From Trainee to Volunteer 1: Swearing in and Moving Out

On Tuesday August 14, 2018 despite any reservations anyone may or may not have had, I, along with 22 others was sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda representing cohort Health 10.

I wore a fancy dress. I put on make-up. I danced on live TV. I listened to speeches given by my fellow trainees/volunteers, the Charge d’Affairs, the Country Director, the Program Manager, the director of Training, a Ministry of Health official, and a tuitulaire.  Some speeches were in English; some were in Kinyarwanda, and around noon, after starting nearly an hour behind schedule, I stood, raised my right hand, and swore to protect the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

It’s the same oath everyone who works for the government takes including the US Military.  The military was never intended to be my career path, but in taking the same oath that several friends and family have taken, I felt a momentary surge of patriotic pride.

After becoming an official volunteer, we munched on snacks and Fanta, and mingled with the people there.  All in all, it was one of the happier days since arriving in Rwanda.

All good things must come to an end, and around 1:30 we were escorted to immigration to get our Rwandan ID cards made.  These cards mark our official residency status and in theory gives up Rwandan citizen status especially at places that charge a higher price for foreign tourists [Rwandan national parks, I’m looking at you].

Things get crazy while waiting out turns at immigration

On Tuesday evening, after the ceremony and after immigration, nearly everyone went out for drinking and dancing. I know myself well enough to know that would have been a mistake on my part, so I spent a quiet evening at home—home, one again, being our Catholic nunnery.  Before anyone starts to feel sorry for me for ‘missing out’ on anything, having the nunnery to myself was pretty awesome.   I had unlimited food and drink [I think I had 5 fantas and at least 2 plates of food], I was able to take a hot shower that lasted longer than 5 minutes [seriously, only my second since leaving America. The first one being at the PC infirmary a mere two weeks prior].  Without any competing devices, I was able to use the internet to my hearts’ content, download books to my Kindle, movies to my hard drive, and even video chat on WhatsApp.  I had a perfectly enjoyable evening doing the things I love with the people I love, and didn’t suffer the hangover that most of my cohort had.

Glow in the dark Jesus for the win

Thanks to a Catholic holiday, we had a free day on Wednesday saving the actual moving until Thursday, and thankfully, most stores are not Catholic and were open for business. I’m not a huge shopper, but I did enjoy hanging out at the bookstore with the rooftop bar, getting my gas stove and a few other home goods, and going to the grocery store getting some food favorites in preparation for my first weekend alone.

Thursday morning involved moving all the stuff that had been stored in a room up to the parking lot to be loaded in to the moving vehicle.  I was as surprised as anyone when everything was loaded, and two volunteers’ stuff for two years fit in one Toyota pick-up truck.  Good byes were said; tears were shed, and off we went [I admit to remaining mostly stoic until one of my Northern friends hugged me and had tears in her eyes. Then my eyes did the same].  With bananas and bread in hand [who can eat breakfast at an emotional time like this] plus a couple bottles of water, my fellow volunteer and I set off to the South.

 

I still can’t believe nothing fell off the truck while we we’re moving

We dropped her off first, and I was a little envious of her site. A proper house with a small front porch, right in town, with neighbors for visiting.  Her HC happened to be a 15 minute or so walk which is just about perfect.  [I can hear the babies being vaccinated from inside my house].

Somewhere between her site an mine

After she was ‘installed’, we bumped along back roads for about an hour until we reached the town of Nyanza, and the dirt roads once again turned to pavement. Another 30-45 minutes later, we pulled up to my house. Things were unloaded; the gas stove was tested [it worked!], and suddenly I was alone… truly alone for the first time in quite some time.

I had planned for this eventuality, had ample international phone credit and data, and set about to making my first meal in my ‘new home.’ [It was delicious].  I unpacked a few things, hung some wall decor, made my bed [pulling out my quilt for the first time], and listened to some tunes.  Later on, I called some friends. Past experiences have taught me that I don’t make the best decisions when I’m either hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, and on my first night here, I was two of the four.

First meal at the new homestead… Moving all that stuff in the house is hard work

On Friday, I made my way down to the city, to get a few more food items, go to the bank, meet some current volunteers, have some Chinese food, and start to figure out how all this works.

I am in a small village in rural Rwanda.  Doing things the way I am used to doing is no longer an option.

This is my new normal.

