Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gratitude is Not Enough: A Thanksgiving Reflection

This is my first Thanksgiving away from America, and to be honest it’s pretty strange. There’s no crisp chill in the air, no turkey (or tofurkey, for that matter), stuffing, or pumpkin pie. But this year, more than any other, I have so much to be grateful for.

I’m grateful, first and foremost, for my friends and family who have supported me on my Peace Corps journey. It sounds cheesy, but I couldn’t have made it this far without the kind emails, Facebook messages, letters, words of encouragement, and, yes, care packages I’ve received. I have frustrating and lonely days. I’m an ocean and several hours time difference away from most of my family and friends. But my wall of photos and letters puts a smile on my face every time I look at it. And of course, I couldn’t live without my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers here in Rwanda who have become my second family.
Throwback! Brosnihans somewhere in the early 2000s...
I’m so thankful for my wonderful village in Rusizi. I feel like I won the Peace Corps Rwanda lottery for awesome site placements. The nuns I live with have been with me every step of the way, and words cannot describe how welcome I’ve felt since the moment I arrived. And although it’s difficult being apart from the rest of my Health 4 cohort  (most of whom were placed in eastern Rwanda), our region has an awesome sense of community. This isn’t to say that every day is sunshine and rainbows, but for the most part, I feel happy to call Rusizi home.

I’m grateful for the three—almost four!---year old boy that has inexplicably changed my life . I’ve mentioned him occasionally in my blogs, but he deserves an entire paragraph. Francois lives with the nuns and I, and he is unlike any other child I’ve ever met, in Rwanda or anywhere else. Even after a rough day at the health center, coming home to his hugs is what keeps me going. 

Who can say no to this face?
I can’t even begin to describe him, but the most of amount of pure joy encapsulated in three feet is pretty close. I get anxious about his health and his future, especially when I think about leaving him in less than two years. But he has already taught me and given me more than I can ever give back.

I’m grateful for my health and for my education. My health is absolutely something I took for granted in the U.S. For the majority of my life, I had Dr. Mom living in the same house as me, ready to dispense medical advice (even if it’s just “Claire: eat, sleep, pray, and yoga!”). I’ve never had to worry about intestinal worms, not getting enough calories in a day, missing school because of malaria, or having to walk a couple hours to get to the nearest health center to get treated. I’ve received an amazing education, from preschool through Notre Dame. Only 6.7% of the world has a college education. In Rwanda, primary education is free, but secondary school can be too expensive for some families, and in poorer rural areas, only a few students advance to university.

I’m grateful for so many intangibles. I am so grateful to have been born in America; it has afforded me this amazing experience. There is still economic opportunity and social mobility in America. Despite the nastiness of the election season, civil wars do not break out because of the election. We resolve our conflicts in the courtroom, through civil discourse enabled by free speech and press, and through the ballot box. I am thankful for the travels I have had, they have broadened my horizons in so many different ways. I am grateful for clean running water, hot showers, toilets, and modern sanitation systems. 

In a way, this post gets to the bottom of why I decided to do Peace Corps: because I can’t understand why I was born in the U.S., to a wonderful family who has always been able to provide for me. I have never experienced real hunger. I have always had a roof over my head and clothing to wear.  I have attended amazing schools, and I have a college education. I am the luckiest of the lucky, but I have never been able to comprehend why I have been given so much, when others have been given so little. I did nothing to deserve what I have been given in the lottery of birth. In many ways I feel that I can never do enough to repay the gifts I have been given. But only “counting my blessings” at night and “being grateful” is, to me, the moral equivalent of “let them eat cake.” Thanking God that you’re better off than whatever percentage of humanity just doesn’t cut it.

Don’t get me wrong: thanksgiving, or giving thanks, is a good thing. The world can use a whole lot more of it. But I truly believe each of us has a responsibility to go further and to help ensure that others have access to nutritious food, roofs over their heads, quality healthcare, and a good education. Gratitude is the first step, but hopefully not the last. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

“If you want peace, work for justice.” –Pope Paul VI

Friday, November 16, 2012

Culture of Rwanda: Part 2

-       Here's some more observations on the culture of Rwanda; keep in mind that these are based on my experience of being here for a little over 6 months, and many of them pertain specifically to being in a small village in Rwanda. 

      People's last names do not get passed down through generations, like in America. Each person has two names that are only theirs. For example, each kid has a name completely different from both of his or her parents. This is kind of cool, but it probably makes tracking your ancestry in Rwanda a bit of a nightmare. And Rwandans write what an American would call their "last name" first and capitalized, e.g. DUSENGIMANA Jean. Usually the capitalized names have a religious meaning (things like "We worship God" or "Lover of God"). People often ask me the meaning of my last name, and I feel kind of weird just saying it doesn't mean anything. 

