work I go. And by “work” I mean watching Frozen with the kiddos and trying to sing “Let It Go” in Kinyarwanda.

Holiday Hangover & What’s Up Next

The title is a bit of click-bate, I’ll admit…but it’s true: I’m still feeling a bit of a holiday hangover! Not in the traditional hangover sense, but in that can I still have my toes in the Indian Ocean and Thai food in my mouth kind of way. Vacations are a blast. (Even more so when you get to experience new adventures with some good friends). But coming back to the real world grind is a wee bit of a struggle.

Also, it has been pointed out to me that my last post (one of my favorites, really) is now MIA. Somehow the whole thing has managed to disappear. Hopefully y’all read it if you wanted it.

Music time!

So, as you may have guessed, I went on vacation to Tanzania for Christmas and New Years (nine days in total). Originally, our merry band of four intended on going to Zanzibar (large island off the coast of Tanzania), but had to shuffle things around after we were notified of security issues (read: Peace Corps said no). Although we didn’t get to spend as much time as we wanted on the beach (smaller island trips were very expensive), it was still a much needed (and well deserved) relaxing break from landlocked Rwanda.

On our flight to Dar es Salaam, we had a lovely (read: horrible) layover where Vanessa learned she’s allergic to Advil. After overcoming that fun discovery, we were on our way! We flew over Mount Kilimanjaro and I was bit by the travel bug all over again. Our VISA is good for one year, so perhaps my COS (Close of Service) trip will include a little climb on one of the Seven Summits.

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We ended up finding a wonderful AirBnB in a great neighborhood right near the beach. Naturally, we found out upon arrival that said beach was not for swimming, as the tide was out from 8:00AM until after sunset. We were not about the night swims. The apartment we stayed at had air-conditioning (a must if you plan on not being sweaty 24/7), a large television (hello, Law & Order SVU marathon), a washing machine (still afraid to wear some of the clothes, lest the wonderful clean smell dissipate), hot showers with tons of pressure (so clean), and a refrigerator (cold drinks and pasta salad!). Vacation life was good.

Our first priority was getting food…both in our bellies and in the fridge. We went to a very posh grocery store where nearly everything was out of our budget. So, basically just like when I go back to the States and look at produce prices. We got everything we needed to feast on Christmas and then proceeded to the nearest Subway. I cannot tell you how much we were all looking forward to a nice sandwich….with fresh bread and actual sliced deli meat…and how disappointed we were. Grace actually did not even finish her sandwich. I wish I could say that it was just that particular Subway…but I don’t think so. I think we’re just used to fresh, natural ingredients, cooked in a way that we each enjoy (cooking for ourselves). It all just tasted so manufactured. It was a sad time and I couldn’t help but think I’m going to have the same reaction to some of my old eateries when I get back to the Sates. (Don’t worry, In N Out, you’ll always be #1.)

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One of the highlights of the vacation included a boat trip to a beautifully pristine island where we lounged on grass mats under thatched umbrellas, swam in the salty Indian Ocean, and I tried crab! (Crab is really just a boat for whatever seasoning and dipping sauce you have with it, yeah?) We also went to a really boujie shopping “mall” where we bought $10 chocolate bars, ate gelato, and tried to get a fancy cocktail (not for those prices, sir). On New Years Eve, we were lucky enough to meet up with another Rwanda PCV who was vacationing in Dar es Salaam. After a truly delicious Thai dinner, we went out to a hip (yeah, hip) rooftop bar. The drinks were overpriced, but I’m proud to say I didn’t have to buy a single one. (Thanks, mom and dad, for teaching me how to use my “people skills” to my advantage!) The club ruined the midnight countdown and we danced our way into 2016 without even knowing it. The next day was full of cleaning and clothes-washing (all the things) in preparation for our return to Rwanda on the 2nd.

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After getting back around nine in the morning, we all got out of the city as quickly as possible, looking forward to our own beds and own spaces. It’s been almost 600 days, y’all…it’s my home.

The very next weekend was our Regional Meeting in Butare. I don’t know if this is a Peace Corps wide thing…probably not given the sizes of most countries…but we meet, regionally, every quarter to discuss committee updates and get a reprieve from the daily grind. We mostly just eat a lot of Chinese food and try to stay up late (most of us are under our mosquito nets by 9:00PM when in village). I stayed an extra night to hang out for one of the PCV’s birthday and learn how to play Settlers of Catan. I managed to make it to 11:00PM before my body told me it was time for bed (vacation sleep hangover in full effect still). The next morning I woke up and headed back to site pretty quickly; I had to get ready for my health center’s staff holiday party!

My staff loves parties. We party for Christmas and New Years. We party for Labor Day. We party for weddings. We party for baby naming ceremonies. It’s amazing. After talking to other PCVs, it appears I have one of the few health centers where the staff truly enjoys hanging out. We don’t have staff drama (I can’t say this about any job I had in the States) and everyone just wants the best for one another, both professionally and personally (the older staff is constantly trying to set up their children with the younger interns). We each pitched in 2,000Rwf ($2.78) for the party, which was held at a bar owned by one of our nurses. Said nurse is called Mama Melissa because she is the mama of Melissa and that’s how mothers are identified in this culture. After over a year of asking to meet her daughter, I was introduced to the slightly younger (and way sweeter) Melissa who was on break from university in Kampala, Uganda. The real kick at this party came when gifts started being exchanged. This time, instead of doing a secret Santa type exchange, we did a “dance exchange” whereby one person asked someone to dance and, after an appropriate length of time, the askee then asked another person to dance. After saying my quiet goodbyes, I left as quickly as possible. I’m an outgoing person, but dancing in front of all of my co-workers holding cameras and phones…no thank you.

Since then, I’ve just been in the village working and enjoying the end-of-the-pay-period broke blues, which are particularly difficult after spending more than you should have while on vacation. But…great news…today was payday! Cue the dollar signs, or francs, in my irises.

So with just 185 days left, what’s going on in my life?

January

  • WASH surveys until I can no longer see straight. I’ve been compiling the massive baseline data collected before my WASH project started. I have nearly 12,000 pages of data to sort through and turn into a succinct report for Peace Corps, my health center, the District office, and the Ministry of Health. All of this needs to be done before the end of the month because, come February, I get to do it all again as I analyze the post-lessons data. DO IT FOR THE M&E!
  • Africa Cup (CHAN) games. Tomorrow I plan to meet up with some other Volunteers in the area to go see one of the Africa Cup games in our brand spankin’ new regional stadium. (Mostly excited to see the stadium as it’s been in construct since before I got to Rwanda.) On Monday, I hope to see another game, but this time with Vanessa and the kids from her Kids Club who have HIV and come from backgrounds that would not normally allow them to attend a professional soccer match. I’m also planning to bring a youngster of my own village. Since he’s been on school break, David has been living at the Red Cross and working harder than just about anyone I’ve seen in this country (and that is saying a lot as everyone seems to be a hard worker here). David is seventeen and has spent his life taking care of his younger sister who was born with severe developmental and physical delays. He’s the first person to greet me in the morning and the last one to say good evening. For fun, he washes my dishes (seriously, guys, he just likes hanging out in my house and washes dishes so he can listen to my ~super hip~ music). I’ve never met a sweeter boy. So far, I’ve been keeping this a surprise, but it’s killing me; I’m really bad at surprises! I’m buying his ticket tomorrow and going to ask him to the game on Sunday. He’s never been to a professional game and hasn’t been able to afford leaving the village during this school break (November-February). I don’t know if you can tell…but I’m really excited for him to go to the game!
  • PAC (Program Advisory Committee) Meeting where we will be planning all of the upcoming conferences, including Health 6’s COS (Close of Service) Conference! Less than 70 days until our conference.

