This time a year ago I was peeing a pooping in and hole, had my own little house chamber pot cleverly disguised as a plastic bucket, and regularly took baths by using a few liters of water and pouring said water over my head with a cup. It was the Peace Corps and I was in rural Rwanda. Indoor plumbing was a pipe dream (see what I did there), and I now know the limits of cleanliness.
Now I am back in the US, living the indoor plumbing and refrigerated air (or mechanically warmed air) dream. Except when it comes to remodels. There were a few things I hated about my little house on the prairie when I moved in and the bathroom was definitely one of them (poor design, inefficient flow, things not working properly, ect). I spruced it up with some paint, new fixtures, and such and called it a day. But I still hated that bathroom.
Moving right along… Monday started the demolition of said bathroom and I have never in my life been so excited to see studs. Out came the sink and cabinet. Out came the misplaced stand up shower, and out came the wobbly toilet. Up came 1980’s era linoleum. I was a happy girl. The downside of all this is that off went the water supply as well.
As with every remodel ever, things don’t go exactly according to plan and on Tuesday instead of installing floors and a new toilet, backerboard for tile and new sheetrock had to go up. I’m usually more of a do-it-yourself kind of individual, but I knew that for this project, I’d need extra muscles and with extra muscles comes working in someone’s timeframe–which I do not like. I’m more likely to be tiling at 10pm that 10am, but others don’t necessarily appreciate my ‘time management’ skills and so it leads to the conundrum of work cycles.
Despite my extra help or perhaps because of it, it is now day 3 of the remodel and still no water. I am not necessarily complaining as the extra help is doing things that I may not have thought about doing, thus ensuring a better outcome in the end, but it does create a little bit of a problem. I spent Monday and Tuesday at a friend’s house happily using their toilet and sleeping away on the couch, but the old saying goes ‘Fish and houseguests stink after three days’ and I love my friends and I’m (pretty sure) they love me so I did not want to become the smelly house guest. And so I returned to the prairie despite having access to running water or indoor plumbing. I was able to eat leftovers (no water required), drink the bottled water I purchased last week when Target so thoughtfully had it on sale, and brush my teeth without worrying about contracting cholera, dysentery, or giridia from the rain barrels I have placed thoughtfully around the house to catch rain run-off (usually used to water the plants, or the cats).
Seeing as we are having unusually hot weather for October (it is still 80 degrees at 10:30pm) and I live on the prairie with way fewer neighbors than in Rwanda, this evening was a flashback to my previous life. I washed dishes with my roof water (I also put them in the dishwasher to sanitize when water comes back on), and I had a nice little sun-warmed bucket bath. At home. In the United States. Not while camping. And you know what, it was (mostly) enjoyable. My ‘important parts’ and hair are both squeaky clean. And as per usual, I am always amazed at how much filth comes off in the scrubbing. (I shouldn’t be amazed though. It’s 95+ degrees, and I’ve been cutting boards and sanding drywall. And wearing sandals.)
It’s rare that I miss Rwanda. I miss some of the people I met, but not the hardships of daily life. Here going without water for three days is a minor inconvenience because I know that I can hop into my car, go to the store, buy some and be done with it. Or stay at a friend’s house. Or go to the gym and use the pool (I also did ‘chlorine bathing’ in Rwanda). Or get a hotel room. Most of those were options in Rwanda as well; they were just cost-prohibitive on a Peace Corps’ Volunteers budget. Not having water in Rwanda meant instead of not having clean dishes or clean clothes, it meant risking dehydration, catching one of the above mentioned bacterial infections, or possibly dying. It meant walking further to the next community tap to fill up a jerrycan (btw a full jerrycan of 20L of water weighs about 45#). Life without water in Rwanda was so much harder.
Today I can take a bucket bath on my porch and laugh about it knowing that by the end of the week (most likely), I’ll have a newly fully remodeled bathroom with a tile shower, new toilet, and new sink. I can go back to throwing dirty clothes in a machine, pressing a few buttons, and coming back an hour later to clean, if not wet, clothes–no effort required on my part. Same for dishes. And same for me. I’ll no longer have to haul buckets of water around, delegate so many liters to each task, and pray for rain. (Now while I do have a well and it won’t last forever without rain, it’s still light years better than catching roof water for all my water needs). I’ll no longer have to worry about starting a fire to boil water, letting the water cool, then mixing in with non boiled water to achieve optimum bucket bath water temperature. I’ll no longer have to worry about the outside temperature (is it too cold to bath outside, should I just do it in the living room, thus giving the living room a good mopping along with me a good cleaning?–These were actual decisions that needed to be made on a somewhat daily basis while living in Rwanda). Today I am grateful to live in an industrialized society where running water and indoor plumbing are the default, and as always I am grateful for clean water.
