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.

Senegalese Sweat & STOMP Bootcamp

Part I – Senegal

Imagine you’ve just woken up, after uncomfortably shifting around your bed for a good thirty minutes. You slowly peel your body from the sheet and sit up, covered in your own sweat. You reach behind you and feel the bed sheet – yep! – it’s soaked through. No more than five minutes later, around 5:30AM, you’re reveling in the stream of an ice cold shower, washing the previous night’s sweat off (after all, you showered just before getting into bed last night). After, you towel off, get dressed in layers that stick to your damp body, and walk from the shower stall to the sink. As you brush your teeth, you start to feel the inevitable beads of sweat form on your forehead…dripping down your temples as you spit toothpaste and rinse your mouth. You look in the mirror, flushed and sweaty again…ready for Stomping Out Malaria in Africa’s 14th Boothcamp!

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Dakar, Senegal

That’s right, y’all! I spent two weeks in hot and humid Senegal, learning everything there is to know about malaria. Despite my incessant complaints about the climate, I had a blast! Vanessa (fellow PCV) and I were lucky enough to spend our time in Thies, Senegal with Volunteers and host country staff from sixteen different countries in sub-Saharan Africa. We talked about how malaria is transmitted, discussed thoroughly the life cycle and stages of malaria within a mosquito and human conduit. Of course we studied prevention methods in depth and weighed the pros and cons of using IRS (Indoor Residual Spraying) and “free” mosquito nets in our developing host countries. One of my favorite parts of the Bootcamp was the nightly Case Studies. After dinner each night, we all got together (in the single air-conditioned room, thankfully) and spent an hour going over a previously assigned journal paper or study. The amount of knowledge and ingenuity at that Bootcamp was incredible! Staff and Volunteers alike astounded me and reinvigorated me to fight the spread of malaria. On day one Matt Mclaughlin, STOMP’s creator, told us that we’re in a “bubble of opportunity” and have, within each of us, the ability to eradicate malaria. How could we not be pumped?!

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Mosquito larvae…we got to watch them grow into mosquitoes over the course of three days. I discovered that those little “worm things” floating around in my compound’s rain-water catchment tank…are, in fact, mosquito larvae! (It was much more a disgusting find and not so much an exciting one.)

We spent our first week at Bootcamp learning about the basics of malaria, since some Volunteers arrived after having been in their host countries only a few months and some of us arrived with a year-and-a-half of malaria knowledge. (Eek!) We learned about our organizational and institutional partners in the fight against malaria and discussed the current state of malaria around the world (including recent antimalarial resistances). The most captivating presentations given the first week were those by our own peers (and staff). We each came prepared with a “Best Practice” PowerPoint (of course, it’s still Peace Corps after all!). I truly enjoyed getting to see what other countries were up to and ways they were fighting the disease in their own host countries. Here are some of my favorites that I hope to bring to Peace Corps Rwanda:

  • Senegal’s weekly radio “talk show” with Volunteers and counterparts talking about issues surrounding malaria
  • Ghana’s pre-done malaria murals that Volunteers can easily take to their sites and tag buildings with (after getting approval from the local gov’t, of course)
  • Madagascar’s professionally printed children’s book that tells the tale of a little girl’s fight against mosquitos
  • Burkina Faso’s “music keys” project, which allows Volunteers to create playlists for long bus rides that include brief malaria PSAs (Thanks to our previous Bootcamp attendees, our STOMP is already hard at work on these!)

And those are just some of the stellar projects underway in Peace Corps Africa!

11145020_10156083297135093_6763872185162918923_nThe first week was pretty much 7:00AM (breakfast) to 8:30PM (Case Studies). It was exhausting, but totally worth it. Then, come Sunday, we were set freeeeee! Not really, but close enough; we got to go to the beach! Let me just say that the Atlantic Ocean is much saltier than the Pacific. After having been in land-locked Rwanda for fifteen months…getting to swim in the ocean current felt tremendous.

11947501_10156083296545093_1596064310349251992_nAfter we got back from the beach we all showered (showering three to four times was pretty much the norm) and got ready for our cultural gift exchange. Each country was responsible for bringing with them a gift from home. I brought Rwandan coffee, which I really didn’t expect to be popular. Turns out, most PCVs (aside from those in Rwanda and Ethiopia) do not have immediate access to coffee! In return, I was gifted the most fabulous igitenge (local fabric) apron and some jewelry.

