Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Highest Highs and the Lowest Lows

          One of Peace Corps’ mottos is “the hardest job you’ll ever love”, and I have certainly found that to be true in my daily life here in Rwanda. I’ve had moments in the past nine months that make my face hurt from smiling, that make me dance around my room, sing out loud, and feel something like pure joy. And I’ve cried, felt confused, frustrated, sick, hurt, and even furious. Sometimes all of this happens within the same week.
            In this past week, I finally, officially started the women's soymilk cooperative! The grant money from Peace Corps took a long time to come in, but we’ve purchased all the necessary materials, and on Wednesday and Thursday of this week my counterpart and I led a training on soymilk and malnutrition for 183 community health workers in my district!
            I was pretty nervous going into it: my counterpart randomly decided to leave town on the day we were supposed to go over the lesson plan and translations. I was pretty pissed: we had planned it a couple weeks in advance, and I had even called him the night before to make sure our planning session was going to happen and he didn’t say a thing about leaving our village. I’ve learned that “American time” and “Rwandan time” are quite different, as meetings often start two or three hours late, but this was crossing the line.

Despite all of the drama leading up to it, the whole training happened pretty seamlessly. The community health workers were excited about the project, and the whole training just gave me the confidence boost I needed. I couldn't sleep the night after the training finished because I was so excited. My titulaire (the head of the health center) really got behind my project as well, and asked me to make the presentation to all of the workers at the health center.

 I also experimented with making tofu this week. Our soymilk cooperative is looking at the possibility of selling it brochette-style in the village; we would gain a larger profit margin than simply selling soymilk and it would deliver even more protein and iron to the community at a cheaper price than animal proteins. I served the tofu I had prepared to the nurses at the health center, and it was a huge hit. Everyone was asking me when they could buy the soymilk and tofu. I feel like my community finally understands what I can do and why I’m here, and it’s an amazing feeling to have.

And then I found out some absolutely crushing news: my favorite nun, Sr. Adelinde, had to move to another convent. She told me she was leaving at breakfast a few days ago, and both of us started crying.  Let me just say that if I knew how to nominate this woman for sainthood right now, I would do it.

Sr. Adelinde is one of the strongest women I know, and she has the magical ability to make any problem better. I go to her whenever I just need to talk, and we've become good friends over the past six months. Sr. Adelinde is one of the head nurses at the health center, and she works herself to the bone, but you would never know it from her joyful attitude and easygoing laughter. After a long day’s work of treating patients, she waits until everyone else has served themselves food and stays in the kitchen washing dishes and cleaning, while singing and cracking jokes the whole time. And she never, ever complains.

Another nun who served as the head nurse at a different health center recently became very ill and had to be moved to Kigali for treatment, so Sr. Adelinde is replacing her. It all happened so quickly: she found out on Tuesday and we moved her into her new community today. She wore sunglasses on the trip even though it was cloudy, and I could see tears through her lenses as we drove further and further away from the convent. There's a pit in my stomach just thinking about it. 

It wasn't her choice to be moved, but she has accepted her Mother Superior's decision with more grace than I'd ever be able to manage. When I asked her how she felt about such an abrupt switch to her life, that she had no control over, she said simply,"This is the life I have chosen: obedience to God. I go where am I needed most." She truly lives the message of the Gospel: giving her entire life in service to others, especially the sick and vulnerable, living simply, and loving greatly. Even though she moved to another community just an hour away, her cheerful presence here is already deeply, deeply missed. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Finding Love in Rwanda

            I never expected to find the love of my life in Rwanda. But sometimes life surprises you. In my case, that surprise was a four-year-old boy named Francois d’Assisi.

           A bit of background: I’ve never really been the kind of girl who’s dreamed about her future kids a lot. And I’ve been known to roll my eyes just the slightest bit when friends post a billion pictures of their kids on Facebook. Don’t get me wrong, I love being around kids. I’ve worked at summer camps, I’ve been babysitting since I was about 12, I enjoy a good game of hide and seek, and Disney movies are still my favorite. But at this point in my life I’m more of a “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” kind of girl and less of a “Good Housekeeping” one.

