April in Rwanda: A Foreigner’s Story

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Health Center Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are so, so lucky. So privileged.

And yet.

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

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

From Kibilizi (and me),

thank you for sharing in this culture.

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An Attitude Adjustment

First up, two very exciting pieces of news:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, now, I’m even happier becaaaaauuuuusssseeee…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what have I been doing lately?

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

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

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

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

Holiday Hangover & What’s Up Next

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

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

Music time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January

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

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February

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

March

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

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

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

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

Recent moods:

Obamamania

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

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

Well-meaning Rwandan: “Are you Rwandan?”

Peace Corps Volunteer: “No.”

Rwandan: “Yes you are.”

PCV: “No, I am American.”

Rwandan: “But where are you from?!”

PCV: “I’m from America.”

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

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

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

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

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Obama in Nairobi

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Obama swag in Kenya

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

Cecil the Lion

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

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

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

BE Camp/My Favorite Time of Year

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

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

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The Talent Boys!

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

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

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

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Camp BE 2015

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

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Action shot; don’t I look busy?

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Work hard, play harder.

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

Welcome to the Fam, Health 7

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

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Look at these beautiful people!

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

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Grace and me, celebrating our seniority

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

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

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

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

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5/6 of Health 6! ❤

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

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

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

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

PAC[wom]MAN & STOMP! Out Malaria

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of which…

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

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

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

WASHing It Up in the Village (plus Permagardening)

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

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

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

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

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

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Selfies were more important than gardening, clearly…

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

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Feeling the heat!

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

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

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

VATcation

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

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

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

So there we go.

That’s what all my busy has been lately.

Burundi Blunder

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

Life in Rwanda, One Year Later

Happy Anniversary, Health 6!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8855Now let me skip back a bit to May:

All Volunteer Conference

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

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

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

There were two discussions that really stuck with me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WASH Implementation Plan

So.

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

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

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Last day of WASH ToT!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

April, A Month of Rememberance

This month has been the most trying time of my life. It took this month’s tragedy to realize that the moments I’m experiencing here are not contained within a 27-month period. Even my blog’s tagline, “See you in 2!” won’t hold true. After two years, I’m not going to be the same person that left home in June 2014. None of us in Peace Corps Rwanda will be. I know I’m sounding mighty melodramatic right now, but stay with me; this month has changed my outlook on so many things in life and in service.

As most of you know, my friend and fellow Health 6 Volunteer, David Ripley, passed away on March 31st while on vacation in Tanzania. David was warm and kind in ways many of us will never be. His truths ran deeper than most and his laugh lines were plentiful. When I say David was one of the best people I’ve known…it’s not bullshit. David lived his life according to his own terms, but with the best intentions.

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David Bruce Ripley

There’s an endless stream of things I could say about David. Instead, I’ll just put here what I sent to David’s family:

The first time I ever saw David I thought, “There’s no way this guy is here for Peace Corps.” He walked through the lobby of our hotel, matching suitcase set in tow, hair slicked back, looking dashing as ever…and I thought, “He must be here for a business conference.” A few hours later, he quietly walked in to the Staging event and my notions of what a Peace Corps Volunteer should look like were shattered.

Over the course of the past ten months David also shattered any preconceived ideas of how a Volunteer should act. As he became one of my closest friends, I was lucky enough to watch his passions grow (for both our work here and for one of our best friends, Carrie). It didn’t matter if we were digging ditches, building hand-washing stations, or playing Taboo in the city…David brought a light with him that I will never forget. He was one of the most unique people I’ve ever met…incredibly laid back, independent, fiercely supportive of the people he loved, and sometimes a little neurotic when it came to finishing projects. But what made him so unique was his honesty. On my worst days, David reminded me that it could always be worse…that I needed to suck it up, grin and bear it…that he was there to support me and that nothing was out of reach.

