Tuesday, October 16, 2012

World Food Day in Rwanda!

Whether you know it or not, today (October 16) is World Food Day! Last year, I celebrated it with a delicious potluck at Oxfam America. I thought I’d share my view of World Food Day from the other side of the globe this year.

You’ve probably heard buzzwords like “eating locally” “organic” and “all-natural” thrown around in the U.S. While those things are certainly having a moment, they unfortunately tend to be associated only with places like Whole Foods and elitist WASPs shopping at overcrowded urban farmers markets.

Well, I’m in a small village in Rwanda, and organic, local, and all-natural is the only possible way to eat here. There are no grocery stores or refrigerators or packaging. Pesticides and GMO crops would be incredibly expensive. If it’s not in season, you simply can’t get it. We have market just two days a week, where you can buy fruits (pineapple, passion fruit, bananas, and tree tomatoes), veggies (tomatoes, avocados, onions, plantains, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, a bitter leafy green called dodo and these small and really bitter eggplants called inorgi), rice, beans, tiny dried fish, flours, eggs, and meat (blood, bones, guts, and all: there’s no boneless skinless chicken breasts in a nice little refrigerated package). That’s pretty much it.

A fairly typical meal (with the green beans replaced by rice)

This sounds all fine and well, except that once you’ve been exposed to the smorgasbord of American food, every thing you could possibly imagine, available almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, it’s hard to return to a rotation of plain beans, rice, plantains, cassava, potatoes, cooked cabbage, and carrots 7 days a week. I have a breakfast of tea, bananas, and white bread, then lunch and dinner with some combination of the above things. Every. Single. Day. I literally dream about American food at night. If someone invented an app that blocked all pictures and status-updates of food from my Facebook friends back home, I would buy it. (And THIS is exactly how I really feel when people talk about food back home!) I fantasize about being in an American grocery store, or back in my family’s well-equipped kitchen back in the U.S. 

I’ll be the first one to admit that I miss the incredible availability of chocolate, anything frozen or even remotely cold, cheese, and baked goods. I swear I will never again eat a bite of cooked cabbage after leaving Rwanda in two years. The idea of having pizza delivered to my doorstep at any hour of the day seems like a laughable concept to me here, like when you wake up from a really weird dream and you’re not sure if it’s real or not. But I had an experience that kinda scared me a little bit with regards to American food.

A friend of mine received a care package from her Mom a couple months ago and she was gracious enough to share the contents with me (trust me, this is no small gesture: thanks Jamie and Jamie’s Mom!). We gorged ourselves on Starbursts, Skittles, crackers, energy bars, everything. It was delicious; until I tasted the rainbow again the next day and it didn’t taste as good coming up. I had to take a day off work I was having such horrible stomach cramps. It was my second time getting sick in Rwanda, but it wasn’t because of Rwandan food. It was the artificial colors, sugars, and flavors of some (rather delicious) American junk food.

Corn drying in the sun

There has to be a middle ground. I love the availability of ingredients in the U.S. I love the creativity and diversity you can find in American cuisine; the clash and co-existence of so many wonderful cultures in the same place. But it’s also clear that our way of doing things is unsustainable in the long-term, and it’s harming Americans’ health and the environment. We top the charts of diabetes and heart disease, and we tip the scales in rates of obesity. We live in a land of skinny supermodels splashed across media, entire magazines devoted to weight loss, “diet foods” in every supermarket (a mysterious category of processed food that doesn’t exist here), and fast food drive-thrus on every corner. Everything is cleaned, packaged, processed, waxed, colored, flavored, and advertised. And despite this, we waste a huge proportion of it: the USDA estimates that Americans waste 96 BILLION pounds of food per year.  All of this, while over half the planet goes to bed hungry every night (including 17.2 million food insecure families in America). It’s pretty to clear to me after being in Rwanda for five months: our global food system is broken.

Cassava. Not a huge fan. 

