Not for the meek, weak, or weary

>> Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I want to preface this blog entry with a warning that the content will not be particularly pleasant to hear and with any help of reality, will be downright upsetting. Two weekends ago we visited the Genocide memorial outside of Butare and I wanted to give myself a week or so to process what I saw so that the emotions wouldn't override the factual truth of it, but even now, I'm not sure what this is going to sound like. First off, wipe the visualization of a memorial out of mind, because I want the image to be perfectly clear and often times I feel like we have a detached idea of what memorials are, seeing only the statues or flowers that have been made in memory of what happened there. This is not that type of memorial.

We arrived at this site and were given the following background information: this building used to be a secondary school. There is the main building and then there were strips of classrooms in separate structures scattered along the property. During the months of the genocide as it was getting increasingly hostile and life-threatening all across Rwanda, Tutsis [the targeted group] in all the nearby towns were told that they would be safe if they headed towards the school. They were told this by the Hutus in their villages.
So, 50,000 Tutsis gathered at the school and lived there for two weeks with no food or water but felt they were being protected. After two weeks, the hutu extremists/armies surrounded the school and killed them all. They had been denied food and water over the 2 weeks in order to weaken their resistance. The Tutsis tried to fight back with bricks and stones, but the Hutus had guns, and were stronger. But they weren't just killed with guns. They surrounded them with guns. They killed with machetes, garden tools, guns, and physical torture. Children, women, adults, everyone. They were all thrown in mass graves built on the grounds. The Hutu extremists also took the valuable clothing off the Tutsis before and after killing them.
While this phase of the killing of 50,000 people took place, the French army came in, and took up camp at the school in some of the empty buildings. Their mission was to protect the Hutu genocidaires [attackers] when they made their escape to the Congo border. The mass graves were covered with a volleyball pit built by the French for their amusement while they stayed there. After this phase, after I'm not sure what length of time, the bodies were dug up, preserved in lime, and put on display, as a testament to the atrocities that occurred.
This part we weren't told. We didn't know the bodies were on display until we walked up to a strip of classrooms that overlooked the beautiful, juxtaposed Rwandan landscape, and waited to see where they were leading us. I walked up to the first strip and when I got close to the first door, oh god, the smell. It's the most horrible thing I've ever smelled. And you walk into the room and you're surrounded by bodies. Human bodies. Baby bodies, still with skin, some still in clothing, broken limbs, skulls smashed in, tufts of hair still on their heads. It makes me physically sick to remember it. And every room, 6 classrooms next to each other and we went in one by one. And then we moved to the next strip and one by one they led us into them. And I was so sick so disgusted so ill at something I can't begin to put into words. I don't think there's an emotion for the feeling that overwhelms you in that situation.
The problem is that as humans, I think we form a natural detachment from things that we can't personally relate to. The holocaust, 9-11, any war, unless we have been personally touched by it it's near impossible to gauge the right level of horror to understand what people went through. And often, the events are far enough back in history that we're not expected to understand them well enough to empathize. But these people we see everyday, the people who train us, who live with us, who greet us in the street, who beg for money, every person in this country over the age of 16 has been effected by it and in turn, we see those effects. When someone we now know personally tries to fight a breakdown, it's impossible to ignore. When our host families confess how many siblings they had before 'the war' or how they simply live knowing their neighbors and friends who killed are being rehabilitated and eventually released back into society. How do they live. In the same place, the same house. How can they stomach to see those bodies, and the bodies of babies, of a head crushed in by machete, of limbs hacked off. I don't mean to be graphic or maybe I do, because it's too easy to displace the absolute horror that took place 16 years ago. If I had grown up in this country, if any of us had, we would remember how we lost our families. How do they live when it was their sister, their parents. How did anyone survive? As someone completely unattached to the event, it makes me sick. The court system, Gacaca, is a system that deals with the attackers and rehabilitates them through community work. We see them walking down the street in light pink prison uniforms, heading to the hillside to till the land. And they don't look any different, they're not hardened by the prison like people are in America. They don't look like criminals. They look like men who 15 years ago, were fathers and sons and neighbors and bankers and shop owners. I may have said this before, but I marvel at it and I don't trust it at the same time. I want to respect and understand it and at the same time I want to throw up. A whirlwind of emotions. And I feel like 90% of them are still inaudible.
There's no way to avoid it and no way to talk about it. So, people go about their day and their life like they do. Because they have to. So we will too. Because it has been 16 years, and life has to go on and it has. It doesn't change anything and at the same time, it does. Because the children are still happy and still eager to talk to you and the woman in the village are still well-dressed and friendly, and you can forget for a little while the despair that used to plague this country, but when a beggar with one arm asks you for money, it's difficult to displace that knowledge of where he's coming from.

