Thursday, June 23, 2011

Final Update

My friend Alaine told me she would drive me to Kigali. I wasn’t particularly pressed for time. I imagined she would arrive whenever she did and I would make a final round to classrooms, say my goodbyes, and speed away before I had a chance to change my mind about anything. She arrived at 10:30, and I wandered around and said goodbye to each classroom and the students studying in the library. One of my students halted me in the library.

Her: Ms. Jenny, you need to see Witness before you go.
Me: What’s wrong?
Her: Nothing. She has something for you.

I imagined it was a note. Several of the students created handmade goodbye letters and handed them off to me, but when I stepped into the computer lab, Witty handed me a flash drive. I accepted it and tried to ask what was on it but she only flashed her most charming smile and replied: “It’s a surprise!”
Technically, I had a medical appointment with Peace Corps at 11am, but I didn’t maintain much loyalty to the agreed schedule. At 11:30 one of my doctors called to ask where I was.

Me: I’m just leaving Gashora.
Him: We agreed we were meeting at 11.
Me: We also agreed that I wasn’t going to be leaving this week.
Him: I have to leave for PST at 12:30. We won’t have time to do your physical today. Why are you late?
Me: It was difficult for me to find a ride from the village with all of my luggage. Plus, I had quite a bit to do. If you were on such a tight schedule, you could have sent a car for me.
He proceeded to laugh over the line for over a minute and then simply said to try my best to get there as soon as possible.

I was ready to be as petulant as possible. I didn’t plan on putting on a brave face anymore. They didn’t deserve my attempts at politesse. When I got to the office, the process was surprisingly clinical. Perhaps I should have expected as much, but after several days of incredibly high emotional, this was a stern contrast. I went to my doctor, did a few of my tests, and then proceeded to the hostel to decompress for a moment. In that time something really amazing happened. I met with my friend and co-worker Kerrianne. She and I were two of six people (and the only remaining volunteers) of those who originally came together to create the PC Rwanda Peer Support Network.

We sat on the patio and just started talking. I let out everything I had bottled up in me about my service, and my life, and my transformation into whatever it is I am now. I Thought it was all going to be very negative, but over the course of that discussion it dawned on my just how completely enamored I was with my work. Now that it’s over, I can say this experience was completely invaluable. There were many challenges, and frustrations, and abuses that did not ever become justified, but I would never have had the opportunity to do what I’ve done, or life the live I’ve lived without the Peace Corps. I would have never met my girls, or learned to appreciate necessities, or understood who I am without this organization. It may be a small extension of gratitude, but I am grateful for having the chance to do what I did these past two years.

I opened my computer and plugged in the flashdrive Witness has given me. It was filled with pictures of my girls. Some were photos from sports games like the faculty-student volleyball game, some were of students reading books in the library, and some were just pictures of different students in front of chalk boards with messages for me.

We love you and will miss you Ms. Jenny! - CEM

The signatures were usually their class combinations, CEM being Computers-Economics-Math. I showed the photos to Kerrianne and started crying again. How could I ever regret anything when I had this? Even if it was for a short amount of time, I had something very few people ever get. I had real, unconditional love—and from 90 different people no less!

The next day I went in for my exit interview with my Country Director and she asked a series of expected questions, and I have a series of unexpected answers. I sounded happy about everything. Ultimately, I sounded very gracious about my time in Africa. I explained my shifts in site, my experiences with post traumatic Rwandans, and my successes with my new school. I showed her all of the notes, books and poems they had left me, and all about their development over the first and second terms, and she validated me. She told me I had the real Peace Corps experience and handed off some parting gifts to me, which included a hug and an invitation to dinner that night.

Before dinner I went to say goodbye to Dative and the baby. I held my niece for the last time in who knows how long and promised to be back as soon as possible. At dinner there were several of my friends. We made an amazing feta and arugula pasta dish, with a side of sweet corn and a dessert of chocolate and chips ahoy cookies. I got to make jokes about things, I got to say goodbye to several of my friends properly, I got to see a human side to administration and really appreciate the work they were trying to do.

Then I came back, sat down, and started to write. Shortly after that, the skies in Rwanda opened up for the last time I would see in many years, even though it’s supposed to be the dry season. Tomorrow I leave. The next day I land. The day after that, I start the next chapter of my life.

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you. There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do. I bless the rains down in Africa. I’m gonna take some time to do the things we never have.

Monday, June 20, 2011


On Saturday I had a pre-planned party with my library prefects. I say “Pre-planned” because I had invited them for Fantas and cookies before I realized I would be gone a week later. I decided because I’m closer with them than most other students, I should probably test the departure waters with them first. I think there were already rumors because from the beginning they were asking some leading questions about when I would eventually be leaving the academy. I showed them the letter from UCLA and explained I was going to Graduate School and the reaction was a mix of shock and muddled sadness.

“Wednesday,” they kept repeating. “You’re seriously leaving on Wednesday?”

