The Angst of Homecoming, Dirty Socks, and other Transgressions

>> Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I left Rwanda on the 27th of May, 2011. I practically danced my way across the runway and up the first leg of a 25+ hour flight. I sat in that seat, desperately excited, covered in bedbugs and dirty clothes, and leered over my unfortunate seat mate, trying to see Busanza village as we took off. I’ve seen hundreds of planes fly over us in the last year and a half. I couldn't see them, but I know they saw me.

I wanted to finally bring closure to my Peace Corps experience. I left about 3 months ago, and after a sufficient time recovering and relaxing back in the states, it seems about time to take that final bow. I'm actually really glad I slacked off these last few weeks, leaving me enough time to gather evidence and anecdotes to fill what will undoubtedly be, a disturbing insight into the Post-Service Experience. It's not all fuzzy and warm and full of longing. There are some days where I desperately miss the markets and temperament and the kids playing hide and seek in my yard. But those soft hazes are followed by the harshness that PC Rwanda wasn't a healthy living condition in the long run.

Living the Peace Corps life is great in theory, if only it were less damaging on the psyche once returned home. I'm sure non-PCVs don’t have the stress of a constant thread of words running through their heads and other linguistical evidence of a time spent detached. I have literally spent every moment of the day feeling like that guy in Lost [5 8 15 16 23 42] who loses his mind over his preoccupation with a string of numbers. Except my string of numbers is the lyrics to Meddy’s “Amayobera,” the daily formalities of greeting neighbors, or instantly translating current conversation into the kinyarwanda equivalent in my head.

Anyhow, one of the things they don’t tell you is that at some point, after your Peace Corps service, you’ll be sitting in a completely normal setting [be it in bed or out to dinner] and have the sudden urge to break out in a monumental panick attack. Yes, we have been prepped that the transition home is sometimes the hardest part of the whole service. And then we get home, and we wait for a reaction.. For me, I finally go to the supermarket. I have one tiny freakout over the price of avocados and think whew, glad that’s over.
But as the weeks go by, the real reaction, it builds up in you, that this default setting is actually really hard, that this familiar slide back into Americanism is actually pushing against the grain and you react, suddenly, and it sucks. You panick that the last chunk of your meaningful youth might as well have never happened for as much as you can celebrate it here. The truth is, people don’t care, and as soon as you’re home they keep moving along as if you’ve always been there, gliding alongside them. Your little mud house might as well be imaginary for all the attention it gets. And that’s what’s upsetting; how do you pay tribute to the invisible? Such a statement probably sounds familiar. While you sit watching TV, you see the occasional ad for helping the “invisible children” of Africa, and not just the children. Think of the number of all African people with HIV or malaria. Where are the people behind the number? Who’s taking that big stamp and bringing it down over Africa to say, 22.5 million. Where is he living and who are his neighbors? It's nothing but statistics and numbers until you can pin-point your own house in your own village in your own country in your own part of Africa on Google Earth [coordinates: 1 degree 59' 41" S, 30 degrees 8' 47" E]. Which in itself is great, awesome, and the experience is something you’ll never find elsewhere, but I don't expect everyone to make that commitment of living in a foreign world. Just a little effort to educate yourself would be nice [she says, with an effort at not sounding condescending].

Walden Syndrome is the term I’ve coined to describe the confusing sense of reality I’ve stumbled upon since being home. Did I say stumbled? I mean fallen into. More like I walk down a dark hallway and am suddenly faced with the confusing question of, real, or in my head? Not many people can say they understand this so-called reality dilemma. There are probably a handful of Peace Corps Volunteers, a good chunk of  US veterans or military folk, and a hunchback locked in a bell tower. It’s like... it’s like that space in between dreaming and waking when you wonder whether the alarm really did go off, or if the sound of a buzzer was only related to a dream about class ending, a car honking, or the start of a race. I place this blame on many hours of solitude, sitting in my yard on a stool just watching the minutes pass by when I’m not only with myself but in my head with dozens of authors, millions of thoughts, and thousands of letters home. I blame it on staring at the wall for countless hours, and the fact that the times between waking and sleeping were becoming too similar to sleeping and waking. I blame it on the blending of realities, when one’s own reality doesn’t rely on others.
I was the only one in my yard or in my bed or in my house for over a year. And that bright consistent surrounding would fade into my thoughts or imagination. And because it’s so familiar, in the first few weeks of being home, I would find myself alone, and wonder, scared, whether I was not still in my house in bed, about to wake up and be staring at the same mud walls, or in my yard on top of my mountain, alone, but in an elaborate, self-indulgent dream. You can be sure that for the first few weeks stateside, I was never alone. This being such a natural transition  [since everyone wants to see you anyway] that one might not even notice the struggle of homecoming. Until, perhaps like me, you find yourself in the hallway at night, with the rain gently pattering on the windows and the trees tapping outside [in my head, remembering, much like the beginning of Poltergeist the movie], and can’t help but feel that the completely familiar nonchalant situation is a little too smooth, a little too cinematic, and I start second-guessing where I am. Am i just making this up? God please don’t let me still be in Rwanda dreaming up this dull but typical “home” situation. And to anyone else that would walk by, I’m standing frozen in the hallway, like a deer, looking around as if a distant TV is suddenly going to turn on to static. But then again, no one is walking by, which is the whole point. It’s quiet and calm and the only reality is my own and who knows if this is real or not. How can it be real unless a completely independent person walks by and acts independently of my thoughts and worries, provoking the idea that this IS the real world, that I AM really here. I needed someone to ground me, for fear of my imagination and Pavlovian conditioning to take over and leave me questioning, where am I?

Reading it back it sounds like a case study for PTSD, but it’s simply shock [I hope]. The more I’m home the more it fades but to be honest, I still don’t like being completely alone. But how is anyone ever completely alone in this society? Theres always Facebook, Skype, TV, family, roommates, dogs, friends. But when that door closes and the light goes out and it’s nothing but me and the dark air around me, I can’t pretend I don’t worry that the next time my eyes opened they’d open on a mosquito net and mud walls, that I can’t still hear the chickens and cocks and cows and kids of the morning and night. That the heat of the tin roof doesn’t still press in on me between interrupted conversations. Because when I close my eyes, it’s still there. 
[I shared a bed with a fellow PCV one night when we were in the city for a conference. When we woke up in the morning she told me that i patted her butt in my sleep. I what?? I actually wasn't that surprised. I did it all the time when I wanted to make sure Jay was in bed next to me, both when I knew he was, and when I just wasn't sure if I was dreaming him in or not. It made me laugh that I managed, in my sleep, to reach back and pat a friend's butt, unconsciously looking for that reassuring feel of another person nearby.] It's hard to tell when you're dreaming sometimes, in these places.

