Archive | June, 2011

The Run Down

30 Jun

If it were anymore official someone would send out a press release, us trainees are losing our minds. Or they’re already gone in some cases. After eight demanding weeks we’re starting to look/act a little worse for the wear which is understandable. With only two-ish weeks to go there’s a lot of demands on us. It’s time for me to buckle down and eliminate distractions but before I do I figured it’d be good to fill you in on what’s up next.

Monday is Rwanda’s Liberation Day and America’s Independence day. A national holiday in BOTH countries. We’re supposed to have appreciation/farewell events for our language/culture teachers and our families in the afternoon but I’m not sure about the status of that. The best part is I’m on the planning committee 🙂

Next Tuesday or Wednesday my small group is going to present in Kinyarwanda our workshop on the importance of treating water drinking water to 30ish Secondary School students. There will be an energizer, a skit, the use of pictures and some trivia with prizes. All in all it should be fun, if the students can understand us.

Next Friday we have our final ‘evaluations’ on the technical information we’ve covered during training.

Next Saturday is the day I’ve been dreading for quite awhile now, the language proficiency test. I’ve always been a procrastinator however, I’m not sure how well that’s going to work when I’m struggling to form words even in English.

The following Tuesday we pack up, leaving Kamonyi behind for good and head to Kigali. Wednesday we swear in as Volunteers after which we will breathe a huge, collective sigh of relief. In the days after that I will run around Kigali like a crazy lady trying to buy stuff for site and then head off to site Thursday or Friday.

I’ve been telling myself that I just need to get through training and then I’ll have a chance to catch my breath. According to my country director this is not the case. Apparently site installation comes with it’s own set of challenges (duh).

Despite the challenges and exhaustion of being here I am still eating, sleeping, and bathing (things that have preciously ceased in chaotic times in my life, like dead week). I haven’t for one minute second guessed my decision to join the peace corps or my excitement over being in Rwanda. Life is good and I can’t wait to see what the future at site holds.



30 Jun

I’d like to give a shout out and HUGE thank you to all the lovely people who have sent me letters. Friday June 17th I received FOUR letters. One from my dear Grandma, one from JBell and TWO from my friend Kelly who has been dutifully writing me every couple of weeks. The best part of it all is that Tuesday we had another round of mail and I finally received the first of the three letters that Kelly sent just a few days after I left. Ohhhh Rwanda how I love you.

Letters may take a long time however, it’s a great prize to get and such a comfort to be able to hold.

I’ve been able to send a handful with people going back to the United States to be mailed from there but have yet to work out how the postal system in Rwanda works, or doesn’t. Haha

Thanks for the letter love!

The Honey Moon Is Over

27 Jun

And that’s been apparent the last couple of weeks. Since site visit my attitude has been in the crapper with the stress of our mock language proficiency exam last Saturday, the time crunch in trying to complete a community assessment assignment, and changing up our language groups. The most frustrating thing of all is that I’m having a tough time finding the reset button for my attitude and I detest the way I’m interacting with folks as a result.

The end of last week can only be called comical. I woke up Thursday feeling a cold coming on. I decided to take a different route to the new place where I have my language class and ended up getting lost. Minutes after I realized I was not where I intended to be I got a phone call from another one of the language teachers to see if I had made it to my destination. Apparently, a woman had seen me on my walk and thought I was probably not where I should be and called the teacher. Luckily I was near a landmark so it was easy to get me headed in the right direction and soon enough I was where I needed to be. During class I was eating a banana and ended up dropping in on the ground, thankfully I had an extra. After a morning of struggling through the fog in my brain I decided I would be better served by a nap than a meal over the lunch break so I headed to the Hub and napped in one of the beds there.

As a souvenir from my nap at the Hub I ended up with 30-40 what I suspect are flea bites all over my body. I didn’t realize something was up until Friday afternoon and had already contaminated my bed, trunk, and the clothes I hang with the clothes I napped in at the hub. Saturday I hung my bedding out in the sun and figured I’d tackle the rest Sunday since I had Umuganda and a trip to Kigali monopolizing my time Saturday. While I haven’t done an official count, I’m fairly certain that I haven’t received any additional bites since Thursday. Which means there’s no need to wash ALL my clothes and go through the process of pouring boiling water over everything. The bites still itch today, Sunday and I wonder when they’ll go away and where they came from.

Other volunteers have had quite the time with bed bugs, chicken parasites, and fleas. Hearing their trials I thought I would die if I had to deal with something of that nature but confronted with the situation I found myself with a resolve to pin point the issue and develop a solution which I find comforting. Thursday and Friday nights I kept waking up to find myself scratching the bites all over my body. Saturday I contemplated if I should take Nyquil or Benadryl so I could sleep through the night since I woke up with a definite cold and had been itching all day. I was afraid if I took Nyquil that I might wet the bed since I eat so late that I usually have to go to the bathroom something fierce in the morning, often a couple of hours before my alarm goes off. So I opted for the Benadryl and slept wonderfully until my host mom plugged in the radio and started blaring Christian Kinyarwanda music at seven am. I couldn’t sleep in here even if I wanted to.

