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.

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

Rwanda By the Numbers // Musanze Weekend

Rwanda, By the Numbers

340 – The number of days I’ve been in Rwanda
439 – The number of days until COS (Close of Service) if I decide not to extend
11.78 million – Rwanda’s population (as of 2013)
79 – The number of days until I turn 23! (the second of three birthdays I’ll celebrate in Rwanda)
3 – The number of rats who I’ve lived with since moving into my house
21 – The number of co-workers currently employed at Kibilizi Health Center
57 – The number of co-workers who have been employed at Kibilizi HC, at some point, in the last nine months (high turnover rate)
$3.57 – The cost of travel to my regional town (AKA my weekly market trips
2006 – The year that Rwanda gained access to cell phones (not even smartphones…cell phones)
72 – The average daily temperature in my village
58 – The average nightly temperature in my village (Thank goodness I brought my duvet back from the States!
73 – The number of Peace Corps Volunteers currently serving in Peace Corps Rwanda $0.07 – The price of a large avocado
$25.71 – The average net wage, per week, for Rwandans (in US Dollars)

Musanze Weekend

This past weekend, four of us went to Musanze (the Northern regional town) to visit a friend and explore the town. On Friday, we woke to very heavy rain and washed-out roads. Naturally, in true Rwandan fashion, we waited out the rain. Luckily, I hitched a ride with the Red Cross and didn’t have to brave a moto in the mud. The other PCVs weren’t so lucky and ended up having to trek through the slush/ended up muddy.

I caught an hour-long bus, around 11:00, to Muhanga and met up with the other PCVs. At this point, we had two route options: (1) Muhanga to Kigali to Musanze and (2) Muhanga to Miramuke to Ngorero to Musanze. We opted for the “shorter” and less traveled route, the one recommended to us by our Rwandan colleagues, option two! After four buses, an hour-long delay, and a heavy rain storm in a ghost town, we finally ended up Musanze and caught up with Brian (fellow PCV/sensei/guide). (Of course, this is after watching two grown adults vomit into their bags…not out the window, but into their bags full of stuff. EVERY TIME I GET ON A BUS.)

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Ghost town bus stop.

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This wee little one was just as tired of traveling as we were.

That night, we went to Volcana Lodge and ate some stellar pizza. (Brian kept telling us it was the best pizza in country. It was definitely good, but I just think I’m not really a pizza person. It’s not my go-to.) The next morning, we had every intention of going to watch the Olympic qualifying bike race, through the mountain roads, but (of course) it started to pour. So, instead, we hid out at an ATM until the skies closed up and then went to get massages (I know, such a hard life we live). I passed on a massage, but got some quality bonding time in with the women who ran the salon.

After getting some grub at a nice little cafe (that we visited now less than five times in the span of two days), we went over to Brian’s friend house. Said friend graciously offered her (very nice) house to us for the night; she headed into the city and left the keys with us, so trusting I know. That night we jammed out hard to a 90’s playlist and played cards. After, we got to sleep in actual beds; it was tremendous.

The next morning, we gathered up our things and went back to the cafe (they had to be tired of dealing with us by this point) where we met up with two American girls (Mia and Tessa) who are in Rwanda for work/were vacationing in Musanze over the weekend. Brian had arranged for us to get together and take a taxi up to the peak of one of the mountains in Musanze.

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La Paillot cafe, where we spent way too many hours and far too many francs…

By 11:30-ish, we were on our way down the mountain…on our little adventurous hike. At the very beginning of the hike, a lovely Rwandan gentleman came up to us and starting playing a homemade violin-type instruments. It was literally just a piece of whittled-down wood, two strings, and a shell. He played a couple of songs for us and then was on his way elsewhere; the sweetest beginning to our hike.

All-in-all, the hike took about three-and-a-half hours (much longer than the two-hour hike the super-trail-experienced-Brian had prepped us for). Of course, his daily norm is getting up at 5:00AM to trek around the mountains with gorillas.

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This is Brian, by the way.