There are of course other contributing factors to the fun box of anxiety reactions I have. The stress of being thrown back in normal life, the fact that no one can relate to what you’ve been through, and having to move on to the next big adventure. A huge one for me is the fact that my external hard drive died about a week before I left Rwanda, and since then, I’ve had two different tech professionals try to get anything off of it, and it’s completely lost, all my photos. And for anyone who knows me, that’s really hard. Naturally, I’m mourning it like a death. I know that I don’t have the memory to stand the test of time. Honestly, I’m already forgetting and it’s terrifying, to think that in 5 or 10 years, I won’t even be able to remember what it was like. Not just the photos I put online for others, but the photos I took for me, that I kept tight to my chest to help me remember the daily rigors and trials. Even all the photos my kids took everyday, seeing it from their view and knowing all the inside details that you only know when you’re in the snow globe, instead of shaking it from the outside. How can I be expected to want to move on when I don’t even have that safety net to keep me warm in the future? For all I’ll know in 50 years, I’ll have imagined half of it. And the language! The language will be the old gibberish grandma mumbles while the grandkids look at each other nervously.  I thought that over time it would fade, the language, but honest to god if I’m not getting 8 hours of study every night in my dreams. It’s like my mind doesn’t want to let it go, or maybe it doesn’t know how to. And I wake up mouthing these words over and over to myself like I belong under a bridge somewhere. Komeza [continue] is a frequent offender. I know that should be poetic, but it’s exhausting and they never stop playing. Coming back to the states was suppose to be a recovery period. Instead I’ve just been discovering ways in which PC Rwanda dented me.

I’ve noticed other tidbits of change. One example is when Jay and I walked to the supermarket one day and on the way out, we passed a table where a War Veteran sat, raising money for the Disabled Veterans of America. I felt confused by my reaction at first, which was to cry. I never would have reacted that way before. I more or less asked Jay to empty his pockets and ran back in to donate the money. I just started crying in the parking lot, and if I hadn’t already ran back in once like a fool, I’d have done it again to hug him. I’m not sure exactly where most of the chips lie, but I think there’s a camaraderie there, of feeling like I understand what he’s been through. Now, obviously, I haven’t been through a war, but I have seen some terrible things, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a horror story or a machete wound. And maybe that war camaraderie, that empathy of knowing that no one knows what you’ve been through or what you’ve seen, made me break down. In a backwards way it made me want to appreciate that man for what he’s put not only his body through, but his emotional health, too. I also think that it broke my heart that in this country, a place where all people are expected to be taken care of and given opportunity above any other countries, especially one’s considered “Third World,” that we are no farther along. I saw him and I saw all the war victims of Rwanda, begging for money at the bus stop, no legs, one arm, obvious war wounds that, in such a place, completely inhibit them from living. And here we are in the strongest, most desired country in the world, and this little old wrinkly man has to sit alone behind a plastic fold out table, handing out paper flowers to anyone that donates 50 cents to the Disabled Veterans of America. Because that’s what his prospects have come to. What the hell, America. [As I write I know I’m going off on a rant here but I just can’t make myself stop...]

I loved Rwanda, I did, but in a very tortured way, the way that makes you understand where Stockholm Syndrome came from. It was a beautiful land, filled with some beautiful people, who also happen to be very scarred, understandably, by their past. It makes them very abrasive, and resistant to foreigners. I can honestly say I didn’t even notice this until my last month in Rwanda, when I took a trip to Zanzibar, Tanzania. People who visited other parts of Africa had always said how cold and uninviting Rwandans were. And I never understood this because Rwanda was my only frame of reference. For all I knew, all of Africa and Africans were this way. They were inviting enough. Sure they didn’t trust us, and didn’t seem to particularly like us if we were strangers, but how did I know that was exclusive to Rwanda?  And also, who could blame them? Leaving the country for vacation was the best thing I did for myself. It let me see the African world outside of a post-conflict shell, a shell I never knew cased every person there, even my closest friends.

  I want to give examples but I fear I'll give only a negative impression and not all Rwandans are this way, and this is, of course, my experience and mine alone, although I think there are others who would agree. I do have neighbors and friends and kids I’m extremely fond of, who it broke my heart to leave.

Anyhow, my experience with men in Rwanda was extremely.. unpleasant. Almost every interaction with a man was aggressive, unwanted and unwarranted. Aside from actually getting assaulted by a man on my mountain [an experience that definitely defined my not feeling safe], even ordinary interactions felt wrong. As I explained to someone after visiting Tanzania, we sat up all night and talked and had real conversations with these men in Tanzania, without feeling inappropriate or unsafe and actually enjoying the company, whereas in Rwanda, a man says hello to me in broad daylight and I feel dirty. It's disgusting. Another PCV described this as men being sexually charged and women [white or in general, I'm not sure] as the sexual object.
Another example is that in Rwanda, when a person is trying to scam you [steal your money, rip you off, take things out of your bag] other people aid the thief. They distract you, or agree with false prices, in order to allow you to be taken advantage of. Maybe they feel we as foreigners owe it to them, or it's just a general dislike. In Tanzania, we saw the opposite.  It was amazing to see this, when I'm so used to being taken advantage of.

Another interesting note about the culture is that Rwanda doesn't seem to want to be Rwandan. Rwanda wants to be American. or Western. I noticed this throughout the majority of my service, that Rwandans don't take pride in their country. I don't know if this is a residue of the genocide, but they seem to want to move on and out and have picked up a lot of western attributes that cloud Rwandan culture. I don't just mean in the way that they want to be developed. Lots of places are developed without compromising their culture. They work their lives to get out of the village, to look and act like an American [insert any Jay-Z video here for all young women], and if they're rich enough or have a willing job, they get on a plane to America [and Europe], and they flee. And that's the reason it's so hard to get a visa for up and coming students to study abroad. Meddy, the most popular musical artist in all of Rwanda [who was REALLY good!] got a music gig in the states last year, and 2 days before his flight back to Rwanda, he fled to Canada. Why not take that power and influence and contribute to your home? Most people don't care about the state of Rwanda as long as they can escape from it themselves. I understand the desire to have all your needs met, but this is something different. I struggled to see Rwandan culture in all the layers of westernization.

To be clear, none of these really encompass why I left. They’re just passing reflections I considered while I detached myself from the country. It really came down to time I felt like I was wasting. I remember getting back on the plane after visiting England and being desperately upset. I mean, Jay and I leave each other all the time, we’re used to the airport-scenario. This was different, because I knew I had spent the whole first year trying to find work to do with my organization and failed. And I tried to get support and help from Peace Corps about my site, my organization, and my work, and failed, and was coming back to nothingness for another year. The Peace Corps program in Rwanda is so new and the trial and errors were so regular that we [my group] had been chalked up to a failed experiment in our placements, told to just “ride out” the remainder of our service. It was really frustrating.
I had finally reconciled my stubbornness in wanting to stay, when I realized I spent every day trying to stay one day more, and that’s not a healthy way to live. It’s validating, too, to know most other volunteers in Rwanda feel the same. As the weeks keep going by and more and more people leave early, I wonder at what point the Peace Corps staff will stop and think, hmm, this is a lot more than we normally lose...
I spent the last few months finishing my project, running the Kigali Half Marathon, and just spending time with the people who did make my staying worth the while [some amazing PCVs and the three families in my village I really felt close with]. And then, when the time started growing more bitter than sweet, I came home.

Since then, people keep asking me to weigh in on the experience [that’s the typical person’s extent of interest] and I really struggle to think of it in terms of white and black stones, so instead I dodge the headache of coming to an impossible conclusion, and tell them it was the most interesting experience I’ll ever have [which is true no matter where the stones lay]. No, I wouldn’t take the experience back now. But if I had known the day I got my Invitation to Serve in Rwanda, what I know now, maybe I would have declined it and served elsewhere. Maybe not. Rwanda and PC in Rwanda have got some baggage. I didn’t like being one of the guinea pigs for their program, but I can’t deny that I didn’t meet some amazing people, learn a really interesting language, and have an experience like no other. It may have been a longer experience elsewhere, perhaps with less emotional damage [debatable] but [struggling to end that sentence so I’m just not going to].