So to celebrate World Food Day here in Rwanda, I led a discussion about nutrition at my Health Club meeting. We made a list of all the foods that are available here (depending on the seasons, obviously) and divided them up according to fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. We talked about ways to ensure that they’re eating enough calories in a day (eating more avocados, drinking milk), and we talked about vitamins and micronutrients and how to get them (i.e. eating fruit along with beans because Vitamin C aids in iron absorption). They asked me about food in America, and I had no idea where to begin. It was like trying to explain snow to my English Club a few weeks ago, in a place where temperatures rarely fall below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and there’s basically no refrigeration. 

World Food Day with my students! 

They were shocked when I told them I’d never had cassava, igikoma (a watery porridge made of sorghum flour), dodo (a bitter leafy grain), or tree tomatoes before coming to Rwanda, and even more shocked when I told them how much an avocado or pineapple costs in America (“Teacher, it is not true!”). Even though some of my students were at first confused about how America can import lots of food from countries around the world, I think it began to make sense when I put it in a personal context: many of my students’ families grow coffee beans that are exported to America, and many of them have never tasted a real cup of coffee. Growing a cash crop like coffee can be good when world coffee prices are high and when farmers get a fair share, but when prices fall, the consequences can be devastating. All in all, it was a very interesting discussion, and I feel like I gained as much, if not more, knowledge as my students.

   My neighbors processing coffee beans

I am not an economist, agronomist, doctor, nutritionist, or a chef, and I’m mildly uncomfortable with the term “foodie.” But it’s quite obvious that things need to change. We need an accessible food system that promotes health, ensures food and worker safety, emphasizes sustainability, treats farmers fairly, and enables everyone to get enough calories to survive and thrive. And we can't wait for it. 

 A rice farmer near my site

If you’re interested in working on changing our current, broken food system which has created a world of the stuffed and the starved, take a look at Oxfam America’s GROW campaign. Sometimes global hunger can be a hard thing to wrap your head around. What are the root causes of hunger? Why is our system broken? How can we fix it? They’ve researched the root causes and simplified it so it’s easy to understand. And best of all, they offer real, lasting solutions. Take a look here.

Happy World Food Day!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

So You Want to Be a Peace Corps Volunteer?

Since being in Rwanda for five months (hard to believe!), I’ve had a few friends and friends-of-friends who are interested in becoming Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) ask me about my experiences, so here’s some food for thought (based on my experience, so take everything with a grain of salt!). Feel free to pass this on to friends or family you know who might be thinking about doing Peace Corps; sometimes it can be hard to gain real knowledge about what the experience is like. 


If you want to have an experience that is really different from just travelling or even studying abroad in a place, Peace Corps is it. Peace Corps provides intensive cultural and language training (for the first 2-3 months) to help you integrate into your community. People in my village know my name. I can have conversations with people and not always expect them to just know English. I have friends and neighbors here (no, not "people I'm trying to help" or "poor African children". Real relationships). I can say, “I live in Rwanda.” There are so many things that I wouldn’t have learned if I only came for a few days or weeks or months, and I'm still learning all the time. You will question things. You will learn things. And quite honestly, your perspective on life might seriously change.

Safety and security: If you already know that you really want to live/work/volunteer in a developing country (like through one of hundreds of other volunteer programs), Peace Corps does have advantages that many other organizations don't have. Each country has a safety and security officer who keeps abreast of what’s happening in the country, and Peace Corps works closely with American embassies as we are considered government employees, technically. Every country has an emergency-action plan in case the situation gets bad, ending with the closing of Peace Corps in that country and the evacuation of volunteers. We also get amazing medical care from two doctors who work solely for Peace Corps, are available 24/7, and take care of about 140 volunteers total. We receive the necessary vaccinations and medications (i.e. malaria prophylaxis) for free, plus a water filter and mosquito bed net. Peace Corps has a specific set of standards for our homes that help to insure our safety. This isn’t the case for everyone, but I truthfully feel very safe in my community.