A couple of months ago, David changed my life. Before joining Peace Corps, we both shared a love of emergency medicine. A while back, David asked me what I wanted to do after Peace Corps. When I responded, “nursing”…David looked at me and, without missing a beat said, “You’re better than that.” He was sincere in every single thing he did and said. We spent the day talking about our dreams, what made us happy, and where life might take us after Peace Corps. He told me that his family would visit while he was here and that he couldn’t wait to have everyone meet Carrie. The love that David had for the simplicity of every-day moments is a gift that he shared with every life he’s touched in Rwanda.

There is nothing that will ease this pain. David was a truly extraordinary person, with a passion for life that I can only hope to emulate. In his memory, we will work to continue his sanitation project and help David’s community realize his dreams. Since June, we’ve grown as a family and will continue to remember David for his visions, his honesty, and his incredible compassion.

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Carrie and David's true affections for each other. Bunch o' weirdos.

Carrie and David’s true affections for each other. Bunch o’ weirdos.

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11084252_10155435640770093_2234020832940595779_n 13243_10152894817028223_2044539960351352728_nIMG_7902As you can see from the photos above, David has had a profound impact on many of our lives here in Rwanda. He truly was the sunshine in our group and, with a little help from our friends…we’ll remember him for that…and we’ll get by.

I wish I could say that this was April’s only travesty, but – alas – the shitstorm kept coming.

The past couple of weeks have been extremely difficult for many of us in Peace Corps Rwanda. Some Volunteers have decided to return home for personal reasons. To make a long and devastating story short…there’s just a few of us left in Health 6. And all I really have to say is…

I feel incredibly lucky to have met such wonderful, talented, unique individuals. I’m fortunate to have bonded so tightly with my Health 6 family. As we held it together to plan David’s memorial (with the help of some truly wonderful PCVs outside of Health 6), we were repeatedly told, “I’m not sure how another group could’ve made it through something like this.” We struggled, but constantly told ourselves, “At least we have each other; at least we have Health 6.” That’s not to say that it was all peaches and cream 24/7. Just like any other family, we bickered amongst ourselves and got on each others’ nerves. But it worked.

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Look at those happy, smiling, naive loves.

And now?

Well.

It’s literally a day-by-day kind of thing. I miss David. I miss the rest of my Peace Corps family. This journey is going to be more trying than I ever expected. I’d never thought about going home before this month. I spent a solid couple of days wondering if this was worth it. I remembered seeing somewhere (on one of the countless Peace Corps blogs I read before coming here) that any time you think about going home…wait two days. Typically, the feelings dissipate. (If not, maybe consider talking to someone you trust.) So. I waited two days. And, lo and behold…the feelings dissipated. Not entirely, obviously, but it just comes in bouts now. For now, I’m getting by because of my community and because of the other Volunteers who’ve experienced the same losses this month. Misery sure does love company and I couldn’t ask for better company throughout this mess.

What I can say is…the reason this loss is hitting us so hard is because we were so fortunate to have had each other in this journey and to have created such a tightly knit family. It’s so odd to think that, just eleven months ago, I didn’t know these people. That they haven’t been in my life for years. Remembering that, and remembering exactly why I signed up for Peace Corps (and waited two full years for an invitation), I can honestly say that I’m going to do everything in my power to stay here. (If April taught me anything it’s that you can’t say anything for certain.)

With everything having changed so rapidly, some of my projects are going to require to major repair (namely, the WASH Implementation Plan). But WASH is going to happen! (If it’s the last thing I do here!)

After we’re rid of the monsoon-like weather, I’ll have a builder come make a cabinet for the TV/DVD Player. Our first movie night with the HIV+ kids will be in May. Depending on the ages of the kids, I’ve got Avatar or The Avengers (need to download Kinyarwanda subtitles, but seeing as I don’t have 3G at site anymore…).

