Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Favorite Part of Peace Corps

       Last month was my region’s GLOW Camp, or Girls Leading Our World (we held our inaugural BE Camp, or Boys Excelling Camp in August). Peace Corps Volunteers run BE Camps for teenage boys, and GLOW Camps for teenage girls across the world, and the camps are my favorite part of Peace Corps. They are exhausting, exciting, and they really make an impact.

            The camps are generally funded by PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). They focus on youth empowerment, leadership, life skills, and preventing HIV/AIDS. We also had an emphasis on preventing malaria, as more people died in my district, Rusizi, than in any other district in Rwanda in 2011. Although camps come in every shape and form in the U.S., camps are not a common occurrence at all in Rwanda.

            This year, each volunteer in my region selected 10 boys or 10 girls from their school to come to our BE Camp or GLOW Camp, for a total of 50 campers, and then we had 10 Rwandan Junior Facilitators who helped us Peace Corps Volunteers lead the lessons. Each day was filled with games, lessons, and activities. We had a Jeopardy game, tie-dying, and a Field Day Competition, including three legged races, a sack race, and tug-of-war (the girls particularly loved our arm-wrestling contest!).

The youth attended sessions on goal setting, saving money, resisting peer pressure, being a leader, role models, HIV/AIDS, gender roles, and a career panel. We used activities, skits, and games to teach and make the lessons fun, instead of just writing on the board and having the students copy it down, a practice that's all too common in Rwandan schools.

            Our campers named their groups whatever they wanted. We ended up having the following groups at BE Camp: Fire, Super Power, the Special Ones, the Holy Eagles, and the Winners. The girls came up with Supergirls, Alike, Bright, Winners, and Eagles. They all came up with their own cheers, which would be shouted at any available moment. I led the Supergirls group, and we would shout "SUPER SUPER SUPER GIRLS! SUPER SUPER SUPER GIRLS!" at the top of our lungs multiple times a day, which left me hoarse by the end of camp.

We hung up signs with role models of peace and social justice that spanned the spectrum of religious leaders, political leaders, authors, and celebrities: Archbishop Tutu, Chinua Achebe, Martin Luther King, Jr, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Oprah Winfrey, Rwanda's Minister of Health, Dr. Agnes Bingwaho, and others.

        We also had HIV/AIDS skits, where several featured topics that probably wouldn’t come up in a similar camp in the United States, like Sugar Daddies and Sugar Mommies (adults who pay school fees or give gifts to youth in return for sex), unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence in Rwanda, and witch doctors who offer “cures” for HIV/AIDS or malaria. At our GLOW Camp, I was shocked to learn about the prevalence of sexual violence, coercion, and double standards in the girls' lives. The girls in our group expressed sadness about the "boys will be boys" attitude that prevails here, and the casual acceptance of men using prostitutes (apparently, even in secondary school). They were even more frustrated by their perceived powerlessness to change the system. I think one of the most important lessons we taught at our camps is that attitudes and cultures do change, and youth can be a part of that change. 

               At the end of the camp, the teens made action plans on how they were going to educate others about leadership, preventing HIV/AIDS, and malaria. Many of them are forming health and leadership clubs at their schools, with both male and female members. Peer education at its best!

            I thought a lot about the differences of our Rwandan BE Camp and the two summer camps I worked at in the U.S. For the most part, I realized teenagers are the same everywhere. They can be hilariously immature, awkward, and self-conscious, but still completely earnest. We made a question box where the campers could ask us anything they wanted to know. (One of the questions we got was, “What if you love a girl and she doesn’t love you back? Or what if a girl likes you and you don’t want her?” Ah, teenage love.) The youth had A LOT of questions, and I was happy that we created a safe space for them for questions they couldn’t ask anyone else and where they wouldn’t be judged.

