Monday, December 17, 2012

How Much is Enough? A Reflection on Guilt and Privilege

            This past week, I was working on my laptop on a grant application at the Health Center. I heard a knock at the door, and a pregnant woman entered from the waiting room, where about fifty other pregnant women were waiting for their prenatal check-ups. I asked if I could help her, and she said yes. She said that she needed money, and that she was worried about what she would do when the baby arrived. I told her that I didn’t have any money on me. It was true; I never carry money with me to the Health Center. The woman’s hands found the pockets of my white lab coat, which contained only a small notepad, a pen, and a minuscule bottle of hand sanitizer. I felt guilty, and trapped. She wasn’t taking no for an answer. I fumbled through some papers on the desk, trying to buy myself some time.  I felt her gaze follow me. 

She asked me again for money, and I repeated, even less sure of myself, that I didn’t have any.  The woman pursed her lips and pointed to my laptop lying on the desk in front of me. I wasn’t fooling anyone. My mind darted to my house, where my smartphone was lying on my desk. My mind continued around my room, surveying my worldly possessions that probably amounted to more than this woman’s entire yearly income. It was just the two of us in the room at the Health Center, and you could have heard a pin drop. We just stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity; her, with a look of disgust and sadness, me with a look of helplessness and guilt. Eventually, she turned and left the room, back to sit with the other pregnant mamas in the waiting room, and I was left alone with a sea of emotions and an inner battle.

You’re selfish and despicable. You couldn’t spare a few Rwandan francs to help that woman? Well…I can’t help everyone. Besides, I’m a volunteer and I already live a much simpler life here. I need money to live too. You’ve got to be joking. You mean you can’t go on the Internet a little less, or skip your morning coffee? You’re going on vacation to Zanzibar in a few days, and you’re trying to tell me you don’t have the money to help another suffering human being? Well, those are my comforts here. Peace Corps is a 24/7 job, and I haven’t gotten a break in nearly eight months. I’m not some kind of monk. Besides, I help people in lots of other ways. Yes, but you’re still choosing your own wants over her needs. What if she can’t afford to feed her baby? What if she can’t afford health insurance? What about that whole love-your-neighbor-as-yourself thing you say you believe in? If I gave that woman money, the other fifty women would have instantly come in and asked me for money too. I don’t have money to give to everyone, and I don’t want to be known as some kind of rich umuzungu. It’s just a couple weeks until Christmas, and you just turned away a pregnant woman. You might as well have just told her that there’s no room at the Inn.

Feeling guiltier than ever, I remembered a class in college where we were presented with various hypothetical moral dilemmas. One of the things we discussed was that money is (unfortunately) a zero-sum thing. If you spend a dollar, you can’t save that same dollar. The things we spend our money on show what our priorities are. If I have a certain amount of money, and I choose to spend my money on things like coffee and Internet, while I know that there are people in my own community without adequate shelter, families without healthcare, and babies who are so severely malnourished that they look like newborns, then I am making a very conscious choice about my priorities. I am choosing my pleasure over their very survival.

              It wasn’t the first time I’ve felt guilty in Rwanda, and I doubt it will be the last. Chalk it up to Catholic guilt, “for what I have done and what I have failed to do.” It’s not that the same moral dilemmas don’t exist in the U.S.; it’s just much harder to ignore here. I think it's a constant process of determining what is "enough" in my life. Rwanda has forced me to take a long, hard look at the way I live, both here and in America. Put simply, I failed that woman and her unborn child. It's a difficult thing, to practice what you preach. And I’ve just got to do a lot better than this. Guilt by itself is a useless emotion. It’s true that I can’t help every single person, but I’ve at least got to try. Now comes the hard part: putting thoughts and words into action.

"Live simply so that others can simply live." 

