Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Peace Corps Moments

I’ve heard it from everyone whose ever done the Peace Corps, “those people will be your friends for life, they will be the only people that understand.” And it makes sense too when you think about it. These are people who are with you in some of the most challenging and rewarding moments of your life, there is bound to be a lifelong bond formed. But this post isn’t about the sentimental nature of Peace Corps friendships and how more than once we’ve had one beer and declared that we will be at each other’s weddings. It’s about the moments when you do a thing that you know you would never do in America and you envision yourself explaining it to people who knew you when and realize that there is no comprehensible reason for you to do such a thing in America. Here are a few examples for you to laugh at:

- Vomiting into a ziplock plastic bag by kerosene light because you have food poisoning and you are locked inside your house.
- Stirring peanutbutter and hot sauce into rice and beans and closing your eyes and pretending its Indian food – and then telling other PCTs about it and having them say “That sounds good I’ll try it!”
- Getting so frustrated at small children asking you your name and forgetting it that you start making things up like “Wolverine” and “Delilah”
- Opening up a care package and eating a whole sausage before you realize you weren’t even hungry
-Not finding it strange that every child in the street wants to shake your hand, know your name or hug your legs.
-That moment when you forget you are in a place with electricity and start to turn on your flashlight before realizing there is a switch.
-Waking up with a lizard on your face and having it be the funny thing that snaps you out of your bad mood.
-The fact that I am the most qualified hair dresser in our group and thus have now done several haircuts including chopping off about 6 inches of 2 girls hair

Soldier Boy that Muzungu

Today I was walking home a little bit later than I should have been, and by that I mean 6:30, when a swarm of small children started chasing me down the street. Now try to picture this scene. Its pitch black out with no moon and no electricity and all I hear is about 15 little pairs of feet speeding to catch me in the dark. I had my laptop on me because I’d charged it that day at the center and I was still a mile from home. This was not good. We’ve had enough safety and security lessons for me to know  I was about to become a statistic, I was going to get robbed. Once the little thieves caught up to me though I realized they were shouting a chorus of “Micheleyyy Micheleyyyy.” They were MY pack of little boys!! I just hadn’t recognized them in the dark! We did the soldier boy dance – the reason they know me  - the whole way home! It sounds like such a small moment but it was really incredible and made me feel so happy and safe!  

"Comfort Food"

It happens every now and then here that we make our way to a big market town and eat lunch or dinner in a “western” restaurant. Each time we over-indulge ourselves like we’re eating the last pizza in America and each time there is a similar sentiment of mild dissapointment. I’ve had this experience now with Pizzas, Chinese food, and bagels. Although the ingredients and presentation are the same the final product is somehow vastly different from what you imagined only moments before consumption. Sometimes I think it would be better to just order the pizza, sniff it and walk away from the table because everything from there is downhill. But in reality the sadder part – and maybe it shows how much I’m already adjusting to life here – is how much I’m starting to enjoy this faint taste of familiarity. Maybe a full blown pizza would just be too much for my variety starved palate too handle. Or maybe someone should mail me one anyway just so I can test it out.

Feeding the Muzungu

There is a culture in Rwanda that you are not finished with dinner until you are too full to move. This means that every night regardless of who I am eating with it is deemed that I eat no where near enough food. And as I have previously mentioned the meal is usually starch, starch, carb, sauce, and maybe a vegetable. You should see the way Rwandans load up their plates! To have a good size meal they say they are sitting behind a volcano, because that is how they pile the food onto their plates. It should come as no surprise then that it is also a compliment in this country for someone to tell you that you have gained weight or that you are chubby (it is a sign of wealth and that you can eat well). Obviously this compliment doesn’t go over particularly well with American volunteers. The issue comes up for many volunteers in their homestays that they have ‘parents’ who insist on feeding them far more than they are able to eat. On most nights my family loads an extra helping of rice or potatoes onto my plate after I have served myself. And other volunteers have told me that they are always offered an egg after they say they are full, which makes very little sense.
            I had an interesting cultural run-in with this issue during my site visit. Since I am working at a boarding school and living in the teacher’s housing on campus the school’s kitchen provides me with all my meals – meaning someone drops them off in a baller metal canteen every night. The first night I didn’t  bother trying to open the canteen – I’m not sure why – but it came with the thermos of tea so I assumed it was more tea. In the morning when I did open it and realize it was my dinner I had to consume a large helping of cold beans and rice to make it look like I had eaten – gross. When the food was delivered the next night the female animatrice came into my house to demonstrate how to open and close my canteen – apparently they had assumed that I hadn’t been able to get it open because I had eaten such a small amount they thought I hadn’t eaten. On the second night there was a similar concern that because so little food was eaten that the Muzungu hadn’t eaten anything and thus that I hadn’t eaten in 4 days. As a result our last days plan of helping translate a grants proposal from French to English was scrapped for a 2 hour trip to the market so that I could buy some food. When I realized the reason for this change I had to awkwardly explain that I had in fact been eating and that  I just eat far less than a Rwandan. And because I had to take  a bus back the next  morning and wanted to limit my luggage sizeI didn’t actually buy anything at the market after we walked there. All in all it was an awkward experience to say the least. And afterwards my headmaster and  I got beers and brochettes which always turns into a 2 hour affair. So the whole day was essentially a wash.

