The Kindness of Strangers in Rwanda

Though I’m currently listening to Def Leppard, as my neighbor has requested we do for the past three nights…I’ve become obsessed with playing:

  • Hozier’s self-titled Hozier album (The entire thing on repeat all day, erry day.)
  • Give Me Love – Ed Sheeran (An oldie, but a goodie for those nights when I’ve watched one too many rom-coms.)
  • Renegade Fighter – Zed (Thanks, Smallville!)
  • Wild World – Cat Stevens

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I wholeheartedly agree with this. Traveling opens you up to new worlds (conveniently located on your same Earth) and shows you the best and worst of what people have to offer.

During my 289 days in Rwanda (which is nearly ten months, woahhhh), I’ve bore witness to the incredible fortitude Rwandans have. (In truth, their affections and warmth will stick with me for the rest of my life.) Many will call this muzungu privilege (foreign/white privilege) and I can’t disagree with them; I’ll never know life as a native Rwandan. I do, however, know life as a citizen of American…in America. I’m the first to admit that, when I lived in the Sates, I was a grumpers when it came to dealing with other people (especially strangers). I was happy to shuffle about a crowded grocery store…silently…avoiding eye contact…and just generally despising having to deal with people. I was just another one of the countless people saying, “I hate people.” Oh, how things have changed.

I mean, sure, I love my me time. I enjoy reading and drinking coffee solo in the mornings just as much as I did in the States. The difference, here, is that when I leave my home…as soon as I lock the door…the world’s getting a straight shot of 100% pure, social Melissa. (Whether they like it or not…trust me, some don’t enjoy it much. I used to get yelled at in grade school for talking too much…not much has changed.) I’ve made it my mission to network and meet as many people as possible whilst here. I just really want to get to know people. (I think that’s why I was so excited for the Ed 6 group and now I’m stoked for the Health 7 group…it’s so much fun to share this experience with others.)

So, since being back from my trip to Amuricahhh, I’ve been a busy bee. (Though I’ve still managed to sail through ten season of Smallville…no shame!) I spent the first two weeks of March hunkered down at site, holding meetings with District officials and village members to form the hygiene and sanitation clubs I’ll need for the WASH behavior change classes. I’ve relied heavily on the EHO (Environmental Health Officer) at my Health Center; he’s been an absolute pleasure to work with. Rugamba is a workaholic, second in command on the Health Center, and always has a smile on his face. And though Rwanda has a bad rap for business etiquette (for example, our 7:00AM meeting starts between 7:30AM and 7:45AM some days…and some days it’s at 6:45AM…no rhyme or reason), Rugamba was able to schedule a same-day meeting with my District officials. The two officials have graciously have agreed to host the village-level training of trainers (ToT). Furthermore, many of my HC’s staff have approached me to say that they “know we will succeed” in these trainings. Sometimes, especially during college, it feels like it’s every man, woman, and barely walking child for themselves. Yet, here in this strange little village, I’ve found a staff of thirty people who seem to be pulling for me every day.

My incredible supervisor, Florence, and I on International Women’s Day…well, the day after, but weekends are sacred, ya’ll.

After getting all the clubs settled, I was off on a trip to visit my host family and to have a mini-vacation at my friend Laura’s site. As usual, Kigali kind of sucked me in and I ended up meeting with like four different staff members. I even had a brief meeting with our Country Director and discovered a little snafu with one of my upcoming projects. No one really made any mistakes…just an excited staff member exchanging e-mails…but I’m now on the Peace Corps’ Director’s (in D.C.) radar…so that’s cool, right? (Right? ha…)

Laura, Carrie, and I went to the pool for some R&R. It rained, but it was wonderfully stress-relieving nonetheless.

After the meetings, I was on my merry way to Rwamagana (where my host family lives). I got to see my host brother, Benoi, my host sister, Jackie, and mama. (I use those terms loosely, since Benoi and Jackie are actually mama’s nephew and niece…I think. Family is family here.) It’d been nearly four months since I had seen the fam, so I was feelin’ pretty guilty. Mama has a tendency to get upset when I can’t visit as often as she’d like (I think she’d prefer if I just lived there), so I always get anxious that she’ll give me talking to (like I’m twelve years old or something, ha!). This time, she was just so happy to see me…it was a raucous good time.

After lunch, Laura and I were on our way to her site in the Wild Wild East!

Host brother Benoi, rooster (RIP, you tasted delicious), and the young neighbor/umukozi.

I spent Friday and Saturday nights at Laura’s, hanging out and eating the best/worst foods ever. We started out with a healthy lunch and, somewhere along the way, decided that sugar and salt were better for us than the veggies. A choice decision if I do say so myself. We watched horror movies and listened to metal and it was just a pretty awesome girls’ weekend, all around.

Oh, there are two things worth noting…

First, Laura’s cute little home made me want to HGTV-ify my house. So, I immediately came home and purchased a mattress and wardrobe/bookshelf for my bedroom. Second, THE EAST IS SO DAMN HOT. I have no clue how anyone lives there…let alone gets out of bed. (In reality, it’s no hotter than summer in Northern California, but still…the South has made me a tempered climate fiend.)

Amandazi and frosting…literally fried dough balls with frosting. Closest thing to a cupcake we’re gettin’.

