I returned to Rwanda on January 22, 2019, but not as an active Peace Corps volunteer. It was a strange feeling… to return to the area I lived in yet not have a home. To speak the language [somewhat] yet know how much I’ve forgotten. To visit my banking town yet not have an active bank account at the present time. To visit my fellow volunteers who had to go to work, yet not have any actual work to do myself.
Rwanda is a small country that can easily be explored by a tourist in a week of so. In fact most tourist come to Kigali, go to a national park or two and go on to the next country on the list. I did that, but also found time to visit some of my fellow volunteers. In a situation where I don’t know if I’m returning to volunteering, I was a chance to have a little bit of closure. Being pushed out the country so quickly [there was only 36 hours between the time I was told I was leaving until I was on a plane] didn’t allow me to say good-bye to hardly anyone [in the village or to other volunteers]. This return allowed me to have a little bit of closure. And also gave me the opportunity to explore a little bit more of Rwanda
I made it over to Lake Kivu and explored parts of Nyungwe National Forest. I spend some time in the city where I could see the DRC, and went to Volcanoes National Park and climbed a volcano [and more importantly didn’t fall**]. I made it to Rwanda’s eastern border with Tanzania and safaried in Akagera. All these experiences were things I wanted to do while in Rwanda… Things I thought I’d have two years to do, but due to circumstances beyond my control, just didn’t happen.
I’m glad I went. I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience Rwanda on my terms. I’m glad I had the opportunity to say good-bye. In case I don’t make it back to Rwanda, I won’t feel as though I left things unsettled.
**My official diagnosis when I left the country was Morel- Lavalee Lesion of the left pre-patellar area. Due to the government shutdown, I have been unable to contact anyone at Peace Corps’ Medical headquarters to get approved for whatever treatment I may need. Truthfully, by the time I *DO* get in to see an orthopedist, the injury may have healed. A few days before I left was the first time I was able to put any weight on my left knee. I probably the only person in the history of Peace Corps’ to be medically evacuated because of a ‘bruise’ [what the PCMO said I had for nearly a month before agreeing to a MRI which proved that my injury was slightly more involved than a ‘bruise’]
On this day, 58 years ago, John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps. All over the world and back home in the US, Peace Corps staff and Volunteers celebrate March 1st as Peace Corps Day.
My official start day with Peace Corps was June 4, 2018 so the question I get the most is –What is Peace Corps’ Life like?
To be honest, some days drag and I’m convinced that I’m living life in a time warp where time moves is reverse, but the weeks, surprisingly, move quickly. Often when I’m bogged down in a day, I think just get through the day and it’s one step closer to COS. Then it’s Friday, and I’m amazed at how quickly the week has passed. Being at home last month has made me realize how much I love my ‘American’ life, and how happy I am to have returned to it. Being a PCV is [was] but a chapter in life, and as I have found out, the world of development is not where I belong, and I truly can’t wait until I start the next chapter of life. As it turns out, despite the fact that I have a lot of skills, even life-saving skills, these are not necessarily the skills the Peace Corps’ wants nor are they the skills my community wants. Peace Corps’ or at least Peace Corps’ Rwanda is transitioning from the ‘strong backs’ building projects to the PC buzz ward of ‘capacity building.’ However, in a community that has had previous volunteers build things, many can’t get past the fact that I’m not going to be participating in any building projects [which is somewhat ironic considering I spent my time at home ‘building things’]
I applied to Peace Corps because I wanted to be a PCV. If that seems simple, it’s because it is. PCVs are a special breed of people. There is no other organization that does what we do and lives how we live. It’s challenging, and it’s awesome, but sometimes it sucks. I’m awesome for enduring the ‘sucky’ parts when I know I have a complete life waiting for me in America.
I’d be more modest, but it’s Peace Corps Day and I’m a PCV even if I am not actively serving. So let me reflect on my life as a Volunteer.
Little by little, I’m learned another language and spoke in another language on a daily basis [a language that I’ll most likely never speak again, but still]. I’m brought new ideas into a rural community [Multiple times]. I’m taught basic first aid to school children and their teachers. I’m helped combat childhood nutrition, and a host of other childhood diseases. I am made amazing friends. I’m learned to be more patient and to think critically when things did not go as planned [and things rarely go as planned]. I’m integrated into a new culture, took on new customs and ate food I never knew existed. I’m lived a completely different life, and how many people can say they’ve done that? I’m a new person, really. I even changed my name to fit in. It was so damn hard in the beginning, but the Peace Corps wouldn’t be the Peace Corps if it was comfortable or easy.
Oh, and did I mention that I’ve applied for grad school while in the Peace Corps? Because I did. It’s not easy to study for the GRE from underneath a mosquito net while mentally blocking out the screeching of the roosters or the moo-ing of cows, and with the electricity cutting in and out. Or prepare oneself for said program by learning all the ‘common’ medical things I’ve forgotten while I’m here. But I’m doing it. One day at a time.
And even more exciting is that I got accepted to a graduate program in a field I am truly interested in.