Even without my photos, I hope I'll still remember a little of what I came from. I've gotten used to conditioning my hair again, to sitting in air-controlled houses and cars, and I've thankfully lost half of the stress-weight I put on while serving [on that note, I can actually run again. My fitness was never something I thought I'd compromise by joining the Peace Corps; it was probably the biggest surprise].

I may have left most of my clothes in Busanza with my neighbors, but I did bring back the most pathetic pair of socks you'll ever see. It was the only pair I ran in, climbed the volcano in, walked up and down the mountain in, and they are the most disgraceful color of greyish brown, crumbling as you hold them. I keep them in the closet so that every now and then I pick them up, compare them to my Target-bought white running socks and marvel at what they've been through to be permanently molded to the shape and color of Africa. It reminds me how normal they were to me, how treasured they were and how any right-minded American would toss them in the trash and never look at them again. Another thing I brought back was a gift from a girl in my village. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her when I left the village and I was at the airport in the morning to find her waiting for me [4 miles from my village] to give me 3 glass bracelets, the total cost being close to 30 US Dollars. One of them slide off the dresser recently and smashed into bits of glass pieces. And I cried a lot, knowing how much it cost for her to give to me. Most people can’t pay the $2 a year for health insurance, but she gave me this gift. I promised her I’d come back and visit her some day when she opens up her orphanage. Giving is easy when you have a lot to give. It’s a lot harder when you have nothing. Glass bracelets and dirty socks. Of all the souvenirs I've brought back, I may treasure them the most. They define where I lived and what worth really is.

So for now, Murabeho, Rwanda. Goodbye for a long time [but not forever]. Thanks for the good, the bad, the scary, and the parasites. I treasure every day without them.

Thank you to everyone who read, wrote, or mailed me inspiration [or duck sauce, or books, or crafts or food]. Somedays it was the difference between feeling human and not.

For future endeavours you can find me and Jay at as we will start our next adventure in Korea, teaching for the next year, together.


Make 'em Laugh Make 'em Laugh Make 'em Laugh

>> Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Let’s talk about Lucy.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned the “crazy” girl in my village that always made me very nervous, that I would dread like an attack. I’ve heard her described in many ways, in both English and Kinyarwanda. The most notable explanations were:

The people came and put something in her head.
She has a bad, bad mind.
She is an umusazi, a crazy person.

This is Lucy.

Even before I heard this, Lucy terrified me. My first few months at site were hard but doable. You just make yourself a friend to everyone and they learn to make themselves a friend to you. But Lucy would just cackle at me. She has this laugh that’s slightly maniacal and off-putting. She has very erratic motions and an inability to communicate.

Actually that’s not true. It SEEMED that Lucy couldn’t communicate. With me. I noticed over time she would respond when other people on the mountain called things at her. They still burst out laughing before during and after the exchange, but there was some level of a call-and-response. With me, Lucy would just yell MUZUNGU! And if I tried to respond her expression became one of a person who wasn’t actually there, like she disappeared behind her crazy mask.

If she said, [her favourite expression for me] Bite, muzungu? [what’s up, white girl!] I couldn’t even respond before she was already cackling in a way that just unnerved me and made me feel like I wasn’t expected to answer, nor would an answer be acknowledged. I used to watch to see if she were coming and try to sneak by, as if that were even possible. [I had some volunteers come visit for Halloween and from my mountain, you could see them walking down the other mountain, an absurd distance away, distinctly white. In theory, I can be seen coming for a half a mile. I don’t know what part of me thought that if I shuffled close enough to the shrubbery, I would simply disappear into it.]

Anyway, Lucy unknowingly put terror on the surface of my every day existence for 6 months. She continued to heckle me loudly and publically much to the amusement of anyone around. And I continued to try and disappear as quickly as possible. It’s terrible that I was even afraid of her, for faults not her own, being mentally handicapped in an environment that doesn’t accept such a thing. She was just rolling with her defense mechanisms of a stranger invading and changing her environment, and I was rolling with mine. This would have kept going on, I think, except that one day I saw Lucy, sitting in a ditch with her hands in her lap and her head down. No jericans strapped to her head or back, no erratic or loud motions. No running down the mountain with her igitenge [African fabric] held up behind her like a cape. No energy. Just very sunken. And I was so taken aback by this that I actually stopped instead of running from her as usual. I just stared for a moment, and even though I hated her normal disposition toward me, I was upset by what could subdue such a hurricane of a person.

I asked my walking buddy at the moment what had happened. They told me Lucy’s friend had died of AIDS. A friend on the mountain. Lucy herself has to be between the ages of 17 and 30. Hard to tell. But I assume her friend was a similar age. I spent the whole week after scouring the mountain for the people I knew just making sure everyone was accounted for. [I live across the road from a compound for children living with HIV/AIDS.]

Lucy remained in that state for several days. The next time I saw her, she was waiting at my gate, just to say hi. I don’t think she’d ever stood still long enough to give me a direct address or look right at me. I said hi back to her, and stood dumbstruck for a moment as she just as unexpectedly ran off. I’ve come to acknowledge our relationship as something reminiscent of Tom and Jerry.

From that moment, Lucy and I became friends. We had been scared of each other in a way that danced along the lines of love-and-hate. And now? She skipped down the mountain next to me [still erratic, still mentally questionably] but she could look at me now. She would suddenly take off sprinting, barefoot, cackling, with her waist fabric held high above her shoulders like superman’s cape. And eventually she’d stop and stumble around, curiously, until I caught up and sometimes even passed her. But she’d eventually start running to keep within my bounds, like an orbit, until I left the mountain and she found the water pump. She asked me questions. She learned my name and I wasn’t afraid to say hers. I help her carry her 5 jericans of water [three strapped to her head, one in each hand] up the mountain when I have the opportunity [she loves this. The perks of being in cahoots with the village muzungu. Because not only is it super strange for a white person to be helping a Rwandan carry her jugs of water up the mountain, but to be helping the village crazy person... unheard of].

Now we regard each other with humour and excitement, as it seems to amuse everyone else. Like it was the last obstacle to cross to be officially in the village. Getting the crazy person to be a little less crazy with you. It’s as if we have a bit now when we pass at the water pump.

“Good morning, Ms. Lucy!”
“What’s up, Ms. Jenni!”
“Not much, Lucy! Can I take some of those jericans for you?”
“Let’s go, Jenni!”

And so on and so forth with the over-acted stamina of two people who know how absurd their friendship looks from the outside. Undoubtedly, others saw my former hide-in-the-shrubbery tactic from the first few months.

Anyway, there are quite a few neighbours that I visit regularly, and I don’t know any of their names. The old grandmas are called Umukecuru [old lady], and the mothers of my kids are simply, Mama. But Lucy, I don’t have the heart to call her Umusazi, crazy person. She’s just Lucy. She’s always in dirty clothes, she doesn’t own any shoes. She has no family, no obvious friends and most people shun her as a respectable counterpart, or equal. She can’t hold a real conversation because of her handicap, nor can she have a real job or education. Her only job is to carry jericans up and down the mountain every day as a mule, a job that only men or boys typically do. She spends all day every day being dehumanized by a term that makes her nothing more than crazy. And sometimes you really need someone to bring a little humanism to the table.