During the second week, we delved a whole lot deeper into development and issues plaguing the eradication of malaria. We had the wonderful opportunity to visit a local Malaria Superstar, Ejladhi Piop. Ejladhi once held a lucrative position with UNICEF, which he promptly quit after the tragic death of his 12-year-old daughter. Within just 48 hours of developing a fever, his daughter had passed away from malaria-related complications. After his daughter’s death, Ejladhi moved back to his hometown and has since dedicated his life to reducing malaria rates in his community. And, boy, has he been successful! Since starting his work, rates of malaria in Ejladhi’s community have gone from 37% to just 0.3%! Seriously, how incredible is that?!

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Ejladhi, holding a photo of one of his sons and daughter. Behind him is a photo story of all of the work he’s done in his catchment. Before him sits his newest creation…a wheelbarrow outfitted with an airhorn to blast malaria PSAs throughout the market and community.

Also in the second week, we learned about an app called CommCare which, without going into much detail, is an app that functions as a shell with which to create other apps. I’ve already begun creating a very simple app for Volunteers and Community Health Workers (CHWs) to use as they go house-to-house collecting baseline data pertaining to malaria. Of course, I will run into technology restrictions as I move forward, but I’m lucky to live in a semi-rural area where many of my co-workers have smart phones. (When you’re not obsessed with getting the newest and shiniest iPhone or whathaveyou, smart phones can actually be pretty affordable…even in Rwanda.)

Of course, it wasn’t all work…Peace Corps Volunteers are all about their play time. We had a lot of clothes made at this fabulous local tailor, spent nights out at “Church”, and played a lot of new ice-breaker type games (watch out, Peace Corps Rwanda, I’m comin’ for you!). I’m not sure if every Bootcamp feels this way after, but I certainly feel great amounts of gratitude for having been given the opportunity to meet all of the Bootcamp XIV weirdos. The amount of dedication, creativity, and beauty in the room those two weeks…it was invigorating!

Weirdos on a field trip to a Health Hut

After the Bootcamp had finished, a few of us extended our stay in Senegal. Unfortunately, Vanessa got really ill during our second week and had been whisked away to a medical center in Dakar. We had to cancel our AirBnB, but everything worked out! Teneasha, the wonderful third-year PCV working with STOMP, offered up her house as lodging for me during our extra three days. In that time, I got to meet other Senegal Volunteers and hang out with the Bootcampers from Ghana (Olesya and Angie) and Malawi (Megan).

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The African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Senegal. Built by North Koreans, this monument has a sordid past. Though sanctioned by the president, the statue wasn’t well received as it cost nearly US $27 million. (Remember this is in a developing country, no less.) Add to that that the statue’s man and woman are partially nude and do not resemble Senegalese, it is widely assumed to be less a Senegalese landmark and more a North Korean power play.

Thankfully, Vanessa felt well enough by our vacation days that we all went on a day trip to Goree Island. During the 19th century, Goree was a main slave-trading center on the African coast and the history runs deep on the island. Within every building you can feel the tragic past, but nowhere is it more present than in the “house of slaves”, as the locals have deemed it. Visiting the house was a somber affair, but certainly a necessary one in remembering the lives of the millions of enslaved Africans that were lost. It was a reminder to remain vigilant in our quest for equality and development.

Despite its tragic past, the beaches of Goree are now filled with laughing children (there are about 1,100 islanders currently living on Goree) and the snaps of tourist cameras.

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Our ferry, aptly named “Beer”, in the distance

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The beaches of Goree Island

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The art of sand manipulation…too broke to buy, but absolutely stunning! This gentleman has been at it for fifteen years.

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Angie (Ghana), me, Olesya (Ghana), Vanessa, and Megan (Malawi)

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Goree Island, Senegal

By the time we boarded our flight home, I’d say that Vanessa and I were very excited to get back to our own homes and our own beds. It was certainly the most informative part of my service thus far…and will remain one of the most memorable.

STOMP Bootcamp XIV

Nearly Nine and Doin’ Fine

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.

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What a lovely post in the middle of sunrise.

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.