To be honest, I haven’t done much to celebrate today. After all, I don’t feel much like a PCV these days. Today I woke up late with Molly and Lucy snuggled by my side. I did a load of laundry in the machine. I went out for pizza then Mexican with my American friends. I drove around the city. I spoke exclusively in English.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I am glad I’m doing it, but I’m also so ready to move on with my life.
There’s a long version and a short version of what happened.
Short story: I was medically separated from the Peace Corps on January 4, 2019 after being evacuated on December 23, 2018. I was shipped out of the country just before the government shutdown started. PC’s theory was, and it seems plausible, that the impending government shutdown would impede my departure if we waited until the official required separation date. Only 3 people in the USA knew I was coming home which allowed for surprise reunions with some of my favorite people.
On November 19, I was walking to meet some fellow volunteers at a restaurant, and tripped and fell on some rocks lining the sidewalks. I stumbled, almost regained my balance, but couldn’t and resigned myself to falling. I fell. It hurt. I didn’t rip my jeans so I thought everything would be OK… a bruise, but nothing major.
I was wrong. So very wrong.
I managed to make it to the restaurant, but I could feel my leg swelling rapidly. Another volunteer was headed back to our hotel so he and I walked back together. I cleaned the wound the best I could with the materials I had, and talked to one of my friends and told her to come check on me in the morning because I was concerned that I might not be able to walk.
The next morning I could walk, but my leg was definitely swollen. I sent a quick text to the PCMO who was scheduled to be as IST later that morning anyway. It read something like ‘I fell last night and have some significant swelling in my left leg. I can bear weight, but walking in painful.’ NBD.
Later that day, the PCMO thought that I should have x-rays even though she didn’t think anything was broken.
And she was right… Nothing was broken, but I had a ‘soft-tissue injury’. I was put on ‘conservative therapy’ ie leg immobilization and bed rest for a few days. The prognosis: I’d be back to normal within a few days.
The truth was I never left med hold until I was leaving the country. I never expected a ‘bruise’ to be a injury Peace Corps’ couldn’t handle. I never expected to be medically separated for a bruise. A few days turned into a week and a week turned into three weeks. After three weeks, still having difficulty ambulating, I had to push the PCMO to order a MRI on my leg. I finally got the MRI on December 17, had a consultation with an orthopedist on December 18, and began physical therapy on December 19. All of this happened after I insisted on consultation with the other PCMO. And then the decision was made to send me back to the US on December 22 after only 3 PT sessions. I’m not sure if the PCMO took umbridge with someone questioning her medical decisions or what, but despite making progress in PT, it was decided that Peace Corps’ could no longer treat my injury in country.
I figured I’d have to get used to American English, flush toilets, driving, and winter, among other things. I’ve heard about how much harder ‘reverse culture shock’ is from regular culture shock. The the readjustment to fast-pace American life is a much more difficult transition than the transition to rural ‘African’ life. But I was prepared for that. As far as American life goes, my pace is much slower than the average American. I live in rural South Carolina and while it’s not quite the same as rural Rwanda, there are a lot of similarities. What I was not prepared for was dealing with medical separation during a ‘partial’ government shutdown; I was sent out of the country where I was receiving adequate treatment to a country [my own] where I’m unable to receive medical treatment because of a pissing contest between the two major parties of the American government.
You see, medical evacuation and separation is fiercely different than a typical COS, or even an ET. Most PCVs have weeks or months to wrap up projects, pack, and say goodbye. I had two hours. Most end their service with world travel. I ended mine with uncertainty. Most PCVs get to prepare for life in the States again, looking for jobs and finding a place to live. I was on a plane 36 hours after they determined I would be leaving for good.
I had no idea the emotional toll of all this. I was prepared to serve as a health volunteer to the best of my ability for the entire 27 months. Despite the difficulties [Newsflash: Peace Corps service is hard]. Despite the hardship. [It‘s not the spotty electricity or the non-potable water; its the overwhelming loneliness that will get you.] And despite any other difficulties that may have popped up.
Rather than simply dealing with life back in the States, I have had to deal with being torn away from my job, my home, [not]mycat, and my friends, then be sent back to friends and family who just can’t understand it all. Because you can’t understand it unless you’ve been through it.
I’m still readjusting. Every. Single. Day. Some days I still feel homesickness for my life in Rwanda. Not every day, but more days than not. My guess is the longer I am here [in America], the less I’ll miss Rwanda.
I know my life has been fundamentally changed through my experience with the Peace Corps. I know some things will never be as they were before I left. I have changed. But in some ways, I am still transitioning back. It’s taken longer than I ever thought it would.
Wait? Are you still in Rwanda? The Peace Corps? The short answer to that question is no. No, I am not.
As of February 3, 2019 I left Rwanda for what I think will be the absolute last time, but I’ve learned to never say never. Earlier this year I was medically separated from the Peace Corps. No hard feelings there, but as medical separation goes, it is a bit of a cluster-fuck. PC rarely gives you warning that you are being medically separated, therefore there are a lot of unresolved issues that crop up. Rarely is there the opportunity to say good-bye to your cohort, let alone any friends you may have made in other cohorts, and even worse, there’s no opportunity to say good-bye to your community, or pack up what ever of your belongings you want to take with you.