            The camps also made me realize how many intangible things I took for granted. I grew up never contemplating taking a Sugar Daddy to pay my school tuition because I would be forced to drop out without the money, or becoming a prostitute because my family is starving and I have no other options. Economic circumstances often force people into choices they wouldn't make otherwise, and to have that choice is a moral luxury. At home, I received nothing but encouragement from my parents to be whatever I wanted to be, and to be the best at it. I never even considered that there might be something I couldn't do because I'm a girl.

I took for granted the fact that I grew up with an amazing role model at home, my Mom. She broke down barriers by becoming one of few female doctors in her medical school class, and who worked as an emergency room doctor while taking care of 4 kids, volunteering at our church and schools, and "leaning in" before Sheryl Sandberg was even born. Moreover, I grew up thinking these attitudes and support were normal. My experiences outside of the US have shown me that they are the exception, not the rule. 

            I really wish every kid in Rwanda got to attend a BE or GLOW Camp. Seeing the youth (who were already selected for being leaders at their schools) go from day one of camp to the final day, really empowered to make a difference at their schools and in their communities, gave me goosebumps. Our GLOW Camp ended with the girls cheering, "We are strong! We are girls! We are leading our world!" as the packed into buses to return home. If our campers have anything to do with it, Rwanda's future will be a bright one.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Uganda vs. Rwanda: My Trip Across the Border

            A month ago I got the chance to visit my third African country: Uganda! I took the GRE and then immediately headed to Lake Bunyoni, a beautiful lake just across the border, with my friend and (former) Peace Corps sitemate Tim, stayed with my friend Brittani outside of Kampala, and went whitewater rafting in Jinja and saw my friend Greg, both Notre Dame friends. It was an amazing time.

Byoona Amagara
            Lake Bunyoni was just four hours north of Kigali, and it was a great first stop. The lake is dotted with little islands and a few places to stay, ranging from budget eco-camps to a swanky resort. We stayed at a beautiful place called Byoona Amagara on Itambira Island, and I kept pinching myself over what a good deal it was. There were beautiful geodomes to stay in, although we slept in the dorms, which were slightly cheaper. Tim and I stayed there two and a half days, swimming, reading on the beautiful deck, playing cards, and trying as many of the cheap and delicious menu items as our budgets and stomachs would allow.

We met up with two really nice Ugandan Peace Corps Volunteers, one who was lucky enough to live on another island in Lake Bunyoni. It was fun swapping stories and comparing Peace Corps experiences in our two countries. I think in the end, we found that the grass is always greener on the other side. 

            The lake was filled with locals gracefully maneuvering their dugout wooden canoes through the steely water, and Tim and I decided to give it a try. Though both of us were far from experts, we’d been canoeing before, and besides, the locals made it look so easy! Big mistake. We tried in vain to reach the next island, about 100 yards away, for about two hours before giving up and commencing happy hour. No matter what we did, we couldn’t get the devil canoe to move in a straight line, and we ended up doing “muzungu corkscrews” in the middle of the lake the entire time. It was a challenge just making it back to the dock. But then, back up on the big deck with cold drinks in our hands, we had the pleasure of watching other hapless tourists do the same thing. Satisfaction.

Oh, you wanted me to paddle instead of take pictures? Sorry, Tim. 
            Another group of Rwanda volunteers met us at Byoona Amagara, and we all spent a day swimming, sunbathing, and practicing our dives off the dock. Another PCV and I decided to swim to the island Tim and I had failed to canoe to, though the water was cold and an ominous sign posted on the dock warned about wandering too far from shore and that two guests had died swimming there a couple years ago. Danger, schmanger.

Undeterred, Lauren and I began making our way across the lake. It went well until we came close to our destination island, and realized there wasn’t really a beach or clearing we could swim up to; we’d have to wade through some reeds where anything could be lurking. We had been told there were no crocodiles or hippos in the lake, but still. If there were any, this is where they would be, and the just the thought was mildly terrifying.
As we got closer to the shore, it became extremely muddy. The thick mud oozed up to our knees, and I silently prayed that my personal nemesis, snakes, weren’t hanging around. We rested on the shore for awhile, chatted up a curious young farmer who lived on the island while standing in our now-muddy swimsuits, and then headed back. Our new friend nicely offered to take us out in his boat just past the reeds, thus avoiding the muddy area and an untimely death. By the time we swam back to the other side, we were both pretty tired, and it was time to partake in what quickly became my favorite pastime at Byoona Amagara: eating. I was particularly obsessed with the crayfish avocado, a massive pitted avocado stuffed with what can only be described as heavenly goodness. Since everything was half the price of food in Rwanda, I happily treated myself to one…or two…every day.