Culture Shock

27 Jun

Aside from getting over my fear of squat toilets and that first isolating night at my homestay I haven’t really experienced culture shock. It has been relatively easy to settle into a routine during the training which I think has contributed to the ease of transition.

During my site visit it became apparent to me that I can expect to go through culture shock when I move there. In my training area they’ve had two different volunteers who worked at the hospital up the road from where I live. As a result, the number of people here yelling ‘muzungu’ asking for money, pointing, and trying to touch me have been relatively few. I could most likely count them on my hands.

That was not the case during my site visit. While greeting a woman on a walk around site when I asked how she was instead of the customary, ‘I’m good’ I got a monologue about her sick leg along with a slew of other things I didn’t understand which concluded with a request for money. It happened quite a few times, not to mention that I got into several conversations with women where they became quite animated, raising their voices as I continued to explain to them that I didn’t understand what they were saying. I interpreted their escalations and grabbing of my writs/arm as hostile because I didn’t know what else to make of it.

As a result of these experiences I realized that when I moved to site I have to begin the process of integration all over again. Only I have to do it alone and without the benefit of having other PCVs living there previously. This filled me with a dread and I’m still trying to figure out how to prepare emotionally and mentally for this process. Currently in my community I seldom go anywhere without the company of at least one other trainee and if I do, it’s never very long until I see a Rwandan I know who could ‘rescue’ me from any potential harassers.

At my site they have a very different relationship with foreigners (abazungu). Around my community there are signs for a USAID project , my health center was built by the Methodist Church and I noticed that some of the educational materials the community health workers use were from World Vision and another religious agency. That means that people at my site are used to abazungu sweeping in and giving them stuff or dumping money into projects then leaving. Very different from the Peace Corps approach of placing volunteers in a community where they integrate, lend their time and build capacity.

If anyone has experience with how they’ve dealt with a similar situation or some self-care strategies I would love to hear them.

What is culture shock anyway? During one of our tech training sessions we discussed it. For me I couldn’t find the words to quantify it but have found it’s a sour feeling that is a knee jerk reaction to an experience that differs from previous experiences. I was surprised to find that I had such strong feelings about my training site, that the people here were friendlier than at site. I guess the grass really is greener sometimes.

Hopefully having work to dive into will provide some relief from this challenge. Being able to interact with small groups of patients at the health center should help get the word out in the community of what I’m about. I also plan to attend several services at each of the churches in the community. At most services guests are asked to introduce themselves which is a great opportunity to make myself known in the community. To do it in Kinyarwanda will dazzle folks even more. The best part is that many of my coworkers invited me to go to church with them so I will have someone to go with and get to bond with coworkers.

Site Visit: Yeah I’m finally going to write about it

27 Jun

The good news is that I am excited about the work for me at the health center and to work with my supervisor. The trade-off is that I kind of wanted to cry when I saw my future home/where I stayed during my visit. If you’re not interested in the details then that’s all you need to know.

After arriving at the Health Center we headed to my supervisors office, dusted ourselves off and got down to business. I thought of a certain former coworker since the first thing we talked about was the center’s monthly targets and monthly reports related to government performance based financing. Part of my job will be to review the reports for accuracy (so cool for nerds like me and my former coworker). The indicators are numerous and quite interesting. This is the perfect time to boast about the organization I have the privilege of joining. Nyamasheke, the district my health center is in, is the number one district in Rwanda for meeting performance targets. My health center, ranks fifth out of 15 total health centers in achieving performance targets. Something to be excited about for sure. I also learned about the structure of the health center, the different departments, community health workers, and quality assurance mechanisms. Topics for other posts, suffice it to say that it is impressive.

After the meeting I experienced culture shock during a tour of the health center. First of all, pretty sure patient confidentiality does not exist in Rwanda. The first stop was a room where a nurse was taking a patient’s blood for an HIV test. I was happy to see they were wearing gloves but it freaked me out to see them shaking the vial and to feel like we had intruded on something I view as very private. My view of hospitals and clinics is that their environment and practices set them apart from other places in America with great emphasis placed on cleanliness. Not to say that the health center isn’t clean. However, with its concrete floors, open air design, and simplicity it is quite a divergence from the facilities I associate with medical care. I worried a little about exposure to biohazards, particularly during our visit to the lab. During my time there however, I never saw any inappropriately materials or body fluid which is a comfort.

