Things I won’t miss about the village: Muzungu

This may not be the most politically correct post I’ve written. If you are easily offended, you’ve been warned.

Back when I worked in the hospitals, occasionally some misguided soul would yell out ‘hey, respiratory,’ as I walked by, and I’d continue to walk on by.  And then the misguided soul would continue ‘hey, I’m talking to you’, and I’d feigned innocence, and say ‘oh you’re talking to me? I had no idea.’ and the conversation would continue with ‘I called your name’ and here’s where I’d get all passive-aggressive aggressive and say  ‘No, you yelled ‘respiratory.’  That’ not my name; it’s my job title.  You want me, you yell my name.  It’s Michelle, in case you don’t know. I don’t answer to respiratory.’ Most people only did that once, and the ones who did it more than once were assholes.

Something similar happens in Rwanda [and Uganda. And Tanzania. And Madagascar. And I imagine every other African country where foreigners aren’t common] every.damn.day and it irks me to no end.

Don’t worry, my friend got called Muzungu too

In Rwanda, especially Rwandan villages, white people are not common.  And should you happen to be white, it’s assumed that you are French [or Belgium] both because Belgium was the motherland–the former colonial power, and most foreigners in fact speak French.  When I lived in Mexico, people though I was from Spain. And when I lived in Moscow, people thought I was English.   And when I traveled throughout South America, it was back to being from Spain.  And let’s be honest, even in America no one ever really thinks I’m from South Carolina upon first meeting me.  So, it’s not that people not knowing where I’m from that’s bothersome, it’s not that someone is essentially calling me ‘white foreigner’ bothers me, it’s the fact that no one calls me by my name or even a local version of my name that bothers me.

In Rwanda, it’s ‘hey look at what that muzungu is doing‘ and it’s essentially like saying ‘hey, look at that nigger [or wetback or chinc or whatever other ethnic derogatory term one can come up with].’ It’s not as if they don’t know that calling someone ‘muzungu’ is being offensive because Every.Single.Volunteer.Ever has told them some form of ‘hey, that’s not nice’.

So, the greeting that most people give a white person is “bonjour muzungu”. Or, they call out to you “ Muzungu!”  And I just keep on walking. Some PCVs think the term “muzungu” is insulting, and to some it is–because it means that everyone is being grouped together with all other white foreigners simply based on our skin color.  I really don’t care that they are calling me white, pink, or purple.  For  me, it’s the simple thing that if I take the time and effort to learn their name, they should do the same.  After all, there are many, many more Rwandan people in town for me to learn their names; and I am the only white person in town so learning Michelle or Mischa or even a Rwandan version of Michelle should not be that hard.

PCVs work hard to integrate in the local communities, and so being called ‘muzungu’ means that people don’t understand what I’m doing here and why I’m different. I am always reminding people that I’m not a tourist and I’m here to help. After all, if I were a ‘muzungu’ like they usually see, why would I be studying Kinyarwanda? I wouldn’t be; I’d be paying someone to fetch my water, do my laundry, and shop for and cook for me.  Yet, I do all these things, often alongside of my neighbors.

The thing is, I know that for kids here, it’s hard to wrap their heads around the fact that there could even be a foreigner who isn’t French. To many of them, it’s ingrained in their heads from an early age that any time you see a white person, they are a muzungu, and you say to them “bonjour muzungu”. [As a side note they also seem to pick up the phrase “Donne-moi de l’argent” or ‘Give me money’ fairly young, too, because I get that a lot. Did someone tell them that demanding money impolitely in French or English and holding out their hand actually works? And sometimes, just to fuck with them because I’m wired like that, I’ll speak to them in Spanish or German or Spanish-Russian and they stare at me like I have three heads, and I go on about my business ignoring them because as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not French nor do I speak it.]

I’ve seen, on multiple occasions, mothers teaching their babies the word “muzungu” by pointing at me. Depending on my mood that day, I’ll kindly inform them that no, my name is not “muzungu”, it’s Michelle, or I’ll roll my eyes and walk away.  These days I get especially frustrated by it because even though I live in a larger village, you’d think word would have spread somewhat that the white woman who walks around carrying a funny looking helmet, who shops in the market, and fetches her own water is American and in fact does not speak a lick of French.

As much as it bothers me to be called ‘muzungu’, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on what life is like here for Asian- and African-American volunteers. To start, for many Rwandan village people it’s unfathomable that someone could be American but not look white. African-Americans often get the assumption that they’re Rwandan (which can be a good thing), but when they say they’re American, people still ask “no, but where are you from?” The fact that you could be dark-skinned but be from America is hard for a lot of people to wrap their head around here. It’s also similar for Asian-American volunteers, who are unfortunately subject to the type of comments [you have slant-y eyes] that would be considered horribly rude and offensive back at home, but here are just simple commentary– not meant as an insult, just an observation. So volunteers who are American but not Caucasian have a different set of challenges to overcome.

So, the ‘muzungu’ issue is something that will continue to be a challenge for me much like ignorant co-workers calling me ‘hey, respiratory’. I always hoped that I wound cease to be a novelty, but I know that I’ll never stop getting called ‘muzungu’. Some days it affects me more than others; Somedays I can  turn these situations into ‘teaching opportunities’– opportunities to teach people about what I am doing here, why health matters, why washing hands is important, why checking babies’ weight is a big deal, and how I’m different.

And, that my name is Michelle, not ‘muzungu’.

Muzungu…Muzungu… that’s most likely what these kids are saying

Things I Won’t Miss About the Village: Lack of Anonymity

I have lived most of my life in South Carolina [other states include North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee] — a state with roughly 5 million people in it, and just prior to departure, I moved back to the area I grew up in.  The town I currently reside in has approximately 800 people in it, and yet I still have my anonymity.

I blend in mostly due to my race [it’s all either black or white] or my speech [I do have quite the southern accent when I let my guard down]. I’ve been putting purple streaks in my hair for a few years, but it’s so subtle that no one hardly notices until I am in the sun or under a light.  I enjoy my peace and quiet–I have three sets of neighbors within a mile radius and a hay field across the street.  It’s a quiet, somewhat predictable life.

Living in a small town creates lots of privacy, but little anonymity. If you’re not careful, everyone will know your business.  You can’t cry in public or curse at anyone because chances are, you’ll see these people again. Even if you don’t want to.

There’s no clubs for dancing or bars for drinking in my little town, and only two of what we call restaurants. Being seen at one of these becomes fodder for gossip especially if anything untoward happens.

Despite all that, I blended in. Mostly.

I’ve spent the past year living in a village even smaller than my town, speaking a language that I’ll never speak again once I leave the country.  Despite knowing about small town life, it this village, I am the other.  I’m different because of my skin tone, much, much lighter than anyone else’s. I’m different because of my accent–my tendency to speak Spanish not French when I can’t think of a word in Kinyarwanda. I’m different because I’m well traveled–partly due to my American passport.  I’m different because I’m unmarried and childless at an age where most of my village peers are both married and are mothers.   I’m different because I have no real desire ever have kids. I’m different because I have short, soft hair in a shade other than black.

Even among my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, I’m different because I’m a little bit older than most, but not yet at that “I’m retired; I think I’ll go join the Peace Corps stage.”  I’m at an age where friends are having babies left and right. Some are getting divorced and some are getting married. Again.

Any of these would have set me apart. In combination, they ensured I would never be completely able to blend in… never enjoy the anonymity I love. It’s not the first time I’ve been a visible minority, but it was the first time I’d been one for such an extended period [and it gave me newfound respect for people who are “The Other” for their entire lives].

