Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Care Packages

This post is to say a GIANT thank you to everyone who spent the time, effort and money to send me a care package. Honestly, I’m not sure how I will ever convey the level of gratitude that I and the other trainees feel for them. Additionally, a thank you should go out to my parents for teaching me good sharing skills because the PCTs definitely benefit highly from my packages.  All five of the packages that were mailed to me were received on the same day (a product of the postal system here) the night before Thanksgiving. The oreos and pretzels sent by the lovely people of Travelers Insurance were immediately put up for grabs and just as immediately devoured. The nerf football also made Thanksgiving that much better as we were able to have a touch football game (in the pouring rain) and explain to our Rwandan  teachers the game of football and its significance on Thanksgiving. It is also the only football that anyone has in this country – where soccer is much more popular – so you cannot imagine how much the males of our group appreciate it! Another thanks to Mama K for the prepackaged pumpkin bread mix and canned pumpkin. It arrived literally just on time and we constructed our own oven just to cook it up for the celebration! The Rwandans loved it too which is rare for something so different from the norm!! My children – yes I call them mine they are my favorite Rwandans by far –  were overjoyed with more jump ropes to play with and there are now a dozen or so little boys with American flag colored friendship bracelets. My boss whose son has been in the hospital for quite a while was brought some of the chocolate and oreos, which I am told he appreciated. Care packages, as you can see, clearly bring an immense amount of comfort and excitement to myself and those around me. Anything from America is automatically considered epically cool and people are excited just to have access to it. But I have to say a big thank you last but not least for the food! It is beyond comforting! This week I have eaten a tuna fish sandwich! Goldfish! Salsa! And Kraft macaroni and cheese!! And I can safely say that they made my week and the week of everyone I shared with. Today after a long, rainy, and stressful day of AIDs training myself and several other trainees came back to the hub and cooked up a big pot of packaged mac and cheese from one of my packages and some brownies from someone else’s. You’ve literally never seen a bunch of happier people. It was borderline indecent. So if I haven’t expressed my gratitude enough let me do it again. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you for the food and toys. Thank you for the thoughts. Thank you for the obvious support it shows for myself and the Peace Corps’ mission at large. Thank you for making my week. Thank you for the few pounds it has helped me gain back.  It’s an incredibly comforting thing to have concrete signs of home, and love, and support, land a million miles away and realize that someone took the time and effort thinking of you. It makes hard days here easier and good days better. Thank you! And don’t worry, I am paying forward. 

Monday, November 28, 2011


There are things you plan to miss when you depart your homeland for an extended period of time. Things you mental prepare for and gourge yourself on knowing that you won’t find them for a while; friends, family, fast-food, hot showers, driving a car. It’s the things you expected to be fine without, to rejoice in leaving even, that catch you by surprise. The familiarity of gossip, the minor annoyance of traffic, knowing when Beyonce’s baby is due – its these things that really shock you. The minor announces of American culture that you thought you would be better off without suddenly seem so important when you realize you don’t want to learn all the inner workings of a new culture, a new celebrity gossip seen, new political parties slinging slightly redder African mud. I can’t explain the feeling but today I woke up and realized that I missed idle gossip. I miss having cursory acquaintances whose outfit didn’t match or talking shit about someone’s trashy significant other. Compared to the serious occurances of everyday life here I would gladly trade. Don’t get me wrong, Its truly a special thing that I don’t have anything bad to say about my colleagues here, but sometimes you miss the luxury of triviality. I miss frenemies, and passive aggressive texts, and bitching, and gossip rags, and springer. I miss those people in your life who you don’t like but can’t get rid of. I miss the “Karens” of the world who you keep around just to hate. I miss Perezhilton, and TMZ and People. I miss snarky VH1 celebrity specials. I miss having nothing better to worry about. I miss smiling at someone’s face. Despite the fact that it makes me a hypocrite, and I’m sure that I’ll regret saying it when I’m back in America, I miss the shallowness that can infest our first world lives. At the end of the day, I miss small fixable problems that could be easily removed from my life, as opposed to the big intractable ones. The ones that make you reevaluate your principles, and which may never be solved. When faced with AIDs, poverty, inequality, illness, and genocide, I’m not ashamed to say I’d take a two-faced friend or a flaky partner. I guess these are the choices I made, I traded up from irksome to life-changing, and I stand by the choice. But damn, don’t I wish some days that my biggest problem was the boy I like not being interested, or my roommate eating my sour cream. 

