On the surface Mr Wendel actually has nothing to do with this post. However that is one of the first songs I remember hearing played on the radio, It’s all about poverty. In the US. Not some rural village in Rwanda.
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.
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.
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.
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. Dirty dishes will also be done by a machine. 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 in Rwanda cannot even comprehend the level of freedom I have.
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 all all rich. We don’t see how even a lower-middle class lifestyle is so excessively over the top as compared to how billions of other people are living. And it is hard for me to wrap my brain around it even after living in the midst of the 99% here in my village. Even with my modest 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 its 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.
I chose to join the Peace Corps and move to rural Rwanda. According to the numerical standards used in the US, I 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 chose 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. Because to me, that is the respectful thing to do after I thrust myself out of poverty.
Shout out to Arrested Development’s Mr Wendel for this post’s title. As a side not, this was one of the first CDs I ever bought.