Even before I landed in Rwanda, I suspected that would have to change something, but I don’t think I fully anticipated the degree to which it would. I went from a mostly anonymous local to instant celebrity in a matter of days. It was strange, and I hated it. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to blend in with the crowd, and here I was–on display for everyone to see.  I felt eyes on me all of the time, had to carefully consider every word that dropped from my mouth lest it be heard and reported.

I learned that in Rwanda people will frankly comment on your physical appearance as a matter of course, and for me, that was a constant reminder of my paleness, my size, the strangeness of my straight, short [mostly] brown hair, my lack of makeup, my choice of dress.

To integrate into my community, I had to hide certain parts of myself, especially at first. I had to hide the me that sometimes liked to dye my hair strange colors; and the me that could be a bit brazen. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was always myself, just a different version of myself from before. In my village, I will always be Misha.  Misha never wore anything cut higher than her knees, and most often wore pants… which was chalked up to being American. Every woman wears skirts in the village.  Misha never, not once, drank alcohol, despite being pressed… despite the fact the previous volunteer did often.  Misha always waved, smiled, and greeted appropriately according to the time of day.  Misha never flirted with men. Rejected those who flirted with her, never cursed, and never went out after dark.  

I might be making this sound like playacting, and it was and it wasn’t. We all play roles over the course of our lives. Mine was true to myself and consciously chosen, as I realized that one of the deepest impacts I could potentially make in my community was to be a role model to young people who in some cases needed one desperately. At times it felt exhausting and overwhelming, a weight of watchfulness and potential gossip I shouldered daily.

I am back in the USA for now, most likely for good.  I am back to blending in when I want to , and being notice when I want as well.  It’s one of the odd parts of service that people do not talk about too much–the readjustment period, and to be honest, it hasn’t been that difficult.  I have adjusted quite nicely to flushing toilets, comfortable beds, running, potable water, driving myself around to wherever I need to be.  I’ve adjusted well to having indoor kitty cats again.  I’ve adjusted well to not haggling over every little thing I want to buy.  The grocery store is still a bit intimidating, but in all fairness, it was intimidating before I moved to rural Rwanda.

Even though I walk these streets weekly, there’s still no anonymity when I come to Butare.

On being thankful and having gratitude

What I am thankful for–Peace Corps year one edition

Once upon a time a friend and I used to send each other our daily gratitude lists.  A list that would have anywhere from 3-7 items on it that we were truly thankful for, and would sometimes be as basic as clean water and air or as complex as a peaceful resolution to a serious problem. It was a good way to start the day… being in a state of gratitude before leaving the house.  Because sometimes life happens, and life can be a bitch.

This week contained the American Holiday of  Thanksgiving, and for the second time in a decade I find myself outside the US for this distinctly American holiday. I find myself feeling more grateful than I have in quite some time, thanks to the last few months living in Rwanda and its inevitable way it shifted the way in which I experience the world.

Why am I so full of gratitude lately?

I am thankful for my education. 

Lord knows I have enough of it and sometimes it was a struggle to get and pay for, but never, not even once, did not think that I couldn’t finish high school or go to college.  I may have been/be on the most circuitous path ever, but dropping out of school because I’m female has never crossed my mind.

I was a latchkey kid, got myself up and fixed my own breakfast from about 8 years onward, and caught the school bus until I could drive, but these struggles are nothing compared to what many students in Rwanda face. Many students walk up to six kilometers every morning to get to school, some without shoes over the hilly and rocky terrain. Some struggle to concentrate, because their growling stomachs compete for their mental attention. They sit snug as bug next to their classmates — three, sometimes four to a wooden desk — in the hot or cold classroom of up to 60 students. They rely one notebook and one pen with zero additional educational materials. Kids return home, make dinner for their families, sell food at the market, and take care of their younger siblings. And repeat it all, the next day.

Living in a place where so many students stop attending school after primary school… primary school! reminds me how much of a gift my education is. I am lucky for the teachers that challenged me and the resources made available to me, and while I can’t name every teacher I’ve ever had, I do remember some of the more special ones and am thankful for them on a regular basis.

I am thankful for the kindness in my life.

Rwanda is not an easy place to be a foreigner, and I’d guess it’s probably not that easy to move to a different area within the country.  My guess for that is due to the genocide that occurred almost 25 years ago. Depending on their age, most adults in Rwanda were alive during that period either as babies, children, or young adults themselves.  It doesn’t come easy or natural for Rwandans to trust outsiders. That being said, I have experienced kindness while I’m here.  The people I work with who help me learn Kinyarwanda on a daily basis. The people who have helped me find my way when I’ve gotten turned around. Kindness comes in many forms here, but one usually has to prove his or her worthiness in order to receive it so it’s nice to experience true kindness with no strings attached.

I am thankful for life’s challenges and the values instilled by overcoming them.

It’s the hurdles I had to jump in the past that make me the driven, independent person that I am happy to be today. If it weren’t for the bumps along the way, I would not have had the opportunity to grow in ways that I did and continue to do.

As much as I have dealt with and overcome in my life,  people in my community face an entirely different set of challenges than challenges I have faced and ever will face. Their resilience, perseverance, and unwavering hospitality in these times of difficulty, is admirable.  Going through tough times in America, while still challenging, is not the same as going through tough times in Rwanda.

I am thankful for learning more about myself.

As noble as “saving the world” sounds, a majority of my Peace Corps experience thus far has been a heroic adventure of self-discovery. I have found the beauty in stepping outside of my comfort zone and saying “yes” to self-growth opportunities. I have practiced patience, continued to learn the value of making mistakes, and appreciate the importance of perseverance. I am becoming more sensitive to what makes me happy or sad, and making decisions based on those observations. Self-respect starts with making decisions with your happiness [among other things, of course] in mind.

I am so grateful that my time here has allowed me to grow in these ways.

I am thankful for my friends and family.

Though there are few places on Earth I could be where I would be physically farther from my peeps, my time away has made us closer in many ways. In order to join the Peace Corps, I had to quit a job, ‘alter’ a relationship, and give up my kitty cats to the care of another person. The support from my friends and family allowed me to  start a new chapter of life in Rwanda.

Separation often acts as a test, whether it intentional or unintentional, and to my delight, I have a small little team of supporters cheering me on this adventure of mine. While I probably could have survived [ definitely not thrived]  without them, it makes it a whole lot easier knowing that someone I know is watching Lucy and Molly, people are sending me little notes and gifts, letters and postcards, and people are generally interested in what I am doing.

I am thankful for a gained perspective on the world and its people.

I’ve traveled a fair amount prior to joining the Peace Corps. I’ve even been outside the country for an extended period of time before.  I always try to be a temporary local rather than a tourist whenever I go some place new.  But staying in a neighborhood for a week or even a month  at a time is not the same as staying in one place for a year [or two if I make it that long].  Being in the Peace Corps gives one the opportunity to truly immerse oneself in  a community, and if that person is lucky, have the community accept them as one of their very own.

I often think to myself how lucky I am to be experiencing the world through a different lens while I spend each day immersed in a community on the other side of the world. With each culture brings unique values and it has been enlightening and refreshing to experience Rwandan values, and see how they take precedence over things that are often obsessed over in the American world, such as technology, material items, money and work. Life here has changed my perspective on my personal values and I am grateful for the lifelong lesson my neighbors has taught me.

I am thankful for my cohort.

We are now a group of 22 unique and individual souls having lost a member just a few weeks ago. [She went home; she didn’t die]. To be honest I would have never even crossed paths with a lot of my cohort, let alone entertained friendship. But at almost 6 months in, I now have a ‘brother’, and a handful of close friends in the cohort which makes sticking out through the tough times a little easier. Being together [however brief] during this last week has made me realize how much I miss those who don’t live so close to me.

