(I just finished all my COS paperwork and am officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer! I now have time to upload this blog post that I wrote a few days ago...)
I have a few days left before I officially COS (Close of Service) on March 24th, 2011. These past few days, I have been cleaning up my home and figuring out which friends at site will be receiving what from me. I am giving Jeanne D'Arc, my counterpart, first pick of whatever she wants from my house. She has been an incredible friend and colleague these past two years. Honestly, most of my successes at site is owed to her for helping me out so much. She took the time and had enough patience to work with me throughout my time here. Anyhow, a lot has happened since the beginning of this New Year...
In January, I worked on my graduate school applications. I should have started it earlier, but I wasn't sure if I was going to apply for admission to Fall 2011 or not. I ultimately decided to apply and to just see what happens. I did not take the GRE since I did not feel well prepared for it while being here, so I was pretty much limited to the programs I could apply to. By the end of January and after countless revisions of my personal statement, I ended up applying to 3 schools (2 in NYC and 1 in Massachusetts).
On February 11th, I finished my primary project with the Cooperative. Training officially ended on December 22nd, 2010 and we wanted to celebrate the cooperative members' achievements in learning how to make soap and igitenge. We were planning to have it in January, but my COS conference (A conference organized by Peace Corps for PCVs about to finish their service) was scheduled for the middle of January and I had to move the ceremony to February. Anyway, the ceremony was fun and excellent thanks to the work of Fidele (sitemate's counterpart) and the cooperative members. Fidele was the MC and knew which local officials needed to be a part of the ceremony and we invited them to come and make a speech. I was mostly in charge of creating the certificates, making sure the room for the party was organized and clean and obtaining refreshments for guests and members. The ceremony was about 3 hours and included speeches from Cooperative President, RRP+ representative, EPR Official, Hospital Official, Kamonyi District official in charge of Cooperatives and a Peace Corps Representative. After handing out certificates, members of the cooperative performed a little song and dance for everyone. They had a song they made just for their cooperative. It was great and I still hum it in my head from time to time. After this, the cooperative presented me with 3 gifts; the first was a heart shaped decoration with kinyarwanda words inside saying "You are our friend and God Bless You", the second was an igitenge they made and the 3rd was a box with something heavy in it. I didn't think to open it because I assumed it was a kilo of beans, but they told me to open it in front of everyone and sure enough, it wasn't beans, but a huge live rooster. It freaked me out and it flapped around for a bit. While everyone had a nice laugh about it, I had rooster poo on my pants. A colleague would tell me a few days later that she knew I was getting a rooster and this was the reason why she asked me if I knew how to kill them (I told her I had no idea how to kill it and didn't know what I would do with it). Afterward, I presented the cooperative with a photo album with many pictures I took throughout the training. People here LOVE looking at photos, so I figured they would love this gift. I had the pictures printed in America with a friend of mine when he went home for vacation in December (5X much cheaper than printing here). The entire ceremony was in Kinyarwanda and I must admit I was so surprised by how much Kinyarwanda I felt like I lost these past few months. I think the arrival of a sitemate contributed to this...in addition to my lack of effort towards the end of service. So in the end, 51 cooperative members received certificates for completing the 4-month training and acquiring skills to further their income generating activities. I honestly believe that their igitenge project will be a permanent IGA for the cooperative. I made a short video clip about my entire project and you can check it out here... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFHy5AUYPf0
After the party, I was on a high and felt great about finishing up my PC service. What a difference a month makes. Since then, I have hit my lowest low ever for various reasons - preparing to leave site, saying goodbye to friends, waiting for graduate schools' decision, but more than anything else, an unexpected loss in my family. I won't go into details about it because it still sucks thinking about it and completely unfair. I am fortunate to have a family that understood what this whole experience meant to me that they encouraged me to stay and finish my service instead of leaving a month early. If I left early and abruptly without a proper goodbye to everyone who was a part of my life these past 2 years, I would have definitely felt like I didn't end my service the right way. Two years away from home makes you appreciate so much and I am incredibly lucky to have an amazing group of friends and family to go back to.
With only a few days left as a PCV (and 2 weeks before I leave Rwanda), I still have friends to visit and share 'last' meals with in Kigali. My friends from work have told me that they are planning a farewell party for me on April 1st at my site. Hopefully its true, otherwise, I will be pissed they learned about April Fool's Day and got me. Before then, I will need to give away about 95% of what I owe to friends at work and my neighbors. Afterward, I am headed to Tanzania by bus with friends for a much needed vacation. I'll arrive in Dar, then ferry it out to Zanzibar for a few days before flying home out of Dar on April 16th. Once I get home, I will be looking for a part-time job or if something right comes along, then maybe a full-time job. However, I would like to travel and see family/friends first. I think I just need a 2-month break to be honest. PC provides RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) with a modest re-adjustment payment, so I can live off of that during those 2 months. Maybe, maybe not. I heard that the freakin' MTA increased the prices of Metrocards since I left NYC. I will really need to control my spending when I get back.
Since I am terrible at updating this blog, this will most likely be my last blog update (I'll update it with photos when I get access to faster internet). I know it's cliche to end my blog about being a PCV in Rwanda like this, but whatever, it's my blog. A friend of mine sent me an e-mail a few days ago and asked me these 3 questions: (1)Do you feel like you've accomplished what you set out to do? (2)Has this helped you become a better man, person, American, leader? (3) WOULD YOU DO IT AGAIN IF YOU COULD? that's the most important question.
1) Honestly, I didn't know what I wanted to accomplish when I got here. Ok, well, I knew I wanted to help people, but I had no concrete idea how I was going to do this. Helping people can be done in so many different ways. I've helped hospital staff and secondary school students learn English, I've helped community members and students learn about HIV prevention and other illnesses, I've helped cooperative committee members learn financial and business skills, I've helped cooperative members obtain funding to begin a project where they learn new skills to generate income, I've helped a group of eight young men work together and learn life skills during Camp BE, I've helped the village kids learn the difference between Good Morning and Good Afternoon (well some of them learned the difference), etc...As a Peace Corps Volunteer, we are suppose to achieve 3 goals and I believe I did my best to achieve these goals within the two years at site.
