Monday, April 29, 2013

Victims of Our Own Success

            The past six weeks, except for genocide memorial week, the women’s soymilk cooperative has prepared and sold soymilk twice a week at a little store nearby our village market. We’ve sold 30-50 liters of soymilk each time, along with bread, and we’ve always sold out within five hours. We have a regular clientele: mothers coming to fill up a small jerrycan to take home, parents bringing their children for a cup of hot soymilk, and younger men who sit around and socialize on our benches while drinking their soymilk. The women in the cooperative have learned to write in the little notebook that serves as our ledger, carefully marking the liters and cups of soymilk sold and managing the money. They elected a president and made decisions about the cooperative independently. The women have learned customer service, greeting our customers with warm Karibu (welcome), offering them a seat, and explaining the prices. I am so proud of the women and all the work that they have done.

Our little store
But I’m even happier because of this accomplishment: three of their children are now in the green zone, and one is in yellow instead of red. Meaning, three children are no longer considered malnourished. They are in the healthy zone, and the other child went from “extremely malnourished” to “malnourished.” This is the best reward for all of our work.

Odetta, Our President Juliette, Jeanette, and Drophine
            So given our success, I thought we had overcome all the obstacles that were in our way. Wrong. Wrong again. The challenges just keep coming.

On Wednesday, my counterpart Felix said we should have a meeting. I assumed it was to tie up loose ends before I left for Rome. My counterpart dropped two bombshells on me: first, that the community health workers (CHWs) who own the building we use as our store want to start charging us rent, though they had agreed earlier to let us use the building for free. I asked how much money they wanted for rent, and Felix responded that they wanted 30,000 Rwandan francs a month. My jaw dropped. If we sold soymilk in the store every single day, we could pay that sum, but we only use it eight times a month, when the market is open and there’s a steady stream of traffic (it’s a complete ghost town on other days of the week).

I was so confused; I had met with the president of the community health workers several times to discuss the project and our progress. It turns out that some CHWs were complaining to him about how much money we were making and they wanted a piece of it. I wanted to laugh: sure, our store has a steady stream of customers, but we make only 40 cents out of every 200-franc liter we sell, the rest goes to pay for the cost of soy and sugar. And those 40 cents of profit are put in our savings account to fund projects to help their malnourished children (such as buying chickens to get eggs). I tried showing the president of the CHWs our ledger and tried to bargain over the price, but he wouldn't budge. I thought about just paying for the rent out of my own money, but I knew that it would make the project unsustainable. After I leave, I want the women to be able to continue the cooperative independently.

The second bombshell was that Felix wanted to kick some of the women out of the cooperative because their children are now considered healthy (in the green zone). Again, I was stunned. I asked my counterpart why he would even think about such a thing, and he explained that there are other women with malnourished children that want to be in the cooperative. My heart was torn: on one hand, the women whose children were now healthy were the hardest working. They put their heart and soul into the cooperative. Our president, Juliette, walks over two hours through the mountains, rain or shine, to come make soymilk. She leaves her house and her eight children at 4:30 am. We are a team. They make the decisions about the cooperative, and kicking out members would be a betrayal. I also know that people respond to incentives, and if their “reward” for working hard and getting their kids to the green zone is only to get kicked out, it creates incentive for them to relapse, or for new members to not want their kids to get to a healthy weight. 

On the other hand, there are fifteen other children who are malnourished who desperately need the help the cooperative can provide, and the goal of the cooperative is to help get children to the healthy zone. We can’t have all of them in the cooperative, at least right now. I'm also worried about going against the opinions of my counterparts, who I depend on for support and advice. 

A happy customer
All of this came at a horrible time: I’m leaving for vacation, and I didn’t want to rush such important decisions. Sr. Agnes, my other counterpart, and I are trying to look at alternatives to selling soymilk at the store, such as selling it to schools to put in their tea, or selling several liters to other little shops who sell food. It’s sad to think that we might never sell soymilk in our little store again; I really loved interacting with our customers, watching the women greet people and serve them soymilk, and the feeling of community that the store created. And I still have no idea what to do about the latter situation. I want to help as many kids as possible get to a healthy weight, but I don’t want to betray the women who have worked so hard to make the cooperative what it is. I'm trying to roll with the punches, but I wish I didn't have to make such difficult decisions. To be continued after I return…

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hiking the Congo Nile Trail

Last weekend, my friend AJ and I hiked the Congo Nile Trail that follows Lake Kivu in western Rwanda. It was a really amazing time, but before I go into the story, I have two confessions to make.

First, we didn’t hike the whole thing since we only had three days. We walked the Nyamasheke district portion, from Karengera to Kamembe (spoiler alert: I took a moto for the last couple of hours because my foot was cramping so badly). I hope to hike the whole thing at some point, so stay tuned!