**I want to add that normally I would have kept that experience locked up in my mind, but it was the request of the manager at the memorial that we share our experience with others. That's the reason for putting 50,000 bodies on display, isn't it? People say we learn history so that history doesn't repeat itself. But it always has. Genocide is not a rare or isolated concept. As an eternal optimist, it's difficult to acknowledge that it's prevalence is almost indicative of a quality of humanity. And if that doesn't scare you, I don't know what will.

More optimistic blogs coming in the very near future.


>> Thursday, March 11, 2010

Come, my tan faced children
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? Have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers, O pioneers

Surreal. Word of the day. It's 3 pm and we're sitting out on our porch, with soft jazz playing on a laptop, with the sun hazing through thin clouds, and the below view in front of us.
One of the other volunteers just said that lately, her dreams feel more real than her life [probably from the malaria meds].

Seriously, it's never been such a new and beautiful life. Don't get me wrong, though, training is hard and tiring, when your house is only the place you sleep and do your laundry. And I miss my friends and family and the love of my life, but it's not an adjustment just yet. So many of us have such similar backgrounds and passions that when you put us together 16-24 hours a day, it's not difficult to love what you do.

Things you would expect to be an adjustment but aren't:

aiming well while using the latrine [think about that]
washing your clothes in a bucket with a bar of soap
taking bucket showers [pocahontas style]
walking 1.5 miles to class every morning
not having running water
greeting EVERY person you pass on the street [average: 35 on the way to class]
having children follow you everywhere, even when you're running
only having boiled and filtered water for drinking/ brushing your teeth
not being allowed to put toilet paper in the toilet [true story]
eating goat at least once a day
almost always not understanding an attempt at communication [the go-to phrase being, simbizi! I don't understand!]

This being said, some current volunteers came in to give us a talk on the cycle of adjustment during PC service. And according to their chart, us trainees are still in the 'honeymoon' period of service, and I can anticipate a shock/breakdown in 2-3 weeks! Things to look forward to!

Exciting happenings of this week:
I successfully haggled in the market, the most intimidating place I've seen yet. It took until my 4th trip to feel comfortable enough with my kinyarwanda and my muzungu self to do it. As a basis for pricing, the PC handbook says to take whatever number they propose to you [the muzungu price], and haggle it to about 50-60%, and that's the fair price. I got my own glass tea mug for the equivalent of a little less than $2 :).
I learned a bit of Rwandan dance at National Women's Day on monday, when about 100 rhythmically gifted high school students pulled us all out of the stands to dance. Lots of singing by one guy, then responses from the rest, and feet stamping, clapping, and low hip movement. It's awesome to see these people, so free and unabashed. Shame must be a western emotion.

On Saturday we head to Butare to go to a museum and another genocide memorial, this one rumored to be a lot more intense than the last [preserved bodies]. I'm excited to see more of the country and get closer to being comfortable in Rwandan culture. More is unfolding every day and I feel more and more familiar here. Yay :)


Culture Clash

>> Sunday, March 07, 2010

1. So I'm posting photos as of now to this web address:

My photos are usually better than my prose, so take a gander!

2. Soooo I may have accidentally made a proposal to a rwandan friend. I didnt mean to, but this is a textbook definition of a culture clash. I walked back from town with a rwandan, who is male, and was asking innocent questions about rwandan life, where he's from, if he farms, whatnot. And when he said he farmed, I asked if he had a cow, solely because I like farm animals [no shock there] and he said yes, and I asked [with a hint of childish whimsy, I might add] “how many cows do you have??” again, because I love cows! But he responded in such a way that I immediately knew I was treading on veeeeery different terrain than I had intended! Either way he kind of laughed the question off and I immediately started inquiring about chickens [which I know have no wealthy significance] but it was sooo awkward haha. Apparently, in rwanda, cows are considered dowry. Such as, a man is a better mate the more cows he has. He would approach a woman's parents and ask for permission and present the number of cows he had, indicating wealth. This is a very traditional idea and its my understanding that since the genocide, the amount of cows someone is actually allowed to have is now limited [if you had over a certain amount of cows, it meant you were in a certain ethnic group. Discussing or labeling ethnicity is illegal in rwanda since the genocide of 1994, therefore some of the bases for its separation are also dissolved.] Anyway, now its more like, asking someone how many cows they have is like asking them how much money they make, with the assumption that you're inquiring as an interested partner. Coooool.

