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.
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...