An awesome group of other volunteers: past, present, and future: I honestly wouldn’t be able to make it through rough days without the support of my Peace Corps community. Whether it’s just venting, joking around, having fun together, or having my PCV friends assure me I’m not going crazy, we’re there for each other. This doesn’t mean you’re going to get along with every single Peace Corps Volunteer. But I’d say there’s a high proportion of serious, serious gems.
            What’s just as cool is the community of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). I’ve had the good experience of knowing a few, and there were awesome at giving me support and advice. There are RPCV groups in every state and all around the world. There are reunions and events, newsletters, and websites. Already I feel really connected to the legacy and history of Peace Corps (that’s over 50 years and over 210,000 volunteers in 139 countries!). I was flipping through an RPCV magazine in Rwanda, and it described the reunion of one of the very first Peace Corps groups sent out back in the 1960s (no internet or cellphones! Gasp!) to Kenya. The RPCVs were now mostly in their seventies, but it just made me so happy to read about their experiences and challenges, and how many of them stayed active in their communities, volunteering, and international affairs. Inspiring stuff.

Financial support: As PCVs, we receive a stipend every month to cover things like housing, food, and transportation. It’s not a lot, but it’s really important. It’s nice not having to worry about whether I’m going to run out of money before my service is over, and not having to pay to volunteer (some organizations charge a couple thousand dollars for a year volunteering!). And if you’re really frugal you can save a bit of money for travelling.

Independence: To some people this may seem a little oxymoronic (see below points under “Government bureaucracy and rules”). But at my site, I do have a lot of freedom in my secondary projects. This can also be a negative, because if you’re not a self-starter/expect to be just handed an exact, precise job description and follow it, good luck. But hey, want to start an avocado project? Start an English club? Host a health event? If you’re willing to put in the work and expect challenges, you can often make it happen. I also have quite a bit of freedom as far as my schedule goes and how I spend my free time.

Job experience. After college, I felt lost in many ways. Unlike a lot of my friends, I didn’t know what I always wanted to be when I grew up. I toyed with the thought of going to grad school, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study and didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something like a law degree and then find out later I hated it. When I thought about my life in 10 years, it basically had a lot of question marks. I have a lot of different interests, and I just couldn’t make a decision. Peace Corps has really, really helped me clarify what my career goals are, and it’s a great way to gain career experience (especially in the areas of education, public health, and international development). It can also help you get out of that “you can’t get a job without experience, but in order to get that experience you have to have a job” conundrum that recent graduates often face. Also, you will totally rock that classic interview question: “Tell me about a time you overcame a challenge in your life….”

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer benefits: I wasn’t really that familiar with all of RPCV benefits when I was applying to Peace Corps, but there are actually a lot! You can postpone some student loans during your PC service. You get a readjustment allowance when you finish your service so you’re not completely destitute. Through the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows program, you can get a graduate degree in many different fields with scholarships, grants, and tuition remission. And if you’re sure of what you want to study before Peace Corps, you can do the Master International program for graduate school. We also have non-competitive eligibility in getting jobs in the federal government.


It’s part of the U.S. government, and has some limitations that come with being a government bureaucracy (read: rules, rules, and more rules). Even more fun: each country has a different set of rules. During our two-month training, we had a 6:30 pm curfew. You’re not allowed to bicycle on main roads, ride on motorcycles in Kigali, ever drive any kind of vehicle or moto, accept any kind of payment for services, travel at night, or leave the country without permission. And these are just a few examples! And breaking the rules can have serious consequences, including getting kicked out of Peace Corps. Peace Corps also has a lot of processes, paperwork, acronyms, and it can be slow to adjust/react/change. Additionally, you may be seen as some kind of agent of the US (like a CIA agent or something) instead of the lowly volunteer that you obviously are. (While we are technically considered government employees, it’s illegal for us to have any connection to spying/CIA/FBI…just fyi). This hasn’t been an issue for me at all in Rwanda, but in countries that have tenuous relationships with the U.S., it isn’t uncommon, and it can negatively impact your Peace Corps service if you and your community don’t trust one another.
Be aware that beyond just Peace Corps rules, cultural customs may demand that you behave a certain way. At site, I never wear skirts, dresses, or pants above my knees. In the village, I don’t drink unless it’s at a community event or with the nuns I live with. I don’t really go out of my compound after dark at all in my village.

