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.