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Happy Birthday, Laura!

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Classy and content, of course.

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!)

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Matt’s (in the grey tee) family came to visit and a few of us got to spend some time with them. Absolutely fantastic people! (Had to try hard not to kidnap little Trip.)

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Battle wound! (From building greenhouses!)

Sleep is for the Weak

The past fourteen, or so, days are all swimming together in my head; it’d take hours to write it all down. Instead, I’ll pull the highlights out and get ’em down.

On Saturday, November 1st, some of my host family came to visit me in Kibilizi! I didn’t realize how big of a deal that was until another volunteer explained that, in his two years in Rwanda, he didn’t know of anyone else who had a visit from their family. I feel truly grateful for these people. They get on my nerves sometimes (overbearing) and I’m sure I get on their nerves (lack of communication), but that’s how any family goes, right? After their visit, I made the hasty decision to travel back to the city with them. I packed quickly (for my two week “vacation”) and we hopped on motos to get to the bus station in Rango. I slept on mama’s shoulder for the three-hour bus ride and we said our goodbyes at the Kigali bus station. (They were headed back to Rwamagana and I was staying in Kigali for my week-long training.) Mama took my jeans back to Rwamagana to have a hole sewed up…we’ll see how that goes!

On Saturday and Sunday, I stayed at the Case (the Peace Corps Rwanda transit house, in Kigali). A few other people were in town and we went out to dinner at, what is now, my favorite eatery in Kigali, The Accord Hotel! One of the best parts of Peace Corps is the feeling of extended family. It doesn’t matter your closeness, if you’re in town…you go out together. I had a pesto alfredo pasta, with actual garlic bread. Finding a cheese/cheese sauce, other than the basic formage, is harder than finding Waldo in these parts. It was perfect.

On Monday I checked into the hotel where we all stayed for In-Service Training (IST). The pros included: hot shower, free stay, excellent food. The cons included: located on the very outskirts of the city, bed as hard as concrete. The free stay and food won out; we all had a great time. And, it was nice being together again for the first time in a few months. I really can’t get over how much we feel like a family when we’re all together. We fit into our dysfunctional little roles and it’s wonderful!

Making soy milk!

Making soy milk!

The training itself was really rewarding. I enjoyed each of the presentations, but I most enjoyed seeing all the work my cohort put into their CNA (Community Needs Assessment) reports. It was pretty amazing getting to see how each of us plans to put our little spin on development. Each of our personalities was present in our ideas. One of my fellow H6ers plans to make health-related videos to put on display at her Health Center (on a small television on the waiting-area). Two other H6ers are hoping to build some houses for refugees returning from the Congo. These people push me to strive harder and harder every day. I’ve never been surrounded by such creative, intelligent, and unique individuals. I think we all came away from the training feeling rejuvenated and ready to start writing grants and project proposals. I’ve already gotten started on writing a group grant for WASH (hygiene and sanitation) lessons. One of my most rural villages needs a new well, badly, and I’d love to help build that for them!

It wasn’t all work! Because we’re all over-achieving little weirdos, we had nightly activities planned, including bowling, trivia, expos, casino-night, and clubbing. I skipped out on casino night because I don’t fancy losing what little money I accrue here! But bowling, trivia, and clubbing were all fantastic! (The club we went to is a genuine dance club…much fun was had!) I also skipped out on the Middle East Expo because I attended the COS (Close of Service) dinner for the Education 4 group. Their time in Rwanda is up! It was an emotional affair, to say the least. I’m friends with just a few of them, but it got me thinking about the COS dinner that my group will have in just two years. (Yeah!) JUST two years…I’ve already been here six months…time is absolutely flying by! You bet your tissues that I’ll be crying like a small child come August 2016.

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Bowling night!

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More bowling with Aaroni!

Zach and David (a picture too cute not to post!).

Finally saw some monkeys!

On Saturday, after saying goodbye to some Ed 4 people (that I’m already missing!), I got on a bus to Muhanga where BE Camp (Boys Excelling) was being held.

Camp was crazy.