Our two and half days went by too quickly, and Tim and I were off to our next stop: Kabale. Given our all-too-recent defeat at canoeing in a straight line, we decided to let one of the Byoona Amagara professionals get us to land in a small motorboat. Dark, menacing clouds were rolling in quickly, and Tim and I congratulated ourselves on our great timing. We’d make it to shore just in time! Well, turns out estimating anything when it comes to boats just isn’t our thing, and we got caught in a massive rainstorm. Our boat captain finally pulled over at another island, and we hid under the roof of a little shed until the storm finally passed.

We were soaked from head to toe, and I shivered all of the way to Kabale, a small city about forty minutes from Lake Bunyoni in a taxi shared with two European girls we had met at Byoona Amagara. We stayed at a place called Home of Edirisa, a social enterprise and cultural center, complete with a museum (that we forgot to visit). When we arrived, it was still raining, and the electricity was off for several hours. We all changed into dry clothes, and I wanted nothing more than a hot shower. Their menu offered cheap cocktails, and we decided that would be the best way to warm up, but after finding out they were missing almost all of the necessary ingredients, Tim and I headed out into the rain again to exchange some money.
If a building and a dalmatian had a child, this would be the result.
Perhaps the strangest part of being in Uganda was that it felt both more developed than Rwanda and less developed than Rwanda. Kabale was bustling, with various stores and banks, and cars and motos and bicycle taxis clogging the dirty streets. When Tim and I walked into a small grocery store, we were astounded at the huge variety of products you could buy; things that would be only be available at a few expat stores in Kigali: fish sauce and spices. Twenty varieties of mayonnaise and mustard. Cheese and snack foods. At the same time, all of the roads were in terrible condition. Buildings often seemed to be in disrepair, and trash littered the landscape. More people seemed to go barefoot than in Rwanda.

When we got back, the electricity came on, which made the Home of Edirisa much cheerier. After a good meal and some reading, we all headed to bed. The next day, we caught the Posta Bus to Kampala at 7 am. I intermittently slept, read, had my fill of the street food people were selling whenever we’d stop, and just watched the landscape start to change outside the window from green rolling hills and banana trees, like Rwanda, to grassy plains and pastures to drier steppe. I felt a little tinge of homesickness for Nebraska at certain points, as herds of cows grazed on land that could have been from a postcard of my home state.

Our crowded bus rumbled on, reaching Kampala about nine or ten hours later. My friend Brittani met us at the main post office, and we headed to her house outside Kampala, eager to get away from the constant honking, noise, and pollution of the city center.

           After a delicious and cheap Ethiopian dinner (ethnic cuisine is basically limited to Kigali in Rwanda, and it’s generally expensive), we turned in early. The next day was the thing I was both most excited for and most scared about: rafting the Nile.

                  The next morning, we work up early to catch the Nile River Explorers bus to Jinja, on the headwaters of the Nile. 

We registered, had a brief safety briefing, and then we were off, eating our breakfast in a bouncy open-air bus. Before I knew it, we were on a raft in the Nile, our Ugandan guide in the back.

While I was certainly nervous in the beginning (ahem, the possibility of hippos and crocodiles), we all had a really great time, alternating between sets of rapids and slower periods.

 At a few points, we even got out of the boat and just let the gentle current pull us down river. And other times, I was mildly scared for my life. On the plus side, my screams probably scared away all of the crocodiles.

That evening, we went to a camp up on a hill and watched the sun set over the Nile. We had dinner, and then we all went down to the docks on the river at night with my friend Greg, talking and listening to the sounds of the water and various creatures out at night. It was an unforgettable day.