The hike was stunning; no words (and honestly no photos) will do Rwanda’s beauty justice. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try, so here’s what we got the opportunity to view last Sunday: IMG_8633Along the way, we picked up some followers. In Rwanda, it’s very normal for children to wander anywhere and everything without informing their parents. Children as young as three (and sometimes just barely walking) are out and about on the weekends, breathing in the sunshine…and following abazungu (foreigners) for miles. As we walked, we thought – Hey, it’s Malaria Month – why not give them a little lesson on malaria net usage…and so we did just that. Of course, they just wanted our empty water bottles and some strangers to speak English (“Hello, teacher, how are you?”) to.

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The little munchkins, playing jump rope, on the first part of our hike.

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They could really be future GQ models, all posed to perfection on their own.

Around forty-five minutes in, we got a little turned around and ended up closer to the lake than we wanted (just because there was literally no walking path…all mud). It’s okay, though, because this lovely man in a boat directed us back to the walking path. After all, we couldn’t all fit in the rowboat.

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Lovely boat owner/operater/old man.

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Fearless youngster, collecting wood to make a fire for dinner.

IMG_8635At one point, we stumbled upon the dam that powers a majority of the villages we passed through (since most houses might have a single lightbulb, at most, they doesn’t require a lot of juice). I was struck by the stark contrast between village life and the high-tech dam. Rwanda is big on hydroelectric facilities, so it wasn’t exactly shocking…but it was an in-your-face reminder of the differences that still remain between Rwanda and the fully developed world.

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Old versus new.

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At some point, contractors abandoned the building in the background (not uncommon in Rwanda and probably due to a lack of funding).

IMG_8622 IMG_8636 IMG_8618 IMG_8619On Sunday evening, we began our return trip and purchased tickets for the 6:30PM bus to Kigali. As the minutes ticked away, more and more people started crowding the buses coming in and out. By 6:15, we realized that we were going to have to fight for spots on the bus (even though we already had tickets purchased). Thus began the most infuriating moments of my service.

As more buses rolled in to the bus park, dozens of people began running, shoving, kicking, to get spots on the buses. Imagine you’re standing in a semi-line, waiting for the 6:30 bus to show up and, when you notice it’s finally entered the parking lot, the fifteen to twenty strangers WHO DON’T HAVE TICKETS start moving, as a mob, toward the spot where the bus will eventually park. In order to get a spot on the bus (that you’ve already paid for), you know you have to move with the mob, too. As you do, you notice children are being shoved toward the bus entrance, infants are being passed through windows to “hold” seats for their parents, and grown men are elbowing women to get closer to the bus’ door. All the while, you’re wishing you could explain the concept of a line…though “ihangane” [“be patient”] is a classic Rwandan phrase, no one is being patient.

After a particularly harrowing event where a child was shoved to the ground by a grown adult, we went to the bus line’s office to complain (read: shout and scream about the chaos). In response, the bus line sent a man out to have us form two lines (one for the 6:00PM bus and one for the 6:30PM bus). As the 6:30 bus rolled in, the lines disappeared and people just started running toward the bus. Somehow, I reached the bus’ door first and held the non-ticket-holders off, so the rest of my group could get on the bus.

It was a disaster.

And a reminder that the simplest of things (lines, ticket numbers, checking ticket holders) can’t always solve problems of human nature.

Happy Malaria Month! (More importantly, MAY IS HERE AND APRIL IS GONE!)

HALLELUJAH, it’s May! April is finally over and new things are on the horizon.

But first, let’s recap the past couple of weeks.

On April 25th, World Malaria Month began and I embarked on a dual-purpose mission: (1) teach malaria prevention strategies and help to lower my District’s very high rate of malaria and (2) remain as busy as possible to avoid dwelling on April’s travesties.

So far, so good.

As I’ve mentioned before, Rwanda celebrates “umuganda” (day of service) on the last Saturday of each month. April’s umuganda was quite special since April marks the anniversary of Rwanda’s 1994 Genocide. I spent the morning of Saturday, the 25th cleaning up around the Health Center and hanging banners and signs for the ceremony that was held the following Monday.