I poured all the energy I had left (which wasn’t much after IST) into teaching the fifty-something boys about health. It was intensely rewarding! I taught the lessons on Servant Leadership, Healthy Relationships, and How HIV Works. My favorite had to the Healthy Relationships session because I got to spend a good fifteen minutes discussing the differences between American and Rwandan dating culture (to a bunch of teenage boys, no less). My favorite conversation went as follows:

Student: “Teacher, do you have boyfriend in Rwanda?”
Me: “I do not.”
Student: “How old are you?”
Me: “Twenty-three.”
Student: “Do you have teenage sister?”

HA! Of course, the boys were much shyer at the beginning of the week. It was fun getting to see each of them open up, learn about health, and develop their own personalities. All the volunteers who came before told us, “It’ll be the best time of your service.” They were right. Being a Health Volunteer can be difficult because you don’t see direct change in the patients you see daily. Getting to teach this group of teenagers was incredibly rewarding! (Not to mention, my family group won nearly every event…yay for their competitive spirit!)

Explaining Capture the Flag is harder than you’d think.

I especially enjoyed getting to meet a couple of boys who are interested in coding and web design. I gave them my E-mail and I plan to work pretty closely with them to help them develop their talents further. (Some even offered to help with resume/web design classes at my Cafe/Resource Center.)

The low point of the week came when we had two campers get malaria. Malaria takes about ten days to incubate, so the boys actually got malaria while still at home. The problem is…the school we held camp at doesn’t have nets. It’s quite possible that, before we caught the fever and took the boys to the Health Center, they unknowingly infected others. About eight days from now, it’s likely that one or two of the other boys will develop malaria back in their home villages. It just goes to show how important malaria prevention is. Nets are vital.

I came back to Kibilizi on Saturday. It was such a relief getting to sleep in my own bed, in my own home. The best part was going back to work today. It was tough rolling out of bed (especially since I have the flu again), but seeing my co-workers made it all worth it! I received/gave a ton of hugs and heard, “We missed you,” more times than I can count. I missed them too! This is what integration feels like, man. I’m home.

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Our perfect Junior Facilitators

The boy with too much swag.

Favorite camper, Jean de Dieu!

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My family group, The United Winners!

Zach smells.

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Seven Plates of Fries, A Pool, Gone Girl, and Eight Weeks Later

The past eight weeks have been a blur. I feel like I just wrote a blog entry, but it’s been three whole weeks and I’m already well into my fifth month in Rwanda and 9th week at site (where does the time go?!)

Here’s my listening list for this week:

  • The XX’s album, Coexist
  • Braveheart – Neon Jungle
  • Stolen Dance – Milky Chance
  • Fleetwood Mac

The past three weeks have probably been my busiest since coming to Rwanda. I’ve been on the go, go go. I can proudly say that I’ve attended all but two of my 7:00AM staff meetings. And the only reason I missed those two meetings was to travel to the cities (Butare, Kigali) for meetings. I’m a firm believer in attending the health center staff meetings. Being a Health Volunteer is difficult because of the lack of structure. I’ve found that attending the meetings and showing my face each and every morning has helped so much with integration. In turn, my co-workers have been extremely receptive to me joining them during their day-to-day services. Aside from the staff meetings, I’ve been working in the maternity and family planning services pretty consistently. I really had no inclination toward pediatrics before coming here. Now, I can’t imagine not working with the mamas and babies every day. There’s a distinct energy that buzzes around new life and I’m loving it.

On top of my normal goings on, there’s usually a day or two every week where we have a one-off health training or community day. I was lucky enough to have been told about Community Outreach Week (October 7-9) before it actually happened. (That’s a rarity given Rwanda’s go-with-the-flow work ethic.) I spent the three days, from 7:00AM-5:00PM at a primary school in Duwani (one of the rural villages in my district). It was overwhelming to say the very least – think 200 children screaming “muzungu” and running up for hugs – but I had such a great time. I got to introduce myself and Peace Corps to the kids (4-12 years old) and got to explain to them that we were there to give vitamins and medications. I struggled through the speech, in Kinyarwanda, but my counterpart was there as backup for when I couldn’t get the tenses right. It was definitely a good reminder to keep studying…”buri munsi” (every day).