 

 

Splish splash… I was takin’ a [bucket] bath

Splish, splash, I was takin’ a [bucket] bath
Long about a Saturday night, yeah
A rub dub, just relaxin’ in the tub
Thinkin’ everythin’ was alright
Well, I stepped out the tub
I put my feet on the floor
I wrapped the towel around me and I
Opened the door……………………………
Bobby Darrin
It has been 53 days since I have felt hot water on my naked skin. It will be another two weeks until I’m back in Kigali at the nunnery with the hot water. In these 53 days, I have taken approximately 30 bucket baths of cold water.  I do not enjoy this, but as my host family does not have running water,  asking them to light a fire and boil some water seems a bit too presumptuous, cold water is my only option [Edit: during the  last week at my host family, I found out that they have an electric kettle that they had been keeping from me. It did not endear them to me.  Yes, I asked before hand. No they didn’t just get it.  I only found about about it by waking up earlier than expected. To say I was pissed would be an oversimplification of fact. Also this post is edited now that I am at my house I do things just a little differently than before]  So how exactly does one bathe in a bucket?

Tools Needed:

  • 1 Bucket
  • 1 cup [anywhere from 8-16oz will do], or empty plastic bottle
  • Soap of choice
  • Shampoo of choice
  • Flip-Flops
  • Non-electrical lighting [not necessarily needed if you are bathing in the middle of the day]
  • Towel and washcloth


Taking a long, hot shower [or even a short hot shower] along with relaxing in a hot tub are two of life’s greatest luxuries, in my humble opinion.  As neither are available to me at the present time, I can only dream… dream that one day my back will get clean, the hot water will pulsate and rumble all around me working out any muscular kinks. [To be fair, the hot tub didn’t happen all that often back in America, but it was the fact that it COULD.  In Rwanda, that is but a dream.]

There are currently no such luxuries in  my life. In Rwanda, my life revolves around a bucket. Or more accurately, buckets, but that’s another story for another day, and to say that I am not a morning person would also be a gross understatement of fact. SO. More times than not I do not bathe in the morning, I use those extra few minutes for another cat nap, and everyone’s is a little happier.

I roll out of bed around 6:45am. The roosters have been cockle-doodle-doing since about 4:30a and the cows are moo-ing about who knows what and despite the fact that I sleep with my windows open, and do in fact hear the world coming to life starting about 5a, I roll over, pull the blanket over my eyes, turn the music up just a little bit louder, and drift in and out of consciousness for the next two or so hours.  6:45 is the absolute latest I can arouse myself, find clean[ish] clothes, make my hair look like I, in fact, did not stick my finger in an electric socket, drink 500ml of water and eat a piece of fruit and call it breakfast, brush my teeth, take my vitamins, and get to the health center by 7:00a.  Most of the time, I am the only one present at 7a, but they say work starts at 7 and like the punctual American I am, I’m there at 7 [or at least by 7:15].  Also, notice there’s no time to be messing around with buckets at this time of day, but what I do, is pour water from my jerry-can into my bathing bucket until it is about 1/3-1/2 of the way full, probably using  about 7-10 L of water. I then set this bucket outside in the sun, and let that amazing star perform it’s magic.

It’s rarely what I call hot these days, [and though sometimes I do sweat while going on long walks, it’s usually confined to the back of my head… dry shampoo is a wonderful thing] so cold, straight from the tap water is a no-go; if it’s a choice between cold water on a cool day or being dirty, being dirty may just win out. My day usually ends around 2p so I walk the 50 or so steps from the health center to my house, make lunch/dinner, and if it’s been a sunny day, whooooo-weee…. my bucket now contains lukewarm water, which is more than adequate for me to do the deed. [It’s amazing what we can become accustomed to/ becomes normal]

Step-by-step for bucket bathing

I have tried to make my shower room ‘rural Rwanda luxurious’.   Bucket bathing still sucks but at least with all my tools in the designated spot, and not having to schlep them around from here to there, makes it not suck as much.

 

Step 1:  Get nekkid… except for flip-flops.  No amount of cleaning will make that floor clean.  Wear the flip-flops.

Step 2:  Hang clothes on the nails loving pounded into the concrete

Step 3:  Fill my cup with water.

Step 4:  Take washcloth, wet, take soap and wash face. Use the water in the cup to rinse soapy face. 20% done. [Every.Single.Time I am amazed by the amount of dirt I see in the cup.]

Step 5:  Fill cup again and pour over head.  This part is so much nicer with lukewarm water.

Step 6: Shampoo. Lather. Rinse. Rinse again. 40% done.