I'll Be Home for Christmas...If Only in My Dreams

           The Christmas season has always been my favorite time of the year.  Who doesn’t love Christmas carols, the holiday parties, the cheery decorations, peppermint and gingerbread, twinkling Christmas lights, and the smell of a Christmas tree? My family has so many traditions surrounding Christmas: my Mom going into a baking storm, picking out and putting up the tree right after Thanksgiving, the annual Brosnihan Christmas party, caroling with my cousins, and celebrating three Christmases: with my Dad’s family on Christmas Eve, my Mom’s family, and just our nuclear family. When I was little, I would cry after Christmas was over, because it would be another 364 days till we could celebrate it again.
The Brosnihan Family Christmas Tree
This has been the strangest Christmas season for me in my whole life. Here in Rwanda, there’s no drop in temperature to tell me Christmas is on its way. No one in my village has ever seen snow before, and I feel like a crazy person trying to describe building snowmen and going sledding. There are no candy canes or gingerbread to be eaten, and no Christmas trees to be decorated. There are no radio stations blasting my favorite Christmas songs 24-7.  I asked my co-workers at the Health Center what they’re doing for Christmas, but inevitably the question was met with a shrug and an answer like, “Just going to Church." I asked the nuns if Rwandans had anything like Santa Claus or Pere Noel, any kind of jolly figure who gives presents to children. They exchanged glances and one of the sisters said that Rwanda is too poor for Santa Claus and that he only goes to rich countries. The only thing that is any aberration from ordinary time is that the priest wears different colored garments for Advent.

There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime
Despite my intense Christmas enthusiasm, I used to roll my eyes every time stores would put up Christmas decorations earlier and earlier each year (currently somewhere around the 4th of July). I would write-off some of the holiday hoopla as excessive and consumeristic (blow-up lawn Santas and snowmen, I’m talking to you). But I have to say; I miss not having any of it. I would gladly eat my words for every time I criticized someone for playing Christmas tunes before Thanksgiving if I could have just a little of that Christmas cheer over here.
A White Christmas in Omaha, Nebraska
But more than the decorations or tasty food or blinding holiday light displays, Christmas has always been about being with my family. Year after year, all six members of the Brosnihan Bunch would be home from the corners of the globe to enjoy my Mom’s fabulous baking, watch some really embarrassing old home videos, get buff arms from shoveling ourselves out of the inevitable snowpocalypse, and walk together to St. Cecilia’s Cathedral for Christmas mass. This will be my first Christmas away from home, and also the longest time I’ve been continually outside of the U.S. (going on 8 months!). I’m sure some of the homesickness will be abated by the fact that I’ll be on the tropical island of Zanzibar with some of my Peace Corps friends for Christmas and New Years. But right now I think I’ll make myself a cup of tea, watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and try to get into the Christmas spirit. If you’re home for Christmas, give your loved ones an extra hug. They’re far more irreplaceable and valuable than all of the holiday decorations combined. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Camp BE: Boys Excelling

Last week, I took part in a camp put on by Peace Corps Volunteers in another region. Camp BE, or Boys Excelling, teaches high-school age boys about resisting peer pressure, being peer educators, becoming leaders in their communities, as well as health-related lessons like preventing HIV/AIDS. Peace Corps Volunteers also plan and lead camps for girls, called GLOW, or Girls Leading Our World. I was only able to stay for half the week, but it was one of the highlights of my Peace Corps service so far.

The camp was really well-planned, and the fifty boys selected to come were super enthusiastic. Peace Corps Volunteers served as counselors, and we also had junior facilitators, Rwandan boys who really stood out from last year’s BE camp.

Each day was filled with activities and lessons. It was a lot of fun getting into the camp spirit.

My group, named “Super Power” quickly made up chants, which we would sing (or scream at the top of our lungs, rather) at every opportunity.

We played some fun team-building games, some of which were pretty challenging.

We talked about leaders and role-models. It was also cool to hear a lot of the boys mention women, such as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mother Teresa, as their role models.

We also had a “barrier burn”, where everyone wrote down a barrier in their lives and then threw it into the fire. The Peace Corps Volunteers also introduced the campers to the joys of s’mores (with marshmallows from America!).