At some point during the next week, we “border” PCVs (my District borders Burundi on its Southern and Eastern fronts) received a safety and security e-mail updating us on the current state of things.

For those of you who don’t know…Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is seeking a third term, despite a constitutionally set two-term limit. Riots and turmoil have forced tens of thousands of Burundians to flee to the DRC and Rwanda. There are about 3,000-5,000 refugees crossing into Rwanda daily. Many of them are crossing into my District, stopping at one of the nearby temporary transit stations, and being moved into a refugee camp. The nearest camp is about an hour walk from my house. The influx of refugees isn’t exactly changing my day-to-day. The biggest change is that my Health Center and neighboring hospital are seeing more patients seeking psychiatric help (the current conflict in Burundi is bringing up many emotions for Rwandans who sought refuge during the 1994 Genocide). As far as Peace Corps and the Embassy are concerned, we’re perfectly safe; we just need to keep an eye out for a rise in petty crimes and theft.

As for doing my part? I’ll be splitting my time (75/25) between my Health Center and the nearby refugee transit station until the situation has leveled out. Since I live on the Red Cross compound, I’m getting a unique opportunity to help out with the women and children who have crossed the border. I’ll be ensuring that they’re taken care of until they reach the camps and that they have access to the resources they need to take care of their kids. One mama gave birth, via c-section, just after she crossed into Rwanda and is a first-time parent. Right now, I’m just helping keep her spirits up and make sure she’s breastfeeding regularly and hygienically.

[If you want to read more (which you should, since this is a conflict that is going to affect all of East Africa’s relationships…read this New York Time’s article, Burundi on the Brink.)]

The Wednesday after that e-mail was sent, I got a visit from our PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer). The medical team visits PCVs once a year and decided to move up our visits because of April’s events. My Health Center was stoked that they could speak French to the doctor; the visit went well and the doctor told me I’m spoiled because of my Health Center, home, and flushing toilet. (I really can’t say he’s wrong; I lucked out!)

Soon after, I was notified that a VIP from the Embassy would be coming to my regional town soon for a visit. I can’t really give out more details than that until said visit has happened, but it’ll be a good opportunity for me to meet and greet…and get to know some doctors who are here, from the States, to help at the refugee camps. (More details to come next week!)

Following that, it was time to prep for our Southern Province Malaria Walk! From April 30th-May 2nd, eight of us PCVs went site-to-site to teach about malaria prevention and treatment. We were able to reach three schools, a health center, and nearly 1,000 students. Aside from BE Camp last year, this was one of my favorite activities so far. We got to play games with the kids, watch some student-led skits, listen to malaria-related songs, and teach lessons on how to lower malaria transmission rates. I honestly do feel like we made a little knowledge dent in those kids’ lives…and it’s always a good feeling to feel productive in Peace Corps.

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I don’t know what’s going on with my face here, but we’re arranging the lifecycle of a mosquito and explaining how malaria spreads from person to person.

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Kim’s BE & GLOW Camp kids doing a sketch on what to do when you think you have malaria. (Hint: Go to a CHW or Health Center and get tested!)

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The sketches continue. P.S. Yeah, this is how males and females greet each other in Rwanda.

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IMG_8185On the Friday of the Malaria Walk, I had to skip a site to attend my Health Center’s Labor Day celebration. I was bummed to miss part of the Walk, but had such a fantastic time at the party. We were in my regional town at a swanky hotel and…here’s the kicker…all the food and drinks were freeeeeee. That’s right…I pigged out on frites and chicken wings and Coke and didn’t have to pay for a thing. (As it turns out, the government of Rwanda was footing the bill since our Health Center did so well last year.) Of course, in true Rwandan fashion, we all gave speeches about our co-workers and what we hoped to accomplish this year.