If she earns nothing else in her life, she should at least have her name. And yes, this is the perspective of someone regularly called by the characteristics of her skin rather than by the name given to her. But if we’ve done nothing else for each other in the last year, at least we now have our names. I think it’s why we’re friends. The mama’s call me their daughter, the old ladies call me a beautiful girl, but Lucy calls me Jenni. And I can call her Lucy.

Enough about Lucy. Let’s talk about work [Yaaaaay!]

So as I may have mentioned previously, I have no work or prospects in my village [other than the informal art club and English classes I hold in my yard and in neighbor’s yards]. As per the structure of PC Rwanda, I am meant to walk out of the village every day and work in the capital with an organization. I was protesting this for a while, but realized that because of my village’s location, local work wasn’t even that feasible. Since everyone else in the village walked into the capital to work every day too. I think it’s a fairly unique setup and poses an interesting question of what this means for me, as a PCV, when the role of a PCV was traditionally very different. None the less, I started a project in cooperation with a different organization in Rwanda.

The project is called Grassroots Comics. I explained it in an earlier post, but just as a refresher, it’s a behaviour change/ community development tool that encourages people to discuss and express the issues of the local community in comic form. The comics are then hung up at the community level, be it at a school, or the district office or a health center. The comics are written in the local language, although primarily image-based [to encourage comprehension even with the high illiteracy levels in the village] and discuss issues that are affecting that community. It’s a safe forum for discussion, a means of getting good information out there, and encourages creativity and expression with the youth. Depending on the context, it can be a regularly meeting club at schools or a one-time-workshop at an existing event [such as World AIDS Day or Women’s Day].

So as for the update: I’ve been working on a training guide for PCVs and development workers in the Rwandan context since last October. The manual is meant to provide an easy means of facilitating the Grassroots Comics Meetings, drawing exercises, ideas and themes, supplies, collecting feedback, and sharing the results with other facilitators through a GRC newsletter.

The guide has now been tested by a group of PCVs, who gave their feedback and helped make the guide more user-friendly for people who are not native English speakers, and for presentation to people who are also not native English speakers. I’ve been working with another volunteer and with the organization that is funding and encouraging the development of this tool, and in a few weeks I anticipate the project will be reaching its final form! This past week at an HIV/AIDS Conference I presented the project and there are lots of interested parties, both PCVs and organization workers. So the next few months will mostly be filled with finalizing the guide, getting funding for supplies, distributing them to the people interested and conducting trainings to help people get started on it. When I get a chance, I’ll upload some examples of comics that were created! I really think this would be a great tool for PCVs all over the world, and I hope to get the word out to other PCV countries when the project is in full swing.

On a fun note, the Kigali Peace Marathon is coming up at the end of May! Myself and a few other volunteers are training for it so please think happy thoughts of running in the African sun during the dry season!

Another fun note, I am 2 months parasite-free! That really is quite a success. On the other hand, I did fall in a 4 foot ditch the other day... And take a chunk out of my foot in a mudslide... And set the record for most-things-wrong-with-a-PCVs-eyes...

More fun stuff: So there are these buses in kigali that are spray-painted and designated to a certain rapper or football team. There's a Manchester United truck, a Drogba bus, Jay-Z bus and every rapper that ever existed including a lot I've never heard off. They're decked out in the team/rapper's colors, their name or logo printed all over, and a photo imprinted onto the back or side. The buses sometimes even have blacklights inside!
ANYWAY, the other day, I saw a Justin Bieber bus. And to my knowledge he is the first NON rap artist to have his own Rwandan dedicated bus! And so young and early in his career.. I'm torn between being impressed and being disturbed.
A side project I'm going to be doing for mostly my own amusement is tracking down the rest of the funky buses that travel through Kigali and making an album dedicated to them. Or a calender. Really, other people just need to see them.

I haven't written a post in a while, so if I think of anything new and absurd that I want to note and didn't, I'll revise this blog. If not, enjoy Lucy and Grassroots Comics!

[PS: New photos of MSC, safari game drive, and everything else in this second year of service!]
The album is The Early Months: Year Two


Stressing the Gear

>> Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"I have a question for our American teacher..."

I stand up, hands clasped together in my small African classroom setting of 8 students and Rwandan translator.

"Do Americans ever sit down and think... about the people of Africa.... and what they're doing to us..."

A puzzled expression crosses my face and I say, " I'm not sure I understand. Can you explain?"

"Of course," says the boy with the best English in the whole camp. "I mean, do Americans ever sit down and think about how they're hurting us?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Because, as Rwandans, we see things on TV that Americans are doing, like oral sex, and we want to imitate it! We want to be like Americans. But this practice, it will kill us!"

[This, sprung from a discussion of the comparably MINOR risk of HIV infection through oral sex, and the fact that Rwanda, as a culture does not traditionally practice, or know of, oral sex.]

Ignoring the desire to ask him what it is he's watching on TV [and the internal desire to kick him in the face], I start to explain that: first off, Americans probably don't realize that oral sex isn't a common place sexual activity. And second-

"But you are KILLING us!"


This December I attended Camp Glow [Girls Leading Our World] and Camp BE [Boys Excelling] for 2 weeks as a facilitator teaching empowerment, life skills and health. CG is a program originally designed by Peace Corps Volunteers in Romania in 1995, and is now the gold star of PC Rwanda, who, still in it's infancy, has no other established program. This year, CG invited about 100 girls and 65 boys to come for a week each to learn about being the future leaders of their country.

While CG and CBE was a learning experience for the kids, it was also a learning experience for me. There are a lot of taboo topics that are simply not discussed in the villages, or topics that cannot be explained due to our limited knowledge of esoteric kinyarwanda terms. Teaching and working with these small groups of students, whose English is good enough to actually discuss such topics, was really enlightening, really encouraging and sometimes really discouraging at the same time; but overall, totally worth the experience.

I spent most of the afternoons going on runs through the valley, trying to work out some of the convictions and beliefs in Rwandan culture. I found that some things can be changed painlessly through simply explanation and discussion [such as: while drinking your friend's blood IS a traditional practice of bonding and brotherhood, it should be discouraged, because yes, you can get sick] while others are just so heavily and stubbornly believed, how can we even BEGIN to make sense of it? [example: Semen makes a girl fat. "No! That's absurd for about 5 reasons. (list all reasons)" "No, no, it's true! It's true! She gets fat! She'll always get fat! It's true!"... A camp-wide irrational argument that lasted a half hour before I threw in the towel]. And aside from that, some of it is just downright shocking [see above mentioned conversation with the "smartest" boy in camp]. I'm not sure yet if there's a point to this blog, other than voicing the notes I scribbled into my margins in between topics and coyly asked questions, just so I wouldn't forget a particularly interesting point one of the students made.

The curriculum

So, let's talk about critical thinking. I'll say it straight out: it doesn't exist here. It just doesn't. You're probably thinking, what? That's silly. Of course it does, you just: think. Critically.

But nope, it doesn't. An example is a game we tried to play that was similar to 20 Questions. Someone has a paper on their back with a way of transmitting HIV. The person has to ask you questions to figure out what their paper says. Doing this with Rwandans was impossible. Because they just couldn't grasp the concept. My partner kept saying, I don't understand. How can I say what it is when I can't see it? It's on my back, I don't know what it says.

It would be super frustrating if it weren't so interesting to witness. It just. doesn't exist. And it's so natural for us. We don't know any other means of thinking. Try teaching an adult or a schooled teenager how to critically think when it's not a natural process for them. They can't. They won't just guess [guessing is silly] because you don't know, how CAN you guess?
Super interesting!