A day later at dinner, I got up in front of the school and announced that I had to leave. The reaction was mixed. I showed them the letter and said I was accepted to go to graduate school at UCLA and was initially met with cheers that quickly died out. A girl sitting almost directly in front of me looked horrified and asked: “But… Doesn’t that mean you have to leave?” When I gave the date, the room quickly devolved into chaos; students were banging on tables and yelling protests. I channeled Eleanor Roosevelt.

For the next ten minutes I am not me. I am Eleanor. I am poised, and unflappable, and completely focused on the task at hand. I am sure as hell not going to cry.

Peter somehow got them to calm down. I don’t even remember what I said exactly, but I was aiming for something vaguely inspirational that left everyone with the feeling that I never intend to say goodbye and would be coming back to see them at Gashora again. I sat back down at the faculty table and began shaking uncontrollably. Peter then evoked an ovation from the students for all of my hard work and dedication to the school which lasted upwards of 5 minutes and I promptly turned to my colleague and explained I needed to leave. I barely made it halfway up the hill from the dining hall before I was bawling my eyes out.

I spent a few minutes getting everything out at my house before walking down to preps in the library. I wore my shirt students had painted on earlier that afternoon during the World Map project at the Health Center. Needless to say, I spent less time actually tutoring to offering any help at preps and more time being drawn on in sharpie by every student in the library. Now I am never going to be able to wash that shirt ever again. The attitudes were mixed but I’d like to think by the end of the night most students who weren’t initially speaking to me had warmed up to the idea that I was doing what was ultimately right for me.
The next afternoon during assembly my co-worker dedicated the “Irish Blessing” to me and another student wrote a poem for me, which went like this:

We are glad you are our friend
Facially with a smile
Written with a pen
Sealed with a kiss
If you are our friend
Please answer this:
Are you going to forget us or not?
So tell us now and tell the truth
So that we say, we’ll always be there with you
For all people we met, we’re getting so much from your care
We are more aware what it meant
To have friendship like the one we shared
You gave so much so often in so many ways which are special
In gentle words of comfort
In happy words of wisdom
Thoughtfulness you always share in everything you do
Make our gift of friendship dearly treasured
We can’t promise that dark clouds will never haze over our lives
Or that the future’ll bring us many rainbows
But we can promise you our respect, remembrance
And unconditional love for a lifetime
We will always be there for you though we’ll take a risk of using facebook
We advise you this: “Find your purpose, live your purpose and you’ll surely succeed in life.”
We are glad you are our friend
Gashora Girls, we promise never to forget you
Miss Jenny we’ll miss you.

I started to cry. So I put on my sunglasses and haven’t been able to remove them yet today.

Monday, June 6, 2011


“Exit strategies are hard.” – Some American administrator in Iraq—probably

Walking into my director’s office to discuss the need to inform students about my upcoming departure and the dates and time therein, makes me feel like I’m having a divorce. This is doubly true for things like my future visitation rights. I need to leave my school, but I also want to be able to see my girls again. It sort of gives me perspective on split families that use their kids as leverage against each other. I don’t want to be completely out of their lives from now on. I don’t want it to be a fight to have contact with my students. I need them, but I think they need me too. I really believe that when you invest in someone, and you pay a lot of attention to them, and you make them feel special, you’ve made a commitment to them. You can’t just up and peace out without any warning or else it’s a huge betrayal of trust.

The majority of my girls come from very forward thinking, wealthy, and emancipated families, but that doesn’t change the fact that they still come from East Africa. This means almost none of them get the kind of care and attention they need. They’ve never had someone who is genuinely interested in how they’re feeling. They’ve never had someone who really wants to hear what they have to say.

This is where my strengths are. I’m not a teacher. I’m not particularly good at giving or taking instruction, but I do listen rather well, and I do effectively communicate sincerity. The goal is to make the girls feel comfortable talking about themselves. I can’t imagine what a 16 year old in America would do if they were never allowed to express themselves, but it would probably look like some variety of strange new phenomenon in cranial explosions. It’s not fair to the adolescents here that no one feels like it’s worthwhile to just check in and say: “How are you feeling?”

I take time for individual students based on how they’re acting. If a very social person has started to isolate herself, I spend time with her. If a normally excellent student gets poor grades, we talk. If a student is trying to hide that they are emotionally disturbed about something I don’t just ignore her, I ask about the problem. For example, last night I left the dining hall planning on promptly returning to my room, crawling into my bed, and proceeding to feel like dying until I passed out. I’ve been pretty ill for the better part of this last week. Behind me a student was walking up to study hall early and sniffling. I stopped.

Me: Clenie? What’s wrong?
Clenie: Wrong? Nothing.
Me: Are you sick?
Clenie: No, I’m not sick.
Me: You don’t have a cold or anything?
Clenie: (sniffles) No teacher, I’m not sick.
I stopped and grabbed her hand and just looked at her for a second.
Me: Clenie…? Are you sad?
She rubbed her eyes with her other hand and nodded.
Clenie: Teacher! Entrepreneurship is very difficult!
I nodded. “Yeah. It is pretty tough. I think we should go look at your notes. How about that?”