In four days, World Malaria Month begins and a few of us South PCVs will be doing a Malaria Walking Tour throughout three villages in our District. We’ve got tons of activities planned…staying busy is great for my mental health. I’ll also be doing a bunch of the activities around my villages (trying to win Malaria Month, ya’ll).

That’ll bring me to the end of May…which leads into June…which is when new Trainees arrive! We have a Training of Trainers (ToT) for the Volunteer Advisory Trainers (VATs) just before PST (Pre-Service Training). (I don’t know if you could tell, but Peace Corps loves their acronyms.) I’m really hoping that the handful of us Health 6ers left can go to the airport to pick up the new Trainees. When we arrived almost a year ago, there were two Volunteers there and I distinctly remember seeing Nikki right when I stepped out of the airport. It was the most exciting thing. I’d love to have us all there, supporting the new group when they arrive. (Throwing myself into work and the happy parts of this experience are certainly my ways of coping.)

By August, the new Trainees will be sworn in as Volunteers and we’ll host BE/GLOW Camps in the South. That’ll be the one year in-service mark for us…I hear it flies by after that. (Here’s the hoping.) My COS (Close of Service) trip now includes a whirlwind tour of the States to visit Health 6 homies!

And as for the living day-by-day…well, it starts tomorrow. (Always a procrastinator.) Being April, Rwanda is still in a period of mourning for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to the Genocide. (A recent report has upped the death toll to nearly two million…TWO MILLION.) It’s a hard time for everyone in Rwanda right now. Tomorrow, I’ll be attending a memorial event held at my Sector office, with my entire Health Center staff.

It’s a reminder that my community is my home. My co-workers are my family, too.

I signed up for 27 months of service.

I’ll be here.

New Year, New Awesome, New Crutches

Priorities:

Now for the rest of it all:

Remember back in middle school when your friends were getting their first broken bones and you thought, I want a cool cast! followed quickly by Only if it’s my left hand, so I can still write. or Crutches would be awesome for a couple days.

Well.

Think again.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog (or my other social media platforms), you might have noticed that I’ve broken my first bone! And it’s not been nearly as fun as my eighth-grade-self imagined. To make a very, very, verrry long story short…

I’ve had x-rays, multiple MRIs, countless trips to King Faisel Hospital, and spent four weeks in Kigali. I AM FINALLY BACK AT SITE (as of an hour ago). I opened my door, fully expecting a mess and what did I find? A cupboard full of food (thanks to my November care package), clean clothes, clean dishes, and no trash! I even had the foresight to buy petrol for my stove before leaving for my weekend trip that turned into a four-week nightmare.

The PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) has been incredible throughout this whole process. After discovering the break, he went out of his way to find some research on the break and, with giddy excitement, told me how uncommon this kind of injury is and how it’s often only seen in triathletes and military personal. If you know anything about me, you’ll know that the probability of either of those things being true, for me, is bout -25%. (I do enjoy a good uniquity, I s’pose.)

To make things concise, the rest of the post is a bit more organized:

Week One in Kigali (12/5-12/12):
Pretty much covered in my last post; went to Ed 6 Swear-In and the Leadership Retreat…then found out I had a stress fracture.

Week Two (12/12-12/19):
Went to get an MRI on two separate occasions to nail down the fracture and figure out the best treatment. I had every intention of leaving Kigali on Monday, but the MRI machine didn’t pick up good enough images (despite my 90 minutes in the machine). The results from the second MRI came in on Friday and I was put on “Case arrest” (basically had to stay on the couch all week/weekend. At this point, I was starting to go stir-crazy and had intense cabin fever. Luckily, there were two other PCVs “living” at the Case and one other visiting, so we kept each other pretty busy. The whole while I tried to get as much work done as possible via E-mails and phone-calls.

Week Three (12/19-12/26):
By Monday, I had a lovely pair of crutches:
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Never, ever again will I take the States’ conveniences for granted. Getting around even the largest city, in Rwanda, is impossible with crutches. Impossible. Every sidewalk is a death trap and every store is an obstacle course.

