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


  1. Claire,
    We miss you and we love you and we sure will be thinking of you tomorrow on Thanksgiving (even more than we usually do). :-) You're in our prayers and it's so good to hear you're doing well.

    Lots of Love,
    The Safraneks xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

  2. Congratulations! Your Fighting Irish are in the National Championship Football game. We knew that would be news you want to hear.
    We enjoy your writing about your adventures. Stay safe! Your folks miss you bunches. Your dad talks about being a grandpa to Francois. We wish we could send you a box of wine, but Tiffany thinks it's illegal and your dad says it costs BIG $$$$$$ to send it. We'll keep reading and praying for you, and you keep up the valuable work you are doing! Hugs to that cute little boy!
    (And Tiffany, Debbi, and Heather)

  3. Thanks so much! Give Nebraska some love from me :)