I was medically separated on January 4, 2019. I was medically evacuated a week or so prior. I lived in the infirmary at Peace Corps Head Quarters in Kigali for 36 days. I left my little house on the corner on November 17, thinking I’d return in just over a week thanks to a Peace Corps training. But no, I never did return owing that to an injury suffered while at said training.
However, I already had Peace Corps vacation plans for the month of February so upon arriving back in the US, I did my laundry, organized my stuff, and prepared for returning to Rwanda [I KNOW!], this time not as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but as a private citizen with a still somewhat banged-up leg. I arrived to Kigali on January 22, spent the night in Kigali, shot down to Butare and hung out with friends. Made my way to Nyungwe National Forest… which was just as amazing as I thought it would be. Then I scooted up the coast of Lake Kive to Kibuye and Gisenyi, did some hiking on the Congo-Nile trail, crossed over into the DRC, scooted over to Musanze, made a run for the border and made my way to the ‘Equator’ sign in Uganda, and had a short but memorable safari at Akagera National Park. Finally it was onward to Kigali once again for the originally scheduled flight back to America.
So to recap: GSP–>ATL–>BRU–>KIG–>[11 days in Rwanda + 2 days in Uganda]–>AMS [7 hour layover in Amsterdam where I went out and explored the city]–>WAS–>GSP and in a month’s time I’ll go GSP–>WAS–>PAR–> LON–>ATL–>GSP. 6 weeks of a true whirl-wind exploring parts of Rwanda, the Netherlands, France, and England.
So what’s next?: After my injury, I did some contingency planning and applied to a couple of grad school programs. I just found out that I’ve been accepted to at least one of them. Starting tomorrow, I am back to work at the same job I was at before leaving for the Peace Corps [I’m not sad about that; I loved working there and my co-workers]. I still need some time to process everything that has happened in the last 9 months, but one day I hope to be able to look back on my time with the Peace Corps as a positive time where I did my best to help the people of the community of Mbazi. That time is not today, but I think with time, it will come.
Did I really just go to good ole ‘Murica? Only a few days back in Rwanda, and the entire trip back to South Carolina feels like a dream. I left Rwanda on a Saturday night and was in my own bed by Monday. Lucy and Molly inspected me with above normal curiosity… Maybe they know I’ve been cheating on them with Sadie Mae. Thanks to the generous soul who came to fetch me, my first America meal was a home cooked feast complete with time spent with some of my favorite people. The combination of a full belly and a little more than 24 hours worth of travel had me collapsing into bed around 10p despite the party that was still going on downstairs.
My nearly one month back in ‘Murica had me meeting my new niece [born November 14 ], seeing friends and family, visiting the DMV [in person!], checking out Christmas lights at America’s largest house, dealing with the state nursing board [on-line], making doctor’s appointments, doing some light decorating to my house, and eating pizza! and salads.
I weeded through piles of clothing for clothes that fit [I’ve lost 35 pounds while in Rwanda], donated two large tubs of clothing to charity [maybe I can buy them again in Rwanda] ate out with friends, sat in hot tub, and just enjoyed America’s luxuries in general.
Here’s some general observations I have about going back to America after living 7 months in the rural Rwandan countryside:
America is rich. Excessively so. Even though I stayed in my own house [modest by American standards], I was amazed at the luxury I have. 1 acre of land. 3 TVs. Running water that you can drink straight from the faucet. Toilets. Washing Machine and Dryer. A car.
American bureaucracy sucks just as much as Rwandan bureaucracy–I just understand the language better. #governmentshutdown
Americans eat so much. My Burrito Bowl? Easily 3 Rwandan meals; it lasted for two in America. Nearly every meal I had in America was easily 2-3 Rwandan meals.
Small towns are the same wherever you are. Even though my American neighbors don’t call me ‘muzungu’, they were definitely aware and curious about the fact that I was home.
I got off the plane and went through a fancy customs kiosk. But it literally stunned me, how professional the airport security was. They called me “ma’am” and said “please move this way”. Did you know there is no Rwandan word for please? Professionalism is something we DEFINITELY take for granted in America. It’s expected that you will be treated with respect and courtesy when you enter a service situation where money changes hands. Professionalism in Rwanda? Definitely not what Americans are accustomed to. People are late, answer their phones in meetings, sometimes even drink beer during training. Professionalism is not a value in this culture. As Rwanda tried to increase it’s service sector and therefore its economic position in the world, its people could learn a thing or two about professionalism, courtesy, and manners.
It was nice to be back in an area that is diverse–even if only somewhat. Rwanda, of course, has foreign visitors. And even refugees from Congo and Burundi, but Rwandas are just Rwandan. They have made a concentrated effort to stamp out any ethnic diversity in part due to their history. I love diversity. I love seeing different races and nationalities in the same place at the same time. I love hearing multiple foreign languages spoken at one time.
