Music, music, music!
- Octahate – Ryn Weaver
- Real Life – The Weeknd
- Powerful – Major Lazer feat. Ellie Goulding and Tarrus Riley
mid-service slump (n): the sudden severe feeling of guilt for not having done enough throughout your Peace Corps service, especially felt at the year mark
Okay, so I made that up entirely. Stay with me.
At the beginning of Pre-Service Training (PST), our Director of Programming and Training (DPT)…also known as the fantastic and enviable Bryan Dwyer…gave us a peek inside the emotional journey we’d be taking over the course of our twenty-seven months in Rwanda. The Office for Special Services has even dubbed it the “Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment”. After Bryan finished, my cohort and I didn’t exactly scoff, but we certainly didn’t subscribe to the cycle. After all, can anyone really pinpoint every emotion I’ll experience in twenty-seven months of service?
Well. No. But close enough.
I’m living proof that the cycle is more a less an accurate road map of what emotions you feel during Peace Corps. (With April being one huge exception and emotional detour for Peace Corps Rwanda.)
Up until that ten-month mark (April), things were smooth sailing. I had those couple dips during training when I was emotionally drained…cough…language learning…cough, but on the whole things were great and I sailed through the “honeymoon phase” along with the rest of my cohort. April happened and my little squiggly line dipped so far down that it’s off the silly chart. Somehow, our Health 6 family helped one another through our tragedies and my line eventually made it back to its normal progression.
Month twelve (June) came and went and my little squiggly line never really dipped; I was too busy planning my WASH ToT and staying caught up with committee work. Then month fifteen (September) came along and slammed right into me.
At the end of September, I just started to feel off. It was getting more and more difficult to get out of bed at 5:30 in the morning. I was feeling a bit complacent about my position here in Rwanda. My projects were well on their way (more than halfway through the WASH lessons), my counterpart had just finished a Permagarden training all on his own, I’d just completed two weeks of intensive malaria training, and I was feeling productive enough at home that going into the office seemed like a hassle. On top of that, my health center is incredible. The community needs a volunteer, sure, but the staff at work is just so fantastic that sometimes I feel like the center runs at 100% whether I’m there or not. (It’s taken me until this past weekend to realize that that was the goal all along, right? Build capacity in your colleagues and community leaders…basically Peace Corps 101.)
So, there I am at the end of September, minding my own business…going into work for 4-5 hours a day and coming home to work on reports for the Ministry of Health…and I get this phone call from one of my favorite Peace Corps staff members. She tells me that she recently accepted a position at the CDC in Kigali. I was shocked; ecstatic for her, deeply saddened for my own professional loss, and worried for the future of Peace Corps. That probably sounds dramatic to you all, but this particular woman has been with my cohort since our first days in Rwanda. She’s been our rock and our biggest supporter throughout our struggles. I’m glad Kigali is so small…I will be stalking her at work soon enough.
Fast forward a couple of days and I’m sitting in my house, again, doing WASH reports, again, and I get a call from my counterpart and best friend, Maurice. He drops a bomb: he’s been transferred to a health center in the main part of our district (nearly ninety minutes away) and the next day would be his last at our health center. Now, I don’t really know how to explain this to someone who hasn’t served in the Peace Corps (sorry if that sounds exclusive or snobby or whathaveyou). Your counterpart is your everything. Your colleague. Your immediate supervisor. Your village buddy. Your partner in crime. Your go-to for literally everything Peace Corps related. And, for me, my best friend. After I got off the phone with Maurice, I sat in bed and cried until I was thoroughly finished with my solo pity party. The next day we sat around our office while he prayed and we both cried a bit. Eventually, I had to leave early because I honestly just couldn’t take sitting around and moping during his last few hours at work. We hugged it out and he was on his way the next morning.
Over the course of the next week, I kind of just floated through work. I didn’t have electricity all week (pretty common occurrence during wet season) and busied myself in hands-on community work, laundry, and helping my neighbor plant grass (because the Red Cross is just that bougie). By week’s end, after having read through every paperback novel in my house, it finally occurred to me that the reason both of these work losses hit me so hard was because I was already deep into my mid-service slump! I thought back to that dumb little cycle during training, remembered that damn squiggly line, and finally started to feel comfortable owning my slump. After all, I’d made it to the mid-point. Hell, I’ve made it past the midpoint. I’ve got a little under ten months left and have been here about sixteen!
Armed with that little slump badge, I headed to Kigali last Saturday for the wedding of my language teacher, Immaculee. Vanessa and I made it to our hostel just before the monsoon level rains started and got all done up for our first Kigali wedding!
Rwanda wedding culture is much different than America and is actually shifting quite dramatically as the younger generations come into their marriages. Last month (while V and I were still in Senegal), Immaculee had a traditional wedding in the town she grew up in and where her family still resides. Last Saturday, she completed the marriage with a modern ceremony in the city.
The ceremony was beautiful and included plenty of choir music and up-down prayer. (I will never get over the gorgeous hymns sung in this country.) When the wedding was over, we (Vanessa, myself, and other PCVs who had come for the festivities) headed over to the reception hall.
The reception was set up much like a large conference, with row seating for the audience and a “bride” and “groom” family section. There were four family speeches given, alternating between each side, while the audience dined on Fanta and cake. It was clear that the bride’s family spoke to the groom’s family and vice verse during their speeches; it was a lovely show of respect for their new in-laws. After each family spoke, it was time for the gift-givers to give a brief speech and hand over their gift to Immaculee and Jean Paul. I was reluctantly chosen to be the PCV spokesperson, so when we all went to the front of the reception hall, I gave a very brief speech and we handed over our gifts to the lovely couple. Following that, we snapped some photos with the gorgeous couple and were on our merry way.
