Saturday, September 26, 2009

8 Months In

***Sorry I fail so much at posting***
So, because I dont already have enough of a spot light on me, beingthe only white single female in a rural village, MTN,Rwanda's biggestcell phone company, decided to build HUGE antenna literally 10 feetfrom my house. It is atrocious, and looks ridiculous stuck amidstswaying banana trees and rolling mountains.Worse still, I now have agiant NEON-ORANGE (neon orange!!) tower which can be seen from milesaway, marking my house.I thought my novelty had warn off since thepack of curious children outside my gate has been thinning, but nope.What was once a group of kids is now literally a crowd, becausehanging out at the antenna has become a village past time. When I askanyone walking toward my neighborhood where they are going, theyanswer, "Oh, Im just going to look at the antenna!"as if to say, "Imheaded to a movie," or "Im off to the grocery store!" Its hilarious.This means that I cannot so much as makea trip to the latrine (thatsthe hole-in the -ground toilet for those of who are lucky enough tonot know) without being noticed, nor can I open my window when I wakeup at 6 a.m without an enthusiastic "Mwaramutse Emma!" Who can reallyblame them, though? With just few bars (I use the term loosely) andone generator in the whole village, there isnt much else to do besidesstare at an antenna. If my camera hadnt been stolen, I would haveposted a picture so you could see just how awful it is.Anyway, when Im not glaring at the antenna with hatred or trying todash unnoticed to the latrine, I'm doing well. The month of August wasvery tumultuous, especially with the dramatic robbery and subsequentadventure (or rather, nightmare) at the police station.I am realizingthat although my novelty hasn't quite worn off, the novelty of Rwandanlife is slowly doing so. Things have become a bit routine and I'm notsure how I feel about that. Work is taking a priority over socializingand enjoying the sweet slowness of rural life. The difficulty oftrying to accomplish things in a completely different culture isbecoming more apparent, especially when language skills are not yetfluent. Although, I have graduated from, "Look! Sun!" to "Sun me brunif sun is many-my skin white!" to the current, "If I am outside for along time, the sun burns my white skin." September is going well. Iwent to a weeding on Sunday which was lovely, at least the parts Icould understand. During Rwandan ceremonies, a basket is given to themain members of the groom's family.Each member comes in front of thecrowd when his name is called and accepts the basket veryceremoniously.Imagine my surprise when I heard my Kinyarwanda namecalled-I was sitting in the back trying to understand and focus onwhat was going on, but really dreaming about Trader Joe's and mexicanfood.This is sadly how I spend a lot of time at Rwandanceremonies-trying to get whats happening but eventually drifting tothoughts of food that will not be available for another 20 months.Iwas presented with a beautiful basket, and was really touched at thegesture.As I mentioned, complexities arise daily from living and working in adifferent part of the world, and as soon as I think I've got somethingfigured out, it turns out to be even more multi-faceted than Ipredicted. Especially when it comes to planning projects, I findmyself doubting that any big thing I try to do will actually work. Ifind the most value and satisfaction in small, day-to-dayinteractions:teaching my neighbor how to bathe and nurse her firstbaby, helping another neighbor with homework, playing basketball withmy giggling and extremely hormonally-charged high schoolstudents.These are things which are valuable but which one cannotreally measure numerically or in a fancy report, and things which Iwill probably remember the most fondly after I leave. The communalstyle of living here suits me, and I've gotten to children running inand out of my house.Its amazing to see that alhough the residents ofmy community may not have much, they really band together in times oftrouble to help one another.I'm really going to miss that when Ileave.Its getting increasingly difficult to picture myself ordering alatte at Starbucks or driving on a paved road.I certainly miss thecomforts of home, but I know there are far worse ways to spend onestime than playing basketball with students and learning how to plant agarden from the ancient woman next door.For the time being, things inthis part of the world are well. Thank you to everybody who has beenso wonderful, sending mail and taking the time to skype-it truly makesall the difference in the world. I hope Fall brings all of you peace!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