I haven’t been back in rural Rwanda long enough to assess my feelings. I had to go back to America; I didn’t have to come back to Rwanda. I had appointments to manage, licenses to renew, certifications to maintain, and medical appointment to see about. These are things I could not do from Rwanda, and these licenses weren’t something I was willing to let lapse. I also took the GRE, and while I could have done that in Rwanda, it was just easier to do from America. I wanted to see my people, and despite all the rumors you hear about Reverse Culture Shock, being back home felt ‘right.’ Oh sure, some things felt foreign, but overall, it felt comfortable, and I ‘adjusted’ real quick.
There are decisions to be made for sure, but none of that has to happen right now. And for now, I can enjoy my remaining time in Rwanda whether it be weeks, months, or two years, hang out with friends, and enjoy exploring this tiny, yet incredibly diverse country.
Even though this is only #3 in the series, by the numbers posts seem to be among the most popular, so here goes another one.
1: # of x-rays taken
2: # of MRI’s taken [one of my head and one of my leg]; also number of instances I’ve been on med hold.
3: # of weeks I was on ibuprofen for the pain; 189 number of tables actually taken during those three week. 0 number of times it helped.
7: # of visitors from my cohort who visited my while in med hold… I also had visitors from ED 8, ED 9, and ED 10 in addition to Health 9.
30%: Percent of ‘functionality’ I have in my left leg at my first physical therapy appointment
33: # days on med hold before being medically evacuated from the Peace Corps
*** *** ***
The short answer is : I am currently back in the US getting treatment for my condition. No on knows when/if I will be cleared to resume Peace Corps service or even if I will go back. Basically I’m living in the great state of limbo. Which I hate.
The long answer is a bit more complicated that that, and since I have no actual answers, it’s pure speculation on anyone’s part. What I will say is that I do not like leaving loose ends unraveled and despite what I was able/unable to do, the fact is Peace Corps service is two years, and by not serving two years and leaving not on my terms, leaves me feeling unsettled.
I always thought that if I left Peace Corps prior to the end of my scheduled time, it would be my choice. Turns out, it doesn’t quite work like that.
At home, I have a pile of foreign currency that I used to decorate my house. Some of the more colorful bills are framed; others are just in a jar, or more accurately, a glass block with the term ‘travel fund’ applied to it. It reminds me of places I’ve been, and I’m still just a tiny bit sad I was never in Europe prior to the introduction of the Euro. All that to preface that fact that I still refer to Rwandan Francs as ‘play’ money instead of ‘real’ money. So are you curious about the finances of a PCV in Rwanda? Just how many Rwandan Francs do I earn each month. What exactly is a Rwandan Franc. No? then move along. If the answer is yes, have I got a post for you.
Prior to joining the Peace Corps, I was an Amazon addict. I ordered everything, and I do mean everything, I could on-line so that I would not have to go to a store. I hated everything about shopping from going to a store to search for what I need to standing in a check-out line. Shopping in Rwanda was one of the tasks I looked least forward to.
Tomatoes, onions, rice, fruits, beans, toilet paper, clothes… All of these transactions are now done in person, in cash, in the market. Which means not only talking to people, but also having the cash to carryout that transaction.
First stop–getting that cash to start.
Rwanda has several main banks, and most of the time they work as expected. Unlike in America, if your bank card is misplaced or stolen, you cannot get a replacement the same day. The process could take months. Months! of having to plan your banking around banking hours to actually go in the bank. [shudder]
I am paid by the Peace Corps approximately $200/month in local currency. These funds are deposited into a bank account in my name. These funds do come with a debit card; however, at least in my banking town, I find very few people who will accept it. So usually twice a month I go into the banking town to withdraw funds so that I can do the market shopping. The only thing worse than market shopping is going into the banking town for banking purposes AND carrying around large sums of money.
Picture this scenario, if you will:
I’m strolling through the local food market searching for the tastiest tomatoes, freshest fruit, most exceptional eggs, or whatever. I see something I like, approach the vendor and ask the price [all of this occurs in a language I’ve had exactly six months practicing.] The vendor sometimes replies back in French; sometimes in Kinyarwanda. Great, two languages I’m not very good at plus math. My eyes roll around in my head as I try to remember how to count in French; I then repeat what I think is the number in Kinyarwanda. No matter the price, the reply is always ‘You’re crazy… That’s too much…’ I go back and forth trying to get things to a reasonable price, and when I do, money exchanges hands along with a very heart-felt ‘Murakoze’. And then the scenario is repeated at each and every market stall for every item I may wanted to buy.
It. Is. Exhausting.
This scenario is a prime example of about half the interactions I have when I go food shopping in Rwanda. BUT I will not be taken advantage of because of the color of my skin. Or the words that come out of my mouth.
There’s a lot of tasks that you must do prior do setting off for some far-off destination. And a lot of that costs money. In theory, the Peace Corps gives reimburses you for some of those expenses. In practice, however, I never received anything. So I’m starting off in the hole.