Before going to the school in Duwani, I hadn’t really been able to explore the most rural villages. By moto, Duwani is 25 minutes away. Given the hills, that would be 90-minute walk or so. I will make the trek at some point, but right now I’m trying to focus my energies on work and research (Community Needs Assessment). In the meantime, I’ll take motos to interview families in the rural villages. I don’t think I could ever do meditation (just don’t have the brain for it), but the vistas in Rwanda certainly allow for some meditative thoughts. When I look out over my villages, I can’t help but be reminded of why I’m here and why it’s important I stay focused in the next two years. I find myself falling in love with Rwanda over and over again.

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Overlooking one of the Southern Province’s many valleys.

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The lack of smog/light pollution does a country good.

After the hectic week of community outreach, I was stoked to go to Butare for a little pool party action. We had a get-together to say goodbye to the Education 4 group and to welcome the five new Education 6 trainees to the South. It’s always a good time when the dirty South gets together, but I am bummed to say goodbye to some of the Ed 4 group. (I s’pose that’s life, eh?) On Sunday, a fellow volunteer and I headed back to my site for some light hiking (aka walking) and to take in the vistas. I spent the rest of the week working full days at the Health Center since I knew I’d be taking off Friday (Oct 17th) and Monday (Oct 20th) for my trip to Kigali.

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Classy pool party activities.

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Speaking of Kigali, last Friday I attended my first PAC (Program Advisory Committee) meeting. It was stressful, to say the very least. At times, I felt like the Health Program needs were being overlooked, in favor of the more successful Education Program. I left the meeting feeling frustrated and understanding why the Early Termination (ET) rate is so high in Rwanda’s Health Program. I have no intentions of leaving this place before my time is up, but I understand why others have already left/are planning to leave. On the bright side, my co-PAC-member, Lavar, and I now feel invigorated and ready as ever to rejuvenate the Health Program. It’s going to take a lot of work, organization, and planning, but it’s absolutely necessary to ensure that the Health volunteers here feel useful and understand why President Kagame welcomed us here in the first place.

After the meeting, there were shenanigans plenty and fun goings-on. In fact, on Sunday, I went to see Gone Girl at an actual movie theater. With actual popcorn. It was fantastic. I’ll refrain from commentating on the movie, given that every critic in the world already has, but I do think it was a good adaptation of great novel.

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“Vacation” means a hot shower and a soft bed.

My most troubling experience since coming to Rwanda…happened this weekend. I had been planning to visit my family on Saturday. Instead, plans just kind of fell apart (people got sick, rain made traveling near-impossible, etc.). The problem came when I tried to explain, to my host family, that I wouldn’t be able to go for a visit. If you’ve been reading any of my updates, you’ll know that my host family and I are very, very close. Unfortunately, there was a serious breakdown in the relationship when I explained that I couldn’t go to Rwamagana. I explained that I had zero options and that I could not visit; they did not understand. There was literally nothing I could do to get the point across to them; they just didn’t want to hear it. I even had a fellow volunteer, well-versed in Kinyarwanda, explain it further. Nothing worked. Essentially the conversation ended with them knowing I wasn’t going to visit that day, but not understanding why. As everyone else has told me, they’ll be fine when I do visit (Nov 22nd), but for now…they’re upset. It’s been a perfect example of a culture clash and breakdown between Americans and Rwandans.

Anyhow, I spent Sunday and Monday pigging out in Kigali and Butare and having an all-around wonderful time relaxing. By Sunday evening, I was missing site. By Monday morning, I was terribly missing site and my neighbors and my co-workers. I think this is what integration feels like? When I hopped on a moto and headed back to my site, I started really relaxing and feeling at-home again. I guess the Kigali city life just isn’t for me. Moreover, being away from site for four days just isn’t my thing.

Looking forward, I really want to focus on getting a micro-finance group going (but I have to wait until February)…so that I can potentially fund a small village co-op. Ideally, I would like to work with HIV+ mamas and mamas of malnourished babies to open a little cafe that would serve tea and baked goods. There is literally not a single restaurant or tea-serving cafe in my village, so I’m hoping we would make a killing. Ultimately, I want some of the profits to go to the mamas and the rest to help fund a human resources type area of the cafe. I’m envisioning a couple of computers where locals would go to type up resumes/CVs that they would then use to land jobs in Butare (since it’s so near). My co-workers, district officials, and the HC patients have all confirmed that our villages’ biggest needs lie in joblessness, so I’m hoping to teach some classes on resume-building and interview skills. It’s all in my noggin as of now, so we’ll see how the next few months play out in regards to village needs and wants.

