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.

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