Where there is no wi-fi: blogging

My house is a two room brick structure surrounded by concrete with with a tin roof. It has intermittent electricity, and there’s no wi-fi to be found. So how do I manage to blog from my rural Rwandan village?

Here’s what I have in the way of technology:

  • a simple laptop, case, and charger
  • SIM card for buying mobile data bundles
  • a smartphone I bought in Rwanda
  • a USB to micro-USB cord

Gone are the days of firing up the laptop, connecting wireless-ly to the cloud, and writing while also uploading and editing photos.  Gone are the days of having 10 tabs open at once. After some months of trial and error, these are the steps I now take to produce one blog post:

  1. Charge the laptop fully either while having electricity or at the health center.
  2. Draft and edit blog posts at night in a Word doc.
  3. Plug phone or storage drive into laptop and grab images for said blog post.
  4. Walk 4 miles (uphill both ways –no snow–) with laptop, cell phone, and USB drive into Huye, go to the nicest Catholic boarding house around [or second option a coffee shop with spotty wi-fi], buy a Fanta or milkshake depending on my location, add mobile data to my phone, and take a seat.
  5. Set up a hotspot
  6. Copy and paste posts onto WordPress, upload photos and add tags. I usually upload a month of posts at a time and set the to auto post every Sunday.

I can, and have, written and published many posts entirely through my phone. I prefer to type on a computer for quantity and quality writing.

This set up works OK… Not great…Not perfect but it gets the job done.  I for one will be glad to returning to the land of Starbucks and free wi-fi sooner rather than later.

How I spend my days

When I was preparing to go into Peace Corps|Madagascar, I read a lot of PC blogs from a lot of countries and I found that there are a plethora of “Day in the Life of a PCV” posts out there.  At first, I read them with fascination, completely hooked on every activity.

Example:

5:30am – Wake up.
My thoughts: Wow! They get up so early!  They must be so productive! I’d also like to point out that this was my usual bedtime for non-working days in the US.  I am the epitome of a night owl.
6:00am – Start cooking breakfast.
My thoughts: Wow! I wonder what they’re eating? How do they cook? How long does it take? I’ve never really been one to eat breakfast… mostly because that’s my bedtime.

7:00am – Fetch water.
My thoughts: Wow! Fetching water! Just like Little House on the Prairie!

I know. I am a Peace Corps nerd.

Truth be told, my day-to-day life in the Peace Corps is, not unsurprisingly, much like day-to-day life in America.  We get up, we do what it takes to eat,, and clean up. We work, we sweat, we come home, we bathe, eat again, and we relax. We have days off, we travel, we come home and panic about how much work we have to catch up on.  See?  Just like at home.

Well, almost. Peace Corps life, while much like life at home in some ways, also has its dramatic differences.  I think a lot of people really wonder: just what are you doing over there aside from your assigned job?  Today, instead of the hour-by-hour breakdown of my daily routine, I want to give you a glimpse of what fills my days.

I’ve never been one for routine, but in rural Rwanda  it’s all about the routine.  Here, I rarely use an alarm clock. Instead, the roosters go off around 4:30am, and continue pretty steadily and increasing incremental volume until around 5:30am when I am awake and just procrastinating getting out of bed. I usually get up around 7 or so depsite the roosters cockle-doodle-ing for hours[In Ecuador, it was the monkeys howling, here roosters.  At least the monkeys are cute. I threaten the roosters with my soup pot]

First order of the day: eating.  Like many volunteers, I try to organize meals around what will involve the least amount of dish washing and water consumption.  For me, this is generally a piece of bread and a fruit, usually a banana or sometimes an apple. I don’t drink coffee or tea so it’s usually just 500ml of water to go with it.  On the mornings when I have a wild hair to do something crazy and have extra time or Saturday or Sunday, I may whip up a batch of pancakes complete with hot chocolate. [<—–This does not happen often].

After eating, it’s usually time to haul water. I use about 80-90 liters of water a week, all of which must be hauled by hand or head from about 150m away. I usually haul water 2x/week. 50L at a time. [of course during the frequent water shortages, this chore become infinitely easier as there is no water to haul] Then, I have to treat and filter my drinking water. Next, I may glance around and find dead insects or any number of other deceased night invaders. Sometimes I find a dead mouse head if SadieMae [the friendly compound cat] has been a good cat instead of a lazy cat. 

Finally, it’s time to dress myself for work and head out to the clinic. Or maybe someone has given birth overnight and I’m doing baby measurements. Or maybe I’m going to the market to buy some vegetables. Maybe I have a meeting, and everyone is likely to be two hours late.  Either way, these work related activities can take up a good chunk of the day, and as a rule it’s always longer than I expected it to take.

By mid-afternoon, if it’s not raining, the sun is hot and it’s time to ‘rest’ or in my case get some chores done and cook my big meal of the day.  This means dishes, laundry if I’m getting desperate for underwear, taking a bath if I’m feeling extra ambitious, and hauling the water to go with those activities. Laundry must be hung to dry, and it can take a few hours to hand scrub sweat stains out of T-shirt sleeves. 

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As the sun creeps lower in the sky, I might fire up my the stove. I’m still wary of cooking with gas.  I have a somewhat not-so-irrational fear of blowing myself up.  Then, cooking. I never know what I want so often I boil water and cook vegetables or something easy. Finally, just as the mosquitoes are coming out, I’m headed under the bed net. I use this time to edit pictures, blog, write letters,talk to my US peeps, or read.  Sometimes I read for fun; other times I’ve got my nose stuck in medical books.  I’m usually in bed no later than 9pm, but often don’t actually try for sleep until 11p or 12a.  (Once a  night owl, always a night owl).

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So there’s a day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Rwanda.  And this is just a village day. Conference days are really different.[Breakfast at the ungodly hour of 7a; meetings all day] Travel days are different in that they involve a whole lot more sitting and gnashing of teeth [get to bus station, buy ticket, wait for bus, sit on bus, arrive to Kigali. change buses,ect] . Each of us do the same chores and daily routine activities that we did back in America, but here, these things can take half the day instead of a few minutes. Take laundry for example: instead of wadding up my dirty clothes, tossing them in the machine, pouring in soap, and walking away and doing something else for a bit, laundry here can take hours. I have to first haul the water, get the clothes soaked and soaped, scrub until my knuckles are raw, do a whole rinse cycle in a different bucket, then wring everything and hang it to dry.  While you learn little tricks to cut down on the time consuming nature of these activities [like soaking your clothes in a bucket of water and soap overnight], maintaining ourselves at our sites takes a lot of our time and energy.

Work, which can vary with the day of the week, takes up the other large bulk of our time.  Babies come when they want whether a meeting is scheduled or not. Screenings can take all day.  For example, if a mom/baby doesn’t show up to a scheduled meeting, we have to chase them down. Is the baby OK? Are they eating?  Is mom OK?  If it rains or there’s a funeral, your whole daily plan might fly out the window and you have to start rescheduling things all over again. 

Day to day life here is full of little joys, little disappointments, and lots of the regular things we did back home, but now we do them Africa-style.  In Peace Corps, no one day is quite like the next, and if you ask me, that’s the best kind of daily routine.

Handwashing station takes the place of running water and a sink.