It doesn’t take much to show you care about someone. It really only takes a few minutes of your time. It took me less than 20 minutes to read her notes, understand what the problems were, and help her grasp the topic. Ironically, the topic was “effective communication in business environments” and the notes were not even remotely communicated effectively. She needed some basic clarification of ambiguous pronouns and vocabulary. She needed a big sister to sit down and help her with her homework. That’s where I’ve been excelling at this job. That’s when I feel the best about myself and what I’m doing.

I don’t want to send the wrong message when I leave, and I don’t want it to be a shock or a surprise. I don’t want it to feel like I’m abandoning anyone. I want it to feel like I’m making a natural step forward in my life. It should carry the same sentiment as a family member who leaves for college. It should make sense to a teenager. It should motivate her. The action shouldn’t seem awkward, or sad, or malicious in any way. That’s what I want, but that’s not what I’m sure I’ll get. I don’t foresee a smooth transition. I see a fight. I see a lot of hurtful words and feeling being exchanged, leaving the girls ready to turn inward again because their trust has been broken by the people who are supposed to be caring about them and for them. It’s kind of a diplomatic disaster and I’m not sure how to put it on the right track.

Maybe if I’m lucky, my APCD will be here tomorrow and this will be slightly less of an ordeal than I’m imagining. Or maybe my Director will prove to be a lot less interested in controlling every aspect of the school, and be sympathetic my needing to focus on my own life and needs. In either case… Exit strategies are hard.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Everything in Moderation

Despite the plethora of things that really got me fired up about this article, I believe the author manages to accurately put forth the current struggles of Peace Corps in a balanced fashion. He discusses the two viewpoints from opposing camps, and though most of the people quoted seem to me like pretentious airheads that have outdated or overly sensitive opinions, they do have one good thing in common; they are all trying to make this organization work. This article is pretty long, but it’s worth taking the time to look through.

The rest of this blog post is going to be dedicated to talking about all of the people in this article and why their opinions, for the most part, are ridiculous and invalid. If you are an RPCV who thinks they have all of the answers on how to “fix” this organization, you should probably stop reading now.

Recently, it seems like there are a lot of people (volunteers, administrative staff and otherwise) who are having a hard time reconciling the past with the present. I don’t think anyone should be exceptionally surprised by this as it happens all the time in all career fields. Life is malleable and so are people. Things change all the time, and it seems like the older people get the more afraid they become of needing to adapt to the forward momentum of our society. So the story of old guard versus new guard plays out in the most extraordinarily boring fashion, until progress and innovation ultimately win over tradition and rigid structure. The thing that really surprises me about this particular battle in Peace Corps is how polarized the two groups are. It appears like the best thing these relatively intelligent people could come up with is we need to either make Peace Corps the cultural sharing project it started out as, or we need to completely revolutionize the organization and make it about development projects. Well, coming from the stand point of a current volunteer, all I can say to you guys is: stop. You’re both wrong and those are both terrible ideas. However, there is good news! You can both get what you want and even more importantly, while you’re busy feeling better about being right, current volunteers are winning too.

The Three Peace Corps Goals

This may be a lot to remember, so you might need to grab a pen, but here goes. The three very complicated Peace Corps goals. You ready for this?

1. Help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Phew. That was a lot. I know the language may have a bit difficult too, so let me break it down for you. The first goal is about bringing people who are trained to do something (like public health, education, or youth development) to a country that has requested that skill set so a volunteer go can help out. This gets confusing sometimes because people on both sides of this arrangement occasionally believe having a volunteer means getting/giving money. But that’s not what this is about. In Rwanda we have a few rules for surviving your service, and rule #2 is: Don’t Give Money. Ever. There should never be a need for a volunteer to be a financial source in their community when they are already providing a free service that was requested by that same community. Anything more is simply greedy. This might squash some dreams about Peace Corps becoming a development based agency, but if that’s what you’re looking to be a part of, go join a NGO. Seriously, if that’s your attitude we don’t want you in our club.

The other two goals go hand in hand. I’ve heard volunteers often say that they should be listed as one goal because they feed into one another. This is the cultural part of Peace Corps. This is the reason the program was founded (no, not that supposed “let’s go fight those dreadful Commies” reason, the real reason). It says to go learn how to be someone other than an American. Or a Westerner. Or a gigantic whiny baby who can barely take care of themselves , and see how the other half lives. It says go be somewhere that requires you to really think, and work, and plan, and learn. It says be some place where you can’t just run to a 24 hour pharmacy when you think you’re coming down with a cold, or where you don’t have the means to get food in front of you in five minutes. It says figure out where your water comes from every day. I mean, do you actually know where your water comes from? And saying “the faucet” doesn’t count.