Step 7: Using a washcloth [or loofah scrubby thing], soap it up and begin scrubbing.  I usually start at the top and work my way down… over the hills and valleys and peaks and crevices, if you know what I mean. 60% done.

Step 8:  Rinse.  It’s actually not too bad with warm water. I still miss a faucet and actual hot water, but this will suffice. 80% done.

Step 9:  Wash feet. It’s  amazing how much dirt they can attract… even while wearing socks and shoes.

Step 10:  Rinse feet and marvel at the amount of dirt/dry skin you’ve removed. 100% done

Addendum:  Dry self and put on clothes… Bonus points for remembering to bring clean ones.

This process usually takes approximately seven to ten minutes.  If it is a nice sunny day, there is nothing more enjoyable [in Rwanda anyway] than sitting outside, freshly bathed in the sun reading a book while letting the sun dry your hair.  It’s one of the few times I can enjoy bathing, because in rural Rwanda, bathing is no longer fun; it’s just another chore to be done.

Postscript:  I have one of those Amope foot things…It is essentially a battery operated sander for feet.  I use it once a week on clean feet, then slather clean, scrubbed feet in Vaseline. Finally, I put on socks and go to bed.  It’s amazing how much nicer my feet are since I started doing this.

 

 

 

I’m a stranger here myself

What the actual F*ck am I doing here?

It’s a question I ask myself daily, sometimes hourly, and occasionally every few minutes.

I have been in Rwanda just under two months and have spent all that time save one week in our training village of Rwamagana learning Kinyarwanda and how to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, because as of now, I am still NOT a Peace Corps Volunteer, merely a lowly Peace Corps Trainee.  The one week not spent in Rwamagana was spent visiting my site aka the place where I’ll be living throughout my two years of service, and let me tell you, during that week I asked myself the above question about 100 times.

What the actual f*ck am I doing here?  Where the h*ll am I?  Why isn’t there any food?  How can I get the f*ck out of here? Why am I headed to yet another bar when I’ve told this person I don’t drink?  Is it too late to go back to work at my [nice] job in America?  The one with awesome co-workers? Or my house with my [oh-so-comfy] bed? Or my kitty cats? Why did I think becoming a Peace Corps volunteer was a good idea anyway?

Before applying to the Peace Corps in 2016, it was something I considered while I was in high school.  And then again after college. It was part of the reason I studied foreign languages in college.  But as LIFE tends to do, it got in the way and I saw my immediate post-college years running away from a bad relationship [quite literally as I  years 22 and 23 on the run in Mexico–and Belize–and Guatemala–and El Salvador…you get the drift] and then running towards a career [any career]. 24 would have been the perfect time for me to join the Peace Corps. I was mostly unencumbered by responsibilities. I was nearly fluent in Spanish. I’d spent much of the last year and a half teaching English as as Second Language in various places to various groups of people.  Aside from the political aspect [and while PC claims to be apolitical an overwhelming majority of PCVs lean democratic], at 24 I was a Peace Corps’ poster child–a person with just enough life experience to still see the good in everyone and still want to save the world. I was a person unsure of my life and career goals. I was exactly the type of person that the Peace Corps seems to attract.

At this stage of my life, my 20’s have long passed [thankfully]. I am about as apolitical as they come, and I while I have a career as a nurse, no one in their right mind would call me a professional do-gooder.  I am as sure of my career and life goals as one can be when FATE is involved.

 So what am I doing here and why I am I doing this exactly?

Well, it took me a long while to work that out.

I’ve written about that a couple of times already, but even though there are several contributing factors, at my core, I want to help people. And yes, I could ‘help people’ without putting my life on hold, and moving 7800 miles and three continents away, but where’s the adventure in that? To date, I have traveled in 54 countries [although none in Africa until now], but never really lived in one area other than the upstate of South Carolina for a period longer than four months [except that one time, I moved to North Carolina, but my LIFE was still firmly ensconced in South Carolina.] My reasons are as varied as any other PCV’s reason are, and yes, at the end, I hope to get something tangible in exchange for my service.

My site seems to already know about permagarden techniques

Where is here? And Rwanda?

Well, it wasn’t my first choice.

But when was the last time you met anyone who has been to Sub-Sahara Africa, let alone lived there.  I know a few people who have visited a handful of countries, mostly in East/Southern Africa, but on the whole, not many people I know even consider Africa [as if it is one country instead of one rather large continent consisting of 54* individual countries] as a vacation destination.  And Rwanda?  If not for this Peace Corps opportunity, I can almost guarantee than I would have never set foot in the country. And I like to consider my self a traveler and not a tourist, and in my mind that means doing my best to experience the great touristy parts of the world, as well as the places that are off the grid.  And in 2018, Rwanda is still off most people’s grid.

