Sunday, August 1, 2010

July Update Pt. 1

This month was marked by rediscovering myself. Getting out of country helped me realize how much of me I had recently lost. Somewhere between being burnt out on the long semester, Stockholm syndrome perpetuated by my living situation, and Rwanda’s relative cultural isolation, I forgot who I was. Tanzania has such a wealth of human diversity; it helped me remember that the world continues to move, even when I’m not looking directly at it. Dar-es-Salaam was a particularly intriguing city, being so heavily inundated by Islam, but still peacefully co-existing with Western mentalities. For example, women walk down the street completely covered in a burkah next to their friend who is wearing a spaghetti strap shirt and chatting on a cell phone. They take meals together. They don’t HATE each other. It was as if individuals could readily be themselves without incurring the judgment of anyone else. “Just be yourself,” says Tanzania, and then the people are. It was mind boggling, but it also gave me hope for the future of my own country. If Tanzania can reconcile the vastly different cultures which inhabit its boarders, then at some point in time the world should also be able to grow to live by the same example.

So, as most of you know, my family made the thirty some odd hour trek to visit me in Rwanda. Charissa came with me to the airport and was my designated photographer. I think there are a couple of pictures of me shedding a tear or two, and there are definitely a grip of Mom bawling her eyes out.
"Oh my god," she'd gawk. "You are so skinny. What on earth have THEY done to you?"
"Aw, it's not so bad, Mom. The food situation has actually been really good ever since admin paid me back all that money they owed me."

Yes, they don't tell you this in the brochures, but adventures in Peace Corps are usually things like adventures in eating and not dying from some sort of severe temperature. Because I don't have to suffer from the latter, I suffer from the former. The market in Mulindi is really limited and my calorie intake does not match what I burn walking up and down a mountain twice a day. To make matters worse, for several months money had become extremely tight due to several trips I made to Kigali at the request of either the PCMO or my APCD. On paper, Peace Corps does not make the volunteer pay for these trips, but in practice the volunteer pays out of pocket, fills out a form and then is supposedly "paid back" at a later date. In the case of Peace Corps Rwanda, that means we are all paid back about 5 months later with an accrued debt that could range anywhere from 50,000 francs to 120,000 francs. I could survive two weeks at site on about 50,000 francs, so the fact that I was missing more than that much money for months at a time was a bit detrimental to my eating habits. By the time IST rolled around I was awaiting my stipend and three free prepared meals a day with bated breath. "Well," I would think, "I have 5,000 francs to get me through this last week before training. I should be able to buy enough food if I eat rice and tomato sauce for dinner and peanut butter bread for lunch and breakfast." But life in Peace Corps is never so straight-forward. I'm also essentially funding the life of my Rwandan housemate, which I seem to forget every time I try to plan what funds I will need to set aside for things like food and phone credit. 5,000 for a week for two people doesn’t suffice, even eating the bare minimum at the village. When my PCMO told me one of my blood tests showed that I was anemic I nearly gave into sarcasm and shouted, "Surprise!"
So in short, thank you Peace Corps for your attention to my basic human needs. I appreciate your concerted effort to make sure I don't die. Even if your concern has a tendency to come a few months later than my health would prefer.

"I'm writing a letter," my sister fumed, "I'm writing a MILLION letters!"
"All right. Maybe your tax-payer rage will get someone to do something about how volunteers are treated in Rwanda. Maybe."

My mom treated the majority of my friends to huge dinners and drinks at some of the more expensive restaurants in Kigali and didn't even blink. "You guys deserve a break," she'd continue to tell me even when I protested about how much she was spending. These events were often later followed by quiet conversations which subtly encouraged me to come home, if I felt like I wanted to even a little bit. "So, should I plan to buy the Christmas tickets separately? I mean, should I wait to buy your return ticket to Rwanda?"
It took me longer than it should have to say, "No". It's probably going to take even longer when she asks me once I'm actually in California for the holidays.

After a few days of eating good meals three times a day, I started to feel like myself again. It's amazing what hot showers and 3,000 calories a day can do to make one feel like a human being. I slept whole nights through. I wasn't tired during the day. I wasn't depressed. I just felt normal again.

"Are you happy?" They'd ask me.
"Sometimes." I'd reply. "You're not really supposed to be happy though. They tell you that up front. During training they show you a chart of your emotional health as a sine curve and a line which represents feeling ‘okay’. Your emotional curve only touches the line twice in two years and passes above like... Once."
"Yeah, but is that okay with you?" They'd reply.
"I don't know..." I'd admit. "Sometimes there's enough good to outweigh the bad. A lot of times there isn't. I'm never too sure about anything I do here. I try to take it one day at a time and hope for the best."
Hearing myself say it made me want to buy a ticket home then and there. If I'm really not doing anything here and I'm so utterly miserable, why am I here?

The tour started and I internalized a lot more. I met a lot of new people during our tour de Rwanda with whom I become absolutely enamored, and also discovered a few side projects I really wanted to take on. I had more conversations with my mom and sister about the problems in Rwanda and it helped me create a clearer picture of the things I really wanted to focus on. I used to get furious about injustice, but life in Rwanda had nubbed me. I never accept anything. That’s not who I am. I see problems and find solutions, but I never just accept things as they are. Rwandan culture is a culture of always accepting things as they are, so my motivational fire inside was slowly dwindling. The vacation allowed me to reignite that fire inside that usually shouted, "Get mad! Get really mad and then do something about it."

There’s a lot to be angry about when it comes to Africa. I thought about women in country and actually felt mad again. I thought about sexism and the way that people had treated my housemate and even to some degree the way I had been treated, and I got mad. Mad and motivated. It’s clear that I can’t achieve the things I want to achieve if I’m going to be Rwandan, so I’ll be American. I need to work harder at the things I start and I need to readopt the attitude of getting the things I want. This means really learning Kinyarwanda so I can properly communicate with people when they tell me, “Ihangane” (be patient) and I want to convey “No. I will not be patient unless you actively show me you want to change this situation, and since you aren’t doing that, I will not sit by with you and allow things to remain as they are”. This means working on my secondary projects with tenacity and the same undivided attention I used to give to Africa before I joined Peace Corps. I am here to work, so I won’t just accept that things will never change. I am never going to accept that things will never be better than they are right now. I am going to do, and build, and create, and be proud of myself at least once this year.

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