Then, when you’ve done all these things, and you’ve learned some new things, and you’ve come to appreciate life more than any of your college buddies who went on to miserably sit in an office chair from 9 – 5; come home. Try to share what you learned. Show your friends and family how disgustingly wrong they are for maintaining their preconceived notions about developing nations and their so called “plights”. Show that important middle ground that explains how the West isn’t necessarily the Best. We’re not what everyone else should be striving to become. We’re just one of many options, and we have a host of our own issues that developing countries probably won’t ever have, even after they’ve developed.
To say that just because the Cold War ended we need to stop trying to win the hearts and minds of people abroad, is to completely overlook the fact that people will always misunderstand and misrepresent one another.

Hi America. Nice to meet you. I’m your friendly neighborhood Peace Corps Volunteer, which is to say your first line of diplomatic defense against religious extremists and people who are pre-disposed to dislike you without ever having met you. In short, you need me because I do what no other person on the planet does. I make you look good. I make you look good when everyone else is trying to make you look like the most useless and awful thing around (eg. Jersey Shore ). You are a fat , greedy, self-centered, materialistic, stupid, violent, scary, heathen, and I manage to make you come out smelling like roses. Why? Because I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer and I represent and serve my country with honor and respect, so you can become honored and respected by the world.

You’re welcome.

To give a more specific example, I had many friends who were brought to my country of service because of a tragic evacuation from Mauritania. These brave individuals went through an unbelievable amount of pain and rage after being torn from their then homes and families without warning, and then chose to continue to serve. One of my best friends was stationed about as far into the Sahara Desert as the organization allowed at that time. One day an Al Qaeda recruiter showed up in his village. His host brother went to hear the discussion and actually defended Americans. He thought my friend was such a good person that he couldn’t possibly believe what the recruiter was saying was true. You don’t get more concrete results than that. By virtue of just living in that village, my friend stopped someone from joining an organization that generally hates all Westerners. That is the driving purpose for Peace Corps and it is still totally necessary in our world. Peace Corps Volunteers don’t make people love capitalism or democracy, we just make friends. We make friends out in the smallest pieces of nowhere because most American’s can’t. Or don’t. Or won’t.

If you are a Peace Corps Volunteer, I don’t see how the goals are ever unclear. You know what to do and when to do it and why you do it because it’s your life. It’s what you do every day. The thing that makes it complicated is reconciling this very important cultural sharing imperative with your first goal while everyone seems to be trying to stop you from doing exactly that. Quite the conundrum, isn’t it?


Now, I know I said rule #2 is never give money, and that is a very important rule, but there are some obvious exceptions. It’s nice to become integrated and make friends and all of that, but joining the Peace Corps also means working. So despite what Paula Hirschoff says, you are not going on a vacation and you (as I clearly pointed out above) are not wasting tax payer money any more than a soldier serving abroad would be. You are working. Hard. All the time and every day. If this IS a free vacation, I want that quarter of my body weight I lost last year back. I want more than one meal a day, and something else to eat besides tiny rotten potatoes during the rainy season. I also want to go to Thailand so I can hang out on the beach with a cocktail for the remainder for my service. If no one is going to meet these demands, Mrs. Hirschoff is officially total jerk . … … … Yep, definitely a jerk.

Anyway, secondary projects cost money. They are also the only reasons (aside from medical) that you, as a volunteer, should ever have to deal with administration. This is where things get tricky. When you make your service about projects everything gets messed up. In-Country administrations become more like road blocks than people who assist you. Your community is often very torn about what they think is important and it can be difficult to find a consensus of community support for any given project. This is where the volunteers are very much on their own and it shouldn’t be like that. This is the only way in which administrations and staff are really useful. They can become facilitators, and be the support volunteers need, but unfortunately they are a government organization, so that is clearly asking for way too much.

If you ask me, (and I know you haven’t but I’m going to tell you anyway) this is the only way Peace Corps needs to be improved. In a lot of ways, I feel the organization has forgotten that it is about the Volunteers and nothing else. Volunteers are about the three goals, sure, but the staff is supposed to be about the Volunteers. If [you] treated your volunteers better, if [you] gave them the support they needed, and if [you] helped them when they felt like they were fighting everyone, from all sides, every day, [you] probably wouldn’t have 1/3rd of them dropping out every year. Just a thought. There are more resources now than there have been in the past, but they’re not always particularly accessible. In fact, sometimes it seems like they’re unnecessarily inaccessible. Why does it have to be so difficult to get money for a volunteer’s project? Over sight? Transparency? Sustainability? Can’t we maintain all of those standards without making it feel like we have to prove we’re Jesus just to get 500 dollars to replace a tin roof on a Health Center?

In the words of our great President: “Yes we can.”

