One Foot In Front Of The Other

27 May

On my first full day in Rwanda I visited a Genocide Memorial, on my second I moved in with my host family and used a squat toilet for the first time. On my third day I attended a Rwandan burial and on the fourth said goodbye to a fellow trainee. Life here is off to a running start.

I love Rwanda. It surprises me how effortlessly it seems I’ve settled into a kind of routine here. There have been a couple of hurdles, like mustering of the courage to use the squat toilet and getting over the isolation of a couple days in a home where no one else spoke English. Thursday was a Twin Brooks chocolate milk kind of day. An inadequate mattress combined with hours of sitting in uncomfortable wooden chairs had me hurting something fierce not to mention the remnants of jet lag and the feeling of coming down with a cold made for a tough morning. Luckily my mattress has been switched for a better one so I’m sleeping like a queen.

There’s not a whole lot to complain about. My room is huge, I’m one of the few houses that has power, and my host family is awesome (more on that later). The food aside from being a little monotonous is good. Albeit rather starchy but I knew that going in. To say that I am well-fed in terms of the amount available would be an understatement. I continue to be thankful nothing I’ve eaten has made me sick, yet. I’m hoping against hope to avoid a visit from ‘Mr. D’ as the Peace Corps Rwanda Docs call it, altogether.

I feel like there’s SO MUCH to share that this (time and internet connection willing) could get pretty long. So I’m going to try headings, newsletter style.

Daily Routine

I wake up between 6 and 6:30, depending on when I can force myself out of bed or how full my bladder is. Then I take a bucket shower with the warm water my family was kind enough to heat for me. Get dressed, and then head to class. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, I meet with my small group at 8 am to work on language in the mornings. On those days it only takes a few minutes to get to where we meet, and actually my commute will be reduced to zero since we’re meeting at my house this week. We have a two hour lunch with another group at a woman’s house who cooks for us. The afternoon’s lesson is on cross cultural topics. Wednesdays and Fridays are ‘hub days’ where the entire group of trainees meets. The morning is spent covering the administrative and philosophical nuts and bolts of being a volunteer. Right before lunch we have a health session with the Docs and the last two days they’ve shot us up with vaccinations over lunch. The afternoon is again spent in a cross cultural session. ‘Training’ usually concludes between 4 and 5 pm. Then we begin the walk home. At home I greet everyone and take a little breather. Sometimes so far as a nap, or some quiet time in my room. Then I spend some time out back where all the cooking and cleaning takes place. Going over Kinyarwanda phrases or occasionally helping with some aspect of dinner. By 7 pm it’s completely dark and my youngest host sister and I go inside where the light is better and work on our studies. Typically by 7:30 I’m fighting to stay awake, hoping for some kind of miracle that dinner will be ready sooner than later. Not because I’m ravenously hungry, but because I can’t wait to go to bed. At some point during the evening before dinner I wash my face and my feet which feels a-mazing! Walking anywhere leaves one muddy or dusty depending on how much rain has fallen. Dinner is my host mom, youngest sister, and I in the common room. It usually takes place around 8:30 but sometimes as late as 9:45. I take my malaria meds with dinner. Afterwards it’s back outside to brush my teeth, say goodnight, and then tuck myself into my mosquito net for sweet sweet sleep.

Host Family

My host mother is in her mid-fifties and has five children. The oldest is a daughter who has six children and lives nearby. The second daughter is in her early thirties and lives with us. Next is a son who married within the last year and also lives nearby. His wife speaks a little English and had dinner with us on my first evening here. The second son is in his mid-twenties and studies IT at a university in Kigali. He was only home for a short visit on Sunday and I’m told he doesn’t visit much. The youngest daughter is in her early twenties and is staying with us while she does her internship at a nearby school. She speaks English very well and is my saving grace at home. A teenage orphan cousin also lives with us. The family is really welcoming but laid back which I really appreciate.

According to Peace Corps my host mom is an umuhinzi (farmer), though from what I gather from my youngest sister, she only grows enough food for us to eat. I don’t quite understand the family dynamic and why my second host sister does all cooking and cleaning and doesn’t take her meals with us. She eats them outside in the courtyard with the cousin. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that she’s the only child who isn’t at university or married. Side note, you take a test to determine whether you go on to university or, in the case of a female get married. It is illegal to marry before the age of 21 because the Rwandan government wants everyone to finish secondary school.


Learning Kinyarwanda feels like it’s off to a slow start.  I think it’s because my brain is saturated with information related to survival and adjustment. This makes retention of what is taught slow going. I’m a little apprehensive about my ability to learn Kinyarwanda. However, patience is the word of the Peace Corps and I’m going to suspend my worry until I see the kind of progress I make after feeling more rested and settled.

Kinya reminds me a lot of French in that there are silent letters at the beginning of words, and plenty in the middle that are glazed right over or sound nothing like they’re spelled. There are A LOT of w, y, and u’s used in words. Most of the time I feel like I’m trying to talk with a mouth full of marbles. There’s a resemblance to Spanish in that they roll their r’s and there’s also a sound similar to the ll sound, though the exact letter combination eludes me at the moment.

We haven’t even touched the subject of grammar and I’m sort of dreading it since there are 16 noun classes. That’s right, 16. It’ll happen eventually.