Immaculee’s wedding could not have come at a better time for me. I know she, clearly, did not plan her wedding around my slump…but boy did it help. I was so fortunate to spend the day celebrating two people’s love for one another; it helped me see the bigger picture of – you know – life. At one point during the ceremony, Immaculee rested her head on Jean Paul’s shoulder and I couldn’t help but let out an audible “Awww!” Seeing two people so in love profess it in front of their family and friends was exactly what my cold little heart needed.
Following the reception, a few of us PCVs headed out to dinner and dancing. Given that I have a liver/kidney function test coming up (due to recent surprise illnesses and fevers), I stayed well hydrated, 100% sober, and danced my tooshie off with the other PCVs until well into the morning.
And then came the major upswing: coming back home on Sunday.
Yesterday was International Day of the Girl Child (why call it “girl child”, whyyy?). I celebrated with two mighty hugs from the girls in the photo below. They brighten even my darkest days with their giggles and determination to say “hello” before they run off to afternoon classes. But, honestly, what I love most about these girls are their attitudes. Mariya and Kabebe are feisty! They are determined to get what they want out of life and make their desires known. Even with Rwanda’s Parliament being majority female, feisty not an attitude you see often in Rwanda. I have done and will continue to do everything I can to foster their drive and strong spirit; I hope they never lose their feisty.
And then there was today. The final upswing.
I went to work this morning expecting another casual work day of filling out reports and watching Rugamba fill out the same reports in Kinyarwanda. Insteaaad…I met my new counterpart! Maurice’s position has been filled by Betty, a middle-aged Rwandan woman who I can already tell is extremely dedicated to her job. (Side note: I have so many talented, strong, driven women in my life here in Rwanda…it is incredible!) Betty speaks very little English, so that’s a plus for me! (My Kinya skills might yet improve!) We worked side-by-side today, chatting about life and Peace Corps, until I had to go buy eggs. (Gotta get ’em before they sell out, seriously!) What I found to be particularly fantastic is that my titulaire (supervisor) had already explained to Betty her role as my counterpart. In fact, I think it was part of the job description when hiring for the position. My heart is so full of love for this staff and this community. Many PCVs struggle with finding a counterpart or with their staff not fully supporting them. And here I am – with my titulaire hiring someone based partly on their desire to work with a PCV!
By the time I got home today I was already a few days out of the slump and excited to make french toast with my newly bought eggs. As I unlocked my door, my neighbor Jackie came bounding out and told me how excited she was for the rain (you and me both, darlin’!). We shared some tea until the Red Cross umukozi/my surrogate grandpa came over to join and we all just kind of hung out for a few hours. A totally normal day in Rwanda.
I’m sitting in bed with the little juice I have left from the hour of electricity I had tonight, writing this blog post, to express the norms of the mid-service slump and to brag a bit about having come out of it mostly unscathed. I spend a lot of time writing about the positive aspects of Peace Corps…mostly because I haven’t had very many negatives (aside from the deeply tragic ones). But I want everyone out there (Bueller, Bueller…?) to know that it’s not always rainbows and thousand hill vistas out here. We PCVs do get down. In fact, Peace Corps guilt is one of our biggest struggles (and probably a huge influence of the mid-service slump)…but that’s a topic for another time, maybe.
P.S. Here, have some random photos from the STOMP meeting weekend:
Part I – Senegal
Imagine you’ve just woken up, after uncomfortably shifting around your bed for a good thirty minutes. You slowly peel your body from the sheet and sit up, covered in your own sweat. You reach behind you and feel the bed sheet – yep! – it’s soaked through. No more than five minutes later, around 5:30AM, you’re reveling in the stream of an ice cold shower, washing the previous night’s sweat off (after all, you showered just before getting into bed last night). After, you towel off, get dressed in layers that stick to your damp body, and walk from the shower stall to the sink. As you brush your teeth, you start to feel the inevitable beads of sweat form on your forehead…dripping down your temples as you spit toothpaste and rinse your mouth. You look in the mirror, flushed and sweaty again…ready for Stomping Out Malaria in Africa’s 14th Boothcamp!
That’s right, y’all! I spent two weeks in hot and humid Senegal, learning everything there is to know about malaria. Despite my incessant complaints about the climate, I had a blast! Vanessa (fellow PCV) and I were lucky enough to spend our time in Thies, Senegal with Volunteers and host country staff from sixteen different countries in sub-Saharan Africa. We talked about how malaria is transmitted, discussed thoroughly the life cycle and stages of malaria within a mosquito and human conduit. Of course we studied prevention methods in depth and weighed the pros and cons of using IRS (Indoor Residual Spraying) and “free” mosquito nets in our developing host countries. One of my favorite parts of the Bootcamp was the nightly Case Studies. After dinner each night, we all got together (in the single air-conditioned room, thankfully) and spent an hour going over a previously assigned journal paper or study. The amount of knowledge and ingenuity at that Bootcamp was incredible! Staff and Volunteers alike astounded me and reinvigorated me to fight the spread of malaria. On day one Matt Mclaughlin, STOMP’s creator, told us that we’re in a “bubble of opportunity” and have, within each of us, the ability to eradicate malaria. How could we not be pumped?!
We spent our first week at Bootcamp learning about the basics of malaria, since some Volunteers arrived after having been in their host countries only a few months and some of us arrived with a year-and-a-half of malaria knowledge. (Eek!) We learned about our organizational and institutional partners in the fight against malaria and discussed the current state of malaria around the world (including recent antimalarial resistances). The most captivating presentations given the first week were those by our own peers (and staff). We each came prepared with a “Best Practice” PowerPoint (of course, it’s still Peace Corps after all!). I truly enjoyed getting to see what other countries were up to and ways they were fighting the disease in their own host countries. Here are some of my favorites that I hope to bring to Peace Corps Rwanda:
- Senegal’s weekly radio “talk show” with Volunteers and counterparts talking about issues surrounding malaria
- Ghana’s pre-done malaria murals that Volunteers can easily take to their sites and tag buildings with (after getting approval from the local gov’t, of course)
- Madagascar’s professionally printed children’s book that tells the tale of a little girl’s fight against mosquitos
- Burkina Faso’s “music keys” project, which allows Volunteers to create playlists for long bus rides that include brief malaria PSAs (Thanks to our previous Bootcamp attendees, our STOMP is already hard at work on these!)
