Highs and Lows of Rwanda

Here’s the trouble with keeping a blog: I’ve got ten million things to say, but it can be really difficult to actually sit down and get it on “paper”. Here I go, anyway…

Throughout PST (Pre-Service Training), we hear quotes on quotes on quotes. Here’s one that’s kept me going this week: “During your service, you’ll have your highest highs and your lowest lows.” This could be my anthem for the past week. Since my last post, I’ve had my hardest day, thus far, and my wholly best day.

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Part I: At My Wit’s End

I’ve been sick for about ten days now. While it has been annoying to no end, the treatment I’ve received has been excellent! (One of the perks of being a PCV is truly top-notch medical care.) If you’re wondering what made me sick…you and me, both. I have no words of wisdom to help you avoid getting sick during your PST. (Other than, don’t eat cold sambusa…just say “oya”.)

Let me set the scene for my lowest low:

Last weekend, my sixteen-year-old host sister came to “visit”. (Really, she was on probation from school for sneaking a cell phone into her classroom.) So. On Saturday, I woke up at 6:00AM to the lovely sound of Rwandan rap being blasted through a subwoofer in our living room (with which my bedroom shares a wall). At this point, I’ve gotten used to an array of sounds in this country. I’m now able to sleep through wood chopping, people shout-singing praises, and goats being herd across my roof. Apparently, my limit is music so loud it shakes my bed.

I got up and gathered everything I needed to go take my bucket “shower”. I spent four nights, or so, getting cold sweats. At that point, taking a cold bucket shower was my only reprieve from the fever. It’s also hard to explain exactly how much work goes into a bucket “shower” here. A lot. As I headed to the bathroom (umusurani), I noticed four teenage boys in my living room. Mama was at a church function, so my host sister had definitely taken advantage of being home alone for the morning. I said, “Good morning,” (“Mwaramutse”) …and then tried to rush to the bathroom. (I’m not much a human being before my “shower”. Unfortunately for me, these guys (and my host sister) had other ideas. Before I knew it, they were taking selfie after selfie with my half-awake, ratchet-ass looking self. It was awful. One of the guys even called his friend and asked me to talk to that person in Kinyarwanda (I know all of like 10 sentences). After about 45 minutes of this, I finally went to “shower”. Last week, I mentioned how our bathroom doesn’t have a lock…just a rock on the ground to keep the door closed. Well. Maybe two minutes after getting into the bathroom, one of the guys burst into the bathroom to take another selfie with me. Now…normally I would have flipped out. But, thankfully, I hadn’t yet gotten undressed. And this kid was new in our house, so I honestly don’t think he knew it was the bathroom. I shooed him out, but realized that “showering” with those guys there was not an option.

I decided, instead, to wash my clothes. I got all the necessary items together and headed outside. I’ll spare you the fun details of how to hand wash your nitty-gritties in a tub of water. I washed approximately two items before my host sister came outside and said that breakfast was ready. I asked her if I could eat after I washed my underwear. She said no. I went inside. Turns out, breakfast was a cup of hot milk and another opportunity for her friends to take pictures of me while I drank it. (Also, hot milk is disgusting normally…while sick, it’s even worse). After drinking the milk, I got up to get back to washing my underthings. Keep in mind, at this point I was over-heating and sweating, hadn’t had a “shower” to cool myself down, was coughing up half a lung, and letting my nose run everywhere. I just wanted clean underwear.

As I headed outside, I saw that my host sister had taken it upon herself to “finish washing” my underwear, so that she could wash her clothes before going to the market with the boys. By “finish washing” I mean that she took my very soapy underwear out of the soaking water, did not rinse them, and put them in a pile on a dirty chair to “dry” (which really meant to crust because they were still drenched in soap). It was in that very moment that I started to break down. A thousand things went through my head, alongside the pounding headache. I was sad. I was sick. I was devastated at the thought that my host sister didn’t like me (especially after getting along so well with the other four sisters and mama.) Sure…I can look back on that moment now and understand that my host sister just wanted to get her chores done asap, so that she could go out with her friends. Understandable. At the time, I was down on myself, my sickness situation, and the general outlook of the weekend ahead of me. I was stressed because I hadn’t been retaining the Kinyarwanda lessons.

I probably should have excused myself from the situation and taken a moment to collect myself. Instead, I just picked up my things, waited for my host sister to finish washing her stuff, and then got back to cleaning my underthings. After all, I still had to scrub my floors, clean my room, and wipe down the bathroom. I gave up feeling sorry for myself and thought, “You have two options: (1) Go home or (2) Keep going.” Obviously, I chose the latter. I kept going…and I’m BEYOND glad that I did.