2) I believe I have grown as a result of my experiences these two years. I believe I am more vocal about expressing myself and being open to other views/ideas. Also, I have definitely appreciated America so much more and everything about it. The culture, the diversity, the people, our freedom...I want to go back home and visit different parts of America, like Kentucky, Washington, California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, etc...This is due to the amazing people I've become friends with here and listening to them talk about where they come from. I lived in New York City my entire life..aside from the occasional vacations to Florida to see relatives, I have not traveled around America.
3) If I could, I would do this again and again and again and...you get the idea. I loved everything about Peace Corps. Well, maybe not everything, but I loved everything about my village, the friends I made at site and in PC, the work and even the language. This does not mean that I enjoyed every minute of my time here, but overall, the positive memories beat out the negative ones. Heck, even the one where a fellow PCV and I were trapped in the Mental Health office by a 'foolish' for 2 hours on a weekend (when staff turns ghost in the hospital) and then finally being able to escape thanks to the local defense guard...but then encountering the same guy the next day and having him follow us home after work and saying gibberish..or that other time when he walked into our office one morning and smiled at Kim, but then looked at me like he seriously wanted to kill me...fun times, not...but, there were plenty of great times, like playing with the babies at Mer's orphanage or making 'American' food for friends at site and seeing them try out new meals and then making it themselves for lunch or speaking Kinyarwanda with women from the cooperative and hearing them call me Rwandan (The biggest compliment you can get as a PCV).
To sum it all up, I will miss Rwanda and loved being a Peace Corps Volunteer here. Just want to say a huge thank you to everyone who sent me letters, gifts, packages and well-wishes. I could not have done this without all the support from back home. See everyone at home soon enough!
(I just finished all my COS paperwork and am officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer! I now have time to upload this blog post that I wrote a few days ago...)
I was asked to write a short summary of my primary project with a local Cooperative. I tried to make it short, but felt like each part was necessary to the overall experience. Anyhow, take a look below. I hope to give a normal blog update soon. My group will be going to our Close of Conference this week in Gisenyi. It will be amazing and relaxing.
The first time I heard about Cooperative IGANABIKORWA was during PST in my follow-up interview about my initial site visit. While I was busy getting to know my surroundings and meeting people at Remera-Rukoma Hospital during site visit, I had no idea Cooperative IGANABIKORWA even existed or who was a part of it. When I found out from my Country Director that my primary job at site was to help in the development of this Cooperative of People Living with HIV/AIDS, I had immediate reservations and concerns about this matching. Since I am a male PCV and the Cooperative is made up almost entirely of women, I thought perhaps they would not see me as a valued team member or worse, another man dictating what needs to be done. A few days after swearing in, I had a meeting with the Cooperative on my first day as a PCV. After hearing what seemed to be a never-ending list of problems, I knew of no quick solutions to many of these problems. I made sure to hide that thought from them because I did not want to disappoint them on my first day after seeing how thrilled they were to have me working with them. My initial attempts in helping the Cooperative attract outside customers to purchase their traditional Rwandan baskets, Agaseke, did not seem to be working out. The main challenge was the fact that Cooperative IGANABIKORWA worked in a small, rural village 10km away from the main road. It was understandable that not many people would be willing to go out of there way to purchase a product that they could easily find in many other places. In addition to that, there are many Cooperatives throughout Rwanda selling the exact same product and the market became saturated with baskets. I became frustrated with the task at hand and thought maybe I was the wrong person for this job. The past 10-weeks of PST focused primarily on learning the local language, Kinyarwanda, and just a mere sliver of focus on Cooperatives and their function in Rwanda. While I was 'gung ho' arriving at site and finally getting to work, I hit a dead end rather quickly and learned determination did not translate to immediate overnight success. I was delusional to think I, a college educated American, would be able to easily solve an issue that has been problematic to these Rwandan villagers for a long time. Soon after, I felt I had no choice but to give up on this task and focus my attention on something more manageable before feeling ineffective at site and wanting to return home. While at the time I was unable to help them in what they perceived as their main problem, I helped them in other ways that would be beneficial to the Cooperative.
Throughout the following months, I taught cooperative committee members various business skills, such as numeracy skills, record keeping, accounting and proper documentation. These skills are easily transferable and will help the Cooperative in the long run. When the Cooperative members would meet once a week to make baskets, I would sit alongside with them and they would teach me the process involved in making Agaseke. It helped me in terms of integrating because most of the cooperative members lived in my village and the surrounding areas. While still working with the Cooperative, I searched for other areas where I could assist Eglise Presbyterienne au Rwanda (my Rwandan Partner Organization) by working in the Hospital and a Secondary School partly owned by EPR. From talking with hospital staff, they expressed a desire to learn English and so I taught English six hours a week to a staff of 50 people. To keep from teaching English my entire service, since I didn't believe it was something I was particularly great at, I organized the lessons so that the course finished after 3 months. This was plenty of time to teach basic lessons, but more importantly, for me to become familiar with the staff and make friends so that they may provide assistance and support when I needed it in the future. Knowing I would go back to helping Cooperative IGANABIKORWA in their business, I needed to communicate better with them by building my Kinyarwanda language skills. I improved my knowledge of Kinyarwanda by working with the Mental Health Department at Remera-Rukoma Hospital and helping give lessons at 11 Health Centers in Kamonyi District. I helped in sensitizing patients concerning a range of health topics, such as Mental Health, HIV and Malaria prevention. Whenever I walked home from the hospital, I would pass the Secondary School, GS Remera-Rukoma, and met many of the students and answered many of their questions about America. They, too, asked me to come to the school and teach them English. Working with youth was something I wanted to do when I joined Peace Corps, so I accepted to be advisor for the English and Anti-SIDA Clubs at GSRR. I am a certified Peer Educator and figured if the students had questions about health topics, I ought to be in the position to answer those questions accurately and truthfully. I had heard plenty of myths and inaccuracies when talking about HIV that I wanted to clear up many of these and other health misconceptions.