And those are just some of the stellar projects underway in Peace Corps Africa!
The first week was pretty much 7:00AM (breakfast) to 8:30PM (Case Studies). It was exhausting, but totally worth it. Then, come Sunday, we were set freeeeee! Not really, but close enough; we got to go to the beach! Let me just say that the Atlantic Ocean is much saltier than the Pacific. After having been in land-locked Rwanda for fifteen months…getting to swim in the ocean current felt tremendous.
After we got back from the beach we all showered (showering three to four times was pretty much the norm) and got ready for our cultural gift exchange. Each country was responsible for bringing with them a gift from home. I brought Rwandan coffee, which I really didn’t expect to be popular. Turns out, most PCVs (aside from those in Rwanda and Ethiopia) do not have immediate access to coffee! In return, I was gifted the most fabulous igitenge (local fabric) apron and some jewelry.
During the second week, we delved a whole lot deeper into development and issues plaguing the eradication of malaria. We had the wonderful opportunity to visit a local Malaria Superstar, Ejladhi Piop. Ejladhi once held a lucrative position with UNICEF, which he promptly quit after the tragic death of his 12-year-old daughter. Within just 48 hours of developing a fever, his daughter had passed away from malaria-related complications. After his daughter’s death, Ejladhi moved back to his hometown and has since dedicated his life to reducing malaria rates in his community. And, boy, has he been successful! Since starting his work, rates of malaria in Ejladhi’s community have gone from 37% to just 0.3%! Seriously, how incredible is that?!
Also in the second week, we learned about an app called CommCare which, without going into much detail, is an app that functions as a shell with which to create other apps. I’ve already begun creating a very simple app for Volunteers and Community Health Workers (CHWs) to use as they go house-to-house collecting baseline data pertaining to malaria. Of course, I will run into technology restrictions as I move forward, but I’m lucky to live in a semi-rural area where many of my co-workers have smart phones. (When you’re not obsessed with getting the newest and shiniest iPhone or whathaveyou, smart phones can actually be pretty affordable…even in Rwanda.)
Of course, it wasn’t all work…Peace Corps Volunteers are all about their play time. We had a lot of clothes made at this fabulous local tailor, spent nights out at “Church”, and played a lot of new ice-breaker type games (watch out, Peace Corps Rwanda, I’m comin’ for you!). I’m not sure if every Bootcamp feels this way after, but I certainly feel great amounts of gratitude for having been given the opportunity to meet all of the Bootcamp XIV weirdos. The amount of dedication, creativity, and beauty in the room those two weeks…it was invigorating!
After the Bootcamp had finished, a few of us extended our stay in Senegal. Unfortunately, Vanessa got really ill during our second week and had been whisked away to a medical center in Dakar. We had to cancel our AirBnB, but everything worked out! Teneasha, the wonderful third-year PCV working with STOMP, offered up her house as lodging for me during our extra three days. In that time, I got to meet other Senegal Volunteers and hang out with the Bootcampers from Ghana (Olesya and Angie) and Malawi (Megan).
Thankfully, Vanessa felt well enough by our vacation days that we all went on a day trip to Goree Island. During the 19th century, Goree was a main slave-trading center on the African coast and the history runs deep on the island. Within every building you can feel the tragic past, but nowhere is it more present than in the “house of slaves”, as the locals have deemed it. Visiting the house was a somber affair, but certainly a necessary one in remembering the lives of the millions of enslaved Africans that were lost. It was a reminder to remain vigilant in our quest for equality and development.
Despite its tragic past, the beaches of Goree are now filled with laughing children (there are about 1,100 islanders currently living on Goree) and the snaps of tourist cameras.
By the time we boarded our flight home, I’d say that Vanessa and I were very excited to get back to our own homes and our own beds. It was certainly the most informative part of my service thus far…and will remain one of the most memorable.
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!
- The Hills – The Weeknd
- Come on to Me – Major Lazer feat. Sean Paul
- Renegades – X Ambassadors
- Karolina – Dream Boyz feat Gabrio (Let me start you off slow with the Rwandan jamz.)
[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.
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).
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!
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!).
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):
- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
- 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).
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
As 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.
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.
Though I’m currently listening to Def Leppard, as my neighbor has requested we do for the past three nights…I’ve become obsessed with playing:
- Hozier’s self-titled Hozier album (The entire thing on repeat all day, erry day.)
- Give Me Love – Ed Sheeran (An oldie, but a goodie for those nights when I’ve watched one too many rom-coms.)
- Renegade Fighter – Zed (Thanks, Smallville!)
- Wild World – Cat Stevens
Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I wholeheartedly agree with this. Traveling opens you up to new worlds (conveniently located on your same Earth) and shows you the best and worst of what people have to offer.
During my 289 days in Rwanda (which is nearly ten months, woahhhh), I’ve bore witness to the incredible fortitude Rwandans have. (In truth, their affections and warmth will stick with me for the rest of my life.) Many will call this muzungu privilege (foreign/white privilege) and I can’t disagree with them; I’ll never know life as a native Rwandan. I do, however, know life as a citizen of American…in America. I’m the first to admit that, when I lived in the Sates, I was a grumpers when it came to dealing with other people (especially strangers). I was happy to shuffle about a crowded grocery store…silently…avoiding eye contact…and just generally despising having to deal with people. I was just another one of the countless people saying, “I hate people.” Oh, how things have changed.
I mean, sure, I love my me time. I enjoy reading and drinking coffee solo in the mornings just as much as I did in the States. The difference, here, is that when I leave my home…as soon as I lock the door…the world’s getting a straight shot of 100% pure, social Melissa. (Whether they like it or not…trust me, some don’t enjoy it much. I used to get yelled at in grade school for talking too much…not much has changed.) I’ve made it my mission to network and meet as many people as possible whilst here. I just really want to get to know people. (I think that’s why I was so excited for the Ed 6 group and now I’m stoked for the Health 7 group…it’s so much fun to share this experience with others.)
