Friday, August 31, 2012

Rwanda is real

When people at home ask me how Rwanda is, I’ve often used the word “real” to describe it. It seems to me that so often in America, many things are hidden from us, sometimes by chance, often on purpose. It’s not that life in America is all fake, it’s just that I can see the consequences of all my actions so clearly here. Let me explain.

In my village, any water that you use, you must walk to a nearby water station, wait in line with your jerrycan, and tote that heavy water all the way back to your house. Want that water heated? You might have to chop down a tree to get firewood to boil it. Any trash that you create, you have to dispose of yourself—either burning it or burying it. On one of my first days in my host family, I ate a granola bar and then foolishly asked my Mama where the trash can was. She didn’t understand, even though I looked up the word for “trash” in Kinyarwanda, and repeated it in French too. She took the wrapper and just threw it in our backyard.  I thought about an average day in America, and what my backyard would look like if I had to toss all my trash there instead of the “out of sight, out of mind” model, where regular garbage pick-up, waste incinerators, and massive landfills assure us that our consumptive habits are not a problem. It has made me so much more conscious of what I consume.

In America, you can buy paper without ever seeing the trees that were cut down; you can buy produce without ever seeing the chemicals that were used or the workers who harvested the food.  You can buy a hamburger without ever seeing the cow, or a speck of bones or blood. You can use electricity as much as you want, often without knowing where it came from, without seeing the mountaintop removed, the lung cancer of miners, the kids with asthma who live next to the coal plant and who can’t afford health insurance.

Cost is the only barrier: if you have the money in America (and in most developed countries), the environmental and human costs of consumption do not stand in your way. Everything is clean and sanitized on the outside; because that’s the way we like it. It makes us uncomfortable to think about the effects of our actions on people that we’ve never met, and in all likelihood, will never meet. I just wonder how different the world would be if, for example, we had to meet the person in a developing country making a few cents a day making our shoes every time we wanted to buy them, or if we had to meet people whose water or land was ruined because of an oil spill every time we wanted to fill our gas tanks. 

It just seems like there’s a huge disconnect somewhere along the line. And in many ways, I don’t know what to do about it. Let me rephrase that. We know what to do about it, it's actually doing it that's the hardest part. And it’s scary, looking it in the face. "Reduce, reuse, recycle", people. In that order. 

I think sometimes of the quote by Gandhi that has almost become a cliché, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It has taken on a different meaning for me after being here for four months. I often wonder if everyone on the entire earth were an exact replica of me (even scarier than all that stuff I just wrote about, I know), would the world be able to sustain itself? If everyone had a laptop (as I do), if everyone had five pairs of shoes (as I do), if everyone wanted to take hour-long hot showers (as I desperately want to right now instead of a 5 minute bucket bath)? Not likely.

So many things in America are possible because we are separate from the consequences of our actions. And it’s all real, whether we choose to see it or not. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Muzungu Revelations

A couple weeks ago, I went to a celebration an hour away from my village. A chapel in memorial of the victims of the genocide was being dedicated on the shores of Lake Kivu. When we arrived around 10 am, there were already hundreds of people all singing and dancing.

Since I was with the nuns, we got VIP seats in the shade in the chapel, which was a stroke of luck for me and my albino-esque skin. It was a marathon of a ceremony: there was an hour and a half of singing and dancing, then a two hour mass, then a rosary, then a procession with a statue of Mary, then more singing and dancing, then some speeches. Apparently a German family had donated the land and money to build the chapel, and they came down to join in the celebration. They sat in front of me, and all of them had HUGE cameras and video recorders. Only one of them spoke a little English, and none of them spoke Kinyarwanda.

The ceremony finished around 4:30 pm (no lunch, no bathroom breaks).  One of my co-workers who was there asked what the Germans’ names were. Um, I’d never seen them before in my life and couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying. Then one of the sisters asked me why I didn’t go talk to more of them. Um, because only one of them spoke English, and I feel awkward just going up to someone and starting a conversation just because of our common white-ness. I started to get a little indignant after four or five Rwandans asked me questions implying that all muzungus are the same and somehow all know each other and speak the same language. How dare these people associate me with these other white people wearing Birkenstocks and socks?? Don’t they know we’ve come from two different continents?! Where’s my individuality?!

But then I remembered the very unfortunate way that Americans (myself included) often badly stereotype and generalize about Africa. Part of this might be the way that Africa is represented in media in the U.S., (everyone should check out this great article “How Not to Write About Africa” detailing Africa’s completely inadequate representation in Western media), and part of it is just plain ignorance. Africa is so incredibly diverse: its people, its languages, its religions, and its geography. There are rich people and poor people and there are people with every shade of skin. It doesn’t all look like the Serengeti with giraffes and lions and elephants. I cringe when I hear sentences that begin with things like, “Every 10 seconds in Africa….”