Things I miss about the USA

Happy Labor Day. These random holidays like Labor Day and 4th of July and Memorial Day has never really meant too much to me. Working in health care, days like these are really just regular days. There’s no such thing as ‘holidays’, or at least not in the traditional sense where I’d get the same days off as everyone else and get do things like hang out at the lake with friends or enjoy cook-outs for the holiday. So in that sense joining the Peace Corps has been interesting. At one point or another I’ve celebrated every American holiday outside America, and some countries’ holidays inside that country. But nothing can replace celebrating the holiday in its original form… And while I’ve only been gone from the USA for a few months, there are still things I miss.  This post is from my previous travel blog from when I spent 16 months traveling around South America (with some updates from what I’m missing now… Some things change; some never will… like my love for good pizza).

  • Pizza  Pizza is probably my favorite food on the planet.  Back home, I probably ate pizza 3-4 times a month.  Not always the same kind or from the same place, but pizza (and a salad when I’m feeling healthy) has been a staple in my diet since the early years and I don’t suspect it leaving any time soon. I did find pizza goodness in Buenos Aires and Mendoza; however most of South America and all of Rwanda has been a huge disappointment in terms of pizza.  Bad crust, bad sauce, strange ingredients.  I can’t wait to hit up Barley’s Taproom or Sidewall’s or the Mellow Mushroom for some good pizza with olives, feta cheese, spinach, and tomatoes.

One of my Peace Corps goals is to make a pizza… a delicious pizza like the one pictured below.

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  • Watching American sports. I am a huge sports junkie and I miss meeting up with friends to watch March Madness, college bowl games, or stressing over Tennessee football. Fall is always the hardest because college football in nearly a religion in the south, and I am a follower of the sacred University of Tennessee. Watching my favorite teams at odd hours via slow internet streams just didn’t cut it, and while going to sporting events where I am is a small comfort, I am never going to follow Mexican bullfighting, Venezuelan baseball, Peruvian football, Rwandan basketball, or Buenos Aires polo when I am at home.  [Although I happily watched Super Bowl XLV live.]

I am grateful that I was in a country that was a soccer loving one with time time zones close to the original for some of the world cup matches.  Before joining the Peace Corps, I had hoped to score tickets to World Cup|Russia, but watching the games in this tiny corner of the world where soccer rules, is great for international bonding.

  •  Food variety. If I ever eat white rice again, it will be too soon. Seriously, that seemed to be the hallmark of almost every single meal I’ve eaten over the few months. I wasn’t a big fan to begin with, but having it on the plate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner got old. Fast!

  One of the staples of Rwandan cuisine is–you guessed it–white rice.  It’s no wonder I never eat this in America.

  • Free, non-carbonated water in restaurants. Again, this should be self-explanatory. Plenty of places offered free snacks, but free water? Not a chance.
  • Public transportation. Even though back home I do not live in an area with good public transportation, I like going to places where it’s accessible and easy to use.  MARTA in Atlanta has gotten me where I needed to be on more than one occasion.  Subways in Rome, New York, London, Moscow and Buenos Aires are amazing.  If I didn’t live in a rural area, I’d be all about using light rail (like Seattle’s metro link that whisks me to and from the airport to the center of town without issue) or whatever was available.  Motor bike taxis, bicycle taxis, mini buses, cars nearly falling apart, and cabs—not so much to my liking.

Bogota’s TransMileno is surprisingly efficient, and while crowded at times, it is a much better option than loading up a minibus to maximum capacity +1 and having people yell ‘stop’ when they want to get off the bus.

  • Knowing where to find things. Again, yes, you can buy just about everything you need on the road even in tiny remote villages in the middle of nowhere.  But finding those things can be a challenge. In most of the places I visited (and Madagascar is no exception), daily essentials were spread out among many smaller stores and it took me days (or weeks) to figure out where to go for what I needed.

OH, how I love Target. I spent part of my last visit to Seattle walking around this three story gem located right in the middle of the city. They had everything…

  • Not paying to use the toilet.  Or even finding a toilet when needed. I think this one is self-explanatory.  Fun fact:  did you know that, according to The Guardian, the top 10 worst places in the world to find a toilet are in Africa. One is Madagascar [4th worst place in the world to find a toilet] and two of Rwanda’s neighbors also make the list [Tanzania and Congo]  and there is a World Toilet Day (it is November 19th if you’re curious), dedicated to keeping everyone’s shit corralled so that fecal contamination of the water supply as well as diseases transmitted via the fecal-oral route are diminished.

  Another Peace Corps’ goal:  to make myself a luxurious toilet where my knees don’t creak every time I must use it or in emergency             situations, shit does not splash on my shoes/feet.

  •  Respect for people’s time. Even though I am not a scheduler by nature, I do appreciate time.  At home, when someone says “let’s meet at 8:00,” they generally mean “let’s meet at 8:00.” If they are running late, they will call or text you to let you know. We have a basic appreciation for people’s time and not wasting it. Such was not the case while I was traveling. Nothing seemed to start on time and someone saying they would meet you at 8:00 meant hopefully they would be there by 9:00 – likely with no contact whatsoever to indicate they may be late. When we were planning anything that include non-Americans  we always gave a fake time. 7:00 meant 8:00 or so. Indeed, most people didn’t arrive until closer to 8:30. I think this just reflects a more laid back attitude, but as someone who hates waiting around for no good reason, I will take the American way every day.

German trains and s-bahns are always so punctual. If I lived in Germany, I’d never be late anywhere.

Alexanderplatz

 I have found a general lack of respect for time in nearly every corner of the globe… except Germany and Switzerland… oh how I love that  place; they are so punctual.

  •  American men. I know many women love over foreign men.  Heck, I have even dated foreign men [One abroad, one who had moved to USA], but overwhelmingly, the foreign men I have met [mostly Italians and Hispanics] are overbearing, controlling, condescending, and overprotective.  I do not like being yelled at or whistled to in the street.  I do not like being asked if I ‘want to fuck’ because those are the only English words they know.  For me, that machismo attitude is such a turn off!  Give me a good old American guy who can see a woman as his equal and appreciate her independence. A guy that smells clean, wears cologne sparingly, and bathes regularly. A guy who wears baseball hats and khakis rather than skinny jeans, and who is at least my height (5’9).  If he has green eyes and curly hair, well, I’m a smitten kitten.
  • Free wi-fi:  Wi-fi is slowly making its way down south, but it is not always free, nor is it always reliable.  It brings me back to the Ethernet cords I had in college. Or dial-up.  Both make me appreciate how prevalent wi-fi is in the USA. [and Canada and Europe].  2018 hasn’t brought many upgrades to the poorer corners of the world.

But what I miss most about being away from the USA, is people and kitty cats …co-workers, friends, and family + Lucy and Molly.

 

Pre-Service Training

For those of you who like my soul searching [baring?] posts, this is not one of them.  Stay tuned next week for more of that.  This one is about pre-service training.  What exactly is pre-service training?  Glad you asked.  If you thought, like I did at one point, that as soon as I got on the plane, I was an official Peace Corps Volunteer, you would be incorrect.  At this point, I am a mere trainee.  So what exactly am I doing right now?