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February

  • WASH lessons finish, which means my primary project is all but over. After a year of planning and hard work, after countless meetings with sector, district, and Ministry of Health officials, after nineteen lessons taught to nearly 1,000 households…it’s coming to a close. A labor of love, let me tell you. We’ll be holding a huge graduation ceremony…complete with certificates, of course! After, I’ll be writing up an analysis and report of the Implementation Plan to submit to officials at the Ministry of Health for their review. It’s going to be a busy month.
  • Grace turns thirty on the 19th and Health 6 is blowing into Kigali for themed shenanigans.
  • Dad’s birthday and Valentine’s Day; as someone who worked at Hallmark and hates the greeting card industry/fabricated holidays, I’ll let you decide which one I care about more.

March

  • STOMPing Out Malaria RMV (Regional Malaria Volunteer) training will take up a full weekend. The whole committee comes into Kigali for a three-day training and meeting where we learn all there is to know about malaria. It’s kind of like a mini Bootcamp (see: Senegal Bootcamp post). Since I’ve already been to Bootcamp, I’ll mostly be helping teach and eating free food.
  • COS (Close of Service) Conference will be at the very end of the month. I fully expect this to be just as haphazard as our MSC (Mid-Service Conference) was, but with more heightened emotions. Closing out this journey is the furthest thing from my mind (because I’ve pushed it there). I fully expected to be staying a third year in this beautiful place, but after going home and realizing I need to get back to school and family, I’m just barely coming to terms with the idea of leaving. BUT NOT YET! I’m in denial until they force me on that plane.

As for April, May, June, and July…they’ll come in due time. This is going to sound cliche, so try not to vomit everywhere, but I’m really taking it day by day. This experience is something I’ve yearned for since middle school (granted there were a lot more lions and grass huts when I imagined it); knowing that it’s coming to an end is a difficult thought to wrap my brain around.

As my time here winds down, one thing I’m trying to do to stay “in the now” is focus my energy on the relationships I’ve formed in Rwanda (both PCV and host country national). I still have those days where I want to shut the front door and read for hours on end, but I’m making sure that my interactions with those I care about are both meaningful and valuable to the relationship. When I leave Rwanda (not forever, never forever), I want my friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family to know that I’ve left a piece of me with them and taken pieces of them with me.

The Mid-Service Slump is Real Y’all!

Music, music, music!

mid-service slump (n): the sudden severe feeling of guilt for not having done enough throughout your Peace Corps service, especially felt at the year mark

Okay, so I made that up entirely. Stay with me.

At the beginning of Pre-Service Training (PST), our Director of Programming and Training (DPT)…also known as the fantastic and enviable Bryan Dwyer…gave us a peek inside the emotional journey we’d be taking over the course of our twenty-seven months in Rwanda. The Office for Special Services has even dubbed it the “Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment”. After Bryan finished, my cohort and I didn’t exactly scoff, but we certainly didn’t subscribe to the cycle. After all, can anyone really pinpoint every emotion I’ll experience in twenty-seven months of service?

Well. No. But close enough.

I’m living proof that the cycle is more a less an accurate road map of what emotions you feel during Peace Corps. (With April being one huge exception and emotional detour for Peace Corps Rwanda.)

feelings-mapUp until that ten-month mark (April), things were smooth sailing. I had those couple dips during training when I was emotionally drained…cough…language learning…cough, but on the whole things were great and I sailed through the “honeymoon phase” along with the rest of my cohort. April happened and my little squiggly line dipped so far down that it’s off the silly chart. Somehow, our Health 6 family helped one another through our tragedies and my line eventually made it back to its normal progression.

Month twelve (June) came and went and my little squiggly line never really dipped; I was too busy planning my WASH ToT and staying caught up with committee work. Then month fifteen (September) came along and slammed right into me.

At the end of September, I just started to feel off. It was getting more and more difficult to get out of bed at 5:30 in the morning. I was feeling a bit complacent about my position here in Rwanda. My projects were well on their way (more than halfway through the WASH lessons), my counterpart had just finished a Permagarden training all on his own, I’d just completed two weeks of intensive malaria training, and I was feeling productive enough at home that going into the office seemed like a hassle. On top of that, my health center is incredible. The community needs a volunteer, sure, but the staff at work is just so fantastic that sometimes I feel like the center runs at 100% whether I’m there or not. (It’s taken me until this past weekend to realize that that was the goal all along, right? Build capacity in your colleagues and community leaders…basically Peace Corps 101.)

So, there I am at the end of September, minding my own business…going into work for 4-5 hours a day and coming home to work on reports for the Ministry of Health…and I get this phone call from one of my favorite Peace Corps staff members. She tells me that she recently accepted a position at the CDC in Kigali. I was shocked; ecstatic for her, deeply saddened for my own professional loss, and worried for the future of Peace Corps. That probably sounds dramatic to you all, but this particular woman has been with my cohort since our first days in Rwanda. She’s been our rock and our biggest supporter throughout our struggles. I’m glad Kigali is so small…I will be stalking her at work soon enough.

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Maurice and me!

Fast forward a couple of days and I’m sitting in my house, again, doing WASH reports, again, and I get a call from my counterpart and best friend, Maurice. He drops a bomb: he’s been transferred to a health center in the main part of our district (nearly ninety minutes away) and the next day would be his last at our health center. Now, I don’t really know how to explain this to someone who hasn’t served in the Peace Corps (sorry if that sounds exclusive or snobby or whathaveyou). Your counterpart is your everything. Your colleague. Your immediate supervisor. Your village buddy. Your partner in crime. Your go-to for literally everything Peace Corps related. And, for me, my best friend. After I got off the phone with Maurice, I sat in bed and cried until I was thoroughly finished with my solo pity party. The next day we sat around our office while he prayed and we both cried a bit. Eventually, I had to leave early because I honestly just couldn’t take sitting around and moping during his last few hours at work. We hugged it out and he was on his way the next morning.