So, since being back from my trip to Amuricahhh, I’ve been a busy bee. (Though I’ve still managed to sail through ten season of Smallville…no shame!) I spent the first two weeks of March hunkered down at site, holding meetings with District officials and village members to form the hygiene and sanitation clubs I’ll need for the WASH behavior change classes. I’ve relied heavily on the EHO (Environmental Health Officer) at my Health Center; he’s been an absolute pleasure to work with. Rugamba is a workaholic, second in command on the Health Center, and always has a smile on his face. And though Rwanda has a bad rap for business etiquette (for example, our 7:00AM meeting starts between 7:30AM and 7:45AM some days…and some days it’s at 6:45AM…no rhyme or reason), Rugamba was able to schedule a same-day meeting with my District officials. The two officials have graciously have agreed to host the village-level training of trainers (ToT). Furthermore, many of my HC’s staff have approached me to say that they “know we will succeed” in these trainings. Sometimes, especially during college, it feels like it’s every man, woman, and barely walking child for themselves. Yet, here in this strange little village, I’ve found a staff of thirty people who seem to be pulling for me every day.
After getting all the clubs settled, I was off on a trip to visit my host family and to have a mini-vacation at my friend Laura’s site. As usual, Kigali kind of sucked me in and I ended up meeting with like four different staff members. I even had a brief meeting with our Country Director and discovered a little snafu with one of my upcoming projects. No one really made any mistakes…just an excited staff member exchanging e-mails…but I’m now on the Peace Corps’ Director’s (in D.C.) radar…so that’s cool, right? (Right? ha…)
After the meetings, I was on my merry way to Rwamagana (where my host family lives). I got to see my host brother, Benoi, my host sister, Jackie, and mama. (I use those terms loosely, since Benoi and Jackie are actually mama’s nephew and niece…I think. Family is family here.) It’d been nearly four months since I had seen the fam, so I was feelin’ pretty guilty. Mama has a tendency to get upset when I can’t visit as often as she’d like (I think she’d prefer if I just lived there), so I always get anxious that she’ll give me talking to (like I’m twelve years old or something, ha!). This time, she was just so happy to see me…it was a raucous good time.
After lunch, Laura and I were on our way to her site in the Wild Wild East!
I spent Friday and Saturday nights at Laura’s, hanging out and eating the best/worst foods ever. We started out with a healthy lunch and, somewhere along the way, decided that sugar and salt were better for us than the veggies. A choice decision if I do say so myself. We watched horror movies and listened to metal and it was just a pretty awesome girls’ weekend, all around.
Oh, there are two things worth noting…
First, Laura’s cute little home made me want to HGTV-ify my house. So, I immediately came home and purchased a mattress and wardrobe/bookshelf for my bedroom. Second, THE EAST IS SO DAMN HOT. I have no clue how anyone lives there…let alone gets out of bed. (In reality, it’s no hotter than summer in Northern California, but still…the South has made me a tempered climate fiend.)
On Sunday, I swung by my host family’s again because they bought me a rooster. It was such an sweet show of love and I feel incredibly lucky to have them as my second family! That rooster became the first thing I’ve every killed, ya’ll, and my host sister was too busy cracking up laughing to take a video. Anyhow, he tasted delicious and I had crispy fries on the side (can’t believe mama still remembers my favorite meal).
I got back into Kigali late Sunday and got me some good sleep in. On Monday, I woke up bright and early and was off in search of a television for my Health Center. Carrie, Vanessa, and I all ended up waiting at the bus stop for a good twenty minutes before a nice guy offered us a free ride to the city. I’m pretty sure Peace Corps (and my parents) would frown upon this…but the whole catch-a-free-ride-situation is pretty standard here. (Like hopping in the back of a pick-up in small town America, except I’m less afraid of someone axing me to death here in Rwanda.) Plus, there were three of us in the car. Turns out, the guy is an office supply dealer in Kigali, which, as it turns out…we’ll be needing very shortly for our Kigali WASH training. We got his contact info and he dropped us off safely in the city. This is just another reason why I’ve become so incredibly open to experiencing new friendships and relationships…why I’m interested in the lives of strangers now. Rwanda really has been fatal to a great number of my prejudices.
Back to the shopping…
Thanks to some gloriously generous donors, I was able to buy a TV and DVD player (with USB ports)!
I’ll have some better pictures once we get the wall case built, but…needless to say…my staff is incredibly thankful and so stoked to start using it for morning information sessions. I already have four videos that range from five-minutes to twenty-minutes and are about HIV/AIDS, malaria, and diarrhea. I cannot thank you donors enough! I was just speaking with a District official who reported on our Health Center that our customer care needs to be better…that patients are waiting a long time with no interaction from health staff. Though I can’t exactly hire more staff, this TV is going to help educate the masses and, for that, I thank you!
Here comes even more sappy KINDNESS mumbo jumbo!
When I got back to the Peace Corps office on Monday…I thought Hey! Let’s go see if anyone is heading to Butare (my regional town) for site development. As it turned out…our Assistant Program Manager, Andre, was heading out there the very next day. So, the next morning, Vanessa and I loaded up a bunch of our crap (that probably would not have fit on a bus, anyway) and got a free ride to Butare. I was going to have to pay 5,000RWF for my ticket and a ticket for the TV (yeah…). Andre the hero!
When we got to Butare, I negotiated for a taxi to take me to the bank, the mattress boutique, and home to Kibilizi. I got a fairly good rate, but what was even better…that taxi driver helped me get a lower price for my mattress. He could’ve just sat in his taxi (especially since I’d just bartered with him for a lower price), but instead chose to help me get a price fit for a local and not a foreigner. I seriously love this place and these people.