As I spoke, I came to realize that it’s been nearly a year since I left the States and nine months since I started working at Kibilizi Health Center. I’ve worked there longer than all of the interns, seen co-workers come and go, and bonded heavily with my supervisor and counterparts. As we celebrated, I thanked my lucky stars for the new family I have here in Rwanda. My counterpart and I spoke about the tight bonds we share as a staff. It’s quite unique and a testament to the wonderful people I call my co-workers.

The party planner, Rugamba (one of my counterparts) had decided weeks ago that we’d do a secret-santa style gift exchange for the holiday. It was incredible amounts of fun. Some people wrote poems to get us to guess who they were gifting to. Others danced their way to the giftees. When it was my turn, I think the staff was a bit shocked to watch me dance my way around the tables and trick various co-workers into thinking they were my giftee…before finally sneaking up on Josie (my true “cacaette” giftee). Afterward, my counterpart asked me, “Why are you not excited at work?” I laughed and told him that, in America, our work culture is very different than Rwanda’s; that I’m serious at work because that’s what I’m used to. He understood, but said, “America is not fun. You are VIP here.” I just cracked up because he’s so right. Later, I discovered that my best friend, Moseka, was my gifter; she got me three beautiful pieces of igitenge (traditional African fabric) that I’ll be making into a dress very soon. After filling myself with free food and joy, I hopped on a moto for my third hour-long ride and headed to Vanessa’s site…our last stop on the Malaria Walk.

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11169936_10100158516573701_4221807993316844623_n11150660_10100158516633581_1680226313635802688_nOn Saturday, when we finished up at Vanessa’s site, the eight of us basically got ourselves into a moto parade (seven abazungu on motos for an hour tends to draw attention) and went to our regional town for our quarterly meeting.

After April’s events, the South lost two Health 6ers…so the meeting felt a bit different. It was quieter, quicker, and more subdued. (Not that it wasn’t fun, but there was a new, distinct energy difference.) It was Kim’s last meeting as Southern VAC Rep; we elected Grace as our new Rep. Feels so strange that in three months I’ll be a member of the most senior Health group in country. Have I really already been here a year?! Where did the time go?

That morning, our regional town had a Genocide memorial event and tensions were running high for some locals. Two of our fellow PCVs had a run-in with a particularly angry local who shouted and cursed at them; they were forced to retreat to the safety of some nearby armed guards when he picked up a rock and threatened them. Luckily, we didn’t have any incidences when we went out as a group later (for fried pork and frites), but we all decided on a quiet night in…playing Goat Simulator and downloading movies. It made me realize that come December, when Health 5 and Ed 5 are gone…it’s going to be an even lonelier time for us Health 6ers. I’ve got a lot of hopes riding on the new Health group (that’ll be here in one month!)…hoping they’re up for the challenges and adventures that come with being a PCV in Rwanda right now. Health 6’s old motto, “No new friends” doesn’t apply anymore. We’re taking applications for honorary members, ya’ll! (Must love movie nights, Case cleanliness, coffee, and slip n slides.)

On the horizon?

This week, I’ll finally be installing the television in the Health Center waiting room. I’ve finally finished negotiating a price for a metal wall mount. So that’s exciting!

We’ve also pinned down a hotel for the WASH Training of Trainers and decided on  dates (the last week of May). Come mid-June, the three of us doing WASH will begin our village trainings and finally start a program that’s been six months in the making.

As for David’s bleach dispenser project, we’ve all been trying to figure out how best to proceed. Unfortunately, all Health 6ers have grants out already, so we can’t take over his grant until we close out our own (around September). We also thought about getting a Peace Corps Response Volunteer to take over the project, but many Response Volunteers don’t get language training and wouldn’t have the communication skills required to get the project moving in Rugendabari. Finally, we’ve settled on the incoming Health 7 group. After their training is complete, they’ll have the language skills necessary for village life and will be aptly prepared for health work. We’re planning to explain David’s project, in detail, to them during their PST (Pre-Service Training) and, with any luck, one of them will want to be placed in Rugendabari and help us finish David’s project. It’s quite a unique opportunity, to be given a project that’s already fully planned out, and be responsible for oversight and M&E (Monitoring and Evaluation). Since David thoroughly planned everything out, the project itself will only last a couple of months (including the hygiene trainings). So by December, if a Health 7 PCV is placed in Rugendabari, they’ll be finished up with their first project and ready to move on to whatever they want. Fingers crossed! After the Rugendabari pilot program, the hope is that a good number of Health 6ers and Health 7ers will want to move forward installing bleach dispensers in their own villages; it’s too good of a project not to want to spread the project throughout the country.

