Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I'm Still Here. And Peace Corps is Still Worth It.

             I’m often asked, by family and friends and complete strangers, if Peace Corps is “worth it.” The answer to that question changes a lot, sometimes within the same day. And it often depends on one little word: gratitude. I didn’t join the Peace Corps to be thanked all the time. I didn’t, and don’t, expect people to welcome me with open arms, grateful that I’ve “given up” two years of my life eating cheese and being blissfully anonymous in America. I'm not here to get gold stars or pats on the back. I'm here to learn, to have a cultural exchange, to grow, and to discover. 
          All of that being said, it can be extremely difficult when you’re putting in 110% every day, and people in your community either don’t understand what you’re doing, or tell you it’s not enough. When the Peace Corps Volunteers in my region hosted a leadership and health education camp for teenage boys last month, a few of them complained that they weren’t being paid to attend the camp(!), despite the fact that it was completely free for them.

When I did soymilk demonstrations in the surrounding villages to show Rwandans how they could make soymilk at home, everyone got to help prepare it and then to taste some (even when we had over 500 women at one demonstration). And sometimes people would complain that they wanted more, or that there wasn’t enough sugar in it. And again, I was paying for all of the soy, sugar, firewood, and some other supplies. Or when I included as many women with malnourished children as I could in the women’s soymilk cooperative while still making a profit, and my counterpart told me I’m selfish for not giving soymilk away for free. I try to realize where they’re all coming from. It was only a minority who complained. I know that to many people in my community, I'm basically Bill Gates. But still, the feeling of being unappreciated can be really emotionally exhausting day after day.

           Last Wednesday, I was convinced I was on the next plane out of Rwanda. I’d been really, really sick for two days. I found little bites on my legs in the next morning, and found that fleas or bed bugs had invaded my room. Fantastic.
I boiled a bunch of water and threw everything into some buckets to soak while I went to check on the women’s soymilk cooperative at the health center. The soymilk materials are kept in a locked room at our health center, and only three coworkers have a key to it. About a month ago, 20,000 francs (about $35) worth of sugar, as well as some other materials, went missing from the locked room. Naturally, I was furious. When I questioned my counterpart and my other coworkers who have a key, none of them would confess to having stolen the supplies. Which made me even angrier. With no other choice, I ended up paying for the sugar and stolen materials out of my own stipend.

Fast forward to Wednesday, and my counterpart showed up an hour late to work, which meant that the women couldn’t get into the storage room to get the supplies. As the women started to set up, Mama Benitta asked where the pestles were. I felt a pit in my stomach as we searched the supply closet, and found only one (we usually have five). It was the second time in a month someone has stolen materials from us. Cue mental meltdown. I just couldn’t handle one more obstacle. Not now. I was done. I wanted to crawl back in my bed and wake up in America.

hot springs!
          But that afternoon, some members of my adult community English class had invited me on a little field trip to the Cimerwa hot springs, about an hour away from my site. Japhet, who manages the fair trade coffee cooperative in my village, offered to drive. I instantly felt better as we all bumped down the dusty road sitting in the back of his beat-up Land Cruiser. The hot springs were beautiful, and as we walked around the little lake crowded with bathing Rwandans, my site mate Tim and I joked around, and I forgot all about the morning’s problems.
       That evening, we had a little party at Japhet’s house, since one of my students, Jean, just learned that he has an opportunity to attend university in Kigali, and another one of my students, also named Jean, just finished his degree in conflict resolution at a university in the DR Congo. Tim and I cooked “American food” (in this case, fried rice and bread pudding), and it was so gratifying to share a meal with them, even if the fried rice was closer to mush drenched in soy sauce.

Afterward, in traditional Rwandan fashion, my students all gave speeches. Jean-the one who just finished university in the Congo- gave a speech that almost brought me to tears. He just thanked me for teaching the free class, because he could otherwise not afford to study English. He said that I gave him hope for his future, and confidence that he could find a job to support his family. And in that moment, it was all enough. I was enough. None of the rest of the crap I’d gone through that week mattered. His five-minute speech filled me up to the brim.

my students :)
I felt such immense gratitude to all of my students for their eagerness to learn, and the opportunity I’d been given for good conversations and cultural exchange. I wish I could tell Jean just how much his kind words meant to me. I’m going to hang on to those five minutes for those moments that I feel terribly inadequate, when I wonder what the heck I’m even doing here. Because I’m sure those feelings will come back. But now I'm ready to go and face it all again.

