Friday, May 31, 2013

Humans vs. the Environment?

            I’m back at site after being gone for nearly three weeks, visiting my parents and my brother Paul in Italy, and then being stuck in Kigali for a few days when my baggage containing all my cheese (well, and other things, too) didn’t arrive. I’m happy to report that the cheese miraculously arrived, six days later, at the tiny airstrip an hour from my house, and Paul and I have been enjoying all that Rwanda has to offer.

From Rome to Rwanda! 
            I’ll admit I experienced a bit of culture shock while I was in Italy. I was constantly amazed at almost everything. Things that I would have taken for granted before Peace Corps were suddenly exciting again. Supermarkets! Clothing stores with different sizes of the same outfit! Food that arrives within 20 minutes of ordering it! Hot showers! Double-ply toilet paper and flushing toilets everywhere! Gelato! Cheese! Trains! Not being stared at or called muzungu! No one publicly picking their noses! Anonymity! Being able to dress however I choose! In the Eternal City, everything seemed new. It was as if I was experiencing all of it for the very first time. My head was spinning, in the best way possible.

            I was also a bit anxious coming back to Rwanda. Part of that was leaving my parents for another year. People are irreplaceable. Skype conversations aren’t the same as a hug from your Mom or drinking wine with your Dad while watching the sunset.

         But part of that anxiety was also returning to a life without all of those comforts. As my Baba says, “It’s a lot easier to go up than to go down.” I know that I can live a life without ice cream and hot showers; it just takes a little getting used to.  So I took a deep breath and boarded that plane back to Kigali, Rwanda.

           It’s about 7 hours to get from Kigali to my site in southwest Rwanda, through mountains and forests. Usually I dread the trip, but this time it was amazing to see all of the changes that had occurred since I’d been gone. In just three weeks, a fancy new movie theater opened in Kigali, Rwanda’s very first one. I saw my first movie in a theater in a year and a half (“Iron Man 3” in 3D!!!) while waiting for my luggage to arrive. At the bus station in Kigali, a new clock tower had been put up. Some roads had been fixed. A new restaurant had opened in a town nearby me. A new fence is going up around the chapel in my village. A student I tutor in English bought a bike with the money he has earned teaching English to other Rwandans on the side. One of the women in the soymilk cooperative was hired to work part-time cooking meals at the Health Center. Development is very, very real, and it’s an exciting time to be in Rwanda.

            Yet despite my awe at Rwanda’s development upon returning from Italy, I couldn’t help but notice how many trees had been cut down around my community. I asked the nuns why, and they just shrugged and said that people need houses and firewood.

          I’ve thought a lot about the tension between human/economic development and the environment during my Peace Corps service, but this experience crystallized it in a very real way. How can we provide every human with his or her basic material needs, without completely trashing the planet? And it’s not just some vague hippie “save the trees!” notion that has me worried, although I certainly appreciate the beautiful views, colorful leaves, piney smells, and cleaner air that trees provide. It comes from a genuine concern that this generation is robbing future generations (and even ourselves) of the ability to have clean air to breathe, unpolluted water to drink, and the ability to eat food without getting cancer.

          The developed world depends on consumerism, on material solutions to all problems, on forever buying and discarding, to maintain its economic power. This situation has provided high living standards, material comfort, and high rates of employment for a majority of the population living in the industrialized world. These are generally regarded as good things. I like my cheese and hot showers as much as the next person. But it’s clear an economy based on materialism and growth-at-any-cost can’t continue forever: the earth’s fossil fuels are quickly being used up, there’s a floating island of discarded plastic the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of species of plants and animals are endangered or near extinction, and you can now buy canned air to breathe for when you visit China (flavors include "pristine Tibet" and "post-industrial Taiwan" joke).

         This is the sentiment captured in Robert Kennedy's quote about the limits of the Gross National Product (GNP), which I find just as meaningful today as it was in 1968, "Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product--if we should judge America by that--counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It couts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children."

         "Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does nto inclue the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

         The catch, it seems to me, is that if everyone tried to simplify their lives, to realize that money and possessions will never make us happy, and “keeping up with the Joneses” is a game that can never be won, the entire economy would collapse. For example, let’s say that everyone realized their kids don’t need Barbie dolls to play with to have fun. All of the people who manufacture, distribute, and sell Barbie dolls would be unemployed. Even though this example is a little ridiculous, the result is not. If we all just stopped buying all the crap we fill our houses with, mass unemployment and economic depression would result, at least temporarily.