Reverse Racism, Integration and the Chaos of Kigali

This weekend, we once again took advantage of our new found privileges to adventure into the capital city of Kigali. Kigali is always an odd and overwhelming experience for trainees ( and I’ve been told for PCVs as well). For starters we are not the only white people, and generally people pay us no attention at all, which is a wonderful change of pace. However, as Peace Corps Volunteers who work primarily off by ourselves without seeing other white people – unlike other aid and NGO workers who live in the capital or work primarily with American colleagues we are a little bit socially awkward.
Whenever I see another Muzungu in Kigali I automatically assume they work with Peace Corps, because that is my frame of reference, but truthfully PCVs are not in Kigali very often. Most times I refrain from approaching strangers for this reason – most likely they are aid workers or ex-pats who are nowhere near as excited as I am to see a white person they don’t know.  There is also generally a tension between PCVs and ex-pats who are in Rwanda for other reasons (which I have been told is pervasive in other countries as well).  PCVs live very differently and have very different goals from many other aid agencies. We learn the language (extensively), live in rural communities, make modest salaries, try our hardest to conform to culture, and we are extremely proud of it. Ex-pats make plush salaries, use translators, live in capitals, and many times have access to things that mean their lives are not all that different from America. You can probably sense already from this post that the tension comes from both sides. PCVs sometimes can and do feel superior – like they are being more authentic – and ex-pats react by thinking we are self righteous causing the whole cycle to perpetuate itself further.
I had my first run-in with this paradox and the complications that being around other muzungus causes. While sitting in Bourbon coffee on Sunday enjoying a very overpriced ($2 American) cup of coffee a small boy came and stood next to me. Naturally I greeted him in Kinyarwanda and started asking him my normal slew of questions. He looked terrified and confused and the only thing he would do was point out at the rest of the room and say mama. I assumed that he was trying to discourage me from stealing him by reminding me that his mama was in the room.  Fair enough, better safe than sorry. However, after he decided he didn’ t know what to make of me he ran away into the arms a white American woman and her African American husband and began babbling away in perfect English. Yea, they were ex-pat Americans and the child didn’t speak a word of Kinyarwanda, they were from New York. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving cont'd

The few of us who were in charge of significant parts of Thanksgiving then passed out here so we could wake up at 5 am and put the turkeys in their pit. The pit was filled with charcoal and wet banana leaves and then the dirt was poured back in so we could dig them all up again at 530pm. Yea, it takes 10 hours to pit roast turkeys, and even when we dug them up they weren't fully cooked and some pieces had to be sauteed.
Then 40 pounds of potatoes had to be hand peeled and diced. Along with all the stuffing, salads, mac and cheese and green beans we were cooking. At around 1 we hit a wall where nothing else could be done until 3ish because otherwise everything would be ready at different times so we went to the bar, naturally, and played the types of games families typically play after they finish their meals. Care packages came the day before thanksgiving so I had received a football and we had a game in the pouring rain when we got back ( a very nice American touch). 
All in all it was a good holiday, I'm not sure it was Thanksgiving, but it was a holiday. There were a few moments when people got emotional and homesick on such a long stressful day: namely myself if we're being honest here, but as i've learned already on this adventure Peace Corps might be the best support network I've ever witnessed. Try and hide the fact that you were crying in a room of PCTs who already consider themselves your family and see how well it goes over. Hint: it doesn't. You will be offered any and all candy or booze on the premise and given a bear hug while several other people tell you they feel the same way. So at the end of the day that is what I'm thankful for this year: for finding my people. It's been a long hard year and I had to come all the way to Africa to find them but it was one of those moments where you know you are in the right place.

Happy Holidays all! Let the countdown to 2012 and an official new beginning begin. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


There is a true lack of creative or critical thinking in this country that makes me both sad and annoyed on a daily basis. I can never decide if this tendency is routed in a fear of making a mistake, a system that discourages it, or instead a simple lack of ability. This problem crops up in many different - and equally annoying - ways in my daily life. 

1. Food - I understand that there are a lack of ingredients cheaply and easily available in Rwanda, especially in the villages, but that does not mean that you must combine them in the same 10 ways only for your entire lives. Alternative uses for foods, such as guacamole, tacos, mashed potatoes, cheese, scrambled eggs, potato salad, sandwiches of any kind, pasta with tomato sauce...the list goes on, all of which are possible here in Rwanda not only are not made but Rwandans generally will not even try when they are presented with them.

2. Classroom - When I teach my students a new grammar concept and ask them to come up with their own examples It is almost impossible to get my students to produce original sentences. Usually instead they reproduce my example sentences or copy the sentences of the few students who did understand, meaning that I get all the same sentences and no clear idea of who understands. This is both frustrating and sad. I have been told that Rwandan teachers are usually quite brutal when criticizing students for being wrong, so that could have something to do with the problem. 

3. New Ideas - Presenting new idea to anyone I've spoken to here over a certain age has proven generally impossible. Any piece of information a person receives is clung to with such intensity that should another fact come along to dispute it there can be no room for argument. See previous post concerning where exactly Barack Obama is president of. 

4. Scheduling - We bump heads with our Rwandan counterparts almost daily on the need to make and keep logical schedules. These are always interrupted, however, by some higher-ups need to commandeer a car to fit his own schedule, or  desire to change the schedule simply to assert authority. My patience is continually tested as we reinvent the wheel literally every morning by scrapping the schedule that works to create a new one that may or may not. As you can imagine this drives Americans crazy. 