On Sunday, I swung by my host family’s again because they bought me a rooster. It was such an sweet show of love and I feel incredibly lucky to have them as my second family! That rooster became the first thing I’ve every killed, ya’ll, and my host sister was too busy cracking up laughing to take a video. Anyhow, he tasted delicious and I had crispy fries on the side (can’t believe mama still remembers my favorite meal).

I got back into Kigali late Sunday and got me some good sleep in. On Monday, I woke up bright and early and was off in search of a television for my Health Center. Carrie, Vanessa, and I all ended up waiting at the bus stop for a good twenty minutes before a nice guy offered us a free ride to the city. I’m pretty sure Peace Corps (and my parents) would frown upon this…but the whole catch-a-free-ride-situation is pretty standard here. (Like hopping in the back of a pick-up in small town America, except I’m less afraid of someone axing me to death here in Rwanda.) Plus, there were three of us in the car. Turns out, the guy is an office supply dealer in Kigali, which, as it turns out…we’ll be needing very shortly for our Kigali WASH training. We got his contact info and he dropped us off safely in the city. This is just another reason why I’ve become so incredibly open to experiencing new friendships and relationships…why I’m interested in the lives of strangers now. Rwanda really has been fatal to a great number of my prejudices.

Back to the shopping…

Have you ever wanted a giant circle bed with a thumping car stereo? NO?!

Thanks to some gloriously generous donors, I was able to buy a TV and DVD player (with USB ports)!

I’ll have some better pictures once we get the wall case built, but…needless to say…my staff is incredibly thankful and so stoked to start using it for morning information sessions. I already have four videos that range from five-minutes to twenty-minutes and are about HIV/AIDS, malaria, and diarrhea. I cannot thank you donors enough! I was just speaking with a District official who reported on our Health Center that our customer care needs to be better…that patients are waiting a long time with no interaction from health staff. Though I can’t exactly hire more staff, this TV is going to help educate the masses and, for that, I thank you!

Here comes even more sappy KINDNESS mumbo jumbo!

When I got back to the Peace Corps office on Monday…I thought Hey! Let’s go see if anyone is heading to Butare (my regional town) for site development. As it turned out…our Assistant Program Manager, Andre, was heading out there the very next day. So, the next morning, Vanessa and I loaded up a bunch of our crap (that probably would not have fit on a bus, anyway) and got a free ride to Butare. I was going to have to pay 5,000RWF for my ticket and a ticket for the TV (yeah…). Andre the hero!


Is there a dart Olympics? First time ever throwing darts and I got two bulls eyes…where’s my prize?

When we got to Butare, I negotiated for a taxi to take me to the bank, the mattress boutique, and home to Kibilizi. I got a fairly good rate, but what was even better…that taxi driver helped me get a lower price for my mattress. He could’ve just sat in his taxi (especially since I’d just bartered with him for a lower price), but instead chose to help me get a price fit for a local and not a foreigner. I seriously love this place and these people.

That brings me to this week…

Since Tuesday afternoon, I’ve been setting up the TV and downloading videos in Kinyarwanda (too bad Rwanda isn’t really a French speaking country…the videos would be plentiful). I also decided that I needed to be a better tenant. I’m not a bad tenant or anything (I hope), but I decided to offer my services to the Red Cross. I figured…I have the time and the resources…why not. So I met with my District Red Cross leader (kind of a like a County leader)…and we just hit it off right away. He’s such a cool guy and super helpful. He’d visited the Health Center when I was in America and they told him I was bringing a TV, so he offered up some health videos that the Red Cross uses…which was super nice of him! Yesterday, I mentioned that I needed to head to Butare to buy a wardrobe and he offered to drive me since he had to pick something up (it’s about 20 minutes and a 1000RWF moto ride away, normally). Off we went for a shopping extravaganza. I bought more furniture than I’d intended…but he was so good at bargaining for a lower price, on my behalf. We got coffee together and watched as buses drove by, carrying refugees to the “new” camp located just to the South of me. When I expressed interest, Robert offered to take me there some time if I’d help out with bed net distribution. I’ve been wanting to go, so of course I said yes! He also has two youngins who are looking for English tutors, so I told him I’d go visit him and his wife/teach the kids a bit, as long as I got to play with their young baby!

Finally, to reiterate my point that Rwandans are the most wonderful people…

I spent pretty much the entire day hotel shopping online and via phone calls (though I’ve come to enjoy people, I still despise the phone). It was actually pretty exhausting doing all the price checking and what not…but I finally found what I think might be the best option for our upcoming WASH training in the city. The hotel had prices listed at maybe twice what we could afford…and their conference wall was wayyy out of our budget…but I went ahead and called anyway. After ten minutes of explaining the training and Peace Corps and what we were aiming to do…the manager decides to go with our drastically lower budget. It was incredible! He is such a nice man and I’m actually really excited to have our facilitators stay here. A friendly staff makes for repeat customers.

And, now, after this incredibly long post…it’s time to make an egg salad sandwich. I bought spicy mustard in Kigali and mayonnaise in Butare and my life has forever changed. Boiled eggs are only 14 cents, so I’m getting alllll the protein (and cholesterol).

On my way home!


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