        It’s clear that we need sustainable development more than ever (which is why doing things like trying to outlaw sustainable development, like in Kansas, looks more idiotic than ever). People in the developed world need to learn a lesson from people in my village about what and how we consume things. We need to rediscover the "3 Rs": reduce, reuse, recycle. It's not easy. It takes sacrifice. We have to find other ways of providing people’s material needs, jobs so that people can provide for their families, and above all, we have to realize that people are far more valuable than possessions. Who’s with me?

 “Only when the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, will we realize we can’t eat money.” -Native American saying

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

On Feeling Alive: One Year in Peace Corps Rwanda

             It feels surreal to say that I’ve been living in Africa for one year. One year ago, I was anxiously awaiting my departure, trying to cram my life’s belongings into Peace Corps' 100 pound weight limit, and saying goodbye to friends and family.

               I remember comparing the waiting period to the feeling to jumping off a cliff without being able to see what’s beneath you. I had no idea what to expect. Had I packed the right things? What would the weather be like? The food? The clothing? Would I be able to learn Kinyarwanda? Would I stay in touch with friends and family, or would I come back to people I hardly knew anymore? What if I was one of those people who arrived and promptly booked a ticket on the next plane back home, too scared to leave my comfort zone and flushing toilets?

Saying goodbye to my Mom at the airport one year ago
         I had never been to any country in Africa before and I was intensely curious; I stayed up late reading blogs of current volunteers, googling pictures of Rwanda, and emailing Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) friends with a million questions. But the truth is, no one really knows what it’s like to be in the Peace Corps before you’re actually in it. So I took the plunge.

My Rwandan Mama
            I can definitively say that this past year has been the most challenging and the most rewarding of my life. I’ve certainly learned a lot, sometimes the hard way. I’ve learned that change takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve learned that there are sometimes problems that I cannot fix, and things that are beyond my control. I have a better idea of when to hold my tongue and when to speak up. I’ve tried to learn not to focus so much on what I can “do” here, but on what I can learn from my community, friends, and cultural exchange… this project is ongoing.

Love of my life
             I’ve also mastered some really useful skills, like using a squat latrine, opening a passion fruit with my hands in under 5 seconds, understanding a scratchy phone conversation on a bad connection, picking out a perfect pineapple, distinguishing goat cries from human ones, Rwandan cow dancing, baking banana bread in a wood-fired oven, growing avocado trees, and declining marriage proposals. Look for those on my resume soon.

I've had a lot of time to practice my passion fruit skills
            More than anything, Peace Corps has taught me, and is still teaching me, how to live outside my comfort zone. I’ve reached a new normal. Taking bucket showers are normal. Brown-outs of electricity and slow internet are normal. Riding in a bus the size of a minivan with 25 people, and possibly animals, is normal. Rwandans describing people as “fat” or “old”, to their face, and exactly zero people being offended, is normal. Only understanding half of a conversation and uttering a vague “ehh” as if I’ve comprehended all the Kinyarwanda is normal. Boiling and filtering all my water is normal. People staring at me whenever I walk out of my house is normal. A meal at a restaurant taking two hours to arrive is normal. Men casually carrying machetes and everyone carrying things on their head are normal.

Goal yet to be accomplished: carrying things on my head
            I look back on my life before Peace Corps and think about how much I’ve changed. In some ways, I still feel like the same person I was before. There are good days and bad days just like anywhere else. But the biggest difference is that I feel alive all of the time. I'm not just inhaling and exhaling as minutes and hours blend together into weeks and months. In the U.S., especially in the year after I finished college, I would sometimes feel stuck. I had a job I loved and found meaningful, lived in an awesome cooperative house, was in a relationship, and was busy exploring my new adopted city of Boston. I tried new things, got my yoga teacher’s certification, and made new friends. Yet sometimes I would just feel that I was going through the motions of what people tell you adult life is supposed to look like in America. At the ripe old age of 22, my adventuring was reduced to occasionally getting two shots of espresso in my latte instead of one. Something was just…missing.

          I wasn’t being challenged. I wasn’t learning as much as I wanted. I wasn’t being thrown out of my comfort zone on a daily basis and having to crawl back, humbled but wiser. My life was just a little too scripted and safe. I know that there will be a time in my life when I'll want the feeling of comfort and safety. But it isn't now. Even on my most horrible days in Rwanda—the days I’m homesick and lonely, the days I wonder what I’m even doing here, the days I feel like a failure or that I’m not making a big enough difference---even then, I feel alive. I'm still travelling on this crazy road we call life in this insanely beautiful country called Rwanda and living--really living--every second of it. I dove off that cliff and and I'm still afloat.

Speaking of being afloat...
            Here’s to one more year in Peace Corps, and to feeling alive.