Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Visit to the DR Congo, Part Un

I'm catching up on blogs I meant to write but never had the chance to put into words the past few months. I've found that I don't have quite the amount of blogging time I had in my Peace Corps days ;)

We’re presented with a lot of stereotyped images of Africa in western media. Perhaps the country whose image has been reduced most is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC. News coverage of the DRC in the west inevitably focuses on four things: poverty, conflict/conflict minerals, rape and gender-based violence, and the Heart of Darkness. Every single time. Each article, no matter the source, reads something like “the DRC… the poorest country of the world….sexual violence….militias….the Kivus…. Mr. Kurtz…maybe mention the country's former dictator Mobutu for good measure.

It’s not that those things aren’t important to report on, but when that’s the only thing that’s ever written about, you begin to automatically, and often unfairly, associate those things with one another. The fourth most populous country in Africa, with 242 spoken languages, the size of Western Europe is suddenly reduced to poverty, conflict, rape, and some European guy travelling up the Congo river. 

In the words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her excellent TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story":"If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner...The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

I remember the first time I set eyes on Congo, on my way to my Peace Corps site two and a half years ago. Given the single-story news reporting on the DRC and its place as second to last on the UN's Human Development Index, I expected to see the Congo side practically in flames. I was surprised instead to see huge mansions and big boats across Lake Kivu. My curiosity with Congo had begun. 

I spent my service staring at the Congo mountains at my Peace Corps site, forbidden by Peace Corps rules from crossing over to the country formerly known as Zaire. Since my town was in a border region, many people would go to visit friends and family in the city across the border, Bukavu, and lots of people from my village had spent time in Congo in refugee camps after the genocide. My current house is just minutes from the border. When I finished my Peace Corps service, I knew I wanted to see it, even a tiny piece, for myself. When my roommate, who started a youth center in Bukavu with her husband, offered to show me around the city, I jumped at the chance.

I exchanged some Rwandan francs for Congolese francs. The bills were dirty and sometimes torn; I asked for different bills at the currency exchange, but the owner laughed at me and said all of his bills were like that. I crossed the border easily on a rickety wooden bridge over the Rusizi River, and the differences between Rwanda and Congo were readily apparent. Strict litter laws and a ban on plastic bags keep Rwanda’s rolling green hills pretty pristine. Right across the border, empty bottles and biscuit wrappers covered the dusty roads. Congolese police and soldiers, in their worn bluish-grey fatigues, often stood around smoking a cigarette or chatting with other soldiers.

The border was bustling, with sturdy women carrying pounds of tropical fruit in woven baskets on their heads and a mix of languages—Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili, French, and others I didn’t recognize in the air. The line on the Congolese immigration side was incredibly long, and seemed to be moving at barely a snail’s pace. I asked the man in front of me in line why, and he responded that the immigration officials didn’t have any pens, so they couldn’t sign anyone’s documents. We waited and waited.  I seemed to be the only person tremendously annoyed by the fact that no one seemed to be in any rush to find a pen. Eventually someone brought a Bic and the three immigration officials inside shared the one pen, and the line inched slowly forward. 

After getting my card stamped, I found a shared taxi outside the immigration office that would take me to meet my roommate, on one of Bukavu’s many peninsulas that protrude in Lake Kivu. The road through the streets of Bukavu was thrillingly different from riding through Kigali, and it reminded more of Kampala. Vendors lined the streets, selling their wares, music blared, and stores were often brightly painted with images of the contents of their store and featured French writing. 

I met my roommate at the Bukavu Cathedral, a beautiful old church that serves as an easy landmark. A wedding was happening inside the blue-roofed church, and a few people were praying outside in the garden overlooking the lake. It was a peaceful oasis in the midst of the bustling city. It was hard to imagine from the calm of the garden that eighteen years ago the Archbishop of Bukavu was assassinated and left for dead in the streets during the Congo Wars that killed millions.

