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.