I know these attributes are caused by a complicated web of culture, education, hierarchy, and fear of being wrong but on a bad day, or even a good one sometimes, that doesn't stop them from driving an American absolutely insane. 

Culture Clash

I have been sick several times already here in Rwanda. Usually with gastrointestinal problems that need no further explanation. When this occurs, however, my host family and I have extremely different ideas on how best to respond. The Rwandan belief is stated to be that regardless of how sick you are you must eat a full plate of rice and beans. I have had one person tell me it is because medicine is poison and you need food to counteract it. Recently though, I have realized that this belief only applies to Muzungu's living in your home. Over the last 3 weeks at least one member of my family has been sick to the stomach each night - meaning that they do not eat dinner and no one seems to care - but whenever I try to take that route I am scolded and embarrassed. Usually the conversation goes something like this:

Me: I will not eat tonight I am sick
Mama: Oya, Ni bibi (no this is very bad) You must eat. Lots of Rwandan clucking and judging noises.
Me: No I insist, I will not eat. I spoke to the Doctor he said do not eat.
Mama: That is a lie. No doctor would ever say that. (Calls over host sibling to speak to me in English)
Sister: You must eat! Mama is very angry. She says she does not forgive you.
 * At this point I get fed up and go into my room and close the door insisting that I am a grown woman who does not have to eat when she does not want to -yes I know Its quite childish but sometimes it is the only thing that works. *

In the morning I am always confronted with Mama praising the Lord (literally) that I am still alive and telling me that she is very angry with me because she could not sleep all night thinking that I would die. The woman is the martyr of the century. 

The whole thing has gotten progressively more obnoxious once I realized that my family is not forced to eat when they are sick. Additionally, the high frequency of sickness supports my theory that it is due to the food being cooked at 7 and then sitting out until 10 until we eat it. I can't wait until I can live on my own! 3 more weeks!


Our first African Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and preparations are in full swing. Since the American embassy in Rwanda is in a bit of a transition - the ambassador was newly appointed just after we got here - there is not a Turkey day party at the embassy this year. Instead, we as trainees will be cooking our own meal. This means that we will be cooking a Thanksgiving meal for 60 people over an open fire in the yard of our school's compound. The menu obviously had to be simplified accordingly so this year's meal will include: mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, turkey and mac and cheese (not exactly traditional but who cares). For dessert we are covering chipoti (spelling?) with powdered sugar. Oh and the Turkeys? They were purchased yesterday, all six of them, alive. We will be killing, plucking and gutting them ourselves then cooking them in a pit in the yard. This is going to be quite the adventure for sure. I'll let you know how it works out!!

Economic Development

As Peace Corps volunteers we came here to do a lot of things; to teach English, to find ourselves, to better the world, to learn about a foreign culture, to pad our resumes. The list is long and varied and some answers are more honest than people would like to hear but at the end of the day, “encouraging development” always makes its way on there. Economic development is probably the most widely understood use of that term and although we are education volunteers and currently we are only trainees, I have already begun to see our impact on the local economy. Our salaries, although meager, have indeed been an influx of cash into the areas where we reside. The bar we frequent for brocettes (grilled meat on a stick) has been able to finance a complete paint job; going from a drab whitish-gray to a festive and eye scorching orange with Rwandan colored trim (blue, green and yellow). Additionally, there are two stores located within walking distance of our main building affectionately named “The Hub.” Up until this week there was a clear line as to which store was getting more business. Despite being smaller and smelling like a shoebox, Donati’s on the corner was the go to spot as they had sodas, phone minutes, and petroleum three of the most key ingredients to a trainee’s survival. The other goods such as Amandazi (like a fried dough ball), water, bananas, and matches were available for the exact same price and brand at both. The only advantage store number 2 had was avocados and aroma. As training has worn on Donati has become our friend and proven himself the better businessman by special ordering things for the Muzungus and always keeping Fanta in stock. But it seems the X &  Y theory of economics finally made its way to our tiny village. This week a new set of people took over shop number 2, set out a fancy new sign declaring their improved ware, and got right back in the game. The shops now sell literally the same items with shop number 2 having more food such as carrots and potatoes and traitor that it might make me I have switched camps immediately. There is something nice about being able to walk physically inside the store without touching any of the walls or other patrons, and it appears the new owners know something about shelf displays instead of throwing things around willy-nilly. Plus we came here to spread the wealth around right? And Donati already has his fair share of loyal supporters.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

On Sharing

Rwanda as a country, and Africa as a whole, have a strong tradition of sharing - especially and mainly between family members. Food, clothing, money, phone minutes - are generally swapped with very little consideration. If you are a richer family member you are expected to provide for less well off family members, and their children. The system, understandably, comes from the limited number of resources often available in this part of the world. As time passes here I am pleased to see the trainees, myself included, exhibiting this trait more and more. It is definitely a positive aspect of Rwandan culture that Americans could learn a  thing or two from. For example I got to go into Kigali (the capital) this week for a minor health issue and while I was there I got to stop at a supermarket. For no real reason other than that I knew everyone would appreciate it, I stopped and grabbed a loaf of bread and a pack of cheese and fried up 12 grilled cheeses to take back to training and share. The response was overwhelmingly positive and I knew that I had done it just because I could and it would make other people happy.