“It’s dangerous.” I would say that fear of the unknown is the biggest deterrent for most people. Honestly, since Peace Corps is a part of the federal government, Peace Corps staff do try to ensure your safety as best as possible. But, it also depends on your definition of safety, and it depends on where you’re placed. Is doing Peace Corps more dangerous than staying in America? Maybe. Is choosing to live your normal life in America more dangerous than forever living in a bomb shelter? Maybe. But you’d probably say that it’s worth it. I think it’s important to look at the actual facts about safety in Peace Corps. It varies a lot country by country, and reports about crimes committed against volunteers is available online. I’d seriously recommend taking a look at the statistics.

It can get lonely and you will miss America. Peace Corps Volunteers who tell you they’re never lonely are either lying or have too many imaginary best friends. For me, this is the hardest. I have no problem being alone for extended periods of time. I’m an introvert, and it’s nice to have some time to process things, do yoga, and catch up on reading some great books. But it’s really difficult to see pictures of my friends hanging out together, to miss good friends’weddings, new babies, and birthdays. It’s definitely not as fun to have to read about Notre Dame football online the day after instead of going to a game or a game-watch. This will be my first Christmas away from my family. I will never be able to go back and be there to see my friend walk down the aisle, or to be there when Notre Dame wins the national championship this year :) Sometimes America can seem so close, given today’s telecommunications, and other days it seems like a different planet. You will also miss certain comforts of home, especially if they help you cope with stressful situations.
I do worry about what my some of my relationships will be like when I get back. Will I still have the same connection to my friends? Will I be that annoying person who always begins sentences with something like, “Well, let me tell you about this time in Rwanda...” For me it’s not really the “things” about America I miss. It’s the people. Friends and family: you are sorely missed.

It’s a long time. This almost turned me off Peace Corps completely, and it’s still a significant hurdle volunteers have to make. When I was thinking about Peace Corps, I had a job. I was in a serious relationship. There’s a lot of pressure to “get ahead” “climb the ladder”, etc. etc. I had people advise me to get a grad degree first (even though I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to study), and people who flat-out told me it’s a waste of two years. But you know what? Things at rest stay at rest. Life sometimes has a way of making it difficult to try crazy new things and have adventures. Loans, mortgages, relationships, jobs, kids, bills, cars, houses. I just knew that if I said no to my Peace Corps offer, I’d regret it as I got older. So I’m not saying not to take those things seriously. But time has a funny way of passing quickly here, and many of those things will be most likely be waiting for you when you get back. And two years really is necessary for you to have time to integrate into your community, and to have time to work on your projects. To quote Ferris Bueller,  “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”

It’s not for everyone. One of the things that scared me about Peace Corps when I was deciding to do it or not was the fact that quite a few volunteers leave the program before their two years are up, for various reasons: the above reasons, family members getting sick or dying, deciding their time and talents are better used elsewhere. I’ve asked pretty much every Peace Corps Volunteer I’ve met if they’ve thought about leaving (or in Peace Corps speak, “Early-Terminating”/ET-ing). Almost every single PCV said yes, and this was oddly comforting to me. One of Peace Corps’ mottos is “the toughest job you’ll ever love” and I’ve found that to be pretty accurate for me. Most countries will lose about 20-30% of each cohort that enters; my group of Health volunteers started with 26 and at 5 months we’re down to 22 volunteers. It’s worth taking a look at the Peace Corps Wiki page to get a sense of ET rates—an extremely high one could be a red flag that the program isn’t doing so well. Sometimes Peace Corps just isn’t the right fit. I wish (and Peace Corps probably wishes even more) that there was a simple test that could let you know if Peace Corps is right for you, but there’s not. It’s a leap of faith.