We took lunch at my supervisors then went to the sector office where I met the Sector Executive Secretary and his staff who were all very nice. When I asked him what he would like me to help with, he informed me that they had a problem with electricity (the problem being there is none), and clean water. So maybe I could initiate some kind of project to bring electricity to the community. Dream big right?

Next we visited and had a tour of a secondary school. The majority of secondary schools are boarding schools as well. When I asked one of the nurses at the health center about the reason for this they said it was to help the students focus more on their studies. At home, most have no electricity and have household chores that take away from valuable daylight hours for studying. The headmaster of the school said that there is a shortage of universities since there are only a couple in Kigali they are expensive. As a result, many people attend university I nearby Burundi or DRC. The headmaster hopes to turn the secondary school into a university once electricity comes to the community.

The school keeps pigs and cattle, and even has a system for harnessing the methane from cow manure for biofuel. As we walked past a building still under construction I was struck by the utilitarian nature of the concrete and steel tin-roofed buildings. In my mind I compared this with the American notions of people friendly buildings and ergonomics. The made me a little sad for the students that they might never have the opportunity to appreciate the beauty in architecture or other flourishes I previously took for granted.

As I pondered Rwandan appreciation for beauty we climbed up onto a (unfinished) rooftop platform and I was treated to a panoramic view of my surroundings, Lake Kivu in front of me and the hills of my community above and below behind me. I asked the school secretary what this area was for and they said for taking tea sometimes thus restoring my faith in Rwandan ability to appreciate beauty. After we went to some special teacher building/lounge and had Fanta. There was some conversation which quickly turned into me listening and trying to pick out words I knew.  By this time it was approaching six as well as dark so we headed back to the health center.

By this time I was exhausted and welcomed the idea of being left alone, even if it was in my disappointing house. However that was not the case, two nurses showed up and decided to give me Kinyarwanda lessons. To be fair, in Rwandan culture it is customary to never leave guests alone, which is all I really wanted. They stayed until dinner. After dinner I finally got the solitude I had been craving, I read for a little bit and then fell asleep. Surprisingly I slept really well considering that my bed was basically a plywood platform with a three inch foam cushion that quickly compressed under my weight. By far the firmest bed I’ve ever slept on, I actually think I’ve slept on softer ground.

By now I’m sure you’re curious what’s so terrible about my house. First of all it’s got this post-apocalyptic feeling about it. Granted, it seems like it’s been awhile since anyone lived in it but every single window has some, or a lot of glass broken out of it. I can just see myself slicing off a finger or a major artery on the remaining glass. The walls are dirty and the paint is peeling. The worst part of all is the rodent problem. While inspecting the ‘kitchen’ I got to come nearly eye to eye with a big fat rat. There’s a tin false ceiling and I could frequently hear them scurrying around. Friday afternoon I was in my room and a mouse actually came under the door. Ewwww. Rodent carry disease and worst of all they attract snakes which is NOT something I want around. It freaks me out because they were around so much and there was barely any food in the house, just some fresh produce that the nurse who also lives there had. It’s a duplex and the other side is occupied by my supervisor and another nurse. My worry is that even if I work hard to limit rodent temptation that my efforts will be in vain if the woman I live with and neighbors do not follow suit.

My other concern is privacy. I’m not sure if it’s just because my new set up is different from my host family’s or if there are legitimate privacy concerns. At the very least latches will need to be installed on the doors to the toilet and shower since the doors are not inclined to stay closed on their own. At my host family’s place there is a mud wall that goes around the whole back along with a door we can bolt closed in the evening. Once it gets dark at six the door can be bolted allowing us to remain outside without strangers just wandering by. At my site, my prospective house is a)A duplex and B) Just below the health center right along a road that goes up to the health center. There’s a privacy hedge but no gate and folks have made it a habit to use my ‘yard’ as a cut through, to and from where I’m not entirely clear. I was in my room using the phone Friday afternoon and a woman actually came up to the window and tried talking/asking me for money. Telling her I didn’t have any money, ignoring her, and then trying the subtle cue of saying ‘goodbye’ did not work. I stopped short of closing the curtain in her face as that seemed incredibly rude. After I finished the phone call I opted to take my study materials into the living room where the curtains were closed. A few minutes later the woman walked to the back of my house where the door was open and said goodbye. Her actions still perplex me. Now you know why sheer curtains are on my wish-list. I really hope keeping the curtains constantly closed is not something I will have to resort to for privacy, especially since there’s no electricity for lights. Later when I went to pull the curtain back to put something on the window sill I was startled by a kid just hanging out by my window.

On a positive note, when my supervisor returned from Kigali we discussed my visit and house he was receptive to my privacy concerns. He mentioned there was a gate somewhere that could be closed to hopefully reduce the number of people walking through the yard and using my shower to fill Jerri cans of water. While wrestling with the issue of privacy during my visit I wondered how realistic it was to expect the level of privacy at my host family’s home in a country so densely populated.

