Epic TransAfrica Journey: The Skeleton

2 Dec

As many of you know, I’m planning on taking a long overland trip from Kigali to South Africa after I finish my service in Peace Corps. I figure, I don’t have anything pressing to get back to America for, and it is far cheaper to fly from South Africa, so this gives me a chance to see a lot of Africa and meet up with some friends living along the way.

I don’t have many firmly set plans yet, but I have a general sketch of what the trip will look like. I’ll be starting in Burundi for a few days, then moving up to Uganda to visit my friend Wycliffe who works with me at KCCEM, and Sophie  my friend from Tucson. Then I’ll be moving off through Kenya, taking the train from Nairobi to Mombasa and hopefully spending Christmas on the Indian Ocean somewhere. Then its down to Dar es Salaam and taking the train to the border of Malawi. I’ll bus through Malawi and on to Zambia, where I’ll meet up with the rail line again around Lusaka and head down to Victoria Falls, which I hope to reach by mid January. From there, I’ll spend a bit of time in Zimbabwe, head over to Botswana to meet up with a friend from GW who’s in Peace Corps there, and then down to South Africa. I’ll take another train from Jo-burg to Durban, then bus from Durban to Capetown. Then it’s back to America!

For a better idea of what that might look like, see the map I’ve included here. africa-political-map

map credit: Daniel Feher at freeworldmaps.net


Giving thanks

28 Nov

Today is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays. I love it because it’s a time we come together with family and friends and eat a lot of food. That really is a winning combination- I can’t think of anything better than eating too much with people I like. But it also a time of reflection, when we look at the people and things that make our lives better, richer, and more fulfilling.

This year, Thanksgiving comes just as I’m finishing my Peace Corps Service, and I am feeling particularly thankful. Many Peace Corps Volunteers say this, but I feel like I have received so much more than I’ve given over the last two years of my life, and I want to take a minute to recognize what it is I’m thankful for. (Fair warning- this is liable to get a little sappy.)

First, I’m grateful for my community here in Kitabi. At KCCEM, I have had the privilege to work with and become friends with so many intelligent, dedicated, ambitious people. I’ve been happy to teach, work, watch football, play cards, attend weddings, and share beers with you over the last two years. You all have made me feel like I belong here, and I will always consider you as my family in Rwanda.

I’m also thankful for my neighbors and the people of Kitabi sector, who have been equally welcoming. It is wonderful to be a part of a community where everyone knows your name, and misses you even when you’re only gone for a few days. As much as I’ll like having some anonymity again, I will miss being part of such a friendly, tight-knit community.

The past two years wouldn’t be the same without my fellow volunteers, either. Peace Corps has given me the opportunity to meet and share a unique experience with people from all over the US. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve fantasized about foods that we know we can’t have, and we’ve talked about poop way more than is socially acceptable. I’ve become close with many amazing people who I probably never would have spent time with in America, and I know I’ll remain friends with many of you for a long, long time.

Finally, I am thankful that my family has been so supportive of me throughout my time in Rwanda. I can’t imagine how much harder this experience would have been without your emails and weekly phone calls. I’m also thankful that you were able to come and visit me here, and get a little idea of what my life in Rwanda has been like.

Peace Corps has been an amazing experience, and I’ve had opportunities to do things and meet people I never would have in the US. Most of all, my experience here has helped direct me towards what I want to do next in life, and having that direction moving forward is perhaps what I’m most grateful for.

Trial Separation

28 Nov

On Saturday, I arrived back in Kitabi after about three weeks away from site. It’s been a busy month!

First, my friend Sophie visited me back in October. Sophie and I have known each other since preschool at TCS, and although we lost touch for a while, we reconnected in high school when we both studied abroad with AFS. We’ve been good friends ever since. When she was applying to Peace Corps, we joked about how funny it would be if she got placed in Rwanda, too- and then she ended up in Uganda, which is basically as close you can get in Peace Corps without being in Rwanda.