Secondly, the Congo Nile Trail isn’t as intense as it sounds. It’s neither in Congo, nor along the Nile River, but it simply follows the watershed between the Congo and Nile Rivers. I think the Rwandan Development Board knew that naming it the “Congo Nile Trail” would be attention-grabbing, and it works. I had pictured myself bushwhacking through overgrown forests, miles away from the nearest person, climbing mountains, and scaling cliffs. 

I’m here to report that’s not actually the case. The trail is actually a road for the greater portion of the hike, and while it’s pretty hilly, the path is usually quite obvious. The road is even paved in some areas! And because Rwanda has the highest population density in Africa, you’re rarely alone for more than five minutes. When we passed through towns or markets, there were so many people on the road, we joked that we didn’t know hiking the Congo Nile Trail was so popular in Rwanda.

             All of that aside, hiking the Congo Nile Trail was amazing, and you should do it if you ever have the chance.

AJ and I started out on Friday evening by taking a bus from Kamembe, in Rusizi district, north to Karengera, which is a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer’s site. She was on vacation, so we stayed with a young woman volunteering at the school there for the night.

Saturday morning we started out hiking towards Nyamasheke, the region’s capital and site of our Peace Corps friend Kate. The hike took about eight and a half hours total, but we were rewarded with some stunning views. The time went by quickly just chatting, even though I wanted to stop and take pictures every two feet.

AJ and I stopped for lunch at a little peninsula called Kumbya Paradise. At the very tip there was a retreat center, and I understood why they called it paradise. 

The guard told us that a group from a nearby hospital was coming, and he was initially hesitant to let us eat lunch there. After a few minutes of speaking in Kinyarwanda and explaining we weren’t staying the night, he agreed that we could stay and eat our bread and hardboiled eggs. It was really relaxing, and I’d love to return to the Kumbya retreat sometime.

Back on the road, curious little kids frequently came up to us and practiced their English, often to beg for various items. In our three days of hiking, kids asked us for money, bottles, pens, candy, Fanta, and dolls. We rolled into Kate’s house around 5 pm, and she’d prepared a delicious pasta feast for us weary travelers. After eating (or devouring, rather) and showering, we made some hot toddies and watched a movie. It was the perfect end to our first day hiking.

Sunday was our second day hiking, from Nyamasheke to Shangi. After breakfast, AJ and I were on the road again. We hiked about an hour down to a peninsula near Nyamasheke where we heard there were boats that could take us across Lake Kivu to the Shangi peninsula.

There were indeed boats, some of which had just pulled in their catch of injanga and isambaza, little fish that I find disgusting but most Rwandans seem to love.

We asked the fisherman if there was a boat that could take us across the lake, and they said to keep walking until we reached another little landing spot.

AJ and I followed their directions, and sure enough, we arrived at the tip of the peninsula where several other fishermen were sitting around on their boats cooking food, one even using an oar as a stirring spoon. We waited awhile for the “captain” to arrive, and after a little bargaining over the price, we agreed on paying 400 Rwandan francs (about 75 cents) to go cross the bay. AJ and I climbed into the small wooden boat and pushed off into Lake Kivu.

We landed on the other side, and spent about 4 hours walking to another Peace Corps Volunteer’s house in Shangi. The last hour or so my foot was hurting, so it was nice to arrive early and play with Kari’s little kittens—her cat gave birth just a week or two prior. After eating we walked down to a building where loud music was playing and we were told a party was happening. The room was filled with young men, students, and several singers of, um, various skill levels. A couple of times we were encouraged (or rather, forced) to get up and dance with the singers. I’m not sure what was more awkward, me dancing in my hiking sandals and rain jacket on the makeshift stage, or the audience having to watch me dance.

The next day we set out for the last leg of the trek on the “Shangi sub-trail” of the Congo-Nile Trail, from Shangi to Kamembe. Kate came to join AJ and I for this last leg. About three or four hours in, my left foot started cramping really badly again, and I made the decision to take a moto back to Shangi and catch a bus to Kamembe instead of continuing.

Despite the bummer ending, it was still an awesome weekend of visiting friends and enjoying the beautiful scenery. I hope to hike the whole Congo-Nile Trail, from Kamembe to Gisenyi, at some point in my Peace Corps Service. Any takers?