I’ve never fully understood why the volunteer has to work so hard to raise their own money for a project. Sure, sometimes there are government avenues for project based financial assistance, but really, it’s not exactly substantial. The volunteer already does independent work being alone in a village and working to create a positive American image, so why do they have to go solo on projects as well? Projects, by nature, are collaborative. And volunteers, by nature, aren’t good at projects. We’re just really good at helping. I’m going to raise an idea, and I know all administrative members in Peace Corps are going to recoil, put their fingers in their ears and start humming, but the rest of you hear me out. Why can’t volunteers partner with NGOs for small projects? Let’s face it. It’s a match made in heaven. Volunteers have no money, but know their villages and the needs of their villages. NGOs have a bunch of money, but pretty much no idea how or where to effectively spend it. We both work in the same countries. We both have the same desires. We both have half of this beautiful equation that would really make great things happen, so why not? I’m not talking about getting a PCV to work for an NGO, no. That’s not necessary. But what’s wrong with a little collaboration? Peace Corps is supposed to be all about working together with different people, right? I think opening lines of communication between Peace Corps and NGOs could really help streamline money for projects that would normally be overlooked in the ocean of links on the PCPP website. Let’s develop an example for all of you concrete thinkers.

NGO Smiley in Rwanda wants to donate money to a village school, to improve the education of underprivileged children. So, they put their feelers out to places around Rwanda where they can reach. This usually means places they can drive to, which usually indicates places with paved roads, which will probably lead them to a district capital, which to their tastes may look like a village. But it’s not. So say they discover the Musanze High School, and decide they’re going to ask the school what they need. The headmaster enthusiastically explains they really need laptops for all of their students so they can word process documents, improve their knowledge about computers, and have access to more information from things like the internet. The old desktops in their computer lab are very slow and not all of them work anymore. “Brilliant!” The NGO thinks. “What a perfect project to help all of these under privileged students in Rwanda!” But wait. If you take a turn toward the northern road and ride it until it turns from pavement to dirt (it’ll only take about 3 minutes) and continue between 17 – 20 kilometers you’ll arrive at MY village. You’ll know my village because the buildings are made of clay or cleverly disguised mud-bricks. The students are wearing school uniforms hand-me-downs from about 6 generations ago because their families can’t afford to buy new ones. They don’t wear shoes when they walk up an awfully rocky hill to school. Their classroom has a wall painted black (the black board) and maybe 50 desks crammed in tight rows from wall to wall. They don’t have electricity. Their computer class consists of drawing a computer and its component parts on the board to teach children how it works. If you want your NGO to really change someone’s life, you could come to my school and build a project with me. My headmaster wants a lot of things, but he mainly wants someone to sit down with him and tell him what he is doing is as important as any district capital that is already receiving a ton of money.

But today this kind of collaboration isn’t possible. Staff members hear the word ‘NGO’ and go into anaphylactic shock. It’s kind of ridiculous.

Wrap Up

In the end, I don’t know how misleading the goals of Peace Corps actually are. According to the article, Will Dickinson evidently found them to be incredibly deceptive because he wasn’t always involved in development work. To that, I have to wonder what part of “two thirds of this job is cultural exchange” escaped him. The goals are pretty straight forward. Maybe he listened to his recruiter too much. I could write an entire novel titled “Lies My Recruiter Told Me”, but that’s never turned my attention from the realities of Peace Corps goals.

The main problem with volunteers is we’re usually relatively disgruntled because of how administrations seem to really enjoy throwing wrenches into our plans. Even Beckerman, the author of this article, admitted to being frustrated with Peace Corps Administration on the regular. It’s unfortunate and ineffective that we all can’t be friends. I’ll admit that my own feelings towards my Administration have, on several occasions, afforded no better term than vengeful . First and foremost Volunteers spend a good portion of their day dreaming about Cheeseburgers. Secondary to that, they dream about Peace Corps staff saying “Yes” to them. Way too often, it’s just a dream. I don’t mean to say all projects should be automatically approved and no work should be involved in getting support or money, but it doesn’t always need to be an uphill battle for Volunteers to get resources to people who need them. In Rwanda, we have enough hills. I don’t need Staff members adding a thousand more to my plate.

I only named one solution to the real problem in Peace Corps (bridging the gap between the volunteer and the administration), but I’m sure there are several others. The main point I wanted to get across is we don’t need to divide. Peace Corps is so delightfully unique in its ability to be a grassroots organization and a program of cultural ambassadors. We are the only people who do what we do, and it would be nothing short of a tragedy to try to shift that balance more in one direction than the other. Our work is effective. If administrations are doing their jobs right you are replaced at your site when you leave and new volunteers can sustain your projects, or you can train community members or counterparts to sustain your projects. It doesn’t require a lot of thought; it just requires the will and conviction to keep moving forward.