After a while, I felt stuck in terms of finding work to do with Cooperative IGANABIKORWA. I believed the business assistance I provided them with was not sufficient enough, but yet, not sure what else I could do. While cooperative committee members were learning valuable business skills, the remaining members wanted to have a role in the development of their cooperative. Their Agaseke baskets were not bringing in enough money to be a resounding success and it was the only skill they had that produced a sellable product. At the following monthly Cooperative Meeting, many members expressed a desire to learn new skills so as to create additional products to generate income for the cooperative fund. This fund is used for various purposes; strengthening current cooperative projects, obtaining materials for making agaseke, as well as having members borrow money to start individual projects at home, such as livestock farms.
Before deciding on which skill to learn, I spoke to the members to think about products that would be locally demanded and could have a positive impact in their community. A cooperative member brought up the idea of creating a product targeting health issues affecting their children, which were mainly caused by poor hygiene. This member believes the product would be beneficial to the community if they produced locally made soap and in the process of advertising their product, they would encourage a culture of hand washing among children and adults. Other members discussed the possibility of producing a type of igitenge since it is widely used by Rwandese, regardless of their income. Igitenge is intricately designed and colorful fabric that can be made through the process of tie-dyeing or using machinery to print designs onto the fabric. The latter form is popular in many parts of Africa and is imported into Rwanda from various neighboring countries. Tie-dyed igitenge is popular as well, but easier to make and does not require a machine to produce colorful designed fabrics. Before ultimately deciding on the products, committee members needed to make sure it was a feasible plan. They spoke to many teachers who made these products and based on their discussions, they decided to make a project plan to obtain training in making soap and igitenge. Materials needed to make these products were easily found in Kigali and could be transported by bus within an hour.
During the process of creating a project plan, World Connect sent out a call for proposals. World Connect, formerly known as Infante Sano, is an American organization that supports proposed projects through several of their programs, such as Kids to Kids and Mothers to Mothers (now known simply as a World Connect Grant). They were introducing their first grant cycle in Rwanda and had previously supported projects in other countries around the world. As stated on their website (www.worldconnect-us.org), selected projects address social problems that affect the health and wellbeing of women and children in poor communities through health, education and/or income generation projects. These small-scale projects come from Community Leaders in partnership with Peace Corps Volunteers. Following weeks of obtaining information on the proposed project space to do the work and prices of materials and a skilled teacher, a project plan was successfully completed and submitted to World Connect. A few weeks later, I was on vacation back home and arrived in NYC to find out our project, Cooperative IGANABIKORWA Moving Forward, was selected and approved for a World Connect Grant.
Cooperative IGANABIKORWA Moving Forward officially began training on September 2nd, 2010. Although most of the money was received towards the end of June, the actual training was delayed due to preparations for the Rwandan Presidential Election. While the training was delayed, committee members did not waste time in gathering supplies needed for the training. Materials were bought throughout the months of June, July and August to begin gathering necessary supplies to make dyed fabrics (igitenge) and soap. In addition, various teachers were interviewed for the teaching position and two were selected to teach the skills needed to make the two products. As part of their contribution, the Cooperative committee members secured a rental house near their office where they would be able to work on their projects throughout training. The house they are currently renting has adequate space, but they are hoping to have a place of their own sometime in the future. This will be the next major issue they plan to overcome.
When the Project Plan was submitted, it was planned to teach both soap making and fabric dying at the same time, but this was changed on the recommendation of the teachers. They thought it would be best to focus on dying fabric because of the difficulty it may be for some members and thus giving them more time to focus on how to make various styles by practicing them frequently. This in turn changed the amount of dye colors, caustic acid and sodium powder needed within the first few weeks of training of practicing how to make them, following theory training. The first three weeks of training were held in the hospital staff room for 4 hours every Thursday and Saturday where cooperative members were taught the steps in how to dye fabric and different ways of styling the fabric when dyed. It also composed of members being given a pre-test about these steps and how much of each ingredient to mix together to make igitenge. For those members who are unable to write, their teacher gave them the examination orally to see what they learned and/or had difficulties in. This was repeated again at the end of the igitenge training. In addition, all members were continually tested in the different and specific ways of styling igitenge, such as folding, bunching and tying fabric before dying. While some members needed additional help, all members passed by the end of the training.
The soap-making portion of this project began on November 11th, 2010. Following two weeks of theory training, Cooperative IGANABIKORWA made their first bar of soap. However, there have been some difficulties with making quality soap due to being unable to secure certain materials. While members of the cooperative have been taught how to make soap using different methods, the preferred method requires using silicate and palm oil. The cooperative is currently in the process of obtaining these materials to produce soap of higher quality. Until then, the bars of soap currently being made now are sold to members within the cooperative and those people around the village at a reasonable price. We have organized meetings with different community leaders and spoken to them about our project in order to build up awareness and potential buyers. The cooperative hopes to perfect this product in the near future.
One of the many advantages to come from this training has been seeing leadership qualities in some of the cooperative members not on the cooperative committee board. Since training was time-bound, cooperative members who picked up the skill fast and knowledgeably became leaders to many of the other women. This helped the cooperative members work together efficiently and keep the pace of learning balanced. When one member had difficulties styling the fabric, another would help show him/her how to do it by going over it slowly. Additionally, many of the cooperative women gave testimonies about the project and how it has benefited them. Members that have been attending training come to ‘work’ three days a week now to make igitenge and soap. This project has given them a purpose to leave their homes and feel empowered to do work even though they are HIV-positive. They are taking on responsibilities for themselves and their children with the goal of one day earning enough money to fulfill their long-term goals, such as paying for school fees, renovating their homes and possibly one day overcoming their poverty.