Many of the boys I talked to expressed really high goals for themselves: advancing their education, becoming doctors, business leaders, teachers, or politicians. If these boys are any indication, Rwanda’s future will be a bright one. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Rwanda Happenings

In another week, I’ll have been in Rwanda for 7 months. 7 months down, 20 more to go. That's about one-fourth done with my Peace Corps service! It feels like I’ve been here forever, and yet it feels like I just stepped off the plane yesterday. Here’s what’s been happening around these parts:

Some fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and I hiked to the Democratic Republic of the Congo/Rwanda border, a two-hour trek each way. We're not allowed to cross over, but the views of the mountains are breathtaking. It turned into a bigger adventure than we were planning on when we decided to trek down to the Rusizi River, which forms the border. 

While we were at the river, it started POURING rain. We were on all fours, trying to scale up the slippery cliff back to the top before it got dark for nearly an hour. I don't remember being that exhausted in a really, really long time. But luckily we all made it back in one piece. 

A man from the non-profit Never Again came to interview and take pictures of one of the nuns that lives with me. She had never spoken of it to me before then, but she saved 30 people during the genocide at great risk to her own life. I am so humbled every single day by the seven nuns who not only talk the talk but walk the walk as well. 

My friend Clare came to visit me from Kenya! Even though it was just for a couple days, it was so much fun. Her visit fell on Thanksgiving, so we cooked up a Mexican-inspired meal for the nuns, complete with (attempted) corn tortillas, pico de gallo, pineapple-mango salsa, guacamole, and spiced beans. I wasn't sure how they'd like it since Rwandan food is generally very simple and not spicy. But they loved it! 

We explained what Thanksgiving is, and everyone went around and said what they were grateful for. The nuns all spoke of how grateful they were to simply be alive and to have the ability to serve others in their work. And D'Assisi, the 3 year old boy who lives with us, kept piping up to add really hilarious thank-yous ("Thank you God for the food. And the spice in the food." or naming EVERY single person in the pictures on my wall: "Thank you God for Mahoro's sisters, her brother, her parents, her friends from Notre Dame, her friends from high school, her friends from Boston...."). It was a wonderful weekend and a truly memorable Thanksgiving. 

I've been working hard on a couple of food security projects. The first is a soymilk cooperative to help generate income for women who have acutely malnourished children and come to our Health Center for treatment. Protein deficiency and anemia are huge problems in the community, especially among vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, young children, and people living with HIV/AIDS. Animals proteins (meat, fish, milk, eggs) are too expensive for most people to purchase on a regular basis, but beans are not a complete source of protein. 

So the cooperative will be making soymilk to sell at the market twice a week. If it all works as it's supposed to, it will be a win-win situation: the community will gain an affordable and convenient source of iron and protein, and the women will be able to earn an income and improve their own children's nutrition. Stay tuned...

My second project is an avocado nutrition project. Once a week, mothers with severely malnourished children bring them to the Health Center to monitor their growth, and to cook a meal together. Usually the meal is fairly balanced, consisting of potatoes or boiled bananas mixed with a few vegetables and sometimes a sprinkling of ground fish. But it was so hard to watch some of the tiniest kids stop eating the food after a few bites because of parasites, intestinal worms, or other problems. If the kids are only able to eat a few bites, it's important that those bites are as calorie-dense as possible. After doing a cost-to-calorie analysis of foods at the nearby market, I determined that avocados pack the most calories for the price, and I decided to do a project to promote their consumption. They're also very convenient and carry a low risk of food-borne illness: no cooking or washing is required. 

Over the past few months, my house has slowly turned into an avocado tree nursery. In two more weeks, I will go with the women to their houses to plant the avocado trees, teach them about the nutritional benefits of avocados and how to care for their trees. And in 1-2 years, the trees will produce avocados, which they will be able to consume and possibly sell at the market. The trees grow to be HUGE; a single tree will produce hundreds of avocados! 

And finally, my kinyarwanda (the native language of Rwanda) is finally where I want it. I still have so much more to learn, but I can have real conversations with people. I feel like I'm beyond the point of just getting by, and it really feels good. And I had my first dream in kinyarwanda a few days ago. Success! 

Happy December, everyone!