Pre Service Training
Peace Corps | Rwanda arranges for home-stays and gives that family a rather large sum of money to house and feed volunteer for the training period [Our training families received approximately 100,000 Rwandan Francs which is why after week 2 and my meals were dwindling in quantity and quality I made the off-hand comment that ‘I am supplementary income for this family. I won’t go into a lot of detail about the situation, but I will say that I was proven right. And was the situation was proven true with other volunteers from other cohorts. Again. and Again].
Peace Corps then gives you, the trainee, a bi-weekly allowance of 47,000 Rwandan Francs. In theory, this amount allows you to buy lunch everyday, phone credit, maybe an outfit or two, and snacks for yourself. It’s not a ton, especially when lunch is around 5000 francs, and when the host family isn’t feeding you, buying dinner with that 47,000 doesn’t get you very far.
Setting Up House
After swearing in you get a chunk of money to help set up house. For PC |Rwanda, we receive around 275,000 R Francs. Is that enough? For me, it was plenty because my space came fully furnished except bedding [which I brought from home]. I did have to set up a kitchen so I probably spent 150,000 or so on that including a gas stove and a 15kg tank of gas plus 2 kitchen sized tables.
The furniture in the house belongs to the landlord so the previous volunteer really didn’t leave me much of anything of value.The bottom line is that 275,000 Francs isn’t a lot especially when you have to buy furniture, and you might have to wait on some things.
In addition to the settling in allowance, PC will reimburse you up to 100,000 RWF for the purchase of a bicycle if you convince them you need it [a policy change—they used to just give you a bike, and there are about 20 used TREK bikes partly covered by a tarp at PC HQ just wasting away] .
Each month after swearing in you get a stipend and sometimes another mid-month payment to cover one-time expenses and reimbursements. The stipend is supposed to be enough to maintain a standard of living equal to that of your community, but in reality at least my standard of living is a little bit higher than my community.
For December 2018, I received 198,094 Rwandan Francs. Converted to US$, it’s just over $225.
Peace Corps breaks it down in to categories:
Ultimately, how I spend that is up to me. Financially, I am comfortable in site. Sometimes I even save a little. This is not the case for all PCVs. Those in bigger sites or more rural sites sometime have to spend more.
Living allowance: 120,596 [this is supposed to cover all food, laundry, clothing, internet/phone credit, evenings on the town [HA!], ect]. It rarely does.
Bank/ATM Fees: 1000 RWF. Rwandan banks are worse than American banks and I can’t walk past an ATM without 1000 RWF being deducted from my account. But for example, it’s 236RWF for every transaction at your bank and 1587 for transactions at other banks.
Leave Allowance [goes towards any vacation I might take]: 30, 800 RWF
Utilities: 7,094 [we’re required to pay our own electricity and also includes someone fetching water for me]
In-country Travel Allowance: 6416 [for official PC travel, trips to banking towns for official business, ect]
I speak from experience: the second I leave site I start hemorrhaging money. There’s the expense of travel itself. And eating Every.Single.Meal out. I can’t put the amount of money I spent in Dec while on med hold in print because it’s so scary. Let’s just say I’m glad I was frugal in Sept/Oct/Nov.
Here is a sampling of prices:
One month of phone credit/internet: 30,000
Hotel room: 15000 Dorm 5000
A liter of milk: 1000
Enough fruits, vegetables, bread, eggs, ect to last me the week: 5000
Liter water: 500 RWF
Dozen of eggs: 1200 RWF
Finally, unlike in the U.S. I never spend money on medical supplies like band-aids, ibuprofen, condoms or prescription meds. That’s 100% covered by Peace Corps. I have yet to be actually sick, so I’m not sure I’m realizing that benefit.
Of the living allowance 6400 is earmarked for travel. This covers any mandatory and/or Peace Corps organized travel but not optional travel, even if it is work related. If we don’t spend it on travel, it’s ours to spend how we please. But as one trip to the capital costs 6600-7600 round trip, it doesn’t go very far.
Peace Corps can take you to some very dark places.
The reality of Peace Corps life is that no one [except other volunteers] can even possibly begin to understand the day-to day realities of Peace Corps life, and while communication is much better in 2018 or 2019 than the 1960’s or 1990′ or even the late 2000’s, people in America can’t possibly understand what our daily existence is like. Peace Corps came up with the slogan ‘The toughest job you’ll ever love‘ in the early 1980’s, and it stuck. The current Peace Corps slogan is ‘Life is calling. How far will you go‘. Regardless of what is current or not the original 1980’s slogan is still what most people think of when they hear Peace Corps.
When you’re applying for Peace Corps, you will hear that slogan many times. From the comfy confines of our living room, I’m sure none of us doubted it would be difficult, or that we’d love it (most of us, at least). We knew full well we would leave behind the relative comfort and richness of America for some poverty-stricken corner of the world. What we didn’t realize is in just how many ways we were rich.
When I landed landed in Kigali some months ago, the immediate effects were simple. Two 8 hour flights. Minimal food and general travel weariness greeted us. When we were deposited at the nunnery, despite the plethora of available food, many of us did not eat a lot. Or talk a lot. We just wanted sleep. And the chance to get horizontal was just beyond unloading our luggage from a giant truck.