We, Volunteers, are always trying to do our best. It’s never easy, but we’re trying. Isn’t it about time everyone else tried to meet us half way? Isn’t it about time you believed in us? Helped us? We’re not asking for absolutes. We’re just asking you to try. We’ve been patient, and we will continue to be so, because we believe in this organization and, as always, we want to help. That’s all.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Term 1 end

As the term came to an end I found myself finally getting into a flow with the school. My role had become more defined and my job on the whole became a lot easier for me to handle. While the hours I work still probably constitutes as exploitative by volunteer standards, I don’t really care. What would I be doing in my free time anyway? Oh yeah, hanging out with the 90 incredible, beautiful, and amazing girls we have at our school.
Finals went off mainly without a hitch. My grading was done before the middle of the week and it was pretty much smooth sailing from there. The next week was a dead week, but we were told to have classes in any event. Most of it was filler but some of it was also building on a foundation for the next term. We also were able to have more school wide activities, like capture the flag and a talent show.
Before the inception of “Capture the Flag”, by yours truly, there was some talk about a field day, or relay races, or some intermural matches in football and basketball, but I pretty much demanded we have a Capture the Flag game. It turned out to be a lot harder than I anticipated given my lack of accounting for the fact that I’m still in Rwanda (…Stupid hills). So needless to say, everyone got a work out and I was horribly sore for a good two days afterward.
The teachers split up on different teams and I was often faced off with the Biology teacher, who also happens to be faster than a speeding bullet. That may have had something to do with the fact that he was running downhill the entire time but, I still managed to jail him a few times. The most spectacular being when he kept crossing a bit over our line. Eventually I just ran behind him and we played chicken with each other until we both managed to slip on the same patch of loose dirt and went crashing into the side of the hill. I don’t bruise easily, so it was hard to notice, but my shoulder definitely hated me for the next week.
The talent show was a perfect showcase of how awesome my girls are—and also my co-workers. The other two American teachers and I organized 3 songs we performed on stage including a rewrite I made of “Umbrella” by Rihanna, for the Gashora Girls Academy. Each teacher had a verse specific to the class they taught, but because Esther and I both teach English I just rewrote the Jay-Z rap to do myself. Unfortunately, the response from the girls when we began was too hilarious for me, and I busted up laughing in the middle of the second line. We still managed to make it through the song and to the extreme pleasure of all those who are interested in blackmailing me in the future, there is a video.
There girls did everything from songs, dramas about HIV/AIDS awareness, monologues, comedy skits, and fashion shows. All of these things were completely unprompted by professors. The girls wrote, and performed the pieces on their own without any help or instruction from staff. My personal favorite part was the first half of the fashion show. The girls kept this a pretty big secret and we were all surprised at their creativity. They took things from around their dorm, like linens, curtains, and pillow cases and made really awesome looking clothes simply by tying them a certain way or pinning them. I was floored. I know people got pictures and I’ll try to post them soon, but I have to find them first. Apparently, all of the clothes were designed by our Headgirl, which makes me wonder if she wouldn’t make better use of her skills in the fashion industry rather than in medicine.
In effect, I miss them already. We’re going to be starting up the next (and my final) term in about a week. It’s weird to think of how soon it’s all going to be over, and I’m having daily internal struggles over how I feel about leaving. In the end, I guess it’ll be okay as long as I get to come back.

Monday, April 11, 2011

We do not forget. We do not forgive.

Last year around this time I left the country. It was my first time out of Rwanda since I had arrived in October. A few friends and I went to Uganda to celebrate our birthdays and our newly lifted ban from leaving our sites. I wanted to see more of East Africa, but if I had to be totally honest, I was scared about being around for Memorial. It all felt too close and too new. I was told plenty of stories about how awful it could get. So, I made a personal vow to stay around and see it for myself this year. Frankly, I think I’m adjusted to the shock factor of the Genocide at this point because the only thing that really seemed to bother me was the psychology behind the Rwandan week of mourning… Not the woman that ran down the street, screaming hysterically yesterday… Not the music videos featuring images of the dead playing on every television all day long. I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing…
Whenever I need to deal with trauma I find things to do. I focus on learning another language, or I pick up knot tying, or I try to adopt some new kind of activity that takes my mind off of the things I don’t want to remember. But in Rwanda they force you to remember. They force you to relive the unthinkable every year for multiple days on end. Everything closes, village meetings are mandatory, and abstaining from any part of Memorial is seen as Genocide denial. That means they can throw you in prison for supporting Genocide dogma just because you’re not taking part. The psychology of the country, the general lack of empathy and inability to relate to others, becomes a lot clearer when I think about a nation of people who have no control over dealing with the traumatic aspect of their lives.
To put it in perspective, a friend once asked me if I celebrated Veteran’s Day.
Me: No.
Him: So then you hate the military.
Me: What? No! I wouldn’t even know how to go about it. I don’t really know that many people in the military.
Him: There are ceremonies and parades in most cities, but you aren’t required to attend.
Me: Well, that doesn’t mean I hate military just because I don’t go to Veteran’s Day parades.
Him: Exactly.
In Rwanda, [we] do not forget. [Our] ghosts are an intrinsic part of us that [we] will never release, or be at peace with. Because of that, in Rwanda, [we] do not forgive. For all the talk of reconciliation, the reality is that one does not ever accept the kind of atrocity that occurred in 1994. It would require being more than human to be able to turn to the man who murdered your family, or the person who turned away when you were screaming for help, and say: “It’s all right, I forgive you.”
I think it is equally as true that you never forget the face of the person who ruined your life as it is that you never forget the face of the person who was your last hope. That’s why being Umuzungu during Memorial is so difficult. You are that last hope that turned their back. You are the supposed friend who stood at the sidelines and watched. You are another tally in the column of The Unforgivables. I know there was nothing I could have done for a genocidal country when I was 8 years old, but that doesn’t make a difference to anyone here. I’m a representation of the most atrocious form of criminal neglect that ever existed. My life now belongs to trying to ensure that future generations don’t have to carry that weight.
I can deconstruct all of this. I will never be able to erase these years or these experiences from my mind and I only had to witness the remnants. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to experience Genocide in its entirety, and to have to relive it every year because of orders from on high. I know you can’t just forget something to find peace with it, but you don’t have to wear that scar all the time as a constant reminder either. I don’t think either extreme will work to resolve that issue. Sometimes you just need to be patient. Sometimes you just need to live and see how events unfold and where life takes you. Sometimes you can’t just will things to work or to be better. I think people will ultimately learn to put themselves back together, given enough time. That doesn’t need any intervention. That just needs understanding, some humanity, and some nurturing of your newest generations.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