Another interesting belief that I found both with my girls and my boys: We did a game to test the kids knowledge about HIV/Sexual Education. I would read a statement and if they thought it was true, they walked to the True side of the class. If false, to the False side. If undecided, in the middle. Both the boys and girls struggled with the following statements:

Traditional healers/religious leaders in our country have cured AIDS

If a man uses condoms for more than 2 years, he can become infertile.

What's interesting is that the first statement was prefaced with the following statement:

There is no cure for AIDS

and all kids agreed that this was true. When presented with the above mentioned statement about traditional/religious healers curing AIDS, some thought it was definitely true, and others were undecided. Simple deduction would have told us that no cure means no one has cured AIDS, but like I said, critical thinking is nonexistent. The point being that some kids tried to say that Jesus cures AIDS and that they have a friend who has a friend who had AIDS and he prayed a lot and got better. Others believe traditional healers/witchdoctors are rumored to cure AIDS and if you go to them, they'll perform some magick to make it go away.

And let me tell you, it's difficult to sensitively tell an almost completely christian culture that jesus does not heal your HIV/AIDS, but we all did agree that this was a poor form of prevention.

I'm not sure what the logic behind condoms causing infertility was, but perhaps it's just a scary thought of something you don't know enough to trust. Like people who used to think seat belts were deathtraps.

The boys were by far, more curious in their questions. I've heard more about female circumcision [does NOT reduce the risk of HIV transmission, FYI. It actually increases it, while male circumcision reduces the risk by 60%] and "dry sex" than I ever needed [dry sex= drying the woman's vaginal area out with drying agents such as bleach in order to cause more friction for the man. This is a big problem for prostitutes in some parts of Africa. It hugely increases the risk of transmission for a woman.

Some of the interesting standards that I think will take a long time to change are in the gender roles.

When role playing, I asked the boys, what if you are married, and you find your wife is HIV+?

"I will leave her"

What if you are married, and you find out that you are HIV+? What will your wife do?
"We will support each other"

I tried to encourage some debate with this, about why the wife should have to stay with him if he would leave her in the same situation but their answers didn't waver much. Too soon maybe.

I also heard some scary stories, such as: A man and woman are about to be married, and as is suggested in Rwanda, they go to get tested for HIV together. The man is HIV+ but does not tell his wife. He begs the doctor to give him a negative result. The doctor then tests them and comes back, and says that the man is not positive, but his WIFE is.

They also say [they... those village gossips who herald myths and nonsense through the generations] that if you drink fanta [specifically, coke] or milk, it will help you have a negative test result.

My Rwandan facilitator/translator brought up an interesting point about STDs. HIV testing is at least fairly common knowledge for people who will be married, but STDs are still creeping along in the shadows, I think. We were looking at Syphilis, I think, and one of the symptoms if untreated is death. Especially since a lot of people don't exhibit any symptoms at all until it's too late, we discussed how this might correlate to so-called "poisoning" in the villages. To this day, when you order a fanta or a drink at a shop or restaurant, they won't open it until it's placed in front of you, so that they cannot be accused of poisoning it. It is a rampant belief that people are regularly poisoned. Even well-educated missionaries I know believe that this exists everywhere. I'm a little more skeptical. I don't think you're going to get poisoned for shaming the village old lady. But it's so common for people to drop dead that they all claim poisoning! Maybe all this poisoning business is actually a late-stage case of untreated Syphilis. Think about that, Rwanda.

Moving out of health,
Gender roles fell into our Decision Making session as well. The boys were giving situations on slips of paper and they had to go through the decision making process step by step and then make a decision. This is to encourage ACTUAL thought processes while making important decisions. Sometimes, the most basic decisions are based on someone just telling you to do it. If you're waiting at a bus stop and a bus pulls up, a man will continually yell it's destination to the SAME GROUP OF PEOPLE. and you'd think these people are standing at a bus stop with their OWN destination in mind, but I swear, if he stands there for only 30 seconds yelling REMERA REMERA REMERA! someone will up and decide, sure, I'll go to Remera instead. Like your travels and schedules are based on the whims of a lively or convincing bus man. It drives me nuts [although I'd be lying if I haven't done the same thing one or twice myself].

People tend to do what they're told, especially women, which is a hard habit to break. In a hypothetical situation, the girls were told "A man who has given you gifts to help feed your family is now asking you to meet him at a hotel" and their first reaction wasn't 'hotel=he wants to get some.' It was, "Well, I should go to the hotel to see what he wants." And in that situation, they've put themselves into a position to be compromised. It's how a lot of prostitutes get started in this country. They need to feed their family// get money for secondary school. They turn to a "sugar daddy" and find help and a lot more.

In an even more alarming realization, the boys addressed the following situation:
"You are a girl in a relationship with a boy you plan to marry. He's been suggesting lately that you have sex now instead of waiting to be married."

The boy response: First, you refuse. Then, if he insists, you use a condom.

Me and the other PCV in the room at the time just looked at each other. Is this what boys think of a girl's values? Push a little and they cave? And it is. Maybe it's not how they deduce it, but boys in this culture believe a girl always says no at first, but she means yes. She has to play coy, but wants it as much as he does. I had hoped that after our life skills and leadership and lessons on being assertive, that I wouldn't have to address that, but even these boys, these enlightened, equal-rights, boys of the future still think a woman is subject to mold.

There's a saying in kinyarwanda that you hear if you trip, or drop something, or do anything of the spaz nature.

Urashyaka umugabo! You need a husband!

Because a husband makes you complete. You can't be a fully functioning adult without him.

It wasn't all like this, though. Aside from the strange cultural beliefs or practices, the boys were really sweet. Boys who speak good English and have gone through most of their schooling know how to sweet talk the ladies [which is why we do a condom demonstration]. In one class, while discussing what love is, one boy stood up and declared it was money and giving iPhones to the girl, and one of my boys stood up and said it must involve kissing "because love without kissing is like tea without sugar."

So anyway, I would go running, sometimes on my own, sometimes with other like minded PCVs, and sometimes with PCVs and the male campers. We set out into the valley at a smooth pace but as soon as the boys got comfortably warmed up, they sprinted ahead at a pace suitable for a well-fed African boy that I am seriously not accustomed to. When the kids run with me in the village, I know it's only a matter of time until their styrofoam shoes and weary physique demand them to stop, and I continue on, in my Nike shoes, Target running spandex, meticulously thought-out sports bra and two running-only tank tops, running off years of Western diet stored in the depths of my body. But here, in the open space of Gitarama and the winding dirt road of the valley, these boys are flooring it, nothin' but bones.

Runners everywhere in the western world always talk about the gear. I used to be so particular about what I ate before I ran, cant be less than a half hour before, can't be wearing low-rising socks. Can't have shorts with lining on the inside, can't have a really baggy Tshirt. Need a headband. But you know what, I was like that because at that point I still sucked at it and needed an excuse. Now, I can run 8 miles on the drop of a dime. I remember the first week of pre-season training of field hockey in high school, and Coach Hack had just gotten out of her car eating a bagel and drinking a large coffee. And she put it down and got on the track and just went. 8 minute mile. And I thought, I would SO throw up if I had to do that. But now, especially after seeing these kids who have NOTHING. Literally nothing. Styrofoam shoes. No shoes. Dress pants. No shirt. They just get up and go. Or they hear from a half a mile away that the Abazungu [white people] are coming, and they get up and get ready for it. But for us, we're too privileged. I can't run because my good sports bra is in the dryer [DRYERS! remember those?] or my socks aren't clean. Or the weather is too hot.