*I do however still hoard the hot sauce sent to me in care packages, because it is vital to life and I am still American after all.

Smallest Child

Almost without fail the smartest child in our model school classes have also been the smallest. Maybe they’re compensating for their lack of stature or simply have more time to study because they are  not sought out to play sports but male or female the rule holds true. Very often I  have my best student standing on tiptoe trying to fill in exercises on the board. Or I have to move them from the back of the room to the front so that I can even see that they are there over the heads of their much larger classmates.

On Missing Things

When we get together we talk about what we miss a lot. Usually the same items get thrown around until someone gets frustrated and reminds us that we are only making our lives harder. Reminding us of the very food point that discussing comfortable beds and hot showers and loved ones will not make our flea infested cots easier to sleep tonight or our bucket baths and more pleasant tomorrow. For me, usually, I like these conversations though, they remind me of why we are here and of how little the people we came to serve really have. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they are brutal and there are days when even the thought of Pizza can make me angry, but at the end of the day its part of life in the Peace Corps. While we are on the topic here are some of the funnier things that come up whenever we discuss what we miss:

-Feeling even remotely attractive
-Not having bug bites
- Bacon
-Reality TV
-Not having to greet every person you pass in the street.
-Not having to explain that you eat so little because you actually believe that skinnier is prettier – and that some cultural norms you just will not adjust to.
-Decent Beer
-Hairdryers – hair that dries
-Easily accessible coffee
-Not carrying your own TP
-Using TP not being weird
-Not sleeping under a mosquito net
-Clean fingernails
-Options (this goes for any and every situation you can think of)


We don’t get to drink alcohol often here, at least not the women, mainly because there is just too much to do before the sun sets at 6pm, but when we do it is exclusively beer. Many Rwandans in the villages drink the homemade sorghum or banana beers. This is generally consumed straight out of a jerry can. As a female, especially because I live with a religious family, I have not yet been offered this concoction – which is fine because apparently it is awful. But at the bars we have the same four choices always: Mutzig, Primus, Turbo King, and Skol. These are the locally brewed beers and almost every bar in Rwanda is painted Primus blue and decorated exclusively with Primus schwag. I learned this week that all of these beers are malt liquors, meaning they have a lot more sugar and thus a lot more of a hangover later, than average beers. This explains a lot, because even though I usually only have one, I can feel it in the morning from thee heat and the sugar and the mefloquin. Luckily every night I consume a huge plate of carbs which does a good job to head off that effect. 


Today another female trainee and  I were sitting in a bar when two Rwandans decided to join us. It is not all that uncommon and now that we speak Kinyarwanda I didn’t really mind. However, after a few greetings, one of the men pulled out a camera phone and took our picture. It was actually extremely liberating to realize my Kinyarwanda was good enough to demand the phone and explain that it was rude and creepy and that we were teachers who deserved respect. Also since I’ve become more comfortable I was able to snatch the phone out of his hand and delete the picture. After that little outburst the men were highly amused and actually talked to us more about what we were doing here and why (since we clearly weren’t tourists) so I guess theres the silver lining. Welcome to the life of a PCT. 

Because Its Rwanda

There's a phrase used frequently only this continent by foreign nationals. - TIA - meaning "This is Africa." I have been told it originates from the movie Blood Diamond but I could be wrong so don't quote me on that. The phrase is used in all those inexplicable moments where something happens that simply wouldn't or couldn't happen elsewhere. Some examples:
- A man carrying 5 mattresses up a hill on the back of a bicycle.
- Someone walking into a bar with a live chicken.
- People on bicycles riding up hills by holding on to the bumpers of trucks
- When you are served a plate of french fries and pasta for dinner - gousa (only)
- When every child on the street knows your name.

We have decided to modify the phrase, however, making it more specific to our own situation. We say BIR - Because its Rwanda. Expect to see it in many posts to come. :)

*Note this is usually not meant in a derogatory or cruel way but instead to amuse ourselves when things happen in our lives that cannot be explained any other way.


Since we become prisoners to our homes at 6pm every night there is quite a large amount of time spent entertaining ourselves during the evenings - especially if you aren't excited by the prospect of stumbling through conversations in Kinyarwanda with your family for hours. Books and movies take up a lot of that time. AS a consequence of that the trade between trainees & PCVs of pirated movies and television is prolific. Somehow I have already gotten 100 plus movies. Quite often, however, I find myself focusing on inordinate amounts of attentions on minute details of scenes - basically anything that no longer exists in my life here or that I haven't given any thought to in the last two months. Most often though I end up focusing on the food the characters are eating. The insignificant prop of  sandwich or salad placed on a table completely distracts my attention from the dialogue as I begin to fantasize about spaghetti and marinara sauce . Its amazing and almost sad to recognize how much these details pull my attention. Its probably not a good sign for how I'll react when I actually return to America and experience these things first hand.

