Archive | July, 2011

This Is War

24 Jul

Call this half of a post. It’s not quite bedtime but I don’t want to start another book and with no electricity visibility is limited.

First of all, Rwanda has lightening bugs, I saw my second one this evening while brushing my teeth. The only other time I’ve seen them was last summer in Chicago.

Today I finished my second Ernest Hemingway book of this month, For Whom The Bell Tolls and A Farewell To Arms. Judge me all you want, but so far I’m not impressed with the dude. I remember reading the Old Man and The Sea in high school and not being too fond of it either, though I suppose it merits a re-read as an adult.

Both the Hemingway books I’ve read have to do with wars which is so relevant to my life right now as I try each day to relish the small wins when all I want to dwell on is the challenges. It’s weird to compare my life/job in the PEACE Corps to a war, but really you could  consider it a war against ignorance. There are daily battles, often multiple. Sometimes I walk away defeated, sometimes the victor, and in the case of the mice, it is just one of many a skirmish.

It’s been a tough week and I’m starting to wonder what it is I’m doing here and why it’s worth it, and even more face my relationship with my self-esteem head on. It’s hard when wherever I go people ask me for whatever it is I’m holding in my hand, or money, or to teach them English. Or when they come over to my house and want something of mine.

The woman I live with likes to tell me what food I should buy to eat and what things I need in the house. Yet there is some kind of double standard because she keeps her things in cardboard boxes on the floor and there is only the bench and chairs that the health center contributed in our communal living area. And I’m the one buying the bulk of the food even though we’re both eating it. The woman who cooks our lunch likes to give me a hard time because I want to eat the same simple things over and over again. What they don’t seem to understand is that starting from scratch in a new house is expensive and despite my umuzungu status I don’t have boatloads of cash. That I would rather save money to go on a vacation than buy a coffee table for the guests I don’t want in the house. So yeah, there might be weeks when all I want to eat is rice and beans and if you want something different, buy it.

There was a victory this evening, lately in an attempt to keep the mice at bay I’ve been throwing out food when there’s not enough to reheat for the two of us. My roommate asked me why I do that when there are hungry people and I explained that a)we don’t have anywhere to keep the food right now except for in a pot with a lid on the floor which looks gooooood to a mouse and b) I didn’t want to save the food for people because I don’t like strangers at our house, because I’m tired of people always asking me for stuff and I’m worried about theft. light went on and she said that she would quit cooking so much food in the evening and I felt so gratified because I’ve been trying to say we cook too much food THE WHOLE TIME.

Other victories include figuring out how to store the numbers in my phone in such a manner that allows me to know who is calling and texting. For a smart phone, it really isn’t so very, or perhaps its the user. I’m supposed to be able to surf the web with it but it’s just  been this week that I was able to successfully get on fb with it, other websites not so.

With the mice, as much as it stresses me out to hear them running around the false ceiling, mop up their poop several times a week, and even see one run across my bed, I have to accept that this is a battle I will win slowly. It’s either that, or the very real possibility of making myself neurotic. The fact of the matter is, I lack the resources at this time to take the effective measures with my food to keep them away. Little by little though. Like yesterday when I figured out that the mice were getting through the hole in the false ceiling to the ground by running down some wires, the ends that hang just a couple inches from the floor. I taped the ends a foot or two off the ground to the wall, since I probably can’t just rip them out (I’m waiting to get electricity any day now). While I’ve still seen them in the house, I wonder if they will come less often now that there is not an easy exit strategy. This week my buffet I had made should be delivered and we can get all the food off the ground and behind some mouse proof doors. Whenever I see them, NOT in my personal space I try to think of the movie Ratatouille which has proven a less effective strategy than declaring my room a no food zone which sucks because my bed is the most comfortable piece of furniture in the house.