So I guess from now on every time I get a little huffy when twenty kids coming running at me shouting “umuzungu!!!” after I already told them what my name is, I will try to be more patient and more careful with the assumptions and generalizations I make about other people. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Umuganda: Community Service in Rwanda

The last Saturday of every month in Rwanda is Umuganda, or community service. All across Rwanda, in every community, people come together to work for a few hours on something important in their community, and then they have a meeting about issues facing the community. Umuganda could be leveling ground for a new school building, building a water ditch, fixing a road, or various other things. But everyone is supposed to come: you can be fined for not attending; all the stores are closed, and Saturday market day is moved to Friday.

I went to July’s Umuganda for the first time in Rusizi. Sister Adelinde walked me over to where they were breaking ground for a new house, introduced me to the mayor, and then she walked home to do her umuganda at the church. It was like that moment when you’re dropped off at kindergarten for the first time and you see your Mom making her way towards the door.

The 50 or so people who were there stopped working and just stared at me for a good ten minutes. No one spoke. Just blank stares. I took a deep breath and tried to quell the urge to run home. I grabbed a hoe and started digging. More people arrived, and more stares ensued. I finally broke the ice by making a lame joke: a guy working next to me had a shirt with “USA” and an American flag on it, and I asked if he was “umunyamerika” like me. It was crazy to see the difference this little gesture made. People laughed (a lot harder than was deserved by the aforementioned joke), people came up to me and asked me questions in kinyarwanda, and several young women pulled me aside during a break and told me they wanted to be friends—when could I come visit them? I was overjoyed.

It’s not perfect, but I think the idea of Umuganda is really wonderful, and it’s funny thinking about what Umuganda would look like in the U.S. First of all, no one would show up at 8 am on a Saturday. Secondly, there would have to be some big registration event in advance. Thirdly, there would definitely have to be doughnuts and coffee involved. You’d get a t-shirt at the end with the event’s corporate sponsors listed on the back. And there would probably be a lawsuit involved if the U.S. government ever mandated even one community service event. While I’m being a little facetious, I really think Umuganda is an amazing idea, and that America could learn a thing or two from it. Just get past the staring. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

My First Week at Site

I was sworn-in as an official Peace Corps volunteer at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Kigali. I made a speech in French, wore Rwandan dress, and all of us volunteers gorged ourselves on the refreshments provided (anything other than plain rice, beans, potatoes, cabbage, and plantains is a cause for celebration in my book).

I was interviewed by a Rwandan newspaper at our swear-in ceremony, which includes the hilarious and highly embarrassing line, “Prior to her arrival in the country, she strongly harboured the long held myth that she would come across lions and leopards roaming in the streets of Rwanda.” Take a look here, if you’d like.

It was hard to leave my host family that I stayed with for the 2.5 months of Pre-Service Training. On our last day together, they gave me a gift: a leopard print maxi dress. To be honest, I would never be caught dead wearing it in the US, but I was grateful for their generosity, and I like to imagine it’s something J.Lo would have worn in the 90s. I’ve worn it around in my village a few times and I always get a lot of compliments on it. Hakuna Matata.

I had my first brush with illness in Africa after swear-in. A bunch of volunteers went out for Indian food at a restaurant in Kigali, and I unfortunately got a case of Delhi belly. I can now confirm that Indian food doesn’t taste nearly as good going up as it does going down. Getting sick was actually one of my biggest fears about Peace Corps. The idea of being sick without my Mom on speed dial, a bevy of Western medications at every pharmacy, and the familiar comforts of tea, orange juice, and bad TV shows was hard to imagine. But the Peace Corps doctors and my fellow volunteers made up for the lack of Lipton and Real Housewives.

I’ve been at my permanent site, in the Rusizi district of Rwanda, for a little over a week. It was a bit scary seeing my fellow Health 4 Peace Corps volunteers leave one by one; most of them are in the east of Rwanda, while I’m in the far southwest, about 8 hours from Kigali. It was even scarier seeing the Peace Corps van driving off after dropping me off. But so far things have been good, and I really love my community.
                                                                  My Health Center

I live with 7 Franciscan nuns in a compound near the Community Health Center where I work every day. I have my own room, which finally feels like home after a bit of decorating. The nuns are teachers and nurses, and they are amazing.  My room is right next to the chapel, so I wake up to them singing every morning.

I also live with the cutest little kid I’ve ever met. His name is Francois d’Assisi, he’s 4, and the nuns adopted him. I look forward to playing with him every day after work.

I’ll post soon about my work at the Health Center and more about my community soon. Keep tuned.