>> Monday, June 21, 2010

The week of the Rwandan

Partly because I have a guilt-sensitive gag reflex, and partly because my priorities lie more in research than personal satiation, this past week has been the culmination of many moments of culturally-induced understandings and curiosities; of needs and wants merging to one, and, of my limited tolerance for detachment from my community.

Thus began my week as a Rwandan.

Peace Corps preaches that we live at the level of the local community, and on some points, we really do. But even by the minimal living allowance PC gives us monthly, it’s still a far cry from what the typical Rwandan lives off. [probably because they’re accounting also for our letters home, phone credit, toilet paper and the occasional relapse into western life by splurging on an egg sandwich and coffee at a cafĂ© once a month. Mmmm...]

But my neighbors don’t have such luxury, and the girls in my village don’t take the bus, go to town, or contemplate buying tree tomatoes even though they’re out of season. Every day I walk the 4 miles to town out of the mountain with my neighbors. They’re mostly heading to the markets, but doing so with baskets of maize balanced on their heads.

This means of carrying things had lost its shock value until I saw a woman walking down our mountain carrying a full-sized school bench, a chair, a market bag, and a basket of produce, all balanced on the bench on her head. There was also a baby on her back. She also had the fore thought to cover the baby with a shawl to protect him from the sun. And it’s not a small decline by any means. I still feel like I’m in Bridget’s boot camp every time I go up it. And I almost fall once a day going down. These women are malnourished, usually pregnant, usually with a baby already strapped to them, and they move jugs of water, vegetables, or benches, apparently, up and down the mountains like mules. No complaints, no hesitance.

And I walk with their kids, and they’re excited, to play with their friends at the water pump in the valley; to kick a football made out of banana leaves wound-together like the cultural extension of a rubber band ball; to tell the muzungu they’re going to look for food. And I feel guilt at the empty water bottle in my bag, at the prospect of bread, eggs, maybe even juice and other luxuries of having more than 500rwf a week to spend.
And small children chew on sugar cane or unripe tree fruits, and stumble their chubby legs over to me, arms stretched out for minutes waiting to get close enough to touch the mysteriously white-skinned, fine-haired girl who lives god-knows-why in their village.

Being confronted by these images moment by moment, acknowledging the women who carry one jerican strapped to their head, the other to their waist, and I wonder how they aren’t still scoffing at me. They definitely think I can’t do anything. One woman tried to carry my hoe for me, amongst all the other crap she had on her. I told her I had strength and could carry it, and she laughed. The children gossip about me. A little girl I walk down the mountain with sometimes told me how other children tell her rumors about me, and she refutes or confirms them [since she has ACTUAL CONTACT with the muzungu]. And this one girl, she said that you never take lifts from passing cars, and you always walk, always! Even though you could have a ride [true. My rigorous walking dedication is paying off because people notice, thank goodness. Plus my legs look awesome] and the other kids, they tell me that you have a fiancĂ©! And that you won’t take a Rwandan husband! [also true. I don’t think that requires an explanation]...

We are both quite the paradox, I think. I look absurd to them and they boggle my mind on a regular basis. Movements, facial expressions, emotional expressions, dress, work, contemplation, everything. We blink at each other and sometimes I’m not sure who the zoo exhibit is. Ok that’s not true. I know it’s me. I actively try not to stare while they actively embrace the impulse.

But they’ve started to accept me. They’ve let me in to their lives for, I don’t know what reason.
We pulled out in 1994. Not only did we pull out but we pulled every other white person out, too. We left them to burn themselves out, to smolder until all the flames were out and a million people had died. And now they welcome me into their village? I walk home with friends, neighbors, marveling that everyone knows my name, that the mothers bid me hello, that the older boys and girls cast casual remarks as I pass, and the children ambush me with hugs as we approach my house. Even the girl whose presence I dread like the town drunk was waiting at my gate, just to say, bites? [semblance to, what’s up?] and no longer mocked me with incessant muzungu chanting. I’m feeling a little like a rockstar; exhausted, but riding a high on the cycle of adjustment; I've just hit the gold star or bullet on rainbow road and can now just sit back and enjoy the ride. I don’t feel like I deserve this. But I’m grateful. So grateful.

So I spent a week like a Rwandan. I’ve had one meal a day; beans, rice, cooked bananas, so on and as much water as I can afford to boil and carry with me during the day. The beans I cooked came from my own garden, and the 2000 rwf I budgeted for the week was spent only in the markets on produce from the people I call my neighbors.

It’s just an experiment, really. To get in touch with them, to understand their mannerisms and motions and dialect. To quiet my curiosity at things I see but don’t have an explanation for [which is everything]. They’ll still think I’m a muzungu, that I’m hiding my baby-pool of money and riches in the closed door of my bedroom. But at least I’ll understand more. Maybe I’ll have the answers to the millions of unfamiliar moments I experience each day. Or just one. Just one answer would be enough for now.