Pre-Service Training [aka PST, but what I will mostly call training because I think documents with too many acronyms suck]

  • PST is the Pre-Service Training that Peace Corps Trainees [me!] undergo before being sworn-in as official volunteers. It typically lasts 10-12 weeks and takes place in the country of service.  My training will last 11 weeks and will occur in the town of Rwamagana.  ,Rwamgana is a city of about 47,000, located in the Eastern part of the country.  It’s located at 5000 feet above sea level [think Denver], and is about 30 miles east of the capital.
  • The entire 10 weeks of training is scheduled with the exception of Sundays.
  • Kinyarwandan class runs most days from 9-1
  • Afternoon classes include technical topics like ‘hand washing’, ‘pooping in a hole’, ‘making Oral Re-hydration Salt’, ‘lighting a stove’, ‘taking a bath in a bucket’, ‘washing clothes by hand’, and other exciting topics like ‘preparing your Peace Corps reports’, ‘grant-writing 101’ ‘understanding the Rwandan genocide’ [side note:  can anyone really understand genocide? I have visited Auschwitz; I’ve been to Bosnia [and other countries of former Yugoslavia]; the location or the ‘reasons behind it’, genocide is something I’ll never truly ‘understand’.]
  • There are field trips!
  • And chances to feel like puppies at the pound [see ‘meeting the host family‘ and ‘site announcement’ coming soon]

Essentially training is like going to summer camp where you know no one and being a freshman at college where none of your friends went all at the same time. Then you make friends, get a little comfortable, and then the rug is pulled out from under your feet again.  This is training. And this is where some people quit. In Peace Corps’ parlance, it’s called early termination, and it essentially means you resign from your position as a  ‘volunteer’.

One of the more fun weeks… where we learn ‘permagardening’, and meet our future health center ‘bosses.’

 

 

 

 

In general, I’m not to suffer from test anxiety.  In addition to the standard barrage of testing one does while in k-12 , I’ve taken the SAT, ACT, AP subject exams, GRE, MCAT, 2 respiratory licensing exams + one specialty exam, TEAS, an entire nursing program full of ATI exams, and NCLEX. However, the one thing all of these exams have in common is that they are computerized.  No talking required.  I very nearly didn’t graduate from my first go around in college due to the ORAL PROFICIENCY EXAM.  I have always suffered from a crippling fear of public speaking/performance, and while I’ve gotten better as I’ve aged [matured?], it is still one of my least favorite things to do on the entire planet.

One of the requirements to be sworn in as a volunteer is to achieve a certain level on the language exam.  It varies from language to language and program to program, but essentially one must score somewhere between novice-high and intermediate-mid depending on the difficulty of the language. The exam usually takes place in the next to last week of training and is essentially a recorded interview in the target language and is graded to determine a person’s fluency.  [Side note:  Google translate does not have Kinyarwandan as an option.]

Pre-Service Training concludes for everyone on the day of Swearing-IN, [for me, this occurs on August 14, 2018] which is a big ceremony with government officials and TV crews and fancy clothes. After taking our oaths we officially become Peace Corps Volunteers. Immediately after the ceremony we travel to our permanent sites and begin the two years [more or less] on our own. It’s an intense day.

And here I am thinking Peace Corps’ would be fun

Alive and Well

Yes, I am in fact, alive and well.  I’ve been in Rwanda for about a couple of days now, and I have lots to say. Unfortunately, a lack of Internet and computer/electricity access has made it difficult to communicate with those of you back home.  When I get the chance, I’ll actually post some updates about what I’ve all been doing so far, but for now, rest assured that I’m alive and healthy, and have yet to injure myself.

Feel free to call/text me!  Or write me or mail a package full of goodies, if you really want to spoil me!

 

I’d suggest going through Google or What’s App. I need wi-fi access for Facebook messenger and that’s a hot commodity.  All incoming calls/texts are free for me!!!  But for me to call you, well, it costs a lot…

Until we meet again

A lot of Peace Corps’ Volunteers post photos and /or videos about their Peace Corps’ homes–and I plan to do that as well.  But this one is a little different.  While I’ve still got a few more days until I depart for Rwanda, I wanted to celebrate my new home, and what I hope will be my home for many years.

 

I acquired this house in October 2017.  At the time it became available, I had already been in the Peace Corps’ application/clearance process for a year. So while I wasn’t 100% sure I’d be joining, I’d already been through a lot of the steps.

When I moved in it look like 1990 made a pit stop and never left.  The walls were cranberry-colored and they had put wallpaper on the cabinet doors. The oven/stove combo dated back to 1970.

Wall-papered cabinets? Not the best design decision

One of the first things that happened was a new metal roof.  While a new roof was needed, the decision to go with metal was my own.

Next up, was a lot of wallpaper removal and painting.  And patching holes.  And more painting.  I got my ‘Africa’ room done first.  It needed the least amount of surface prep so it was relatively quick to paint the accent wall ‘Moroccan Red, and the other walls ‘Ethiopia’.  With curtains hung and furniture from my previous living space, this room served as my bedroom for the first few months.  It’s the smallest of the three bedroom, and now functions as a guest room… you know, should anybody living more than 50 miles away visit.

In the beginning… Wallpaper removal. Cranberry walls

Then I worked on my ‘office’.  While I don’t do a lot in here, I do have my big, comfy chair, and my desk in here. I’ve since added a bookcase and a long dresser.  I have a TV/DVD which is almost never used, but this is where I come to study [file papers, scrapbook, ect…].  My favorite wall is the checkerboard wall in orange and white representing The University of Tennessee.  I also have my college diplomas hanging in here as well.

The Checkerboard Wall… a mighty pain to paint that, but it looks spectacular now

The living room and kitchen/dining room took a lot of time.  The walls are mostly veneer paneling that I’ve painted over.  When I do my major remodel post Peace Corps, walls are being moved and it’s all becoming drywall, but for now I went with a blue accent wall [Caribbean Blue] and a moody gray [London Fog]. I’m using a muted orange as an accent in the living room.

Travel Wall!

Muted orange couch and curtain. Black kitty cats fit in nicely.

For the kitchen, I went with a more neutral shade of gray, concrete counter tops dyed black, a 3D aluminum splash back, and a muted gray subway tile in the dining room and counter top I created next to the oven.  Around Thanksgiving/Christmas, I got new appliances [stove/oven combo, dishwasher, refrigerator] in a slate finish.  I painted all the upper cabinets bright white and lower ones gray.  I finished the look with a industrial knob pull on all the cabinet doors.

First meal cooked in the new oven: baked spaghetti

New oven, gray walls, industrial-style door pulls, and wall decorations

Black concrete, aluminium splash-back

My bedroom is green with brown accents and the bathroom is a hot mess of mis-design that I can’t even deal with until I knock walls down and do a re-design, but at least I have a shower, a working toilet, and a bathtub should I feel compelled to use it

I’m most proud of the walkway and flower beds I added in the time from the original Madagascar departure until the current Rwanda departure.

I’ve got big plans for the back yard space including a screened in porch off the bedroom, adding a breakfast nook off the kitchen, and creating a ground-level patio and fire pit.

The house itself is pretty modest by American standards, but most impressive by world standards.  I’m not exactly sure what my living situation will be in Rwanda, but I am guessing Lucy and Molly will have a higher standard of living that I will.

Packing for Peace Corps | Rwanda

 

Let’s begin with:  I HATE PACKING. AND SHOPPING. AND WAITING. Add to it that I have already done this once when I thought I’d be heading to Madagascar [Read Every. Single. Thing. I  packed for Madagascar] in February. 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’| Rwanda packing list, 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. Comprehensive as in just over 5000 coherent words on what to bring to your Peace Corps’ adventure. Keep in mind that this is a  Pre-Departure List, and I plan to update [List updated September 2018 after having spent one month at site] it once I’m fully installed at my future site.  The format essentially reads like this:

Item:

Rationale:

Verdict:


What not to bring

Let’s start with what not to bring. Peace Corps will provide a twin sized mattress, a mosquito net, a solar lamp, one bucket, one cup and a water filter.  PC also provide malaria medication, general first-aid supplies, sunscreen, condoms, and any prescription medicine you have scripts for.  They will also treat any acquired illnesses so unless you just want, you really don’t need a full sized first-aid kit [Full disclosure:  I brought every conceivable first aid item available and even some that aren’t. I’m also a RN in the US, and will have to be damn near dead or have something unusual come up for me to call the PCMOs for anything.  But that’s me…] For those who are  going to Rwanda but not with the Peace Corps’, you’ll want to look into these things based on the length of your stay and where you’re going. Pharmacies in most countries carry a lot of medicines; all hotels have mosquito nets, and bottled water, soft drinks, and beer are available pretty much anywhere.