Lora and I took a walk near Lake Kivu, which separates Rwanda and the DRC. I marveled at the houses that seemed to be built right on top of each other. We wandered through twisting dirt streets and sometimes cut in between properties to get where we wanted to go. Cars that passed us were frequently white Land Cruisers, proudly bearing their NGO's logo on all sides, UN vehicles shepherding groups of blue helmet soldiers around the city, and crammed minibuses and taxis pausing often to collect more passengers.

Eventually we arrived at the youth center started by Lora and her husband Chris, inside a massive but crumbling post office. Unlike Rwanda, which was first a German colony and then a Belgian colony but lacks many lasting visible vestiges of the colonial regime, several large, dilapidated buildings in Bukavu including schools, private residences, and government buildings constantly reminded me of Congo's brutal former colonizer.

The post office was gigantic, the size a football field or larger with a central courtyard in the middle. Rows of empty metal postal boxes lined the outside of the building; the post office hadn't functioned in years and the small metal doors to the boxes had been stolen in the idle period.

We climbed the stairs to the second floor, where several different businesses including a radio station, a recording studio, and a law office had been established in various wings. Lora and I passed by a portion of the building that had been boarded up because of a fire and then paused at one of the corners. Below us was a grand entrance hall to the post office, its greenish paint and a bit of art deco ornamentation still visible under a patina of dust. Though some of the windows had been shattered, but the building still retained a sense of elegance to me. It was like being in a real life museum. I tried to imagine what the post office must have looked like when it was first built: people waiting in line for their letter from far away, mail clerks in the back room sorting through newly-arrived packages. I wondered when the post office had finally closed, and when it would re-open.

Lora and I proceeded on to the youth center, where a music concert was about to begin. Some youth were already sitting on the wooden benches when we arrived. Eventually all of the seats were filled, with teenagers and some families who had come to watch the performance. The theme of "Women" was set in advance, and the artists and musicians had tailored their pieces to match the theme. In French, Swahili, and a couple other languages I couldn't discern, the musicians sang so beautifully I got goosebumps. Unlike the audience in most concerts I've been to in Rwanda, the attendees cheered and whooped and clapped enthusiastically throughout the show.

There was one performance that still stands out my head: a young Congolese girl of perhaps fourteen came in with several sisters and her mother, each one dressed to the nines. Her mother was regal, with smooth skin and a colorful outfit. When she smiled, a gap revealed where one tooth had been removed. Her teenage daughter was wearing a cobalt blue dress and glasses. While the family sat together in the audience waiting for her turn, the girl played nervously with the hem of her dress and tapped her feet, while her mother rubbed her back assuringly. When it was the girl's time to sing, she removed her glasses, took her place on stage, and transformed from awkward teenager to queen diva. Her voice was strong and confident. There was so much energy in that little room you could have bottled it.

It was my first day spent in one city, in only one of the DRC's eleven provinces, South Kivu. It would be like visiting only Brooklyn in the U.S. I'm the furthest thing from an expert on the country. But I felt that in the smallest of ways, I began to see something other than the Single Story of Congo presented to Americans. There was beauty on those crowded peninsulas sticking out into the blue waters of Lake Kivu and on the bustling streets and in the peeling walls of the cathedral. There was an energy in the Congolese rhumba blasting out of taxis and shops and a vibrancy in the beautiful kitenge fabric fashions worn by women on the dusty streets. It would be only a few more weeks before I made my second visit to Africa's second largest country.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Motorcycle Rides at Night

            It’s 11:36 pm and my mind is still racing from the day, from agendas and deadlines and the well-worn routines of my life. I dial one of a handful of numbers to get my fix. I need to fulfill my daily wonder quota—to stand in awe of how crazy and lovely, bizarre and beautiful this world is, each and every day. I have an unquenchable desire to fulfill the wildest parts of me, to get out of my own head, and to keep feeding whatever brought me to Africa in the first place. People find a million different ways to feel liberation; my chosen method is the night motorcycle ride.