To call for hands from above, to lean on, wouldn't be good enough.

There’s a lot to tell, but I feel like I’ve got nothing I want to say. Much has happened since the start of the school year, and here we are almost at the end of term 1 and I’m finding it hard to know where to start. Our school has grown and is becoming more successful everyday. I would like to think the same about my personal growth but I’m not always as convinced as my rhetoric would suggest. I guess let’s start with the school. Because I absolutely and utterly adore my school.

We opened last month and began classes with about 60 students in the first week. Two weeks later we had capped our enrollment with 90. Part of the push came from the dedication ceremony featuring many prominent individuals including the First Lady of Rwanda, Mrs. Kagame. The girls are nothing short of incredible. Every one of them is an individual seeking to blaze their own trail in the world. It is simply inspiring to work here, especially after the emotional trouncing my school laid on me last year.

I’m not going to say I didn’t see the reserved and relatively empty faces of my old students in some of my new ones who were coming from similar austere village circumstances, but the beauty of the Gashora Girls Academy is its clash of socieites. Emancipating and empowering women in third world countries is a fight--A long and difficult fight that does not always turn out to be very rewarding. GGA brought that fight where it needed to be, at the village level, with many different types of people participating and learning together. The affluent girls from Kigali learn the realities of their country and can collaborate with the girls from the village on ideas for change. In exchange, girls from the village can watch the girls from the cities learn how to be independent.

I get excited just seeing the flourishing personalities, the way the girls confidently to speak up about ideas or concerns, and can freely express their feelings about almost anything. I see progress every day and it does wonders for my soul. I can perceive my impact and it puts sutures on my still torn up heart. I can’t ever make up for my devastating failures last year, but I’m not going to let the past stop me from succeeding in the future. I wasn’t able to perform at the level I wanted in Mulindi, but I can here. The change was worth it.

Although this is the happiest I have ever been while in Africa, I have never been so completely lost in my entire life. For the first time ever I don’t have a plan. Not really. My life plan now extends only about two years into the future at best, and the details aren’t properly etched out. I’ve got a bunch of variables in front of me that seem to belong to different equations. I don’t know how to put things back together again. Which, I suppose, is my real struggle. After having everything unravel on me last year, I don’t know how to put myself back together again. There is a Buddhist principle that says people are unhappy because they are overly concerned with what was and what will be instead of just accepting every day as it comes. So, I’m testing my weaknesses. I’m not good at being aimless, but I’m trying it. If I just move forward a little at a time without thinking too hard about anything, maybe the answers will come to me in time.

I am considering this assignment more of an independent learning experience. My school director is rapidly becoming quite the mentor. He has sort of mastered the art of waiting and listening, and I’m trying to learn as much as possible from that demeanor as well as just his personal moral philosophies. He is certainly the glue that holds the pieces of this school together. If I can learn to be more like that sooner, I imagine I’ll be able to make more positive influences on my world for a longer period of time.

That said, I still work for the Peace Corps. I haven’t cut myself off from them completely but I am trying to limit my interactions. After MSC I think I have a clearer view of who this new Administration really is. No, they won’t let you starve at your site like the last one, but they don’t rate volunteer happiness as a priority. In fact, I would go as far as to say some them genuinely think these years need to include not only removing yourself from the place you know and people you love, but also closing yourself off to all the things that used to make you happy. But being in despair and being desperate isn’t an effective use of my time. I already lived that life for 365 painful days, and while it showed me more of who I really was, it didn’t help me fulfill any of my “Peace Corps Objectives”.