At this point, I was starting to get pretty damn bummed. I had planned a trip to Burundi and would’ve left on December 24th. The PCMO didn’t clear me for travel (I don’t blame him one bit; crutches are hard enough that I probably would’ve given up using them on vacation.) Come Monday (12/22), I discovered that I had a minimal case of pink eye, courtesy of the Peace Corps transit house. (Disgusting, right?) Got me some meds from the PCMO and it cleared up the next day, thank heavens. Tuesday (12/23) rolled around and I went to breakfast with some PCVS and had my favorite avocado and bacon sandwich. A few hours later, I got to enjoy the sandwich a second time…and then a third…fourth…fifth…etc. because I got food poisoning. Thus ensued twelve whole hours of vomiting and being unable to sleep a wink.

I had avoided a pity party until that point. Then, the tears fell and I called my parents and grandparents. (Thanks for listening to my sobbing and whining and still loving me.) I have never thought about leaving this place. Rwanda is home now. But in that moment…my darkest moment in country…I just wanted to go home for a day or two and have my mommy make me some soup or something.

By the next day (Christmas Eve), I was feeling weak and bummed about missing Burundi, but was in such a better head space. Thankfully, one of my fellow Health 6 PCVs came into town and offered up a spot house-sitting with her. After getting to the house, we spent the day watching movies and relaxing (with my foot up, mom, don’t worry!). The next day (Christmas), we got up early and went shopping for food goodies. By 6:00PM, we were settled in and grubbing away:

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My co-workers and boss sent me some lovely Christmas messages and I had a great phone call with my entire host family. Speaking of which! My host sister, Jacky, is engaged! She’ll be married, next month, to her boyfriend, Bosco. I’m so unbelievably excited for her!

I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas in Rwanda.

Week Four (12/26-1/2):
I spent the next few days, until New Year’s Eve, house-sitting with the girls and having a generally relaxing time. My favorite part was probably cleaning up after the two cats, which were clearly not potty-trained; especially when one of them decided to eat an entire lizard:

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Classy cat food.

What to say about NYE?

Rwanda does it better.

I spent New Year’s Eve eating, drinking, (avoiding) dancing at a club, crashing a wedding, playing beer pong with water (so American), and staying up until 6:30AM, tryinggg to keep up with the three-hundred, or so, Rwandans at our hostel. I failed and had to sleep a wink. But dayum…the party raged on until 2:00PM the next day. I really do not understand where their energy comes from; this is such a napping culture…but there were people up and partying for 36 hours! Crazies.

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Zach came to visit me at the transit house, in my time of need!

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Laura, Grace, and me!

Chuck, A-a-ron, Zach, and me!

Whitney and me!

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We forgot to take a NYE photo; morning after!

Vanessa likes to take selfies on my phone; she deserves this.

And, if you’re wondering, I spent the stroke of midnight in a cab with three other PCVs…lost and looking for the club our friends were at. #glamorous

Yesterday, I tried to head back to site after seeing the doctor one last time (until my one-month check-up). The universe had other plans. After hobbling my ass to the bus stop, venturing on the bus with crutches, and trekking across the large bus station…I was told the soonest bus I could get on was at 6:00PM (it was 1:00PM at the time). If I had gone at six, I wouldn’t have been back at site until 10:00PM and taking a moto after 8:00PM is not the business in a country that doesn’t have DUI checkpoints. I opted, instead, for a 6:30AM bus today and am finally, finally, FINALLY back at site! I could’ve cried tears of joy when I saw my neighbors and realized they had truly missed me as much as I had missed them!

And, now, it is time for a nap and my very own bed in my very own home.

I’m ready for 2015; I’ve never been more ready to conquer 365 days.

Keep Calm and Avoid Stress [Fractures]

First thing’s first: music!