As I mentioned, my supervisor had to return to Kigali early Thursday morning for a meeting, with some donors I believe. My health center was built by the Methodist Church. Thursday was spent observing different departments in the health center and learning the names of the staff. Additionally, I spent the afternoon with the supervisor of the Community Health Workers learning more about them and reviewing the diagnostic and educational tools they use.

The goal Friday was to get out and about in the community which proved a little difficult, mostly due to geography. On a positive note, I think I’ve found a running loop. My ‘community’ is in the hills and they really do use every area possible for farming and living. From the main that runs North to South along Lake Kivu there’s a road that winds maybe a quarter of a mile up a hillside to the ‘main drag’ where the shops and restaurants are located. Taking a right leads you past the bulk of the shops/restaurants, through the market and to the health center. Turning left the road splits, up one hill is the sector office and farther up another is the secondary school that I visited. Beyond that there’s not too much to the community without wandering into valleys or up large hills which seemed to be primarily houses and farm land.  After going through the market I attempted to pay a second visit to the sector office and was lucky enough to meet the head of Nyamasheke District, but he and most other people were headed somewhere else and the remainder of the staff were in a meeting of some kind. So I wandered back through the market to the health center.

The market is different from the two here and a little disappointing. There’s a lot of ‘stuff’ for sale, most of it you can buy every day of the week from the shops as well as quite a few clothing vendors. However, there are not many different food vendors. The large Saturday market at my training site has at least five different vendors selling the same kind of produce. At site there was at most two to three, but usually only one for most things. Except for the tiny fish. The good news is that they had most everything I could want and the prices were decent, from my limited experience. The BEST news is that every evening there are women selling big avocados for 100 francs, a good price for sure. One thing nice about this market is that the vendors are organized by what they sell which makes it easier to survey the quality of produce and bargain on the prices. I was surprised with so many tiny fish vendors and the sun shining down on them that the aroma of fish wasn’t stronger in the market. It was bearable until I made the mistake of walking past the tiny fish vendors which definitely triggered my gag reflex.

After lunch with my neighbor/future coworker I followed the road by my house down, found out it connected with the main road and talked to some people. The other thing I noticed was people, mostly men standing around various places in the community in groups based on what kind of animal they had for sale. I saw a group with chickens and a group with goats, a phenomenon I haven’t seen anywhere else.

After my walk I took some time to talk to connect with some other volunteers and study a little bit of Kinyarwanda, had the lovely interaction with the woman at my window. Friday evening I was again visited by my coworkers for some Kinyarwanda lessons.

Saturday, as much as it pains me to say was pretty boring. Tentative plans to visit people with a coworker fell through and I was left on my own for much of the morning. It was nice to finally have some downtime to blog and surf the internet but the battery on my laptop was running low, I had unwisely already finished the novel I brought, and I wanted to save the battery on my phone in case of an emergency on my trip back. So I was running low on things to keep me preoccupied which made me feel like a brat since I had finally had the down time I’d been jonesing for not to mention it seemed like a terrible waste to be bored in a new place.

After lunch I hung around at my coworkers and another came by with her baby. While I was holding him up under his arms and talking to him I felt something warm on my lap. He peed on me! Definitely a consistent danger of holding a babe in Rwanda since many do not wear diapers. I handed him back to his mom, used a towel to try to mop it up and excused myself to wash myself and my skirt.

Some other volunteers headed back from site visit Saturday because there wasn’t anything for them to do Saturday and Sunday and after getting peed on I questioned my decision to stay until Sunday. However, I felt it was important to see my supervisor one more time and it was too late to leave anyways. Luckily he arrived in the late afternoon instead of at six pm like he had originally told me. He stopped by my house to tell let me know he was back and would be in his office if I wanted to talk to him. Later I wandered up to the health center to visit with the weekend staff and talked with him about my experience and the house. I didn’t share too many of my concerns about the house because I wasn’t sure what was a personal concern vs a Peace Corps safety and security requirement. Which turns out was the right move since it’s best to leave such negotiations to my program director.

Saturday night we had a first rate thunder, lightning and rainstorm which I got to watch out my bedroom window from my bed then it was dinner and nighty night time since I woke up at the crack of dawn the next day.

Are you married? Do you like beer? Pre site visit.

22 Jun

Monday morning we were supposed to leave for Kamonyi at 8 am to be there in plenty of time for some administrative tasks at 10 am. Of course this is Africa and the Peace Corps so we left somewhere between 9 and 9:15. Typically it’s a bit of a squeeze between the two vehicles with everyone but it was an even tighter squeeze with all the bags for site visit. Luckily it’s only a 45 minute drive to Kigali and if anyone’s leg/foot fell asleep under the weight they didn’t have the misfortune of falling out of the back of the paddy wagon.