Getting vaccinated against every probable disease known to inhabit the planet… Sitting in an uncomfortable, hand-made wooden chair for two agonizing hours. Beginning to learn a language than even Google Translate doesn’t even attempt. That moment of utter disbelieve that the last year [or two] of your life has culminated to this, to these trials and tribulations, these extreme extremes. The path that was ahead of us was, albeit long, an exciting one. One where every corner brought another new surprise, even after you felt like nothing would ever surprise you again after what you’ve seen. This is the ‘honeymoon’ phase. You show up here, having idolized and idealized what this life would be like. You (I) had these ideas of grandeur, of sleeping on dirt floors, bathing in rivers, being the ‘cool’ Peace Corps Volunteer who had been there, done that, and lived every awesome experience you could possibly imagine.
The first riches stripped away were not these physical comforts we see as ‘necessitates’ in the States. The first things we lost were the things it would ultimately take us the longest to realize they were riches in the first place. Prior to landing in Rwanda, my training group ‘staged’ in Philadelphia. Prior to taking off to quite literally the middle of Africa, I stood in the airport in Greenville and did what I now understand to be one of the hardest things in my life. I stood there, said good bye to my best friend and two little munchkins, knowing that next time I saw them the third little munchkin on the inside would be on the outside. I checked in, went through security, and waited in the terminal. I waited until literally the final boarding call for Philadelphia and thus Peace Corps being before I got on the plane. Even though at that moment getting on the plane was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. For them, and the others I’ve said good bye to in the preceding days, it was ‘she’s doing something she wants to do, making the world a better place, ect.’ For me, however, I have to live day-to-day with the question of ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ No amount of soul-searching, and no measure of resolve, can stop this from happening.
When you join Peace Corps, you will be willingly subjecting yourself to certain things, ‘extremes,’ if you will. A lot of these will be physical. You will have insomnia [or hypersomnia]. You will get sick [For me, it’s been a never ending battle with dizziness]. You will vomit on a routine basis [I’ve only vomited once–30 minutes after ingesting suspect watermelon, but I’m nauseous quite frequently]. Chances are, you’ll succumb to some disease (or three) that would have potentially been extremely serious if you hadn’t paid attention during training or if you didn’t have access to health care that far exceeds that given to your community members [Giradia, Malaria, Ebola?]. At first, a full-night’s sleep will seem impossible [I was up at 2am for a solid 3 weeks straight] This will change over time, but can (and will) revert to deprivation at the drop of a hat. You will sweat [even if you live in the cold, mountainous part of the country.] You will cry [in the privacy of your own home or perhaps a random latrine; that’s not usually kosher in public]. You will bleed [probably from falling down.] You will be able to scrap the dirt, dead skin, and God knows what else off your arms with your fingers [or loofah if you had the foresight to bring one] . Your hair will be absolutely disgusting [two words–dry shampoo], and there’ll be more dead skin on your scalp than on your arms [if that’s possible]. And these are just the physical changes that will happen.
The far darker side is the mental effects you will undergo. You will feel more alone than you have ever been, felt, or dreamt of being in your entire life. Sure, you will be a ‘member of your community,’ insofar as a 20 or 30-something foreigner with a very limited knowledge of their language and even less understanding of their cultural norms can integrate into a community which is physically and emotionally homogeneous. Let me say again: You Will Cry. You will want to curl up in your empty bed and scream for the ‘simple’ things in life. You will want somebody to hold you, to just wrap their arms around you and pull you into them. There will be days when you feel like you are empty inside. There will be days when you feel like going ape-shit crazy and destroying anything you can get your hands on, including your neighbors, colleagues, and yourself. These are the VERY dark days of service.
Often a bad coping strategy for Peace Corps… And Life.
Talking with friends and family at home helps, but only to a certain degree. Some days a call to/from home is exactly what you need to persevere for another day. But you’ll get this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that, for as much as they can say they understand, and as much as you’d love them to be able to, they cannot. Confiding in parents, purging your emotions to your old friends, and talking to significant others can only get you so far. Sure, you can build up fantastic relationships with your community-members, you can get to know them pretty well, and you can confide in them and become really good friends with them. But in the end, they still cannot fully understand what you’re going through because you do not share the same cultural connotations.
In the end, the logical place to turn to aid your emotional well-being is your fellow Volunteer. But, just like everything in Peace Corps, it is not that simple. Yes, these people understand what you deal with on a day-to-day basis. They were there during the 10-week trial that was Pre-Service Training. When it comes down to it, regardless of how counter-intuitive this is, we all left behind the majority of things that made us happy when we came here. Once here, it becomes so tempting, so easy, to allow your happiness to rely on a single thing, a single person, a single ability. Then, just as you feared, that solitary thing that makes you happy and is what keeps you sane is gone. You will have the darkest, coldest winter in your life, even if you’re 2 degrees away from the Equator. You’ll learn your lesson, but by that point, it’s too late.