            The first number I call returns only a busy signal. Onto the next one. My fingers scroll through the list of my trusted contacts in my phone, and the closest thing to a therapist I have in this country: my night time moto drivers. On the sixth ring, Claude finally picks up, and his voice is groggy; it’s clear that my phone call woke him up. But he promises to be at my house in ten minutes; he knows I pay well for disturbing his slumber.
            I walk outside onto my porch. The Rwandan night air is cool, and it still smells like the rainstorm earlier in the evening. I tap my fingers nervously on the balcony, waiting for him to show up. I wrap a scarf around my neck and tie it tightly in preparation of what is to come. After what seems like ages, I see Claude’s motorcycle headlights beaming up our driveway. I quickly lock the door, put the key in my pocket, and head down to meet him.
            I exchange Kinyarwanda greetings with Claude and lean in to gauge whether he’s been drinking. His breath is rancid but there’s no trace of alcohol on it, so I jump on the back of his gaudily decorated motorcycle, and we start off down the rocky road that leads to my house.
            “Where to this time?” Claude asks, unsure of whether to turn left or right at the intersection. “Bugarama,” I decide. We hit the paved road, and my tightly-woven mind begins to unwind.
            We pass the border with Congo, which is strangely silent and empty at this time of night. During the day it’s the exact opposite: the streets are bustling with traders, UN soldiers, trucks, motos, and NGO cars going to and from Rwanda. The twinkling lights of Bukavu stretch over the rolling hills for miles and halfway up the steep mountains that frame the city.
            Claude dodges potholes near the tea fields; the motor alternates between humming and spluttering loudly. Somehow I’ve gotten used to it; it’s my white noise on these trips. We begin to climb, up and up, until I’m hugging my scarf around my body and the wind is whipping through the half of my ponytail sticking out of my helmet. The lights of Bukavu have faded into the distance, and it’s almost pitch black now. The motorcycle’s headlights cut through the darkness like a knife, illuminating a few meters in front of us at a time. As we pass through villages lining the road, the smell of cooking fires fills my nostrils, and scratchy radio music (sometimes Rwandan gospel music, sometimes Congolese rhumba) reaches my ears, and then drifts off again as we pass through.
            I zone out completely, and before I know it we’ve zoomed through my old Peace Corps site; the little village where I experienced so many trials and tribulations but so much joy for two years of my life. I think about the nuns, resting from their day’s labor at the health center and the school, and little D’Assisi, hopefully sleeping soundly in his little bed in the pajamas he’s long outgrown. Every time I ride through I’m so tempted to stop at the convent, just to kiss his tiny forehead and give him a hug and apologize for not being around as much as I want to be. Even though I live forty-five minutes away, I bitterly miss getting to read him bedtime stories at night and tucking him into bed.
            I know I can’t stop and wake him, and the moto carries on. We’ve reached the pinnacle, and Claude turns off the engine to save on petrol. It’s all-downhill from here until the Rusizi plain at the border with Congo and Burundi; the only sound now is of the wheels running smoothly over the pavement. The temperature begins to warm as the elevation lessens, and I loosen by iron grip on my scarf. It’s too dark to see them now, but I know palm trees begin to dot the rolling landscape that leads to the vast green rice fields.
            We finally reach Bugarama, a small city on the border where the three countries meet. There are a few large freight trucks lining the streets, waiting until the border opens again in a few more hours. There are still people milling about in Bugarama, even at this time of the night. Claude asks to stop at one of the few small boutiques on the road to buy a bottle of petrol, despite the fact that I’ve told him to fill his tank before our journey. I don’t really have a choice, so he parks the bike and wanders into a one-room shop illuminated by a single flickering lightbulb. Claude comes out a few minutes later with a grubby bottle smelling like gasoline, although it’s undoubtedly mixed with water. He pours it in, returns the bottle to the shop, and starts the engine again for the return voyage.
            The return trip always seems ten times faster, and thoughts pass through my head in a blur. I wonder if I will get to accomplish all that I want to do in my life. I wonder if I’ll look back at these years when I’m old and wrinkled and see my life as a success or a disappointment. I wonder about my new life in Africa, and the old one I left behind in the U.S. I think about all the things I’m missing there: friends and family, birthdays and weddings and new babies and different jobs. I wonder how such a beautiful place as Rwanda could have experienced such unspeakable violence, how people I know and love here have harmed and healed, forgiven and failed to forgive. I wonder about the world, and I wonder if I’m doing enough. I ask myself all of these questions a hundred times, and I never seem to find the answers I’m looking for. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to these crazy, ill-advised nighttime moto rides.
            We travel the road I’ve travelled a hundred times, back through my Peace Corps site and on to my current home. Lake Kivu stretches before me, dark and vast and deep, and I feel at peace.
            There’s a Kinyarwanda proverb that says “God goes elsewhere during the day, but he stays in Rwanda at night.” Looking up at the dark night sky filled with a million glittering stars, I believe every word.