After the next few months, I’ll be home and maybe in graduate school. I received my first rejection letter today from Tufts. It didn’t really bother me that much because I never really intended on going there. It was my litmus test. If I was accepted there I would have been accepted to the others by virtue of Tufts having the most competitive program for my degree. Ultimately, I need a few years back in California. I need to refamiliarize myself with home and try to center a bit more. After that, maybe I’ll have a better idea of what my goals are, and how I’m going to get there again. Ideally, I’ll be able to come back to Rwanda and continue to work at the Academy during school breaks. I’m still working out the details of that with my school director though.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

2011 Update

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I wrote three separate entries thinking it was the one I wanted to submit to the public, so hopefully this will be my final copy. Returning to America was not like anything I could have anticipated. It was shocking. I mean really physically and psychologically shocking. For my first week I was enchanted by everything, disconnected, and preoccupied with the busyness involved in all of the superfluous details. There were fountains in the middle of shopping malls that spit water for children to play in, or simply for people to admire. I couldn’t imagine what my twelve year old neighbor, Mugeni, would have thought if she saw it and was told it was “just decoration” after years of having to carry Jerry Cans from the source, up our mountain, just so her family could cook at night.
I spent a lot of time hiding in my room with my computer, trying to find a lifeline to ground me into my new First World reality. A few of my friends who had gone through this process before told me it would just take some getting used to. There were things I could get used to, and then there were things I couldn’t. Though, I rapidly got used to all of the food I had missed the previous 15 months, daily hot showers, and reliable transportation. I think it took some time for my friends and relatives to readjust to me as well. After all of the “Hi”s and “How are you”s, immediately followed the “Oh my GOD you’re so skinny”s, and some assessments on the change in my demeanor. I had a lot of people tell me I had become awkwardly quiet and detached. Devan’s phrasing of my transformation was probably the kindest. “There’s stillness about you now,” he told me. It was nice to be around him again and see that he still had absolutely no demands of me. After everything, he is still the one person I can be around and never have to feel like I’m trying to entertain or impress. I could be at zero with him, which was an invaluable emotional sanctuary when things got overwhelming.
I kept myself together until the very end. My last few days at home were tumultuous at best. The thought of getting back on the plane and returning to the place that handed me my ass for more than a year caused a visceral reaction in me. I just wanted to run as far in the opposite direction as humanly possible. Rwanda no longer represented this holy grail of undiscovered potential. It was the place where my dreams went to die, and I suffered the better part of that passing alone. I forced myself onto the plane under the pretense that “things would be different this time.” I had a new school, a new village, and a new job. In reality, I forced myself back because I didn’t think I could ever be able to forgive myself for abandoning my friends to the Heart of Darkness. Every time someone I cared about walked out, it was like one less thread keeping my pieces together. “It takes ten times as long to put yourself together than it does to fall apart,” I would remind myself, and try my best to continue forward with what then seemed like a missing limb.
But it was different this time. I’ll admit, my first few days on the ground I was depressed. I thought about leaving every day, and every day it became harder and harder to come up with reasons to stay. Then, I finally got to move to my school, and things changed. The paranoia of being sent back to “the arena” dissolved. It became clear in the first 24 hours that I wasn’t going to have to fight for the essentials when they brought me to the dining hall and served me a fully balanced meal three times in a day. My house had a refrigerator. My room was like having my own private college dorm. I decorated it with letters and pictures from home like I did my freshman year at Davis. There was always water. Even when it was cold or took time to come through the pipes, there wasn’t any 45 minute hill that required conquering before I could have a shower. My mattress didn’t slope in the middle and I found myself sleeping whole nights through for the first time ever in Rwanda. That was the real kicker. When my door closed, the world stopped moving. I had solace, privacy, and absolutely no one to look out for aside from myself. That’s right. No Meow Meows de la Nuit attacking my housemates, no one waking me up to walk them to the latrine, no one knocking on my door in the middle of the night because of a post traumatic flashback. At night I could lie down, close my eyes, and not open them again until my alarm went off the next morning.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I was going to finish my service. About a week into being a site I made the unconscious decision to stay the course. I didn’t need to think through it. It was just a change in my mood that let me know I was going to be doing okay.
Thursday the girls arrived and we’ve been preparing for classes ever since. The latest from the Peace Corps rumor mill is that the school year will end in June due to MINEDUCs desire to match its school year with the rest of the East African Community. Man, wouldn’t that be a monkey wrench in the plans on everyone involved in Rwandan Education outside of the Ministry of Education? Even the Peace Corps would have to make adjustments to when they requested volunteers and when they would implement trainings. The school year would start up again in September leaving me to wonder why I didn’t apply for fall semesters at all of my Graduate Schools, but I’m trying not to dwell on how ridiculous this sudden change “would be” until everyone is sure it’s a “will be”.
More on that later.