“I want to help people.”

And I really do want to help people. I’ve worked in healthcare for most of my adult life.  If I didn’t truly want to ‘help people’ there are a lot of other, less strenuous, less soul-draining professions out there where I could probably make more money, have a better life-work balance, and certainly not spend all hours of the night awake.

But American healthcare is complicated. The overwhelming majority of my co-workers want to ‘help people’,  yet we often know that whatever we do–whether it’s a life-saving measure in the Emergency Department or Continued Care in a Rehabilitation Department–it’s a stop-gap procedure.  Yes, SOME people do GET IT.  Some people see it the catalyst needed to do massive behaviour change, but for the most part, Americans are repeat offenders in the health care system, and generally speaking look to blame their problems on others.

Now I’ll get my chance to work with patients who really want and need help.  Of course, creating behavior change is still going to be hard.

Third Goal

The Peace Corps, as one of their central missions for each volunteer, encourages each person to share their story with people in America. A blog or Instagram account is an easy way to do that, but also writing for the local paper or sharing my story via local meetings would accomplish this goal.  In addition to writing about my experiences in Rwanda as a Peace Corps volunteer, I’ll be doing a presentation in at least one elementary school classroom during my service.

Forth Goal

Ok so there is no official 4th goal, but for me, joining Peace Corps’ is a way to slow down in inevitability of life.  People say the older you get, the more time flies, and at this stage of life, I’m starting to see that.  The pressure to settle down, get married, have a career is intense.  Momentum is carrying me along and sometimes I can’t seem to stop it.  Of course, there are less dramatic and more practical methods of changing habits and behaviors than moving to a remote Rwandan village e for two years. But where would be the fun in that?

Back country transport–how things are here

By the numbers: 1st edition

This post is a little different than previous posts as I am currently visiting my future home. I thought I would quantify my experience in Rwanda thus far.

0: Number of pants that I brought that still fit.  Note: I still wear all the pants that are too big so my outfits these days are quite comical. Also the number of things i have accidentally dropped into the latrine. Thankfully.

1: Number of kittens I’ve seen. Also number of kittens that currently live at my house. Also the number of times I have eaten fish.

2: Number of volunteers from South Carolina in my cohort. Also number of volunteers from South Carolina that I know.

3: Number of ikitenge fabrics I’ve bought and have had made into clothing. Also the average number of liters of water I drink daily.

 

5: KM….Distance to Huye/Butare, the second largest city in Rwanda. I’m about to become a city girl.

6: number of pizza bites I ate at our last training meeting. They were delicious.

8. Number of times I have eaten spaghetti with tomato sauce after I explained that I don’t just like plain noodles. Also the number of people in my cohort also placed in the south.

10: number of kilograms I’ve list since arriving in Rwanda. This is not surprising as my activity level has increased and my caloric intake had decreased.

15: % number of women who currently seeking prenatal care at my health centre.

23: Number of people remaining in our cohort. One person left about two weeks ago.

49: Days since I left South Carolina.

86: Currently the number of children that suffer from malnutrition registered at my health center. My goal is to reduce it to 0.

148: Number of current Peace Corps volunteers in Rwanda serving in health and education. The distribution is about 2/3 education and 1/3 health.

~500: Words. My approximate Kinyarwanda vocabulary. This is a gross estimate and may be more or less.

 

725+/-: Days remaining in the Peace Corps assuming things go as planned.

36700+/-: The number of people in my cachement area. A cachement area is the geographical area a specific health center serves. My cachement area is the largest in Rwanda.

42000: Rwandan francs I receive every two weeks. It’s approximately $40 and I use it to buy lunch everyday as well as fabric/clothing, phone credit, data package, and anything else that pops up.

Other duties as required

‘Other duties as required’… it’s a phrase I’ve always hated–that very vague part of the job description where an employer can ask to to do almost anything and before you can say ‘no’ they come back with ‘other duties as required’.

As it pertains to a Peace Corps Maternal-Child Health volunteer, other duties as required means building your own hand-washing station, pooping in a hole, bathing with cold water in a series of carefully coordinated steps, doing laundry in a series of buckets, learning a traditional dance, bargaining for every franc, hugging small children on a daily basis, and learning a language so foreign from the Latin based languages I’ve previously learned.