-       Poisonings are a very real thing. When I was in Peace Corps training this past summer, our training manual said something like, “Sometimes when a Rwandan villager goes to the health center, the person’s friends or neighbors will bring him food, but it will be poisoned.” I remember reading it and thinking, “What is this, an Agatha Christie novel?” and writing it off as some old myth, or just coincidental food poisoning. But after being in my village for four months now, I’ve learned that poisonings really do happen (often because of jealousy or deals gone wrong). The nuns told me a few weeks ago that the main poison supplier finally got put in prison because some of the poison he sold was used to kill some important person in the district, but that everyone knew who this poison kingpin was. I better not make any enemies in Rwanda…

-       “Fast food” in Rwanda (even in Kigali) means getting your food within an hour of ordering it (there are a few notable exceptions, but this remains true for the vast majority). I had a pretty funny experience with a bunch of my fellow volunteers during a Peace Corps Conference in Kigali a few months ago. We had a two-hour lunch break, and we found a spot that advertised “fast food.” The ten or so volunteers sat down and ordered things like pizza, salads, and sandwiches. After an hour and a half, no food. A waiter came out and told people that they were out of half of the ingredients, would we mind re-ordering? After two hours, only couple people had gotten their food, and several of us left with empty stomachs and we were all late returning to the conference. It’s generally best to order while you’re still full from your last meal, because by the time your food comes you will be hungry again.

-       People often wave with two hands here, and I’ve gotten used to it too. Look for that weirdo in a couple years in America greeting you with the double wave like it’s no big deal.

-       A very real insult in Rwanda is to tell someone they have “umuco mubi”, or “bad culture.” I will also probably use this in America at some point and no one will have any idea what I’m talking about. “You have bad culture” is the next four-letter word, America.

-       Rwandans have an obsession with keeping their shoes clean. Even when it’s the rainy season (meaning, it rains every. single. day. for a few hours) and my village is one big mud puddle, you’re expected to always have clean shoes. When people are giving you the “once-over”, the first thing they usually look at is how clean your shoes are. Dry season, I miss you….

-       Some Rwandans believe in some kind of fictitious American cult (that I had never ever heard about before) called the Illuminati. Even educated people here swear on their lives that this mysterious group (members apparently include Beyonce, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Lady Gaga….) sold their souls to the devil in order to gain wealth and fame, and that they basically control the world, or at least the U.S. And also possibly created AIDS and unleashed it in Africa. 

-       Rwandan cell phones have two volumes: loud, and deafening. If there is a “silent” or “vibrate” setting, it remains elusive to the people in my village. And good luck if you’re stuck in a twege (a small van crammed with people that serves as public transportation) where someone decides to share the music stored on their phone with the whole bus. Telecommunications is a growing industry in Rwanda, and rising standards of living are reflected in the fact that many Rwandans carry cell phones.

      Most of the bus and taxi drivers in Rwanda will name their cars interesting names. Often they're religiously themed, like or "Jesus is Life", but sometimes they can be really funny translations. One of the best ones I've seen: "Chris Brown" on the back of the bus, and "Thank You God" on the front of the same bus. This one is pretty good too:


Saturday, November 10, 2012

You Know You're in Rwanda When....

The Third Goal of Peace Corps is educating Americans about other cultures. So I thought I'd give you all a little insight into a few little (and big) things that make Rwandan culture different from American culture.

Note that many of these things are particular to life in rural villages in Rwanda. Rwandans in Kigali (Rwanda’s capital) for example, generally don’t call me muzungu and dress codes are more relaxed (although still conservative by American standards). 

-       In Rwanda it’s perfectly okay to pick your nose in public. Anywhere, anytime, anybody. There is literally zero cultural stigma. If you watch Rwandan TV, you will see about half the audience picking their noses. Even my colleagues at the health center—nurses!----will be talking to me and the next thing I know, one or two fingers will be up their nose digging for gold. At the very least, I lose my train of thought. Or I just burst out laughing at how crazy the situation is, to my colleagues’ great confusion. 

      The worst is when you’ve seen someone picking their nose, and then they try to shake your hand. It’s a mental battle for me every time: Insult the person by trying to dodge their handshake? Or risk getting boogers/snot spread on my hands? Thus the reason I always carry a bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket at work…

-       People think it’s perfectly normal to ask you how much money you make (and they tell you how much money they make) and how much you weigh (and identify people as “the fat woman” or “the fat man”, and no one is offended). 

      It’s really, really hard to describe America to people in my village, many of whom have never even been to the capital city, Kigali (a very modern city, and the only place there are really foreigners). It’s like trying to describe the taste of a tree tomato to all of you.

-       Staring: Like picking your nose, there’s no taboo about staring at people (or at least staring at an umuzungu (white person/foreigner) like me. This has been one of the hardest things for me to get used to. I’ve been here in Rusizi for 4 months, and I also replaced a Peace Corps Volunteer who had been here for 2 years before me. But sometimes it really does feel like I’m in a fishbowl. At church, people in the rows in front of me will turn around and stare. Not for a few minutes. More like half an hour. At the Health Center, sometimes people will press their faces against the glass and just watch me work.