Site Visit

This week we had our site visits, meaning that each of us was thrown out on our own into the countryside to spend four days visiting the schools we will be teaching at, the houses we will be living in and the communities we will attempt to integrate into. My site is a boarding school called Ecole Secondaire Ngara located in the Nyamagabe District of the Southern Province of Rwanda. It is a lower secondary boarding school meaning that they only teach levels Secondary 1 – 3 (the rough equivalents of an American Middle School). Here is all the technical stuff I’m sure you want to know:

1.     There are 267 students and they all wear orange (LIKE SYRACUSE ORANGE!! I think it’s a good sign!!) pull-overs with their numbers in the upper left hand corner,
2.     It is a math and physics specialization school – meaning that English lessons are a smaller portion of the day.
3.     The school is at the very top of a mountain at the end of a windy potholed road that is only accessible by  a 30min motorcycle ride. Yea I was not pleased either.
4.     My house is sick! I have a living room and two bedrooms because there is no other female staff to room with me. Also running water! (aka  spiget in a closet that doubles as my shower) Electricity from 6-9pm and a western toilet!! (that I need to pour water into to flush but hey). I live inside the compound of the school meaning there are several fences and an armed guard between me and the outside world; can’t complain there.
5.     I am the only female teacher and one of 3 female staff so there are potential problems there, but not anything other volunteers don’t deal with.
6.     I’m a 30min moto ride from Nyamagabe city the closest big city with a transport hub, bank, etc. There are bars and Chinese food there!!
7.     I am an hour away from 4 or 5 other volunteers in my training group and several others from previous groups who I don’t know yet.
8.     I am an hour from Butare, the second largest city in Rwanda and a major hub for other volunteers, NGOs etc. and the site of the national university of Rwanda.
9.     My school has a pretty baller project they are starting up to try and get a dining hall built on their campus which they want me to spearhead so I’m looking forward to getting involved in that.
10.  There’s  a volleyball court in the center of campus so I bought a ball in Nyamagabe city and started playing with the girls.

So it looks like I’m in for quite the adventure but after seeing the school and meeting the kids I’m really amped about it! It was hard coming back to Kamonyi and studying by kerosene lamp last night, I didn’t realize how much I missed electricity!!! The only real downside of my site is that it is kind of isolated. The village the school itself is in is incredibly small and from what I saw it will take 20 minutes to get to a reasonably sized village meaning I’m not sure how fast I will be able to integrate. I’ll just have to try extra hard not to get stuck in the trap of spending all my time at the school and only working on projects with them since a lot of the point of Peace Corps is to be a community volunteer. On a more positive note; very few people in my village called me Mizungu!! I think it’s the benefit of being the only one but people very quickly picked up on my name and remembered it when they saw me later! That is one word I will not miss!

Friday, October 7, 2011

There are moments...

* I regret that this post may be upsetting and is in now way expressed eloquently enough to do it justice, but it's the heart of why Peace Corps is in Rwanda so it was worth posting*

There are moments that will haunt you forever. Noises, decisions, split second images that are intricately linked to your being. That are always present or storm back in flashes that surprise and shock you every time. This week my family asked me why I didn’t take pictures at the genocide memorial. They were asking because they have never seen it and were hoping I had taken some for them too look at (which if I had known in advance I would have). My response was the obvious one, I didn’t need pictures; it wasn’t something  I could forget. Today, however, a harder realer thing brought the genocide here to light. While listening to a speaker talk about the historical causes of the genocide and his own personal experiences one of our Kinyarwanda teacher’s who we’ve obviously grown to know and love in the last few weeks, very publicly broke down. We haven’t and don’t ask our teachers about their experiences in that time for obvious reasons. The answer will either be hard for them to give or hard for us to hear. There are people here who played a role in both sides of the conflict and it has been made clear to us that not all the people we live and work with fall on one side of the atrocity. We’ve taken the stance that it is better not to know to facilitate our jobs and our integration. But that moment of raw human emotion, of a person who we know and respect not being able to keep her composure was the reality of the situation. It made words fact and stories lives. I struggle to express the depth of a moment like that and the pain of knowing you will truthfully never understand. We’ve come to a country full of pain, and today we were graphically reminded of it. A scream that will haunt my nightmares for a lifetime was the truest reminder of what Peace Corps came here to do and how hard that will be to achieve. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