Over the course of the next week, I kind of just floated through work. I didn’t have electricity all week (pretty common occurrence during wet season) and busied myself in hands-on community work, laundry, and helping my neighbor plant grass (because the Red Cross is just that bougie). By week’s end, after having read through every paperback novel in my house, it finally occurred to me that the reason both of these work losses hit me so hard was because I was already deep into my mid-service slump! I thought back to that dumb little cycle during training, remembered that damn squiggly line, and finally started to feel comfortable owning my slump. After all, I’d made it to the mid-point. Hell, I’ve made it past the midpoint. I’ve got a little under ten months left and have been here about sixteen!

Armed with that little slump badge, I headed to Kigali last Saturday for the wedding of my language teacher, Immaculee. Vanessa and I made it to our hostel just before the monsoon level rains started and got all done up for our first Kigali wedding!

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In our Senegal dresses. #sherberttwins

Rwanda wedding culture is much different than America and is actually shifting quite dramatically as the younger generations come into their marriages. Last month (while V and I were still in Senegal), Immaculee had a traditional wedding in the town she grew up in and where her family still resides. Last Saturday, she completed the marriage with a modern ceremony in the city.

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As is common in Rwanda, there were two ceremonies held at the same time. Two couples, previously strangers, marry at the same time to save on wedding costs.

The ceremony was beautiful and included plenty of choir music and up-down prayer. (I will never get over the gorgeous hymns sung in this country.) When the wedding was over, we (Vanessa, myself, and other PCVs who had come for the festivities) headed over to the reception hall.

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Immaculee was the most flawless bride!

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Sparklers at the reception…sure!

The reception was set up much like a large conference, with row seating for the audience and a “bride” and “groom” family section. There were four family speeches given, alternating between each side, while the audience dined on Fanta and cake. It was clear that the bride’s family spoke to the groom’s family and vice verse during their speeches; it was a lovely show of respect for their new in-laws. After each family spoke, it was time for the gift-givers to give a brief speech and hand over their gift to Immaculee and Jean Paul. I was reluctantly chosen to be the PCV spokesperson, so when we all went to the front of the reception hall, I gave a very brief speech and we handed over our gifts to the lovely couple. Following that, we snapped some photos with the gorgeous couple and were on our merry way.

IMG_0476Immaculee’s wedding could not have come at a better time for me. I know she, clearly, did not plan her wedding around my slump…but boy did it help. I was so fortunate to spend the day celebrating two people’s love for one another; it helped me see the bigger picture of – you know – life. At one point during the ceremony, Immaculee rested her head on Jean Paul’s shoulder and I couldn’t help but let out an audible “Awww!” Seeing two people so in love profess it in front of their family and friends was exactly what my cold little heart needed.

Following the reception, a few of us PCVs headed out to dinner and dancing. Given that I have a liver/kidney function test coming up (due to recent surprise illnesses and fevers), I stayed well hydrated, 100% sober, and danced my tooshie off with the other PCVs until well into the morning.

And then came the major upswing: coming back home on Sunday.

Yesterday was International Day of the Girl Child (why call it “girl child”, whyyy?). I celebrated with two mighty hugs from the girls in the photo below. They brighten even my darkest days with their giggles and determination to say “hello” before they run off to afternoon classes. But, honestly, what I love most about these girls are their attitudes. Mariya and Kabebe are feisty! They are determined to get what they want out of life and make their desires known. Even with Rwanda’s Parliament being majority female, feisty not an attitude you see often in Rwanda. I have done and will continue to do everything I can to foster their drive and strong spirit; I hope they never lose their feisty.

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Mariya and Kabebe, my neighbors and besties!

And then there was today. The final upswing.

I went to work this morning expecting another casual work day of filling out reports and watching Rugamba fill out the same reports in Kinyarwanda. Insteaaad…I met my new counterpart! Maurice’s position has been filled by Betty, a middle-aged Rwandan woman who I can already tell is extremely dedicated to her job. (Side note: I have so many talented, strong, driven women in my life here in Rwanda…it is incredible!) Betty speaks very little English, so that’s a plus for me! (My Kinya skills might yet improve!) We worked side-by-side today, chatting about life and Peace Corps, until I had to go buy eggs. (Gotta get ’em before they sell out, seriously!) What I found to be particularly fantastic is that my titulaire (supervisor) had already explained to Betty her role as my counterpart. In fact, I think it was part of the job description when hiring for the position. My heart is so full of love for this staff and this community. Many PCVs struggle with finding a counterpart or with their staff not fully supporting them. And here I am – with my titulaire hiring someone based partly on their desire to work with a PCV!

By the time I got home today I was already a few days out of the slump and excited to make french toast with my newly bought eggs. As I unlocked my door, my neighbor Jackie came bounding out and told me how excited she was for the rain (you and me both, darlin’!). We shared some tea until the Red Cross umukozi/my surrogate grandpa came over to join and we all just kind of hung out for a few hours. A totally normal day in Rwanda.

And now?

I’m sitting in bed with the little juice I have left from the hour of electricity I had tonight, writing this blog post, to express the norms of the mid-service slump and to brag a bit about having come out of it mostly unscathed. I spend a lot of time writing about the positive aspects of Peace Corps…mostly because I haven’t had very many negatives (aside from the deeply tragic ones). But I want everyone out there (Bueller, Bueller…?) to know that it’s not always rainbows and thousand hill vistas out here. We PCVs do get down. In fact, Peace Corps guilt is one of our biggest struggles (and probably a huge influence of the mid-service slump)…but that’s a topic for another time, maybe.

P.S. Here, have some random photos from the STOMP meeting weekend:

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Our favorite meeting spot, RZ Manna, made us a complimentary Peace Corps latte! HOW CUTE IS THAT.

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STOMP Rwanda – October 2015

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Our transit house, when they take out our couches and replace them with plastic lawn chairs. I didn’t think it could get more frat-house…until it did.

Senegalese Sweat & STOMP Bootcamp

Part I – Senegal

Imagine you’ve just woken up, after uncomfortably shifting around your bed for a good thirty minutes. You slowly peel your body from the sheet and sit up, covered in your own sweat. You reach behind you and feel the bed sheet – yep! – it’s soaked through. No more than five minutes later, around 5:30AM, you’re reveling in the stream of an ice cold shower, washing the previous night’s sweat off (after all, you showered just before getting into bed last night). After, you towel off, get dressed in layers that stick to your damp body, and walk from the shower stall to the sink. As you brush your teeth, you start to feel the inevitable beads of sweat form on your forehead…dripping down your temples as you spit toothpaste and rinse your mouth. You look in the mirror, flushed and sweaty again…ready for Stomping Out Malaria in Africa’s 14th Boothcamp!