6 months

So I just returned from umuganda, monthly community work which everyone in the community is expected to participate in. This month,each village (there are many in the sector) worked on building houses.My job involved hiking up and down a lengthy and very steep hill to fetch water to make mud bricks. Since I lack the super-human strength most Rwandans have (probably due to the fact that I haven’t been hauling firewood and carrying jerrycans since I could walk), I was given a child-size jerry can instead of the normal kind all the other women had, and yet I was still exhausted instantly, trying to conceal my wheezing and sweating as I clamoured up the hill behind women who were barefoot, had babies strapped to their backs, and were still effortlessly balancing the water on their heads. After water fetching was over (not a moment too soon),the men who were building called me over to help them, whooping it up and yelling with delight as I slung mud balls (which are deceptively heavy) up to the men on the roof to use as plaster. Again, my lack of strength resulted in half the mudballs splatting back down to the ground, which then caused even more hysterical laughter.I also tried to carry some mud bricks, one of which I dropped and broke,so needless to say I served as more of an entertainment than a real contributor, but that’s ok. At least I made them laugh. Seriously, what little self consciousness I had before coming to Rwanda has been completely eliminated by being gaped at 24/7 and putting myself in ridiculous situations.I just accept how funny I apparently I look and roll with it.
What else has been going on besides manual labor, you may ask? School ended for the holidays in early July, and we had a big party with community leaders, parents, and pretty much the whole town to mark the school anniversary since reopening.Interesting events ensued, including meeting the District Mayor, who invited me to his wedding, and being forced to stand up in front of 500 students, parents, and other important folk to express my feelings in the traditional Rwandan style (LONG), so when I was finished stumbling through it in2 minutes, there was an awkward pause, followed by an enthusiastic applause that probably was the result more of pity than of anything else.It was a great day, though, and I really felt like a part of this community.
I also got to visit my sisters, nieces, and brother in law in Scotland, which was AMAZING-I surprised my sister for her 40th, and she was really happy. The trip involved a lot of beautiful castles, good food, and of course the obligatory cheesy imitations of Scottish accents, which seem to happen often in my family even when we are NOT in Scotland. Scotland was gorgeous, and it was surprising considering the circumstances that I suffered very few (if any) negative consequences of culture shock. I also returned to Rwanda with $200 worth of drug store essentials, 2 giant bags of peanut M and Ms (heaven) and some Scottish shortbread. If you know me at all, you know the m and ms and shortbread were gone within days of returning to Rwanda. The shampoo and lotion, however, Im trying to conserve.
Another wonderful event in my packed social schedule (*sarcasm*) was my friend’s kwita izina, or naming ceremony, for his newborn son. It was here I had my first taste of sorghum beer, which looks suspiciously like broccoli soup, and is drunk communally out of a big tub with long straws. Essentially it is the Rwandan version of a keg. It was not tasty, but I didn’t want to offend so I gamely continued sipping until I had a stomachache and couldn’t participate in the spontaneous stomp-clap-body shaking dancing which took place when the baby was carried out from behind the curtain. I was also officially christened with my Rwandan name, which is exciting. I am Ingabire, which means gift. This caused more stomp-clap body shaking dancing.
After I returned from Scotland last week, a volunteer friend was coordinating a camp for orphans and vulnerable children which I decided to help out with. It turned out to be really fun and a really great experience as far as cultural insight into issues like gender equality and HIV. My group of campers were between 14 and 20, and although we had a translator, she left the room on several occasions, leaving me and my friend to talk about such sensitive topics as HIV, STIs, and teen pregnancy in Kinyarwanda. We also had to show some pretty graphic photos of STI symptoms, and discuss the nitty-gritty of female anatomy in a culture where sex is not exactly at the forefront of every day discussion. I have to say, I am pretty glad I was gone the afternoon they did the condom demonstrations.It may have been too much to bare. Another awesome Camp experience was chaperoning the big dance, where I was repeatedly booty-checked by an over-enthusiastic male camper (SO indescribably hilarious) and got to dance to songs that took me back to junior high (think Backstreet boys and so on).
So, with Scotland and then helping with the camp, I was gone from site for about a week and half, my longest absence yet, and it felt like longer since I was out of the continent for most of it. It was nice to come back to the village and be greeted by my neighbors and others who upon seeing me, threw down their work and hugged me, saying “iminsi myinshi!Twarakubgiye!” Many days! We missed you! I was given a bag of corn and some milk as a welcome home present, which in my weary post travel state almost made me tear up.
Now Im sitting outside my house (I have to write all my blogs and emails by hand) thinking how nuts it is that this experience is basically 25% complete. Time is speeding up and Ive been thinking a lot about what I want to accomplish over the next year and a half. Its so difficult to set tangible and attainable goals when I am still working on fending off unwanted suitors and just figure out my rhythm of life here, and so much of my energy has been placed on social integration. So many goals and accomplishments cant really be measured or recorded in situations like these-some of my proudest moments have just been playing soccer or running with the kids or having my basket ladies teach me how to weave.Im trying to keep in mind two oft-spoken Rwandan phrases-ii hangane, meaning be patient, and buhoro buhoro, meaning slowly slowly, and apply them to every area of my my life here.
To summarize:
Number of “Youre SO fat!” comments this week: countless
Number of Beans and Potato Meals: 2 per day
Proposals: 2 (3 if you count the ancient drunk man that hangs out in the town center)
I hope everyone is enjoying the last month of summer!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