Once at Fort Peace Corps we waited around to find out what was next. It was about an hour before we figured out there was no real plan for us and there was a hold up with getting us our walk-around money. Typical. Frustrated and growing increasingly hungry we decided just to take ourselves to lunch. Not far from Fort Peace Corps is the MTN center where we went for lunch. It was like reverse culture shock, other white people, abundant electricity and ALL KINDS of things that do not exist in my daily life here in Rwanda. We went to this place called Bourbon, but really it could be called heaven on earth. First of all there was not just coffee, but ICED coffee. This may not sound that incredible to most readers, but in Kamonyi  (aka ‘the bush’) electricity is limited and even if there are cold drinks available, it’s a gamble if they’re actually chilled, and less likely they’re refreshingly cold. As if that weren’t wonderful enough, I was able to order the sandwich I had a hankering for. Maybe it wasn’t the delicious turkey cold cut I had imagined, but it had tomato, avocado and lettuce. It came with a salad, so I killed two birds with one stone. That was satisfying enough however, I went for it all and ordered some chocolate ice cream, achieving yet another level of nirvana.

After lunch we met our counterparts at Fort Peace Corps in a very warm upstairs conference room. My supervisor, the Head Nurse of my health center was one of the first to arrive. The good thing about that was it put an end to the suspense of who my supervisor was. The bad part was that it was really awkward when we were introduced in front of everyone and had to pretend like we hadn’t already met.

Have you ever had a prospective or current supervisor inquire about your marital status or taste for beer? Me either, that is until I met this one. I started to panic inside when he told me he was single. I could tell that we aren’t that far apart in age from looking at him and in light of the information above, all the warnings of overzealous Rwandans flooded my mind. In our cross cultural lessons we learned that male volunteers shouldn’t let women into their homes because they might never leave (seriously). For a woman to let a man into her home in the evening is to basically consent to sex. Not to mention that just having a single member of the opposite sex into your home can ruin your reputation, completely undermining a volunteer’s ability to do any work. A current volunteer shared a story about how a Rwandan wanted to ‘date’ her so badly he went as far as planning a project so he could work with her. I’ve digressed a bit, but do you understand the reason for my panic? Imagine then how it escalated when my supervisor informed me that I would be staying with him during my site visit.

I decided that I was going to give him the benefit of doubt and just be on my guard about establishing appropriate boundaries. Sometimes this is particularly difficult because in the past my friendliness has been mistaken for romantic interest. I’ve yet to experience a situation in which this is not mortifying. The perfect opportunity to outline the boundary presented when he asked why I wanted to be in Rwanda. I explained from what I read Rwanda, more than any country seems like it really wants to move forward and make better lives for Rwandans. Rwandans characterize people as ‘serious’ or not, which worried me at first because I don’t see myself as serious by the English definition. In Rwanda it means someone dedicated to their work and betterment of self, which I can totally get behind. So I mentioned to my supervisor that I was very serious about my work with the Peace Corps and he seemed like a person to help me work hard during my service.

We spent the remainder of the time talking about the health center, the community and such. I thought it a good sign that we both had the attitude of, ‘Let’s just talk about that when we get to site.” Since my Kinyarwanda was still extremely limited and it took a lot of effort for him to communicate with me in English. Did I mention I was anxious wrap things up and get on with some errands? The afternoon concluded around five and the trainees were free to descend on Kigali with our newly dispensed walk around and travel allowances.

First it was back to the MTN center to purchase a modem and some credit. It took quite a while for the group of us to all conduct our business. Then I popped over to the German Butchery for some ‘survival food’ to take on the visit just in case I had to fend for myself. I was exhausted and overwhelmed by the food choices, not to mention feeling a bit rushed so we could get on with our dinner plans and hungry to boot. I settled for a jar of peanut butter and some laughing cow type cheese which did not require refrigeration. I am too snobby to eat processed cheese out of a can but apparently if you wrap individual servings in foil I’ll go for it. I also purchased a rather expensive loaf of specialty bread. It was about 2.5 times as expensive as the bread I buy at my host stay but it was magically delicious. It was sesame seeds on the outside and whole grain goodness, the closest thing to whole wheat American bread I’ve had so far. It surprised me how much I missed ‘good’ bread.