Cooperative IGANABIKORWA is now well known locally as the Cooperative that produces igitenge and has been receiving plenty of customers to purchase their goods. With my primary project, as well as my Peace Corps service, coming to an end, I think back to my first introduction to the cooperative and hope I met and exceeded their expectations of me when they first found out I would be working with them. Being here and watching the project unfold from the planning phase until the very end when approximately 50 members obtain their certificate certifying successful completion of the training in late January 2011, I know this project will go on to benefit them in ways I may never see. I believe it has given them the confidence to continue working and improving on their income-generating activities long after I am gone. I am proud to have worked with Cooperative IGANABIKORWA on this project and saw how our World Connect Grant has helped them move forward from when I first arrived at Kamonyi District.
A Testimony from President of the Cooperative (translated from Kinyarwanda)
Marie Rose Twizere, Cooperative IGANABIKORWA President
This project has helped develop our Cooperative into a real business with a product that is locally demanded. Our project gives us many benefits in terms of acquiring skills and earning more money for the Cooperative. This money goes to our Cooperative fund and can be used by members as loans for other side projects, such as to purchase livestock for additional income. Making igitenge has helped bring in money and in fact, following the first month of producing igitenge, we have brought in about 90,000 Rwandan Francs (approximately $156 USD) in one month. Apart from learning new skills, this training is helping us solve our problems in fighting poverty and living a better life for our children and ourselves. We are grateful for this project and appreciate the organization World Connect for supporting us to do income-generating activities. We thank them to our Almighty God for thinking to support us and believing in our idea. We will continue to work hard throughout this training and after it. We hope the organization will forever think of us, as we will of them. Murakoze! (Thank you!)
This is my expected Close of Service month. My exact date is TBD by me and I am not sure how I feel about choosing it. Once I pick the date, then it'll really feel like this experience will be coming to an end and right now, it sucks to think that. Yeah, sometimes I am ready to go home and continue with the 'next part of my life', but right now, I can honestly say I will miss everything about this place. From the daily greetings from the village kids waving and yelling, "Edsoni!", the afternoon shenanigans with Marie Anne and Tabita (Kim's colorful neighbors) as I walk home from work and so many other things that I don't want to mention out of being way too cheesey in this entry. After four months, this will all be over. I could extend an extra year if I applied for it (and considered it for a bit recently, but not seriously), but there is no reason why I believe it will be necessary to extend in terms of doing work at site. I am not needed to oversee the continuation of projects. I have a site-mate (Kim) and she is more than capable of working on future projects here and overseeing any of my projects. The end of anything is scary and since my parents left Rwanda less than a month ago, that's all I've been thinking about. Four months is still four months, but time seriously goes by fast here. Relationships between myself and friends from site/PC will change after I finish. I don't doubt it. Whether it will be a positive or negative change is what drives me crazy and freaks me out. I've relied on close friends here for support like never before. Before coming here, I mainly kept to myself in America and felt slightly awkward and out of place around others. Being here, I forced myself to be incredibly social in my village. I needed to or else I would never have done any work or felt integrated enough to want to stay here for the complete 2 years. I definitely feel good being here compared to when I was home and I want it to continue when I leave here. I don't want it to stop when I get off that plane in America. Anyhoo, I am just babbling now. What I do know for sure after I COS is that I will be traveling in Africa for a month. Sonia (amiga and fellow PCV from my group) and I talked about traveling to West Africa before heading home. She will end her trip in France (she has family there) before going home, but I think I will just finish somewhere in Africa. This is the only thing I am looking forward to when I COS. Just 4 more months.
(*This blog entry is mainly for myself...sorry it's nothing exciting or includes any cool stories. Maybe next time.)
So I dropped the ball on updating my blog. It's been over 9 months since my last entry and now I only have 5/6 months left in Rwanda as a PCV. Feels like a lot and nothing has happened in those nine months. I'll break it down for you below...
- Moved into my own house that is surrounded by other neighbors and plantation fields. After this, I really became happier at site and, honestly, it's pretty silly to think how much of a positive difference my living situation made my experience become.
- Applied for a World Connect Grant (http://www.worldconnect-us.org/). Presented this opportunity to the Cooperative (which I was initially sent there to help out with, but found it difficult to work with due to the language barrier and just not sure what I can do to help) and the Committee Members discussed it with the other members. They came up with the idea to produce Igitenge/Batik and soap as other activities for generating income. I helped write the report and if approved, it would provide me with the ability to do some Monitoring and Evaluation. Plus, I would have done something for them!
- A third group of about 30-ish Volunteers (Health PCVs) swore-in in early May and Kimberly became my sitemate. She is from Michigan and super easy to get along with. She had the site all to herself the first month she moved in because I went to America/Ecuador for vacation and my brother's wedding.
- Traveled home to NYC for a week and then Ecuador for 2 weeks before coming back to Rwanda. Didn't feel overwhelmed much when I got to either place and indulged BIG time in food in NYC (Sushi/Thai/Crumbs Cupcakes) and Ecuador (Hornado!). On my first day in NYC, found out my World Connect Grant got approved! Success!
- Not going to lie, but it did feel like I was out of the loop in many things with regards to friends and family. At one point, I felt like I was about to explode in Ecuador when my brothers were being brothers and I didn't feel like a part of their little group. Bastards! Still love them and they support me tremendously while I am here. Couldn't have lasted this long without them and my parents.
- Came back from my trip during our Mid-Service Conference. It was all a blur since I got disgustingly sick due to Giardia (Damn Ecudorian water!).
- During the first school term this year, worked a lot with GS Remera-Rukoma and the English and Anti-SIDA Club. However, during the 2nd term, I was gone for a whole month and they just floundered for a bit unfortunately. This 3rd term (which is just finishing up with exams) was also a lost cause for most of it because of weekly trainings, helping out with BFA a whole week in Kigali and working with the Cooperative (Trainings scheduled on Thursdays and Saturdays). Next school year, I will be primarily working with the school since I hope the Cooperative Trainings will be finished by then.