16 months in Rwanda. I’m still here. 
And Peace Corps is still worth it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Primus Guma Guma Superstar

            Every year for the past three years, Primus, one of Rwanda’s beers, hosts an American Idol-like music competition called Primus Guma Guma Superstar. “Guma Guma” means “Stay, Stay” in Kinyarwanda, although in this context, it usually means “stay and drink.” Primus selects 10 abastari of the Rwandan music scene to be in the competition every year, and then they perform at concerts all around the country. Rwandans can vote by text for their favorite, and then the top 5 singers advance to the final.

            I’m constantly surrounded by Rwandan music. It streams from shops lining the streets of my village, it blasts from the stereos of buses crammed with people, and it plays from cellphone speakers everywhere. Current Rwandan music often relies heavily on auto-tune, and the singers have some pretty awesome names: King James, Tom Close, Meddy, Kitoko, JayPolly, Super Level, Miss JoJo. The competitors in this year’s Primus Guma Guma Superstar were Mico Prosper, Christopher, Danny, Bulldog, Eric Senderi, Fireman, Riderman, Kamichi, Knowless, Urban Boys, and Dream Boyz.

            I went to my first Primus Guma Guma Superstar (abbreviated to PGGSS) show in Kigali several weeks ago. There were hundreds of (mostly young) Rwandans there. Some carried signs supporting their favorite singer, and vendors sold little bracelets with the names of the abastari on them. Some friends, my brother, and I got into the VIP area, with the perks of free Primus and excellent views of the stage.

           After two months of more concerts around the country, the final concert was held in Kigali on August 10. The competition had been narrowed down to five finalists: Mico, Knowless, Dream Boyz, Urban Boyz, and Riderman. The event was held at Rwanda’s national stadium in Kigali, Stade Amahoro (or “Peace Stadium”). I arrived a little late, and the stadium was packed. It was amazing to see so many Rwandans, who are often somewhat reserved, completely letting loose and enjoying themselves.

         Primus Guma Guma Superstar is always a popular event among Peace Corps volunteers, and this year was no exception. Unfortunately, our good time was marred by a string of thefts at the event—which apparently happened last year as well. This year, two Peace Corps volunteers lost iphones, and two had their wallets stolen. One of my friends was able to track her phone, but when she went to the police station and showed them that she knew where it was, the police demanded that she pay 20,000 francs, and then they refused to leave their office because it was the weekend. Not cool.
        My friend Alex and I headed up to the front near the stage to dance and enjoy the show. At the end of the show, they announced the winners, starting with number 5 to build up the drama. Riderman was eventually crowned the 2013 Primus Guma Guma Superstar, which also earned him 24 million Rwandan francs and some promotion deals. Fireworks went off, some Rwandans threw their cups of beer up in the air in celebration, and a kid next to us actually got down on his knees and thanked God for crowning Riderman the champion. Talk about dedicated fans…

       I was expecting Riderman to play a whole concert after winning the title, but he played one or two songs and then exited stage left. In America, musicians usually play at least one encore, so I thought he’d come back on stage. But nope, he was finished playing for the night, likely due to Kigali’s rather strict noise ordinances (11 pm!). As the stadium began to clear out, I thought about the fact that probably very few people in America (besides the Rwandan diaspora) had ever listened to any of the Rwandan musicians that played in the concert. American music is really popular here, and the students in my clubs know the lyrics to songs by Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Rihanna, and even Dolly Parton (!) by heart (even if they don't always understand what the words mean). American culture can sometimes be a one-way street, exporting our movies, music, and culture to other countries, while their means of cultural expression never reach our eyes or ears.

"Turi Kumwe" means "We are Together" in Kinyarwanda
So in the name of cultural exchange, here’s a small sampling of some popular Rwandan songs for your listening pleasure!* 

Video Footage of Primus Guma Guma Superstar 3:

Rwandan hits:
Kina Music All Stars, "Kanda Amazi":
King James, "Pala Pala":
Kitoko, "Akabuto":
Meddy, "Oya ma":
Riderman, "Bombori Bombori":
Knowless, "Nzabampari"
Urban Boyz, "Kelele" :

And some popular African hits:
P-Square (from Nigeria): "Alingo":
P-Square, "Chop My Money":
Fuse ODG, (British of Ghanaian descent) "Antenna":
Fuse ODG, "Azonto":
Kigoma All-Stars (from Tanzania ), "Leka Dutigite":

*I tried to find videos that were PG rated or just audio. Some are the original music video, some are not; if you want to see the original music videos, I'm sure youtube can help you with that.