From the MTN center we dropped off our loot at Fort Peace Corps and a group of 8-10 of us set out for a pizza place to celebrate the birthday of a fellow trainee. There was trivia but we didn’t make it there in time to snag a table so we had to settle for pizza and beer. This was my second time to have beer since arriving in Rwanda. One of the cocktail specials was a Manhattan which piqued the interest of another trainee and I. Before ordering one I decided to ask about the kind of liquor they made it with. Good thing I did because it was Jack Daniels which I don’t have anything against. However, in my opinion a proper Manhattan is made with Makers and I just wasn’t up for Jack Daniels. Especially since water is not served complimentary. So I went with a Turbo King, the mark of a man (of course) and subsequently about the darkest beer commonly available aside from Guiness. Of course I’m such a beer snob that I only like Guiness on tap, we’ll see how that changes in the coming months. Suffice it to say, dinner was quite enjoyable. On the walk back we ran into some current volunteers also staying at Fort Peace Corps (can I just call it FPC from now on?) on their way into Kigali proper to hit up a night club. They tried to convince us to come however the lure of hot, running showers was too much to resist and we wished them goodnight.

The next morning most of us headed to Bourbon for breakfast. Time was short, and of course like many things in Rwanda, breakfast service was moving rather slowly so I settled for some more iced coffee. There was a split in mentality about how the Peace Corps had made us wait around and started late yesterday so it was only fair for us to be a little late from breakfast. However, it wasn’t just PC that we would be late meeting with, but our future supervisors. Not to mention one of the expectations the trainees had placed great emphasis on was beginning on time. We spent a bit talking with our supervisors again, but the bulk of the morning PC staff spent communicating expectations for the visit to our supervisors. Things like policies relating to travel after dark and by moto, the scope of our work, and basic living requirements (does not include electricity). Then it was time to begin the journey which is chronicled in my last post.

Before I continue I should mention that three of the four people in my small language group were placed along Lake Kivu. One North of me, and one to the South. So the first night we stayed at the Southern site in a hotel. After we paid the moto taxis, we were shown to my room which my supervisor dutifully examined to make sure it was up to snuff. I was a little nervous for a minute that we would be sharing the room which had only one bed, which would’ve been weird even in America. I was left to use my cold, but running water shower. The power went out for a little bit while waiting for dinner and was still out when we were seated which ended up working to our advantage. We sat on a little patio near the edge of the cliff overlooking the lake, a ways away from the restaurant for. It was a breathtaking view of the stars, Lake Kivu and the lightning in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The lake was dotted by the lights of fishing boats. Apparently, they can only fish for the tiny fish on cloudy nights because they are attracted to light and if the moon is too bright the fish won’t be drawn to the lights on the boats.

The next morning we got to enjoy the view again during breakfast along with the singing of the fishermen.

Site Visit: Transportation

14 Jun

It seems like there’s so much to write about my site visit so I’m going to break it up into chronological categories. The first would be getting there right? Sounds good to me. Well actually, I should probably talk about the two nights in Kigali and all the gloriousness that was had. However, that’s technically leading up to site visit, so I’ll talk about what it’s like to come back from a month in the ‘bush’ in another post.

So after a morning of preparation for the visit, Peace Corps drivers brought us to the main transportation hub in Kigali. My supervisor was pretty adamant about us leaving Fort Peace Corps by 11 for our 12:30 bus. Getting there early totally paid off because we were able get desirable seats. The express busses (called taxis) have two seats on one side and a single seat on the other. The fourth seat folds down from the single seat making it so there’s no aisle. Needless to say it’s the least desirable seat to have. The other volunteer I traveled with and I were lucky enough to get window seats and sat next to our supervisors. A couple other volunteers arrived at noon and unfortunately had to take the middle two seats in the very back. From Kigali we traveled South to Butare made a quick stop for lunch and continued Westward toward Kamembe, the taxi’s final destination. Shortly before the Nyungwe forest, ’round about hour three we said goodbye to the two volunteers wedged in the back of the taxi.

Other trainees had expressed concern about the awkwardness of a long trip with our future supervisors and limited Kinyarwanda skills. I tried not to worry about it too much and it ended up going just fine. I had borrowed a Janet Evonicich novel from Fort Peace Corps and read that for most of the trip. It was crazy to pause from reading and look up at hills then pages later look down on terraces, fields of crops and valleys we had passed through. Every once in a while my supervisor would nudge my arm and ask a question or offer some tidbit of information. All in all it wasn’t a bad trip, albeit my supervisor speaks really good English. So as long as I avoid motor mouth mode we communicate rather well.

The Nyungwe was a welcome change. The trees were of considerable height but pretty spindly and primarily deciduous with not very many lower branches. Actually, they reminded me of towering, skinny broccoli florets.  The forest is home to 13 species of monkeys and according to my supervisor when you travel through in the morning chances of seeing monkeys out and about are high. Not so much in the afternoon, though we did spot one on the side of the road. We also spotted what looked like a fox, at least in coloring complete with a white tip on the tail. My supervisor put it in the dog category, he told me the words for a domesticated dog and a wild dog in Kinya but of course I forgot them since I didn’t write them down.