Given that things are getting pretty busy for me, I’m lucky to have such wonderful people back in America who’ve been willing to send me goodies for the kids and goodies for myself. I can’t thank you all enough. As for now, I’ll just let you know that I’m in love with life right now. Rwanda has become more than I ever expected. Time is already flying by and I’m trying to take advantage of every moment. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

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Thanks, Tammy! I’ve seen more smiles in the last week than every before.

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My parents know me well. ❤

 

Opportunities Knocking (In My Ceiling?)

Let me preface this post with a little soundtrack music. alt-J recently released their newest album, This is All Yours, and I am in looove.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 10.14.13 AMAnd, just in case you’re in need of some more music, here’s a list of what I’ve been listening to lately:

  • Latch – Disclosure feat. Sam Smith
  • You & Me (Flume Remix) – Disclosure
  • i – Kendrick Lamar
  • The Morning – The Weeknd
  • Echosmith’s album, Talking Dreams
  • Sam Hunt’s EP, X2C

Back to point of this…how’s my fifth week at site going? Most excellent! I’m a sucker for routines and I’ve finally got one down pat…working on letting a little spontaneity into my life (but that kind of defeats the purpose of spontaneity, yeah?) Bi baho.

I’ve spent the last week trying to be more social; integration, ya’ll. I won’t pretend that these integration efforts don’t serve a more selfish purpose: I’m trying to network as much as possible. I’ve got 23 months left, if I don’t extend, and while that seems like a world away right now…it’ll get here quicker than I realize. I’ve tried to spend at least an hour a day on my porch…just reading or doing laundry or cooking, what have you. Even that little change in my to-do has opened me up to all new people and opportunities. (When I head back to the States, I should work on being less of a hermit.) This week, I did laundry with my neighbor (who didn’t try to teach me the “right” way to wash my jeans…win!). While doing laundry, we had a discussion about what it means to be a neighbor in Rwanda. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Neighbors should always tell one another when they’re sick, so that someone can cook for you. (Score!)
  2. Neighbors should feel comfortable knocking on your door any time/any day and you should feel comfortable talking to them.
  3. Neighbors should spend at least a few minutes every evening with you, catching up on village gossip.

Now…this is very, very unlike my neighbor experiences in America. While in college, I lived in Concord House for two years and spoke to my neighbors once. ONCE. It’s going to take some getting used to…but everyone is so damn nice here that I truly enjoy the conversations. Let’s hope, in two years, I can bring a bit of this neighborhood love back home with me. I also met this gentleman who works for a malaria initiative here in Rwanda. I can’t remember his name (traditional Rwandan names can be difficult!), but he was very nice and we spoke for an hour about how we can potentially work together on some malaria projects in Kibilizi.

On that same note, I just finished compiling some data for my counterpart and I learned a whole lot about childhood illness in my surrounding villages. For the most part, the Community Health Workers see one or two children, each month, with dysentery or pneumonia. And, though I know malaria is a big problem in my Sector, I hadn’t expected that high of numbers. In one of the villages, the CHWs see between 30 and 50 children with malaria, each month. And that’s just children under the age of five. I compared these numbers with the number of deaths, resulting from malaria, and found a huge discrepancy. The numbers are low. The only thing I can come up with is…people around here are very aware that the staff is quick and efficient when it comes to treating malaria and so they don’t view malaria as a huge threat. I mean…it’s great and all that they trust the Health Center, but malaria is no joke. These kids shouldn’t be subjected to such a harsh illness just because their guardians aren’t taking the proper precautions.