Peace Corps service is all about these extremes. As dark as it is, even masochistic on some levels, this is what we signed up for, right? We tell ourselves we are here for some noble purpose, that we are not here to find ourselves, but to lose ourselves. To change who we are at the very core. Make no mistake; Peace Corps will change you, hopefully for the better. But this is not for the faint of heart or the weak-willed. There will be times when you want nothing more than to quit, to say ‘screw all of this’ and go home, curl up in your comfortable American bed, watch TV, eat as much food as you can see, and never move ever again. But what we are really here for is to take the punches, not to roll with them. Rolling with the punches assumes you can see them coming and avoid getting hurt. During Service, things will come from the left just as you were so preoccupied by what was to your right, slamming into your head and sending you sprawling. When you finally pick yourself up (and you always will), you’ll look to the left just in time to see… nothing. Whatever knocked you down so hard was so minute, so trivial that it begs to be laughed at for even affecting you. Peace Corps service is a time when ants can topple giants. Most days you’ll feel like the giant; on top of the world, having it all because you chose to be here. Then, BAM! Dark days are here again.
It is impossible to compartmentalize your emotions and feelings here. Attempting to bottle them up and put on your ‘game face’ will only make it worse. Those of us who claim to be expert compartmentalizers will simply be able to hold out longer, but we [they] will eventually crack just like everybody else. At the same time, you cannot risk wearing your emotions on your sleeve. You have to allow the bad things to either roll off your back or limit their expression to the privacy of your own home all while actively seeking the positive things. Holding back emotions in a situation like this makes implosion only a matter of time. Above having to cry, you will need to cry, sometimes for no reasons. Some days you will not want to get out of bed [not because it’s super comfy although my 3! yes 3 mattresses do make it tolerable], some days you will not be able to fall asleep no matter how many drugs you take or how early you have to be at work in the morning. These are the dark days of service.
The only constant in this life is that nothing is as it seems it was, is, or should be. If it feels like rain, put on sunscreen. If you feel on top of the world, bring a parachute. Whatever you think will happen will not and no matter how creative your imagination is, you will consistently be baffled at what actually does happen, at the seemingly random occurrences and outcomes that meld together to blow your mind every night. Daily events will seem like something out of a bizarre dream, yet your new reality won’t hold a candle to what your subconscious mind can now conjure up while you’re sound asleep. .
Peace Corps Service is a roller coaster. There will be ups and downs. There will be dark times. There will be times that you feel like you are in free-fall. You will feel like you will die. But you won’t. [Most likely] The only guarantee is that you will rise up again, only to come rocketing back down until that day comes when you pull into the station and the only thought that pops into you mind is “Wow, what a ride.’
Let my make myself clear: I am not suicidal, depressed, homicidal, or wanting to self injure. Emotions are a bitch.
Just tell me HOW is this possible. It seems like only yesterday I was packing my bags for Madagascar.
Life, as life tends to do, happened, and my long awaited trip to Madagascar turned into a should I or shouldn’t I go to Rwanda.
But despite any misgivings I may or may not have had I DID in fact get on the plane headed to Kigali on June 5, 2018, and late in the evening of June 6, I along with 23 other Peace Corps trainees arrived in Kigali dragging behind us entirely too much [actual] luggage, and if I’m honest, a bit of invisible luggage in the form of fears, hopes, dreams, and expectations.
Just a few weeks ago, the newest volunteers were sworn in and sent to their sites with their own literal and figurative baggage. The key difference between these new volunteers and our group is that these new volunteers are based in the education sector while my group is based in Health. I don’t know if that makes me a ‘veteran’ volunteer or not, but I feel some relief that my cohort is not the ‘newest’ group in country any more.
Can I believe that I have made it this far. No, not really. I’ve had issues with my health center from the beginning [see living that med hold life] for an example. Do I have thoughts/feelings/words of wisdom? You better believe it.
Advance research about your host country is a good idea but has limits. For example, when researching Rwanda the 1994 genocide is the first thought in everyone’s mind. Then maybe gorillas, if they are into nature. Guidebooks will give you insight into the life of a tourist and ideas about places you might want to visit, but very little into the life of a local. And especially not as a rural local.
Time goes quickly. Even the difficult days of PST, where every waking moment was controlled by Peace Corps, time passed by rather quickly.
Time goes slowly. There are days when I do very little.
Being able to be Peace Corps Volunteer is a huge privilege. Sure, you will hear people say “it’s a privilege to serve” but I mean a different kind of privilege. The path to getting here—which at minimum requires a college degree and the ability to leave responsibilities in the U.S. behind for 2 years—is littered with privilege. I wish more Americans could have this experience but the barriers for entry are too high. Especially if you are not a recent college graduate, have children, an exorbitant amount of debt, ect.
For people who don’t like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and fill in the blank with social medial de jour], I hear you. People who can’t have a thought without making a post about it annoy the snot out of me, but for PCVs living in remote spots, Facebook, WhatsApp et.al. are nothing less than a godsend for feeling like you still have contact with the outside world.
