Tuesday, September 21, 2010

September update

Well, there’s only a little bit of September left, so I can safely say I’ve survived it. In just a few weeks I will have been in Rwanda for an entire year. How weird is that? I don’t feel like I’ve been here a year. A long time sure, but not an entire year. I’m counting down my weeks until December, when I’ll be back in the United States.
As I walked up the mountain with Jo today she asked me why I seemed to be so down recently.
“I miss my home.” I replied. I wasn’t going to get into the details of my defeatist attitude. Trying to explain what I had given up to be in Rwanda, only to experience a complete lack of return on my attempts to impact the village would have been like trying to describe a color that no one had ever seen before.
“But you are on the computer all the time. You talk to people at home everyday.” She said.
“It’s more than that. I miss being a human.”
She didn’t immediately understand. “I think you miss the things you can’t touch in America.” She said.
“No. I miss being a person. In Rwanda I’m a lot of things. I’m a spectacle, or an exotic animal, but I’m not a person. I miss being a human being.” I explained.
“A human being? Jenny! You aren’t a person in Rwanda? What a thing to say.” She laughed. “I see you miss your country. It is understandable.”

It’s not a feeling any volunteer can properly explain to their counterparts in Rwanda. The total alienation that I experience in the village can be all consuming. Not five minutes before my attempt to define my loneliness, she noted that a primary aged girl walked up to me and held my hand for a moment. This seemed particularly extraordinary to her because in her own words, “The girl was not afraid to touch you or come near you!” But somehow, the idea that I’m not treated like a human being in Rwanda was too much of a stretch for her. It’s funny what host country nationals are willing to accept as logical and what they aren’t.

In that vein, I had another interesting conversation with her while walking to school one morning. We met a groundskeeper on the road who told us that her daughter was sick and that she had to go home to take of her.
“Ihangane,” we both said. And I went on to advise that if her daughter was showing symptoms of malaria, she should visit the health center for medicine. The response I received was a mélange of incomprehensible Kinyarwanda and Urukiga, then a flat “No.”
Needless to say I was a little shocked by how seriously she rejected the idea of getting her sick child medical attention, and when we said goodbye and went back to walking toward school Jose kindly began to explain to me what had been said.
“Her daughter is sick with sorcery.”
“Sorcery? Like, she’s under a spell?”
Jose was delighted that I understood. “Jenny! You know sorcery? Yes, it is very dangerous. She must pray to make the illness go away.”
“… But, you know that here is no such thing as sorcery, right Jo?” I asked thinking I already knew her answer, but was totally caught off guard when she began to protest.
“Jenny! Sorcery is real! She cannot take her daughter to the doctor or she will die the moment they try to give her an injection!” She explained.
“Uh huh… And how often to people die of sorcery?” I asked.
“All the time!” She replied enthusiastically.
“Don’t you see the logical flaw in that way of thinking?” I attempted to explain how any illness could be considered sorcery if the general public believed seeking medical attention would kill them. It would take very little, especially given how terribly paranoid Rwandan society already is. If someone in the village doesn’t like you and one of your loved ones gets sick all they would have to do is claim it is a magical sickness in order to punish you, because you’d already believe seeing a doctor would only exacerbate the situation. Then their point would only be proved when your loved one’s health continued to fail and you continued to deny them the medicine that would normally cure them. The cycle perpetuates itself.
“But Jenny,” she protested, “there are lots of diseases that doctors cannot cure. It is because of sorcery.”
“Like what? HIV/AIDS? There is no cure, but doctors can help prolong your life or make you more comfortable while they research a cure.” I replied.
“Well of course. That’s the exception.” She told me, and I promptly gave up on trying to put my logic up against her years of village propagated fear mongering.

So many people are afraid to open their eyes--not because they know they will see a world that is drastically different from the one they’ve been imagining, but because they’re afraid that that world won’t have a place for them. In a lot of ways I think Africa knows it’s been left behind, and it is terrified by the idea of trying to play catch up. Then again, I suppose there are people everywhere that prefer not to try things because they’re afraid of failing. Accepting, or even considering a new idea is much more difficult than my American heritage always made it seem.