There are things that I work really hard to keep from rolling my eyes at in order to not be disrespectful. Like, when someone tells me something is not good and I ask why, in kinyarwanda to boot, and they cannot offer me an explanation, only that it is bad. Or how yesterday morning, the woman who cooks/helps around the house saw me writing in my journal with red pen and told me that I shouldn’t because it will hurt my eyes. Or how this evening my supervisor stopped by again after visiting to tell me that my window was still open (after dark). I told him that a)the paint fumes are still quiet overpowering and b)I sleep under a mosquito net. I failed to mention how I faithfully adhere to my malaria prophylaxis regimen daily. I will continue to take these things in stride because someday someone is going to tell me something that will make me feel like an asshole, but I will be so happy to know so I can stop the offending behavior. Rwandans on a whole are a subtle and non-confrontational people and I’ve never been one to pick up on subtleties. Just one more thing I can look forward to being better at after two years.

This post kind of turned into a vent session. There’s no doubt I’m at the first of many lower points in my service. With everyday though there is something, no matter how little brings some kind of happiness to my day. I’m adjusting to a new way of life in a place where my coworkers and people in my community aren’t quite sure what to think of or do with me. It’s going to take time for all of us to figure out what that looks like and I will continue to struggle and experience frustration as I try to exert the control I love so much that doesn’t actually exist. Not to mention learn how to tackle the challenges with out the resources and autonomy I’ve grown accustomed to.

Tuzatsinda is kinyarwanda for we will win, and by golly us volunteers will do just that even if victory may only be realized in hindsight. No matter what happens, I can only come out of this experience a better person than I was before.