- Books and Computers from Books for Africa FINALLY arrived in early September. My school recently built a brand spanking new library. It is not 5 times the size of the original library. The school received approx. 1800 books and 4 computers. The 4 computers will be used in the library (3 as a resource learning center and 1 for the librarian). In addition, the District Hospital I work at also received some medical/health books and 2 computers (1 for the Cooperative and 1 for the Mental Health Dept). There are some problems with the computers, but hopefully they will be resolved soon! Everyone has been excited to read all these new books and look forward to using the computers. Also, organizing the books into categories has proven to be a big challenge because of lack of time.
- Studying for GREs...
- New PC Senior Staff here (Country Director, AO, APCD who is 2nd in command).
- Planning on traveling a bit after my COS date. Make my way to Zanzibar (seems like everyone and their mother in my group has already gone for vacation) and then head south to South Africa with mi amigita Sonia! If we still got money, then on to West Africa! Not planning on going back to NYC till June/July 2011 the latest if everything works out.
- Parents flying into Kigali tonight! We'll be together at my site for the first week, then we are planning on going to Uganda the following week. Then, they will head back home. I am incredibly excited and I have pretty much announced to everyone at my site that my folks are coming. I will take them around Kigali, a wedding ceremony or two and church services...so they can experience the life that I live as a PCV here.
- Almost forgot, the Presidential Elections were held in the beginning of August (no problems for me) and President Paul Kagame was re-elected. Also, a week before elections, my site finally got electricity! Still not connected to my house, but my landlady said it will come before my parents come...um, I hope she knows she has a few hours to get that going.
Enjoy the pics below of random times here and there...
I went to Egypt…and now I’m back in Rwanda. I’ve been back for for a little over 2 months now and the transition has been up and down, specifically the first two weeks back. My first week back, everybody at the hospital was glad to see me, wanted to hear about Egypt, see pics and it was great. Then the second week, I fell into a funk and started missing my family/friends back home and then started thinking about just traveling some more. On top of that, I got sick and started thinking I was going to be med-evac to South Africa or Morocco after learning I was exposed to a Nurse who has Swine Flu. But nope, just a nasty bug and now I am feeling 100% again. Don’t get me wrong, Rwanda is great and I enjoy my community, but the language barrier is still frustrating and it gets in the way of getting things accomplished, even when it’s hard enough on its own here. Sure, I help around the office and help facilitate meetings when I go out into the field with my Supervisor, but I hate learning about meetings a day or two before and then not entirely understanding what the meeting will cover. I’m not going to lie, there are a couple of days that makes me wonder why I am not a PCV in Latin America but for the most part, I am really glad I am here. When I am more familiar with processes and people at Health Centers, I will go out on my own and work with the staff members of the Health Centers and Community Health Workers. Being a PCV at site for almost 8 months now, a two-year service makes complete sense to me.
I had an amazing time exploring different parts of Egypt, but the best part was being with my folks throughout those days. About 9 months without seeing people you have seen almost daily for 24 years is a long time and it was the best vacation I’ve been on yet. Eurotrip ‘08 with two of my friends comes in a close second though. None of us had ever been to Egypt, so of course we did all the touristy stuff (Pyramids, Sphinx, Valley of Kings, Tomb of King Tutankhamen, etc..). We visited Cairo, Sham El-Sheik and Luxor. Coming from tiny Rwanda (which is one of the few countries in the world with the lowest car ownership per person record..Thanks George for the Guinness Book of World Records!) to insanely hectic and populated Cairo was definitely a shock. On top of the change in scenery, the traffic terrified me and I thought for sure I was going to die in a car accident my first day there. On our second day, we visited City Stars Mall in Cairo and it is an enormous mall with so many stores and restaurants. I did what any American who has been living in a country with no Western Food would do…I ate some damn good KFC and drank Caramel Frappuccino from Starbucks. I saw the stores and my mom just looked at me and said “Ay, pobrecito…anda compra". While my parents wanted to eat Egyptian food, I just wanted some food from back home first. We went to Cairo, Sharm El-Sheik and Luxor before I had to come back to Rwanda. Sharm was the highlight of the trip in terms of vacationing and not doing anything. We were on the beach by the Red Sea and the weather was perfect. The water was super salty and I just floated around for a good couple of hours and enjoyed the Sun. By the end of Sharm, my mom was burnt everywhere and I started calling her Tomatina because she looked like a tomato. I’ll spare you all the details till I see you guys back in the States, but know that I enjoyed every minute of the trip…even when we were being hassled in Luxor every 5 minutes about going on a boat ride, carriage ride, etc…good times every step of the way.
I didn’t have much expectations for Thanksgiving, but it turned out to be amazing. A month prior, it was Halloween and I was with a few other volunteers in Kigali. I didn't dress up as anything because I had just gotten back from Egypt a few days earlier and just stayed at site the next few days till Halloween. Was planning on going out to a open bar (supposedly, but never actually confirmed by the 2 PCVs that did end up going) but just watched a really bad movie with Madison, Kentucky and her bf following dinner with two other volunteers. Anyhoo, back to Thanksgiving. About 15-20 Volunteers met up in Kigali at the Peace Corps office and made a bunch of food. Since I am not that skilled in cooking sophisticated stuff, I helped Meredith (fellow PCV and neighbor) with the Mashed Potatoes with a few other volunteers. I must have peeled a crap load of potatoes for 3 hours and then we mashed them up after cooking them. Ahmed made the Turkey and it turned out really good. Tom made cranberry sauce without using cranberries and stuffing. His wife Malea made dessert and others brought stuff too, but I can’t remember them now. Everything came out really great. To top it off, Crissi, Kara and I bought 2 boxes of white wine and it just made the day/cooking all that much better.