While she was only here for a few days, it was great to see Sophie. We spent a couple of days relaxing in Kibuye, on lake Kivu, and were sort of adopted by a young Canadian family. They were about 9 months through a one year tour of the world with their four kids, aged 2 to 7. Taking such a long trip with such young kids is pretty ballsy, if you ask me, but they seemed like they were doing great. I gave them some travel advice for their time in Rwanda, and we ended up taking a little boat trip with them on the lake, which was lovely. After a couple days on the lake, we went back to Kigali. Sophie and I both had a lot of work to do, so we spent most our time in Kigali eating good food and working/procrastinating work we needed to do. Oh, we also attended a massive expat Halloween party- I think there were about 200 people all dressed up, which was pretty surreal. We dressed up as peanut butter (me) and jelly. It was a short visit, but I’m looking forward to seeing Sophie again in Uganda when I go to visit after my close of service (COS).

The week after was when most of the volunteers in my training class were closing their service. I stayed in Kigali for my COS medical exams (I got a clean bill of health) and to go to our group’s goodbye party. It was nice to see everyone together one last time- I really love the people in my group, and not seeing them regularly is going to be one of the things I miss most about my life in Rwanda. I also worked on my graduate school applications and worked on last-minute preparations for our GLOW and BE camps, which were beginning November 10th, and attended the wedding of my friend Peter in Kigali.

Then, before I knew it, it was camp time. We got lucky, actually, since the grant for one of our camps was delayed by the government shut down, and we thought for a time we may have to cancel one camp altogether. Then the grant went through, but we weren’t sure if the money would reach us before camp time, and we thought we might have to front the money for one of the camps ourselves. At the end of the day though, the money came through the week before camp and everything was fine.

I was co-directing the camps this year, which is a very different experience than being a facilitator, as I have been in past years. Directing involves a lot less contact with the kids and a lot more behind the scenes logistical work. There were lots of things that had to be taken care of last minute- materials to be bought and printed, food to be arranged, etc. and of course a lot of little fires to be put out. All in all, though, I feel like camp went well, and I’m glad I was a part of it this year. One of the big successes was our girl’s career panel, to which we invited strong female leaders to talk about their work, the challenges they’ve had, and to encourage our girls to work hard to reach their goals. Our keynote speaker was the Representative of UN Women in Rwanda, and she gave a really inspiring speech.

The boys’ camp was also a success, although we’ve come to seriously question the model we are using for BE camp. One of the main points of these camps is to help encourage gender equality. This doesn’t just mean encouraging and inspiring girls, it means teaching boys to be partners with girls in gender equality. Gender equality is a subject that all secondary school students hear about in school or on the radio, as the government of Rwanda is really pushing it. But there is normally no space for dialogue on the subject. We found that the boys know the “right” answers to questions we were asking them, but these answers often didn’t reflect what they really believed when you probe deeper. We had a speaker come to talk to the boys about gender-based violence one day of camp, and this sparked a heated discussion about gender roles. Many of the boys told us there were situations in which they feel it is okay for a man to beat his wife. This was a bit discouraging, but it showed that the classroom-style lessons that we’re giving during camp about gender roles and healthy relationships aren’t hitting home quite in the way we’d like. Something for the camp directors next year to work on, I guess.

Just like that, two weeks of camp were over. Camp consumes every minute of the day, and that makes the time fly. Most days I would find I was working all day, from 6am to 9pm, and while I’m glad I decided to stay and direct the camps, I was pretty drained by the end of the second week. I was happy to be heading home, to sleep in my own bed for a while. It felt strange, though, since I would only have about 10 days at site before leaving again, this time for good. More like going away for the weekend than actually coming home. I arrived on Saturday afternoon and found dirty dishes in the sink, a mouse had moved into my room and started pooping everywhere (including one corner of my bed), and the power out. It stayed out for two days. I was still glad to be back, but this felt like a sign that really, it is time for me to go.