  • “Scotland” – The Lumineers
  • The Serial Podcast (the absolute best source of entertainment for the three-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Butare to Kigali)
  • “Morning” – Beck
  • “Only” – Nicki Minaj (a dedication to my cohort)
  • “The Last Goodbye” – Billy Boyd (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Soundtrack)

Though it’s been only nine days since my last post, I’ve got quite a few updates.

On Friday, December 5th, a new group of Rwanda Volunteers swore in. There are now thirty-six new Education Volunteers in Rwanda. Bottom line: They’re fantastic! They seem just as tight-knit as our little Health 6 group. I see successful collaborations on horizon.

On Saturday, a few of us headed to the Case (the Peace Corps transit house) to cook (and ultimately save money). After eating, we went to spend time at Mamba Club (the unofficial Peace Corps hostel in Kigali). We met up with some other PCVs who happened to be in town and spent the evening playing cards, chatting, and grubbing. After a while, we decided to go out to a nearby club. Twas a pretty tame night, save for some serious networking. (To be talked about further down in this post.)

Over the course of the next couple of days (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday), my left foot started hurting and swelling. I didn’t really take notice at first; the same foot had been hurting on and off since August-ish. On Tuesday morning, I went to see the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) to get my second shot in the Hepatitis A series (as is required by Peace Corps). While prepping the shot, the PCMO noticed the swelling in my foot. We talked a bit about other symptoms and he gave me a full exam. In the end, he decided that I should go for x-rays immediately, convinced that I have broken my foot. Imagine my surprise, given that I haven’t so much as bumped or stubbed by foot since being in this country.

Less than an hour later, I was sitting in Rwanda’s largest hospital, waiting to get x-rays. From 8:00AM to 9:00AM, I hobbled back and forth from the “waiting area” (which was basically three chairs in a back hallway) to the reception, trying to explain to them that I wasn’t responsible for settling the payment. (Peace Corps pays for all of our medical care while we’re here.) After dealing with that (in English and Kinyarwanda, yay!), I waited ninety minutes to see the x-ray technician. Once I was ushered out of the x-ray room, I was seated, again, in the back alley waiting room. A solid three hours later, I was still waiting around to receive my x-rays (so that I could take them back to the PCMO). At around 1:30PM, I found myself fed up (knowing full well I had to leave for a Leadership Retreat at 3:00PM) and went to find someone in Customer Care. After another thirty minutes, I got word that the tech. who handles all the x-rays was “on lunch” and wouldn’t be back for another hour.

At this point, in America, I probably would’ve flipped out. (I mean, really! The tech’s been “on lunch” since 9:00AM. Get real.) However, fully understanding that I’m currently in Rwanda…I just left. Called the PCMO and let him know that the driver should come get me; the x-rays were a lost cause at that point in the day. The PCMO apologized furiously, over the phone, but he had no reason to! The systematic flaws were certainly not his fault. And, let’s be honest, this kind of crap happens tenfold in the States.

I headed back to the Peace Corps office, showered quickly, and jumped in the car headed to the Leadership Retreat in Kibuye (on Lake Kivu).

The Retreat lasted from Tuesday night to Thursday morning; definitely not enough time to make final programming changes…but enough time to get the conversation started. I also really appreciated the ratio of ten staff members to ten Volunteers. It was nice to get immediate answers from certain staff as to why some changes just aren’t feasible. We spent the Retreat discussing the Frameworks of Peace Corps Rwanda’s Education and Health Programs, as they relate to Rwanda’s Vision 2020 strategic plan. We brought up changes that we felt would benefit the Programs and each cohort. As I said before, it was a good start. Rome wasn’t built in a day, ya’ll.

After a number of ridiculously hot showers, comfy King-sized-bed sleeps, and seven pages of Programming notes, I was ready to head back to Kigali.

Lake Kivu, view from the room’s balcony

Lake Kivu’s many islands.

Failed selfie.

Five o’clock sunrise.