Lastly, I suppose I can let the news out. I’m attempting a site change. The idea has been bouncing around in my head ever since my family visited and I got my sea legs back, so to speak. This village is nubbing me, and I am not helping them the way someone else probably could. My efforts are better directed elsewhere; ideally at an all girls math and science school that is opening in the South-East this next year. I’ll post more on that when the details are hammered out. Hopefully we’ll be discussing some of the terms this week.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Before I get too far away from when the event actually happened, I figure I should probably write a little bit about Tanzania. After the tour of Rwanda I hopped a plane with Mom and Tam and landed in… Well… Bujumbura, Burundi. It wasn’t well communicated to us that we did not actually have a direct flight to Tanzania. In fact, there are signs plastered all around Rwanda which promote Rwanda Air’s new direct flights to Dar-es-Salaam 3 times a week. So, I suppose all that is African for “just kidding”. In Rwanda’s defense, it may have just been the airline company, but to say that I was disappointed with RwandAir would still be a gross understatement.
I reserved the tickets to Tanzania for my family and I months in advance, and offered to pay at that moment but they wouldn’t let me. Evidently the tickets weren’t concrete enough to purchase when I reserved them. I realized later it was because they intended to change the time of the flight 3 times. It was nice of them to tell us that was happening a week before we left Rwanda. ‘Cos, you know, we didn’t have to notify the tour agencies or hotels or anything. In any case, when my Mom got to Rwanda we took a day to bounce around Kigali and stop by the RwandAir ticket office where I had the most unprofessional experience of my life.
Customer Service Rep: May I have your reservation receipt?
Me: Of course.
CSR: Okay, this flight time has been changed from 2pm to 6 o’clock am. I think there are no problems.
Me: Um… Well, there’s certainly nothing we can do about this development. The prices are still the same, yes?
CSR: Of course.
Me: Well, then it’s fine.

So my mom handed over her credit card for the purchase of 3 international plane tickets. We’re talking multiple hundreds of dollars. And this is when RwandAir so kindly reminded me that I was in a third world country.

CSR: Oh… You want to pay with a credit card…
Me: Well, yeah. I’m buying plane tickets.
CSR: I don’t think the machine is working. Let me check.
[After a few seconds]
CSR: Yes, our machine has been broken for a few days. We cannot take credit cards right now.
Me: You’re joking. So how am I supposed to pay for this?
CSR: Well, I think you can go to the bank and bring back cash. We accept dollars and Rwanda Francs.
Me: You want me to pay for three plane tickets in Cash?
CSR: Yes, I think there is no problem.

Yes, I think you’re a horrible, racist, imbecile. Between the lines you should be able to read what she was actually saying, which was: “Well, you’re a Muzungu. Obviously you have hundreds of dollars in cash, on hand, to dole out whenever you need it.”
I was furious, but Mom took the news with an incredibly even temper. If an airline in any other part of the world had a broken credit card machine for more than a day they would have a serious problem on their hands, because a grand total of 0 clients would pay them in cash. RwandAir gets away with it because they have people who have reserved tours and safaris in advance and basically have no competition when it comes to flying out of Rwanda.

Dear Worldwide Investors,
If you are looking to a place to make a buck, start by building a friendly and effective airline service that flies regularly out of all the East African Community countries.

Once we actually made it to Dar-es-Salaam, I rapidly fell in love with the country. It was a breath of fresh air to see how cosmopolitan the city was. I had forgotten that diversity existed in Africa, and I had forgotten that the world is a much larger place than Rwanda made it seem. Our hotel was called the Movenpick and it was huge, served cocktails, and run by the Swiss, so it was about as Western as it got. The reception handed me a little 3 X 5 leaflet and I opened it to discover a key card inside. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to have a key that opened a door electronically. It’s too bad that it didn’t stop the housekeeping staff from stealing my cell phone.

