Monthly Archives: May 2018

Packing for Peace Corps | Rwanda

I HATE PACKING. AND SHOPPING. And I’ve already done this once when I thought I’d be heading to Madagascar [Read Every.Single.Thing.I packed for Madagascar.] When I thought I’d be heading to Madagascar, there was an above average chance that I’d be living in hot, humid coastal environment where casual clothing rules the day.  So what I had packed for Madagascar was not necessarily appropriate for a mountainous, land-locked, sometimes chilly, appearance conscious Rwanda.

Much like any future PCV, I googled ‘Peace Corps’ packing lists | Rwanda, and found next to nothing. Very few Peace Corps’ blogs detailing an entire 2 years of service.  Maybe a lot of volunteers got tired of blogging?  Maybe a lot of volunteers didn’t complete their service?  Who knows–it still remains there are very few Rwanda-specific packing lists.

With that in mind, I’ve tried to create a comprehensive packing list. Keep in mind that this is a  Pre-Departure List, and I plan to update it once I’m fully installed at my future site.


It has come to my attention that every blog I have read mention that Rwandans essentially have a shoe fetish.  Not in a creepy, sexual fetish way, but more in a ‘fastidious about cleanliness’ way.  Of all the articles of clothing for a country to obsess about, I get stuck with the country who obsesses about shoes. I hate shoes.  I mean I like wearing them, but hiking shoes and Danskos for work are about as fancy as I get.  So when I’m reading blogs about how people are packing 6! pairs of shoes, internally I am saying ‘Kill.Me.Now.‘.  I’d planned on taking two pairs plus shower shoes to Madagascar.

Shoes:

  • Rain boots.  These are mostly not necessary, but the only other time I’ve lived in a ‘wet’ environment [which was the Amazon Rainforest], I had a pair, and I loved being able to splash about, walk through mud puddles with reckless abandon, and generally not give a flip about my feet when it’s raining.  At home in SC, it rarely rains long enough or hard enough to warrant spending  that kind of money.  BUT, Target [aka my favorite store that’s not Amazon] entered in a partnership with Hunter in April, and BOOM! I now have Wellies for less than $100.
  • Hiking boots.  Also probably unnecessary, but I do love hiking. I plan to do it as much as possible. And I love my boots.
  • Trail-running shoes.  I wear these as my every day shoes [Shoe stylish I am not].
  • Athletic shoes.  Who knows, I might take up running [Laughs uncontrollably at that statement].
  • Casual shoes. For me, these are my brown leather slide-ons [treated with Scotchgard prior to leaving].
  • Keen Sandals I’ve had a pair of these since they first came out and I practically live in them in the summer months in South Carolina.
  • Teva dress sandals This model but in black
  • Flip-flops–generic, slide-ons that I got from Target.

Clothes:

From previous experience, anywhere where clothes have to be hand washed over a long period of time will inevitably not make it back. I thought I was pretty minimalist when it came to outer clothing.  Also, it depresses me to no end that Rwanda puts a huge emphasis on clothing and appearance.  At home I wear scrubs, jeans and a t-shirt or sweatshirt, or during the summer–khaki shorts and t-shirts.  Nothing fancy.  Nothing stylish. I’m probably going to disappoint a lot of Rwandan mamas.

  • one pair jeans
  • one pair hiking pants [gray, Patagonia]
  • one pair khakis
  • two pairs scrub pants
  • three button-up shirts [one  long sleeved, one 3/4 sleeved, and one short sleeved]. The thing with button up shirts is they never quite look like they are supposed to if you are female with above average sized breasts.  Hence when I do wear button-up shirts, they always have another layer under them and I usually wear them more to keep the chill off during the evening than for actual shirts.
  • six colored t-shirts
  • one long sleeved t-shirt
  • one flannel shirt
  • one hoodie
  • three skirts [all knee length or longer]
  • one pair khaki capri pants
  • one pair knee length athletic shorts
  • one pair yoga pants
  • about 42 pair of underwear [not all at once though]
  • about 20 pair of socks [5 wool, 5 casual dress, 10 athletic–or there abouts–also not all at once]
  • bras [4 sport, 4 regular]

Sleep:

  • Down blanket
  • Sheets–I brought a twin set and an extra full fitted sheet
  • Sleeping bag–something similar to this one, but I bought mine in 2010 and it’s orange.
  • Pillow–just one of the many [so many] pillows I have at home.  Last item in the suitcase.