First Early Termination

It’s an inevitable part of the Peace Corps lifestyle, but our group lost its first member today. One of our girls decided to return to American in advance of our approaching permanent site visits. While it was sad to see her go we were all aware that it was the best decision for her personally; she just couldn’t commit two years of her life to this. But also in a moment like that we were all forced to reconsider our own commitments: how much this means to us, why we are here and what we would consider cause enough to go home. It’s a big thing we’re doing here and a long commitment of time to be away from friends and family.  I stand by my commitment to fly to the other side of the world to educate other people’s children in the service of a greater good; but I understand the urge to leave.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Teacher Observations

As we will soon be in charge of leading our own Rwandan classrooms this week we began observing classrooms of students in our own communities. Yesterday, Michael and I (ya that really messed everyone up that we essentially had the same name ) sat in the back of a Senior 1 Level class for Kinyarwanda and English lessons – Senior one is 12-13 year olds. The Kinyarwanda lesson became quite chaotic as the teacher was distracted and more interested in translating the lesson to Michael and I, (and ultimately really just me) than his students. The flirting of the male teacher’s and the fact that I could hear the word “Ingaragu” (single) several times when the flock of female volunteers entered the teacher’s lounge confirmed a lot of the other volunteers stories of their schools, but such is life.
            On the whole the lessons were interested and showed that classroom management, lesson planning, and overall classroom behavior was very different in Rwanda. The most shocking I think was that instead of quietly raising their hands, students who wanted to speak loudly snapped – like the snap guys use to pack a dip can – above their heads and yelled “please teacher” in English. We immediately decided we are implementing the American hands system in our classrooms.
            Throughout the entire two lessons one girl sat staring at me with her head on her desk and I’m sure didn’t learn a single thing. When I was walking home several hours later the same girl, and 3 friends, came sprinting up the road behind me shouting “Michele” and wanted to introduce themselves and talk to me. Obviously the conversation took the typical turn it does in Rwanda, even with 12 years olds:

-How old are you?
- 22
- Are you married?
-No, I’m too young are you.
- haha no we are too young but you are old. Do you have a fiancé/?
-No, I’m too young for that do you?
- hahha no no! you are not young! Do you have children? (which they are just saying to be cheeky because that would be very bad here)
-No what kind of person do you think I am?
-(More laughter) Well then you should find a husband in Rwanda because you are pretty and not very young.

I’m starting to just come up with sarcastic answers to these questions. I told some old women the other day that I was widow because I married an old man for his money and he died. They laughed but I’m not sure if sarcasm translates so now people may really think I’m a gold digger. Such is life.. 

Genocide Memorial

So here it is, the post (probably one of many) that everyone I’m sure is curious about in the twisted and totally understandably way that we as humans are: the Rwandan genocide and how it comes up in our lives here. Because of our delayed flight situation we only went to the genocide memorial in Kigali this weekend, after living 2 weeks in our host communities. This was good and bad because it meant that we now all had people who we knew well and could actively associate in the context of the information provided, making it harder and more effective. This wasn’t the first time the events of 1994 came up however. The training materials for Peace Corps Rwanda described the genocide as a constant grief that the country lives with and actively works through every day. I think that statement is completely accurate, before the trip to the memorial my host family mentioned the atrocities in several veiled ways. When describing to me how to use the chamber pot and why it’s essential to not leave the house at night, while telling me why Rwandan’s don’t go out after dark (there are very bad people here you know), when I asked why the word “umugome” (translated as a very bad person who would kill you) is always included in prayers, and while helping me practice the vocabulary for the family tree. The most telling experience, however, was the morning that I was the first of the family to wake up and had to unlock the back door because it showed me the pains that are taken to secure the house each night. There was a dead bolt and a key-lock at mid door, a sliding lock at the top and the bottom and a nail bent around as a barrier at top and bottom in addition to a chair leaned against the door in such a way that if I had forced it open from the outside it would have made a  sound like a booby trap. The front door, I realized, is similarly secured. I think that one experience was more telling than a family story could have been, there’s real fear there and in this place, with this history its hard to laugh it off as unnecessary. Despite the reconcilation efforts the adage of “fool me once…” has to apply.
            So while the genocide memorial was painful and overwhelming and I had a long hard cry at one point midway through when the tragedy and indecency of it all was really too much; I think we will learn a lot more from the subtle reminders in people’s everyday lives.
            On a lighter note I have to add that I absolutely love my fellow trainees because two of them suspected that I was going to have a rough time in the memorial and were keeping an eye on me to swoop in with a hug when the predicted hysterical tears did set in. You guys are the best.