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Dakar, Senegal

That’s right, y’all! I spent two weeks in hot and humid Senegal, learning everything there is to know about malaria. Despite my incessant complaints about the climate, I had a blast! Vanessa (fellow PCV) and I were lucky enough to spend our time in Thies, Senegal with Volunteers and host country staff from sixteen different countries in sub-Saharan Africa. We talked about how malaria is transmitted, discussed thoroughly the life cycle and stages of malaria within a mosquito and human conduit. Of course we studied prevention methods in depth and weighed the pros and cons of using IRS (Indoor Residual Spraying) and “free” mosquito nets in our developing host countries. One of my favorite parts of the Bootcamp was the nightly Case Studies. After dinner each night, we all got together (in the single air-conditioned room, thankfully) and spent an hour going over a previously assigned journal paper or study. The amount of knowledge and ingenuity at that Bootcamp was incredible! Staff and Volunteers alike astounded me and reinvigorated me to fight the spread of malaria. On day one Matt Mclaughlin, STOMP’s creator, told us that we’re in a “bubble of opportunity” and have, within each of us, the ability to eradicate malaria. How could we not be pumped?!

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Mosquito larvae…we got to watch them grow into mosquitoes over the course of three days. I discovered that those little “worm things” floating around in my compound’s rain-water catchment tank…are, in fact, mosquito larvae! (It was much more a disgusting find and not so much an exciting one.)

We spent our first week at Bootcamp learning about the basics of malaria, since some Volunteers arrived after having been in their host countries only a few months and some of us arrived with a year-and-a-half of malaria knowledge. (Eek!) We learned about our organizational and institutional partners in the fight against malaria and discussed the current state of malaria around the world (including recent antimalarial resistances). The most captivating presentations given the first week were those by our own peers (and staff). We each came prepared with a “Best Practice” PowerPoint (of course, it’s still Peace Corps after all!). I truly enjoyed getting to see what other countries were up to and ways they were fighting the disease in their own host countries. Here are some of my favorites that I hope to bring to Peace Corps Rwanda:

  • Senegal’s weekly radio “talk show” with Volunteers and counterparts talking about issues surrounding malaria
  • Ghana’s pre-done malaria murals that Volunteers can easily take to their sites and tag buildings with (after getting approval from the local gov’t, of course)
  • Madagascar’s professionally printed children’s book that tells the tale of a little girl’s fight against mosquitos
  • Burkina Faso’s “music keys” project, which allows Volunteers to create playlists for long bus rides that include brief malaria PSAs (Thanks to our previous Bootcamp attendees, our STOMP is already hard at work on these!)

And those are just some of the stellar projects underway in Peace Corps Africa!

11145020_10156083297135093_6763872185162918923_nThe first week was pretty much 7:00AM (breakfast) to 8:30PM (Case Studies). It was exhausting, but totally worth it. Then, come Sunday, we were set freeeeee! Not really, but close enough; we got to go to the beach! Let me just say that the Atlantic Ocean is much saltier than the Pacific. After having been in land-locked Rwanda for fifteen months…getting to swim in the ocean current felt tremendous.

11947501_10156083296545093_1596064310349251992_nAfter we got back from the beach we all showered (showering three to four times was pretty much the norm) and got ready for our cultural gift exchange. Each country was responsible for bringing with them a gift from home. I brought Rwandan coffee, which I really didn’t expect to be popular. Turns out, most PCVs (aside from those in Rwanda and Ethiopia) do not have immediate access to coffee! In return, I was gifted the most fabulous igitenge (local fabric) apron and some jewelry.

During the second week, we delved a whole lot deeper into development and issues plaguing the eradication of malaria. We had the wonderful opportunity to visit a local Malaria Superstar, Ejladhi Piop. Ejladhi once held a lucrative position with UNICEF, which he promptly quit after the tragic death of his 12-year-old daughter. Within just 48 hours of developing a fever, his daughter had passed away from malaria-related complications. After his daughter’s death, Ejladhi moved back to his hometown and has since dedicated his life to reducing malaria rates in his community. And, boy, has he been successful! Since starting his work, rates of malaria in Ejladhi’s community have gone from 37% to just 0.3%! Seriously, how incredible is that?!

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Ejladhi, holding a photo of one of his sons and daughter. Behind him is a photo story of all of the work he’s done in his catchment. Before him sits his newest creation…a wheelbarrow outfitted with an airhorn to blast malaria PSAs throughout the market and community.

Also in the second week, we learned about an app called CommCare which, without going into much detail, is an app that functions as a shell with which to create other apps. I’ve already begun creating a very simple app for Volunteers and Community Health Workers (CHWs) to use as they go house-to-house collecting baseline data pertaining to malaria. Of course, I will run into technology restrictions as I move forward, but I’m lucky to live in a semi-rural area where many of my co-workers have smart phones. (When you’re not obsessed with getting the newest and shiniest iPhone or whathaveyou, smart phones can actually be pretty affordable…even in Rwanda.)

Of course, it wasn’t all work…Peace Corps Volunteers are all about their play time. We had a lot of clothes made at this fabulous local tailor, spent nights out at “Church”, and played a lot of new ice-breaker type games (watch out, Peace Corps Rwanda, I’m comin’ for you!). I’m not sure if every Bootcamp feels this way after, but I certainly feel great amounts of gratitude for having been given the opportunity to meet all of the Bootcamp XIV weirdos. The amount of dedication, creativity, and beauty in the room those two weeks…it was invigorating!

Weirdos on a field trip to a Health Hut

After the Bootcamp had finished, a few of us extended our stay in Senegal. Unfortunately, Vanessa got really ill during our second week and had been whisked away to a medical center in Dakar. We had to cancel our AirBnB, but everything worked out! Teneasha, the wonderful third-year PCV working with STOMP, offered up her house as lodging for me during our extra three days. In that time, I got to meet other Senegal Volunteers and hang out with the Bootcampers from Ghana (Olesya and Angie) and Malawi (Megan).

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The African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Senegal. Built by North Koreans, this monument has a sordid past. Though sanctioned by the president, the statue wasn’t well received as it cost nearly US $27 million. (Remember this is in a developing country, no less.) Add to that that the statue’s man and woman are partially nude and do not resemble Senegalese, it is widely assumed to be less a Senegalese landmark and more a North Korean power play.

Thankfully, Vanessa felt well enough by our vacation days that we all went on a day trip to Goree Island. During the 19th century, Goree was a main slave-trading center on the African coast and the history runs deep on the island. Within every building you can feel the tragic past, but nowhere is it more present than in the “house of slaves”, as the locals have deemed it. Visiting the house was a somber affair, but certainly a necessary one in remembering the lives of the millions of enslaved Africans that were lost. It was a reminder to remain vigilant in our quest for equality and development.

Despite its tragic past, the beaches of Goree are now filled with laughing children (there are about 1,100 islanders currently living on Goree) and the snaps of tourist cameras.

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Our ferry, aptly named “Beer”, in the distance

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The beaches of Goree Island

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The art of sand manipulation…too broke to buy, but absolutely stunning! This gentleman has been at it for fifteen years.

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Angie (Ghana), me, Olesya (Ghana), Vanessa, and Megan (Malawi)

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Goree Island, Senegal

By the time we boarded our flight home, I’d say that Vanessa and I were very excited to get back to our own homes and our own beds. It was certainly the most informative part of my service thus far…and will remain one of the most memorable.