Saturday while taking a rest between laundry and lunch I was remembering conversations I had before I left and found myself substituting all the Kinyarwanda words I know for their English counterparts. That’s got to mean something right?

The Group

We arrived at staging a mighty 20, we will probably never know who the mystery 21st person was. C’est la vie. We represent the states of WA, OR, CA, IA, MI, GA, AR, IL, CO, CT and maybe a couple others I’m missing. We’re all in our twenties, the youngest being 21 and the oldest 27. Saturday was the first group birthday though we had too little notice to do anything celebratory. With such a small number we bonded pretty quickly, though we are still getting to know each other. That made it tough to find out that Dan S had decided to go home the first Monday and Shay followed suit Thursday. Still, I respect their decision and admire their courage to choose their happiness. We’ve all invested a tremendous amount of time and energy in preparing for the Peace Corps. I can’t decide which would be harder, sticking out a tough situation here, or going home early and having to explain to everyone and figure out what’s next.

Culture Clash

It is not rude or out of line to ask someone if they’re married or have children after introductions. Luckily on day 5 or so I learned, ‘Simfite abana, nde ingaragu.’ Which means, ‘I don’t have any children, I am single.’  In Rwandan culture it is considered selfish to remain single after age 30. I’ve got four years, hehe. Some kind lady offered to fix me up with her cousin when I told her I was single at the burial. She didn’t understand my polite refusal and I couldn’t really give her a good answer. Now I know that I can blame most anything on the Peace Corps. You know, like not being able to give out my phone number, or date someone, go somewhere, or do something. It’s a pretty awesome out.

Also, it is perfectly acceptable to put your fingers in your nose anywhere, anytime. Usually it’s the thumb and pointer finger each in a nostril. What they’re rooting around for in there is beyond me, though it can get pretty dusty.

Critter Count

My first night I saw a lizard on the wall of the common room, and now I see them all over, on the wall of the toilet, on the house outside, and in the living room. Thankfully I’ve never seen one in my room though my host sister says they don’t leave the wall. I killed a spider with my shoe on my second or third day here. Last night I saw a big fat rat scoot under the door and into the second bedroom, several times. There’s a gap of 3-4 inches under every door so it didn’t even have to flatten itself. Needless to say, I will not be keeping any food in my room.

The Food

The food here isn’t bad, but it’s definitely not the most flavorful and to say that it’s repetitious would be an understatement. This means right about day 3 we started in on the foods we miss. This morning while I was working on this, the memory of iced coffee was dancing over my taste buds. I’ve never been a big candy person or one to salt my food but I have a craving for both of those. Really I just want to experience any sort of burst of flavor. Sadly my water filter has started working which means I have to get used to the taste of pool water. I suppose it’s better than the alternative. The other day I fantasized about receiving a box full of mini bottles of wine. It’s definitely too early to be thinking about that, still, I can’t always control where my mind goes. Despite the repetitive cuisine, I never go hungry and that’s the most important thing.

Living with my host family and living in Rwanda has been great. Most of the stress originates with the Peace Corps. We are the first group to do Community Based Training (host families) here and only the fifth group of volunteers since the country opened up so they’re still working out the kinks. Despite small challenges I can’t complain too much because the staff all have such great attitudes and are open to feedback and willing to work with me to solve problems.

Everything still seems so new and the future so unexpected that I don’t miss home too much yet. I’m sure it will sneak up on me when I least expect it. In the few quiet moments I have to think about life here, I find myself wishing that I could share all that’s happening with you, family and friends. Hopefully in a month or so the internet won’t be so hard to come by and I can write all I’d like to share. Finding time to write might be another story however.

I’ll let you know when I get a cell phone, it’s free for me to receive calls and if you use a service like Skype, it runs about 20 cents a minute. There’s also google voice. Some of the other volunteers are savvier than I when it comes to International calling so I’ll keep you posted when I find something out. If you know of any good techniques please leave a comment J

I think I’ll let this be the end. I look forward to hearing from you.



5 Responses to “One Foot In Front Of The Other”

  1. Kelsey May 27, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    “It is illegal to marry before the age of 21 because the Rwandan government wants everyone to finish secondary school.”

    That’s really interesting, it strikes me as an innovative solution! Though I imagine it’s hard to enforce and might result in plenty of de-facto marriages… what does the average person think about this law? Do you have any opinions about it yet?

    • Heidi June 3, 2011 at 7:53 am #

      I think it’s pretty easy to enforce because a couple has to get permission from the community/officials before getting married and they also have to receive premarital counseling on family planning as well as HIV tests.

      If someone goes on from primary to university people are really understanding about not being married. I’ve learned to tell them that I am going back to University after Peace Corps as an explanation.

  2. Melissa May 28, 2011 at 11:10 am #

    Heidi, this sounds like an amazing challenge. Thank you for sharing this story. I have been thinking about you a lot and it is good to hear about your new life. This sounds like HUGE adjustment and I wish you all the best. I look forward to hearing more.

    • Heidi June 3, 2011 at 8:24 am #

      I need all the prayers and thoughts I can get! I’ve been wearing my Anna bracelet and thinking of your family, lot’s of prayers for you guys.

      Honestly, adjusting has been surprisingly easy. So there’s not too much to complain about.

  3. Jamie May 30, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    It is so good to hear from you! Thanks so much for sharing! I know things are going to keep getting better:)

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