Money

I have a friend that says there aren’t many problems in the world that can’t be solved with copious application of money. I’d apply that to the Peace Corps’ as well. If you buy absolutely nothing new for PC from the time you get your invitation until you leave, and save that money, it should go pretty far in rural Rwanda [not so much in Kigali]. If you’re planning on bringing some cash, bring hundred dollar bills that are 2006 or more current. I’m not sure why this is, but Rwandan banks don’t accept the older bills.  Not little headed Benjamins, but 2006 or newer big headed Benjamins. 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.  It’s nice to have a stash to supplement the moving in allowance especially if you are headed to a new site and have to buy everything.

A lot of places in Kigali and other larger towns take credit cards so having one or two is a good idea as a back up to cash.  Credit cards are also a good idea if you want to buy a plane ticket or stay in nicer hotels while on vacation.


Luggage:  I need containers to get my stuff from here to there

  • Items:
    • 1 obnoxiously large, sturdily-constructed rolling duffel bag [ebags mother lode 29″].  If you bring a bag this big, just know that it’s easy to go overweight quickly. My first attempt had this bag weighing in at 75#… ooops [Also, the handle broke during one of the many times this bag was moved during training.  It is essentially a 30″ high night stand now and will not be making the trip across the Atlantic with me–the bag is still functional for sure, but the draw of having a wheeled duffel bag was to extend the handle and drag it behind me… so while the bag is very large and sturdy, Rwanda broke the plastic handle]
    • 8 year old 65L hiking backpack that has already seen half the world.
    • Osprey Porter 46–a 46L bag with backpack straps that can be removed and carried like a tote.  This bag does not have wheels, but is otherwise an awesome bag
    • A tote bag–also a carry-on–In it, I’ll carry a book and assorted small odds and ends + my electronics and sleeping kit.
    • I also have a school sized backpack packed in the bags and another small canvas/cloth tote that I will use as a market bag.
  • Rationale: I need a way to get stuff from here to there.
  • Verdict:  I’m glad I have all the bags.  I hate all the bags while in transit, but I love having all the bags.

Clothing:  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.

  • Item:  Fleece pull-over x1.  
  • Rationale:  Some areas get cool; some not so much. I won’t know until a few weeks in if I’m going to be in one of those areas.
  • Verdict:  It gets quite cool in the mornings during the rainy season in the south and even colder in the North. I’m glad I brought it.
  • Item:  Lightweight rain coat
  • Rationale: It rains. I won’t have a car so I’ll be walking in the rain.  Being dry is preferable to being wet
  • Verdict: I’m glad I have it both as a rain jacket, a wind breaker, and for covering my skin on moto rides
  • Item:  Cardigan x3.  One black; one silver/gray, and one orange.
  • Rationale:  It can get cool. These can spiffy up t-shirts and make me look more professional
  • Verdict:  I wear the black one the most, but do wear all of them especially on those rain-cooled mornings.
  • Item:  Blouses x3.  I never wear these at home.  Button-up shirts and bustiness don’t mix
  • Rationale:  I may need something nicer than T-shirts
  • Verdict:  I’ve only worn one of these.  One doesn’t quite fit, and the other is even too nice for Rwanda and will be going back home with me when I visit the USA next year.
  • Item:  T-shirts x7.  Plain, colorful
  • Rationale:  I wear these all the time.  Even to work.
  • Verdict:  I love that I have these. I’m bringing a few more when I return from my vacation
  • Item: Long-sleeve T-shirt
  • Rationale:  Sometimes my elbows get cold
  • Verdict:  I usually sleep in these so  I’m glad I have them
  • Item:  Hoodie x2
  • Rationale:  They’re fashionable. They have long sleeves. And a hood.
  • Verdict:  One is essentially a long sleeved t-shirt. I wear it to bed some, and around the house when it’s chilly. The other one is nice and soft and somewhat stylish.  It’s too nice for Rwanda to break so it’s going back home with me next year.
  • Item:   Flannel Shirt
  • Rationale:  Because why not?
  • Verdict:  I don’t wear if often but I do wear in around the house as sort of a light weight jacket.  I’m glad I brought it.
  • Item: Pants x 5.  Dark brown, dark grey, khaki, dark green, and black + one pair of jeans. Also known as hiking pants.  Also scrub pants x1 in dark gray.
  • Rationale:  I need something to cover my butt
  • Verdict:  I’m glad I have the scrubs, and I’ve already sent for more. I’ve already lost 15 pounds in just over three months and while that is good for my overall health, most of my pants are comically large now.  I can now only wear the scrub pants and pants that can be belted.  
  • Item: Skirts  x2–one mid-calf brown skirt and one slightly below the knee blue.
  • Rationale:  Sometimes skirts are more comfortable than pants
  • Verdict:  I haven’t worn them at my site, but I wore them frequently at training.  In order for me to wear a skirt it needs to be a special occasion or above 75 degrees. Neither of those have happened yet.
  • Item:  Scarves X3.  One teal, one burgundy, and one gray with owls on it
  • Rationale:  They can spiff up an outfit nicely
  • Verdict:  I ended up leaving these at home, and I wish I had at least one, and will be bringing these on my return voyage
  • Item:  Socks and underwear x a lot…seriously I think I have close to 40 pairs of underwear and 20 pairs of socks
  • Rationale:  The amount of socks and underwear I take on any given adventure is directly proportional to the amount of time I have until I need to do laundry.
  • Verdict:  During training, I took out 6 pairs of underwear and 4 pairs of socks and used those exclusively. Once I moved in to my house, I took another 6 pairs of  underwear and 4 pairs of socks and put them in rotation… so now I have 12 pairs of underwear and 8 pair of socks in rotation. At the 8,16, 24 month mark, I will remove the too worn items and replace as necessary. In reserve I have 5 pairs of underwear and 3 pair of socks for my COS trip.  I have found that the cotton ones have a much shorter lifespan that the quick-dry kind.
  • Item:  BrasI have 3 sports bras and 4 regular bras
  • Rationale:  I have larger than average boobs and would like to keep them corralled and would prefer do fight gravity a little while longer
  • Verdict:  I wear them everyday so I look for comfort. One sports bra is now too big. The regular bras can be adjusted.  I’m glad I brought the different styles, types, and sizes.
  • Item:  Shoes—OMG, shoes.  Apparently shoes are a big deal in Rwanda so I’m trying to go with shoes that are easy to clean and durable.  To that end, I brought or will bring back the following:  Rain boots.  These are mostly not necessary, but the only other time I’ve lived in a ‘wet’ environment [which was the Amazon Rain forest], 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. I found an inexpensive pair on Amazon and will most likely gift these to someone when I COS. Trail-running shoes.  I wear these as my every day shoes [Shoe stylish I am not]. 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.
  • Rationale:  While I could be happy rotating two pairs in and out, I don’t really care about cleanliness.But Rwandas do. And I’m trying to be culturally appropriate.
  • Verdict:  I still hate shoes, but I’m glad I have all the ones I have.  The Teva dress sandals were worn for swearing-in and will be returning to America. Also returning to America will be the Keen leather shoes. In its place will be coming rain boots and hiking boots. The Keen shoes are not practical for two hour one-way treks up and down hills.
  • Item: Pajamas X1
  • Rationale:  I’m not picky, but I brought a T-shirt I was gifted and a pair of fuzzy pajama pants.
  • Verdict: These didn’t make the cut, but I will be bringing the fuzzy pajama pants when I return.  Some nights are beyond chilly and with no HVAC of any kind, clothing and blankets are what keep me warm.
  • Item: Additional clothing:  Yoga pants x1, mesh basketball shorts x1
  • Rationale: It may get hot. I may not feel like leaving the house. I want to be comfortable
  • Verdict:  I sleep in the shorts and wear the yoga pants when I do yoga.
  • Item:  Swimsuit
  • Rationale:  I may get to go to a large body of water at some point.  Or a fancy hotel with a swimming pool.
  • Verdict:  I haven’t used it yet, but hold hope that one day I will.