apparently im fat

this is going to be a long post, i have to pack in all the good stuff before the internet shuts down and i got back to the village. ok, so...
in short, i am starting to feel like this is becoming my home. im not just a visitor anymore. its amazing to think what it was like when i first arrived in my village;the quizzical, at times fearful, stares i got from people have turned into enthusiastic embraces and shouts of hello across the tozn square. its so different than how it was two months ago. i constantly have a heard of children in my front yard who call me "mama." i cant tell if this is just languag confusion confusion or if they genuinely think i am their mama. their actual mamas come to drag them home at dusk. my neighbors call me "umukobwa wacyu" which means "our girl," and they come over for tea.we all laugh genuinely at the awkward follies of our halted conversations. i have a guy i buy milk from and an old lady i buy carrots from down the road. i loove (most of the time) leaving my gate open and hearing little footsteps and cautious "miriwes?" (hello?) i have a great photo of a 5 year old sitting in my living room (one of 3 rooms toal in my house) reqding q copy of The New Yorker i snagged from headquarters in the capital.
since i fail so miserably at updating this thing, i feel like i havent painted an adequate picture of my village. i guess that its kind of impossible considering that there is virtually nothing to compare it to in the states but i will try. my village is basically on top of a mountain, so the view is absolutely (at the risk of sounding totally cliche) breathtaking. i see the mountains of Burundi, the neighbor country, stretching on for what seems like forever. in the morning looking out my window, i sometimes cant really believe that i live here.the huge red sun fights the fog that settles in the valley basins, and there is an absence of sound that it both comforting and lonely. my house is surrounded by banana trees and sorghum fields, and the neighbors' goats and chickens occasionally wander through my gate. its only a 15 minute walk to the town cetner, which is essentially a few stores where you can by dusty cans of sardines and stale bread, and a few bars with beer (warm of course). the walk usually takes triple that time, however, because of the constant need to greet and chat with everyone i pass.
teaching is going well. my students are actually startiung to pay attention to what i am teaaching rather than being fascinated by what i am wearing or giggling nervously when i ask a question. things have already progressed~thinking back to the first day i walked into the classroom and stood alwardly in front of 60 teenagers, most of them boys, having not a clue what i was doing. now they are throwing their hands up and urgently shouting "me teacher me teacher me teacher!!!!!" if they know the answer. i had friend from the states who is working in uganda come visit and they wanted to sing for her. we were both expecting some nice traditional rwandan songs, so when they burst into a heartfelt rendition of T.I's "Whatever You Like" it was pretty adorable.
i love teaching, but im looking forward to stqrting my other projects. theres a group of women who get together to weave baskets who i happened to stumble upon at the health center.they invited me to join them and laughed hysterically at my inability to weave as swiftly as they do. i ended up staying for hours, just listening and talking to them, sitting in the grass braiding banana leaves. all of the women are extremely poor and have malnourished kids.they also dont have a place to sell their baskets, so i really want to being working with them. my friend who works at the health center is also in charge of a project working in over 60 villages that works with women in teaching them how to care for their babies, prepare food healthily, plan their families, and treat minor illnesses.he wants me to help him! i would basically be biking from hole to home, doing education on HIV AIDS, FP, nutrition, hygeine, infant and mother care, etc. cooking and playing with babies are two of my great loves in life, so im excited.
i thought i was going to be dying of boredom, but im honestly not. there are ALWAYS people to visit, people visiting me, runs to take. i have a group of 6 little ragamuffins who congregate at my door every evening at 5, shouting "tugende kwiruka, emma!!!" (lets go run, emma!) so i have no excuse to get fat despite the excessive amounts of milk i am forced to drink. although, people seem to enjoy commenting on how fat i am (thus the title of this post) and im not really sure why. i didnt think i was fat before coming herebut apparently Rwandans think otherwise.
so despite lack of electricity, running water, a fairly disgusting latrine, no internet, being half a world away from everyone i know, AND being called fat on average twice a week, i am happy.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

dear god, 4 months already?