Move to Mali, lose the shoes, and go. Little malnourished African children run a mile with me just for the fun of it, and these boys, these well-fed, 3-meals a day, 2 tea breaks with a snack every day, they can finally move to the level they're capable of, without worrying whether they'll have a next meal to recover with.

And that's the point, I guess. They don't stress the gear. They don't stress anything. They'll walk 5 miles to school every day as long as they can sit in a classroom and take notes and learn. There are so many people in the states who would rather fail a class than get up in the early morning and walk 5 minutes [let alone 5 miles] to "learn" something.
Just having the opportunity to be at this Camp, to know where your meals are coming from for at least one whole week, to be allowed to express yourself, artistically or athletically. To be allowed to study. To develop oneself, as they say here. Just to be allowed to know, what Americans know, and take for granted. What a privilege. To be allowed to do anything.


Where the Sidewalk Ends

>> Friday, November 05, 2010

Today, you'll be reading the self-composed interview of one, Jen Olsen, atop her mountain in Busanza, Rwanda, answering some of those juicy questions all you Westerners out there are asking!

JO: Am I lonely? I don't suppose so. I'm definitely alone, but not lonely.

I mean, I have my thoughts, and they keep me pretty busy. And with them, the thoughts of everyone I've ever read. I listen to Whitman almost daily, and Emerson everytime I find myself talking to the chickens. As of recent I've added Jane Austen, Chaim Potok, David Sedaris, Paul Farmer, and Ray Bradbury to the crew and every week the party gets bigger [a commonality between all PCVs, I imagine].

And you know what, it's not that I enjoy living in my head, but I can't help it. I'm either walking down the road with a running kinyarwanda dialogue in my head, practicing and planning for probable interactions, or sitting with my kids during art club, while they banter to themselves and eventually my kinyarwanda runs out, and I'm left staring off into the sky, thinking of synonyms and similes Walt would have given to the setting mountaintop sun. Comprable to that, Emerson would have regarded the brazen simplicity and the solace my home gives, and to turn nature itself into a juxtaposed chaos, Bradbury just stands in the corner, contemplating the way the light strikes through threads of banana fiber. Honestly, it's actually quite crowded in my yard. I mean my head.

I'll keep sitting here on my shoddy twig stool held together with three strips of old tire, quietly considering all their observations, questioning these things and people and places and their opinions on life [and my life, specifically] and suddenly, how can you ever feel alone?

Some of the best minds, the best people [not mutually exclusive, fyi] i've ever known are the ones who take off on their own. who hole up in their room with their thoughts, drive north until the land is no longer familiar, or take off across the country on foot, just to dive deeper into themselves.

If these people all hold a facet for observation, and I'm turning it around also, saying, hmm, yes, very interesting, let's look at it from over here... we're all peering into the same crystal ball looking for insight. And everytime it changes hands it's scuffed, cloudy, dirty or scratched, whether war or time or place has changed, we all keep peering into the same core.

Our thoughts may vary slightly, based on these superficial inflictions, but no one's ever lonely. I'm tied to these people as much as I've ever been. I can't help but see familiar faces in all that I do. I'm not a pioneer. I've just joined a club of great minds and finally got my own facet. Let us hope others will seek solace in me and them and never lose faith in our anonymous, faceless comradery. I'll always be here, and if the sharp plains of a diamond last forever, then so will we. Right?

JO: Daily routine? That's pretty hard to nail down but let's go with yesterday. Yesterday I woke up at 5:56am to the sound of the tiny little bird that used to tap dance on my roof, now taking inspiration from the Broadway hit, STOMP and using what must have been a bird-sized sledgehammer with his already thunderous routine. In my morning delirium I reached out from my mosquito net and threw my flip flips at the underside of the roof. Not much accomplished but I laid in bed until 7 or so when I finally got up, flipped my net up, and fed the chickens [who, since laying eggs, have started to fly up to the windows and whimper if I'm not speedy with their food ((BTW, did I mention the first egg laid was from Gaju flying to my window, climbing through the bars, and laying the egg on my windowsill?))]. On a complete sidenote, Gaju means brown cow and WHY is it Rwandans never seem to think it's funny when I tell them I named my brown chicken brown cow? But they think Shyimbo [little bean] is hysterical..

Anyway, after that, I start filling up my water boilers, boil water, make tea, sweep out the house with my awesome Rwandan broom that requires you to bend your back parallel to the floor, and do a general routine of tidiness.

Yesterday was Thursday which is Art Club day, so the kids came over to draw and play. Usually I try to sneak something educational into the event, but since we've been covering only health topics and I have a dozen or so drawings of me as a stick figure brushing my teeth, the kids and I looked at my world map and drew pictures of our flags and talked about how many countries there were and whatnot. One of the girls had never seen a world map before, so I think the World Map Project is in my future for the primary school in Busanza. I'll be able to paint a mural of the world on or in the school with the kids, so that they always have a map to learn from [a novelty almost all schools can't afford]. [sidenote: since writing the first draft of this, I now have 3 more schools interested in me running the world map project, all of which will commence in the new year, as well as my being an art teacher for a few months so the art program doesn't shut down for lack of teacher. WOOHOO!]

After that, I started boiling some rice, and did my Jillian Michaels workout video [honestly, it should mention in the PC handbook that 80% of volunteers gain weight in Africa]. In between monsoons and drizzles, I read a bit, cleaned a bit, chopped down some reeds in my yard and brought them to my neighbors who feed them to their cow. I visited them for a bit, sat outside with the kids and mom who were laying on a mat next to the cow pen. The dad is really sick; he always tells me he has pain in his stomach and his daughter, who I teach english, always tells me that he is going to die. I hadn't seen him since he went to the hospital two weeks ago but Sunshine [the name I've given to his daughter] brought me inside to his bed to say hello. In the last two weeks he's gone from a sick, old, malnourished man, to a bedridden man who is so wasted he resembles a Holocaust survivor. It's a really hard reality to stomach, to watch a man slowly die. I didn't stay long, for the smell and sight of the room, but he greeted me just as he had when he was more alive. That's something to say about the culture.

After that an old man who saw me with the reeds, begged me to come see his cows and chickens, so I visited his family, played with a cow, wowed some old women with my kinyarwanda, and went home. I made some pseudo rice veggie and egg stir-fry for dinner, watched the Season 3 finale of Lost and cried a little over it, and cleaned up. Thus is a typical day in the village. It's not going to move any mountains, but I don't mind it!

JO: What do I miss the most?

Excluding the most obvious family and friends:
Target, tubs of movie theatre popcorn, Binghamton University Nature Preserve, running without being followed, talking without being self-conscious, fencing, wearing shorts without being confused for a prostitute, using a debit card, ordering pizza, eating pizza, smelling and seeing pizza. drinking water out of the tap, ice cubes, tracks, fields, not being stared at all the time, university classes, lip gloss, and shaving my legs. AND feeling human. That may sound like a grand statement, but when you're always wearing a funny suit, it's hard to remember what you were wearing before. The job is 24/7 so the suit never really comes off and you're always on stage, always on the record.