Advice for Hiking the Congo Nile Trail

  •  Get a map from Rwanda Development Board (RDB) in Kigali if you’re not familiar with the area. But know that many “attractions” on the map are sometimes exaggerated or non-existent.
  •  Speaking even a little Kinyarwanda will help you a lot. Speaking French might be of some help but it’s hit or miss. People will try to rip you off along the way; we experienced this even speaking the language.
  • I’d recommend bringing a tent if you don’t have people to stay with along the way (i.e. muzungus who aren’t Peace Corps Volunteers)
  • Don’t give to begging kids. I know this sounds callous and cold-hearted, but it encourages a begging culture; we had tons of kids asking us for things every single day, most likely because other hikers gave things away. It’s common for villagers to ask foreigners for money, even if they don’t necessarily need it, per se. For example, my co-workers at the health center (who are well-off by Rwandan standards) will often half-jokingly ask me to give them money, or some tea, or a Fanta, because they want to see if I’ll say yes and they think that I’m rich. Use your own discretion, but know that there are lots of worthy organizations that could use your money.
  • The base camps and routes are generally well marked, look for green signs pointing the way.
  • Because the Congo-Nile Trail is a fairly recent creation of the RDB, most Rwandans living on the route won’t know what you’re talking about if you say you’re hiking it or want directions. It’s best to ask how to get to the next town if you get lost or something.
  • It’s not necessary to bring a stove or intense camping gear, unless you’re into that stuff. AJ and I would buy bread, bananas, hardboiled eggs, passion fruit, water, and an avocado or two every day from the little boutiques in villages we’d pass through.
  •  Bring rain jackets and umbrellas if you’re hiking in the rainy season, and sunscreen is always a good idea. 
  • If you're not into hiking, you can easily bike the Congo Nile Trail, at least in the dry season. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Experiencing Genocide Memorial Week in Rwanda

          In April 1994, when the killing of over one million Rwandans in just 100 days began, I was four years old and growing up in a small town in northeast Nebraska. One of the students in my English class is the exact same age as I am. But he was born in Rwanda, and is a member of the Tutsi ethnic minority group that was targeted during the genocide. While I was running around my backyard in the United States without a care in the world, my student was watching members of his family being killed in front of him by men with machetes.
            Being a Political Science and Peace Studies student in college, I studied about the Rwandan genocide. I wrote papers on it. I even took a class entirely about genocide. But studying facts and figures and dates is one thing. It's theoretical, academic, removed knowledge. There is no book or film or class that can fully portray the reality of the tragic events that happened and no way I could have prepared myself for the experience of listening to my student tell me his story or being present in my community during this week. 
           In my head, I had pictured the ibiganiro, or commemoration ceremonies, to be something like a group grieving session. I imagined there would be outbursts of emotion, crying, and screaming. I thought that there would be a reconciliation ceremony, where perpetrators would apologize for their crimes. But there wasn’t really any of that, at least in my village.

            Sunday was the start of the official commemoration week in Rwanda. It started off as usual, with church. The service was the same as always except for the last twenty minutes, when the priest called for unity, forgiveness, and healing as genocide memorial week started. A woman started crying and whimpering and was rushed out of the church. I asked the nuns why they took the woman outside, and they said it was to prevent mass hysteria and other people crying too. A shiver ran down my spine as I thought of how many people in the church were affected by the genocide: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike.
            That afternoon I went to the opening ceremonies in my sector, held at a nearby school. Leaders lit a bonfire, and several religious leaders gave speeches. One government official (I’ll call him Deo) said some words that really struck me. He talked about how before the genocide, Tutsis were labeled as inyenzi and inzoka, or cockroaches and worms, as something less than human. He went on to say that never again in Rwanda will humans be called something other than what they are; that there are no longer Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, only Rwandans.
            Deo is a friend of mine, and knowing his own personal story made his words even more potent. Almost all of Deo’s family was killed in the genocide. Many members of his wife’s family were killed. But this quiet and gentle man has been able to forgive the genocidaire that killed his family. He visits the murderer of his father and has even given him a cow, which is a huge symbol of wealth in this country. I cannot even begin to fathom the process of forgiveness Deo has gone through.  

A genocide memorial near my house
            Later in the week I went to another memorial ceremony on the soccer field in front of my house. The ceremony was filled with speeches, which I had expected, but also an element that I had certainly not expected: laughter. There, at a commemoration ceremony of a genocide, people were laughing and not crying. It threw me off guard at first. What seemed like a politically incorrect joke---calling all Rwandans “abahutsi”, a mix of the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi”---was apparently hilarious to most people in my village. I didn’t know if this was just a case of laughter being the human race’s only effective weapon, to paraphrase Mark Twain, or if it was simply nervous laughter in an attempt to keep from crying, which is never done in public in Rwanda. But I am certainly in no position to tell people how to mourn or remember such a terrible event in Rwanda's history.  
           Even though the ceremonies were supposed to be mandatory for all Rwandans, I couldn't help but notice how few women attended most of the commemoration events. I wasn't sure if this was because most Rwandan women have to farm, take care of the household, and watch the children, or if some of them chose not to come because of other reasons. One of the nuns I live with didn't attend any of the commemoration events. She didn't go to work at the health center or even come to meals at the convent. When I asked her if she was going to the closing ceremony, she simply said, "No. This is the week that my family disappeared. I'm not ready." 
           At the closing event on Saturday, one of the speakers said that the seeds of peace must be replanted in every generation. He said that it's not enough for only the people who lived through the genocide to commemorate it, but for Rwandans to work together to develop the country and to reject divisions and violence. 
            I am leaving this week having learned more about what happened in my village during the genocide and the process of forgiveness so many people have gone through, but I’m left with so many questions. How could an entire country have seemingly gone crazy overnight? How could neighbors and even family members kill each other? How could Rwanda be where it is today, not even two decades after such an atrocity? How could Rwandans forgive and seek unity on such a mass scale? How can victims go back to living next to people who perpetrated such horrendous crimes? Why didn’t the rest of the world do anything? Is “Never Again” just an empty promise? I don’t know that I’ll ever find out the answers to these questions, and I don’t know if Rwanda will either. 