Shower:

  • Quick-drying Towel 
  • Regular beach towel
  • 2-1 shampoo/conditioner–either of these are my favorites
  • Dry shampoo–for in between washes.
  • Bar[s] of soap
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste [I have brand favorites so I brought them]

Tech:

  • Kindle — for books, music, movies, photos, ect.
  • External Hard Drive – for movies, music, TV shows, podcasts, actual work documents
  • Laptop–yes it’s heavy and huge, but watching movies on it is awesome.
  • Camera– what can I say–I love my camera, and will physically hurt anyone who tries to take it

Kitchen:

  • Spices – whatever you like, but definitely salt and pepper.  I also brought cinnamon
  • Drink Mixes–as many as you can find
  • Knives, vegetable peeler, cutting board, measuring spoons/cups
  • Can opener
  • Ziploc bags/storage containers--Illegal in Rwanda so I’ve got Quart, Sandwich, and Snack + sandwich sized plastic containers [stuffed with goodies on the plane ride over]
  • Enamel mug/Stainless steel mug
  • Water bottle x2

A Good Backpack – When you are traveling somewhere and you plan to stay overnight, you are unlikely going to bring one of your suitcases along. Travel in Rwanda is done on what is call “squeeze” buses. Bring a backpack that is comfortable to wear and big enough to hold essential items for staying somewhere overnight (extra clothes, toothbrush, laptop, towel, etc.). If you can attach your sleeping bag to it, even better.

Leatherman – Or a good old fashioned pocket knife.

Headlamp – It comes in handy when you need both of your hands at night.

Multi Vitamins – These might be your only source of nutrients when you are eating rice, beans, and potatoes.

Music – It is the only thing that keeps me sane some days. Sometimes you need to shut the door, put in your ear buds, close your eyes and listen to music. I also brought a speaker that is great for when I want extra volume or don’t want to be constricted by my ear buds.

Nail Clippers –self explanatory


Everything else is non-essential. Fill any extra space with things that will bring you comfort, like your favorite candy or pictures from home. I wish I had packed less clothing and more of the essential items listed above

You can get most things in Rwanda, but some things you’ll want to bring from home because they’re either a) expensive or b) low quality. Below are some ideas:

  • A raincoat/poncho – Both health and education volunteers arrive during a rainy season, so one of these things will be helpful.
  • A swiss army knife – Knives aren’t great in Rwanda, so a portable one with good blades is helpful, especially if it has a corkscrew and can/bottle opener
  • Can opener – Most Rwandans stab open cans with a knife, but this is not a great way to spend your time.
  • A tide pen – Clean clothes are important, so stick one of these in your backpack to stay right culturally or just to prevent a bad stain from setting
  • Stick deodorant – This is somewhat expensive and only available in Kigali. So when PCVs go to Rwanda, it won’t be available to them right off the bat.
  • Your favorite shampoo – The generic shampoo here is not great.
  • Photos of your friends and family – Pre-Service Training in Rwanda involves living with a host family. Having photos is a good way to break the ice, especially when your communication is difficult in the first few weeks. You could also bring a couple copies to give the host family as a memento and a way to say thanks.
  • A couple of good pens – Pens are cheap and easy to find in Rwanda, but they aren’t high quality. If you write a lot, bring a few pens you like and never, ever lend them to anybody.
  • Nail clippers/nail file

Money

If you’re planning on bringing some money for vacations (a great idea if you can), bring hundred dollar bills that are 2006 or current. Large bills, which most places define as hundreds only, get the best exchange rate. Money changers and banks will sometimes refuse bills older than 2006 and will often give you a bad exchange rate if they do accept them. Peace Corps recommends $300-500 and I think that’s a pretty good number, considering you can save some of your living allowance every month.

A credit card is a good idea if you think you’ll want to buy plane tickets. Many volunteers end up flying somewhere during or after their service and a credit card makes buying a plane ticket easier.

Technology

My take on technology in Peace Corps is that 2 years is almost long enough for your gadgets to become obsolete, so if you’ve already got something useful, bring it. Having something like a laptop is great because it allows you to communicate with friends and family easily (a USB modem and pay-as-you-go internet are cheap in Rwanda). You probably won’t be able to skype on a portable connection, but just to be able to send and receive e-mails is really nice. Electricity is widely available throughout Rwanda and even if you don’t have it in your home, you can usually charge up somewhere in town.