A little over half way through the forest I felt a change in the air. It felt and smelled the way it feels to be within proximity of a large body of water. It was hard to tell if it was nostalgia, the time of day, or our proximity to Lake Kivu that gave me the feeling.

After the forest we descended from the ‘mountains’ into the tea plantations. The sun was low in the sky and the green tea plants stretched on for miles. Once again spoiling me with an absolutely breathtaking, yet altogether different view of Rwanda.

We went on for a while longer and six hours after the bus departed Kigali we got off in a town I can’t remember the name of. However the journey didn’t end there. There was about 30 minutes of light left and we had a 20 minute moto ride ahead of us. I’ve never been on the back of a motorcycle before so doesn’t it make sense that my first time would be in Africa up a twisting, dusty, rocky road at dusk with a 15 pound bag strapped to my back and sleeping bag tied onto that? I mean that’s what I thought. Did I mention I was wearing a skirt and chacos? At first I thought I’d be like the Rwandan ladies and ride side saddle that is until my supervisor informed me that the road was not good and I should sit normally. Comforting right?

So up we went on a road carved out of the hillside at some points. Now the road is plenty wide enough however, with the rocks, pot holes, and channels carved by rain run off the road that is desirable to drive on is pretty scarce. I developed this game of trying to guess where the moto driver would pick to go based on what the road looked like. Sometimes I picked the same route, sometimes I questioned his choice, and when things got too hairy I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

Round about the time I was starting to feel quite stressed about the whole situation, with dark quickly approaching I got my first sight of Lake Kivu and felt an instant calmness. For the better part of seven years I lived on Puget Sound and it was a rare day I didn’t catch a glimpse of the water. This time in Rwanda is pretty much the longest I’ve gone without seeing salt water. It wasn’t something that I was conscious of, but when they announced my site would be on Lake Kivu, and then with that first glimpse, it was like being reunited with a part of me that had been missing. We arrived at the hotel we’d be staying just as the last light of day disappeared. Which is fortunate since I’m supposed to do everything in my power to not be out after dark for the next 26 months. Peace Corps policy.

The next morning after a tasty breakfast I said goodbye to my fellow trainee and hopped on a moto for a 90 minute ride of my life. My supervisor told me about an hour before we left Fort Peace Corps that it would be a two hour moto ride to my site. I looked at him incredulously and he clarified that normally it takes an hour but since I’m a umuzungu (my word not his) it would take twice as long. I had packed the smaller of my two packs with what I would need and then brought my backpack with my laptop and language materials, figuring if I didn’t feel it was safe to leave my laptop locked in my room I could carry it around in my backpack during my site visit. When I found out about the moto ride I figured there was no way I was getting both of those bags and my reusable grocery bag with my potable water and just in case food on a moto so I consolidated into my pack and the grocery bag.

The whole experience was rather surreal. I kept wondering if it was some kind of initiation, like at the end if I did well enough my supervisor would congratulate me on being such a trooper and I’d prove that I was fit to live there. Not the case, in order to get my site in a timely manner in the daylight, motos are an integral, albeit expensive necessity. It’s too bad I didn’t get a picture of the ridiculous set up I was rocking. Because of the dust I decided to tie the hot pink handkerchief I had over my nose and mouth. I was also rocking my supercross style Peace Corps issue moto helmet along with my stunner-esque sunglasses. I can’t decide if my supervisor thought the getup was ridiculous or was impressed with my preparedness. Because there’s no way to guarantee the integrity of the second moto helmet drivers carry volunteers are only allowed to wear PC issued helmets.

Throughout the ride various parts of my body expressed displeasure with the ride, my lower back, hip flexors, neck, shoulders, wrists, and arms. Thirty minutes in I started to wonder if I would make it or have to tap the moto driver on the shoulder and beg for a break. About 2/3 of the way, the road got steeper and much rockier so I decided heck with Rwandan conventions, I was going to put my arms firmly around the driver and hold on for dear life. We dodged errant cattle and goats, and played a sort of chicken with giant Mercedes trucks. Who gets to drive on the ‘desirable’ road between a moto and giant truck? I wish I could tell you, but that’s one of those situations that was too stressful to keep my eyes open. By the time I got around to opening them again there was only a cloud of dust and diesel fumes left. Amazingly enough, aside from feeling a little wobbly after I first got off, there was no residual pain or soreness from that great adventure. Though I think a masseuse and chiropractor would make a fortune off all the expats in Rwanda. Although, volunteers are probably the only ones to travel in the traditional Rwandan manner, everyone else probably hires cars.