My mental health has be mostly stable. I’ve had a few issues; a few what the fuck am I doing here moments, but I have maintained my sanity. I’ve never suffered from depression and/or anxiety before, but I’ve had more panic attacks in six months that I have ever had in my life. I assumed leaving would be 100% my choice. Turns out that’s not always how it works. And if I do end up not serving the two years, who knows what the actual cause will be.
I am American. Not I am “an” American. That I knew. Living in another country has made me more aware of the things about me that are truly American: personal space, free will, self-reliance and imagination and non-conformity are all things to be celebrated; my preference for a straight answer rather than vague mumbling in agreement when someone really had no plans to agree; my thoughts on pet ownership [despite what our Country Director thinks/says cats are great for companionship and critter control] and child rearing [hitting a less that five year old child for not wanting to take medicine, go speak to the ‘muzungu’, or a myriad other offenses] is not OK in my book, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to sit back and sit on my hands and watch parents literally BEAT their children. [PC’s official policy is that volunteers are not to get involved in matters concerning host country nationals. PC can kiss my ass on this policy and if I’m ever administratively separated it will be because I stood between a child and adult daring the adult to, as the saying goes, ‘pick on someone their own size.’] There are million other little things. It’s all American.
I am proud to be American. Mostly. I have no illusions that America is the greatest at everything and I disagree with many stances that my government takes but I don’t believe you have to have a “love it or leave it” mentality to be patriotic. It turns out that I do love America and have affection for many of our most ridiculous habits, traditions and idiosyncrasies.
Some things are neither better nor worse, just different. But some things are most definitely better or worse. Living abroad gives you the chance to clarify your values. What merits compromise? What doesn’t? I feel confident in saying that as a woman moving through western society, I have it way better than 99% of the women I know moving through Rwandan society. Cultural relativism is one thing, access to education and reproductive rights, freedom to reject misogyny, the ability to have legal recourse against rape and domestic violence—that’s another. Not that these things are perfect in America. But they are So. Much. Better.
It’s hard to explain to Peace Corps to outsiders. From the long periods of idleness where you struggle to find work to the long periods of idleness that actually are work [sitting for four hours drinking tea with your neighbors because some neighbor’s relative–you’re not sure whose–died]. Important community integration work! A lot of it does not makes sense to people who haven’t lived it.
Everyone’s service is their own. How I hated hearing that during training. It sounds like a platitude but it turns out to be true. As a volunteer in Rwanda I have it way different than those in Paraguay, Georgia, or Vanuatu ; as a woman my service is different than a man’s; as someone in a rural site my service is different from someone who lives in an urban environment; as a close to middle aged person with a career my service is different from a fresh out of college person. The list goes on and on. Everyone’s service is their own.
I don’t regret it. A couple of months in I said “even if I had to go home tomorrow, this experience has been worth it.” I still feel that way.
So here I am at almost 7 months in. Do I think I will I make it to the close of my service? [July 2020 for those who are tracking.]
Who knows? Do I feel some great loyalty to the Peace Corps? Not really. If we were evacuated due to Ebola, would I be sad? Not at all. If I get accepted to grad school at an earlier time than my COS date, will I go? Almost certainly.
This is not the first year I haven’t been home for the Christmas holidays. As a registered nurse and before that a respiratory therapist, I’ve spent most of or at least part of nearly every Christmas in a hospital of some sort. Sometimes is was a children’s hospital where we got to ‘play Santa’ for the sick kids; sometimes it was in a psychiatric hospital where someone actually thought they were Santa.
Sometimes I wasn’t home for the holidays because although I worked on the actual holiday, I spent the weeks leading up to or immediately after traveling. I’ve spent Christmas traveling in France and Germany trying to determine the best Christmas market.
I’ve spent Christmas in Bosnia and Serbia where it truly looks like a winter wonderland and bonus! these countries celebrate ‘western’ Christmas and Orthodox Christmas so if you time it right, you can have 2 solid weeks of holidays.
I’ve spent Christmas in Mexico watching the sun dip into the Pacific Ocean while laying stretched out on a beach and in Argentina watching the sun rise on the Atlantic coast. But this year it’s different.
This year I’m 8000 miles from my actual home and about 100 from my temporary home in Rwanda. It’s been 5 weeks since I’ve seen my little house on the corner and been able to pet #notmycat. It’s been longer than that since I’ve set foot in my health center. And I’m not heading home in a couple of weeks like all the other times.
These days I spend most of my time lying around the Peace Corps HQ recovering from a fall. It’s cruel punishment really, as I am mostly alone. PC staff has a ‘no fraternization’ policy with volunteers and I guess this even means a ‘hello’ on my part is greet by a curt and/or terse response and quick retreat on their part, and since my condition, at this point is chronic, I see the PCMO at most for 5 minutes. I’ve had a few visitors but life in the capital is forbidden per PC policy [and expensive!] so I keep to myself. And my books. And while I can be melancholy about my situation, it doesn’t change it so I try to be positive, and hope for the day my situation changes.