JO: Unexpected gains from this experience? Well, with the one-year-in-country anniversary coming up, I've made a short list of
Things I never expected to gain from this:
Honing my shakira-dancing skills [one of the few music videos I've acquired is She-Wolf]
Encouraging sanity through personal dance parties and concerts during monsoons when I can't even hear myself sing, shadow puppets when the power's out and befriending chickens.
Perpetuating my hopeless attraction to color and artistic enthralment by finding endless means of expression, whether art club, children's photo perspective, or chalk-on-mud wall-murals
A sailor's tongue
A new understanding of/ respect for my digestive system

JO:Best thing I've seen this week?
So I was walking home in the dark the other night [I was running late, don't yell at me!] and nearing the end of the paved road. From that point I can look left, and see the 60 foot twin pine trees that mark my village on the sky line, or I can look right, and see the edge of Kigali city petering off into the hills. I'm rarely down the mountain this late at night because it's still a 40 minute walk from where the sidewalk ends to get home. But looking right, I see the edge of the city, a thicket of lights all the way to my right and behind me. I pan left slowly and the lights fall into smaller groups, patterns and dimplings of stars on the mountain, evidence of the random assortment of electricity-bearing villages. I keep paning until the lights go out and the mountain fades into wilderness and I'm back on the edge of the road. I look left at my own mountain, and I see not thousands of the city, not hundreds from an up-and-coming town, but 7. Just 7 lights. And mine would soon make 8. There were a few flickering lights, dictating fires outside and it reminded me so much of the traditional practices of Halloween, of lighting a bonfire on every mountaintop, to be seen and acknowledged by other firey minds. And I was reminded of what a rare beauty this was, to see where the lights stop, to know that some places are nothing but light, but I'm luckily in this beautiful world where sharing a bonfire can still acknowledge some likeminded living, one that's simple and hopeful and modest.


Peace Corps: Desperation Leads to Creativity

>> Tuesday, September 28, 2010

FYI. New photos on Also, new care package request list on the side bar :D

IST; September 2010. I want to preface the preface with the fact that the following blog was written over the course of a 5 day conference, during breaks, during lectures, and during general moments of either elation or despair. The thoughts are a little broken up and as is the flow but to save the reality of it, we're going to just let it be.


A few years ago while working at Camp Shane, someone sent me a gift. It was a box, colourful, curious, with no return address. It was painted bright orange, yellow, and pink; absolutely coated in vivaciousness and stamped with the label: CAUTION: CONTAINS CREATIVITY. It was so light I couldn't begin to imagine where it came from and what it meant. I sat down, tore through the layers of paint, and opened the flaps to find a big empty box. I thought about this today, after I contemplated hurling my phone and bag into the Lake for the sake of starting over.

Every day I wake up in a whirlwind of difficult situations and vague-alities [not a real word but go with it]. This swirl engulfs me so that the day moves in muted color and softened sound. I feel like I'm watching it from inside myself sometimes, and it's really hard. Good morning to my neighbours, good morning to the nuns. Children walk me down the mountain. Swirling through my vision are notable moments: the happy little boy with gaping wounds and bug infestations in his scalp. Every day he hugs me and looks up with a smile as I look down at his poor infected head. I see the broken water pump, the hundreds of jerricans in line. A baby's wooden coffin is unattended and balanced on a sewer pipe. No one seems to notice it but me. I see textbook diseases come to life: Polio, elephantiasis, rickets, TB. I see a man with one leg, half an arm, no limbs at all. A stump of a body rolled to the street corner for the day to hopefully collect change, and then taken home with the coins gathered in his shirt pocket. I've gone for a run and watched from the street as a house burned to the ground in 2 minutes flat. Seen a little boy run over by a car and the driver doesn't move. Moments like this are so hard to forget. And I'm not trying to remember, they just hover around my mind effortlessly, ever present in the world-of-things-I-never-hoped-to-witness filing cabinet of memories. This fog follows me everywhere, making it even more difficult to find a project, get support, fill the hours. And these feelings are at least validated amongst my fellow volunteers, most of which follow similar daily patterns.

The problem with being in Peace Corps is that once you're actually in it all the magic is gone. The mystery no longer intrigues you and the hardships are never in the way you expected. If the only problems I ever had were no water, sketchy electricity, and a mud house, my life would be a golden cakewalk. Even if I had to have chiggers taken out weekly what a wonderful life that would be! But the problems aren't what we prepared for, no. They're infrastructure, helplessness, and struggling with a newborn program [as one staffer said, if the health program were a person, it would be a medical emergency]. We're not Kennedy's PC. We're not your parent's PC. We are 50 years of an evolving system that now has different expectations, aims, and beliefs. And that's difficult, when we never signed up to be the guinea pigs. But then again, we did sign up to go anywhere and do anything. Stupid us. I guess we are Kennedy's children still. The newest generation of give-all's who are willing to do whatever it takes to get whatever we can.


So we're here, in Kibuye on Lake Kivu at our IST [In- Service Training] Conference, strategizing, commiserating, discussing the various reasons half of us are losing our hair [stress response: at this rate I will quite literally be bald by Christmas]. As I've said before the highs and lows of PC are frequently rolling over us. For most, it's been a low for almost 8 weeks.

Somewhere on the grounds, boy is smashing things in his hotel room. A girl sobs to the PC medical staff. A group of smokers huddle at night on the rock-slab stairs [a memory from PST: "Smoking is not allowed publically in Rwanda, but if you're a smoker, now is NOT the time to quit. If it's your crutch, you're going to need it..."]. And me, I stood in the lake this morning, phone in one hand, bag in the other, and weighed the urge to purge these useless things one acquires when serving others, alone.
People are breaking down! No work no support no time no structure and as a result, no motivation. How do you get started on the problems of a whole country when your office has no work but expects you there 8-5? Writing their English homework for them? Inputing the HIV status of orphans for 6 hours? To sit still and simply be a pretty office plant in the corner for observation and not much else? It's demoralizing, to say the least, and unfortunately, the norm for us supposed health and community development volunteers.

And we've been told a lot of things this week.

You're Pioneers!


Ihangane! [Be patient!]

But the truest motivations come in disguise, in genuine life stories, or rather, in genuine comradery and misery.
I listened one night to the stories of one of our newest PC-RW staff members, who in his youth served in Zaire. And I for the first time since being here rediscovered the mystery and intrigue and excitement of being a part of something so big. Hearing what he did, how he lived, how he still speaks the local language with his wife [something I also hope to do. I asked if when they fight, they can slip into this secret language, something I always tell Jay I'm going to do when I get mad at him. (FYI, he confirmed they do)] and I love the memories, even those that aren't mine, but I know will be some day. Listening to him I knew what I wanted and how badly I still wanted to get there.

A fellow PCV told me in his infinite depth of personal misery, that a hero has a thousand faces.
Desperation is one of a thousand of my faces [Call it a metaphorical breaking point].



Which brings me back to the Lake.

The idea came in a way that suggested it'd always been there. Like he'd been in front of me but was so close, I couldn't focus. And when I stepped back out of the sandstorm for a moment to breath [or yell at the Lake], he was there all along, waiting like the empty creativity box. Or maybe I simply hit my breaking point. Frustration and angst doesn't become me, after all. I was exhausted, and truly desperate. And then, the box. I was experiencing what I'd call a Dorothy-entering-Munchkin Land- moment. I hastened to get my ideas and thoughts down before I got too close and lost sight again.