Thankfully I did all my traveling by foot at site. When it came time to leave Sunday morning I took an Ontracom bus. Which is huge, think charter bus, only it’s got poorly cushioned seats and a bar bolted to the ceiling down the middle where people stand to maximize capacity. There was a slight misunderstanding about what time I was supposed to leave. The bus left from my town center at six am, I thought my supervisor said to be ready to go at 4:45 am, which is early, but we were so early for the other taxi that I didn’t think it out of the ordinary. Then as we’re walking to the bus he’s like, “I said 5:45, I sent the houseboy to grab a seat for you.” Hello, I am an idiot. So I got to hang out on the bus for an extra hour and choice of pretty much any seat I wanted. My supervisor put me up front which I thought was not the best choice considering if anything happened I’d be going right through the giant windshield. Then again, any seat on that bus is bad news bears in an accident.

This time we headed North toward Kibuye and I’m pretty sure the road that way is even worse. The hills are definitely bigger, and in my opinion a bus that big has no business being on a road that twisting or narrow. There was a lot of rain the night before and I was a little anxious about the condition of the road and said a small prayer any time we encountered a muddy, rutted patch. I realized that I had forgotten to do as a current volunteer advised and check the driver’s breathe to see if he was drunk. Then again I didn’t even know who the driver was until he got into the driver’s seat. There were people hanging out on the bus when I first got on who didn’t even leave with us. Did I mention the driver’s door was tied closed with a t-shirt?

For some reason I thought the trip to Kibuye would only take 2 hours, I think because my supervisor had told me that. Well it took four and a half. I really can’t complain too much though because I didn’t get puked on and the people I sat by weren’t bad at all. For the first half of the ride I sat by an adolescent girl. Then this guy decided he was tired of standing and made her squeeze so he could sit on the seat, but that was only for 20 or 30 minutes. They got off around the halfway point and then a guy my age sat next to me. He asked me what I was doing in the area and I showed him the Kinya phrases I had about Peace Corps. He asked why I was learning Kinya because it was a dead language of the poor. I told him the first of probably many taxi lies. To avoid questions about my romantic life I told him I was only 20 years old since it’s illegal to get married before the age of 21. The second lie I told was that I didn’t have facebook and that I had an American email address but wouldn’t be able to check it for the two years I was in Rwanda. That’s what you get for dogging on poor people.

We made it to Kibuye without incident. At this point it’s going on 11 am and I’ve yet to have anything to eat, mostly by my own choice because I had some ‘just in case’ food left and could’ve bought something through the window but didn’t.

Making the transfer in Kibuye was one of the craziest things I’ve seen so far. As people unloaded off the gigantic bus, the drivers and people affiliated with a couple different taxis started trying to herd people into the different taxis. I quickly jumped into one after confirming it was going to Kigali. Then this other taxi shows up on the scene and there’s yelling, waving and pulling people from one taxi to another. The driver of mine started driving forward even though there was a mob of people in front of him. A guy from a rival taxi company was actually trying push back on the taxi so it wouldn’t go forward. I guess the goal was to block the entrance to the other taxi. The taxi filled and we headed to Kigali with a few stops on the way. I was lucky to get a window seat and managed to fit my bag on my lap so I didn’t have to pay for an extra seat. It was a pretty uneventful couple of hours on paved road to Kigali. I slept for part of it and bought some snacks during one of the stops and had two seats to myself after Gitarama.

There was a back up just outside of Kigali and I couldn’t figure out what the hold up was until I saw some cyclists go by. Fun fact: Rwanda is big into cycling, like Tour de France quality.

In Kigali I met up with some other volunteers at a swanky restaurant for beers and a delicious meal. Then we embarked on the last, and probably most tedious leg of our journey, procuring a mutatu to Kamonyi. First we had to catch one from city center out to the mutatu hub which actually has a name I forget. We kind of got jerked around because everyone wanted our business. On the advice of one of the volunteers with us, we got our money out to pay for both mutatus because the hub we were headed to is the place where you’re mostly likely to get pick pocketed. It’s always a little chaotic trying to get a mutatu because there are people pushing and pulling at you and you have to keep an eye on all your stuff and out for pick pockets and cram all your stuff around and over people. We ended up taking six seats between the four of us and all our stuff and just decided we’d eat the extra two thousand francs.

The Kinya word for these taxis actually translates to ‘squeeze bus’ and now I know why. We were pretty much at capacity but at a stop about halfway to Kamonyi we picked up some extra people who sat on laps, crouched, and I’m not really sure what else. The bonus of being in the back of the mutatu was that it wasn’t convenient to invade our personal space since the aisle was blocked by a person in a fold down seat. Now this driver was running a risk because the police are stationed at check points along major routes and stop mutatus to count passengers. If the drivers are over capacity they are fined. However, we were about to leave the main road and it was highly unlikely that there would be a checkpoint along the rest of the route.

And there you have it. My experience with Rwandan public transportation during my site visit which could actually be called Tour de ½ of Rwanda.

Stay tuned for details of the rest of my trip.