Part Two

23 Jul

Once at Fort Peace Corps I paid a visit to the medical office so I could stock up on all the necessities before heading out to the wild, distant, West. After a wardrobe change a group of us headed back into town to procure necessities not available at site you know, like Nutella and chocolate.
Maybe twenty minutes after we arrived in town I get a call from my training manager saying we need to have a meeting to discuss my performance plan. Since I didn’t do as well as I needed to, but show promise I’m on a language probation of sorts. Mostly I just need to spend some more time practicing my Kinyarwanda conversational skills, procure a language tutor, and keep PC in the loop about the process. The frustrating thing was that I’d spent probably two-ish hours on the PC campus and of course I heard from them when I got to town. It was just after four and we agreed to meet back at the office at six pm. So myself and another person in a similar situation broke off from the rest of the group and went into power shopping mode. We hit up the Indian store Sharma and then went back to the Walmart of Rwanda and picked up a few last things. At 5:30 we left the supermarket and began the hike to the taxis to the part of Kigali Fort Peace Corps is in. My bag was heavy and the walk was far enough. Luckily, we had our adventure the night before so finding a taxi back was a piece of cake and amazingly enough we made it back to the office right on time.
After the meeting I tried unsuccessfully to snag some free wireless at a swanky coffee shop. I’d been trying since Monday to find free wifi so I could update my antivirus without eating up my modem credit. I got a phone call around seven that the rest of the gang was back from shopping adventures and formulating a plan for the evening so I paid for my iced Americano (aka heaven in a glass) and walked back.
Five of us decided to go to the Indian restaurant within walking distance and then try our hand at a Kigali night club. For some reason we didn’t end up leaving Fort Peace Corps to eat until nine pm. PS it still felt surreal to think that we were volunteers.
Kigali doesn’t have a lot of ‘main’ roads so most places you want to go you wind your way down a side road or some stairs to get to the place. In this case, we encountered a stubborn gate and some very interesting, poorly lit, non-uniform stairs. That’s the other thing about Rwanda, nothing is really uniform, not even stairs in the same staircase. Makes thinks entertainingly treacherous. It all paid off though because the food was good and I had my first gin and tonic sine staging in Philly. Cocktails are EXPENSIVE. One shot was 2,000 RWF. To put that in perspective, my daily allowance during training, to buy lunch and incidentals was 2,500 RWF. And it comes with just the liquor, you have to buy a mixer separately which is typically 300 RWF more, if not double the regular price for a bottled beverage. I decided to just go for it, and was even afforded the luxury of complimentary sliced limes and ice! The man asked me if I wanted a double, but I was not into ordering twice the amount of a gin I had no idea the quality. My bravery was rewarded though and it was refreshingly amazing, the perfect complement to the delicious food and our celebratory mood.
Once we noticed that we were the only people left made use of the restroom (the good ones are few and far between) and headed off to the club. It was fun, we ordered another round of drinks, did some people watching and some dancing. Some other abazungu wandered in later in the evening but we didn’t talk to them. The DJ played a little bit of everything including Ace of Base and Gangsters Paradise. He kept it current with some Usher and other songs I can’t remember at this moment. It was fun to see this side of the people I’d spent so much time with. And yes, if you’re wondering if I danced with a Rwandan man, I certainly did. And a Rwandan woman. Hahaha. There were a couple very flamboyant men there and I couldn’t decide if they were G or not. It is illegal to be gay in Rwanda so the scene is so much on the down low it almost doesn’t exist. However, in my experience these guys fit the bill for Gs that I’ve seen in clubs. And while men hold hands and are rather intimate in the space they share publicly here, one guy in particular seemed to be bending gender norms quite a bit even for Rwandan standards. Not that it’s so important to put people into one category or another, but I am still soaking up the Rwandan Culture.
Sometime around 1 am we decided to head out since we had an early morning and busy day ahead of us. The walk back was quite long, but entertaining. We got home around 2 am to be informed that a pipe had burst and the water was shut off and may not be turned back on in the morning. I was grimy from a day of rushing around Kigali and getting my dance on so when I found out that there was still water from a hose out back I decided to go for it. Amazing enough I managed not to be spotted by any of the guards but the verdict is still out on whether there are cameras in the compound or not.
About an hour after I went to bed I woke up with a nasty feeling in my tummy. I took some pepto chewables but wasn’t convinced that would solve my problem. Not wanting to wake the rest of my bunkmates up if I puked I grabbed my blanket and a pot and tried to go back to sleep. Maybe thirty minutes later the first group of people got up making sleep futile. I wasn’t too worried since I had a lengthy car ride ahead of me. I WAS worried about how I was going to sit in a car for hours when it felt like I would need to use the bathroom at any moment. I thought back to potential causes and it came down to two water related situations. The first was the ice cubes at the restaurant, I didn’t think twice when I put them in my drink, but in hindsight I had no way of know where the water came from. The second was from the water in the filters at Fort Peace Corps, there was a rumor that whoever refilled the filters forgot to put bleach in the water. No one else had similar symptoms and I never did figure out what it was. I took an Imodium and was good to go by the time we left.
Ok I already wrote about the trip here and our stay in the regional house. On to the time I’ve spent at site!
I did end up waiting for my roommate to return home before going to the market and we spent an hour and a half going to different shops procuring various necessities. It was seven when we got home and the roomie didn’t want to cook which was fine because I had all the supplies to make deconstructed nachos, which is just tortilla chips, slices of cheese and guacamole. You do what you can without an oven right? We had get to know you girl talk, mostly in Kinya which was awesome. Then round about 9 pm it was time to turn in which was all kinds of amazing since at my homestay dinner was as late as 10 pm sometimes.
Saturday I had a lazy morning as I explained to roomie that I wanted and had tea she made me around nine am out of my new thermos I might add. Then we started cooking lunch, well I helped by cutting some stuff up but she did most of the cooking. We ate and I puttered around and then did some laundry, showered and went back to the boutiques for a few more things. We came back and ate a cold dinner that she had already prepared, I introduced her to the concept of a food baby and we called it a night.
This morning I woke up bright and early since I was under the impression we would leave for church at eight am. I got ready, did the dishes, got dressed, ate, but roomie was nowhere to be found. Turns out she had gone to visit our neighbor and came back at 8:15. When it became evident that we would not be leaving anytime soon I poured myself a cup of tea and started a new book. We ended up leaving at nine. Oh Rwandan time.
This church was different from the other I went to, but I don’t want to go into too many details since I’ve got a separate post about church in the works. I got to stand up and introduce myself. There was a lot of singing and dancing and the even had a guitar, bass, and drum kit in addition to the ubiquitous keyboard.
After church we came home and I played a more active role in the preparation of our food. Then there was a debate about where I was supposed to go. Around 3:30 I went to visit the family of a girl who has been helping me to buy stuff. Her mom is a farmer but considers her real job praying. The first thing we did when we sat down was pray and she got on the floor on her knees with her hands in the air. It was kind of intense but I wasn’t freaked out because people praying for me makes me think of my grandma and if there’s anyone you want praying for you, it’s my grandma. If you’re wondering if she’s prayed for you, if you know me and have been through something challenging, I’ve asked her to pray for you.
After the prayer they brought out rice and beans and I groaned hardcore since I had eaten a food baby’s worth less than an hour ago. I was a good sport and took a sizeable portion, still small by Rwandan standards. I couldn’t stay long because I had to get back to watch the beans cook so my roomie could go to work this evening. The family I visited was worried about me being alone tonight since my roomie had to work and wanted to send someone to spend the night with me but I assured them I would be quite alright.
I read until the light got crummy, washed up and made some more deconstructed nachos and did the dishes all by eight pm which is absolutely lovely. My supervisor stopped by at dusk scaring me because he surprised me. Apparently this week is vaccination week so I’ll get to travel all over the health center’s catchment area with the vaccination team. I can’t think of a better first week. I’ll let you know how it goes! My computer is almost out of battery so I’ll have to leave my thoughts on my roommate for another time.
Something to be optimistic about, when I visited my neighbor’s yesterday they had electricity! They didn’t when I last visited so it is entirely possible that I will get electricity in a more timely manner than originally anticipated.