Puppy Blues

2 Sep

Saturday morning, I found a puppy on my doorstep. She was lying on her stomach on my porch, looking at her reflection in the plexiglass front door like she had been waiting for someone for a long time.

I expected her to run away as soon as I opened the door, but she didn’t. She approached my outstretched hand with her tail between her legs, but as I scratched behind her ears she became extremely friendly. She was black and light brown, between 4 and 6 months old I’d guess. Even though she looked well-fed, my first thought was, “I should give her something to eat. But if I feed her, I’ll never get rid of her…”

Now, I am a dog lover, and it has been hard for me to be away from my dogs for almost 2 years. In many countries, Peace Corps Volunteers adopt dogs, and it was fairly common until recently in Rwanda as well. From the beginning of my service, though, I had decided that it would be a bad idea to get a dog. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after Peace Corps but it probably wouldn’t be stable enough to bring dog along with me, and I didn’t think I could bring myself to have a dog for two years and then abandon it or pawn it off on another volunteer. Plus, the Peace Corps Rwanda Country Director recently decided volunteers would no longer be able to keep dogs here for cultural reasons. Aside from all that, my house doesn’t have a fence and there is no way my two housemates would agree to us having a dog.

So with all that in mind, what did I do? I went into the house and came back with some peanut butter on a piece of banana, because let’s face it, I’m a sucker, and I’ve never met a dog who didn’t like peanut butter. Puppy was not enthusiastic about it; she looked like she was just being polite licking the peanut butter off and leaving the banana, but she was happy to for the attention anyway.

When I went back into the house to get my bag, she tried to follow me and whined outside when I closed the door. When I went down the hill to the teachers’ office, she followed me down. She waited outside the office for me, followed me back home, and then followed me still as I started walking into town.

That’s when I started to wonder what the hell I was going to do with this puppy. I couldn’t very well keep her for all the reasons I mentioned before, but also because of the stir she made following me around. As I was walking past my neighbors house, everyone stopped what they were doing to stare. “Where did your dog come from?” they asked. No one would come within a few feet of it, and people were shocked when I knelt down and pet it. “You don’t know where this dog came from… won’t it eat you?” asked one of my neighbors. And that is the opinion commonly held of dogs here. Most Rwandans I know deeply dislike or fear them, and few people have had any positive experiences with one. For a crazy second, I wanted to keep the puppy just to show my neighbors how lovely a good dog can be, though I knew that plan would probably backfire in a million different ways.

I continued walking to the village center, heading to a local pre-election meeting that would be attended by hundreds of people. None of them would be happy to see a dog there, and I worried that I would be put in the position of having to defend this puppy from people trying to chase it off by kicking it or throwing rocks at it or something equally bad. All this time I was walking along with a few local children, and one of them was very interested in the puppy. I stopped with him for a minute and showed him how to gently pet the dog. As we got to the outskirts of the town center, I asked him if he wanted to take the dog with him. He said yes, so I picked up the puppy and gave it to him. She didn’t resist at all, and the boy carried her off down an alley between two houses.

I was simultaneously relieved and saddened; it seemed like too easy a solution. Realistically, I have no idea if that puppy will be okay. What I do know is that even if I had tried to take it, kept it as a semi-wild outside dog and fed it occasionally, I would probably have come back from a weekend meeting in Kigali at some point and find it beaten, dead, or gone. Maybe it would have been fine for 3 months, but my service is almost finished and what would happen to it when I leave the country? My best hope is that the boy’s family will treat it well, and even there I am not very optimistic.

After the election meeting, I walked home. All of my neighbors asked me where my dog was. I explained that I couldn’t keep her, so I had given her to a boy in town. She had never been mine anyway, I said, trying to convince myself as much as them. I went down to the office for a while, and it started to rain; the dry season was finally ending. Returning home, I found myself checking the porch. Part of me hoped to see her huddled there, waiting for me in the rain. There was nothing there but puddled rain water and a little smear of peanut butter.


