Friday, May 25, 2012

Rwanda: Glows and Blows

After being here nearly two weeks, I've compiled a list of things I love about Rwanda (glows) and the not-so-great (blows). 

Dance parties: On the very first night I stayed with my host family, they turned up some Rwandan music on their shortwave radio, invited some neighborhood kids over, and had a dance party. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the way to my heart is dancing with 25 people I’ve just met in a tiny living room in Rwanda.

Beauty: I have never met such beautiful people, or been in such a beautiful place. Rwanda (at least the areas I’ve been so far) is lush and green, with rolling hills. I remember Googling “Rwanda” before I came here, and Google Image doesn’t do it justice. It’s in the 70s here during the day, and in the 60s at night. Every turn has an amazing view, and I’m basically walking around with my mouth gaping all the time. I feel incredibly lucky to be here.

Avocados: They’re small football size. Enough said :)

My PCV group: There are 25 of us in my Health 4 group, and they are some truly amazing people. It’s so energizing to be in a group of people who are passionate about making a difference. It makes life a lot easier when you have other people going through the same experiences. We’re all together for training for the next two months. I’m trying not to think about being split up from everyone and moving to our actual sites by ourselves after that.

My host family:  Maman Jeanne and Papa Daniel and their 3 kids- Bonheur, Denise, and Divine (all said with French accents :) are wonderful. Daniel is a shopkeeper here, and Maman takes care of the kids and animals, the house, and all the food—no small task when you work over a small charcoal stove with no modern equipment. They have been so welcoming to me. Even though we can’t always understand each other because they speak only Kinyarwanda and a bit of French.


Latrines and toilet paper…or rather, a lack of it: My very first night with my host family, I went into the latrine (a small wooden hut with a hole in the ground) and discovered there was no toilet paper. Or anything. After a tense first day of desperately texting friends and staff trying to figure out what to do, I finally was able to purchase some at a local store and keep it in my room. It was one of those “laugh or else you’ll cry” moments. I still haven’t gotten use to latrines, and I don’t know that I ever will.  Most of them are very dark (I wear my headlamp in with me, which my family thinks is HILARIOUS), flies abound, they smell, and you have to crouch down. Also, I’m locked in my house at night (with padlocks), so I’m dreading the moment when I have any sort of GI problems here…

Staring: When I’m walking down the street, I clearly look a bit different than most Rwandans, and many of them aren’t accustomed to seeing albino (or lobster-ish, depending on my devotion to sunscreen that week) girls every day. So I get stared at. I’m talking about people stopping what they’re doing, and just watching me, completely expressionless. Luckily, I’ve mastered the basic expressions (good morning, good afternoon, how are you, etc), and it’s literally night and day after you say something in Kinyarwanda. Their faces light up, and they start talking to you and smiling. On Sunday, a few of us gathered at a neighborhood soccer field to play Frisbee. We were the town attraction, and herds of people gathered around to watch. But after awhile, it got to be a little too much fishbowl-esque for us and we headed back to the Peace Corps building. 

Sanitation: It’s interesting (and sometimes frightening) watching my family’s sanitary habits. On one hand, bodily cleanliness is really valued in Rwanda, especially the feet. Shoes and feet get extremely dirty here, especially in the rainy season. Having clean feet is especially important at school or church. The second day I was here, I had a spot of mud on my feet when we were walking to the Peace Corps Hub for classes, and Maman stopped me, spit on my foot, and then used her skirt to wipe it off. I have to clean my feet and shoes every night. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much my family knows about germs and how they’re spread. We’ve already discussed the lack of toilet paper use, and hand washing after latrine usage isn’t common in my family (gross but true). There is no Kleenex here, so when my little brother Divine blows his nose, he uses his hand and then wipes it on his clothes…and then tries to give me a high five. My Maman will leave food out on the table all night and then serve it to the kids the next morning. In some ways I feel as if I’m playing Russian roulette with getting sick, and I’ve become a hand sanitizer fanatic. But how can I tell people who are already extremely careful with water usage that they need to use five times what they’re using now? Or how I can tell people whose three children share a single bed every night that they need to buy more charcoal to boil all their water? There are certainly things that can be improved, but I need to think about this some more. There are no easy answers.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Rwanda: First Impressions

It’s hard to believe it’s been a week since I left Omaha. It’s been a whirlwind, from two days in Philadelphia for staging, then to New York to catch our plane to Brussels, then Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) for two days, then to Kimonyi, the site of our pre-service training (PST). Whew!

I’ve moved in with a Rwandan host family, and I’ll be here for the next 10 weeks. The family is WONDERFUL.  It’s been a little challenging since I’m just learning Kinyarwanda, the native language, but I really love it here.

Kinyarwanda is unlike any other language I’ve studied. For starters, most of the words seem to start with u, m, k, or i.  This makes it pretty difficult to differentiate. The beginning of the word, rather than the end, generally changes to adjust to singular/plural and gender.  Luckily, my host family’s children (Bonheur-7, Denise-5, and Divine, 3) and the neighborhood kids have put their whole hearts into helping this clueless umuzungu learn Kinyarwanda.

In return, I’ve taught the kids hopscotch, some hand games, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”, AND a super awesome secret handshake, which they began to teach other kids in the village. I love playing with them, and they don’t mind when I make language mistakes…at least, I think.

The family is well off by Rwandan standards, but poor by American ones. Their house has five rooms, one of which is my bedroom. We have two cows, three goats, and a few chickens. The family sometimes has electricity, and we have a water spigot outside (the water isn’t clean, but other Peace Corps volunteers have to tote water various distances, so I’m lucky).  They use a squat latrine in the back, and I take bucket showers with about a half-gallon of water every other day.  The kids don’t have any toys except one tiny toy car, and Bonheur likes to play with a broken cell phone charger. They often wear the same clothes for several days straight, no matter how dirty they get. The other day, Papa Daniel brought home a small TV. ..and the kids promptly started to cry when he turned it on. Haha.

The food is simple but good: a lot of rice and potatoes, bananas, some bread, some vegetables. Pineapple and avocado are incredible here: huge and super cheap! Meat is a luxury and served sparingly.  Fanta and Coca cola are the fancy drinks of choice. Milk is common, as well as a VERY VERY sweet tea, kind of like a chai latte on crack. They also make homemade banana beer, and sorghum beer, both of which I’ve been warned are made using very poor sanitation. The other day, I was at a village gathering with about 50 people, and they passed around some beer in a huge vegetable oil jug, with one straw. Everyone drank some, even the old ladies, and I became slightly anxious that they’d offer it to me. Luckily, Maman Bonnet (my host mom) brought me a Fanta, and I avoided the possible awkardness of refusing to partake in the communal germ swap/public health hazard.

Well, that’s all for now folks.

Murabeho! (Goodbye!)