alright, so I know I am terrible at updating this thing, but its difficult when internet is so spotty here. I hope people that read this thing havent forgotten I existed, Ive tried to send out a few emails to let you know Im alive and healthy (kind of). I dont have much time to write the usual hilarious, witty, and riveting post (kidding) because the bus for my village leaves in a few minutes, BUT I will hopefully be getting my wireless in 3 weeks or so so that should make communication with the outside world much easier!
Site has been tumultuous, wonderful, awful, scary, and amazing all at the same time. I have survived 5 weeks and it has definitely proved to me far more difficult than I could have predicted. The highs are really high and the lows very low-thats the most succinct way I can describe it. People have been incredibly welcoming, and more and more people know my name (walking around the neighboring villages and having people shout the traditional greeting, "Komera, Emma!" (be strong, Emma!) definitely lifts me when the days are rough and makes the good days even better.) Ive been given more milk in the past 5 weeks than I can shake a stick at (milk in Rwandan culture is a symbol of prosperity and good health) when people invite me into their homes.
Anyway, must run so that I dont have to hitch a ride on a coffee truck like last time I traveled away from site (more details on that debaucle when I have more time to write).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chicken Slaughter


~eaten more cassava than I thought was humanly possible


~accidentally stumbled into a genocide prison (and not been able to get out):My friend and I were walking on a side road in Butare, chatting away, when I noticed a beautiful, and  at the time inviting, little path, surrounded by groves of banana trees and such. Being the person I am, I suggested we explore and check it out. We weren’t walking for 10 minutes when we noticed 5 men in uniform, with machetes, walking towards us-by the time we noticed who they were, it was too late to turn around, so we kept walking until we reached a field, where a handful more were working. At this point, near panic, we tried to walk down another path toward the main road, where we ran into a fence-we had no choice but to crawl through it to escape, so Im sure to spectacle of two white girls emerging onto the main road was pretty unusual.


~witnessed my first chicken slaughter (quite traumatic)


~attended my first Rwandan wedding, which was AMAZING! And lasted for 12 hours…Rwandans REALLY like talking…a lot…


~acheived a personal record for longest time without a shower-5 days! (Is it sad that Im a little proud of this?)


~made pizza and guacamole for 60 people in a Rwandan kitchen with no running water or electricity, in the rain (no joke on this one, the volunteers were craving American food so badly we endured 7 hours of manual labor plus a harrowing trip to the market to get ingredients.) I think we made the vendor’s day when we told him we needed 20 bags of flour and 30 avocadoes, in the local language to top it off.


~Witnessed a stand off between a cow and a monkey, probably the best thing Ive seen since being here. My friend and I were walking in the valleys outside town and ran into a herd of cattle chilling on the road, as they often do here. I heard something drop from a tree, and this little monkey first looked at me, then the cow, who was equally curious, and then they just faced off for a good 30 seconds.


~ visited my work site and the place where I will be living (when training in Butare is over in a mere month).Words cannot adequately describe this experience, but I will try. No running water, and no electricity, but I do get about an hour of power per night because I have a solar panel (really, I count my blessings). I have an “apartment” with two rooms. My village is beautiful, but poverty stricken, and the views are amazing. I took a walk around and was surprised at how my Kinyarwanda abilities have improved-I can actually communicate and hold conversations with people! I will be teaching health and English at a high school with over 600 students-crazy!I visited the school and was introduced to all the students at once, who laughed hysterically at me speaking Kinyarwanda, but seemed really excited to have me there. Then they invited me to play basketball, where needless to say I got my butt kicked, awkwardly flailing around trying to just get my hands on the ball. Me? Basketball? A bunch of Rwandan high school kids? Pretty disastrous.I’ll also be working at a health clinic, doing home visits and HIV education. I think visiting my site  made me simultaneously excited and terrified to be on my own in this place, and for such a long time. Its far too overwhelming to think about too deeply, and Ive become close with a lot of other volunteers, so it will be hard to leave them, too.


So, all in all, in a country where I can count on being mobbed by school kids on a daily basis, monkeys popping out of trees, and incomparably beautiful hillsides, (but not on running water, power, or being sure that what Im saying in Kinyar makes any sense), I am happy. I miss that states every day but I feel like I am where I should be.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

I've Survived 3 Weeks...

Sunburned to a crisp, bug-bitten, and un-bathed. Rwanda does wonders for your looks!