It took until day 5 of this lifestyle for me to have a delusional urge for bagels, day 7 to dream about pizza, but only day 3 or 4 to start to feel the effects on my body. My lips shriveled and my skin broke out in a still unfamiliar dryness. My motions were slow, deliberate, which I only realized while I tried to swish my head around in a bucket to wash my hair and became instantly disoriented and nauseated. I also realized that a mannerism I’d noted, particularly in the men, of walking [moseying, almost] slowly, with the arms lingering out to touch things, meandering side to side, in what had appeared to be a very random and erratically slow movement, had an underlining malnutrition to it. I found myself reaching my arms out unintentionally to touch passing objects, and then realized it’s because I was so dehydrated, I couldn’t be sure where my feet would be landing. I had reached my fingertips out to graze the surface of an electrical pole, a plant, anything, because it gave me a sense of depth, grounding me to my current location and giving an awareness to my surroundings that maybe I wasn’t able to comprehend anymore on my own. It’s so interesting.

Anyhow, I made it to day 6 before I bought eggs and some bread to make an obscene amount of French toast [a compromise with myself, for not going looking irrationally for expensive Kigali-city bagels for no good reason other than delirium]. I feel like Hermann Hesse while researching Siddhartha but with much less clarity. That also might just be the hunger talking.
How do you even begin to even the score? Not only are they hungry, but they’ve accepted it as a standard of living. Not only are they orphaned, but still living in the house their parents were killed in. Not only is it difficult, but it’s a matter of fact. It’s life. End of story.


A village, a husband, and hyperventilation

>> Friday, June 11, 2010

I posted some new photos of my adorable little home and some other moving-in stuff.

I know when I was stalking PCV journals when I was waiting to ship out, this was something I really wanted to see myself. so please, take a look! but remember that there is a huge spectrum of site placements there could possibly be, and I am super thankful and appreciative of my lil village and wonderful neighbors. except for the ones that ask me to buy their house or marry them.

Actual conversation from earlier this week.
ok wait, backstory: my creepy single buff neighbor who speaks english as well as i speak kinyarwanda kept trying to get me to visit him and I kept finding ways out of it, because visiting a single man is a no-no for the single white girl living alone. I run into him his full military camo, because apparently, he's a soldier, and we stop to talk in the middle of the dirt path of my village. three or four kids congregate to watch. he speaks english to me, and I respond in kinyarwanda to him.

Ok, actual conversation:

Mr.Soldier Neighbor: I waited for you last week
me: yes i was there. i did not see you.
him: we shall go have a fanta now then
me: no, i cannot, it's night time. I must go home.
him: you will visit me next week.
me: yes but I cannot come to your home, we must meet outside
him: but my home is right here, you will come visit at my home
me: No, I cannot come to your home, it is not appropriate to visit in the home of a man.
him: But you will come to visit my home.

this continues as I explain I cannot visit a man in his home and he tries to understand why and just when I start to think maybe I was too presumptuous to be avoiding a person I'm clearly just miss-communicating with, he says

him: you will visit and soon i will be your husband

if you've seen abbot and costello, insert reference into this next bit that lasts an exhausting 10 minutes

me: no no, I have a fiance
him: oh. you have a fiance? he is rwandan?
me: no, british. and he will be visiting soon.
him: yes, and then soon I will be your fiance
me: no, I HAVE a fiance.
him: yes, me
me: no, I already have one
him: you will have me
me: no, I have one. I only want one. I do not want another
him: yes, you will take me.

[feebly repeating myself as a woman and the baby on her back walking by pause to watch the humor]

no, I have one already. I only want one. I do not want two.
him: but I need you

I'm assuming this actually translates to I'm looking for a muzungu wife, partly because its logical based on their vocabulary, and partly because it's less creepy
me: uhhhh NO, no no. You are my neighbor and a friend only. No... no no... no.

this is all in light humor too, not scary or threatening. just matter-of-fact. blunt. he wants a muzungu wife. I want him to understand that in America, we don't take two husbands. Or trade them out like poker. So we leave on just as vague of an understanding and I go home thankful for my muzungu fiance's impending visit.