          This little boy changed everything for me. I can’t really describe him to you. There are hundreds of adorable children in my village, but he is different from any other kid I’ve ever met. D’Assisi, as we affectionately call him, is HIV+. He was abandoned at birth, and he’s lived with the nuns ever since. He has a problem with his legs and runs like a little airplane, arms stuck at a bizarre angle so he can balance on his tiptoes. D’Assisi sometimes wears little leg braces, and he has a problem with his eyes. But he has this excitement about life that’s contagious. He loves to play the drums and dance, anywhere anytime, even when he falls down half the time because of his legs.

D'Assisi interrupting the high school dance team's practice
He'll play for HOURS on this thing. Seriously.
              My heart feels like it’s going to burst when he airplane-runs over to me, laughing and shouting “Inshuti Yanjye!” (My Friend!) every day when I come home from work. We sing songs, color, read “Goodnight Moon” every night, play Candyland, go for walks with him riding on my shoulders (which other people in the village think is totally bizarre), and he helps me take care of my growing avocado tree nursery, even though it takes him about five times as long to water them as it does for me.

Francois D'Assisi's "airplane walk"
             D’Assisi wakes up excited about each day, and he almost always has a huge goofy grin across his face. It's funny, I think he's given more love to people than other people do their entire lives. He's certainly taught me more than I can ever teach him. Maybe it’s the fact that D’Assisi has grown up with seven nun-moms, but he’s always thinking of other people first, and he almost never has tantrums or even whiney moments. He’s a three-foot wonder kid.
His Sunday best
               But I also worry so much about him, more than I have about any other person, myself included. I worry about his health. He takes his anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) every day, and we make sure that he has nutritious food to eat, but every time he gets even a little sick, I can barely focus on my work. I once looked up the life expectancy of a child born with HIV/AIDS, and I think I cried my body weight in tears. It breaks my heart into a million pieces every single day. I worry about his future. The nuns have told me they can’t take care of him forever, and they want him to be adopted by a Rwandan family. I can’t bear the thought of leaving him. When I leave Peace Corps, what if I never see him again? What if he doesn’t even remember who I am? What if I come back to Rwanda and I can’t find him? 
New school uniform. I die from cuteness overload. 
            Right now he is so, so full of joy and curiosity about life. But he also doesn’t know what HIV/AIDS is; he only knows that he has to take his medicines every day. Every month, when I help lead a group for people living with HIV/AIDS, I listen to some villagers talk about the incredible stigma they face here and their feelings of hopelessness and depression. There are others who do not speak at all, but their skeletal bodies and sunken eyes tell of a pain that I have never experienced. It breaks my heart, and I worry that the harsh realities of the world will snuff out D’Assisi’s joy.

            But more than anything, Francois D’Assisi has taught me to live in every single moment. A few nights ago, he was riding on top of my shoulders, in our little courtyard and we paused to look up at all the stars. It’s the rainy season here and it’s often too cloudy to see any stars at night. But that night, the Milky Way was out in all its glory, and there was an amazing lightning storm going on in the distance. We just stood there, watching the lightning flicker across the sky and feeling the gentle night breeze on our faces.
             It was one of those moments where the universe just seems to slow down, and you’re fully conscious of every sensation and every emotion. It was like a dream. And all my worries about him seemed to fall away. It was just the two of us, breathing. I could feel his blood pounding as I held on to his little legs wrapped around my shoulders. His blood, containing a virus that will eventually kill him.

              But in that moment, it was all okay. “Ndagukunda” I whispered to him. I love you. “Nanjye, ndagukunda.” Me too, I love you. “Turi kumwe.” We are together. I can’t predict the future. Neither of us knows what his health will look like a few years down the road, or where I will be. But I know that right now, we are both here,  and the love we’ve shared is real and nothing can take that away.

D'Assisi, thank you for all that you have given me. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

That Time My Friend Megan Came to Visit Rwanda and Awesome Times Ensued

I was lucky enough to have my friend Megan came to visit for 10 days following the filming of a documentary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was so fun having one of my friends from home here, and I got to see more of Rwanda; I’d never even been to the northwest of the country, or to any of the Eastern Province before. Ladies and gentlemen, book your plane tickets to Rwanda now. 