 

Site announcement day

After much [much, much, much, MUCH] anticipation, and at least one delay, site announcement day finally arrived, and what can I say, at last I know where I will be living and working for the next two years. I know many of you have been waiting for this as well, but I’ll keep you in suspense for a few minutes more.  Site placement is a big deal. A volunteer’s site means not only the physical location of their house, but also their health center, their community, their PCV neighbors, how far away from pizza they live, etc, and it will shape their lives in so many way for the next two years, though possibly much longer.  While I didn’t have a specific location in mind, I did have a couple of preferences:  1.  To be rural; mountains would be nice, but mainly I wanted to have one of the 1000 hills of Rwanda to myself, 2. be the first volunteer at the site, and 3. if at all possible, I wanted to work at a Catholic Health Center with nuns. While it was next to impossible to remain neutral, all I could do was trust the process.

So where will I call home?

Peace Corps’ says that sites are not assigned at random, but at times it certainly feels that way.  While PC sites are assigned based on based on each volunteer’s interests and preferences, their skills, strengths, and weaknesses, and ultimately where the staff thinks each volunteer can make the greatest impact.

So finally the day arrived. We had morning language class, late morning sex-ed [we finished early and had a 3 hour wait for the officials to get to the training center from Kigali. We got cinnamon rolls, drank milk tea, and played Banana-grams.  The clock seemed to go in reverse.  Then finally, finally we went out back, and as our name was called, we had to find our health center on a map, and stick a pin in it.

So where am I going? Drum roll, please………

** Huye [Butare] in the Southern province.

I’ll admit that at first I was not happy with my site placement. At all.  Butare is the 2nd largest city in Rwanda, and I am a 45 min-1 hour walk to the city or a quick moto ride.  My cachement area is the largest of my cohort coming in at a whopping 35700+ people.  Not small. Not rural. No hill to myself. Not the first volunteer, and no nuns. For a good 24 hours, I was NOT HAPPY, but then I realized that my situation has an upside.  The bus to Kigali is a nice Express bus with assigned seating… No squeeze bus required.  Living in the south means the chance I will vomit on public transportation is minimal.  Living near Butare means there is pizza and ice cream and a hipster coffee shop.  It means electricity.  Replacing a volunteer means I already have a couch and some home goods so less money that I will have to spend to make the house ‘homey’.  I’m still slightly jealous of the two who are living on Lake Kivu, and the ones in the mountains, and the ones with small cachement areas, but it is what it is, and I’ll adjust.

 

**Per Peace Corps Safety and Security Policy, I’m not allowed to say in the blog exactly where my site is so I will have to be fairly vague in my location description.

 

 

Holidays and Exams

It’s been a busy week out here in training-land.  3 holidays in one week, and only one day off. July 1 is Rwandan Independence Day [but it’s not celebrated].  July 4 is both American Independence Day and Rwandan Liberation Day, and for us, our only day off.  My fellow trainees and I went to the local hotel,  had pizza, fajitas, cinnamon rolls, and Fanta [or beverage of  your choice].  For me it was a welcome day off from the onslaught of language classes that the week brought.

On Saturday, we had our a mid-training language exam.  The target at this stage is Novice-high, but I have a plan.  My plan is to score Novice-Mid, get put in remedial Kinyarwanda class, get extra speaking practice, and then WOW everyone at the final exam with my Kinyarwanda prowess. But here’s the real deal, I have performance anxiety, and I have had it for years.  I almost didn’t graduate from college with my Spanish degree because I had such anxiety for my final  oral exam.  And this was with my professor who I had known for three years, and was very familiar talking to him.  So while yes, I am older and wiser, but I still have so much anxiety concerning ‘public speaking.’


On Friday, I picked up my first tailor-made shirt.  It needed a few minor adjustments so I snapped this photo of my [15 year old] tailor making the adjustments.

On Saturday, after our mid-training language exam, I went to the talent show at my host sister’s school. There was singing. And traditional dancing.  And Drumming. There was a skit [in Kinyarwanda–I didn’t understand any of it], and some kid read the news.  And then there was ‘fashion’.  Fashion consists of about 10 couples of modelling different African fashions.  And these kids are stylish.  And they have real talent… unlike most of the talent shows I have been to  in the past.

We’re fancy. We met the US Ambassador to Rwanda.
Every so often, I see beautiful tropical flowers in unexpected places.

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

Wait, you’re still not a volunteer?

Wait, you’re still not a volunteer?