Friday, September 19, 2014


I’m 25 years old, and last month was the first time in my whole life I’ve lived alone. I’ve somehow managed to live with my own family (perhaps not very surprising), roommates and housemates of all walks of life in the US and Ireland, amazing host families in France, Costa Rica, and Rwanda, and survived life in a convent for the last two years at my Peace Corps site.

And here I am, at a quarter of century years old, living in a beautiful three-bedroom house on the shores of Lake Kivu, just me. I wasn’t sure how I would like it, and was slightly anxious about returning to an empty house after my trip home to America. Would I be lonely? How much food should I even cook for dinner?

            So far, so good. I might have gone a little crazy with the overwhelming sense of freedom. YOU GUYS, I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT. In the three weeks I’ve been living alone, I have slept in every bed in the house for no reason at all, done yoga in my kitchen, had solo dance parties, tried on all my clothes and put on a fashion show when I had insomnia at 3 am, and had nothing but popcorn for dinner more than once. Just because I can. (Well, for that last one it might have also been because I was too lazy to cook. But you get the picture). 

            There’s no one to stop me from spending an entire Sunday on my hammock on my front porch reading books and taking extending naps and gazing at the Congo mountains across Lake Kivu. I can put far too much salt in all my food and drink milk straight from the carton. I can make my bed and do the dishes if I want to, or not. I can save or spend my own money. I painted the walls of my house the exact colors I wanted, and I sing along to whatever song I want to sing at the top of my lungs. But there’s also no one to tell me to stop torturing myself with Top Chef reruns, ask how my day was when I get home, or nudge me to go for a morning run. It feels like my life is totally and completely in my hands. It’s all kind of…liberating.

            I've decided that 25 is a pretty great age to be in general. It's after acne but before wrinkles, after living in dorm rooms but before mortgages and decreasing property values. It's after the post-graduate depression subsides, but before I start worrying about whether I can afford to send my own kids to college. It's after I've stopped caring what judgments other people place on my body and started appreciating it for the amazing thing it is, but before it starts to break down and I start losing control of my bladder. It's after the zealous idealism and perhaps over-optimism of my teenage years have faded a bit, but before I start bemoaning why everything can't be like the good old days. I've settled in, but I haven't settled down.

It’s interesting to me how different cultures assign the word “adulthood” to various life milestones. In Rwanda, I’m still an “umukobwa”, or girl, until I get married, when I’ll be an “umugore”, a word that means both wife and woman in Kinyarwanda. You can have a job, have a house, and still be a girl here. In America, it seems far more ambiguous, and particularly for the millennial generation. Standard milestones that my grandparents had achieved by 25 (getting married, buying a house, and having babies) currently seem far off and much less salient for many millennials straddled with college debt and in a difficult job market.

I recently read an article that confirmed these suspicions. Titled "What Millenials Around the World Actually Look Like", it profiled young adults across the globe on what they see as adulthood. Some were forced to grow up at a young age, others are older than me and don't yet consider themselves adults. I particularly related to a young Australian woman (coincidentally also named Claire), who gave these responses:

I never felt like a real adult when I studied abroad, or graduated from college, or when I got my first job in Boston, or joined the Peace Corps. So I guess this is all to say that I finally feel like a real adult now.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Culture is Shocking: the 20 Weirdest Things I Readjusted to as an RPCV

This August, I went home for the first time in two years and three months, and what a wonderful, crazy time it was. I got to eat my fill of all the cheese I'd missed out on during that time, saw so many dear friends and family I've missed so much, and got to see my home country with a new set of eyes, as I'd never seen it before.