General Advice

Don’t worry too much if you’ve never lived/worked/travelled to a developing country before. I would guess that a majority of Peace Corps Volunteers haven’t. I was definitely worried about being “inexperienced” in this area and had my doubts about giving up developed-world comforts (running clean water, hot showers, toilets, CHEESE, so much more), but you really can get used to it. Eventually. Except for the not having cheese part. That being said, I don’t know if I would have accepted my Peace Corps assignment if I hadn’t received it when I was in the middle of travelling and studying solo in Costa Rica for two months. That experience really gave me the confidence that I can travel as a single female, figure things out for myself, and do fine. And keep in mind; you don’t really know what your exact situation will be like before coming. There are people who have never left the US who do Peace Corps successfully, and people who have had experience living in developing countries who quit, for various reasons.

Do Peace Corps at a time that is right for you. I can’t stress this enough. I actually filled out my Peace Corps application and had my interview in the fall of my senior year at Notre Dame and was on track to leave right after graduation. While it was tempting to have a quick answer to family and friends who asked me what I was doing with a political science and peace studies degree after graduation, I knew deep down it wasn’t right. So I just didn’t turn in one of my medical forms, and instead I took a job at Oxfam America in Boston for a few months. It was a fantastic experience, it taught me a lot, and it made me realize that I probably want to work in the field of international affairs/development. I turned in my medical form and promised myself I’d just see where I got placed. And the rest is history. But I’m so glad I had a little time in “the real world” outside of college before coming to Peace Corps, and that I decided Peace Corps was something I really, really wanted to do it: I wasn’t doing it because I didn’t have any other options or just wanted to delay the job search for two years or something. And for any older adults who might be reading this: there’s no upper age limit for Peace Corps, and you can do it as a married couple!

Play to your strengths. Do you speak a second language? Have you had significant experience tutoring, or working with a health NGO back home? Make sure to make it really clear in your application and in your interview. Knowing French has been a huge asset to me here in Rwanda when my kinyarwanda skills fail me. And if you're a Spanish speaking teacher back home, you may not want to end up as an economic development volunteer in, say, Turkmenistan. 

Don’t compare yourself to other volunteers. Peace Corps Volunteers come from diverse backgrounds, we have different skill sets, and we’re all placed in different sites. It can be tempting to look at how well other people have learned the language/integrated into their community/how many secondary projects they’ve started. Don’t do it. Your experience is your own, and Peace Corps isn’t a competition.

You get a good amount of vacation time (48 days over 27 months), but don’t join Peace Corps expecting to have some kind of extended paid vacation. For the most part, you’re at your assigned site, working (and you have to get all vacation pre-approved by Peace Corps). Sure, I’ll be able to see some parts of Africa that I would never have been able to beforehand (I’m heading to Zanzibar, Tanzania this December, and hoping for a trip to Morocco at some point), but there’s so much I want to see and do here that I know I’ll never have the time and money for. C’est la vie.

Every Peace Corps experience is unique. That’s the exciting and scary part. Peace Corps is currently in 76 countries, and there are a bunch of different areas volunteers work in (youth development, agriculture, education, health, environment, business development…). My experience as a health volunteer in southwestern Rwanda is really different from an education volunteer in eastern Rwanda, even though Rwanda is a really small country (the size of Massachusetts). The closest volunteer to me is about 20 minutes away, but if you’re in a huge country, you might be the only volunteer for more than a day’s journey. I remember asking friends and acquaintances that are Returned Peace Corps for lots of advice before leaving, and because they had all served in different countries, at different times, in different areas of work, all of their advice was different, except for “enjoy it.” I remember getting advice from a friend who had done PC in West Africa to make sure to pack flip-flops because I would wear nothing else, but in Rwanda they call flip-flops “shower shoes” and unless you’re very poor, they aren’t appropriate to wear outside the house (weird, right?). So that’s my advice to anyone headed into the Peace Corps: enjoy it.