The Highlights:
We went to Gisenyi, on Lake Kivu in northwest Rwanda. It’s kind of a resort area, thus the name “the Riviera of Rwanda.” We stayed at a place on Lake Kivu that had nice safari tents (Megan and I joked that we were “glamping”, or glam camping because it was so nice) and the views were incredible. 

I could get used to this...
Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very cooperative, so we didn’t get to enjoy any of the beaches there. But we also didn’t get schisto from swimming in the lake…win?

We were planning on taking the boat from Gisenyi down to my region, in southwest Rwanda, but alas, as we were eating dinner Saturday night, we were informed that the boat was cancelled because of the President’s visit to the southwest. So instead, we spent about 13 hours on buses getting back to my site. On one of the buses, the woman in front of us started puking out the window…probably a lowlight of our trip.
View of Gisenyi, Rwanda, and Goma, DRC
We hiked to the Rwanda/DRC border. It’s a really beautiful hike, around 2-3 hours each way. The rapids of the Rusizi River form the border, and the steep cliffs all around are pretty striking.

We saw the hotsprings about an hour by bus away from my site. I can now confirm that they are indeed quite hot.

Megan helped me prepare soymilk with the women’s soymilk cooperative I’m starting in my village. And about a hundred people in my village asked if we’re twins.

Can't you see the family resemblance? 
We went hiking in Nyungwe Forest on the canopy walk. 

Yeah, I went hiking in a skirt. Don't judge me. 
Nyungwe Forest is huge, and it has a lot of species of primates, including chimpanzees! We didn’t get to see any chimps, and the actual canopy part was a bit short, but the views on our canopy hike were still pretty stunning. 

I like to think that I’m not afraid of heights, but once we were about 200 feet in the air on a little swaying suspension bridge, the rope burns on my hands gave me away.

We visited the Genocide Memorial. It’s a very solemn place, and the burial site of over 250,000 people. Even though the genocide was 18 years ago, it’s so important to remember. And it gives a lot of context for visitors to Rwanda. It was my second visit there (read more about my first visit here), but it was no less affecting this time around. 

My favorite part of the trip was visiting Akagera National Park for two days.

Megan learned to drive a stick shift. In the safari park. In a Land Cruiser. Like a boss.

You go, Megan! 
Akagera is sometimes overlooked as a safari “destination” since it doesn’t have lions, cheetahs, or rhinos, and it’s much smaller than well-known East African safaris such as Masai Mara or the Serengeti. But that also means it’s much cheaper than the Tanzanian or Kenyan safari parks, and it’s much less crowded. 

We didn’t hire a driver or a guide, and we spent the whole day driving as close as we dared to the animals around the park. 

We saw only one or two other cars the whole day, and we managed to see hippos, elephants, giraffes, gazelles, antelope, impala, water buffalo, wart hogs, zebras, baboons, and monkeys.

We camped in a breathtaking campsite looking over the lakes. It was a little scary knowing that we were INSIDE the safari park, with no fence in between us and elephants, leopards, hippos, and the other animals in the park. 

We went with about eight other people, and we had a great time around the campfire, including sing-a-long time and ukelele playing. 

We woke up around 5 am Sunday morning to get up and see the animals. There was a beautiful sunrise over the lakes.

Megan and I visited Rusumo Falls, which forms the border of Rwanda and Tanzania. 

I think the Rwandan tourist bureau should start calling it “the Victoria Falls of Rwanda.” Don’t you think?

We visited an Imigongo art cooperative. Imigongo art is geometrical patterns made from cow dung, and it was originally made for Rwandan kings.

Full disclosure: this is my friend Ian's sweet patio with imitation Imigongo art :)
And no visit to Rwanda is complete without a visit to Kimironko market in Kigali. Vendors sell everything from food to home goods to clothing, and after bartering for a few hours we picked up a few gifts for family and friends back home. 

So glad you got to come, Megan!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Seeing President Kagame

            A couple weeks ago, the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, visited Cyangugu, the region in which I live. His visit was met with a lot of fanfare. The entire region had some mandatory umugandas (community service days) to clean up, repair roads, and, oddly, paint trees white. My Mother Superior and the nun who heads the Health Center here (my titulaire) were invited, and my sitemate Tim and I went with them to where the President was speaking, near the DRC/Burundi border.