That brings me to this week…
Since Tuesday afternoon, I’ve been setting up the TV and downloading videos in Kinyarwanda (too bad Rwanda isn’t really a French speaking country…the videos would be plentiful). I also decided that I needed to be a better tenant. I’m not a bad tenant or anything (I hope), but I decided to offer my services to the Red Cross. I figured…I have the time and the resources…why not. So I met with my District Red Cross leader (kind of a like a County leader)…and we just hit it off right away. He’s such a cool guy and super helpful. He’d visited the Health Center when I was in America and they told him I was bringing a TV, so he offered up some health videos that the Red Cross uses…which was super nice of him! Yesterday, I mentioned that I needed to head to Butare to buy a wardrobe and he offered to drive me since he had to pick something up (it’s about 20 minutes and a 1000RWF moto ride away, normally). Off we went for a shopping extravaganza. I bought more furniture than I’d intended…but he was so good at bargaining for a lower price, on my behalf. We got coffee together and watched as buses drove by, carrying refugees to the “new” camp located just to the South of me. When I expressed interest, Robert offered to take me there some time if I’d help out with bed net distribution. I’ve been wanting to go, so of course I said yes! He also has two youngins who are looking for English tutors, so I told him I’d go visit him and his wife/teach the kids a bit, as long as I got to play with their young baby!
Finally, to reiterate my point that Rwandans are the most wonderful people…
I spent pretty much the entire day hotel shopping online and via phone calls (though I’ve come to enjoy people, I still despise the phone). It was actually pretty exhausting doing all the price checking and what not…but I finally found what I think might be the best option for our upcoming WASH training in the city. The hotel had prices listed at maybe twice what we could afford…and their conference wall was wayyy out of our budget…but I went ahead and called anyway. After ten minutes of explaining the training and Peace Corps and what we were aiming to do…the manager decides to go with our drastically lower budget. It was incredible! He is such a nice man and I’m actually really excited to have our facilitators stay here. A friendly staff makes for repeat customers.
And, now, after this incredibly long post…it’s time to make an egg salad sandwich. I bought spicy mustard in Kigali and mayonnaise in Butare and my life has forever changed. Boiled eggs are only 14 cents, so I’m getting alllll the protein (and cholesterol).
It’s been eight months since I left California. By the time I visit home next month…it’ll be nearly nine! Furthermore, I’m finally off crutches! (Except I’m not allowed to dance, hike, play sports, run, or go on long walks for another two months). Anyhow, to celebrate, here are some songs I’ve had on repeat:
One of the things I’ve come to realize about myself, since being here, is that I’m a creature of habit. I truly, truly enjoy organization and schedules. I’m just beginning to understand that I also enjoy the chaos that is living and working in a developing country.
Coming back from being in Kigali for so long (broken foot) and starting work again…well, it’s been difficult. In Kigali, time doesn’t really pass in the normal sense; you get to stay up well into the night and sleep in as late as you want, no staff meetings to mark the passage of time. It’s been a struggle, but I finally found a routine that works well for getting my constantly-tired-ass out of bed.
I wake up between 5:15AM and 5:45AM Monday through Friday, at which point I start boiling water. (I’ve lived with cold bucket baths for eight months; times are a’ changing.) After the water is boiled, I add some to my french press, some to my bowl of oats, and some to my bath basin. I then promptly “shower” in the luke warm water, dry off, and spend no less than forty-five minutes sipping coffee, eating, and reading the White House’s daily press briefings, watching West Wing, or taking inane Buzzfeed quizzes…whatever peaks my interest. By 6:30AM I’m putting on my makeup, clothes, and getting ready to head out the door.
All of that might seem like a lot to you. But. As I said before, I need the structure. Otherwise, I’ll set my alarm for 6:30, get antsy about the thought of only having thirty minutes to get ready…then I’ll hit snooze and pass out again. One of the problems…or, rather, blessings in disguise…about Peace Corps Health (and typically every other program besides TEFL) is that it’s incredibly un-structured. Instead of getting dragged down in the fact that no one expects me to show up anywhere, at any given time, I try to stay focused on those 5:30AM cattle farmers screaming, “Mwaramutse (morning)” when they see me boiling water. And those 6:00AM church bells, loud enough to wake the dead. And the 6:50AM school children running circles around me, asking me to teach them English.
Of course, the best parts of my days are the chaotic, unscheduled ones. The hour that I’m forced to babysit a newborn while the mama undergoes post-birthing surgery. The three-hour staff meeting that I can only understand a lick of, but comprehend that we’re getting yelled at for lack of data reporting. The slip in the mud, in front of the school, because I wore sandals on a day that I knew – I just knew – that is was going to downpour on my way home. The cry session with my co-worker who just found out her mother passed away.
Fair warning: This rest of this post is not going to be chipper. You’ve been warned.
Upon getting to work this morning, I was told a very sad story of an infant in a nearby town. The story goes as follows:
It’s regular practice for the Health Centers to have one or two night-shift nurses. Just like in America, they work two or three nights in a row and then have an off-night/off-day. In this nearby town, that for anonymity’s sake we’ll call “R”, one nurse was working a solo night shift and a mother came in for an emergency delivery. After questioning the mother, the nurse figured out that the pregnancy was only in its sixth month. Without any other options, the nurse delivered the premature infant.
Upon delivery, the nurse was ill-prepared and assumed, incorrectly, that the nearest hospital was just too far a journey for the infant and the mother. Instead of calling for help, out of fear of being labeled ignorant or inadequate, the nurse waited for the child to die. There were no obvious birth defects (other than the small size, of course), but instead of caring for the infant…the nurse left the child in a trash bin, in the cold, and waited for it to pass away.
After waking post-delivery, the mother found out what the nurse had done and obviously panicked. She called the authorities and the nurse was arrested. She will spend her life in prison for her carelessness and ineptitude.