I am sitting underneath the stars listening to Radiohead….we have wireless (temporarily) at the convent/hippie commune! I’m so psyched, its great to be able to connect with everyone.The world is not so big after all…

Lets see now, what of interest has happened. My friends and I managed to go out for din and drinks on Singles Awareness Day, which was very nice. Hotel Credo is kind of reminiscent of any American club, except with plastic tables and chairs and you can hear goats bleating in the background. They also play American country music mixed with some Beyonce, which is awesome. We ordered some sort of meat dish and 20 minutes later saw a motorbike pull up with two men and a live goat sandwiched between them. Enough said.

On Saturday we went to a genocide memorial, which was absolutely stunning in so many ways. Our poor bus broke down on the way because of the steep hills, so we ended up walking there which was SO amazing.It was a beautiful setting, a kind of plateau set amongst mountains. The memorial is actually a burial site for over 50,000 genocide victims, and many of the bodies, including children, have been exhumed and displayed to convey the horrors of that time. It was a truly truly emotional experience, to say the least, and to witness it with our Rwandan trainers made it all the more affecting. I would have liked to take pictures just to somewhat share the experience, but it felt wrong.

Sunday I spent alllll day with my host family, which basically consisted of us staring at each other and laughing awkwardly because my Kinyar is DEFinitely not ready for any kind of interesting conversation. Our convo was kind of like this:

Me:“Ibyshimbo ni bgyiza” (Beans are good)

Mom: “Yago.” (Yes)

Me: “Nkunda ibyshimbo”(I like beans)

Mom:”Nkunda umuceni” (I like rice)

Me: “Urakunda inyanya?”(do you like tomatoes?)

And so on like this for about 8 hours….

To spice things up, I got proposed to by my host mom’s nephew, AND invited to a wedding in a few weeks, which should be awesome. I hear Rwandan weddings are a great time, and I may even get to witness the cow ceremony. Clearly I am in with the cool crowd here.

Ive been getting a lot of request for snippets of my daily schedule, God only knows why, but here it is:

Get up at 6:30ish, 2 hours of language class, health training (im probably going to be working in maternal health clinics or doing HIV and AIDS eduction) more language, lunch, more language, perhaps some laundry, an afternoon beer with some other trainees in town, or a bucket bath followed by dinner and more classes.. pretty exciting stuff. Weekends are spent hiking to my hearts content around the little villages outside our town, practicing language with the locals, and doing cultural excursions with the group.

Things are good, Im happy, and becoming increasingly used to this fascinating and beautiful place. STILL trying to link my flickr account to this thing, so more pics to come. The one above is of some kids that followed me for seriously an hour on a run! They were SO cute and fascinated when I showed them their picture on my camera.Amahoro!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bienvenue a Rwanda!


After a 20 hour flight and 7 shots (the vaccination kind, not alcohol) I am in Butare, Rwanda.

The past days have been a blur of meeting ambassadors, government ministers, and Peace Corps staff. Apparently its really big deal that Peace Corps is returning to Rwanda after 15 years of absence due to the war, and everyone seems really excited to have us here.


The little Ive seen of Rwanda so far is absolutely and stunningly BEAUTIFUL. There is no way to describe it but I’ll try. They call it the “land of a thousand hills” (le pays de milles collines) and there couldn’t be a better name. On the drive from the capital to Butare, we were all silently staring out the window and just soaking it in: the land is thick with every imaginable color of green, so fertile and lush and gorgeous I couldn’t believe it. Banana trees, avocado trees, everything-little villages are sprinkled around and you really kind of cant believe what you’re looking at. Ill try to link my flickr account so you guys can see pics.


The convent where we are staying for the next 3 months of training has electricity and running water, kind of. Its basically bucket baths with trapped rain water and you are fortunate if you get to flush the toilette. Every time I turn the  light switch on in my room I cross my fingers it will work. Our trainers tell us we are getting spoiled and reality will hit us when we arrive at our work sites, which are extremely rural (picture me carrying a water jug on my head for miles-haha) So this whole internet cafĂ© luxury will be short-lived L


Learning Kinyarwanda has proved to be 1,000 times more difficult than I anticipated. Simply saying  “American” is “ndi umunyamerikakazi” and “village” is “ubudugudu.” How I will survive alone in a rural town is beyond me at this point, but it’s a full immersion program for training, no English allowed, so hopefully that will help.


On a different note, it is amazing to be in a country that has only recently survived such brutal violence. I am really hoping to learn more about the genocide, but it is very taboo to discuss it.


Anyway, all for now J Amahoro, Nkunda, nkaba Komera (peace love and strength)