While working on a vaccination campaign

      Groups of children still run after me yelling, “UMUZUNGU!!!!!” or shouting all the English they’ve memorized in school, which is usually something like, “HELLOHOWAREYOUIAMFINETHANKYOUTEACHER!” or “GOODMORNINGMOTHER!” no matter what time of day it is. The nuns asked me if I did that when I was little when I saw a black person in America. Umm…no. Even though I tried to explain that America is a melting pot of cultures and that not all Americans are white, it’s still hard for them to understand, even when I pointed out that President Obama’s mother was white and his father black. 

-       Women aren’t supposed to whistle. Something about summoning snakes? I don’t get it. But I save all my whistling for when I’m alone in my room.

-       Only men are supposed to milk the cows here…I’m thinking there’s no “8 maids a milking” in their version of the “12 Days of Christmas.”

-       One of the biggest challenges for me here has been the cultural difference in the perception of time and timeliness. In America, people wear watches and there are clocks everywhere and we have everything planned and scheduled seemingly every minute, sometimes a year in advance. If you’re going to be more than 5 minutes late to something, you have to call otherwise it’s considered rude. Here in my village, time is a very fluid concept. Meetings are over before they even start. “Soon” can mean a few hours or a few years. Every morning we have a meeting that is supposed to start at 7 am…it never ever starts before 7:45 am. I’ve arranged to have meetings with some of my colleagues at 2 pm, and they’ve shown up at 4. Ironically, I never ever wore a watch in the U.S., but I always wear one here.

      Stay tuned for part 2!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

In-Service Training in Northern Rwanda

 I just returned from two weeks away from my site, the longest amount of time I’ve been away from Rusizi. I was attending In-Service Training (IST) and it was the first time I’ve gotten to see the 21 other people in my Health 4 group since July (I’m the only volunteer from Health 4 in either the Southern or Western Provinces).

           I travelled all the way to the northern part of Rwanda, to Musanze, near Volcanoes National Park. This is the area of Gorillas in the Mist fame; Dian Fossey, who worked on research and conservation efforts for the mountain gorillas and was assassinated in the 1980s, is buried here.  Rwanda has since stabilized and worked to protect the mountain gorillas. However, seeing the gorillas comes at a non-Peace Corps stipend-friendly price tag (I think it’s $350 for residents, $750 for foreigners) so I just enjoyed the insanely beautiful scenery; I’m hoping to hike one of the volcanoes later in my service.

            IST turned out to be a great two weeks, and it was good to get away for a bit and refocus. The first week was a training just for volunteers, where we learned more about topics like cooperatives, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and nutrition, and the second week our counterparts from our Health Centers joined us for trainings on Behavior Change Communication and Program Design Management. Since Peace Corps has only been in Rwanda for four years, there are definitely some kinks to be worked out in the trainings, but I felt a lot more confident about my skills and working with our community health workers here in Rusizi. I'll be writing soon about the projects I'm planning. 

    Learning how to make soymilk 

Our days were packed with lots of Peace Corps health training, but we were rewarded for it with three great meals and snacks twice a day, plus RUNNING HOT WATER at the hotel the conference was at. You know you’re a Peace Corps volunteer when you think it’s luxurious to be washing all your clothes by hand in the hotel bathtub because there’s unlimited hot water and free soap :)

We even managed to have a Halloween party during IST. Almost everyone dressed up in costumes we were able to scrape together (I’m still waiting for a Hobby Lobby to open in Rwanda…), we had a dance party and then went out in Musanze town. 

I went as Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings, complete with an Elvish cape (my quick dry towel), a cardboard brooch and sword, a ring of power secured around my neck with dental floss, some chest and foot hair drawn on with eyeliner, and my hair flipped to look like hobbit hair. Nerd success.

            And as I was riding the grueling 7-hour trip back to my site through Rwanda’s mountains and forests, I realized that I was excited to head back home, and that my little room inside the nuns’ convent is really what I consider home right now.  It’s a bit of an odd feeling and I felt a little sentimental about it.  I’ve been thinking about all the places I’ve been lucky enough to call home, at least for a little while: Nebraska (my one true love), Minnesota for my freshman year of college, Notre Dame, France for a semester studying abroad, Ireland for a summer of working, Boston for a year post-graduation, and Costa Rica for two months in January and February of this year. I felt homesick for so many different “homes” across the world and my friends and family who are spread across the hemispheres. It seems that in seeking to be a citizen of the world, I’ve also become somewhat of a woman without a country. And I’m not sure how I feel about that. I love learning new languages and being immersed in different cultures, but sometimes I just want to be able to understand everything people say to me, to not have people staring at me everywhere I go, to have a dog, put down roots, and give my family a hug. But for now, the nuns' hugs and their "Murakaza Neza-s" (welcome!) will do. 

Love from Rwanda.