On a sidenote, I was just assaulted by a jumping spider and almost threw my laptop in the process of escaping [don't worry Joe, I'm taking care of it]. The spiders aren't as big as everyone else made them out to be, but they're still not exactly pleasant. So it's sunday morning and we all slept in to a whopping 7am, before crawling out of bed and eating out boulangerie-bought muffins with rwandan bananas that look more like plantains, and boiling/filtering our water. Kitty and I went for an exploratory run and after 15 minutes found a few kids who followed walking behind us for a ways. I asked them in ikinyarwanda if they like jogging and they nodded and started jogging with us. By the time we got back to our house there were 10 kids and a few adults, waiting to see what we did next. And in a true likeness of Forrest Gump, we shrugged and decided to go for round two. We motioned the kids and they started jogging with us again. We were probably out for another mile or so and we had two dedicated kids [ages? 7/10ish] who stayed with us the whole way. It was pretty wonderful. For undernourished kids they can really outdo us. I think because of camp, running with kids is so natural, that I think I may have found a secondary project, for developing some kind of youth outreach program. I also have a year before I have to worry about that, but its nice to remember how useful I actually am.
Training is a little ridiculous but fun and wonderful at the same time. But seriously, the language workload is really intense; if we all didn't laugh so much we'd lose our minds. I already know more kinyarwanda than i've ever known french or italian. To help add to our immersion in rwandan culture, we each have a 'resource family' that we dont live with, but spend a few hours a week with in order to learn and whatnot. In general, this is an awkward situation, because we know 5-days worth of kinyarwanda, and they mostly know little to no english. Some families know a bit if french but a little of all the wrong languages still leaves most everyone just staring at each other for 3 hours, which is funny in retrospect, but incredibly awkward and self-humbling at the time. It's interesting trying to bond with someone with absolutely no communication skills to compile. This in itself is bareable, because I hear that it does get better as your kinyarwanda does, but yesterday, my host mom pulled out the big guns. My first visit she asked me if I liked amata [milk] and I said yego [yes] and she poured me a glass of steaming hot milk. And that was fine actually, because it wasn't sour, it was just hot, and tasted like western milk, and I was really relieved! Because i've heard horror stories of chunky milk you get served and are expected to drink. But this second visit, she asked me if I've ever had [insert word for chunky old milk here] and I didn't know the word but I could sense something coming and let her know I had class in 15 minutes and had to leave. But she insisted that I try it first. And I swear by this statement, but I would have rathered to slaughter my own goat and eaten it for her, than drank that huge glass of chunky, yellow, old milk. But I had to try it, because she was waiting, so I tried it and she watched me so excitedly, and I tried to not die, and said, ohhhh! That's lovely. This isn't like american milk. How do you make it? And she told me you take regular milk, leave it in the sun for 2 days, and then you get this.
I spent the next 5 minutes stressing that I had to leave while she urged me to drink more [I almost feel like she had to know how horrible it was and was just amusing herself] I got out of there with 3 real drinks and then spent the walk back trying not to throw up. I'm still deciding how to be able to go back there and get out of it.
Quite often its easy to forget you're a world away, until you need to be home with your family. Get better big brother :(
If anyone has specific questions about rwandan life or the PC, shoot me an e-mail. I forget how much i've already adjusted to, like using a latrine, having small children follow me everywhere, or red clay roads lined with banana trees. It's pretty amazing what you don't know about the world, until you get there.
So it seems pretty easy to keep in touch while I'm here in Nyanza for training. For the next 9 weeks, if you want to contact me, please do, by email or mobile. My cell number is [0]782162181. you have to put the rwandan country code in front of that, and the code of the country you call from. It's something like 011+250+782162181. good luck :) it's free for me to receive calls, but i'm pretty sure itll destroy your phone bill if you talk for too long! I'll find out my actual site placement in 3 weeks, so when I know that i'll have a better idea of my location and communication skills beyond May 8. Maramuke!


view from my training palace

>> Thursday, March 04, 2010


muraho, muzungo!

so, 5 days in country and here are the interesting things ive learned:

plastic bags are illegal in rwanda. So are cigarettes [mostly], homosexuality, crying in public, sniffing your food and discussing ethnicity.

malaria meds dont 'prevent' malaria; they just make it less likely. They also give you rampant hallucinogenic dreams

the length of your skirt dictates marital status. For example, my ankle length skirts mean i'm married [score], a few inches above ankle means you might be close to marriage, and from there, the closer to the knee the more cows youll be offered for your hand in marriage :)

You CAN be a vegan/vegetarian for 6 years, and then eat goat samosas with relative ease. They are, btw, pretty good and served ALL THE TIME

thinking of the above, the PC will try to fatten you up with them during training because youll need the extra calories once you're at site.