27 Aug

I came home the weekend after my dad’s visit to a quiet school. It was mid-July. My students were still on break, and I expected to use the week to catch up on unfinished business around my village and finish drafting the grant applications for our Southern Province GLOW and BE camps which were due the following week. But as is often the case, that is not quite how things played out.

The date I had agreed on with the Executive Secretary of Kitabi for our library launch ceremony was the Friday of that week. Since the date had been postponed so many times, I imagined I would get home and find no preparations had been made and that we would have to choose a new date. How wrong I was!

Instead, I found that the library room had been painted, the shelves moved in, and everyone asking what we were going to do for the launch ceremony. Things were finally moving, and this time I was the one who wasn’t ready for them.

So the week turned into a controlled scramble of preparations. Wednesday we held our preparatory Library Committee meeting, just two days before the actual launch. We agreed on different tasks for everyone on the committee- including getting refreshments, inviting guests, organizing the books, etc. It was too late to get announcements in to the local churches for the launch, but I drafted some fliers to publicize the event and brought them to the meeting for feedback. I spent the day rewriting the fliers, getting them officially stamped at the sector, posting them up around town in the afternoon. Thursday I spent the morning with another committee member organizing the books by level and putting up some posters, then all that was left to do was wait.

Friday morning found me trying to be patient in the library room as we waited for committee members, guests and refreshments to arrive. EDC, the organization sponsoring the mobile libraries project, had given me some Community Mobile Library shirts, which I brought as a sort of uniform for each committee member. People trickled in and out for the first hour, and I showed off our collection of books to whoever would listen. Finally, when enough guests had arrived, we went ahead with the ceremony.

Although the event did not attract a big crowd, we did have good representation from local educators and leaders. Among the guests were some staff from the local government, directors from many of the schools in Kitabi Sector (including KCCEM’s Principal and Librarian), the Mother Superior of the nuns living and working in Kitabi, and of course the library committee. The ceremony went off without much fanfare- it was really just a series of speeches explaining the project and thanking those involved before a ribbon cutting ceremony. I was glad to see the Sector Education Officer (responsible for education at the local government level) take the lead during the ceremony, though, and give a good explanation of the importance of the project.

After the ribbon cutting, we all went into the library for fanta and peanuts. While the guests perused the books, I took one off the shelf and started reading in Kinyarwanda- just as a joke and to show off a little, initially. Then I decided to pass the book to the person sitting next to me, and pretty soon each person was reading a page, round-robin style. On the last page there were some comprehension questions, and seeing those launched us into a small discussion about how we can get students in the sector interested in using the library. This part was totally unplanned, and was lead by committee members and my Principal without any prompting from me. It was really encouraging to see people taking an active interest in how the project might continue to move forward, and made me feel like the project is a little bit more secure after I leave than I thought it might be.

The library has been open a month now, and I still have many concerns about how the project will continue to run when I leave in December. For now, the library is open 6 hours a week, and we are not lending books out yet- people are supposed to come to the library to read. (In reality, I have noticed some books missing, and I hope that these have been lent out to responsible people by other committee members.) There are a lot of things that need to be done if the project is going to reach its potential, including trainings of committee members in some kind of a record keeping system, events and competitions to generate interest in the library, and trainings for the community about how to treat books respectfully before we start lending them out. Unfortunately, my time here is drawing to a close, and I while I will do what I can to move the project along while I am here, eventually it will be up to my community (and perhaps a future volunteer) to make what they will of the library.

So, I have mixed feelings then about the library. On one hand, the library is OPEN! After a year of prodding and patience, failures and little successes, we have books and library room, shelves and chairs, and of all that I am very proud. On the other hand, the future of the library remains tenuous- all that effort could still come to naught. What I can say, though, is that as frustrated as I have sometimes been with the project, whether it fails or succeeds in the end, I have never yet regretted trying to make it work, and if I can leave Peace Corps feeling that way about my service, I think I can call it good.

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