 

Part II: Getting My Mojo Back

I spent the weekend feeling cranky. (Which, if you ask some of my fellow trainees, is very unlike me. Maybe there’s Quaaludes in the water or something…but I’m pretty ecstatic to be here on the daily.) On Monday, my symptoms only worsened. I went from being cranky to being worried that I had something gnarly. I spent the day in the infirmary sleeping, but when the doctor asked me to stay overnight, I begged him to go home. I wanted to go because I knew my host family would start to worry about me. I also just wanted my bed, my room, and my house. Right then and there…I realized that I feel at home in this place. And I thought to myself, “You’ve got this shit. You can do this, sickness or no sickness.” (Yeah…I have quite a few dialogues with myself these days.)

The very next day, I experienced my best moments in Rwanda.

The American Ambassador to Rwanda, Donald W. Koran, came to speak to our training group, as he does every year. I tried not to get too excited because I didn’t want to expect too much…after all, he’s just a person. Then, as soon as he starting speaking, TOO LATE! I got really excited about foreign policy and development. Whoops.

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Even though I was still dying a little bit from the mystery plague, I nerd-ed out for a good three hours. All the trainees had excellent questions and it was great getting to hear insight as to how he had shaped the countries he served in as a Foreign Service member. It certainly renewed my spark for service. I can’t really explain the feeling one gets in a room full of passionate young people, all working toward similar goals, and all striving daily to achieve those goals…it’s a perfect feeling.

I got to ask all about how the French/Rwandan reconciliation. (Long story short: France had a large part in events surrounding the Genocide that occurred in Rwanda twenty years ago.) As I spoke to the ambassador (both in the group and one-on-one), I got all the good deets about how the French representatives were un-invited from the memorial events because they still refuse to acknowledge involvement. It was incredibly interesting and I just couldn’t get enough. I also asked the ambassador about the recent border skirmishes between the DRC and Rwanda. I discovered that we, as Americans, really have no idea what sparked the most recent attack. We just know the actual events…not why they happened. I could write a novel about these sorts of things, but I’ll spare you. (And I also don’t want the Peace Corps to bring the hammer of justice down on me.)

I had to thank our coordinators a hundred times because the event was beyond enlightening and I felt entirely rejuvenated afterward. All I can say is…it certainly wouldn’t be a terrible life to be an ambassador. I wouldn’t complain one bit.

To make matters even better, I went home that night and my host mama had made me American-style french fries with Ketchup ya’ll (that is a HUGE deal in Rwanda)…and my favorite Rwandan dish, “amashu” (cabbage). Afterward, I painted all the toes of the females’ in my family. Added a whole lot of sparkle to Rwanda. It was the ideal ending to a flawless day.

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I think I’m still riding the high from the ambassador’s visit. I hate having every moment planned for me, but I do like the organization. I don’t like bucket “showers” as much as regular showers, but I love that they cool me down on hot mornings. I wish there was more variety in the food here, but I love that I still have some Chipotle Tobasco left for my “amashu”. Basically…this is how my day goes. I try to find the good in everything. Luckily, it’s not too difficult in a place as great as Rwanda. This country is beautiful. Its people are wonderful. We’re going to do great things.

P.S. We’ve been advised not to think too much about our potential site projects (since we won’t know our district’s needs until we complete the CNA (Community Needs Assessment), but I’ve been tossing around a few ideas for side projects!

We speak a lot about HIV/AIDS. Rwanda has a very low rate of infection, compared to other African countries (~3%). But…individuals who become infected with HIV are often marginalized so much that they are forced out of society. Often times, it becomes such a hassle to go into town (because they’re shamed so badly), that persons living with HIV/AIDS in Rwanda won’t even go to the market to get food. They’d sooner starve than be made such a mockery of. If I find out that my site is in one of the higher infection rate areas (like the deep South), I would love to great a sort of food-delivery program (a la Meals on Wheels). Those individuals who find it too difficult to go to market can sign up for a discounted program, whereby fresh foods will be delivered (by bicycle, of course) to their homes. I have a lot of thinking and detail working-out to do, but it would be a nice source of income for the food-sellers and delivery-persons that they wouldn’t otherwise get.

The other program I considered is one involving secondary school girls. I discovered that girls sometimes forgo school on the days they’re having their period…simply because there is no safe and sanitary location for them to change and dispose of their pads and tampons. I’d love to check out the schools in my area and see if this is a need. If it is…we could build safe and sanitary bathrooms/latrines (specifically designed for females).

Anywho…a lot more goes into secondary projects than just passion. I’ll certainly need to do a lot more to work out the costs and potential failures. We shall see!

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