So. That’s where I’m at right now. Trying to figure out the best way to tackle a project that gets parents involved, in a way that doesn’t necessarily put the blame on/alienate them…but gets them interested in taking preventative action. In the meantime, I want to do a small project to get kids involved with preventing malaria. Trying to work on building that autonomy! Thus, I’ve come up with a coloring book! (Honestly, this might just be me projecting my wants onto the kids…but who doesn’t love coloring?!) Over the next month or two, I hope to work with my fellow South Volunteers to come up with a cohesive story-line that involves malaria prevention (and will actually interest kids). Ideally, we’ll be responsible for drawing the actual images. I have a book template, so we’ll be able to easily print the coloring books out. The major hurdle here is the crayons…they’re not the easiest (or cheapest) to find here. I’m thinking through all the funding options and hoping to get in talks with a Crayola representative. But keep an eye out because I might be accosting you all with a Go Fund Me campaign! 😀

I’ve also made a connection with someone at the Eastern Congo Initiative, which is an advocacy-focused group, founded by none other than Ben Affleck. (You nevvver know!) And, though I can’t travel to the Congo whilst in the Peace Corps, it’s on the top of my to-travel list after service. I’m hoping to go there right after COS. I’m really just interested in opening up all opportunities possible while I’m here. After Service, I’m hoping to have a large number of different avenues I can choose from.

On the more personal side of things…last week I went without water and electricity for 72+ hours. What a joy, let me tell you. The electricity wasn’t too big a deal…I was able to charge my phone at the Health Center. But, it certainly makes you appreciate a non-stop current. I just kept reminding myself that I’m extremely lucky to be serving in a country that offers electricity to Volunteers (at most sites). And, on top of that, I finished off the three development books I’ve been neglecting, since they’re the only hard-copy books I have. The water, thoughhhh. I got too used to having 24/7 water access. Didn’t even have a back-up jerry can filled (bad, Melissa). So. I went 72 hours with just washing the necessary parts of my body, hoping people didn’t notice how dirty my jeans were, and cooking things that involved very little water. It was an unfortunate few days, to say the very least. But…as with all things…the status quo returned and I’ve had water and electricity (give or take a few outages) for the past week. (And a back-up jerry can of water, just in case.)

Don’t get me wrong…I love my living situation. In fact, I’ve been playing at battling something in my ceiling since I moved into this place. I’m 90% sure it’s a rat…but the damn thing plays catch with itself. I’ll just be laying in bed, trying to sleep (at like 8:30PM, of course) and this thing will throw something across my ceiling…and then scurry over, pick the thing up, throw it again…and repeat the process. It’s the weirdest thing. So, when the kind gentlemen came to fix my electricity, they went into the ceiling and killed the something. (Even bagged it up and removed it for me.) I thought I was finally rid of my midnight predator. Instead, a couple nights ago I was reading Tana French’s Broken Harbour, minding my own business, and I hear this huge crash just above my head. The thing’s friends had come for vengeance. I just about jumped out of my skin. The book I was reading is about a family who is murdered in their home. The best part? It involves an animal that the husband tries to trap in their ceiling…the whole thing was just eerily similar to my midnight predator situation. So, there I am, no electricity…pitch black…reading about murder…and this thing starts banging against my ceiling. Let’s just say my heart was doing somersaults. I then finally understood why there had been a big wooden rod leaning against the bedroom wall when I moved in. I picked it up and started tapping my ceiling, trying to get this thing to shut up. Needless to say, I felt like a damn crazy person. It was all a great adventure. (In case you’re curious…it didn’t work. I still have a midnight predator chillin’ in my ceiling, every night.)

In terms of other goings on…it’s been a rough month for our little Health 6 group. We’ve had a few people pack up and head back to the States, for various reasons (health, site-related, family emergency, etc.) Every time someone leaves…it tugs at the heart strings; after all, we’re such a close group. I understand that everyone has to do what’s right for them and that, even after such a lengthy application process, Peace Corps isn’t always what we expected (or what we wanted). I hate losing members of our group, but I certainly get it. I know that, if I hadn’t requested a site change, I probably would have been considering heading home, as well. Sometimes things just don’t feel right and there’s not much a person can do to change that. (Sometimes it isn’t entirely about integration.) But. It still hurts to have to say goodbye.

Even despite that, I’m having a truly tremendous time here. I wake up wanting to go to work (most days, anyhow) and looking forward to talking with my co-workers. I’m even picking up a little French on top of the Kinyarwanda. Everything just feels right, here in the Land of a Thousand Hills.

Here’s some pictures from the last couple of weeks:

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Home sweet home…my little apartment is on the right.

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Instagram picture of my regional market (rather, a quarter of it…it’s huge).

Mamas and babies for vaccinations. (Vaccination day is my favorite!)

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My “main street”. This is about as busy as it ever gets.