I spent most of my time in or under water. The pool was really nice, but I was also romantically attached to the idea of spending a good portion of my stay in the Indian Ocean. We spent an entire day in the sand on a small island right off the coast of Dar, where I finally felt that click of readjustment to being myself again (it only took two and a half weeks). Looking back on the experience, I wish I had been more social and engaged with local population, but I was overwhelmed. In that respect I missed out on getting clearer insight as to how everything managed to run so smoothly in Tanzania. Despite what anyone wants to believe, in America we have taken a social stand to vilify Islam. It’s a result of our civilizations clashing. The West doesn’t understand Islamic cultures, and even if Islamic cultures can understand Western mentalities, they certainly aren’t willing to accept them. Except that I’m evidently wrong in this assessment of our world. I saw it in Tanzania. I saw these two opposing view points co-existing, and even being friends. It made me think, if it can work there it should be able to work on a larger scale too. It just needs the right planning and coaxing.
However, I did get to have an interesting conversation with my driver in Zanzibar about his feelings on the likelihood of an East African Community ever getting off the ground. His concerns were surprisingly identical to the concerns the European Union had and still grapples with today. He seemed to think it was never going to happen just because of the inherent self-interest of individual countries, but I walked away thinking, “Hey, I can work with that”.
To top off my stay we had sushi on the slipway. It was good sushi too. I could have dumped all of my spending money just on that. The next few days included a sort of whirlwind tour through Zanzibar, Arusha, and Ngorongoro Crater. The Safaris were nothing short of breathtaking. I wanted to see an elephant and I got to see a hundred. They would come so close to the care you could almost touch them. I also was able to do my fair share of people watching because being on safari in Tanzania is evidently the new international tourism hotspot. I didn’t catch so many Americans, but the Brits were everywhere, Germans too, a few Japanese, Koreans, Chileans and one particularly memorable Mexican couple. We were stopped above a waterhole where there were at least fifteen elephants drinking and bathing when one urinated and then walked away from the water, presumably to find some shade or food. Moments later another elephant walked up to the same spot and began drinking.

From the Land Rover next to me I heard a shrill voice begin to explain:
“In Mehico City, Eherybody drink pe-pe.”
My sister and I dropped our cameras and slowly turned out heads to look and verify that this was actually happening.
“Yes. It happens all tha time. It’z ohkay.”
Yeah. This was really happening. I wasn’t sure what to make of it though. Should I think she’s trying to compare people in Mexico to elephants? Should I conclude that she’s saying elephant hygiene is equivalent to human hygiene in Mexico City? Should I get mad and tell her to stop being a horrible harpy wench? Luckily, someone in her car settled my dilemma.
“I don’t believe a damn word you’re saying. Freakin’ crazy lady.”
An appropriately blunt African American man cut her off from making any more blanket remarks about Latinos. My sister and I just sort of shared an awkward smile with him and shrugged the event off.

I also got to see lions. And not just any lions. I got to see cuddling lions. They were absolutely adorable in that slightly creepy way, where you know that even the smaller ones would end your life if there wasn’t a sheet of reinforced steel between you and them. But forgetting that fact, they seemed incredibly docile. They would stroll past the cars or nap nearby in the sun as if we weren’t even there gawking over them.

By the end of the tour we were all exhausted and poor Mom and Tam had to turn around and get on a plane back to California in just two days. I hear that didn’t go so smoothly, but the point is they got home. Saying goodbye at the airport was a lot harder than it should have been. When I told my friends about it the general reaction was: “You went with them to the airport?! Are you crazy?! What were you thinking?!”
Evidently, everyone else says goodbye to their family via taxi cab, or outside the gate because the separation can be a bit too hard for volunteers in Africa and their families. I guess I didn’t get the memo. But I never do things by the book anyway. Plus, I’ll be seeing them in no time. I’m already almost halfway through September.