Twibuka. We remember. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Celebrating Easter in Rwanda, featuring Jesus and Justin Bieber

Last week was one of the best weeks yet in my Peace Corps service. I had been looking forward to celebrating Easter in my community since I was in Zanzibar for Christmas.  And it didn’t disappoint.

Paruwasi ya Roho Mutagatifu
Good Friday is a national holiday in Rwanda, so I went to Stations of the Cross instead of work. What is usually a calm procession of people praying and re-enacting Jesus’ path to crucifixion in the U.S. is better described as a Stampede of the Cross here. About 400 people seemed to be in a competition for who could stand the closest to the cross and microphone.

I wasn’t really interested in getting trampled to death, so I hung out near the very back, along with the old ladies and men. It was a humbling experience. Most of them were doubled over their canes, walking at a snail’s pace, and many were barefoot. But it mattered to them to be there. A few hours of plodding around the villages in the hot sun later, we were finished. The nuns and I went back to our house for a nap, and an hour later returned to the church for the five hour Good Friday service. Whew!

On Saturday afternoon I went to my regional city to meet up with some other Peace Corps Volunteers for a few hours, which always puts me in a good mood. The Easter Vigil ceremony on Saturday evening was unlike any other service I’d been to. For starters, they had a bonfire outside the church. Secondly, there was an awesome group of drummers playing for hours before the mass started.

I'm convinced that drums make everything more awesome.
And thirdly, any fire codes that exist in Rwanda were broken multiple times over. When the doors opened, people literally ran into the church. It was the most crowded I’ve ever seen a church. Not only were children sitting on adults’ laps, but adults were sitting on other adults’ laps. There were so many people trying to squeeze onto my bench that we had to stagger our shoulders, with some hunched forward and others with straight backs. The aisles were non-existent. We were all there, in one big sweaty mass.

Ditto for bonfires. 
Afterward the nuns and I went to the priests’ residence to celebrate. They had the same food we eat every day---rice, beans, potatoes--- but they also had peas, wine, and some whiskey. Peas are a rarity around here, and as I sat there eating my dinner, I laughed at how excited I was to be eating peas, of all things. Ah, Peace Corps.

Easter morning mass was also about six hours long. During the ceremony, about 20 couples got married, and a bunch of people were baptized as well. Even though the ceremony was really long, I couldn’t help but be swept up by the joy around me. After it finished, D’Assisi and I tried to dye some Easter eggs using onion peels and spices and stuff, but it turns out that brown eggs don’t dye as well as white ones. And the nuns didn’t really understand why exactly I wanted to put eggs outside on the ground, and why Easter bunnies apparently lay eggs in the U.S., so we ended up just eating them instead, along with a bunch of goodies a friend sent me in a care package (thanks, Julie!!!). 

Then came the strangest, most interesting concert I’ve ever been to. The best description I can come up with would be “Rwandan polka band meets Justin Bieber turned village dance party.” It started out with a band playing some electric guitars; I have absolutely no idea where they got them. And then a kid who introduced himself as “the Justin Bieber of Rwanda” (I kid you not) showed up to perform, and the crowd went nuts.

He mostly just rapped in Kinyarwanda to the polka band, which I didn’t think was possible, and then would interject random English words, like “Uh-Huh!” “Fresh!” or “Cash money!” I can’t really comment on his singing abilities, but he did have some pretty sweet dance moves.

Justin himself
After a few hours, the concert turned into a giant dance party, with villagers from seven to seventy. I just paused in the middle of all the dancing and wondered what my life has become, in the best way possible. I’m here, in a little village in Rwanda, on Easter, dancing to a Justin Bieber polka band.

I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m now eleven months into my Peace Corps service, or the fact that I’ve celebrated Easter abroad before, but I didn’t have the same intense homesickness that I felt before Christmas. Sure, I missed my family, the crazy Easter egg hunt with a million of my cousins (we have color-coded Easter eggs for each kid. Seriously), and an Easter feast with more than peas to celebrate, but I was able to let go of all that and really be present at Easter here in Rwanda. It was definitely a Pasika Nziza to remember.