So, that’s that.

Let me reiterate:

IT’S MAY! It’s no longer April. Much excite.

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!

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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!

Going Going, Back Back, to Cali Cali – A Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteer in America

(Well, not really. I’ve just come back from California…and Texas. But you get the song reference, I’m sure.)

As many of you know, I went for a (fairly short) vacation to the States. I was gone from February 5th to the 24th. Only nineteen days and…after all the layovers and time differences…I was really only in the States for fourteen days. I spent a week in Texas with my grandparents and a week at home, in California. I really couldn’t have asked for a better time. I got to see so many people I love and missed greatly. I even got to spend a night in San Francisco with my college roommates. I gained ten pounds and ate just about every type of cheese I could get my hands on. (No shame.)

There were definitely some points of adjustment, but mostly I was surprised by how quickly I fell into old habits (not bad ones or anything…just American ways of being.) I didn’t really have a ton of culture shock (after all, I lived in the States for nearly twenty-three years…what’s nine months in Rwanda?).

Getting on the plane in Rwanda was certainly weird. It didn’t really seem like I was just a few plane flights away from the States. Going home seemed a world away. (In fact, California is a world away from Rwanda.) I did have the most interesting seat-mates on the flight from Kigali to Doha, Qatar. Within a few minutes of take-off, the woman in the middle seat turned to the man sitting next to the window and asked him, in Kinyarwanda, where he was going. He responded, in English, “I’m sorry…I don’t understand. I’m from Philadelphia.” The woman turned to me and said, in English, “Why were you in Kigali?” I explained that I live in the Southern Province of Rwanda, thus launching us into an hour-long conversation about her assumption that the man was Rwandan and her assumption that I was just visiting. It was all in good fun and we pretty healthy discussion on race judgments. Soon, we were all three asleep and on our way to our respective destinations.

When I landed in Qatar, I had one mission: find a comfy place to rest up on my seven-hour layover. (I opted not to get a hotel room on the flight to the States, since rooms average $200+ and I just didn’t think a seven-hour layover warranted the cost. I was wrong.) I soon discovered an over-stuffed, super comfortable chair in a “television-viewing” room. I, along with four other tired-looking individuals, tried napping in said comfy chairs. Within an hour, a less-than-pleasant security guard came over to tell us we weren’t allowed to sleep there. My question: why in the world would you place some comfortable, sleep-worthy chairs in a place where people weren’t allowed to sleep? The other four people soon fell asleep again, but I headed off to find one of the airport’s “quiet rooms” which were, apparently, for napping. I quickly found one and let me tell you…those “quiet rooms” are going to be where the zombie apocalypse originates. Imagine a giant carpeted, sound-proof room. Upon entering said room, you’re immediately hit with a wave of stifling hot air. As you walk the length of the room, looking for an empty chair, you’re overcome with the feeling of swimming through other people’s exhausted oxygen. After scanning the fifty or sixty lounge chairs (filled with wheezing, coughing mouth-breathers), you make a dash for the exit. Yeah-it was awful. I guarantee every person in that room traded germs with one another.

After my grueling layover, I was on my way to JFK!

Luckily, I missed the huge snow storm by a few hours, so there wasn’t much turbulence and I had a lovely white-ish view of the city. When I landed, there wasn’t much ceremony involved in the customs process. They ask you to pick up your checked bags, go through customs, and then re-check your bags (I really don’t understand that whole process. Why not just send them all the way through to the final destination?) The customs officer stamped my passport and asked why I was in Rwanda; no asking if I had anything to declare, no temperature check, easy enough! Before my flight to Dallas, I had time to grab an iced chai. My first American food item! It was deliciously cold and the everyone I encountered at the Starbucks (staff and patron alike) were awfully rude. Welcome back to America.

