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! 


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