Fire on the dance floor...
The next morning, I went to Nyanza to meet up with the new group of Trainees and to see their PST site since I haven’t been there and PST was coming to an end soon (they swear-in this Friday and then head off to sites the end of this year, I think). Met great people who were chill and laid back and we ended up going to a club at a fancy hotel in the town. Music kept stopping every 2 minutes which was annoying, but whatever, it was fun and I got to meet new people and escape site for a bit.
Up where we belong...
With Thanksgiving just passing, it meant my 25th birthday was around the corner. I turned 25 on November 28th and I celebrated it at site with my students (Hospital Staff) and some members of the community. It was the BEST and most memorable birthday I’ve ever had. They knew I was going to Kigali and then Nyanza for 2 days, but they insisted on me coming back home on my birthday to meet two Canadians that were supposedly coming to my site. I thought it was extremely weird that Canadians would even come to my site because it’s rural and it’s not Kigali. I had a feeling my students were up to something because after class one day, they told me that I had to leave because they had a meeting. Being at site for over 7 months at that point and not once had they had a late night meeting at 6:30PM. Sure enough, I come back to site by 4pm like they told me and walk into the staff room to see a Birthday Cake for me with candles, music playing in the background and my students singing me Happy Birthday. It was extremely thoughtful of them and of course I was surprised the lengths they went to get me a nice cake from Kigali. Not only my students planned it, but also my Supervisor, other Hospital Staff members and members of the Community. I thought the cake was sufficient enough, but nope, they bring out brochettes, fried potatoes and pastries. Amazing to say the least. Then of course, we danced (I tried my best doing the traditional Rwandan Dance AKA Cow Dance, but I need practice), then came the speeches (notorious at parties!) and finally gifts that they collected money for. I received a bottle of wine and a really nice decorative to hang on my wall outlined in the shape of the country Rwanda. I thought things were going well at site and I was integrating, but I didn’t expect anything for my Birthday. All the stuff they did for me that day showed me they really accepted me as one of their own in the community. Loved it and love them. Oh and the two Canadians never existed.
Some of the Health Volunteers organized and executed a 5-day Camp for Secondary School Girls in Kigali last week. The Camp focused on various topics, such as Health, Life Skills, etc…I didn’t participate this time around, but I will next time (June ‘10?) and I hope to even bring some girls from my Secondary School class when I start teaching in January.
Being a Health Volunteer is pretty great, but not really structured and requires lots of self-motivation and taking the initiative to speak to the right people and talk to them multiple times to get things done. In addition to working in the health field, I was interested in work at my local Secondary School teaching. Therefore, I told the Secondary School Director that I would like to be working at the School starting in January and he was happy about it. I will be meeting with him and the Pastor (my resource family at site, but also he is President of the School) to discuss how I can assist and in what capacity. They may want me to teach English, but we’ll see at the meeting.
I’ll need to update once a month from now on because writing a blog entry about the last 2 months and a half without it being crazy long is difficult. Quick notes..might go to Akagera National Park the end of this month with other Volunteers, so it’ll be a Christmas Safari…Pot-Luck at my site with Hospital Staff either at the Hospital (probably not so the pts don’t see all the good food and then just stare at us watching us eat food) or my house…300 books are being generously donated to two Secondary Schools at my site thanks to The Feminist Press at CUNY and especially Maryann for the connection…Still working (and by working, I mean having friends/family back home helping me out tremendously on this with fundraising) on the Books for Africa proposal to raise money (Check out the link below to see how much we still need… https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=696-001)
Feliz Navidades y Feliz Ano Nuevo amigos!
September has been an eventful month at work and in Rwanda. I love being here because anything can happen and everything is new, whether it be good or bad. Even being here for 8 months now, the weirdest, funniest, scariest things still happen.
Remera-Rukoma vs. Kirinda Score: 4-2
The Rwandan Partner Organization I work for is EPR and it is a Faith-Based Organization that has established two district hospitals in Rwanda. I work at Remera-Rukoma Hospital in Kamonyi District and a friend (also a PCV) works at the Kirinda Hospital in the Karongi District. At R-R Hospital, we have a soccer team made up of Doctors, Nurses, Administration and Support Staff. They have spiffy blue uniforms with the Hosp name on the back of the shirt and they rotate the uniform between the players. As almost all countries outside North America, soccer is a big deal here. Kids create soccer balls made out of banana leaves and whatever else they can get their hands on and tie it together to play with it. Not a day passes where I don’t see someone playing soccer on my way to work. Anyhoo, my hospital was going to be playing against Kirinda Hospital and I was invited to go along. I initially told them I couldn’t go because of a meeting that was taking place at the same day in Kigali among my fellow PCVs regarding GLOW Camp and I was looking forward to it. (GLOW Camp is a camp that some of my fellow PCVs are planning sometime this year. It’s a week worth of events among secondary school girls discussing various issues, like HIV/AIDS, Life Skills, Counseling, etc…It’s been done in many other Peace Corps countries and we are trying to get it started here.) However, the more I thought about it, I decided it would be better for me in the long run to go with the hospital staff and get to know them better that weekend. While my village is relatively small, the hospital is enormous and I still don’t know everyone’s name or in what departments they work in. There is over 100 staff here. Needless to say, integrating at work and knowing people more personally hasn’t been easy. If I was working at a Health Center, I think it would be easier since it’s smaller but oh well. So I jumped on to go to Kirinda at the last minute and was ready to root for my hospital. When it came time to leave, I knew the hospital had rented a bus to take us so I expected to go with 15-20 other people from the hospital since that’s how many people fit into those buses. As we are ready to go, I see over 40 staff members waiting in front of the hospital ready to go to Kirinda. I had no idea how we were all going to fit into that one bus, so I thought maybe they will take half the group today and the other half tomorrow, just in time for the game. (Kirinda is over 3 hours away from my site and is about 2 hours from the main road on really crappy roads) I see the bus pull into the hospital and I get in with some of my friends at the hospital and then the hospital ambulance pulls right up next to us. The other half of the group piles into there and I start cracking up and asking my friends if they are really going to go in the one ambulance this hospital has. They tell me yes and think nothing much of it. I ask them what if there is an emergency during that day and the next since we won’t be returning till the following evening. They don’t know and hand me a Mutzig. To them, the weekend has started and it’s time to enjoy it. Off we go to Kirinda and I meet up with Christine, Taylor and Madison (all PCVs) at Christine’s site. The ride there was rough because we picked up staff members along the way and we eventually had to fit 5 people per row, even though with 4 people, its already a tight fit. For those three hours, it was drinking, singing and even at one point, trekking. Everyone had to get out of the bus because it couldn’t go up a hill with everyone inside. Good times indeed. My hospital eventually kicked Kirinda’s ass (and Christine’s by association of course) and we won 4 to 2. The ride back home the following evening was even more crazy then the ride there, but that’s for another time. It involved a flat tire, a Doctor threatening to jump out of the car, me and the male staff members dancing to La Lambada (all the females and a few guys skipped out of Gitarama to head back home ‘early’) and almost being run off the road by our very own ambulance. Couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.