When I got to Dallas, things started to feel real. My grandpa picked me up and we were off! I was struck by how many cars there were and how well people abide by traffic laws. My week in Texas was so perfectly relaxing. I got to enjoy thirty minute, scalding hot showers and the most comfortable bed in the entire world. I really just enjoyed getting to wake up naturally (no 5:00AM alarm) and spend the entire day relaxing with my grandparents. So good for my psyche.

My beautiful grandmother! (I fully regret not taking more pictures and not getting one with my grandpa. I was distracted by all the relaxing.)

As I said before, being back in the States was a pretty easy adjustment. The only shockers were how loudly everyone spoke…and how much of everyone else’s conversations I understood. I felt like Superman, being able to hear everything all at once for the very first time. It was pretty overwhelming and there were times when I just had to be alone to collect my thoughts and get some silence. Another strange experience was going to the grocery store. Like…

IMG_6895At what point does someone say…”There are too many chips here.” The “variety” of food stuff was overwhelming. Everything is basically the same…with different branding. I understand the basics of capitalism, but dayummm…how do we function with all those choices? My grandma also took me to get my hair cut…it was definitely the cleanest my hair had been in nine months.

After a perfect week of all my favorite foods (hello, baked chicken and actual sweet potatoes!) and watching HGTV/horror movies with my grandparents, I was headed to California.

Again, I regret not taking more pictures; I didn’t even get one with my parents. Whoops. I did, however, take a perfectly weird picture of my pup:

Zeva! (I spent a lot of time playing with my parents’ dogs, since pets just aren’t a thing in Rwanda.)

I haven’t lived with my parents in five years, but a week at home seemed too short. I felt pretty busy the whole time, but I brought it on myself. I spent a good two days doing nothing at all and I couldn’t take the stagnation; I’m such a bad vacationer. I did, however, get to play video games and watch movies on a huge TV and spent quality time with my parents and grandparents. I really can’t get over the huge amounts of support I get from my family. When I’m here, in Rwanda, everything comes as second nature already. I forget how fascinating this culture is sometimes. My parents and all my grandparents kept reminding me how interested they are in learning more about Rwanda and how proud they are of me…and it was just incredible to feel how supportive they all are of this whacky journey.

I was struck by how accessible literally everything is in the States. Immediate gratification for your every whim, want, and desire. Missed last night’s episode of Vikings? No problem…video on demand, torrentz.eu, or DVR it. Craving chocolate? Easy enough…hop in your private vehicle and hit up any convenience store or drive-through. Hungry, but you don’t want to cook? Within fifteen minutes, you can be nomming on some quality American grub. Also, refrigerators…freezers…oh man-thank you James Harrison for your contribution to the developed world. The amount of cold drinks, ice cream, and Angel’s I ate was…just high enough. My mom took me shopping and I just couldn’t get over all the different things I could buy right then and there.

Not only did I get some quality time with my parents…but some of my friends came into town for a hangout before my trip back to Rwanda.

Kaitlyn, me, Megan, and Morgan!

It was incredible getting to see them all again (we all went out nine months ago…just before my Peace Corps journey began). I’m so proud of these ladies and I can’t believe we’ve known each other for fifteen years.

I got home real late and woke up real early for my journey into San Francisco. I was exhausted, but I wouldn’t give back that night for anything; I had such a great time with those weirdos. Grateful for them coming into town and spending time with me.

My flight out of San Francisco was at 6:00AM Sunday morning, so my parents and I journeyed to the city on Saturday. After getting my In N Out fix and saying a very quick goodbye (we were double-parked), I headed to my friend Diane’s apartment. (In all honesty, I’m thankful for the quick goodbye…I don’t do drawn-out goodbyes very well at all.) Diane came running down the street and we hugged it out…it had been a good year since we’d seen each other and she sweetly offered up her apartment for me to stay at the night before my flight.