South/North America

There are certain conversations in this country that repeat themselves in a frustrating, ground hogs day-esque loop. One of the most frustrating of these revolves around the geography of North and South America and exactly which portions of it Barack Obama is the President of. There is a general confusion that the USA is a country but America is a continent. More confusingly it is usually assumed that the countries of South America are actually states or that Obama is just also their President - although people understand that they speak Spanish and have different cultures. Despite my understanding of the education level in thi scountry I always find the conversation a little baffling. If you understand that Brazil is a country how would it also be a state. I guess I'll just have to find  a world map to finally put the issue to rest.

Muzungu Magic

Last night after dinner the discussion of airplanes came up. My host father is very interested in technology and science and when I revealed that the windows on airplanes do not open because of physics he was very intrigued. A whole set of other questions ensued and soon the conversation had to switch the French to compensate. Is there food on planes? Where do they make the fire? Which naturally led to the impossible conversation of trying to explain microwaves. The whole thing got very silly very quickly because even using words my host father knows in French I was unable to convey the function and reality of a machine that is so far from their normal. Finally it was decided that both airplanes and microwaves were ' muzungu magic.' This term has now come to encompass all forms of technology or things that I do which are foreign. Its actually quite amusing. Flashlights, computers, and swiss army knives have also become a part of this category.


Think of your favorite celebrity. That one you obsess about and wish you knew in real life. Do you have one in mind? Good. Now get excited. They are moving to your town. What do you do? Stalk them? Try to be their friend? Note their every move and talk about it constantly?
Surprise! You are that celebrity in a small village in Africa. This was  a cross-cultural exercise we did during training and its very accurate. As the only white person in our respective communities (for the most part) we are constant focuses of attention. Everything we do is talked about. People start rumors about us, and about the people who associate with us frequently. People try to do us favors to get in our good graces. Or steal insignificant things just to have something that belonged to us. And everyone, everyone wants a picture with you. Even if its on your camera and they will never see it.
This constant attention gives us a real platform to enact change or to enrage locals. In a  culture far removed from our own the line between Paris Hilton and Princess Diana is thinner than you might think. Plus, just because she was Princess Di, doesn't mean the tabloids didn't try to come up with all the dirt they could. And when they couldn't they lied.
* Just though this was a short peak into my life. :) *

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Perks of Being Muzungu

Despite all the obvious downsides of being so clearly different in this country today I’ve decided to look at the positives. So here they are:

-       Regardless of how many other people are on a twege (bus taxi) they will always either squish or remove another passenger to accommodate you. – Ya I know that sounds kind of awful but I treat it as my Karma for all of the bad things.
-       Women will always let you hold, carry, play with their cute babies. Even if it is just because they want to laugh at the image of a Muzungu holding their baby.
-       There are no lines in Rwanda, especially in stores or the markets, people essentially walk up to the counter as they see fit and any one who knows  the owner gets a free pass to the front of the line, which can only be trumped by the Muzungu card. Since as an American I am very used to lines and order I don’t feel all that bad about cutting to the front of the chaos.
-       All children want to play with you, all the time. Which is awesome when you are in the mood to play. 


This might not be the most exciting post but I thought I’d fill everyone in a little bit on my financials because I get a lot of questions about it. Currently during training we don’t make a full salary because our home stay families provide us with most meals. This means we get a “walk around” allowance of 37,000 RWF every 2 weeks or 74,000RWF a month. The exchange rate is 1 USD to 600 RWF so we are making roughly 120 American Dollars a month. Not exactly a 6 figure salary but as you can imagine we are still very highly paid compared to locals. Here are some of the local prices so you can guage how much money that really is:

Bunch of onions – 100RWF
3 Small green peppers  - 200RWF
Sambusa – 100RWF
Lunch – 800 – 1000RWF
Bottle of water - 300 RWF
Soda – 250 RWF
Beer – 600-900RWF
Amandazi (Rwandan Donut) – 100RWF
Phone minutes – are bought in 250RWF chunks and a call costs 30/minute
Internet minutes are the same as phone
Avocado – 50 RWF
Loaf of bread – 300 RWF
Small tub of Margerine – 900RWF
Eggs – 100RWF each
Igitenge (clothe) – 3000RWF a panel ( a dress takes 2 panels)
Twege to the market – 300 RWF

These are the types of things I buy most often but there are obviously other expenses that come into our lives. Once we get to sight I will be buying a lot more groceries and furniture etc on my own. But by no means am I broke or starving for all of those who are worried.

