Peace Corps: Desperation Leads to Creativity

>> Tuesday, September 28, 2010

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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!


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