My point, in telling this depressing story, is that things like this are a crash course into reality. It’s easy to get caught up in the every-day here. Of course, horrors like this aren’t necessarily unique to Rwanda…or even unique to the developing world. But I still forget that not every area in Rwanda experiences the level of health care that my co-workers provide to Kibilizi. This morning’s story reminded me that, regardless of the safety net Kibilizi appears to provide, the health care system in Rwanda is still desperately in need.
On a similar, frightening, note…
Last weekend, one of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers was poisoned.
The Volunteer was riding a bus back from Tanzania and was sharing a meal with another passenger. At the end of the meal, the passenger offered the Volunteer a small piece of candy. Given that sharing food is deeply engrained in East African culture, the Volunteer accepted.
As told by the Volunteer, he immediately felt drowsy and realized something was up with the candy. Incredibly, he had enough wherewithal to text his sister his GPS coordinates…and then promptly passed out.
When he woke up, his iPhone and iPad had been stolen and a concerned citizen had gotten him to a Tanzanian hospital, at which point Peace Corps Rwanda had become aware of the situation. Our medical staff was able to pick him up and bring him back to Rwanda, where he spend three days in and out of a heavy, poison-induced fog. His family had been informed right away and Peace Corps handled the entire situation with grace, if I do say so myself.
He’s already well on the road to recovery, but it was a scary situation nonetheless. And, again, it was a reminder that no matter how at-home we feel during our service…our differences still make us targets for things like theft. It was a rude awakening for all of us, I’m sure.
Aside from those two stories…the past couple of weeks have been pretty superb.
I spent the weekend in Kigali for a PAC (Program Advisory Committee) meeting and got to celebrate one of my best friend’s 23rd birthdays with her.
With the generous help of only three people, Kibilizi will be getting a television when I return from the States next month! I’ve already informed my Health Center staff and they’re stoked for the possibilities. Personally, I cannot wait to see the looks on the kids’ faces when we announce a monthly movie night. The weather is a bit cold right now (wet season in Rwanda), but when it warms up…I can imagine us in the outdoor waiting room, having a mini slumber party, watching kids movies with Kinyarwanda subtitles. I can’t wait!
I’ve been presenting the WASH hygiene and sanitation plan to a number of higher-ups in my area and, so far, the reception has been nothing but kind and supportive. I’m hoping this is a trend for future projects. I can’t stress enough (for future PCVs)…it all comes down to your bond with the community. If you show a good work ethic and take the time to meet all the proper officials, actually take an interest in getting to know them those first couple weeks, your service is likely to go much smoother!
Right now, my only struggle is site guilt. With all the grant work I’ve had to do, and the extended stay in Kigali, I’ve been away from work more than I’d like. Next month, I’ll be visiting the States and, though my supervisor has been more than supportive of my journey home to see family, it’s nerve-wracking to be leaving so soon into my service. I was always under the impression that I’d stay the full 27 months and not be able to return home (funds, time, etc.). Luckily, February is a down month…just a month of waiting for grant funding to get approved, so it’s the perfect time to head home for a vacation. It’ll only have been 9 months, but I feel like I’m already going to have to re-integrate a bit. I came into this journey not knowing what to expect; I didn’t know if I’d love or hate Rwanda. And, now, being so enamored with my new home…it’s going to be difficult getting used to Americans again. And Safeway…good god…Safeway is going to be a struggle. (Why are there so many toothbrush choices?!)
Until next time! (Which may be in the form of a blog update from America!)
Part I – Compound Livin’
All over the world, Peace Corps Volunteers live in drastically different circumstances. I lived with a host family for the three-month training period. Some PCVs in other countries live with a host family their entire service (phew!). In Rwanda, there are a few different set-ups after training.
(1) Living on the Health Center grounds/school grounds
(2) Living on a compound with a family (you’re basically in a granny-unit)
(3) Living on your own (whether that be on your own compound or in a single unit house)
(4) Living on an NGOs compound/other local organization
I landed in the fourth set-up; I live on the Red Cross compound, about a 4-minute walk from my Health Center. It’s incredibly convenient, safe, and makes for a family-like atmosphere.
So. What is it like to live on a compound?
I have had a total of seven addresses in my life including: two in Lake County, a dorm room, a townhouse (with 6 girls!), a house, an apartment, and (finally) a compound in the middle of rural Rwanda.
All of my past residencies have felt like home in one way or another, but I think I’m enjoying compound living more so than any other living arrangement I’ve had.
After 27 months of service, my Rwandan “apartment” will tie Concord House for the most time spent in one place (outside of my homes growing up, of course). I’ve only just begun decorating (artwork is expensive, ya’ll!), but this tiny, one-bedroom “apartment” feels like a home entirely my own. Of course, that’s probably because it is entirely my own; I don’t have any housemates.
That leads me to my first point: Living alone is superb. I can’t gush enough about how much I enjoy waking up at my own leisurely pace (on weekends, of course, because otherwise it’s a dandy 5:30AM wake-up for the staff meetings). Most of all, I enjoy how quiet the interior of my home is on a Sunday morning. I usually wake up around 9:00AM to the sounds of church bells in the distance and…well…nothing else. It’s entirely quiet, save for a few chirping birds. There’s no forty-year-old roommate milling about, slamming cupboards and doors. There’s no lawn mower just outside my bedroom window. There’s no garbage truck, intent on strewing trash about as it slams the cans down. All is quiet and there’s no one to guilt me out of bed because I haven’t taken the trash out yet.
Trash. The second most tantalizing factor of living on a compound. Since I live on the Red Cross compound, I enjoy the perks of having a repairman, without having to actually pay said repairman. (Although, in all honesty, I cook dinner for us like two nights a week, so I don’t have to throw out leftovers.) In addition to helping me re-wire some “outlets” and clean my drain, the lovely repairman takes out my trash daily. In fact, he refused to show me where the compost pile was for the first month I lived here. He says, “You are nurse. Nurse should heal, not clean trash.” Not exactly a nurse, but homeboy is sweet nonetheless. In addition to him, there’s a night guard who make sure all is quiet on the Western front. I know I’m up and headed to work entirely too early when the night guard is still on duty. He’s a sweetheart.