The Beginning Of the End or the End of the Beginning?

16 Jul

Today is July 16th, where has time gone? Let’s start with last Tuesday, the day that we picked up and headed to Kigali. There were four Peace Corps vehicles to collect 18 people’s worth of stuff including all the bags we came with and the various items Peace Corps had issued like beds, trunks, etc. Amazingly enough, a car showed up at my house sometime after eight am and all my stuff was unloaded at the Hub by nine.

In the interest of getting to Kigali in a timely manner, a number of people including myself were invested in doing whatever possible to help. This included moving piles of moldy bed parts (side story they had been sent to Kigali to have the mold cleaned off them and varnished so they wouldn’t mold), I think in hopes that the mold would magically go away? I don’t know. Just as it seemed like departure for the promise land of Kigali was in sight, things started to go awry. Before we started loading the moving truck PC rented with our baggage I asked several times whether or not the bikes would also need to go in the moving truck since there should be plenty of room and it made the most sense to load them first. The plan was another truck would come later to retrieve them. Our trunks, which would stay behind (a source of contention), had been unloaded haphazardly in the front yard so I asked a staff person where we could stack them to make room and they said in the main room of the house. After we had them all stacked another staff person told us that we needed to move them out back behind the house. Soooooo we did.

A phone call from Kigali saying that the bikes needed to go in the moving truck threw a wrench in everything because the truck was already packed with everyone’s bags and mattresses. So some of the bags were transferred to another vehicle and the drivers commenced the painful process of loading 17 bikes into an already overfull truck. I cringe at the thought of how many spokes were bent and chains stretched. Tell me what is the point of buying $600 bikes for volunteers just to treat them like shit? Not to mention the mattresses they were thrown on top of. The other point of reason we tried to make was if we could somehow separate out the moldy and flea/bed bug infested mattresses from the others so that those lovely gifts would not be passed on.

One last gripe, because of the low quality of beds volunteers received they molded, and some even had their mattresses mold. Others as I previously mentioned got bed bugs and fleas. As a result a number of people did not want to take their mattresses to site but PC said too bad, the budget if more important so not only do you have to take your bed with you, but you’ll be charged for it. How awesome is that? I can’t seem to get away from the economic recession. I feel the most sorry for the married couple who were given two single mattresses they were expected to sleep on.