I have no idea where the time went, but that day flew by. We grabbed burritos and ate at Alamo Square:

Full House, anyone?

It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d been in SF, but it was the first time I didn’t feel out of place. I guess, before Peace Corps, I felt like I didn’t really have anything to contribute to that whole scene. Now, talking to people, I feel like I actually have an experience worth sharing.

I had to travel nearly 10,000 miles to a hipster SF coffee shop to get Rwandan coffee. Also, check out those $4 pieces of TOAST.

That night, our other old roommate, Alison came to join the festivities. We had a glorious night of talking about Peace Corps, watching Amelie, and cooking/eating pizza bites in Diane’s bed.

Laben reunion!

I got a whopping four hours of sleep before I had to say goodbye to Diane and Alison. I was feeling bad that Diane was going to have to drive me to the airport at 4:00AM, but thankfully Alison had to be up early for work anyhow. (Cheers to two girls who are literally always up for an adventure!) (And, keep your fingers crossed for the both of them, they’ve both recently applied for the Peace Corps and would make extraordinary additions to the family!)

My journey back home to Rwanda was more planned-out than the trip out to America. I had a six-hour layover in Dallas, so I got to get breakfast and shop a bit with my grandpa who picked me up from the airport. That definitely eased the slight pain of going back. My flight from Dallas to Doha was (obviously) a bit longer than the one from Doha to JFK (about fifteen hours in total). I sat by a lovely Indian woman who spoke to me for a couple hours about her recent divorce and how difficult it had been to send her children to college in America. It’s a good thing I’ve become more of a people-person, but I still had no idea what to do when she started crying. I just tried to comfort her and let her treat me like a surrogate child. (No joke…she was very concerned that I get enough sleep and cleared out the middle seat for me to lie down. I still couldn’t sleep very well.) Luckily, I had a hotel for my fourteen-hour layover. I really enjoyed being in Doha; if I have another layover there…I’m going to try swinging a stay of a couple days. It’s a beautiful city…I just wish I could afford really anything there. (Hello, richest country in the world.) I really, really enjoyed the call to prayer played ’round the city.

P.S. Fly Qatar Airways if you have the chance.

After my extended layover, I journeyed six hours back to Kigali. I really can’t say much about the trip other than to mention the flight attendant who was quite forward and asked for my phone number and proceeded to ask me out on a date, since he had a layover in Kigali. I couldn’t believe how openly flirtatious the guy was being…while at work…in front of his coworkers and passengers. I felt bad for blowing him off (I hate being unintentionally mean), but I got to Kigali and nearly immediately passed out for fifteen hours. No regrets. Oh, and as soon as I got into Kigali, I was checked for a fever and had to wait a couple minutes for them to re-check because I was running warm (#noebola).

Zach, Aaron, and I had a very scientific taste-test to determine our favorite Sour Patch flavors.

I spent the next two days eating Sour Patch kids, getting medicine for a skin rash, playing Yahtzee (thank you grandparents!), shopping for a television for my Health Center, re-submitting my grant, working on my VRF (Volunteer Reporting Form…I think?), and meeting at the Ministry of Health. I like to keep busy.

IMG_7284I’ve been back at site for twenty-four hours now. I made my bed with my new sheets and duvet (no more sleeping bag for Melissa!) and slept for nearly twelve hours. I’m caught up on sleep, enjoying the rain sounds, drinking coffee, and reading.

In summation, re-integrating was both quite easy (getting used to American conveniences) and very difficult (finding time to collect my thoughts). I loved visiting home, but I’m so glad to be back. Being in the States just doesn’t feel right for this period of my life. Being in Rwanda, working and living where I do, that’s what feels like home to me. I’m sure in seventeen months…I’ll feel differently…or I won’t…in which case I’ll think about extending for a third year. For now, I’m all relaxed and rested up, fat and happy on American food, enjoying having spent two weeks with family…and ready for the next hurdle!