Wednesday, January 22, 2014

(Not) Home for the Holidays

            The past month has been a total whirlwind. My sister Beth visited for more than three weeks, over her holiday break. After a couple days in Kigali, we headed to northwestern Rwanda, Gisenyi. 

Gisenyi shares a border with the DR Congo, at the north tip of Lake Kivu. We stayed overnight at Inzu Lodge, an eco-camp with incredible views of the lake and cool oversize safari tents.

The next morning, we started out on the Congo Nile, a hiking trail that follows Lake Kivu down to the southwest, where I live. I’d already hiked the southern portion with my friend AJ last year, so I was excited to finally do the northern part. After breakfast, Beth and I headed out into the drizzly gray weather towards Kinunu. Kinunu is the halfway point between Gisenyi and Kibuye on the Congo-Nile Trail, and I’d read online that it was too far to hike in one day. Which later turned out to be true, but Beth and I were still determined. The path was hilly and a tad muddy, but we were rewarded with beautiful vista after beautiful vista.

After about nine hours of hiking, however, we were both pretty exhausted and agreed to find motorcycles in the next village to take us the remaining distance to Kinunu. Beth and I didn’t want to camp, and Kinunu was the only place that had a guesthouse on our map. Little did we know, the guesthouse was off the path, down some steep hills by the lake. When we arrived, the woman working there wanted to charge us each an exorbitant amount for a small room with no electricity and no place to get food except for the guesthouse, which was also extremely inflated. (To give you a better idea about what a rip-off it was, she wanted to charge us each 5,000 francs for some fries, boiled potatoes, and beans, which I’d pay 500 francs for normally).

Beth and I were stumped on what to do. We didn’t want to blow our whole budget on one night’s stay at the guesthouse, but it was also getting dark and we didn’t know of any other options. We used our best bargaining skills, and even faked walking away to see if she’d lower the price since we were the only guests there, but she wouldn’t budge. I figured that we were screwed and would have to stay there, when a stroke of good luck for us and bad business sense for the owner hit. The owner mentioned that the Catholic parish in Kinunu had rooms that were far cheaper than hers. Within minutes of her telling us this lucky piece of information, we were back on motorcycles headed back up the mountain to the Catholic parish. The rooms were tiny, cold, and slightly damp, but clean and far cheaper than at the guesthouse. We had a late supper with one of the brothers at the parish, who told us that there was a boat that goes from Kinunu to Gisenyi every morning. (If you want to stay at Sacre Coeur parish in Kinunu, Celestin, the receptionist‘s number is 0725147055 or 0787415197; to check if the boat is coming, call Etienne at 0722675908).

Taken at about 5:30 am
Although hiking was nice, we were both pretty exhausted and were eager to see Lake Kivu by boat, so the next morning we woke before dawn to catch the 6:30 am boat. As with the other boats I’ve taken along Lake Kivu, the views were magnificent. 

After perhaps three hours on the boat, we found ourselves in beautiful Kibuye.

We spent a couple days relaxing, enjoying the views, listening to Beth’s (ahem) interpretations of the new Beyonce album, and going to the beach. 

We also met two awesome Swedish girls travelling in Rwanda and Tanzania. We told them that we’d grown up in the Swedish Capitol of Nebraska, and they later agreed to join us for our Serengeti tour the following week.

And then it was back to Kigali, and then the seven to eight hour bus ride to my site for three days. Beth got a little taste of my life in the village, from taking bucket showers to watching my English classes.

On Christmas Eve Day, we went to go visit my favorite family in my village: Annonciata, Robert, and their five children (the youngest of whom is named “Happy.”) The entire family lives in a two-room mud house. They have no plumbing or electricity, and the entire family sleeps on the dirt floor. But they are the kindest, most generous people I’ve met here. The children decorated the inside of their house with little cards welcoming us.

This is a family that lives on the edge. They face incredibly difficult decisions, like deciding whether to spend their meager income on their children’s school fees, or health insurance (they decided the former). I know that the parents both go days at a time without eating, but their daughters are still malnourished. Their oldest daughter, Eriane, is amazing and so different from other Rwandan girls her age. I’ve tutored Eriane for the past year and a half, and she works incredibly hard on both her studies and for her family. She faces incredible obstacles (how are you supposed to study or do homework when it gets dark at 6 pm and you have no electricity?), but she’s so determined to become a nurse to help support her family.

Through the generosity of friends and family (Thank you so much, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Kathy, and Carol Schlichting!), we were able to give them some Christmas gifts: beach balls, crayons, coloring books, and more. It was an atmosphere of celebration that I’ve rarely witnessed. Neighbor kids ran over as the news spread, including two twins whose names were literally “Mukuru” and “Mutoya”, or “older” and “younger.” Robert broke out a dirty old accordion, which he said was from the Belgian colonial era. There was no better way to spend Christmas Eve.

Even though I was late to teach my next English class, Annonciata and Robert refused to let us leave before preparing a meal. Not only did they prepare a meal, they put little whole fish, called injanga, on the rice, tomato, and eggplant platter. Most Rwandans I know are crazy about the little sardine-like fish from nearby Lake Kivu, which you eat whole: eyes, bones, skin, everything. But many people can’t afford them. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of injanga, I knew what a big sacrifice it was for Annonciata and Robert to serve them and happily ate the little fishes, bones, eyes and all.

Before leaving, Robert asked to speak to me alone. I noticed that he had lost quite a bit of weight, but I assumed that it was because he and his wife had to cut back even more to feed their children. We sat down on two stools outside their house while the children played around with their new toys and art supplies. Then he dropped a bombshell on me: he had recently contracted HIV. I felt a rush of emotions. Sadness, for the physical and emotional suffering he would endure. Anger, for making a stupid decision that would affect his family in so many ways. Sympathy, because he was so evidently in anguish over the news.

I spoke with him more about how he has felt since finding out the results. He and his wife are a discordant couple, which means that his wife is still HIV negative. None of his children know, though they obviously noticed his weight loss and swelling of his feet and ankles, which made it difficult for him to stand and walk. I inquired about his anti-retroviral treatments (ARVs), and he showed me the medications, but said that he had difficulty taking some of them because he had no food to take them with and it irritated his stomach.

I talked with Annonciata, and she had taken it much harder than he had. She spoke in a fatalistic way, using phrases like, “when I become HIV positive” instead of the more hopeful “if”, and wondered aloud how she could ever feed her children on just one income (selling potatoes and cassava from their small field twice a week at the market).
Beth and I walked home and went to Christmas vigil mass with the nuns, and the news weighed heavily on me. I couldn’t stop thinking about what this news would mean for their family. Robert gained a small income from selling bus tickets on the road, but since he had difficult walking and standing now, his employment was in jeopardy. Their family already lives on the edge, and this news was devastating.

The longer I am in Rwanda, the more I feel as though I have dodged a bullet by being born in the circumstances I was born in. On one hand, this has made me very, very grateful for what I have; both for material comforts and for intangibles like education and gender equality. On the other hand, this is never enough and will never be enough.
            If I’ve learned any lesson in my Peace Corps service so far, it’s that there’s no joy in feeling like you’ve dodged a bullet when people all around you are still up against the firing squad. I take no pleasure in thanking God that my parents have never had to make the choice of whether to buy food, pay school fees, or buy health insurance when some of my closest friends here make such excruciating choices on a daily basis. It’s not enough to walk away unscathed or to just count your blessings at night. It’s important to give thanks for food to eat and a bed to sleep in, but equally important to work towards a future where families like Robert and Annonciata’s don’t have to sleep on the dirt floor every night and go days at a time without eating.

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