Alright so sometime around noon I had had enough of the insanity and left in one of the cars for Kigali. After everyone arrived and we unloaded the moving trucks a group of five of us went to a Japanese/Korean restaurant that was nearby. It was expensive, then again what in Kigali isn’t? However sooooo worth it and delicious. I ordered a soup of sorts with Udon, shrimp, tofu and chicken. The broth was an amazing mix of salty and just a little sweet. And I could totally taste the cauliflower and broccoli that had cooked in it. It was heavenly. To top it off, there was black pepper. Someone ordered Bulgolgi which was AMAZING and I got to have some kimchi from another person’s bento box which was also really good.

After lunch we caught a twegerhane into ‘town’ to price and scout stuff to purchase. Some of us wanted to find this store called T-2000 which is supposed to be a good place to get housewares for cheap. With some mediocre directions ¾ of the Taba group headed off in search of this store, and perhaps a dress for one of us to wear to swear-in.  We walked and walked and walked, found the restaurant supply store where I bought two small-ish bag of tortilla chips. Then walked some more, but started asking for directions. After walking for quite awhile we realized that we had walked in a giant, unnecessary circle, but we did get a nice tour of ‘town’.

T-2000 was underwhelming, though I did buy some tea lights for when I want to have a date night with myself, or maybe for more practical reasons since I don’t have electricity. Also while we were there, we say the forbidden Marines. Backstory, there a contingent of seven or eight marines who work at the US Embassy. The country director told us all kinds of marvelous things about the Embassy and Marines like access to swimming pools, liquor, and fresh baked cookies to name a few. Also of the wonderful fourth of July party the Embassy has. After all this she told us we were not to fraternize with the marines, or their connections, and avoid the embassy in order to prevent Rwandans from thinking we were spies. How cruel is to dangle swimming pools and fresh baked cookies in front us 18 deprived individuals and then tell them to keep away? To add insult to irony, one of the people I was with overheard one of the Marines say that he wanted to get back so he could get a swim in. They left the store around the same time we did only they had a driver and suburban waiting for them.

We headed to one of the supermarkets and I picked up a few things to make nachos, since there’s a stove where we were staying. One of us was hungry and ordered a sandwich and because I feel the need to eat ice cream whenever I can here, I ordered a sundae. Thank heavens I had the sundae in my belly because we walked in another giant, needless circle. The week before Kigali moved where the busses to and from town depart and arrive from however they did not do a good job making this common knowledge. The phone a friend method did not work well so we employed the walk a bit and ask for directions method. What we knew was that we wanted to head towards the prison, and the directions people gave us kept including poorly lit and desolate streets (because it gets dark here at six). Luckily it worked out and we made it safely, and double luck we had a master of martial arts with us for protection.

So we returned back to Fort Peace Corps tired and sweaty. Some other were there along with two current PCVs so we chatted with them and gorged on the skittles and oreos friends of another volunteer had brought. Eventually I showered and then had someone flat iron my hair which was a nice treat.

Wednesday I woke up bright and early to finish the slideshow which we did not end up using at the swear-in ceremony. We had some left over money from buying t-shirts so we used it to buy breakfast goods and enjoyed juice, pancakes and eggs. Oh and coffee with REAL milk. I also did my makeup real fancy, helped other people in a variety of ways and then at eight am we had song and dance rehearsal. One of the language and culture teachers modified a Rwandan song to reflect the things we had done during training so it was put into the program for us to perform.

Swear-in was at the Ambassador’s house but since the old one had left for a new post and the new one had yet to arrive they were represented by the Charge d’affaire who is a TINY woman. She wore four inch wedges and still required a platform at the podium but she’s the most proportional tiny person I’ve seen. The minister of health for Rwanda showed up late, but it was awesome she was there nonetheless.

The ceremony began with a welcome from the country director, but before it started I got to have an underwhelming conversation with a representative from USAID. I will refrain from saying anything else in order to not incriminate myself. After the CD’s welcome it was time for the song and dance. I was one of the dancers and I’ve tried to block out the memory of how ludicrous the whole thing was. I do remember that I had to try really hard not to break out into laughter during the dance. The singers were hijacked by the teacher who wrote the song for us. We didn’t know that the song was based off another song that most Rwandans know and that the tempo we had practiced it at was actually two times too slow. Between the sped up tempo and the throngs of people with cameras crowding us it felt like pure chaos. The good news is that the pain was over that much faster. I still don’t know if people were impressed with our attempt at learning Rwandan culture or amused at the mess we made of it all. Did I mention we had at maximum four total hours of practice? Oh and the whole ceremony was on Rwandan National Television.