And some resources:
And just for fun, a trailer for the movie “Volunteers”, with Tom Hanks playing a PCV in Thailand (you can watch the whole thing on Youtube!)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Week of Win

Two weeks ago, I felt like everything was going wrong. All the “Peace Corps questions” were running through my mind: what am I doing here? Am I making a difference? Would I be happier eating delicious American food any time I want (cheese, I miss you dearly!!)? This past week, I felt like everything was headed my way. 

                                                        Did I mention my site is beautiful? 
     My first win: my health center agreed to plant a HUGE field of soy for the families in the malnutrition program! When a mother here has trouble breastfeeding, she’s pretty much screwed. The WHO recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed until 6 months, but if you have trouble producing, you have no options: there aren’t pumps, there’s no baby formula, and cow’s and powdered milk can be too expensive for poor families. Many children are fed igikoma (a watery porridge made of sorghum) or things like bananas and potatoes, which are fairly cheap but not very nutrient dense. Animal proteins are expensive (fish, meat, and eggs), so many of the younger children lack adequate protein. Beans do provide protein and are accessible, but they aren’t a complete protein. So, I’ve convinced the health center to plant soy to start giving to the families in our malnutrition program. Soy is a complete protein, and can be cooked in basically the same way as beans, and it can also be made into soymilk quite easily (which I’ll be showing the mothers soon). Woohoo!

Preparing food at my health center with the mamas

           My second win this week was when we had a monthly support group meeting for people living with HIV/AIDS in our village. There were about 35 people who came, and they ranged in age from 2 to 66. They were women and men, children, teenagers, and adults. Some of them had been living with the disease for some time, some only a few months. They defied any easy stereotypes. In exchange for coming to the monthly meeting, where we monitor their weight and vital signs and they receive their anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) for the month, they all receive 8 kg of corn flour and 8 kg of beans at the end as a reward. At first I was a little nervous. My counterpart at the Health Center has a bad habit of just putting me on the spot whenever we have a group (this is Mahoro [my Rwandan name], she is a volunteer at the health center, she will now talk to you about xyz topic!), and this time was no exception. I didn’t have anything prepared, and I’m still working on my Kinyarwanda. So instead of “presenting”, we just had a discussion, and it worked better than anything I could have prepared beforehand.
I had read in a recent Ministry of Health survey that my province (the West) had the highest levels of negative stereotypes and misperceptions of people living with HIV/AIDS in Rwanda. I asked the group if they have experienced negative stigmatization, and I was utterly STUNNED at how much the group opened up to me. Rwandans tend to be quite reserved, and I’m also obviously a young foreigner. One woman spoke about how she has trouble selling things at the market because of negative stereotypes. An older man said that his neighbors ask him to wash his hands in front of them before shaking hands. And a young girl—only 11 years old---told me that she is bullied at school because both she and her mother are HIV+. It made my blood boil. We talked about how we can overcome these stigmatizations: educating people that AIDS doesn’t go through unbroken skin, and that you can’t catch it from buying someone’s tomatoes. One woman said that as far as stigmatization goes, they shouldn’t be any more stigmatized by their community than people with cancer or burns. My Rwandan counterpart and I are hopefully going to give a talk at the school about facts and myths of HIV/AIDS to help stop some of the bullying. We didn’t cure AIDS or anything, but it at least got people talking. It was a good reminder of what my job is supposed to be like: not telling people what to do, but empowering them to have a conversation about how they can solve their own problems.

 A few of my favorite students

Win number three: in my English club last week, the students asked if they could start debates. I was thrilled that they asked, but also a little skeptical that it would actually happen. The Rwandan education system is pretty different from the American system; it’s based mostly on rote memorization. Teachers copy the words on boards, and the students write it down and memorize it. Critical thinking isn’t as emphasized. But, lo and behold, we had our first debate this week! The student-selected topic was “Is education important or not?” The students had done their work, and it was a really successful debate. I wasn’t sure what the opposition to education group would come up with, but they made several points about how many people who led the genocide here 18 years ago were well-educated, and look how much good that did, and also how it’s possible to make a living using one’s physical capacities (farmer, bricklayer, etc). But I’m proud to report that the “pro-education” group won by a landslide. Next week’s student selected topic: “Is juice better than beer?” You can’t make this stuff up. 