After the Retreat, I went back to Kigali and straight to the doctor. My foot had begun to swell even more. The pain was definitely bearable, so I wasn’t too concerned. The x-rays had come back that morning and showed a very slight stress fracture. Really, nothing to be concerned about. Still, the doc is worried because we’re not sure how the fracture happened. We can only assume it’s a result of all the walking I do (in inappropriate shoes) and my lack of coordination (I trip over my own feet on a regular basis). However, the fracture combined with my current (and frequent) flu, is putting the doc on edge. He thinks I might have an auto-immune something-or-other.

Six or seven vials of blood, and a TB test, later the doc sent me on my way. He apologized throughout the entire visit for not being able to do more, which I thought was very sweet. He told me he appreciated my patience (probably the first time anyone has ever said that to me) and that he would boot my foot if I wanted (I definitely don’t because it would make getting around in the village nearly impossible and I do not want to be stuck in Kigali).

At this point (Saturday afternoon), the swelling has gone down significantly and I feel a bit better (flu wise). I’m just taking it very easy hoping that by Monday, I can avoid the schedule MRI and get back to my site. We’ll see how that goes. I walked a very short distance to a cafe this morning and foot swelled up for a couple hours. Not very practical to return to the village when my only mode of transportation are my feet…if my foot is just going to become a balloon every time I try to go anyway. On the flipside, I really don’t want to stay in Kigali. I miss my site, my home, and my co-workers (though they’ve all been so incredibly understanding!). We’ll see.

Enough about my foot! Time to talk networking.

As I briefly mentioned above, I spent some time networking last Saturday night. A group of us met a couple gentlemen who work for Prepex, a company that makes a non-surgical male circumcision device. This was an incredibly lucky find, as Rwanda’s Ministry of Health has put a lot of emphasis on male circumcision (in an attempt to lower male-to-female HIV transmission rates). Basically, I got really excited about a potential collaboration and arranged a meeting yesterday (Friday) between myself, a Prepex representative, and Peace Corps’ HIV/AIDS Coordinator, Nicole.

The meeting went better than I could have ever expected. Essentially, us Peace Corps Volunteers would be responsible for handling all of the community outreach (advertising, education, finding the right location in our communities, follow-ups, etc.) Prepex has (incredibly) said that they would pay for everything involved in the trainings of our Health Centers’ staff.

Basically, Volunteers would bring nurses form their Health Centers to a three-day training in Kigali. After the training, Volunteers and their nurses would return to their villages to advertise and perform the (completely free) procedure. Ultimately, the Ministry of Health wants to complete 700,000 male circumcisions by 2015. Now, with Prepex’s help, Peace Corps can help them achieve that goal. Right now, everything seems to be moving in hyperspeed, but I can only hope that the universe threw this into my lap for a reason. I can’t imagine a better first project. I’m thanking my lucky stars that everything is going this well. (And keeping my fingers crossed.)

Well.

That’s about it for now.

Until further notice, I’ll be wasting my money in Kigali and trying to stay busy planning my upcoming projects (that will, if everything continues to go well), begin in January/February. I also have a holiday vacation planned to neighboring Burundi, starting December 24th. I’m thoroughly excited, so my foot better get its shit together in time. Though the borders from Rwanda to Burundi just opened back up for us Volunteers, they’re likely to close again soon. The upcoming elections are creating a heated atmosphere across the border, so we’ll see. We’re all holding our breath, hoping we don’t get a phone call the night of the 23rd, telling us to turn back.

[As an aside, there was an “accidental rocket projectile” launched into Rwanda on the 9th. The rocket touched down, and exploded, in the far northwest of the country and no one was harmed. We have one Volunteer in the area and Peace Corps is still decided on whether or not they’ll move him out. (They’re expecting more action in the coming months, from the insurgent group in the DRC that wants to get back into Rwanda.) Another wait-and-see situation. I’m all safe, fam bam, so no worries.]