$100 exchanged in the capital gives me 56,000 rwandan francs.just for a gauge, while shopping, a sim card for a cellphone costs 1,000 [less than $2] and you can buy an avocado for about 20 american cents [yay guacamole!!] when you tell rwandans that avocados cost $4 each at home, they look shocked. Even more so when you convert your student loans into rwandan currency.

you CAN get 7 shots in 48 hours and feel pretty alright

randan people dont understand the concepts of pets, but it would be fine, even normal, for me to buy a pet chicken, as long as I can convince people I intend to eat him eventually. Yaaaay pet chicken!!! ndi fuzi kugira inkoko. i would like to have a pet chicken.

the weather here lives up to both its names [land of a thousand hills and land of eternal spring]. The elevation makes it not nearly as hot as other equatorial countries so it is eternally spring. Its been a lovely 70-80 degrees with cooler temps in the morning and evening. Rain every so often that eventually opens up to sunny delicious skies. Little yellow/orange-bellied birds sing so loud you swear your not in the city but in a jungle. There are rolling green hills and beautiful views from any point in the capital, and banana, mango, and avocado trees are all over. And the country is poor, yes, but they have so much other richness that its no wonder the government and people are so optimistic for its growth. Its no wonder its the bright sun of africa, the safest country, the up-and-coming. Its no surprise that only 16 years after a horrific genocide, the people survive and go about their every day with smiles and genuine friendly demeanors.

So we went to the genocide memorial yesterday and it was by no other words, overwhelming. Its amazing to me, to know that the victims of attacks and the victims of the propoganda, the people who commited the crimes, are still living day to day here. Gacaca, the court system used to bring the attackers to trial, are being held all the time. People are giving accounts of who they attacked, whose family, whose neighbor, and justice is being tried. But everyday there are still people who have lost an arm to a machete, or have lost a child to “beaten into a wall” [actual description of a 1 year old child in the memorial, given by the mother]. And live with the reality that their neighbors turned on them, and that they witnessed their families being tortured by friends. I still cant understand how this happened, but a lot of the books on it interview the attackers and they try to explain that when a mob mentally develops, and everyone grabs the machete and demands compliance, you have no other way of life but to continue. And I cant fathom that. I cant understand and I wish I could see the culmination of years of ethnic imbalance and extremist propaganda. I wish I could understand how these people still live with years of post traumatic stress and explain to their children why theyre still living in the same country. It's a loyalty that I simultaneously respect and doubt.

One of the most moving parts of the memorial was a wall dedicated to stories of heros of the genocide. A man spoke about how a neighboring woman [a Hutu, the ethnic group that was allowed to live, for the most part] was tending to his wife who was injured and very ill, and the mob came back to finish their attack and asked the Hutu woman to step aside. And she told them that she wouldnt and if they were going to kill his wife, they would have to kill her, too. And they did. And it's amazing to me because we hear this typical hero gesture situation on movies and pop culture, when the hero claims to give their life for a damsel or their love, but the movie isnt the same. The hero never has to commit their life. But this woman did. She gave her life for a stranger when she didnt have to die. Its a cultural loyalty that we from american cant even begin to understand. This is one of the reasons this country has so much strength. There is no part of the country that wasn't influenced by the killings. And while the genocide is not something you can ask people about socially, you know that anyone in their early twenties will remember how their families died.

I dont mean to end on such a macabre note, it's not my intent. But this isnt something we've ever addressed back home. I never learned about it, or found it in the news. Someone yesterday said that in america, we have the power of choosing to be ignorant, and mostly I think its true. Why are we not more proactive about our world? A statistic is just a statistic until you put yourself and your family in them, and then it's downright devastating. Those families are no different than my own.

I hope that in more time I can develop a better understanding of these incidents, and hear personal accounts when my neighbors begin to trust me. Even if I can't sympathize or begin to relate, at least I can be aware, because I think it's all they want.


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