I'd been warned about intense reverse culture-shock from other RPCVs returning home, but it actually wasn't as overwhelming as I expected it to be; probably because I knew I'd be returning to Rwanda again.

In no particular order, here are the weirdest things I experienced on my three week sojourn back to the good old US of A:

1. Bathrooms that contain western toilets that always work, always have toilet paper, always have a sink with clean hot water, and soap. The fact that I could drink out of any sink without boiling and filtering the water first never got old. Plumbing is a modern miracle, y'all.

2. Anonymity. In Rwanda, especially in my small village, I'm never anonymous. My community members knew my name when I had no idea who they were, and even the most mundane activities were worthy of a long, drawn out stare or taking a terrible quality picture on their phone. People used to line up to watch me buy toilet paper. Even after two years of living in my village, mothers would still yell at their whole family to come out of the house and watch the white girl run by on my evening jog. The fact that I could go for a run and go shopping and just walk down the street without attracting stares in America was mind-blowingly awesome. I was just another face in the crowd instead of being a muzungu. The day after I landed in America, I went for a long run along the Atlantic ocean in New Hampshire wearing shorts (!!), and the sense of freedom that I felt at that moment, with the ocean crashing up against the sea wall and the salty wind in my hair, was overwhelming.

3. FOOD. Ohmygod, there are so many good things to eat in America. And you don't even have to wait two hours for it. As my mother and brother can attest, I went a little nuts on my first trip to an American grocery store. SWEET JESUS, THERE ARE FIFTY DIFFERENT KINDS OF SALAD DRESSING! I just walked each and every aisle, picking up all the unnecessary but amazing items you can find and just staring at it. After about two and a half hours and the world's largest grocery bill later, my family finally had to drag me out.
Food in Rwanda: plate of mashed boiled green bananas
Food in America: cheese for dayssss
4. Being able to eat in public. This is definitely a Rwanda-specific one, as the Land of a Thousand Hills is the only place I know where it's taboo to eat in public. Needless to say, I enjoyed picnics and al fresco dining aplenty here. Although it was still very, very strange to see Americans stuffing their faces while walking down the street without everyone else asking them to share.
5. PDA. The first hint that I was back in 'Murica was when I landed at the airport and saw people holding hands, kissing, and hugging. Out in the open. WHAT THE WHAT? In Rwanda, hand-holding is generally done between just men or just between women, and people don't really kiss in, say, the supermarket line. FREEDOM! 'MURICA!

6. The rush. Even though I was on vacation, I still sometimes felt hurried in a way that I rarely do in Rwanda (anyone who knows my family knows that being late for a dinner prepared by my Dad is basically a mortal sin). Of course, I have deadlines to make and buses to catch in Rwanda, but most of the time things happen at a fairly leisurely pace.

7. Pleasure. I never realized how much of American life is focused on pleasure and entertainment, for all of our senses. There are fleeting fireworks to watch, music to listen to, arcade games to play, ice cream to eat, perfumes and candles to smell, insanely comfortable beds to sleep in, sports and concerts to attend. It's not that the pleasure principle doesn't exist in Rwanda as well, it's just that you don't usually encounter them all at once, all the time.

What the heck is this? 
8. Convenience. Perhaps this goes along with the more rushed pace of life, but I couldn't get over how convenient everything was, and how America seems to be designed around that basic principle. You can literally not even get out of your car, go through a drive-thru, and have food in front of you in five minutes. There's remote control everything.

My beautiful hometown :)
9.  Individuality. I drove in a car BY MYSELF and it blew my mind. I slowly started to regain my personal bubble and started to not greet every single person when I walked into a store. You can be this little anonymous person in America, going about your own business, to an extent I didn't know was previously possible.

10. The internet. And cellphones. When I left for Rwanda, I never appreciated having fast internet in America. It was just there, it just existed, and I totally took it for granted. It's only after experiencing the pain of trying and failing to attach a document multiple times with glacially slow internet that I really appreciated America's insanely fast internet. Um, and when did 8 year olds get cellphones??

