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.  


  1. Claire... I don't even know what to say. This was such an amazing blog to read. And you are such an amazing person. I am so lucky to have people like you in my life. Keep saving the world and know that you are always in my thoughts and prayers. I love you!

  2. YES. Circled. Period.

  3. Claire, I always come back to your blog, knowing I'll read something awesome. It's probably a bit creepy and all but your experiences are teaching me a lot, and inspiring me! Inspiration coming from someone who is in the Peace Corps, and tells it like it is. Explains the downsides, the hardships, but also keeps the romance in it, the sense of humor. Thank you for sharing your experiences. You are teaching a lot.


  4. I continue to enjoy reading your blog and looking through your pictures. I’m heading to Rwanda in September with the next group of Education PCTs. Reading about your experiences helps feed my eagerness. Thank you!


    Ps. I am very interested in your work with the soy milk cooperative! If you have any other information or insight, I would love to hear about it!