Kitchen/household:

  • Item:  Knives/cutting board
  • Rationale:  Apparently good kitchen knives are hard to come by in Rwanda. I’m bringing a knife set, one small, a small plastic cutting board, measuring spoons, 3 measuring cups [1/2c,1/3c, and 1/4c]
  • Verdict: I ended up not bringing the cutting board and was lucky enough to be left a nice wooden one. The knives and measuring cups I use daily; the spoons not so much
  • Item:  Grater
  • Rationale:  I can’t tell you the last time I grated anything but apparently I will want this; it’s a light, flat, handheld one that doesn’t take up much space
    Verdict: Surprisingly enough, I grate a lot of things…carrots, ginger, garlic… things I never grated back home.  I’m glad I have one
  • Item:  Can opener
  • Rationale:  Opening cans without it is super hard
  • Verdict: I now have two, and have yet to open a single can with it.  There just aren’t a lot of canned things and most things have the pop-top
  • Item:  Stainless Steel Water Bottle
  • Rationale:  I don’t want to have to buy all my water and drink out of a puddle isn’t acceptable
  • Verdict:  I wish I had this earlier, but I’m glad I have it now.  I drink between 2.5-3.5 liters of water a day and it’s pretty easy to do when I only have to fill up my bottle a couple times a day.
  • Item:  Vegetable peeler
  • Rationale:  While I rarely peel vegetables at home, the water here must be treated, filtered, boiled, and you must prepare a sacrifice in order to use them.  I’ll just peel the damn vegetables.
  • Verdict:  I rarely peel vegetables… I’ll probably end up with a gut full of parasites, but peeling vegetables is a chore I cannot get behind.  I do however wash them in treated water, and cook or pickle them long enough that I hope the germs are gone.
  • Item:  Spices
  • Rationale:  Rwandan food is bland.  I’m no iron chef or anything, but I did bring salt/pepper, cinnamon, Greek seasoning, Italian seasoning, and taco seasoning.
  • Verdict:  I use the salt and pepper everyday.  And the cinnamon when I have oatmeal.  And Italian seasoning when I make spaghetti. Haven’t used the others yet, but I will.  Also I need more pepper.
  • Item: Zip-lok bags
  • Rationale:  They are illegal in Rwanda and I’m a rebel.  Also I use these nearly everyday.
  • Verdict:  I should have brought more.
  • Item:  Head lamp and other solar charged lights
  • Rationale:  The electrical grid is not reliable
  • Verdict:  I ended up bringing two head lamps and one extra solar lamp.  The electricity goes out frequently and my kitchen doesn’t even have electricity so if I end up cooking any time past 5:30, I’m doing it in the dark.  The headlamps are especially useful for the kitchen.  I keep one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom.  The other lamp stays in the shower room.
  • Item:  Seeds
  • Rationale:  I need food.  Hopefully the climate is conducive to growing them. They don’t take up much space
  • Verdict:  I haven’t used  them yet because I live in a concrete compound, and haven’t figured out exactly how to use them yet.  I’m thinking about taking one of my basins and making in a shallow, portable container garden.  I can at least grow herbs, lettuce [which is impossible to find], and maybe something like a squash in it]

All these items are in my box that is currently in transit.


  • Item:  Sheets
  • Rationale:  Why such an essential item is not provided by PC is beyond me, but nonetheless, no sheets provided.  I brought a gray pair that Christopher the Cat put a shred mark in, and a cheap pair I picked up right before leaving for $10.  Options include a single [90cm],  full sized [120cm] queen sized [140cm] and giant [200cm].  My bed at training was a single and my bed at site is the 140cm variety, but because these are expensive, I opted for a 120cm with a little space on the side and I have my PC mattress on top so I’m sleeping like the princess and the pea.
  • Verdict:  I ended up buying sheets here, because I found a pair I like and I have essentially a queen size bed here.  The other sheets will return to America with me
  • Item:  Towels
  • Rationale:  I brought a beach towel and a quick dry towel and an absorbent head wrap for wet hair.  I threw in a couple of wash clothes because they are small and lightweight.
  • Verdict: I ended up leaving the towel at home, but bought one when I got here.  Also I was left 3 towel at my site. I have used all five at some point.
  • Item:  Swiss Army Knife
  • Rationale: When is this not a good idea?
  • Verdict:  It’s small. I’ve used, but I haven’t needed it.
  • Item:  Sleeping bag
  • Rationale:  It may solve the sheet problem.  I may need to visit others.
  • Verdict: I also left this at home.  Camping is not a thing in Rwanda and the blanket I brought is sufficient for visiting others.
  • Item:  Down blanket
  • Rationale:  It gets cold and this one packs up small
  • Verdict:  I use it frequently and is one of the best things I brought.
  • Item:  Quilted comforter
  • Rationale:  It’s warm and homey
  • Verdict:  Even though this was a bitch to pack, and I never used it during training, it is on my bed now, and it is one of the items I am most glad that I brought.  I got a full/queen sized one of medium weight and love having it.  I almost want to bring it back home when I COS but it doesn’t match any of my decor and I don’t want to carry it around during my COS trip.
  • Item:  Pillow X2
  • Rationale:  I sleep much better with my own things
  • Verdict:  I am so glad I brought not one but two pillows with me.   I used one in training and now that I’ve got my own space [and bed] both of them are out.  Also Rwandan pillows are crap…either lumpy foam or hard as a rock with no give.

Office/school/work supplies:

  • Item:  Notebook [composition book x2], travel journal x2, and planner
  • Rationale:  I like to write things and the illusion of being organized makes me happy
  • Verdict:  I could use more notebooks.  Mine got wet and are now falling apart.  One travel journal is a gratitude journal I write in everyday [even if its only ‘I have a roof over my head’ and read when I’m having down days, and while I don’t use the planner daily, I to at least try to plan out my weeks/months.
  • Item:  Pens
  • Rationale:  I am a pen-whore and needed to downsize.  Also I like to color code things.
  • Verdict:  I ended up only bringing three.  I should have known better.  These are now in a care package currently in transit.
  • Item:  Medical equipment–pulse ox, stethoscope, blood pressure cuff
  • Rationale:  These are probably mostly unnecessary, but if I’m going to be in a health center, I’d like to have my own tools.
  • Verdict:  These are wholly unnecessary and will be returning to the US with me.  I’ve used the pulse ox a few times and will most likely keep in here. As I’m currently at about  6000ft, it’s interesting to see how my oxygenation is changing as I get used to the altitude. 

Electronics:  

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. You probably won’t be able to video chat 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 or get a solar set-up.

The Official 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, you don’t need to get one.