We then proceeded to learn the lyrics to the Justin Bieber song "Baby" per their request. 

Win number four: my health center agreed to set up a water station. When I would work in our drug distribution department before, we used two little cups to give water to every single person who needed to take medicine. Without any cleaning. No matter what disease or infection the person might have. Needless to say, this was not very hygienic and was a bit of a health nightmare. So now we have a little station with a bunch of different cups, and a place people can wash and dry the cups with purified water for the next person!

And win number five: My region hosted an “AIDS Showcase”: a day of skits, dance, and songs performed by Rwandan students about HIV/AIDS. They covered issues like stigmatization, prevention, and treatment, and I was really impressed with how well the students prepared. All of the presentations were written and choreographed by the students themselves. I led a session on peer pressure and decision-making, and another volunteer led a session on healthy relationships. It was a great way to educate and to entertain at the same time. 

Now if I only had cheese everything would be perfect...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Little by Little

This past week was a bit of a tough week for me. Most of the time, people coming to the health center have fairly routine, treatable problems: colds, fevers, burns, diarrhea, the flu, and infections. Sometimes there are more serious cases, like malnutrition, malaria, and intestinal worms. But this week at my health center, we had a teenage boy who was in a bike accident bleed to death. There was a woman who whose face was incredibly disfigured from domestic violence. And there were two children who were so malnourished we had to transfer them to the hospital for emergency treatment. There is no easy emotional escape from any of these things.
I think a lot about the phrase “ignorance is bliss” here. In the U.S., I was aware that things like this happen, but it’s not in your face like it is in my village. It’s easier to focus on other things, to distract myself from the things that are important. It is possible in America to almost completely shelter yourself from the bits and pieces of the world that make it tough to sleep at night, that cause you to have a pit in your stomach that won’t go away. I have to remind myself that although ignorance may be bliss, it doesn’t solve any problems.

The hardest feeling by far for me has been inadequacy.  It can be overwhelming sometimes, seeing everything right in front of you. There are so many things that I want to change, but I have no idea where to begin. I find myself wishing I had more experience, or an advanced degree in medicine or soil science or something. Or maybe a magic wand to just waive and make everything better.  I desperately wanted to help the boy who had the bike accident. I cannot even begin to describe the feeling of helplessness I had as they brought him on a makeshift stretcher into the room. Domestic violence is on the rise in Rwanda, but women have few options: there are no shelters, it’s taboo to admit, no one prosecutes or gets divorces, and you’d be pretty much destitute and socially excluded if you did get divorced. The best I could do was to give the woman some painkillers for her face, and then talk with my students about domestic violence in the health club I lead at the school next door, in hopes that the future will be different from the present. But there is constantly a little voice in the back of my mind saying that there is always more to be done.

When I focus on macro-level problems here in Rwanda it seems like my Peace Corps service is a waste of time. How can I change things like structural poverty or environmental destruction or domestic violence? I have to take things day by day, and do what I can, where I can, with what I have. Malnutrition seems to be one area that I can make a difference. One of the projects I’ve started is an avocado program. Most of the 83 families who come to our malnutrition treatment program at the health center are very, very poor. We cook a meal together at the health center once a week to show the women how to cook nutritious meals for their families using relatively affordable ingredients (such as potatoes and plantains). But after doing a price comparison of foods at our market, I found that avocados are the most nutrient and calorie dense foods for the price. Furthermore, they can be eaten without cooking, and they carry a low risk of food-borne illness. So I’ve started growing avocado trees to eventually give to each of the families. If you’ve never seen an avocado tree, they are HUGE and can produce hundreds of avocados (each avocado can be up to a pound and a half!). I’m hoping that the families will not only be able to use them to feed their own children, but also as a possible source of income once the trees grow big enough.

I don’t expect that this feeling of inadequacy will ever completely leave me alone. And I’m trying to be okay with that. Buhoro, buhoro: little by little.