Ahhhhh, PST…Pre-Service Training.  I refer to it as Boot Camp, and our instructors take every opportunity to re-enforce that yes, as of now, we are just trainees.  Yes, the Peace Corps is about as far from the Army [or other military branch] as imaginable, but this 10 week period of training is very much the same. The preparation was even a little bit similar.  I cut off 10 inches of hair, paired down my wardrobe, started doing a lot more walking, and evaluated and re-evaluated each item that made it in to the suitcase[s] .  OK, not exactly the same as the Army….

6 days a week, we are in training nearly every daylight hour. We spend between 2 and 6 hours, depending on the day, learning [and practicing] Kinyarwanda; the remaining class time is learning about the Peace Corps’ mission, health and safety sessions, practical things [like mopping with a squeegee, cleaning shoes, sweeping the grass, and chopping the grass with something reminiscent of a metal hockey stick], the Rwandan Health System, and the government’s initiative to improve children’s health, focusing on the first 1000 days [essentially from conception until age 2—also the reason we are here].  It’s exhausting and I’m in bed nearly every night by 9p [unless there is a soccer match on—then I sacrifice for the greater good].

I’ve recently started doing Yoga again, every morning at 6:30am.  My last few months in America, I got sedentary, first sidelined by illness, then a lack of motivation.  A few of the other trainees go running; the last time I ran, I broke two bones so I’m starting with Yoga. I don’t want to have to be med-evac’ed before evening becoming an official volunteer.  The Kigali marathon is in May each year, and some of the trainees are training for that.  I’m focusing on the 10k that is also being held at the same time, and maybe next year, the half marathon [Small goals].

Previous and even current volunteers will tell you that PST is the worst.  The 6:30pm curfew. The 6 days a week of classes.  The language learning.  All of it, combined with the unfamiliar diet, the decrease in calories [especially protein], unfamiliarity of the culture, the inability to do simple things that we’ve all previously done before, having to rely on others for nearly everything, will produce some of the highest highs and lowest lows imaginable.  [I spent part of one afternoon crying in a latrine mostly due to lack of food but also being frustrated by the language, and despite several attempts, I. COULD. NOT STOP. Hopefully, this was a one-time meltdown.] And even now, with only four weeks complete, most of our group will say, ‘I cannot wait to be at site [wherever that may be]’.  However, we still have six weeks of training remaining until we can take the oath of service, hang out with the ambassador, pretend to be fancy, and be on our own.

I am one of those who anxiously await trading in the (T) for a (V) and finally becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer.


Helpful Peace Corps Acronyms

Like many government organizations, the Peace Corps loves it’s acronyms, so in an attempt to clear things up here is a list of a few of them and their meanings  (also I try not to use them exclusively). I’ll update as I learn more:

 

COS: Close of Service / Completion of Service

ET: Early Termination (Leaving service early,  I.E. deciding to terminate service anytime sooner than the COS conference)

HNC: Host Country National

ICT: In-Country Training

IST: In-Service Training

Medevac: Medical Evacuation

NGO: Non-Governmental Organization

OMS: Office of Medical Services

PCMO: Peace Corps Medical Officer/Office

PDO: Pre-Departure Orientation

PCT: Peace Corps Trainee (PCV’s prior to Swearing In)–> what I am currently

PCV: Peace Corps Volunteer

PST: Pre-Service Training

RPCV: Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

VATs: Volunteer Assistant Trainers (Volunteers who help train new volunteers/PCT’s during PST)

Other helpful non-acronyms terms

The HUB:  Where most of the PCT classes are held.  Additionally, we have language class in small groups at our instructors house.

Staging: When all the new PCT’s meet and receive their pre-departure orientation before flying out to their country of service. Typically lasts 24 to 48 hours.

Swearing in: This is when PCT’s become PCV’s! Happens at the very end of Pre-Service Training, this is when PCT’s agree to uphold the goals and standards of the Peace Corps.

Site: A PCV’s official community where they live and work for their 2 years of service.

 

World Cup and Making Friends

I described the process of being matched up with host families as being puppies at the pound.

Imagine this:  You are placed in a room with about 50 people who you do not know, where everyone is speaking a language you do not know.  All you can do is listen for your name.  And when it is called, you meet up with the representative of the family who will raise you for the next 10 weeks.

I met my Mama, and her first words to me were ‘Parle vous francais’.  Sadly I answered ‘un peu’ and thus began the quiet weekend.

You see, this pairing up happened, for us, on Friday, after just two days in Rwanda, and a fledgling vocabulary consisting of ‘Hello, my name is… I am from America’  ‘Good Morning [evening]’ ‘Good Night’ ‘What is your name?’  I’ll admit to being terrified and saying, to myself, ‘what fresh hell have I engaged in now?’