Women are in the news yet again. These days it has to do with the current US president’s views on women (and other marginalized populations), but honestly, it’s always something. A few years ago, it was the media giving women traveling along a hard time. This post is from my previous travel blog [A woman hiking the Camino de Santiago has had her body found months after she went missing along with the woman who was killed while CouchSurfing in India] so it seems like an appropriate time to revive this post from my previous travel blog. and seems like a good time to keep in mind that for women every -day life boils down to one thing–personal safety. It doesn’t matter if it is the president of the US talking about ‘grabbing the by the pussy’ or female genital mutilation [a subject I wrote a paper on in college], daily life for women is all about personal safety.
It seems like every few months or so something happens and all the news outlets rush to make up stories about why women shouldn’t travel alone. I am referring to the latest story to attempt to scare people [especially females] away from traveling alone. Almost every news outlet has an opinion on the subject. [comments from the NBC site–““A woman has no business traveling alone,” FOX news’ take, another FOX gem, CBS has an opinion too, let’s not leave out ABC] The current theory is that the victim was ‘hanging out with criminal element‘ and therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that she got her skull bashed in. Several travel bloggers [who travel much more frequently than I do] have already weighed in on this issue, [see the posts here, here, here, here, and here,] but I am more inclined to go with this viewpoint. It is the violence directed at women, not necessarily the traveling abroad, that is the real issue. For whatever reason, women are a target when it comes to violent crime–not just abroad, but at home too. As for me, I would not be the same person I am if I hadn’t traveled solo at various points in my life. Truth be told, I’ve experienced violence directed at me at home, and I’ve experience less subtle attempts at violence while traveling. At home sometimes we let it slide because it’s someone we know; while traveling, we usually have out guard up–at least to some degree.
Traveling solo has helped me to:
Traveling alone isn’t rocket science. Use common sense. Let someone know where you will be. Trust your instincts. Don’t advertise that you are alone. Don’t be a idiot. Don’t flash around jewelry, electronics, or cash. Know where you are going, or at least act like you do. Research your destination ahead of time. Just be smart about being out there by yourself. These tips apply whether I am traveling in Charleston, SC, Cape Town, South Africa, or even my hometown.
In Kinyarwanda Umuganda translates as ‘coming together to achieve a common goal’, and it was originally started after Rwanda achieved independence in 1962. In the beginning, Umuganda was often called ‘umubyizi’ –and was a day set aside by friends and family to help each other. It officially became a government program in 1974, and today is held on the last Saturday of the month from about 8am until 1p.
Initially, Umuganda did not go over well with Rwandans. Rwandans considered it forced labor, but due to its significant achievements in erosion control and infrastructure improvement – especially building projects– people came to like it and participated in it voluntarily. The 1994 Rwandan genocide disrupted the spirit and practice of Umuganda. It was re- introduced in 1998 as part of reunification efforts. Often times Umuganda projects are still the way community projects are completed.
On Umuganda, Rwandans and others [*ahem Peace Corps Volunteers*] are encouraged to participate. Rwandans between 18 and 65 are obliged to participate [unless medically compromised or pregnant] whereas participation by those above 65 years and below 18 year is optional. To *encourage* participation, public transportation is stopped, restaurants are closed until noon, and most market stalls are closed. [Woe to the PCV who is not in his/her community because getting there is a bitch, and Thanks Peace Corps Rwanda Staff for scheduling almost all our training sessions to end on the Saturday morning of Umuganda which makes getting back to site before dark a real challenge.]
Additionally, Umuganda also serves as a forum for leaders at each level of government to inform citizens about important news and announcements. Community members are also able to discuss any problems the community is facing and propose solutions. So it’s easy to see how umuganda can last all day. Umuganda’s contribution to the country’s development since 2007 has been estimated at more than US $60 million.