Here, in Peace Corps, in Rwanda specifically maybe, sometimes we fall so far we suddenly find we're actually climbing again. Not that living an MC Escher drawing is entirely poetic. It's actually quite nauseating, at times completely aggravating, and full of chiggers, boredom, and too many carbs.

And while I found my clarity for at least the next week or so, that's not to say we've all reached it together. But, I hope that like the chiggers, it spreads with time.



So since IST 2 weeks ago I'm still in the bottom of the pit trying to fight my way out [in terms of my organization at least]. But I have a lot of project ideas due to the conference and reaching my own breaking point that day. Quite literally, desperation took me to a beautiful place where I finally saw all the things I already knew but couldn't acknowledge. What is this place doing to me? Here is a list of some of these projects and ways you can help!

I'm starting an art club with the kids who live near me, just to have them get together and draw and I'm going to turn it into a community health- project and have them draw their own health slogans and signs and teach them about preventive health issues from the grassroots level. A similar but probably better-grasped project will commence with the secondary school kids who have good enough English to be able to grasp the concept of drawing comics [it's called Grassroots Comics; they have a website!] and using them as a community development tool, since its created at the local level, requires minimal supplies and is written in the local language.

Aside from that I'm going to help out at the English club at the secondary school that's only about a mile or so from my house in the village. We're also looking into a long term project of some kind of community youth center or library, but that's going to take a much longer time frame.

Going on right now, we're starting Books for Africa in Rwanda and they also have a website [] and we'll be designing events and raising money to send books over probably for the next year [books are absurdly expensive here].

If anyone wants to send me anything awesome to help out, right now I really just need paper and pencils and some thin tracing markers. The grassroots comics is going to be a great project, and one that I fully believe can be really influential in a community. I am super excited about this! So at least while this organization issue gets worked out, I'm thankfully in the village full time and working there [as it should be].

I know the above post sounds maybe pessimistic or at least gloomy, but I swear it was simply epiphanic. Also, there are a lot of smaller victories happening every day that would be better to focus on. Here is a short list from these past 2 weeks:

-Teaching English every weekend to a teenage boy in my village who is really motivated to learn. We sit and discuss what adjectives are, what pronouns are, and have small group conversations in English to help him get over the fear of speaking what he already knows [practice practice practice. It's the only way we learned Kinyarwanda]. To be honest I have no idea how to teach English, especially when he can only speak basic sentences and I have such limited language myself. But we have a lot of fun and his motivation is truly encouraging.

-going for an accidental 8 mile run where I got lost but discovered the marshlands on the other side of my mountain. I was directed home by the wrinkliest, most adorable old lady in the bush who sent her 12 kids to walk with me to the road that led to the main dirt road that would get me home.

-having my kids come over for an umunsi mukuru [party!] they set up, and they sung, danced, and taught me to drum Rwandan style, and then performed a traditional dance of giving gifts and presented me and Anna [a pcv who came up the mountain for the event] with gifts which were shoeboxes filled with fruit. I almost cried because i know most of them don't have money for health insurance, which costs less than $2 a year, but they went through the trouble of doing this for us.

-teaching the kids how to do the hokey pokey and the chicken dance [it was only a matter of time]

-learning the actual lyrics to Medy [who's now in AMERICA! Touring or something. Google that man, he's an awesome artist] and singing them with the neighbour while the kids did a breakdance.

-and on that note, finally being comfortable enough to visit with neighbours, sing and learn from them, without it being the forced awkward visits I'm accustomed to. Actually enjoying my time there. Finally!



>> Friday, August 06, 2010

Dear Avid Readers,

I have no cultural insight for you this time, only a change in address and phone number [sorry!]. My phone is now [+25]0722404653 and the new mailing address is listed on the sidebar. As many people may know, the hubby came to visit for 2 wonderful and unfortunately brief weeks, and I've asked him to ponder that time over and write an unbiased outside perspective of whatever he took from his time here.
Sometimes I think I'm [not just me actually; we're] too close to the lives here that many alarmingly foreign things are now taken as the familiar, the rarities of life are actually my every day. For example, I haven't had enough water to shower for 5 days and I'm not phased by that, but I know someone out there reading this is probably shocked at my lack of hygiene [I smell lovely, for the record]. Anyway, I hope both you [avid readers] and I, can take something out of that perspective. Keep an eye open for it sometime soon.

Maramuke, n' Ijoro rwiza


To all the Talking Blue Horses Out There

>> Sunday, July 11, 2010

This one’s for you

To volunteers all over the world
To circus freaks, science experiments, and zoo exhibits
To anyone in the closet, under the rug, and on the radar
This one’s for you

To every person living the life of the minority; struggling to speak; struggling to blend
To all the people who wish they could walk without being judged, shop without being watched, jog without being followed,
To Michael Jackson and Brittney Spears
This one’s for you

If you’ve ever been pet, poked, pinched, touched, prodded by complete strangers,
If you’ve ever remained silent, hungry, thirsty, sick, diligent for the sake of fitting in,
If you’ve ever made an infant cry and run in terror at the color of your skin,
This one’s for you.

Volunteers, in mud huts all over the world, in sky-clad markets all over the world, in jungles, tundra and deserts all over the world, have no fear. Someday, the talking-blue-horse phenomenon will fade and no longer will our skin be pulled just to see if it’s real. No longer will children run screaming from you, or screaming towards you [the magickal powers from touching the talking blue horse]. Normal reactions may occur, yes! Someday, the big bad wolf of globalization will make your color fade, make your hoofs seem more natural, make it appear that you are in fact, almost human.

For now, perhaps we should take delight in the fact that there are still untouched depths of the world, unknown regions so close at hand that a child has never even heard RUMOR of a talking blue horse [making its presence ever the more surprising]. Perhaps it would be better to take advantage of being a specimen to society. Think of what you’re contributing! Think of the influence and opportunities to teach. Sure, the PC spends 10 weeks trying to dull the effects of an inevitable culture shock once dropped in your village by training you on culture and language. But let’s be honest. Our PST drunk goggles are making us think we’re being smooth and suave, but on their side of the glass we’re just as blue as ever, wearing a silly human mask over our faces. This is why we rock mood swings like a diabetic’s blood sugar. We walk with a bag full of tricks, lingo, clothes, and we feel pretty damn good sometimes. But all it takes is a dose of reality, of one person, or several, reminding you that behind that mask is a big talking blue horse, and of course they can see you through it.

But it’s OK! Talking blue horses will unite someday, and when we’re all out at our blue horse convention, talking about hard times in Village Funnyname, of Obscure Country #12, we’ll miss that specialness, that sense of being something spectacular, of making simple tasks look incredible. Washing your clothes will never again hold the same gumption and defiance. Your families will not be riveted by your ability to bargain for tomatoes or hoe your back garden. And even on your soapbox, calling out to the world with a megaphone on your metropolitan street corner, you will not be heard amongst the familiar sea of blue, oh no. Your voice will rise and fall in a familiar flow of noise and comfortable congestion, feebly growing more hoarse [ba-dum-cha] each time.

Revel in it, brothers and sisters, that mask that gives you an opportunity, that tongue that lets you into their lives. Revel in the chance to have a say! To teach 17 children [actual count] English as they follow your jog, to bond as you carry water together, to be someone who tried so hard to hide blue beneath a thin mask of foreign vocabulary. Just to be someone who tried. It’ll never be this hard again, no. But let’s face it. It’ll never be this easy.


About This Blog

Lorem Ipsum

  © Blogger templates Shiny by 2008

Back to TOP