As much as I want to be settled, I selected a few outfits, 5 days’ worth of underwear, two pairs of shoes, all my electronics, and my pillow. I left a lot of my things at the training center and was grateful that I did.  My Rwandan family’s house is small, and my room is much smaller than I am accustomed to, and even with my two small bags [think carry-on sized] of clothes and electronics, I have more material things than they do.  The Peace Corps’ gave us a 20L jerry-can, a 5L can of water, and rather large water filter.  Additionally, we received a bucket, a small cup, and a bottle of bleach. My goods were loaded in a Peace Corps’ truck, I climbed in after Mama, and then we left.  Approximately three minutes later, we arrived at my new house for the next 10 weeks.

Obviously not my house, but an actual view of the palm trees I can see from inside my house

The quiet weekend began as soon as I set foot in the house.  Having  exhausted my fledgling Kinyarwanadan vocabulary and not knowing any English, Mama and I didn’t talk.  I went about setting up my room, ripping the plastic off my brand new Peace Corps’ provided [twin] mattress, setting up my Peace Corps’ provided water filter, and trying to make my Spartan accommodations as homey as possible [it didn’t work].

After about an hour, I hear a knock on the door, and in accented English, I hear “Michelle, do you eat lice?”  Appreciating the English, but not the sentence, I remained silent. Another knock, “Michelle?”  I reluctantly opened the door.  Greeting me enthusiastically with ‘I am Deborah, your host sister.  Mama wants to know if you eat lice?’

It took a few seconds for me to reach back into the dark areas of my brain and remember that sometimes, English as a Second Language learners sometimes mix up Ls and Rs.  After remembering that, I replied, “Yes, I eat rice.”

With Deborah’s help, I learned that in Rwanda, I have a 25 year-old brother who live in Kigali [we’ve never met] and that she is Level 2 at the local school [I’m not sure what that means although there are six levels].  There is not Papa, and I know enough to ask, that when someone says someone is not here, don’t ask questions. [Although seeing as how Deborah is 14, it’s impossible that he died in the genocide that occurred in 1994].


The past two weeks of living with my host family has been challenging. Kinyarwanda is a difficult language with a lot of letter combination that my mouth isn’t used to making. While I can memorize words and may even know what someone is asking me, I lack the vocabulary to make a reply. I also lack the grammar skills to formulate my own questions so I rely on using the infinitive form of every verb along with helpers such as I like, I want, I need.  It makes me sound [and feel] like a somewhat illiterate 2 year old child.

The family eats foods much different than what I am used to eating, and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as many vegetables in a two week period in my life.  [Although my new strategy of heavily complimenting any food that is remotely ‘American’ seems to be working; I’ve had spaghetti with tomato sauce twice] As a result and with the additional task of walking everywhere, I’ve lost about 10 pounds.  This is not a bad thing, and I have more pounds [kilograms?] to go, but it has resulted in none of my pants fitting me anymore.

I expressed my love for tomatoes and sauce on top of spaghetti noodles, and my prayers were answered

Chores are done differently.  I wash my clothes by hand with a bar of soap, and hang them on a clothesline to dry.  Cooking is done on a charcoal stove. Grocery shopping is done daily or at minimum every other day, and with a lack of refrigeration, left-overs are just re-boiled the next day.

Integration has been slow for me partly because of my introverted nature, partly because of my acute awareness of my fledgling Kinyarwanda, and partly because of the compactness of my host family.  I was thinking I have absolutely nothing in common with these people, and nothing to talk about, but last Wednesday when I inquired about maybe, possibly [ pretty plesase] watching the opening match of the world cup, I was greeted with an enthusiastic  ‘YEGO’.  You see, Mama is an avid soccer [football] fan, and she was worried that I, being American, wouldn’t be interested.  Sitting there in the small living room on Thursday night, huddled around the 13” old-school style TV, watching Russia vs Saudi Arabia with my Rwandan mama, I finally felt at home.

Mama engrossed in the latest soccer match. She even makes an exception to the ‘eat at the table’ rule during World Cup play.

Being Lost

I’ve been trying to finish this post for a few months now. I don’t think I’ve ever struggled so much trying to put in my words how I feel about fear. But I’m going to try, let’s do this…

Does anyone else have an annoying voice in the back of their head that only appears when it wants to cause you doubt, discomfort, or most importantly, fear? Nope, just me then?Fabulous. Hearing voices [just one voice ya’ll, I promise] at an age where things shouldn’t bother me,  and publicly admitting it?