School of Hard Knocks – Knocking out HIV one child at a time
I finally did what I thought Peace Corps would be all about, but haven’t had the chance to really do up until then. I spoke to Secondary School Students about HIV/AIDS and took part in the creating of materials and lesson planning. Sonia, a friend and fellow PCV in Kigali, works at a Secondary School in Nyamirambo and was going to put together a talk regarding HIV/AIDS. She asked me and two other friends/PCVs, Rachael and Chrissi, to help out and present topics of discussion to her students. I was looking forward to it because this is what I initially thought I would be doing all the time but I have been working more in Program Development at the Hospital. At first, the lesson at Sonia’s school didn’t seem like it was going to happen due to funding issues. Sonia wanted to supply her students with drinks and snacks. I didn’t think we needed to since we were only going to be talking to them from 10AM till about 3PM…plus, it was going to be over 100 students. I have participated in two health presentations to primary school students for CHAMP and both times, we didn’t give the kids drinks or food. We just gave them 500 RwF(about $1) so they can buy soda (300 RwF) and whatever snack they wanted to get with the remaining 200RwF. All the students end up happy. Since Sonia wanted to actually buy the food and drinks for the students since she said there was nowhere near the school for them to get these stuff (I thought she was lying, but once I got to the school the day of the presentation, it was really in the middle of nowhere), it required lots of labor and even more money. So for a while, we didn’t think the HIV/AIDS lesson was going to happen since we planned on doing the talk within a few weeks of discussing this. In the end, we eventually got Peace Corps VAST funding for the amount Sonia requested to put this presentation together. I created posters regarding who is effected by HIV, the Biology of HIV/AIDS and how it affects the immune system, myths/facts about HIV and a game about the different levels of risk certain sexual/non-sexual activities are associated with in terms of HIV transmission. Sonia also helped with some of these presentations above. Rachael presented on Nutrition and the types of food they should be eating for a healthy balanced diet. Chrissi made up an activity regarding stigma of HIV and a demonstration using coca cola and water bottle about the viral loads contained in various bodily fluids. All in all, it was great and I learned what worked well(transmission game) and what needs to be worked on more (Biology of HIV and how it effects the immune system) so it is easily understandable. I also learned that Rwandan men do not eat pumpkin because they see it as a woman’s food only. I will say though that these kids were out of hand at the start and they were NOT happy with water, bananas and peanuts as snacks. Rwandans do not like drinking water at all (I also hated it, but now I actually love it), but Sonia wanted to encourage her students to drink it more than soda. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do this some more. Afterwards, we all headed to the East Side to hang out with other PCVs and eat lots of Guacamole, Chapatti and Sambousas. Plus, I wanted to get a free haircut.
Random stuff around here and Kigali
I think all the mentioning I do in this blog about not having electricity in my village was heard by someone because a Chinese Organization has been in my village recently digging holes and preparing to put wires along the main dirt road here. Word is, we will have electricity by next January. Hope so.
My Hospital was mentioned in the radio recently. I wish it was for something positive though. All I’ll say is that money got misplaced and unaccounted for. I am sure this isn’t the only place this has happened in, but you know for it to be on the radio, it had to be quite a large sum.
My resource dad here has flown the coup. He helped me meet people and introduced me around when I first arrived. He also invited me a few times to his house in Kigali to meet his family and even killed one of his turkeys for me to eat RAW! No, just kidding. It was cooked of course. He always asked me when I was going over to his house again to eat more turkey. Well, he quit his job here last week as Hospital Administrator and I was totally caught off guard. He didn’t say goodbye to anyone and just disappeared after submitting his resignation. Is this connected with my previous paragraph? I have no idea, but people talk of course. He was a cool guy too and I am sure he still lives in Kigali. Still haven’t called him to say Bon Voyage or whatever. It will be awkward if I even call him. I’m sure I will, probably not till next week though.
A fellow PCV had a Birthday Party in Kigali at an Art Studio and it felt like a real American party. Great music, good drinks and ok food. While eating a burger, I noticed it was sort of undercooked and pink inside. I knew I should haven’t eaten the rest of it, but whatever, I am in Africa. I also wanted a burger since it’s rare here (bada bing!). Anyhoo, about half an hour later, I was pale and felt like I was about to faint in the backyard. Started great and ended not so great. Oh well, still good to see everyone and enjoyed doing something in Kigali.
Bought my ticket to Egypt and I’ll be enjoying some delicious KFC within 2 weeks! Booyah! I’ll be meeting up with my folks for 10 days of vacation. I’m looking forward to not being gawked at or being hissed by someone trying to grab my attention for no real reason.