Other than a laptop and camera, I recommend

  • An external hard drive – To share music and movies with other volunteers. There’s a great volume of stuff that gets swapped around among PCVs.
  • A portable USB flash drive – makes swapping files a lot easier
  • Antivirus software for the laptop

The Peace Corps packing list recommends a transformer or voltage converter. Unless you are bringing small appliances, such as a blow dryer, you probably don’t need a voltage converter. Many camera and laptop cords have a black box on them which regulates voltage and says the range that they are capable of handling. Rwanda is 230V. Check your electronics and appliances to see if they’ll be compatible and if you don’t need a converter, don’t get one.


Non-essentials/not for everybody

If you’ve packed all of the essentials and you don’t have extra space, you’ve gone overboard. Most likely, though, you’ll have extra room. Here are some ideas for how to fill it up:

Camping gear, binoculars, art supplies, board/card games, soccer ball, sleeping bag, aloe vera, lotion, a musical instrument (guitar is a popular item), books (English dictionaries are desperately needed, but also bring some for yourself), beef jerky/other snacks, stickers, and if you know how to cut hair, do everyone a favor and bring some shears!

What not to bring

Over-the-counter medications – The Peace Corps medical kit includes multivitamins (pre-natal, lots of iron), Advil, Tylenol, pepto, bandages, antihistamines, decongestants, throat soothers, sunscreen, iodine tablets, malaria prophylaxis, condoms, insect repellent, chapstick, hydro-cortisone cream, antibiotic ointment, and many other essential things. (Do come with a 6 month supply of your prescription meds if you have any, per Peace Corps’ policy on that.)

Peace Corps will also provide a mosquito net and a water filter. For those who are not going to Rwanda with Peace Corps, you’ll want to look into these things based on the length of your stay and where you’re going. Pharmacies here carry a lot of medicines; all hotels have mosquito nets, and bottled water, soft drinks, and beer are available pretty much anywhere.

 

Peace Corps Update

When I share with someone that I’m joining the Peace Corps, I get one of two reactions:

  1.   “OMG, how long is that?  TWO YEARS! How can you afford to do that? What about work? What about your house?  What about [fill in the blank]________________?” This exclamation is often accompanied by a facial expression of woe and angst followed by “I could never do that”
  2. “Oh wow, that is so cool. That’s so brave.   I’m really excited/I really admire that you’re doing that.”  This is usually said by someone who is not a member of my generation, or someone who is a really close friend and knows me well.

Having written this out, I feel like these responses to my decision are a pretty accurate timeline of my own feelings about Peace Corps.

I received my invitation to serve in July 2017.  At first I was really excited, and then lurking worry and fears of the unknown starting to sneak their way into my subconscious. Eventually, I sucked it up and got my fingerprints done, checking off the first task in a surprisingly long litany of Peace Corps related tasks. This is probably one of the finer decisions I have made in life.

Nearly every adult older than me I spoke with about my Peace Corps decision encouraged me without reservation to pursue that unknown horizon (Reaction #2).  They spoke of looking back on their own lives to places where they met a fork in the road, and now with near unanimity wish that had taken that less trodden path. My biggest hang up was money, though it shames me to say it out loud. I have always prided myself in not being a consumer, not letting things or stuff tie me down or control my life. I never appreciated that instead of stuff, I was consumed by the need to horde money for my future’s sake.  Every single adult assured me that there is always time to make money, and really, money doesn’t make your world go ’round.  Certainly it is important, and I know there are certain things I want to buy that will require some savings and a steady job, but those things are worth delaying for something like Peace Corps.

Making the decision to let go of monetary wealth for the next two years was really difficult for me, but I’ve come to the point where I can put it out of my mind for the sake of better things that I’m sure will make me poorer monetarily speaking, but much richer in life. Wealth, after all, is just what you make of it.

Hooray for personal growth!

But not everyone is supportive of this decision and here are some of my thoughts on the most common questions or concerns I get concerning Peace Corps.