STOMP Bootcamp XIV

Obamamania, Cecil, (B)oys (E)xcelling Camp, and Swear-in!

Recent moods:

Obamamania

As many of you probably know, our very own Mr. President visited East Africa last month to discuss development, entrepreneurship, and human rights. For the first time since taking his oath, Obama was able to visit Kenya, his ancestral home.

As a Caucasian American, I will never be able to fully understand a visit “home” like that. My heritage has been painted on a (presumably) all white, European background. If and when I travel to Europe, I won’t feel the strong, emotional motherland ties that someone who is first generation/second generation/knows his or her family tree/etc. may feel. Growing up, I was never confronted with my lack of background knowledge. Tracing my great-great-grandparents back leads me to some Southern states and that’s about as far as I can confirm my lineage. Being in Rwanda, race and nationality are front and center every day. I’ve seen so many interactions between volunteers of color and Rwandans that go a little something like:

Well-meaning Rwandan: “Are you Rwandan?”

Peace Corps Volunteer: “No.”

Rwandan: “Yes you are.”

PCV: “No, I am American.”

Rwandan: “But where are you from?!”

PCV: “I’m from America.”

Rwandan: “But where were you born? Where were your parents born?”

Often, the conversation continues to a point of exhaustion when both parties just stare at one another. Some volunteers of color are able to answer the last question…they know where their family hails from. For others, it’s such a complicated question to answer, especially when it’s being asked daily. The conversation can be had…but it’s difficult. Some volunteers of color may have families who’ve been in the States longer than my own, but for a citizen of Rwanda…who is taught little to nothing about immigration and slavery…I am looked at as more of an American than my fellow volunteers, simply because of skin color.

For many East Africans, Obama’s trip to Kenya meant as much to them as it undoubtedly did to him. “Obamamania”, as it was dubbed, swept East Africa and was all some people could talk about. As I boarded buses, sellers showed me magazines and tee shirts with Obama’s face on it. As I passed traffic circles, I noticed posters with the word “CHANGE” haphazardly stenciled on it. It made me proud to be an American. But here’s what really got me (and what prompted this long rant)…

My counterpart/community liaison/best friend/whatever Peace Corps will label him tomorrow…Maurice!…and I had a great conversation about Obamamania. After a few minutes about joking about all the outfits we were going to buy with Obama’s face on it, he said something that really struck me. He said, “Obama gives me hope. He is God’s proof that anyone can be anything and go anywhere.” As I’d become majorly choked up, I couldn’t really respond right away, but I told him how right he was…and how I’d never really looked at it that way before.

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Obama in Nairobi

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Obama swag in Kenya

All politics aside and whatever your opinions about Barrack Obama…he is inspiring change around the world. My friend Maurice, 9,000+ miles away from America, is hopeful for a better future because he sees that America has a black president, y’all. He has dreams and desires and plans that have always been well within his grasp…but now they’re in his heart and head as well.

Cecil the Lion

So, since I’ve already posted this NY Times article on Facebook, I’ll just say this:

What kind of world are we living in that we value the life of a single lion over the lives of more than ELEVEN THOUSAND people who lost their lives to Ebola in the past year? Living in Rwanda has made me appreciate a number of things…one of which is the sense of community. So, part of me values Facebook and the ability it has to unite peoples from all different backgrounds. But…and this is a big but…it says so much about our culture that we can come together to share images of Cecil and dentist-man and post thousands of statuses about our disgust and yet…in low-income countries, 76 newborns are dying for every 1,000 births…and we remain silent (especially on social media).

I say “we” because I’m including myself in this. I am not a perfect being…far from it. I have and probably will continue to marginalize and clash cultures, without even realizing it. I can only hope that in traveling, I can open my eyes (and perhaps the eyes of some others) to the world beyond that we see on the internet. Cecil’s death was a tragedy. I truly believe that hunting for sport is despicable. But the developing world sees tragedy on a huge scale every day and somehow finds the will to move forward, laugh, and smile despite everything.

BE Camp/My Favorite Time of Year

Now let’s move on to something a whole lot happier: (B)oys (E)xcelling Camp!

Every year, each region holds a GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and BE Camp. Volunteers invite students to attend the week-long camps which focus on teaching all aspects of leadership to Rwanda’s youth. This year, due to some medical issues, I had to skip out on GLOW Camp. Fortunately, I was able to attend BE Camp in its entirety and  taught lessons on HIV/AIDS, peer pressure, and resume-writing. My family group (seventeen boys in total) named themselves the Talent Boys and did not fail to live up to the name.

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The Talent Boys!

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Learning about HIV/AIDS is easier when there’s a soccer ball involved…

This year, I had a particularly good time thanks to my Junior Facilitators, Ivan and Emmanuel. Emmanuel was a returning camper from last year and Ivan was entirely new to the camp thing, but by the end of the week, both boys were experts in the classroom. Every day, I’d teach the morning lesson and the boys would teach the next two. During my lesson, they’d furiously write down notes and repeat nearly everything I mentioned that wasn’t in the teaching manual. They were wonderful! (And made my job so much easier.)

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One of the things we Health volunteers miss out on is forming strong bonds with students; camp allows me time to form those bonds and watch as each camper grows over the week.

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Camp BE 2015

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A bit hard to see, but one of the boys, Emmanuel, made three posters about the lessons he’d learned at camp. They were inspiring and quite impressive!

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Action shot; don’t I look busy?

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Work hard, play harder.

The last day of camp was especially bittersweet since it’s likely the last camp I’ll be at. Since camps usually happen during the big breaks (August and November), I’ll be COS-ed at that point. The first of many “lasts” to come, I suppose. Now that Health 6 is under the year-to-go mark…things are going quite quickly.

Welcome to the Fam, Health 7

Speaking of under a year to go…the newest Health group swore in on August 18th. (And 11 TEFL Response Volunteers who will be finishing up the school term where needed.) Proud that we have twenty-seven new Volunteers in the Health family.

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Look at these beautiful people!

It’s a bit odd to think that Health 5 has left and now we’re the most senior Health group in country. Where did the last year go?

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Grace and me, celebrating our seniority

This new group is helping Peace Corps launch the new initiative, First 1000 Days, which means they’ll be focusing on maternal and child health (MCH) in the first thousand days of a child’s life. The Director of Peace Corps herself, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, came to the swear-in to usher in the new initiative and we were fortunate enough to meet with her. In fact, because we (a few Health 6ers) wandered off to find a table in the shade, a few of us got to have lunch with her.

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The Director of Peace Corps doing the “cow dance” alongside Health 7

Having lunch with the Director reaffirmed that, when the time is right (read: when I’m done serving Rwanda), I’ll be headed back to school for a Master’s in Public Health. After that – well – I told Carrie I was headed for her job…so anything’s possible, really.

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Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and me…Do I look starstruck?

