alt = women farm work

Poverty by Choice

When I worked my last shift at the hospital on June 2, 2018, I didn’t have a sudden feeling of insecurity when I pulled out of the parking lot around 7:30 because I was suddenly unemployed. Even though I knew I was choosing poverty, it didn’t hit me then. That came about a month later when my first disbursement was paid to me… in cash. 47,000 Rwandan Francs (about $50) which was to be enough for two weeks of living with my host family in Rwamagana.

Rwamagana market
A lot of that 47000 RWF was spent at the Rwamagana market on lunch and supplementing breakfast and dinner.

As I pulled out of the parking lot for the last time I mentally calculated how long this last American paycheck would last in Rwanda. Having this money in the bank allowed me mentally prepare myself for the poverty to come It was measured in months, not days like in the USA. The cost of living is significantly less and my expenses are less too, but my income is much, much less as well. My monthly living allowance in Rwanda was nearly equivalent to ONE 8 hour shift at the hospital–without any shift differentials. I knew that by choosing to join the Peace Corps’, I’d be choosing poverty.

Much like in the US, I spend a lot of my Rwandan income on food. But instead of going to restaurants, I’m going to the markets. I’m what I call a ‘Village Vegetarian.’ Meat products are too expensive and too raw to consume. I occasionally buy UHT shelf-stable milk in 500ml bags, but other than that, no dairy. Eggs are pricey (proportionally) 100RWF each, and I walk a lot to avoid paying 500RWF (or more!) for short moto rides. These little relatively small amounts are what we call being ‘nickel and dimed to death’. On their own, it won’t break me, but added up, over time, my monthly Peace Corps income diminishes rapidly.

Market finds… You can’t always get what you want

Just like being in the US, you learn to cut corners.  What is necessary vs what will be nice to have. A nice push broom with a long handle vs a standard Rwandan sweep broom. For example, imagine something breaks. Let’s say a handle on a bucket. Some big and some small.  Back home I would have just gone out and bought one the next day.  But here, it’s not so simple.  If I buy a bucket then I have to cut out something different, likely a more luxurious food item like potato chips or apples. When a hole developed in my favorite skirt because the laundry detergent is really that strong, I had to do without.. Because having one made would cost about 20,000 RWF, and 20,000 RWF is equivalent to my food budget for the week.

This may sound alarming to you, and sometimes it is to me too. Rwanda is in transition from a third world (or subsistence) country to a second-world (or middle-income) country. Village life is still quite cheap. If I never took a moto, walked everywhere I needed to go, only bought the ten items sold in our local market, I could live like a king, but alas, escaping the prying eyes of village life is as much of a necessity to me as apples. Thus, I escape to Huye every chance I get.

And while Huye is not Kigali, it is not cheap. Food costs more. Motos cost more. There’s a swimming pool (two actually), and hotels with decent (read fast) wi-fi that one can hook up to and surf the net to one’s heart’s content as long as you buy Something. And for me that’s usually a Fanta Citron.

A fancy coffee milkshake… while tasty, quite expensive on a Peace Corps’ budget

It is easy for it to be about me every day.  Worrying about what I can and can’t buy.  Worrying if I am eating healthy enough.  It has no importance when I compare myself to my community members.  Because this is a choice for me.  (And I also get care packages containing vital amounts of protein in the forms of American peanut butter and tuna fish). When I took the oath to be a Peace Corps volunteer, I knew that for the duration of my service that I would select to live below a means that I have been accustomed to my entire life.  And that when that time is over, I will walk out of poverty and back into (relative) luxury–real luxury compared to my Rwandan neighbors and co-workers. I won’t have to work hard for that to happen.  I have a furnished house and driveable car waiting for me upon my return. I’m almost certain I can return to the same job I had before I left as soon as I set foot on American soil. I will go back to working in the hospital for 30-40 hours a week and in that amount of time make more than my Rwandan neighbors make in a year. I will still have more than 100 hours of ‘leisure’ time each week. Time where I will not have to do back breaking manual labor such as washing clothes by hand or dig in the the hard Rwanda red clay with hand tools. If I do laundry, it will be in a machine with the accompanying dryer, and if I work in the garden, it will be a choice–a stress reliever–not as a means of survival. I won the citizenship lottery just because I was born where I was born. My neighbors here couldn’t even comprehend the level of freedom I have.

Laundry done by hand

We don’t realize in America that being the 99% (as in the not exorbitantly wealthy 1% of Americans) still puts us in the 1% in comparison to the rest of the world.  We don’t see how a lower-middle class lifestyle is so excessively over the top when you look at how billions of other people are living.  And it is hard for me to wrap my brain around even after living in the midst of the 99% here in my village.  Even with my little Peace Corps living allowance I am in the top 10% in my community.  What I have in my American savings accounts is more than what most people in my village will make in a decade or two.  To them, wealth is having a concrete floor or land for a cow (and a cow).  To us, it’s having 3+ bedrooms and a corresponding number of bathrooms. Wealth is marble or granite countertops and a 2+ car garage. It’s fancy electronics and that extends into the bedroom with the advent of adjustable base beds. Here, even having a mattress signifies wealth, and even though RwandaFoam is a company that boasts of its quality mattresses the fact is it’s still foam flattens out in about six months.  Here, I am wealthy because I can afford a 47,000RWF mattress just for me. I am wealthy because I alone live in a two room house.

chose to join the Peace Corps and move to rural Rwanda, and according to the numerical standards used in the US, live below the poverty line.  Poverty is a choice for me.  I used to feel ambivalent about my ‘friends’ protests and rage about being the 99% in America.   Now I am pissed off by it.  It exposes our lack of exposure to the rest of the world and the conditions they live in.  The real 99%.

What does this mean for you? I don’t know.  I’m not saying everyone should choose poverty. I am not that you should feel guilty or motivated to take drastic action. I am sharing how amazing I think it is that I choose when to be poor and when to stop being poor—relevant to the rest of the world.  What does this mean for me?  It means I won’t ever take my choice for granted.  It means that I won’t waste it.  It means that I will work hard.   Because to me, that is the respectful thing to do after I hop on a plane in a year and thrust myself out of poverty. 

The land of a 1000 hills

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

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

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

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

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

Despite all that, I blended in. Mostly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

 

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.