Q: That’s like TWO YEARS of your LIFE!  (concerns about commitment)

A:  Yes, yes it is.  However, it’s not like I wouldn’t be living those two years of my life anyway, right?  You have to live them somewhere, and I can either live them in a way where that it is easy to predict my day-to-day, or in a way that it is not.  If I weren’t going into the Peace Corps, I’d being going to graduate school, so it’s not exactly as if I’d be carefree and unencumbered anyway.

Q: Oooh… doesn’t that mean you have to live with no running water/electricity/indoor plumbing/car/etc?

A: Quite possibly yes, it does. But you know what? The lack of conveniences really doesn’t bother me in any significant way. Yes, I love hot showers and all of the joys of plumbing, but they aren’t huge priorities for me.  I’ve lived without them before, and I would do it again.

Q: What if you get sick/robbed/homesick/lonely?

A: I fully expect all of thing to happen, probably all at once and probably more than once. And it will be miserable and without a doubt, there will be moments where I want nothing more than to catch the next donkey cart back to South Carolina. But bad things happen to people everywhere, all the time. They happen to me living here, and I deal with them.  They will probably happen to me there, and I will deal with them there, too.

Q: Oh, so you’re out to go save the world/postpone adulthood/some other irresponsible choice? That probably won’t look too hot on a resume.

A: Oooh, judgy-judgy, aren’t you?!  I am joining Peace Corps for my reasons, and my reasons alone. They consist of pursuing what I find to be personally fulfilling, important, and meaningful, as well as how I see my own place within the world and life.   It’s such a challenge to get out there! To see the world for what it is instead of what it is portrayed to be! I love that, and want to be part of it. Peace Corps is not perfect in any way (is anything?), but they offer an opportunity to serve myself, my country, and maybe in some small way, someone else who shares in my fellow humanity. I think that in itself is cause enough for anyone.
And no, I would dare to disagree that joining Peace Corps is “postponing” anything, except perhaps a fat bank account.  It has taken me a lot of thought and courage to apply and pursue Peace Corps, and if anything, I see it as a remarkable testament to my character, perseverance, and ability to withstand nearly anything.  Also, perhaps it demonstrates a marked tolerance for misery, which is just fine with me. Putting a successful Peace Corps tour on my resume will be a very proud moment in my life, and honestly, would I even want to work for someone who didn’t agree?

And finally…

Q: Oh wow, Peace Corps? I could never do that.

A: Yes. you. could. I hate to hear people downplay their own ability to adapt, change, and remain resilient against the unknown. Women, especially, seem to always discount their own strengths and ability to do something hard.  If you are reading this blog and contemplating your own application to Peace Corps, I would urge you to dismiss outright those fears of what is unknown or unfamiliar. Don’t be discouraged by your own trepidation, or shy away from discomfort.  If Peace Corps (or anything in life) is something you feel calling to you, whispering in your ears with an unheard voice of temptation, then take those reins! Seek that far horizon and do not stop until you find whatever it is that drives you.  For me, Peace Corps is the hand that will open many doors I could never have opened or perhaps even dreamed of myself. Yes, I feel fear, and yes, I feel anxiety. But everything that may ever be gained by stepping into the chasm that is the unseen future is worth the immense challenge it is to rise above those concerns.  It is a process. It will take time and thought and my utmost concentration. But, I have no doubt, that I am ready to serve.

You’ve got a question; I’ve got answers–part 2

I’m medically and legally cleared still but people still want to know what happened with Madagascar. [Questions for Madagascar; why I’m still in the US].  Let’s get to the questions, shall we?
Question 1:  What exactly is the Peace Corps?

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy with three key goals in mind:

  • Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
“The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged the students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.”
The Peace Corps is a government organization in which accepted applicants are invited to serve in a foreign country. Areas of service are requested by the participating countries and include education, youth and community development, health, business information and communication technology, agriculture, and environment. Accepted applicants volunteer to spend 27 months abroad and fully immerse themselves in the language and culture. Volunteers have served in 139 different countries, and work to create positive sustainable change in a global community. Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Question 2:  Rwanda? Is that safe?
  • Peace Corps | Rwanda began in 1975 went through 1994, was suspended in 1994 and was restarted in 2008. Currently there are about 175 volunteers in Rwanda and nearly 800 have served in the country since its beginnings.
  • Africa represents about 40% of Peace Corps volunteers.
  • Rwanda is about the size of Massachusetts. It is located at higher altitude and has a more temperate climate than one would expect of a country located nearly on the equator.
  • The official languages are English and Kinyarwandan. French was dropped as an official language in 2009 as Rwanda seeks to become more ‘international’.
  • The population is about 12 million people. Although Rwanda is resource-poor and land locked, it seeks to become Africa’s first middle income (second world) country. 60% of the country lives on less than $1.25/per day.
  • Climates vary. It generally has four seasons , just not the four we are accustomed to having: rainy season 1 and 2; dry season 1 and 2. It is cooler in the higher altitudes and warmer to the west.