A large sign welcoming Kagame to the region
            The first thing I noticed as we drove along was that mass numbers of white t-shirts bearing Kagame’s face had been handed out, and hundreds of people were wearing them along the roadsides. As we got closer to the site of the event, the crowds became thicker. There were more Rwandan soldiers than I’d ever seen before (the military, the national police, local police, and even some reserves). When we got out of the car, we were told to leave our phones and cameras in the car as a “security precaution”, or they would be confiscated. I was pretty bummed, but we did as we were told. So forgive me for this relatively picture-less post.
            It was only 8 am, but there were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people waiting in a very long line to get patted-down by security. Someone was handing out small Rwandan flags to everyone, so Tim and I got our hands on a couple. The nuns were on some sort of VIP list, so we shamelessly cut the line and went to entrance off to the side, where invited religious, business, civic, and education leaders were required to pass through a metal detector as well as a pat-down. At first we were seated in sort of a secondary VIP area that had chairs and was to the left of the stage, but was still in the extremely hot sun. A few minutes later, an important-looking woman pulled my Mother Superior, Tim, another Peace Corps Volunteer, and me into a huge white VIP tent behind the stage with nice chairs, bottled water, and people dressed in suits and fancy dresses. We were about 10-15 feet behind where Kagame eventually sat.

           Although it was rumored that Kagame would speak at 11 am, he didn’t actually show up until 1 pm. In the five hours between when we arrived and when he spoke, the three of us Peace Corps Volunteers got an interesting look at Rwandan culture in a political light. There were cultural dances (Intore) and some Rwandan singers, which were really beautiful. And then there was a rather strange political rehearsing. The crowds of Rwandans present were told how exactly to wave their hundreds of flags (when the President pauses! Wave them furiously above your heads!), how to clap (when the President enters and exits, and when he finishes his speech. Clap furiously above your head!), and several call-and-response political chants. This went on for several hours, and it felt a bit like one of those sitcoms where an APPLAUSE or LAUGH sign lights up for the audience. I tried to picture this happening—a  political rehearsal of sorts---if an American president was speaking somewhere in the U.S. Of course politicians are always very careful about people placed behind the stage and such things, especially when their audience is from their own political party (i.e. Republican or Democratic Conventions), but I think most Americans would not respond well to such a planned response. It’s amazing to me that when you’re within your own culture, patriotism seems quite normal. Most people are proud of their own country. But when you’re in another country, patriotism can seem remarkably similar to propaganda. Something to think about, I guess.
            The President was only at the event for about an hour and a half. He spoke about Rwanda’s amazing progress in development, health, and education, and he promoted the new Agaciro Fund (in theory, a voluntary contribution by Rwandans to help Rwanda development itself, in actuality, it looks more like a tax due to budget shortfalls as a result of international donors pulling out money because of Rwanda’s support for the M23 rebel group in the DRC). He spoke about new improvements to the district, including paving some roads near us. And then he had a sort of “question and answer” time. People could come up to the microphone and tell Kagame about their problems. I couldn’t understand all of the Kinyarwanda, so the rest of this is what I pieced together + what the nuns told me he spoke about.
One man asked the President about his son, who was apparently killed in the late 90s by a member of the military, but his killer was never brought to justice. Kagame asked one of the high-ranking soliders nearby if he knew what the man was talking about. The soldier looked pretty terrified, and Kagame told the man that they would look into it. Another Rwandan talked about how foreigners (especially Chinese) are taking Rwanda’s resources and how locals are losing their land. I studied about land and resource grabs before, but this was the first time I saw their impact up close. Kagame said that it’s a common problem in Africa, of corporations buying large tracts of land or resources, and again that he would look into it. He said sometimes local people are not aware of property rights, and sometimes they don’t understand what’s going on. And then there were the people who didn’t actually have problems but spoke anyways. There was one guy who owned a coffee business, and he thanked the President for how well his company was doing. Another a Rwandan woman thanked him for Rwanda’s advances in health and education, and said that her only problem was that her kids spoke too much English to her at home and she couldn’t understand it.
            I will probably do another post later, perhaps after my service here is over, about my perceptions of Rwandan politics, but I think today I will leave it here.

This blog is a reflection of my views and opinions only. It does not reflect the views of the United States, its government, or Peace Corps.