11. Shopping. Wait, there are multiple sizes of the same item of the clothing? There's a set price on everything? I don't have to bargain for these tomatoes? People do this as a leisure activity?

12. Speaking English again. I speak pretty good kinyarwanda, but I always have to focus a lot on the conversation, and there's no way I can listen to more than one conversation at once. It was kind of incredible to 100% understand everything that someone was saying to you, even at lightning speed, without any clarifications. There's no place like home, and there's nothing like your mother tongue.

13. Diversity. When I first got to Rwanda, it really used to bother me that my identity was reduced to the word "muzungu", which means both "rich person" and "white person." Even when people knew my name, I'd still be called muzungu. At one point I tried to explain to the nuns how much it bothered me when mothers would shake their babies awake to point at me or that children would crowd around me and try to rub my skin. They asked me, in all seriousness, if I did the same thing when I saw a black person in America. It's hard explaining to Rwandans who believe that America is strictly made up of white people how diverse America actually is; not just in terms of race but in every category: religion, culture, languages, the food we eat, the music we listen to, the clothing we wear. In my community English class, I showed my students the Humans of New York book my friend Kristen gave to me as a Christmas gift, which features beautiful New Yorkers of all shapes, sizes, and colors. It was incredible to come back to a country with such a rich mix of everyone and everything, all in one place.
Some of my community English class students
14. Modern appliances. I used to think it was kind of ridiculous how many Rwandans that I met thought that everything was run by machines in America...and then I realized that's kind of true. We have machines to dry our hair, brush our teeth, clean our dishes, wash and dry our clothes. In Rwanda I use zero of those five machines.

15. You need an ID to drink. The drinking age is 18 in Rwanda, but I have never, ever seen it actually enforced. I have literally seen children drinking in bars, and the times I've been asked to show my ID to buy or consume alcohol here is exactly zero. I forgot my ID at least three times going to bars in America (Tim and Dad, I'm still sorry about the time I had to ditch you at the Dubliner to drive home and get it). It's still extremely strange to me that you can have grey hair and still be asked for your ID in order to have a beer.

16. Not sleeping under a mosquito net. Perhaps this is a sign that Peace Corps' Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative did its job, but in Rwanda I sleep under a mosquito net every night, and I felt naked sleeping without one in the US.

17. No one carries stuff on their head. And everyone uses plastic bags (they're illegal in Rwanda!).

18. Consumption and consumerism. Maybe it's because there's no garbage collection where I live here in Rwanda and all my trash has to go into a pile in my backyard, but I couldn't believe the amount of unnecessary packaging on everything in America. I mentally kept track of how much garbage would be in my backyard garbage pile in America, and it just made me sad. I'm pretty sure I created more trash in my three weeks in America than I have in the last two years in Rwanda. There were ads and billboards everywhere encouraging everyone to buy, buy, buy and I felt kind of overwhelmed by it all.

19. All the music and pop culture references I'd missed. I may or may not have thought the song "Timber" was actually Tinder. I had no idea what to turn down for, I still don't understand the use of the word "ratchet", and I vaguely knew that YOLO isn't a brand of yogurt.

20. Seeing some of the nuttiest, funniest, weirdest friends and relatives I'll ever know and love. I got to see my Dad, who tells jokes so cheesy no one else would touch them ("Okra? You mean like Okra Winfrey?"), my uncle who used to regularly dress up as a gorilla at all of our family functions (totally normal), friends who don't think twice about having a spontaneous dance party in the living room (to the intense embarrassment of my younger cousin) and who still stay up late to have a Harry Potter marathon and talk about our crushes (coolest 25 year olds ever, guys), a brother who's totally up for having a three hour Siblings Sing Along right after taking the MCAT, and a mom who got emotional when her old flip phone finally kicked the bucket and was forced to adopt a smartphone because her old model was no longer made. I love you all more than words can say.

America, distance only makes the heart grow fonder. Even though you're kind of a weirdo.