Question 3:  What will you be doing?
I will be a Maternal-Child Health volunteer focusing on mamas and the first 1000 days of children’s lives. I could be partnered with an international organization like the Red Cross or a local NGO. While yellow fever is not endemic to Rwanda, malaria is.  I’ll be promoting safe pregnancies, better nutrition, prevention of malaria and other illnesses, as well as the importance of water, hygiene, and sanitation. [Or at least that is the plan]

Question 4:  What do you do for training?
I will have about 10 weeks of pre-service training June–August. The training has five major components: technical, cross-cultural, language, health, and safety. I will also have a one week site visit to give me an general overview of what my site will be like.

Question 5:  Do you know where you’ll be living in the country?
No, but I will find out several weeks into training based off questionnaires, preferences, and where my skills will be best utilized. I don’t get to choose exactly where I will live which is OK since my Rwandan geography is nascent, but if I had my preference, I’d choose to live near one of the national parks.

Question 6:  What will your living situation be like?
I will most likely be living in a rural village, but Rwanda is one of the smallest and most populated African countries so chances are, I won’t be alone.  My housing will be similar to my community. I might have a room on the health center grounds or a small house with one or two rooms. My house might be a mud hut with a thatched roof or a modern cement house.  From my research, it seems as if the more rural the location, the better the actual house.  Indoor plumbing is most likely a no as is running water. However, electricity is quite a possibility.  Not 24-7 electricity like we are used to, but especially in rural Rwanda, PV electricity is common in health centers.   Rwanda is one of the most connected countries in Africa, and it is almost certain that I’ll have cell service from my location.

Question 7:  Will you have a cell phone?
See question #6. Most volunteers have their own cell phone. I will bring my current mobile, buy a SIM card, and a internet stick. That way, I’ll be able to use my phone to text and call and use the internet.

Question 8: What will you eat?
Rwandan food is pretty bland; it is neither spicy nor hot. People eat simple meals made with locally grown ingredients. The basic diet consists mainly of sweet potatoes, beans, corn, peas, millet, plantains, cassava, and fruit. The potato is now very popular, thought to have been introduced by German colonists.  I also hope to have my own vegetable garden, but seafood is most likely not going to be an everyday meal.

Question 9: Do you have vacation?
Volunteers get two vacation days per month that can accrue totaling over 50 days for two years. I cannot take vacation within my first 6 months [training or community integration] or my last three months [site project wrap-ups].

Question 10:  Will you live with a host family?
I will most definitely live with a host family during  training, and most likely live on my own the rest of the time.

Question 11:  Can you receive mail?
Yes, yes, yes! I want to keep in touch with family and friends while I’m gone, and a big thank you in advance to anyone who wants to send mail my way!  See my contact page on where to send stuff, what to send, and how to send it. Also my birthday is February 24, and cards and presents are always appreciated.

Question 12:  Do you get paid?

Yes, but not much.  The 2016 GDP for Rwanda was $738 which is the highest it has ever been. That averages out to be a little more than $2/day and is quite the improvement from 1994  when it was $204–about 60 cents. I will be making about $375/month and considering that most Rwandan natives make less than $2/day, I get paid well, but by American standards, I make more in one 12 hour shift as a RN than I do in one month working in Rwanda.  However, my housing and insurance are covered by the Peace Corps so essentially I just have to pay for food, transportation, and internet. Also there’s no Amazon or Target in Rwanda so that addiction has been curtailed.

I also get an allowance at staging and a settling in allowance once in Rwanda. That allowance is based on whether the site has had a volunteer before, whether or not I need to buy furniture, and how far away I am from the capital.

At the completion of service, I will get a settlement allowance of roughly $9000 + a flight home [or its equivalent in cash]. There are also government benefits such as one year NCE status and opportunities for graduate school scholarships.