The next best thing about living on a compound is the feeling of security and comfort, without the feeling of isolation. What I mean is…when I get off work in the afternoons, I just want to decompress. But I also don’t want to be anti-social. Lucky for me, all of my neighbors are really good about boundaries. Whenever I get back from an extended trip, they’ll come say their hellos and hang around for a bit. But after 10 or 15 minutes, they head back to their apartments to mill about or cook. Moreover, on Saturdays, I feel totally comfortable staying in leggings and a tank top while I go outside to wash my clothes. (I would never wear leggings or a tank top in the village.) There’s a eight or nine foot tall wall of bushes that lines the compound, so no one can watch the muzungu get sunburnt while she’s scrubbing her knuckles raw on a pair of blue jeans.
Finally, the biggest perk of living on the Red Cross compound is my neighbor, Tom! He’s a moto driver for Red Cross and works all sorts of crazy hours, driving patients to and from the hospitals and health centers. His crazy hours are probably why we get along so well! There’s no pressure to cook together every night or to have a conversation at a set time, etc. But when we do see each other, and each have more than five minutes, we have the best conversations. Tom’s English is superb and he’s very much on the up-and-up with international relations. We’ve spent hours discussing the pros and cons of Americans going to work internationally, rather than staying in the States. We’ve talked about health care and how different the political parties are in America. And, on occasion, he’ll just gift food to me (I think he’s trying to fatten me up!). In America, I don’t think I ever became friends with a neighbor (at least not so willingly). It’s the atmosphere here…the people…they foster compassion even in the darkest of hearts.
Well. That’s about it. That’s what it’s like to live on a compound in Rwanda.
Part II – What I’m Up To
This morning, I had a really great meeting with my titulaire (supervisor of Health Center), Rugamba (Environmental Health Officer), and Maurice (my counterpart). We discussed all my upcoming projects and how things are going at the Health Center, muri rusange (in general).
(1) TV for Kibilizi (Check out the GoFundMe here!)
As many of you know, I’m raising funds to buy a television for the waiting room at my Health Center. Today, my titulaire asked me how the fundraising was going. She was absolutely thrilled to hear that I’ve raised nearly half the funds. My counterpart was giddy when I told him the idea about having monthly movie nights. He’s always trying to think up ways to involve the kids in Kibilizi. And, no lie, I think he’s real excited to watch the movies himself.
I should have the television (and shelf) installed by mid-March, so I can begin showing the patients videos on how to prevent SIDA and the spread of other communicable diseases. I’m really excited for this one; no one wants to wait silently for 6 hours! If just one person leaves the Health Center having learned the proper way to wash one’s hands…I’ll feel validated. I honestly can’t think of a better way to spread this information; Rwandans love technology and the country is moving toward a media-centric approach to health care.
(2) WASH Program
The WASH Program is a venture that myself and nine other Health 6 Volunteers are just getting started with. The program is a five-month curriculum on hygiene and sanitation; it’s aimed at reducing water-borne illness.
Basically, we’ve each chosen a Cell (for me, I chose Kibilizi Cell). Within each cell, there are 6-12 villages and each one has a Community Health Club. The Community Health Club will elect Community Facilitators (six of them) who will be trained in the WASH curriculum. Each week, the Community Health Clubs (50-100 people each) will get together and learn about a specific health topic. At the end of each week, Community Facilitators will go to the Members’ houses to ensure they’ve adapted the new health practices.
It’s required a lot of planning and meetings…with a bunch of different people. I can’t imagine having tried this venture on my own; I’m so glad there’s a group of ten of us to go through the struggles together. I’ve taken on one of the leadership roles, so I’m always in contact with our MINISANTE facilitator, Andrew, and have a meeting with him Friday to go over the final budget. (Math, not my strong suit. Glad to have had a fellow PCV, Alex, help me through all that!)
After coming back from Amuricahhh, we’ll be ramping up with the orientations and trainings of trainers. (This vacation fell exactly where I needed it to, so that none of my projects are out of sync!)
(3) Prepex Collaboration
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on starting a collaboration with Prepex, a non-surgical male circumcision device. The collaboration is just beginning, but Prepex is all for it; they’ve already put Peace Corps’ logo on a couple of their materials.
I have a meeting this Friday (I legitimately have three meetings this Friday, ugh)…to discuss our next steps. I’m hoping the next step is an all-inclusive meeting with Prepex and the interested PCVs, so we can all be on the same page going forward.
*As an aside, I’m still working on the malaria-prevention coloring book. I decided that, rather than rush to have it out sooner, I might as well take my time so that this can be something PCVs actually use and not just a time-filler on my part. Hoping to have it finished by March.
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.
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.)
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.]
Yeah, so the title certainly doesn’t have same ring as, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” But everything’s wonky in a country that really doesn’t have seasons. (The “wet season” and “dry season” really blend together.) Here’s a few new songs that were been introduced to me the past couple of weeks:
- “Sinfonia Agridulce” – Mexican Institute of Sound
- “Halo” – Ane Brun and Linnea Olsson
- “I Will Be There” – Odessa
As I’ve said before, I do quite a bit of reflecting in this country. Example: Currently, I’m sitting on the couch in the transit house (it’s like our home-away-from-home in the city), and I’m looking back on the last two weeks, wondering what the hell I’ve done. In my mind, it just looks like a bright watercolor smear.
The week directly after Camp (November 16-23) was mostly recovery time. I had a flu (when don’t I have a flu in this country?) and I spent my mornings working at the Health Center. It was a pretty active week, in that we spent our afternoons doing VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing) out in the rural villages. Basically, I’d go to the staff meetings at 7:00AM, “work” (catch up/bullshit with my co-workers) until noon, cook/eat/clean lunch, then take a moto out to one of the villages. I’d then watch my co-workers do blood draws and chat up the locals about health practices. At the end of the day, we’d take the samples back to the lab. By Friday, we’d tested almost four-hundred people. There were nearly twenty individuals who’d tests had come back positive for HIV. We invited them back to the Health Center to get follow-up advice and medication. Unfortunately, as we’d expected, only a handful of those people came back. (One of the driving factors of village-testing is that people can’t make the trip in to the Health Center. We weren’t surprised that they couldn’t make the trip to get medication.)
