Sunday, January 13, 2013

Portrait of a Frustrating Peace Corps Day

            Sometimes, as a Peace Corps Volunteer keeping a blog, it’s tempting to present only certain facets of my experience on this little corner of the internet: my successes, new updates, interesting stories, travels, or simply mundane details of my service. But rarely do I share my complaints, shortcomings, and frustrations. I think there are several reasons for this. First of all, the majority of the time I do actually enjoy my service, so the bad times are few and far between. Secondly, I do not maintain this blog to complain about life. I don’t want to be that Peace Corps Volunteer who whines all the time about how challenging things are. If it were all sunshine and rainbows 24/7, Peace Corps wouldn’t be here. But in the spirit of being real and showing you what my life is really like here, I’ve decided to publish this post instead of simply saving it on my computer.
            Last week was by far the most frustrating week of my Peace Corps service, capped off by a horrible day on Friday. I had reverse-culture shock after returning from vacation in Zanzibar, Notre Dame lost the National Championship, and I was sick for a majority of last week. Several Community Health Workers (CHWs) didn’t show up to take me to do growth monitoring in the surrounding villages, so I had to work in pharmacy most of last week.
Working in drug distribution is sort of my default position when I’m not working with the CHWs in the village or in our nutrition department. I don’t really love working in the pharmacy, which involves reading the prescriptions, often written in a mix of Kinyarwanda and French, counting the drugs, handing them out in little packets, and explaining them to the patients, but it’s where the Health Center often needs me to work. They are understaffed in that area, and patients often have to wait the entire day at the Health Center to be seen and receive their drugs.

On Friday, the Health Center was especially packed for some reason. As soon as I sat down in the pharmacy, a woman I had just met the day before dropped a huge stack of medical record forms (fiches) in front of me. I’ll call the woman Beatrice. The day before, I tried introducing myself and asking her some questions to get to know her a bit better. What’s your name? Do you live here in the community, or in another village? Are you married? Do you have children? These are all common questions I’m asked by Rwandans as they try to get to know me. Beatrice told me she had one child. And then she left the room abruptly. Later I asked the nuns if Beatrice was new at the health center. They said no, that before I arrived in Rwanda, she had given birth to a premature baby, with a lot of complications. Both she and her baby had been in and out of the hospital for several months, and the baby had just died in December. I felt a surge of guilt, as I had unknowingly brought up this woman’s pain and asked her about what she was likely trying to forget.
Back in the pharmacy, I tried to fill the prescriptions as quickly as possible, but even larger piles kept being dumped on my table. Beatrice and I silently filled the prescriptions. Beatrice said something quickly to me in Kinyarwanda, and I asked her to repeat it slowly. She said it again at the same speed, only louder, and I said I didn’t understand what it meant, and asked if she could say it in French for me. She gave me an annoyed look, stood up, and grabbed something from the cabinets behind me with no explanation. This happened a few more times, and I felt more and more incompetent.

A patient getting his medication asked me if I knew Kinyarwanda, and I replied, “A little, but I’m still learning.” Beatrice laughed and said, “She doesn’t speak any Kinyarwanda! The volunteer before her spoke really good Kinyarwanda, but this one doesn’t speak it all.” I was really hurt, and I told her that I do speak Kinyarwanda, but I can’t understand when she speaks really fast. We continued to work in silence, and then another patient came in. She spoke quickly to the patient in Kinyarwanda. All I heard was the word “muzungu”, the word for white person or foreigner, and both of them laughed. I looked Beatrice in the eyes and said in Kinyarwanda, “My name is not muzungu. My name is Claire.” She ignored me and continued speaking quickly in Kinyarwanda to the other patient, knowing that I couldn’t understand. I again heard the word “muzungu.” I felt tears welling up in my eyes, but tried to keep filling the prescriptions. Then she asked me when the other Peace Corps Volunteer “who knows Kinyarwanda” would come back. It was too much. My voice quivering, I told her to please stop. I told her that she had really offended me, and that she was impolite (although I really wanted to use a few select Kinyarwanda insults that I had practiced for such an occasion). I stood up and left the unfinished prescriptions on the table. I walked back to my house, tears streaming down my face and people staring.
It was the first time a Rwandan was overtly rude to me. So many emotions and thoughts ran through my mind in the usual back-and-forth fashion. This is your own fault for getting on her bad side by bringing up how many kids she has. And give her a break; she just lost a child. I didn’t know, and that’s still not an excuse for treating me like that. Then just don’t put up with this anymore. Don’t work in pharmacy. Yeah, but that’s where the Health Center is short-staffed, and I’m here to be of service to them, not to do just whatever I want. I don’t want to think I’m “above” any job they give me. You’re complaining about nothing. You’re a foreigner in their country, and if you can’t speak the language well enough, that’s your own fault. Grow thicker skin. Deal with it.
Back in the safety of my own room, I tried to calm down, but I was stuck doing a really attractive combination of bawling and shaking at the same time. It wasn’t just Beatrice’s actions, but that was the last straw. One of the most difficult things about Peace Corps is that many of the ways that I deal with stress in the U.S. are not available here. I wished I could go for a long, quiet run outside, but in the most densely populated country in Africa, solitude doesn’t exist anywhere except my room. I longed for the anonymity of my American life (I considered switching the name of this blog, briefly, to “Seeking Anonymity”). My mind took me down the path of “if onlys” and “you’re not good enoughs” and “in America…” that I turn to when I get frustrated like this.

I called a good Peace Corps friend, who invited me to come spend the night at her house about an hour away. To cap off my already-fantastic day, a guy sitting next to me on the way there groped me (which has also never happened to me here). I felt shocked and utterly at the end of my Peace Corps patience rope and I cried in the other PCV’s arms for a few hours that night. I got a good night’s sleep, and the next morning we had a regional meeting with a bunch of other volunteers in our region, which made me feel SO much better. Additionally, a couple of care packages and letters from friends arrived, and it truly meant the world to me (you know who you are :). I felt SO supported reading your letters and eating some delicious American goodies. So thank you to everyone (here in Rwanda, back home, and everywhere in between) who has supported me so far on my Peace Corps journey, whether it’s simply reading this blog, writing me an email, sending me a letter, or showing me that you care through peanut butter, Christmas socks, and nail polish. Murakoze cyane/Thank you very much. 

"How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though sometimes he senses it. knows from daily life that one exists for other people...for whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent." 
-Albert Einstein


  1. Miss you Claire. Good thing those tough days usually only last about - well, a day. I'll have UBill read your blog and that will help put the ND loss in perspective (you know, we had pizza and beer in our warm house, with ND music playing, etc.). Then went to our warm beds...Love reading about your life in Rwanda.

  2. I'm so impressed by how strong you were! I think that's really brave of you to tell that woman that she was hurting your feelings. When I went to TZ I had a similar bus experience! I'm glad that you were able to bounce back though! Love you!!!