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5/6 of Health 6! ❤

Acronyms, Flip Charts, PowerPoints, and Per Diem: How to facilitate a training in Peace Corps

Happy Melissa’s Birthday Month! (Or Almost-4th-ofJuly, whichever…)

This has been a pretty busy month (I feel like I’m always saying that…and yet I still find plenty of time to waste on new television. Mr. Robot, anyone?). So what’s been going on? Most recently, on June 30th, my cohort and I celebrated our 50% mark. I’m halfway through with my Peace Corps service (if don’t extend). It’s pretty surreal, but now that I’m well into my main secondary project (WASH) and entirely integrated into my community, I at least feel pretty accomplished. As a Volunteer, it’s so easy to fall into this trap of “Am I doing enough?” and “Is this all worth it?” Self-doubt is a PCVs biggest struggle. I definitely started to have those feelings around April/May, but was lucky enough to have had strong support systems back home and here in Rwanda that reminded me why I came here and why I needed to continue this journey. After jumping, headfirst, back into work I began to cope, accept, and move toward project completion.

So, here’s what all that busy work looks like!

PAC[wom]MAN & STOMP! Out Malaria

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m on PAC (Programming Advisory Committee). We meet quarterly and just had a fairly important (six-hour) meeting to re-work documents that Health 7 will need for their upcoming site visits and site move-in. To some, I’m sure PAC sounds like the least entertaining committee in existence, but I truly believe in the importance of behind-the-scenes planning. Most recently, we worked to revise the process of site development (creation of new sites for Volunteers to be placed at).

Since I had some ~issues~ with my first site, and subsequently had a site change, I feel pretty strongly about successful site development. In working with the programming staff, we came up with a fairly strict process that requires three site visits before a Volunteer is placed at a health center or school. This is incredibly important as it requires staff to double/triple check one another and ask for the opinion of a nearby Volunteer. (The experiences of staff members can be vastly different than that of a Volunteer who comes in for a day trip to scout the site.) We hope that this new process reduces the number of site changes and housing switches.

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Jonathan and me at the PAC booth at All Volunteer Conference (complete with pea-shooter gallery!).

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Maria, Jonathan, Scott, Sophia at the PAC booth.

After the PAC meeting, a bunch of us went out in Kigali to celebrate…well I’m not quite sure what we celebrating, but PCVs can always find a reason to celebrate. (We were probably just all bitter than the Stromae concert was canceled.)

Speaking of which…

Stromae (Paul Van Haver) is a Belgian singer, born to a Rwandan father and Belgian (Flemish) mother. He had a concert scheduled in Kigali last month (that nearly every PCV had a ticket for), but he had to cancel due to “adverse side effects to malaria prophylaxis”. The canceled concert sparked quite the conversation amongst my Rwandan co-workers.

As Americans, we are each born without natural immunities to malaria. This is because America successfully eliminated malaria in the 50s (mostly through the use of DDT, better building practices, and the removal of peoples from swampy areas). Thus, as Volunteers, we are required to take our daily malaria prophylaxis. Rwandans, on the other hand, are born with a small natural immunity to malaria (given the high rates in East Africa). That is not to say that they do not get malaria…they absolutely do. In fact, malaria is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in Rwanda. Prophylaxes are too expensive for many Rwandans, thus they are left without the proper meds to bolster their natural immunity. I spent the majority of one of our morning staff meetings, at the Health Center, explaining that, despite Stromae’s Rwandan heritage, he grew up in Belgium (thus does not have natural immunities) and was taking prophylaxis during his East African tour. The conversation definitely resonated with my co-workers when it clicked that America had eliminated malaria. It is possible for Rwanda to do the same.

While on the topic of malaria, I have exciting news! For the first time ever (I think), Rwanda got FIRST PLACE in the annual Malaria Month Competition. This is especially exciting as I’ve just joined the STOMP! Out Malaria committee and really pushed hard during Malaria Month, as did the rest of the committee members and Volunteers around the country. What really won us the competition was Alexa’s (Rwanda’s national STOMP! coordinator) report about our Malaria Month activities. Watch the video on the page linked above for more details! (It’s worth it, I promise.)

WASHing It Up in the Village (plus Permagardening)

After I got back to my village, it was time to get the WASH “village” ToT (Training of Trainers) going. I was definitely nervous for this. I had been away for the few days before and was a little freaked out that the planning wouldn’t have been taken care of. Lo and behold, when I returned on Sunday and checked in with my counterpart, he responded, “All members have received invites and will arrive Monday at 0800.” I find it pretty easy to put trust in my counterparts and supervisors at site (I just lucked out with some incredible co-workers), but it’s always nerve-wracking for Type-A personalities to leave work in the hands of others. The Training started around 9:00AM on Monday, an hour late but at 100% attendance! I was ecstatic. These Health Club members had no clue what the training entailed, other than that it was about hygiene and sanitation. They didn’t know where or not they’d receive food or per diem. They didn’t even know if the trainings were all day long. They put their trust in me and in my Health Center staff and all showed up, ready and willing to learn.

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Day One of the Kibilizi WASH Training of Trainers (at capacity with 63 village members)

Monday and Tuesday went off without a hitch, with all 63 members in attendance and all three facilitators working together as a teaching team. Come Wednesday, I felt comfortable leaving the per diem with my counterpart, so that I could head into the regional town (Butare) for a Permagarden training.

What’s Permagarden you say? Well…it’s a “permanent” garden, in that the base for the garden only needs to be dug out/created once and then it’s just a matter of shaping/planting/harvesting. The training itself was hosted at Rwanda’s Agricultural Board in Butare and taught by Peter Jenson, gardening guru for the pretty much the entire world (and Returned PCV). Though I couldn’t attend the entire training, I sent one of my counterparts so he could soak up the information. Peace Corps was sweet enough to extend an invitation to me for a one-day visit, so I could get my hands dirty building a garden. It was great!

We learned how to build a very specific type of garden…one that is particularly useful for developing nations with a lack of water. One of the key aspects is to build the garden right next to a slanted roof…on a sloped area. Rain will fall on the roof, slide down off of the roof and onto the ground, slowly washing over the ground…into the garden’s reservoirs. We learned a bunch of nifty facts about water usage, but this one stuck with me: A roof provides enough water to supplement 6.5 years of Jerry-can water gathering. SIX-AND-A-HALF YEARS of a mama or child carrying a 20-liter Jerry-can from a water source to garden…just gone! The rain does the work, instead, leaving mama more time to spend outside the home (hobbies?!) and child time to go to school. IMG_9148

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Selfies were more important than gardening, clearly…

The day before I went to the training, the group went over how to make a compost pile (to create compost to then add nutrients back into the garden). Though I didn’t get to help make the pile, I did get to be present for the temperature-taking. Yeah. Compost piles should reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the bad bacteria (e coli, etc.). Just two days after its creation…and with no outside influence (just a couple of rice sacks over the compost)…the pile had reached 135 degrees. Just a pile of mush, guys! All those chemicals from the plants working together to heat up the pile and kill bacteria. It was incredible to see the condensation and feel the heat rising up from the pile.