On Teaching

Despite the fact that several currently serving PCVs have come to talk to us during training about exactly what teaching in a Rwandan school would be like, these first two weeks have still been a struggle. 

-       Children do not raise their hands to get the teacher’s attention in Rwandan classrooms. Instead they snap their fingers in the air a call “Please Teacher! Please Teacher!” (Its incredibly annoying)
-       All Rwandan teachers organize their chalkboards in the same 3 section manner, meaning that students do not know how to take notes independently. If you do not use that method they will write nothing in their notebooks.
-       Critical thinking exercises are almost impossible. Students here have never been asked to creatively apply grammar rules so when you ask them to there is generally ten minutes of confusion.
-       During my lesson this week 5 birds. Like live birds. Flew into my classroom and circled above all of our heads for the entire lesson. None of the children were shocked in the least.

Since a lot of our purpose here is to teach critical thinking skills and practical English usage – such as speaking out loud – we will run into these problems continually. Many of the creative learning techniques so common in the USA are completely unheard of here and thus many of the students, headmaster, and other teachers we work with will continually be questioning our methods. Hopefully, test results and other outcomes will be enough to convince people of their merit over these two years. Many of the volunteers we have spoken seem to have made progress so there is hope!


I realized my language skills truly have progressed when I was at the Market this weekend. Suzie and  I were buying quite a lot of food so that we could cook an American meal for our families. I hadn’t been to the market in a while but its incredibly how different a grasp of the language can make things. Only one particularly grouchy vendor tried to rip us off and we were able to talk her down. For the most part the opposite happened, once a vendor realized we were Americans who could speak Kinyarwanda and we explained we were Peace Corps volunteers there was a tendency to under charge us. I paid 100 RWF for a bundle of 5 small white onions (the standard price) and the sales woman gave me a second one for free and thanked us. We are planning to cook breakfast for dinner because we don’t want to rock the boat too hard. Rwandans are notoriously stubborn and literally any change is usually unwelcome. Granted there are a limited number of foods available here but instead of getting creative people choose to cook them in the same 10 combinations over and over again. For example I made guacamole for my family once and they had to be begged to even try it, despite the fact that they mash avocados into their rice all the time. So we are making scrambled eggs with vegetables in them, French toast and hashbrowns. This shouldn’t scare them too much since omelets are a standard here as are French fries  but I’m still anticipating that they will be highly disappointed. Wish us luck!


This might not be the most exciting post but I thought I’d fill everyone in a little bit on my financials because I get a lot of questions about it. Currently during training we don’t make a full salary because our home stay families provide us with most meals. This means we get a “walk around” allowance of 37,000 RWF every 2 weeks or 74,000RWF a month. The exchange rate is 1 USD to 600 RWF so we are making roughly 120 American Dollars a month. Not exactly a 6 figure salary but as you can imagine we are still very highly paid compared to locals. Here are some of the local prices so you can guage how much money that really is:

Bunch of onions – 100RWF
3 Small green peppers  - 200RWF
Sambusa – 100RWF
Lunch – 800 – 1000RWF
Bottle of water - 300 RWF
Soda – 250 RWF
Beer – 600-900RWF
Amandazi (Rwandan Donut) – 100RWF
Phone minutes – are bought in 250RWF chunks and a call costs 30/minute
Internet minutes are the same as phone
Avocado – 50 RWF
Loaf of bread – 300 RWF
Small tub of Margerine – 900RWF
Eggs – 100RWF each
Igitenge (clothe) – 3000RWF a panel ( a dress takes 2 panels)
Twege to the market – 300 RWF

These are the types of things I buy most often but there are obviously other expenses that come into our lives. Once we get to sight I will be buying a lot more groceries and furniture etc on my own. But by no means am I broke or starving for all of those who are worried. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Due to our limited freetime and the constraints of having to be home after 6pm, we celebrated Halloween last night. Better late than never. It was actually pretty close to an American celebration! We had to make a special trip to Kigali to find candy because there is literally no candy out in the villages - unless you count stale juicy fruit that is clearly imported from China. We went to bar we frequent here and had beer pong, banana wine, candy and costumes! Bars are set up differently here with each group of patrons receiving their own room so it was perfect we just shut the door and were in our own small America for a few hours. Since I hadn't brought many costume materials i improvised and made cat ears out of duck tape. Several people had pretty good costumes though. We had tectonic plates, a farmer, a Kinyarwanda lesson, and a mouse. The Banana Wine that I was so excited to try is actually terrible! People usually can't drink it straight because it is so sweet, so they mix it with sprite or another soda (the same goes for the pineapple wine which is a little bit better). So now I can say I've tried it but I have no interest in trying it again. The night was otherwise uneventful but definitely a good way to blow off steam and relax because we had had an extremely stressful week before that.