The night after this occurred, I was contemplating another pan of popcorn [off my kerosene stove. Maize kernels and milk powder simulate white cheddar popcorn enough to satisfy my general hunger], when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a massive black object on my wall next to my water boiler. Now, I know most people compare the fight or flight response when faced with bigger opposition like a mountain lion or bear, but seriously, and with NO EXAGGERATION, the beast that had claimed my living room as it's own was THE SIZE OF MY HAND. I didn't HAVE any hard cover books big enough to kill it, and he would simply laugh at a magazine swat. To be honest I couldn't imagine getting close enough to actually hit it with a book without him eating my hand and my body had legitimately started sweating, shaking, and hyperventilating. yea. THAT'S HOW BIG IT WAS. Anyway, when I realized I couldn't hide in a corner and wait for it to go away, I grabbed the squeegee and opened the back door [because if I missed, I would need an escape route and I'd just give him the house]. I whimpered for a while but eventually fought him down with the squeegee. I stopped hyperventilating about a half hour later when I intoxicated myself with bug spray and dismantled my clothes line to hang my mosquito net off the crumbling walls.
In that hour Africa seriously lost some brownie points.. but if the relatives of the spider that starred in Arachnophobia stay outside from now on, I guess I'll forgive him.


Peace Corps: The closest you'll ever be to bipolar

>> Friday, June 04, 2010

For the sake of a potentially well-sculpted glance at the first few weeks at site, I’m going to include a few different works. One is a journal entry from the first night at site, one is an excerpt from a letter home to the hubby, and another is a series of photographs, hopefully able to narrate my village and surrounding area. I’m trying really hard to break the muzungu-stereotype so taking photos has become a covert-operation. Hopefully you get a nicely-played, full-faceted perspective of my homecoming.

I’m also including an update with a miraculous tale of stupidity, frustration, and amazement that I call: Peace Corps: Remember, you signed up for this [for my amusement and sanity, I’ve come to making up new advertising slogans. They’ll catch on eventually.]

Also, photos may be delayed a few days. My laptop had a meltdown and I was sans-communication for a month. While I luckily had all my photos backed up, my back-up of adobe photoshop application is tormenting me and not loading so we’ll see how long it takes to upload photos of my perfect little home and village.

Journal Entry Excerpt, first night
10th May 2010, Busanza: A Homecoming

So the Puck of Africa took a swing at me, and I fell, mostly out of fear, into the clutches of first-night-chaos. Besides my nonexistent laptop and suddenly temperamental ipod, the terrifying village kids won’t stop banging on my gate!! I appreciate the enthusiasm but they probably don’t realize I’m terrified at every sound. So here I am, in the dark, sleeping on the floor of my new perfect little village home, without a mosquito net because I have no ceiling to hang it from [malaria prevalence: an infrastructure problem?] and huddled under a blanket listening to this saving grace of a crank radio that picks up VoA [Voice of America]. My 3-foot housewarming drum is guarding a dark corner, and I am literally begging, BEGGING that these kids realize it’s the middle of the night and they really need to get home and stop scaring the muzungu.
Maybe there’s a natural anxiety to forging out on your own. Maybe the mefloquine hasn’t finished its course through my system. Or maybe the first night in the middle of nowhere, down a dirt road, up one of a thousand hills, through a grove of mud houses and banana trees, past some nuns and behind a shaky metal gate, is suppose to feel as macabre as it feels in my head. Seriously my yard looks like the opening to Children of the Corn right now [but I have a yard!!! And lots of banana, avocado, and mango trees!!]
I may be a panicked recluse, but at least I have avocados.