After the song and dance debacle we had three sets of speakers, two English, two French, and finally two Kinyarwanda. I didn’t sign up to give a speech because I figured people were tired of hearing me talk all the time at training and I didn’t have anything particularly meaningful to say. Turns out you don’t have to sine the bulk of the speeches were comprised of thank yous and other necessary formalities, not that we aren’t a thankful bunch, however I don’t think it was what anyone imagined when they signed up to give the speeches, I could be wrong.

After the speeches the Charge D’Affaires gave us a few words and introduced the Minister Of Health, then we were sworn in by the Charge or maybe our CD spoke first? I can’t remember, the whole thing was surreal. Afterwards there were light refreshments which I ate a lot of when it became evident there were a lot of leftovers. I continued to try to avoid my supervisor who had come, not because I don’t like him, but because it still takes a lot of effort to interact with him at this point and I did not have the energy for it. He came to tell me that he would be in Butare at a training until Sunday.

After enjoying the cookies, carrot cake, meatballs, mini quiche, pizza-esque squares, kebabs, and juice we gave out t-shirts in appreciation of our training staff then loaded up and headed back to Fort Peace Corps.

You’ll have to stay tuned for what happens next since I’m tired and have already written a ton. I’ll give you a little teaser, I had my first liquor drink, went to a Rwandan club, and showered at two am with a hose.  For those of you who know me, would you expect any less of me on my first night as a Peace Corps Volunteer?


Wherever you go, there you are

15 Jul

Well I’m here, at my site for good. I arrived around 11:30 and aside from mopping my room and greeting people have just been hanging out. It’s three now, and my new roommate asked me to wait for her to go to the market and purchase the things I need. At first I was in a hurry to get things done, but then I decided it would be a good bonding activity.

Yesterday early morning we left Kigali, miracle of all miracles relatively on time, just before eight am. It was the right time of day to travel through the Nyngwye Forest because we saw hellllaaaa baboons and some monkeys just chilling on/next to the road. I didn’t get much sleep the night before so I doze for the first part of the trip but woke up just in time to see the primates. We, being myself, another new volunteer, the driver and a PC staff person arrived in Kamembe around noon where we were greeted by the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader who lives in our region. There’s only one in all of Rwanda and since our area it takes so long to travel to Kigali and is EXPENSIVE he mans the regional office and volunteer crash pad.

After lunch at a restaurant we parted ways with the PC staff and the PCVL showed us around Kamembe. It was heartening to find out that Kamembe has some good things going for it, including some cool places to hang out and hear music. The best part though was hearing about the other volunteers in the area and what they’re up to. I met one during PST and absolutely loved her and heard that the rest are of a similar caliber. This is a comfort to know since time and money are factors that make me feel a bit isolated from the rest of the training group.

For dinner, a guy that the PCVL works with and teaches English to invited all five of us to his house for dinner. We were joined by his roommate and two friends. It was a fun night and a good opportunity for making some new friends and a little cross cultural exchange. His work occasionally brings him to these parts so there were plans to visit, and for me to return the favor of cooking before the evening ended.

The car was ridiculously full on the way to Kamembe, with the other volunteer and I surrounded by bags in the back seat. Somehow we made room for the PCVL and his suitcase since he was hitching a ride back to Kigali. Thankfully we reached the other volunteer’s site in little more than an hour.

There’s so much to write about but my room here is freshly painted and even with the window open I can feel brain cells dying. Rest assured that I will fill you in on all the ludicrous details of the last week over the weekend.

I should mention that there was some confusion about the owner of the PO Box I listed as my new address so I would appreciate your patience in waiting to know what a good address to reach me is. If you already sent something please don’t worry, I have faith that everything will work out.