Generally it is Peace Corps policy that volunteers are not allowed to operate or ride on motorcycles of any kind while serving. This policy was implemented after it was realized that the largest numbers of deaths and injuries to PVCs included motorcycles, especially considering that volunteers used to be issued motorcycles as their main mode of transportation (nowadays we just get bicycles). Rwanda is one of the few countries where there is an exception to that policy because motorcycle taxis are such a crucial aspect of getting around here. However, to balance out the danger we were issued some super intense motorcross helmets. Literally though, these must have been out of the clearance bin because they are the most riddiculous gaudy patterns imaginable. For example mine is zebra print and sparkly. To make matters worse we can be medically seperated for not wearing them so we are forced to carry them with us when we know we will be using motos, and then we look riddiculous riding them. Quite honestly though I dont mind the helmets because they make me feel safe since the moto drivers are insane. There is actually nothing scarier than flying down a mountain gripping onto a stranger. I thought I would feel bad ass but literally I was on the verge of tears instead. There was one hillarious moment where I made the moto driver stop so that I could get off the bike and hyperventilate on the side of the road. The poor man had no idea what was happening and was just staring at me like, "shit what I am going to do with a crying Muzungu." When I was finally able to explain to him in French that I was scared his only response was, "Oh there is no reason to be, this is very safe." Oh sir, I beg to differ. Now that I've become more accustomed to the motos, however, I am starting to see the appeal. I can imagine that it would be very satisfying to be driving one but sometimes as the passenger my Type A personality really kicks in and I would much rather be in control. I think for now I will take the motos as little as possible and but maybe in two years things will change. Who knows? Maybe I'll get a motorcycle when I return to America....Wenda (Maybe)...but probably not.

The Rwandan Way

Here is it, my rant about my biggest pet peeve in Rwandan culture: a country wide epidemic of always needing to be write. It is an indisputable fact that there is only one way to do anything in life and that is the Rwandan way. 
-You want to wash your clothes once with soap instead of three times? Too bad that's incorrect.
-You want to wash your shoes delicately so they dont get destroyed in the first 2 months in country? Sorry scrubbing the shit out of them is the only acceptable protocol.
-You cut potatoes on a slab of wood instead of in your hand? Incorrect, you must be stopped.
-You don't set up your blackboard in 3 sections like every Rwandan teacher was taught to? Your students will not understand.
There is literally nothing that I do in my life where a Rwandan, usually from my host family but this happens in all spheres of my life, doesn't attempt to stop me and correct me. Its a country suffering from some serious OCD. I mean shit I was functioning perfectly well as an adult in America doing things very differently. There are certain situations where you just give in and do things there way, resistance is futile and quite draining. But on several key aspects of my life I have held my ground. The main two are on how  I set up my chalkboard and how I wash my clothes because 1. my students will learn the critical thinking skills to take notes in my class with out being force fed them - giving them a crucial leg up in a country where I swear critical thinking is almost non-existent and 2. I refuse to stretch out and ruin my clothes in the first months in country. The stress of constantly being corrected - and may I add in the most condescending of ways and with many accompanying obnoxious facial expressions and tongue clicks - is really just an added burden to my day. This mentality is a roadblock that volunteers run up against constantly here in Rwanda and I'm not looking forward to two years of asserting that I know what I am doing and there is more than one answer. During a moment like this the other day where a waitress made us all stand up and rearranged our seats the way she wanted them I made a quip which I've decided is very telling of the experience here:

"Time, the truth, and the meaning of words are flexible but there is only one correct way to arrange chairs, or anything else for that matter." 

Malaria Drugs

Despite the fact that we do no have Malaria in the United States it is still a very serious disease in many parts of the world today. Rwanda, being in Africa, is one of the places. Sadly this lack of exposure to Malaria as children actually leaves us American Peace Corps volunteers at a significant disadvantage when it comes to staying healthy. Our body has never seen Malaria and thus doesn’t have the defenses necessary to ward it off. To counteract this effect we take drugs that remain in your system on a constant basis that mimic the resistance native Rwandans, or Africans, would have to Malaria. Since you will probably see it mentioned here many times the name of the medication I take is Mefloquin, and it is a bitch. For starters the mefloquin causes increased levels of paranoia, anxiety and insomnia. Most of the time the effects are mild and thus not cause enough to switch to one of the two other malaria medications (more on those in a minute). So basically when you are searching for a pen and can’t  find it and it makes you wanna cry? Mefloquin. When waiting for dinner feels like the end of the world? Mefloquin. And when you go for a run in the morning and your heart feels like its pounding out of your chest? Mefloquin. In a post conflict country far from home, you can imagine the kind of thoughts that can race through your mind when you’re having a bad day and you’re on mefloquin. The whole thing really becomes  an issue of mind over matter and its very interesting when your body is experiencing all the physical symptoms of anxiety but your mind is perfectly calm because you know its just  a chemical reaction. Now if only I could master the physical effects we’d be fine and dandy, ihangane. There are 2 other approved Malaria medications in the world today, doxy and malerone, and as a PCV you must be on one medication at all times to remain an employee. The side effects of doxy is extreme sensitivity to sun – well looks like I’ve already got that so I won’t be taking doxy anytime soon. There are almost no side effects that I have heard of from the last drug, malorone, but it is expensive so you have to be resistant to the other two drugs first. Anyways this a super boring post but it is a crucial aspect of my life and maybe it will help everyone understand a little better how Mefloquin effects my everyday life and why I hate it so much.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ugiye He?


