Wednesday, July 31, 2013

I'm Halfway There

Last week, I travelled to Kibuye, Rwanda on the shores of Lake Kivu for my Mid-Service Conference (MSC), for all of the volunteers who have completed one year in Peace Corps Rwanda. It's a big milestone: one year down, and one year to go!

I travelled to Kibuye on the boat from my regional city, Kamembe, which is at the south end of Lake Kivu. The boat runs a few times a week up and down Lake Kivu, on the DR Congo/Rwanda border.

Even though I could probably swim faster than the boat, it was a beautiful trip nonetheless.

The boat was brightly painted in the colors of the Rwandan flag, and another Rwandan flag waved on the bow of the boat, in case you were confused about the boat's country of origin.

Inside there were benches for around eighty passengers, and heaps of bananas, bags of rice and flour, metal door frames, and a cluster of miscellaneous other goods on the floor of the boat. 

Mothers nursed their babies, Rwandans of all ages stared out the small windows, and a man scurried in between the benches, selling peanuts, eggs, hot tea, and Rwandan fried dough, amandazi.

We started out on our journey as the sun was coming up over Lake Kivu. The boat stopped a couple times; a wooden plank was thrown to land, and even more people and things came aboard. 

I brought a book to read during the trip, but most of the time I couldn't help but to stick my head out of the little window and stare at the world moving past me.

The islands and shores of the Congo faded into the distance, and the glittering waters of Lake Kivu stretched before us.

There's something about being on a boat that just screams adventure. Even if you've travelled the same route before, there's always an air of uncertainty that keeps things exciting. 

Six hours later, the boat docked in Kibuye, and I walked over to the the hotel where Peace Corps was hosting our conference. It was gorgeous, complete with a 180 degree view of the lake, palm trees, fishermen's boats on the water, and some amazing sunsets.

The week went by quickly between the planned Peace Corps sessions and catching up with other volunteers--some of whom I hadn't seen since our last conference in October. All of us took advantage of the relatively fast internet, Rwandan buffets for three meals a day, and somewhat hot, somewhat functioning showers. It made me think of how far I've come: before Peace Corps, I probably would have complained about our broken bathroom door, low water pressure, and mosquitos in the room. Now, it seemed like paradise.

Our Mid-Service Conference ended with a visit to an island off the coast, Napoleon's Hat Island, apparently named for the similarities between the island's shape and the French leader's chapeau.

The island is home to a bat colony, which most PCVs found interesting but I found mostly terrifying.

Where's Batman when you need him?
I finished up my time in Kibuye by visiting my friend Andrew's bridge being built over a river in a nearby district. It was cool seeing the bridge almost completed, and it also made me happy that I'm not an engineer :)


Some other volunteers and I headed out for some dancing at Boom Boom Nights, which was as awesome as it sounds. There may or may not have been a fog machine, and they played "Who Let the Dogs Out." Basically everything you'd want in a nightclub, am I right?

With a name like that, how could you not?
And I was able to skype into my sister's wedding back in the U.S. around 2 am (a bittersweet moment to be sure). It wasn't the same as being there, but I was grateful that technology at least helped me bridge the gap.

I'm finally back at my site and can't wait for all the adventures this next year has in store for me! 

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Limits of Saving the World

            Last week, I was on my way to go visit my brother Paul, who is volunteering this summer at Rusayo Orphanage, about 40 minutes away from my site. It’s a nice walk, through a valley filled with banana trees and little stream that meanders through the fields. As I was walking down the small dirt path, a very thin woman with a baby tied tightly to her back walked next to me and we struck up a conversation. I’ll call her Violette. We went through the usual questions that come up in every Rwandan exchange: How are you? Are you strong? Where are you going? Where are you coming from? As we walked past the orphanage, I went to turn off the path towards the entrance, but she grabbed my arm with a scared look in her eyes.

On the way to Rusayo
            Violette asked me if I could help her. I told her that I could at least try. In a voice so quiet it was difficult to hear, Violette told me that she has developed AIDS, and she has three children who are HIV+.  Another villager walked by us, and Violette abruptly changed the subject. In a culture where everyone knows everyone’s business, stigmas run rampant, and medical confidentiality is virtually non-existent, I can’t imagine how much shame she had already experienced. I held her hand and we headed to a little field off the path that was a bit more private, and Violette continued. She quietly asked me if I could help her children when…her voice trailed off. I asked her to repeat, my brain still trying to piece together her quiet kinyarwanda. Violette replied, “I want you to tell me my children will be okay when… I go to God.”

            I had no idea what to say. We just stared at each other for a few minutes, her face gaunt and her eyes clouded by little grey patches. At last, I broke the silence and said I could try to help any way that I could. I asked the names of her children, and she told me each of their names and ages with such pride, her whole face lit up. I asked about her anti-retroviral drug regimen and she said she takes them every day. I said I could come visit her and help her farm her little field and improve her family’s nutrition. She seemed happy about that, and then asked me the question I was silently dreading, “When I…go to God…will you take in my children?” I wanted so, so badly to tell her yes, but I knew it was a promise I couldn’t keep. I’m only in Rwanda for one more year, and I’m not in any position to adopt three kids right now. I asked her to talk to the nuns at Rusayo Orphanage to see if they could help. I knew it wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear, but it was the best I could do.  

            In theory, I know that it’s not humanly possible to help everyone. There are SO many causes and so many people that I care about, both here and in the U.S. I know in my head that I can’t save the polar bears and the rainforest, solve world hunger, provide clean drinking water to everyone that needs it, cure AIDS, stop oppression and discrimination in all of its forms, and generally just save the world. I can’t solve every problem and bear any burden. It's a difficult thing to come to terms with, that there are not enough hours in the day, nor enough dollars in my bank account. I know all of that, theoretically. But in my heart, I haven’t accepted it yet. 
            Even though I can’t adopt her kids, I’m hoping that I can at least spend time with Violette and her children every week and show her that she is valuable despite the negative stereotypes she encounters, and that she matters, no matter what her health status is.

“God give me the grace to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”