Excerpt from a letter home 17th May 2010

There were a million things I wanted to tell you yesterday, but since skype hates us I’m going to ramble here. I wanted to tell you that after my 5-year-old tantrum over not getting your package, I decided to wander into the market near my office, thinking I would get the avocado and onion I needed for guacamole and that would help my mood. The banter with the market ladies is what really made me happy and I was only slightly ripped off [250 rwf for 2 avoka and 100 for ubutunguru] and I felt so much better; the highs and lows aren’t day to day or week to week, it’s minute to minute, which is wonderful and absurdly frustrating. When I got home I harvested my beans [ibishyimbo] and they’re beautiful green, pink, dark blue, speckled white, it’s amazing that so much variation comes from the same plant. To be honest I have no idea how to harvest them. Do I let them dry out? In the sun or in my house? Does it matter? Can I just eat them? If I don’t dry them do they still have to be boiled for 3 hours? I’m too confused that I may just bring them to my neighbor as a gift [the one that asked me to buy his house when I met him]. So I’m sitting outside my office at a discarded desk that was left in the grass, which is actually perfect for me since I hate offices and my tan is starting to go. In front of me is this wild looking bush with red flowers protruding out that look like skinny monotone irises and there are these birds, tiny with long skinny beaks that twitter about inside it. These birds are so beautiful; their chest and beak is a naturally amazing iridescent blue that shimmers and shines when they move and they’re so tiny. I can watch them move for hours. To the left of my randomly placed desk are 4 banana trees, underneath which is a large compost pile [this is where all trash goes in Rwanda- under the banana trees]. And every time the wind blows their big leaves flop around on the wind like elephant ears [I don’t know where I acquired that association but every time I hear them move I think of elephants]. Next to that is a lime tree. I don’t know how countries apparently so rich in food sources can be so malnourished. Things grow everywhere. Someone told me during training that Rwandans don’t believe these easily accessible things are good for them. Like avocados. They really just don’t eat them. It’s not part of their culture which is why you can pull them off the trees yourself and kick ‘em around like a football. But for the impoverished and malnourished, they could be a gold mine. Instead, they sell them to muzungu like me for the equivalent of 20 cents [I’m pretty sure Wegman’s sells them at $4 each]. It’s sad but it raises the question of how much you sacrifice culture for what is apparently health, or development. Rwandans talk about desperately wanting to be developed, but to do that, how much of their identity is going to be sacrificed? I hate imagining Rwanda like America or any other Western country. How much is going to change when it develops enough that McDonalds infiltrates the capital? The effects it’ll have on food, on daily life, on health. Please don’t ruin another culture, they’re better off without you. I hope it never makes it here. I hope they ride the fine line between 2nd and 1st world forever, because I don’t think the 1st world is worth the baggage; the dissatisfaction, restlessness, heart disease, industry, and general unease that comes with it.
Whenever I think about what development means, I go off on similar tangents and then after, inevitably, I have to ask myself, so… what are you doing here? And I struggle with the answers. It reminds me of camp in a way. Sometimes there’s so much you don’t agree with but if there weren’t people like you, me, any nutritionist ever, any solid counselor, camp would be as industrial as the western world. There’s one form and everyone thinks this is what they should be formed into. But there’s more to what developed could mean. They don’t have to follow our suite. They don’t have to become only what’s been formed before. But they only see America and want to be it. These kids and these people have a fighting chance if they’re given the information and education they need. Without it, there’s one direction. Countries like Rwanda don’t have to be us, they can be better, a similar strain of developed but maybe learn from our faults, not follow like lemmings [because it didn’t work out for them, did it].

Standing at the base of the valley that I walk through to climb the mountain to my village. If you look to the far right of that massive storm settling over my village, that's where my house is <3 .

An update on the health of a health volunteer. 26th May 2010

PC: You signed up for this. You signed up for this?

Really, it’s my own fault. I shouldn’t have slept with my contacts in. I shouldn’t have. But it was dark, I was due in town to watch the marathon at 8am, and I wasn’t about to go trekking up the mountain at night only to come back down at 6am Sunday morning. So I slept on another volunteer’s floor in town and woke up on Sunday in excruciating pain. A combination of getting old and the climate/dirt of Africa had literally blinded me over night. I don’t honestly know how I made it the 4 miles home that morning. Once I did get home though, I laid in the dark with my eyes closed hoping it would sort itself out. When it didn’t, the amazing PC staff picked me up, guided me into a vehicle, took me to the capital hospital and found out I had severely scratched corneas. Then, guided me home and I’d been laying in the dark with a washcloth over my eyes ever since.
To be honest it’s the best medical care I’ll ever have. Serious props to the Rwandan PCMO that took care of me.
Anyway, not being about to see is probably one of the most debilitating ailments because I couldn’t distract myself with books or the beautiful environment. Moving hurt and so did sunlight. I literally could not bathe or eat for 3 days. Try and imagine waking up with the roosters at 5:30 and then laying perfectly still in the dark for 15 hours only to rewet a washcloth from the basin next to my bed that I fixed before the anesthetic from the hospital wore off. I was at the point of peeing in a bucket because I couldn’t find the latrine 15 feet away without wanting to gouge my eyes out.
I’d used my emergency phone card to call the PCMO to begin with, so I was sans communication, sans electricity, sans food, running low on water and about 98% blind. [side note: did I mention I accidentally drank kerosene the 1st week? I’ll get back to that]
So it’s day 3 or 4 and I am so frustrated that I can’t go outside long enough to fill a bucket of water to take a shower without my eyes melting from acid, that I’m just absolutely losing my mind. I throw a small [huge] tantrum and lay in bed.
Miraculously, a few hours later my vision clears a bit and I can move enough to take a bucket bath in the darkness of my house. Then the storm of a century rolls through and my house starts flooding. And I’m so happy I can see that I enjoy moving my little belongings out of the storm path and watch the rain destroy most of my maize [not an issue for me, but an issue to think about when most of my neighbors subsist entirely on their own crops]. With the rain comes my electricity. So after almost a week of absolute hell, I wash my dirty dishes, take a bath, squeegie the flood out of my house, eat some food and boil some water, and once again, all is right in the world.
No really, I love a good adventure.


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