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Feeling the heat!

One of the other important aspects to this type of garden is that it has corner “reservoirs” for the water coming down from the roof. You can see the large hole near the upper-left corner; that’ll hold the water for a number of days, meaning mama only has to supplement the garden twice a week in the dry season. (Instead of two times a day, as many gardens are now.) IMG_9095

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My counterpart, Maurice, gettin’ in and gettin’ dirty!

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Maurice and me…too cool for [gardening] school.

VATcation

After that busy week, I had the opportunity to head to the training site in the East (Rwamagana) to train the new group, Health 7. I dubbed this past week VATcation (Volunteer Advisory Trainer).

Each of us VATs are responsible for two weeks of training. This was my first week of VATing and the only sessions I had were fun ones…site announcement and Trivia Night. I tried something a little different with site announcement (something more interesting than just dryly reading names from a list) and I think it went well. It was clear that staff put a great deal of work into placing the Trainees at sites where they wanted to be, which was nice. There’s a Trainee who’s been quite vocal about wanting to see the gorillas and wanting to be near them…her site is literally on the border of the national forest where one of the last remaining mountain gorilla populations is. Perfect match! Another Trainee had asked to work with HIV/AIDS populations, as that’s what is background is in…his site has a large percentage of vulnerable peoples, affected with HIV/AIDS. He’s excited, to say the least. It was beautiful to see all of the hard work that PAC and staff put into site development (especially staff) come to fruition with happy Trainees. In total, the Dirty South (Southern Region) got eight more Volunteers. We’re going to be the largest region, or very near. I’m all about the new infusion of energy.

After site announcement, we had a lovely night of trivia and an extended curfew for Trainees (feels so weird to not have a curfew in Rwamagana when I barely ever saw the sunset as a Trainee…thanks 6:30PM curfew). I had a ton of fun being the trivia MC (thanks Type A personality) and I sure hope the Trainees had fun (especially with the Shia LaBeouf category).

So there we go.

That’s what all my busy has been lately.

Burundi Blunder

I’m really not sure what news makes it over to mainstream America, but for the sake of transparency…the was a grenade attack in Ngozi, Burundi last week (just 30 minutes away from my site). The thing is…I still feel incredibly safe, as the Rwandan military really knows what they’re doing and the borders are fairly insoluble (save for the refugees still making it across).

Right now, the opposition party (those who oppose President Nkurunziza remaining in office past his term limit) are asking for a later “election” to make time for peace talks. Some members of Nkurunziza’s own party who oppose his actions are fleeing Burundi in fear of persecution. Most recently, there was a police raid that ended in the death of five people (including two children). This has prompted a UN investigation and has also lit a fire under the EAC (East African Community) who have vowed to hold a third regional meeting for leaders.

None of us are entirely sure what’s going to happen at this point. I’m obviously most worried for the people of Burundi, but also worried that I’ll be removed from site for a couple of weeks while things calm down. I understand that it’s because Peace Corps  errs on the side of caution (and will pull me back to a consolidation point before even a hint of trouble), but it devastates me to think about leaving my co-workers, friends, and neighbors behind to fend for themselves. It’s the ultimate foreign privilege…”Hey, I know I’ve been working toward full integration for a year, but if there’s even the slightest wind of political unrest or violence, I’m outta here and good luck to the rest of you.” I know that’s not how it really is, and that it’s ultimately important for my safety… but it just feels wrong.

On that note…the doctor has arrived to the Peace Corps office and it’s time for me to get my routine meds!

Until next time!

Life in Rwanda, One Year Later

Happy Anniversary, Health 6!

As the title suggests, today marks one year since my cohort arrived in Rwanda!

To celebrate, here’s some music…of course!

[I’ll be upfront with you…this post may get a bit sappy. This is a bittersweet anniversary.]

We left JFK on the 3rd of June (last year) and ended up in Rwanda, around 7:00PM, on the 5th. I didn’t have a long wait for my luggage and ended up being the first one out the airport doors. I distinctly remember this petite, curly-haired blonde girl grinning wildly and shouting “Peace Corps!” (Nikki, of course.) I had no regulator for my emotions and probably didn’t have a coherent thought for the next 48 hours.

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Check us out! Health 6, twenty-three in total & beautifully diverse.

Though exhausted, we were all happy to discover a nice Rwandan meal waiting for us at the hostel. (I kid you not, some blogs we’d read had mentioned goat testicles and we were terrified. I should mention, here, for any potential Rwanda visitors…I’ve never had the privilege of being served goat testicles.) During dinner we got to meet Bryan, our DPT (Director of Programming and Training) and were informed that he was also the Acting Country Director. This time around, Health 7 (who arrived five nights ago, ya’ll!) were greeted at the airport by Jen, our Country Director. They’re coming into a Post that’s not new…but certainly in the midst of big changes. The Health Program staff has worked hard to prepare for their arrival (in terms of site development and program development). They’re also going to be surrounded by PCVs who are genuinely excited for a new infusion of energy.

On Thursday, five of us Health 6ers in Kigali met up with the new Health group for dinner at their hotel. It was entirely surreal being the “oldies”, but soon we all realized that…though bombarded with a variety of questions…we knew all of the answers. It was so much fun getting to be surrounding by new, beautifully diverse faces and buzzing energies. I think I speak for most of the other Health 6ers when I say it’s going to be a good 14 months with the new group.

Though they had traveled 30+ hours, Health 7 had some great questions that brought me back to last year. (I can’t remember being that curious or put-together on the first night, so shout out to them.) Here are some of their questions:

  • “So, we actually live with a host family?” (Yes. I was freaking out my first night. Until my host mama realized I could potentially melt down and had her niece translate ‘You must be tired. You can go to rest now, no problem.’ Go mama!)
  • “What’s the internet situation like here? I feel like you always responded to our Facebook questions so quickly.” (I LOLed internally. I used to have very fast cell service at my site. Those days are long gone, but I’m still very much attached to my phone. Rwanda’s telecommunications game is pretty strong…and getting better.)
  • “I’m excited to try Rwandan dishes tonight. What should we try?” (I wish I had a better answer than…’It’s pretty much all carbs and veggies, stewed with sauce.’ I wish Rwanda had more national dishes and that they were served in hotels more often.)
  • “Do you feel safe here?” (I’m so grateful to be able to answer this question, ‘Hell yes.’ In all honesty, I often feel safer in Rwanda than I did back in my college town [using night-time activities as my frame of reference]. Theft happens everywhere. But I do feel very much like Rwandans look out for one another more so than Americans do.)

After saying goodnight to Health 7, my cohort (minus two) decided to head out and celebrate our anniversary. We spent the night dancing to Reggae and re-telling dumb stories we’d all heard a hundred times (Health 6 spends too much time together).