Rwanda is often considered the cleanest country in Africa. Rwanda first banned plastic bags in 2008 in an effort to limits the amount of roadside trash. Incredibly, one can be jailed for using plastic bags. [This knowledge did not stop me from smuggling in nearly 250 ZipLoc bags of varying sizes. I know, I’m a heathen.] The tourist sections of the country are incredible clean as umuganda projects are often about cleaning up the roads; however, in the non-tourists areas, rural areas, or ‘real Rwanda’, trash is still a problem mainly because there is no centralized collection. People burn their trash or throw it in the latrine. I’ve personally taken trash from my home (especially plastic bottles) and threw it away when in cities where public trash cans were sometimes available.
Economically, Umuganda adds a lot back into the local economy. Since 2007, Umuganda’s contribution to the country’s development is estimated at more than US $60 million. Like a lot of things in Rwanda, umuganda sounds good in theory but often translates poorly in practice. Sometimes too many people show up for one project; sometime not enough people show up. In the poorer areas, people often refuse to show up especially during harvests because time is literally money. Some people see the value of education; some are too poor to pay school fees and therefore don’t want to waste time on a school.
It’s difficult to enforce umuganda laws if one simply stays home. However, there is a fine of 5000RWF associated with failing to report to Umuganda duty. Here’s a link from NPR about a story they ran in July 2018 about umuganda. Here’s a clip showing Rwanda’s president participating in Umuganda.
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, 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.
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.
I 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.
I guess by now you know that I left the Peace Corps completing exactly 9 months of service. I was medically separted from the Peace Corps due to an injury I sustained while at a Peace Corps’ training. I returned to Greenville, spent the night with my best friend, and made my way to my little country house where Miss Molly and Miss Lucy were eagerly awaiting my return [or maybe not… they are cats after all]. So you are probably wondering what’s next?
Last month I was back working at the same job I was working at prior to me leaving for Rwanda. I won’t lie; the learning curve was a little steep. A lot has happened in American health care over the last year, but working with supportive, helpful individuals made that transition a lot easier. I’ve also accepted a full time position working with adolescents–which is my favorite patient population. And later this year I will start a Nurse Practitioner program which has been a goal of mine since entering nursing school in 2014. These 12 weeks back in the US prior to starting grad school are like a gift, much like the 12 weeks I had between my original departure to Madagascar and my eventual departure to Rwanda.
I stayed in the Peace Corps|Rwanda 215 days which about 200 days longer that I wanted. I knew as soon as I set foot on Rwandan soil that this was not where I should be, but facts are facts, and it is where I was. I applied myself, and really wanted to be the best volunteer I could be, and I think I was despite prematurely exiting.
I do not regret leaving the Peace Corps [even if it wasn’t my decision to leave; it was my decision not to return]. It took me quite some time to realize that leaving would not be the end of the world. In fact, around 33% of all volunteers actually leave service early for a variety of personal reasons. It would not ruin my future career goals nor would it mean that I would be shunned by the Peace Corps community. It took me several heart to heart conversations with many people to come to the conclusion that it was okay that I left, and then one day it clicked–my life is not in Rwanda. I MAY be in Rwanda, but my life is in the US. I have a house, cats, friends, family all back in North and South Carolina and Tennessee, and that’s where I should be. The injury just made accepting that a lot easier.
Throughout all of my decision making, this quote strongly resonated with me:
“Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer serves you, grows you, or makes you happy.”- Robert Tew
And so I began the process of walking away from something that no longer served me.
I had to close out my Rwandan bank account [I’m leaving the country with about $300 cash which is more than I had when I arrived]. Next up, was exit interviews, language interview, and medical interviews. Next, getting signatures from all the appropriate people and returning all the appropriate things [wouldn’t want to be absconding with government property], and finally, thirty six hours after being told I was being medically evacuated, I was on a plane back to the US. The final paperwork about a month later telling me I was medically separated was the final nail in that coffin.
BUT I am so ready for the next chapter of my life.
Back when I worked in the hospitals, occasionally some misguided soul would yell out ‘hey, respiratory,’ as I walked by, and I’d continue to walk on by. And then the misguided soul would continue ‘hey, I’m talking to you’, and I’d feigned innocence, and say ‘oh you’re talking to me? I had no idea.’ and the conversation would continue with ‘I called your name’ and here’s where I’d get all passive-aggressive aggressive and say ‘No, you yelled ‘respiratory.’ That’ not my name; it’s my job title. You want me, you yell my name. It’s Michelle, in case you don’t know. I don’t answer to respiratory.’ Most people only did that once, and the ones who did it more than once were assholes.
Something similar happens in Rwanda [and Uganda. And Tanzania. And Madagascar. And I imagine every other African country where foreigners aren’t common] every.damn.day and it irks me to no end.