  • Item: Laptop
  • Rationale:  I use it everyday at home
  • Verdict:  I’m glad I have it even though I don’t use it every day
  • Item: External Hard Drive x2. One is a 1TB drive, and the other is a 2 TB.
  • Rationale:  I take a lot of pictures and watch a lot of movies.  Also there’s no such thing as ‘too much storage’
  • Verdict:  One connection cable has already started not connecting so I’m glad I have the other one  that also has some media on it.
  • Item: Kindle
  • Rationale: E-reading is not my favorite thing, but weight restrictions prevent me from bringing an entire physical library.
  • Verdict: I sometimes read a book a day and this has been a life [and mind] saver.  Also you can trade files with others. I now have nearly 30,000 e-books.
  • Item: Camera
  • Rationale:  I rarely go anywhere without it so of course, it was coming with me.
  • Verdict:  I haven’t brought it out yet mainly because I self- conscious enough without it, but as I get to know people and as they get to know me, I plan to use it much more.
  • Items:  Flash drives x2 32GB each
  • Rationale: I’ve been told I’ll need them.
    Verdict:  Handy for transferring files, not entirely necessary
  • Item: iphone
  • Rationale:  It doesn’t work as a phone but with 64G of songs/podcasts, it’s a no-brainer.
  • Verdict:  I listen to music every day so I’m glad I have it
  • Item:  External speaker
  • Rationale: My laptop speakers are wretched. Rechargeable speakers are the solution
  • Verdict: See above
  • Item:  Headphones
  • Rationale:  Sometime you just need to chill
  • Verdict:  I rarely use them, but am glad to have them
  • Item: USB charger
  • Rationale:  Electronics need to charge
  • Verdict:  There’s no such thing as too much stored power.
  • Item:  Flashlight and headlamp
  • Rationale  Electricity is sporadic at times
  • Verdict: Late night walks home and electricity outages have already made these practical. The headlamp is especially useful if I have to cook in the dark when the electricity is out.  Also my kitchen doesn’t have electricity so  I either have to eat at 5p or use my headlamp to cook
  • Item: Rechargeable batteries
  • Rationale:  Apparently there’s no great way to dispose of batteries in Rwanda, so I have rechargeable ones for my headlamp and flashlight.
  • Verdict: They’re amazing
  • Item: Outlet adapters
  • Rationale: For my items that have to plug into the wall, I’ve got a handful of light, simple adapters.
  • Verdict:  Glad I thought of these

Toiletries:

  • Item:  Makeup
  • Rationale:  I’m not hugely into make-up, but I have an eye shadow palette, plus 1 lipstick, seemed like a good idea for any dressy events
  • Verdict:  I used it for swearing in and a couple of other times just for the hell of it, but I don’t even look in a mirror daily so make up seems a bit excessive.  I’ll keep it just because it’s likely to go bad at home.
  • Item: Deodorant
  • Rationale:  Apparently stick deodorant is not a thing I can get here.
  • Verdict: I brought 3.5 sticks. I’m glad I have them and will be bringing back more. I average one stick ever 2.5 months.
  • Item:  Shampoo/conditioner
  • Rationale: I’m sure I can find shampoo here if I look hard enough and am willing to pay enough, but who has the time and money for that.
  • Verdict:  I cut my hair super short four days before leaving and the travel sized containers lasted one month.  I’m now using my Dr. Bronner’s soap for shampoo as well as soap.  It works OK, but I will be bringing back one bottle of 2-1 coconut scented shampoo/conditioner because as my hair grows, I’ll be using more shampoo
  • Item: Soap.  I have both a bottle of peppermint Dr. Bronners soap and a very nice bar of  woody-scented soap that feels amazing.  I use them both
  • Rationale:  I need to be clean
  • Verdict: Nice bar soap has been wonderful. I’m not a fan of bucket baths still, but I’m a fan of my soap.
  • Item: Chapstick
  • Rationale:  My lips are always dry. Burt’s Bees is magical.
  • Verdict:  Yes, you can request these from med supply.  No it’s not always available, it’s nice to have a back-up. And some in every single bag and jacket pocket you have.
  • Item:  Dry Shampoo
  • Rationale:  For when I can’t be bothered to wash my hair
  • Verdict:  I’d never used dry shampoo before, but I love it.  It smell coconut-like so it reminds me of the beach.  It was really good during hot season when the back of my head would be all sweaty 5 minutes after washing it. Now I usually wash my hair once a week and dry shampoo it 2x/week.
  • Item:  Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Rationale: I don’t want dentures too soon
  • Verdict: I have brand favorites so I brought some.  I also bought some Russian toothpaste in the grocery store and keep it in my weekend bag.  That way if I forget it when visiting someone, I’m not super sad.  I love my cinnamon toothpaste.
  • Item:  Nail clippers, nail file, and polish
  • Rationale:  Gnarly nails are not nice.  I’ll pick one color to take with me when I COS and leave the rest behind
  • Verdict:  My hair and nails have always grown fast and it’s no exception in Rwanda. I usually cut them every other week and shape on the in between week. I don’t paint my fingernails because it would do no good between the hand washing of dishes and clothes and generally just using my hands more, but I do like to keep some color on my toes.
  • Item:  Travel bottles
  • Rationale:  Lugging big bottles of things around suck, and little cheap baggies leak.
  • Verdict:  They’re small and mine are cute.  I use them when visiting other volunteers for the weekend and for the first 10 weeks in Rwanda. 

Personal/miscellaneous:

  • Item:  Multi-vitamins
  • Rationale:  They may be my only source of nutrients some days…those days my diet consists of potatoes, rice, and pasta.
  • Verdict:  I brought some gummy ones to supplement the PC provided pre-natal vitamins, and I’m glad I did.  I hate the taste/smell of regular vitamins so I’m glad to get a break.  In addition to regular multi-vitamins, I brought a B-complex since I’m not eating a lot of grains or eating much meat.
  • Item:  6 passport photos
  • Rationale: The Peace Corps said to
  • Verdict:  I only brought 2 because those things are expensive [$15 for 2 at Walgreens].  I then got 6 printed at a shop in Rwanda for 3000RWF [about $3.25].  They are use to establish a banking account, apply for residency visa, and something else that I don’t remember. But you will need all 6.
  • Item:  Purse and wallet
  • Rationale:  You need somewhere to store your cash and backpacks aren’t always practical
  • Verdict:  I bought a nice matching leather set right before I left.  I haven’t used the purse much… essentially only when in Kigali, but the wallet stays in my backpack.  Now that I’m at site, I don’t carry my backpack everywhere I go so the wallet often stays hidden in my house.  I also have a small change purse for the never ending accumulation of coins and small bills needed for motos and transit.  I am hoping to be able to take this on my COS trip and use it in America when I return.
  • Items:  Entertainment such as playing cards and bananagrams
  • Rationale:  Because when does a deck of cards not come in handy?
  • Verdict:  I’ve yet to break out my cards [other people have always had a deck too], but I play bananagrams about once a week.  It’s great for keeping up my English vocabulary.
  • Item: Tide-to-go pens
  • Rationale:  Stains are a bitch to get out… especially when you have to hand wash clothes
  • Verdict:  They’re cheap, light, I doubt I’ll regret having a few around. They have saved my life (or at least my shirt) multiple times.

There it is, my complete packing list for Peace Corps | Rwanda.  I am also creating two separate lists of things I didn’t bring that I want to bring back when I come back from my US vacation… this list contains mostly food items, but also things like rain boots, and a third list of things I brought, and either don’t need, can’t use, or no longer fit.

My goal for COS is to be down to the 65L backpack plus whatever bag I have my electronics in, and I have no doubt that I can do it.  I don’t plan on buying a ton of Rwandan thinks to take back to the US, and most clothing items will not be any good anyway.  One backpack and one tote will be much easier to manage than 2 backpacks and 2 tote bags.