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Vanessa, Grace, myself, Angelique (Health 6, minus Lavar and Tracy)

To say it was a bittersweet celebration would be a great understatement. So much of what we’ve accomplished in the past year was because we were a tightly-knit, fairly large family group. Though we’re still tightly-knit…we’re much smaller. The losses we’ve felt in the last two months run deeply; naturally, those losses are felt even more when we get together as a group. At the end of the night, I was grateful to look around and see the dedication in my fellow Health 6ers eyes. We’re all here for the long haul; we’ve got each other to make it happen. Fourteen months until we COS or extend. It’s happening, ya’ll!

IMG_8855Now let me skip back a bit to May:

All Volunteer Conference

Last month, after the trip to Musanze (the northern regional town), I headed to Kabgayi (near the southern town of Muhanga) for All Volunteer Conference! [I know these town names mean nothing to you; I’m sorry! Even if I included a map, it wouldn’t help…In the past couple of decades, the government of Rwanda has changed many of the town names. So Musanze and Kabgayi aren’t even on many of the maps. Eek.]

The All Volunteer Conference isn’t something every Post has; we’re just lucky that our VAC and admin staff deem it necessary for our well beings. (After this April, it certainly was!) We spent a half-week doing trust exercises, having development discussions, learning about potential NGO partners, and just having a raucous good time. We even had a trivia night, a dance party, and a talent show (who knew Rwanda PCVs were so talented!).

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50 of the ~73 Volunteers in country. (Don’t mind me…just hanging out behind that poll.)

There were two discussions that really stuck with me.

The first was about Volunteer Diversity. (The second…you’ll read about next time, because this blog is already getting too long.)

For those of you who aren’t sure, these are Peace Corps’ three main goals (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to just Google these for the correct wording):

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

Now, completing the second goal looks very different for each PCV. For me, it involves a lot of talking and showing of pictures. Why? Because I happen to look like a stereotypical American (blonde hair, blue eyes). I’ve been asked “Do all Americans look like you?”, which inevitably leads to a conversation much deeper than the asker intended. But it’s a conversation that needs to be had, as much of the media that finds its way over here depicts rich, white Americans. It’s not the rich part that gets me, since…in terms of what we can afford here in Rwanda…we are rich. It’s the white part that gets me. And, of course, it’s worse for Volunteers of color. Their identities are questioned every day; it’s a whole other level to Peace Corps service that Peace Corps doesn’t often talk about. (But that Rwanda’s Post is getting much better at!)

Though PCV diversity isn’t talked about often, Peace Corps does have “diversity recruiters” (I’m not sure that’s the actual title, sorry!) back in the States. The difference in cohort diversity from before the hires and after…is quite noticeable. (It was such a necessary shift if we’re actually going to teach our host countries about America.)

Looking at it in selfish terms, I am so fortunate to have had such a beautifully diverse Health 6 family. From day one, they were teaching me about acceptance, love, privilege, and…most importantly…hair. In selfless terms, the more diversity, the better for achieving Goal 2! The new group, Health 7, appears to be more diverse than any group that has come before them. This is going to pose new challenges for them, but will ultimately help in teaching that America truly is a melting pot of cultures (with our own, very deeply rooted, issues with race and ethnicity).

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Health 7, karibu! (Yeah, their picture’s a lot better-looking that ours.)

For now, Peace Corps Rwanda is doing everything they can to help with the teachings. Our team has even prepared a presentation about American/PCV diversity and they will be showing it to each and every potential site…to avoid the disgusting, if infrequent, request of “We want a white Volunteer.” And, ultimately, the changes are going to need to come from us…the PCVs. Which leads me to…

WASH Implementation Plan

So.

At the end of last month, Angelique, Vanessa, and I designed and facilitated our very own Training of Trainers!

We had our facilitators from each of our sites come into Kigali for a Ministry of Health training. (My facilitators are Elie (top row, far left), Rugamba (black shirt, tan pants in the back), and Protogene (bottom row, far left). They spent a week learning how to be the very best hygiene and sanitation facilitators in the wooooorld. (Yeah.) From what I gathered (it was all in Kinyarwanda), they got a lot out of it. It sure helped that the instructors from the Ministry of Health were lively and are actively working to help us with this program.

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Last day of WASH ToT!

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My facilitators drawing a map of our town…which is hilarious since I’m the only one who actually lives in the town.

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The fabulous Nicole who did just about everything for us during our Kigali ToT!

At the end of the training, the Ministry worked with our officials to set deadlines for the upcoming work (and boy is it a lot of work).

  • June 8th (today): Orientation with Village Chiefs
    • It went really well. So well, in fact, that the Chiefs was to increase the number of Community Health Clubs in each village. Unfortunately, that’s going to have to wait until next time…this is still the test run, ya’ll! Let’s start small-ish.
  • June 15th-19th: Formation of Community Health Clubs
    • Basically, the Village Chiefs are going to go house-to-house, looking for particularly leader-y individuals who will form the 7-person Leadership Team. This Team is who will be trained in teaching the weekly hygiene and sanitation lessons. The Leadership Team will then look for 50-100 community members who will comprise the Community Health Clubs.
  • June 22nd-26th: Village Training of Trainers
    • My facilitators and I will host a five-day Training of Trainers…where the facilitators who were trained in Kigali will now teach the Leadership Teams about hygiene and sanitation. (I know it sounds a little convoluted, but trust me-there’s a set process.) At the end of this Training, the Leadership Teams will be well-prepared to teach weekly lessons to their Community Hygiene Clubs.
  • July-December: Implementation of Weekly Lessons
    • Each week, each of the nine villages in Kibilizi will have a Leadership Team-led hygiene lesson. It’ll last for twenty lessons and, at the end of it all, they will receive…of course…a certificate!
  • P.S. There’s a lot of M&E (Monitoring and Evaluation) going on in here, as well. We have a baseline household inventory survey and a two-month follow up. Because, well, if WASH doesn’t work (which Zimbabwe and Malawi have told us it has)…we need to know. Best case scenario? We’re successful in improving the hygiene and sanitation of our villages.

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Do I look hard at work? I’m not. Ruga and Elie did all the work!

If it sounds like I’m busy…that’s because I am. (Because all of us Health 6ers are, really.) We’re all actively involved in this experience; if we weren’t, we certainly wouldn’t have made it through April.)

In all honesty, it doesn’t even feel like I’ve been here a year. Sure, there have been days that have crawled by, but by and large it’s flown by. Everyone keeps telling me that the second year goes by even quicker. How is that even possible? I feel like I’m just getting started; just getting into my groove. Though I’m tired of the food “choices”, that’s really all I’ve got to complain about. I get to talk to my family every day (thanks, Viber!). I get a hot shower every now and again…I don’t even really miss them anymore. (I’ve just come to terms with being just a little dirty all the time.) I bought a new bed and my sleep-time is happy once again. I’m doin’ alright here in the Land of a Thousand Hills. Feeling like this is exactly where I’m supposed to be…and it’s still making me happy, every day.

We’ll see how I feel in another year, I s’pose. ;]

Until next time!