In Rwanda, especially Rwandan villages, white people are not common. And should you happen to be white, it’s assumed that you are French [or Belgium] both because Belgium was the motherland–the former colonial power, and most foreigners in fact speak French. When I lived in Mexico, people though I was from Spain. And when I lived in Moscow, people thought I was English. And when I traveled throughout South America, it was back to being from Spain. And let’s be honest, even in America no one ever really thinks I’m from South Carolina upon first meeting me. So, it’s not that people not knowing where I’m from that’s bothersome, it’s not that someone is essentially calling me ‘white foreigner’ bothers me, it’s the fact that no one calls me by my name or even a local version of my name that bothers me.
In Rwanda, it’s ‘hey look at what that muzungu is doing‘ and it’s essentially like saying ‘hey, look at that nigger [or wetback or chinc or whatever other ethnic derogatory term one can come up with].’ It’s not as if they don’t know that calling someone ‘muzungu’ is being offensive because Every.Single.Volunteer.Ever has told them some form of ‘hey, that’s not nice’.
So, the greeting that most people give a white person is “bonjour muzungu”. Or, they call out to you “ Muzungu!” And I just keep on walking. Some PCVs think the term “muzungu” is insulting, and to some it is–because it means that everyone is being grouped together with all other white foreigners simply based on our skin color. I really don’t care that they are calling me white, pink, or purple. For me, it’s the simple thing that if I take the time and effort to learn their name, they should do the same. After all, there are many, many more Rwandan people in town for me to learn their names; and I am the only white person in town so learning Michelle or Mischa or even a Rwandan version of Michelle should not be that hard.
PCVs work hard to integrate in the local communities, and so being called ‘muzungu’ means that people don’t understand what I’m doing here and why I’m different. I am always reminding people that I’m not a tourist and I’m here to help. After all, if I were a ‘muzungu’ like they usually see, why would I be studying Kinyarwanda? I wouldn’t be; I’d be paying someone to fetch my water, do my laundry, and shop for and cook for me. Yet, I do all these things, often alongside of my neighbors.
The thing is, I know that for kids here, it’s hard to wrap their heads around the fact that there could even be a foreigner who isn’t French. To many of them, it’s ingrained in their heads from an early age that any time you see a white person, they are a muzungu, and you say to them “bonjour muzungu”. [As a side note they also seem to pick up the phrase “Donne-moi de l’argent” or ‘Give me money’ fairly young, too, because I get that a lot. Did someone tell them that demanding money impolitely in French or English and holding out their hand actually works? And sometimes, just to fuck with them because I’m wired like that, I’ll speak to them in Spanish or German or Spanish-Russian and they stare at me like I have three heads, and I go on about my business ignoring them because as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not French nor do I speak it.]
I’ve seen, on multiple occasions, mothers teaching their babies the word “muzungu” by pointing at me. Depending on my mood that day, I’ll kindly inform them that no, my name is not “muzungu”, it’s Michelle, or I’ll roll my eyes and walk away. These days I get especially frustrated by it because even though I live in a larger village, you’d think word would have spread somewhat that the white woman who walks around carrying a funny looking helmet, who shops in the market, and fetches her own water is American and in fact does not speak a lick of French.
As much as it bothers me to be called ‘muzungu’, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on what life is like here for Asian- and African-American volunteers. To start, for many Rwandan village people it’s unfathomable that someone could be American but not look white. African-Americans often get the assumption that they’re Rwandan (which can be a good thing), but when they say they’re American, people still ask “no, but where are you from?” The fact that you could be dark-skinned but be from America is hard for a lot of people to wrap their head around here. It’s also similar for Asian-American volunteers, who are unfortunately subject to the type of comments [you have slant-y eyes] that would be considered horribly rude and offensive back at home, but here are just simple commentary– not meant as an insult, just an observation. So volunteers who are American but not Caucasian have a different set of challenges to overcome.
So, the ‘muzungu’ issue is something that will continue to be a challenge for me much like ignorant co-workers calling me ‘hey, respiratory’. I always hoped that I wound cease to be a novelty, but I know that I’ll never stop getting called ‘muzungu’. Some days it affects me more than others; Somedays I can turn these situations into ‘teaching opportunities’– opportunities to teach people about what I am doing here, why health matters, why washing hands is important, why checking babies’ weight is a big deal, and how I’m different.
And, that my name is Michelle, not ‘muzungu’.
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.
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’]
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.