           My last day in the short trip involved buying a few souvenirs in Jinja, saying a final goodbye to Tim as he began his long trip back to America, and then catching the bus back to my home sweet home in the Land of a Thousand Hills. 

            Throughout the trip, I kept mentally comparing Uganda and Rwanda. Here’s the lowdown:

Street Food
One of the most joyful differences that I discovered in between Uganda and Rwanda is that in Uganda, eating outside or in public is not only allowed, it’s embraced! In Rwanda, public eating is taboo, for reasons that still remain a mystery to me. I’ve been told that it’s just not civilized to eat anywhere but at a table, and also that it’s rude to eat in front of others when you’re not sharing with them, especially since many people might be going hungry. In Rwanda, you will usually see some vendors selling the same three or four food items in buckets around bus stations: amandazi (balls of fried dough), sambusas (little fried triangles stuffed with meat or potatoes), chapatti (a flatbread, usually stale), hardboiled eggs, and maybe some buckets of fruit. It's generally eaten in buses, quietly in a corner, or inside. 
But in Uganda, I was happily surrounded a huge variety of street food: women carrying buckets of swollen mangoes and a knife, ready to slice you open one of them for a few shillings, fresh jackfruit, hot chapattis, and more. Tim and I joked that it felt like being in Disneyland every time our bus would pull over for gas or to pick up new passengers, as vendors selling everything I’d want to eat stormed the windows of our bus, and we gladly handed over a few shillings for fresh concord grapes (!), chapattis...
fresh chapatti
 There was also a new-to-me Ugandan specialty called the Rolex. Not to be confused with the overpriced watch, Ugandan Rolexes are basically an egg burrito sandwich: a hot, fresh chapatti, a thin omelette, and whatever vegetables or other toppings are thrown in. They were everywhere, delicious, and cheap. It’s a trend I wish would spread to Rwanda asap.
Advantage: Uganda

In general, I found Ugandans to be much more outgoing and friendly than Rwandans. I barely got any “Muzungu!” calls, and people were extremely helpful. In Rwanda, when you’re a Muzungu, you get stared at A LOT. Even in Kigali. I felt joyfully anonymous in Uganda (it sounds ridiculous, but come to my village for awhile and you’ll understand what I mean). True, we visited tourist destinations, but having visited all the main tourist attractions in Rwanda, I still felt the difference. It’s hard to pinpoint reasons why. At first, I thought it might be being able to speak English again, but I speak French, Kinyarwanda, and English, and it had to be more than just the language difference. There was a vibrancy and energy to the country that felt different from Rwanda. 

Two particular examples of Ugandans’ friendliness stick out in my mind. Firstly, when I was stuffing my face with all of the street food that I can’t get in Rwanda on the bus, one of the vendors tried to rip me off. The Ugandan woman in front of me simply told me how much the grapes I was trying to buy were. When I told the vendor the price, he reduced the price slightly. The woman sitting in front of me then told him, “She’s not paying a cent more than I would pay”, and then got my grapes for me. As someone who has bought food at markets and ridden public transportation almost exclusively for the past year and a half in Rwanda, I have a very hard time picturing this happening in Rwanda, even with no language barrier. I mean, it took me a year and half not to be ripped off on buying limes in my village, and that was a huge accomplishment.

When our bus was going through Kampala and I needed to call my friend Brittani, but had no way to do so, the Ugandan man behind me on the bus generously offered the use of his cell phone multiple times, which I gratefully took. When I tried to give him some shillings as a thank-you, he seemed shocked that I would try to repay his kindness, and politely turned down my offer.
In Rwanda, one of the hardest things for me to get used to was the tit-for-tat mentality that pervades many, but not all, relationships in my village. If a friend invites you over for tea, it might mean that expect you to pay their children’s school fees. If someone helps you to find a distant local government office, a five-minute walk from their house, they expect compensation. The idea of doing things for free seems a bit foreign. I asked the students in my community English about my experience in Uganda, and they agreed: Rwandans, for the most part, are more reserved than other East Africans. I suspect that this introversion has a lot to do with Rwanda’s history, and things might change more as 1994 becomes more and more distant. 
Advantage: Uganda