Friday evening was pretty emotional for me. I’m constantly thinking, “How do I help these individuals immediately?” and “What can I do to make a lasting difference here?” Obviously, the answer to the second question is education. The first question, though, is a bit tougher to answer. As a Volunteer, I shouldn’t (nor do I have the resources to) buy the medication that the uninsured need. Of course, there are welfare programs in this country (to be discussed later). So. My next step was trying to figure out how to get the medications out to the most rural of patients. My temporary solution is this: I will be making monthly trips, with a nurse who I’ve become quite close with, out to the rural health post in Duwani (it’s an extension of our Health Center for those who are unable to walk the two hours). We’ll distribute medication to the individuals in need. The patients who are psychically unable to make it to the health post will receive home visits (from me and, hopefully, a nurse). I’ll monitor their nutrition, sanitation, and compliance with the medication. As I told my campers over and over again, HIV is not a death sentence. With proper nutrition and medication, long and health lives are entirely probable!
When I feel down, I write. A lot. After all the testing last week, I put pen to paper (or, rather, fingers to keys) and jotted down this bit:
“A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in one of our daily staff meetings. Bright and early, 6:45AM. (Never again will I complain about having to be at work by 8:00AM. As I tried not to space out (quick Kinyarwanda is hard ya’ll!), I glanced through the window and saw a mama standing under the awning outside. Before I knew it, she was grabbing a baby from her back, whipping out her breast, and starting to breastfeed.
Totally normal here.
In fact, I’ve seen more bare breasts in the past six months than I’ll probably ever see in my life (outside of the next nineteen months). It seems weird to me that, when I return to the States, mamas are going to be using thick towels or blankets to breastfeed in “public” or just bottle-feeding. Before coming to Rwanda, I didn’t really feel either way about the breastfeeding-in-public debate. Even now, I’m not one of those “breastfeeding is the most beautiful thing a mother can do” types of people. I just think it’s a natural thing; as natural as changing your baby’s diaper while at a picnic…or something.
As the mama held her breast to her baby’s suckling mouth, another woman came over and started chatting her up. Knowing Rwandans, they were probably talking about the grim weather or farming or ibitoki (plantains). There they were. Two women speaking inches apart, while one of them held her bare breast to her baby’s mouth.
It was fantastic!
And then! The second woman lifted her hand and rubbed the baby’s cheek. (More like a soft slap, because that’s the Rwandan thing to do.) All while the kid had mama’s boob in its mouth. The kid looked over like, “My boob, lady!” and went back to breakfast. The woman just continues to pinch the baby’s face and laugh with the mama. No one cared about the bare breast.
Fear of bare breasts is so nineteenth century. Get with it.”
It’s not hard to see the beauty in this country. It’s everywhere you look. Sometimes, you’ve just got to shake away the negativity that you’ll inevitably bring home from work.
I spent much of the weekend of the 22nd/23rd chatting with my neighbor, Tom, about the health care and school systems in Rwanda. His English is excellent, so we spoke in both Kinyarwanda and English for a good few hours each day. My favorite part of the conversation came when I mentioned “Obamacare” and Tom goes, “You shouldn’t use that term. It brings negative views brought on by different political parties.” Of course, he’s 100% right. No more using Layman’s terms with Tom; he knows his shit.
On Monday, I traveled to the city and prepped for a budgeting presentation I’d be giving at PST (Pre-Service Training). On Tuesday, I headed to the training site with Bryan, the Director of Programming and Training (and also one of my favorite people on this planet), and Jonathan, my co-presenter. The presentation went really well and I’m glad; it was one of topics that I felt strongly about and that we never received. Jonathan and I spoke to them about how to budget the money they’d be getting for moving in to their sites (which happens next week!). We also created a list of the items they’d want to buy at their training site, versus what items they should wait to buy. One of the trainees told me yesterday that she felt it was one of the most important training sessions she had. (Which obviously stroked my ego, but was more important to know because now we can include it in the training schedule.) I left the training site feeling even more rejuvenated. The new group of trainees are just as enthusiastic as we are. It’s going to make for a great partnership over the next two years!
After the presentation, came the festivities. And there were many.
Other H6ers started trickling into Kigali by Tuesday night. Wednesday was basically a travel day for much of the group. By the time we all rolled into town, it was time to go out! And go out we did (every night, save for last night). My wallet hates me. My taste buds love me. Ya win some, ya lose some!
Thursday morning, a few of us woke up early and started cooking for Thanksgiving at our Country Director’s house. We made green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, baked mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, and brownies. Our Country Director, Jen, bought all of the supplies (I hope on Peace Corps’ dime) and she cooked turkey and pies for us. I kid you not…the strawberry rhubarb pie was the best thing I’ve eaten since I’ve been in country. After dinner and wine and talk time, we watched Dolphin Tale (Tail?) with Jen’s kids. (Although, if I’m being honest, most of us ended up in a food coma.) I spent a couple hours running up and down the stairs with Jen’s two-year-old on my back.
Before this year, I’d never spent a Thanksgiving apart from my parents. I don’t know if I’d have made it through, sans tears, without the beautiful new family I have. We said our thanks before the meal and I looked around the group, each of them with their eyes closed, probably wishing they were with their families back home. Though I felt the same, I was giving extra thanks that our group is the way it is. We’re a large family (now at eighteen H6 members), but we mesh so damn well. I gave extra thanks that these people have accepted me the way I am, many flaws and all. And I gave thanks for each and every one of them. Not only do I accept them, I appreciate every g’damn one of their quirks.