A group of 34 or 37 Peace Corp Trainees (Education Volunteers) will be arriving in Rwanda within the next few days. They’ll be going through training for the next 3 months. Can’t wait to meet the group. Since Rwanda is so small, everyone will be within an hour of another volunteer I am guessing.
Even though I feel completely safe at my site, there are still times when I get creeped out. The other day as I was going back to work from lunch, I saw a crowd of people gathering outside the hospital entrance and huddled together making noise. My first instinct was to turn around, go home and lock the door. But, I just played it cool and started humming to myself and passed the group and into the hospital. As I passed, I saw that everyone was gathered around someone selling clothes and shoes. That is completely random since the sellers usually sell their goods on Saturdays at the market located in the next town over or at a smaller market located in some woods. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the feeling that anything can happen at anytime without much notice while being here.
Libros para Rwanda
Read below. This is a project some of us are trying to get going in each of our sites. More info to follow.
A lot has happened since my last real update. I’m feeling a bit tired right now from my temporary move (see below), so I’ll just list random stuff that happened in no particular order. (I’ve added on to some of the things below since I took some time to upload this blog entry)
- In-Service Training at Kibuye on Lake Kivu with the other PCV. We spent an entire week discussing our first 3 months at site and projects we are working on and issues we are having. It was extremely helpful and I brought back great ideas to the Cooperative of PLWHA and Hospital I work at. Plus, it was great seeing everyone together again and the location was perfect.
- FINALLY participated in Umuganda…well sort of, but I’ve gotten closer than ever. I visited a fellow PCV (Sonia) in Kigali and we heard a crowd of people singing, shouting and clapping marching down the road. Sonia took a pic and people were telling us to join them and so we went along since neither of us have done it before. It was a lot of marching, clapping and dancing from about 8AM to 10AM and when we finally got to the site where people had to work (local Cemetary), we were waiting around for an hour before people started actually working. We left at 11AM and didn’t Umuganda is mandatory Community Volunteer work that happens every last Saturday of the month. Transportation all over the country stops from 7AM till 11AM and all stores are closed during this time. Everyone is obligated to do it, even the President himself. I will say however though that people think ‘Muzungus are incapable of doing it due to the physical labor and believing we are somehow delicate. No joke. I’ve been told to just clean my room instead. Ok…
- Went to a Dowry Ceremony and rode a taxi bike…both first time experiences on the same day. It was terrifying riding the bike as a passenger, but cheap. I went to the Dowry Ceremony with an American friend that lived in my village and we were somehow made honorary guests and given seats instantly when we arrived even though the place was packed. Afterwards was the Church Ceremony, but I was way too tired from the 3 hour bus ride that morning from Kibuye back to site. Plus, my ankle was hurting from slipping on moss and falling into Lake Kivu. Bruised up my entire left side of my body. My camera battery was low, so I didn’t get to take pictures. However, there will be many more weddings and I am always asked to go because they feel it is an honor to have a ‘Muzungu there.
- Another American moved into my village and so there were 3 Americans, including myself, here for a few weeks…but now I’m back to be being the only ‘Muzungu living here
- Got sick, felt better and then got sick again…now I feel better again!
- Ate turkey at my resource family’s house in Kigali, but it didn’t really taste like turkey
- Planning on going to Egypt in October to see the folks…hopefully!
- Met a VSO (Canadian) who works in my Sector and will be here for a year
- Wrote up a proposal for Books for Africa (along with some my fellow PCVs) so hopefully it works out and my local Secondary School (equivalent to High School and then some) will get some books/computers through fundraising
- I’ve moved back to the Guesthouse in the Hospital…just for 3 weeks though while the church’s visitors are here. I’ll be back “home” by the end of September. Mayor promised electricity by August of this year and since we have a few days left, I am thinking that’s not happening. People are hoping to have electricity here by next August. Still think it’s weird how the district I live in is right next to Kigali and yet, we aren’t connected to the electric power grid.
- Got amazing packages from family and friends…but one of the packages had maggots. Some of the best things were Axe Deodorant Sticks, Chipsahoy, Instant Oatmeal, Zebra Cakes.
- I finally received two postcards sent from my friend Michelle when she was in Iceland back in March! I also got another postcard from my friend Jean when she visited Istanbul. I can’t wait to travel…
- I’ve been in Rwanda for 7 months!
- A friend at the hospital had a baby last month and I’ll be going to a Baby Naming Ceremony (Kwita Izina) in a few weeks. The baby has a Christian name already (given by the 8th day of being born), so now he needs a Kinyarwandan name and everyone at the party will be asked to give one. I need to think of something awesome…
- I think I am becoming Rwandan after this happened: I was heating up water to take a warm bucket bath and as I was in the kitchen a hairy spider the size of my first scared the crap out of me and my immediate reaction was to say “Ego ko Imana”, which translates to ”Oh my God”..no joke
- Found out 14 PCVs from Mauritania (their volunteer program was recently suspended) will be joining the new group of volunteers coming here in October
- The front door to the house came off the hinges and broke again
- My English class (teaching Hospital Staff) continues to be awesome and there are a few weeks left before we finish the Beginners Level and then I’ll throw them a party with Sambosas, Chapatti and Fantas (they don’t know it yet). Now that I think of it, I have no idea what to do for Intermediate Level. I’m sure I’ll think of something by then…
- Working with my fellow PCVs to organize a Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) in November. We are planning about a week worth of events and activities. Definitely looking forward to it.
- Still working on giving presentations to Community Health Workers and at some of the Health Centers (time and transportation is an issue on going to each Health Center monthly).
- Getting an awesome bed frame built for my room and hopefully it will be ready by the time I move back to my house.
- I am tired of my same old clothes. I want to wear something different. I need to shop at the market in the next town over for shirts.
- My current favorite movie is Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist because it was filmed in NYC and I love seeing the city neighborhoods and being reminded of home.
- Thanks again for the support. I promise to take more pics and vids (check out my youtube link below). Leave a comment…I look forward to reading them!