As soon as Tim and I crossed the border into Uganda, one of the first differences I noticed was the traffic. For one, the motorcycle drivers, called boda-bodas in Uganda, weren’t wearing helmets and little vests like in Rwanda. Sometimes there were three or four fully grown people on a single moto, and the women frequently rode side-saddle. In Rwanda, the government mandates a helmet for both the driver and the passenger. Thumbs up for safety. And also, riding side-saddle on a speeding motorcycle sounds terrible.

Once we got closer to Kampala, we got caught in a HUGE traffic jam. The traffic in Kampala was unrelenting. Drivers paid little or no attention to either traffic lights or the traffic police, who were busy texting on their phones, seemingly oblivious to the massive jam of buses, taxis, trucks, motos, bicycles, and pedestrians clogging every single potholed intersection, horns blaring. I think my blood pressure went up a few points every minute, and I longed for the calm, orderly flow of traffic in Rwanda.
Advantage: Rwanda

Perhaps one of the most noticeable differences was the environment. In Rwanda, things are kept very clean all of the time. You rarely see trash, there are street cleaners, and in rural areas, people even meticulously sweep dirt roads. Kigali is practically pristine, with miles of nice sidewalks and well-paved roads. Kampala was the complete opposite. Kampala is several times Rwanda’s size, and it has the pollution, industries, open sewer grates, and trash to prove it. We even saw some graffiti, something that’s almost unthinkable in Rwanda.

In small towns we passed in Uganda, small shacks lined the streets, selling food, tools, furniture, housing materials, and various other things. Vendors often kept their wares outside on the ground. It was like one big, open air market. It’s generally the opposite in Rwanda. Vendors may put a couple of things outside to show what they have, but for the most part, the goods are kept inside the buildings. Also, Rwanda bans plastic bags to help protect the environment; people use either paper or reusable bags. So, all of this means that there’s a lot more everything in Uganda. But, I guess I’m getting old because I prefer the smaller, cleaner, and perhaps more boring Rwanda.
Advantage: Rwanda

In Rwanda, I rarely worry about my safety. There are guards posted on every other street corner in Kigali, and I feel comfortable walking around, even at night or by myself. I personally have never had anything stolen or pick-pocketed (although other Peace Corps Volunteers have gotten things stolen). Unrelenting silent stares are more common than any kind of harassment or cat-calling.

In Uganda, I felt slightly less at ease. My friend Brittani was almost pick-pocketed on the street. Men would often say things like, “Hey baby” as I walked by. The crowds often pressed close, and I was glad I wore a money belt. 
Advantage: Rwanda


And last but not least, Uganda is incredibly cheap compared to Rwanda. It took awhile to get used to converting the francs and shillings, but we happily found that most things in Uganda were half the price of things in Rwanda. Good meals could be had for only a few dollars in Uganda. Granted, the favorable conversion rate could cause you to spend twice as much money in your excitement….
Advantage: Uganda

The score:
Uganda: 3
Rwanda: 3

I guess I'll just have to make a second trip as a tie-breaking round....

Trip details:
Bus from Kigali to Katuna (just across the border): 1,500 francs, about 2 hours
Taxi from Katuna to Lake Bunyoni: about 40 minutes, we paid 40,000 shillings, but were told we got ripped off. But, when you’re a muzungu and don’t know the local language, sometimes that’s the lowest the taxi cab drivers will go.
Posta bus from Kabale to Kampala: 25,000 shillings, about 8-9 hours
Jaguar Executive Bus from Kampala to Kigali: 9-10 hours, 45,000 shillings
Room at Home of Edirisa, in Kabale town: 12,000 shillings for a dorm bed
Full day of rafting with Nile River Explorers: $115 with a Peace Corps discount