Even better.

You want to climb Mt. Kilaminjaro?

Voice in my head – you definitely can’t. You’re not strong enough and you’ll probably fall off it.

Want to go to the Middle East or visit Stan?

Voice in my head – who do you think you are? You’ll probably be murdered.

Think you’ll be a good Peace Corps Volunteer?

Voice in my head- You’ll be the first to leave

Dream of becoming a nurse practitioner?

Voice in my headyou’re a horrible nurse.  Why do you think someone would choose you to be their healthcare person? Why bother trying? GAH.

Thanks so much, voice in my head. I really appreciate the support.


I don’t really know how this happened, but somehow over the past few years, fear and doubt have crept into my life in a way that I have never experienced before. And you know what? It absolutely sucks.

I used to jump into everything life offered me with complete abandon. Now? not so much.

I’ve hiked trails that are 6 inches wide, climbed really sketchy mountain, and traveled even when I had literally no money to my name, knowing deep down that things always sorted themselves out in the end.And for the most part, they did.  And while I had plenty of terrible travel screw-ups over the years, things always worked out. I have always believed that fate smiles on those who take chances.

But what happens when you start to worry more and take less chances?

Oh crap.

But somewhere down the line, I started to become more afraid of things that never scared me before. Whether it was something physical that I now considered dangerous or going after a dream that seemed too impossible, fear has set up its own little pup tent in the back of my head and made itself at home.

 

Age, I imagine, is a key factor. Isn’t that what people are always saying? You grow more cautious as you grow older? Well, I reckon the journey to becoming fearful doesn’t matter as much as what the hell am I supposed to do now?

Seriously, WHAT?

Do I just warmly embrace my newly found caution and fear, or try and get over it? Or attempt to strike a healthy balance between the two. I like to think I’ve always been a curious person. I always want to see what’s around the corner, want to know why things are the way they are, and am eager to try new things. For the most part.

However, fear has decided to join the party and often now gets in the way of my bigger curiosities. I want to see what’s at the top of that mountain but I’m afraid I can’t get there so I don’t try. Or sometimes I’ll compromise and climb a smaller mountain.

Confession – I’ve become a bit of a wuss. I’m afraid every time I try something new. I find that I really have to force myself now to try new things.

Oh how many times have I beat myself up for not fitting in. For being off beat and goofy. I’ve known that I was a little bit different from an early age. I’ve always skirted the norms of polite society and cultural standards.  It’s even harder adapting to a culture that is not your own.

As I sitting here, reflecting on fear and how it plays a part in life, thoughts such as I’m not smart enough, brave enough, talented enough, experienced enough, skinny enough, young enough, ect. Enough is enough.

What I am is a creative, passionate, loyal, loving, empathetic person. A person intrigued by life, fascinated by philosophies, and curious enough about the world to go explore it. I am so much more than the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, and the size of my ass.

Fear is complicated. Obviously. And even more so when it brings along its friend self-doubt.

Fear will always be there. A healthy amount of fear keeps up from petting the black mamba. It’s not a question of becoming fearless but learning to accept that fear is there, it’s part of your life and it’s not going anywhere, but it should NEVER be in charge or have a say in making creative decisions.

It’s time to be brave, y’all.

At the same, I’d like to think that travel has helped me deal with fear. For example, there are some things that never occur to me could be scary that I do all the time because I’ve gotten so used to them traveling.

The obvious example to this is the fact that I travel the world alone. As a woman.

In fact, I think that’s something that truly surprises people and when I share that little tidbit to folks I meet on the road, I am often met with skepticism and the usual “wow aren’t you afraid?”

But I digress.


Every trip I took taught me something. Every screw up I have had has taught me a lesson. I suppose in a weird way it taught me confidence, not something I have in abundance, that’s for sure. But I am confident with my ability to travel.

I learned to deal with travel fears early on, and now I need to learn to deal with my other fears, mainly the fear that I am not physically capable of doing something I want, like a hard hike or rafting the Nile. But also how to deal with my fear that I won’t be able to go after my big creative dreams.

I think people who travel are inherently brave at heart. You pretty much have to be to step out into the unknown, right?

And if I were truly a wuss, would I have joined the Peace Corps?  Would I have gotten on the plane to Kigali? Would I have left behind everything I know for an extended period of time.  Probably not.

So perhaps, I’m just being hard on myself.