Ugiye he? Ugiye he? Their cries follow me down the street, becoming more persistent with each emerging ray of light. “Ugiye he Muzungu?” It’s 5am on a dusty road somewhere deep in Africa and I am running. It’s cultural here in Rwanda to ask everyone where they are going when they pass you on the street, especially the Muzungu (white man) because everything they do is inherently interesting based simply on their color. The tricky part about “Ugiye he?” the reason its nips at my nerves like a winter frost, is that you are never supposed to answer truthfully. Everything is a secret in Rwanda and as a result people are always trying to find the truth or lying to cover it up. This rule applies to literally everything in a person’s life. “What are you making for dinner?”
“Where are you going?”
The more evasive the answer ,with out being rude, the better.
            The children are catching up to me now. This ritual the Muzungu has of running quickly down the street alone before the sun has risen baffles them. They try to keep up as long as they can but today I don’t slow down. I don’t answer.  Many of them are my students and I have explained many times that I run for sport, so that my heart works well and my mind is clear and I look good in a bikini but somehow the meaning is always lost. And every morning here they are again, chasing me, “Ugiye he?”  

The one with the Imbeba ( and the friends reference)

For those of you who don’t speak Kinyarwanda Imbeba is a mouse. And they are really using the word mouse generously here, the imbeba in question was most certainly a well polished rat. Me and the this particular imbeba became acquainted a few nights ago while I was sitting in my bedroom doing homework and saw him scamper across my room. Considering the fact that I had taken my Mefloquin that night (Malaria medications that are prone to cause insomnia and paranoia) I knew the battle was on, this mouse was leaving my room before bed time! My frantic attempts to move my trunk around and catch the mouse, instead caught the attention of our umucozi (house boy) who came in to investigate why the muzungu was making so much noise. Obviously my make shift mouse catching device – see also my PVC Pipe material chamber pot – was taken away from me as the umucozi tried to help me. Eventually I was sent out of the room because me jumping every time either of us moved was sending us both into hysterical laughter and slowing down the process considerably. Finally the mouse was caught and removed from the premises but not without my host parents getting a pretty good laugh at how upset I was by its presence. (If I hadn’t been upset they wouldn’t have removed it at all).  Papa Yason informed me in French that there was no reason to be afraid of mice because they cannot eat people, and there was really no convincing him that there was any other reason to be afraid of an animal. Finally, we agreed to disagree as I told them that Americans hate mice and that all Americans would have reacted the same way – sorry for throwing you all under the bus with me there Americans but I was really getting nowhere. As a nice gesture they did give me something to block the gap in my door from future imbeba attacks and they told the house boy to be extra sure that no more enter the house because for some mysterious reason they really freak out the American.

Model School

We started our first day of model school yesterday, meaning that I am officially team teaching a classroom full of Rwandan students with another trainee. Since the students are technically on their winter break we are actually teaching a group of children who volunteered to come to extra English lessons four hours a day during their holiday. Naturally this leads to some self-selection of the best and most motivated students so model school isn’t the best representation of a true classroom setting. Luckily because I am teaching in a boarding school some of this same weeding out process will contribute to the students in my permanent classroom as well. So far of our two lessons we’ve taught (each has lasted 2 hours) one was a total success and the other a total failure. I’m ok with that breakdown, however, because I know it is very indicative of my life as a peace corps volunteer on the whole. Some days will be incredible, some days you will change the world or a child’s life or a teacher’s mind, and other days you will mime adjectives for an hour and your students will be none the wiser.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Dancing with Children

I know I’ve mentioned them already but I have a blog of little boys who I consider to be my own personal street gang. Don’t be alarmed they are 9 and harmless, they do however break it down with me whenever they see me. As the weeks progress we have covered a wide range of dance genres ranging from the hokey pokey to thriller to the one that started it all: soldier boy. Now that I have class near their home and see them even more frequently we have started getting quite extravagant. Every time I walk down the main street of my village I run into them screaming “micheleeey micheleeey magnifique” (I have no idea where the magnifique came from) but then we dance! Today I ran into them and clearly they had been bragging to some of the other children that the Muzungu is their friend and dancing with them because when they saw me pretty much all hell broke lose. Before I knew it I was teaching 35 children all my best moves with my little boys right up front asking me their names so that everyone could hear I knew them. After our impromptu dance party – which let me tell you gathered quite the crowd – they all grabbed my hands and escorted me home en mass. It was the perfect end to my day.