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Learning a language that will never be useful again

Before leaving for Rwanda, my coworkers attempted to help me study Kinyarwanda… of course, this was fruitless, but entertaining, being that none of us had any experience with a Bantu language prior.  But I learned about 5 words before leaving the comfy confines of the English language… mostly easy words like yego, oya, malariya, and muraho. [yes, no, malaria, and hello].  We laughed because it sounded just-so -foreign.


One week later…

On our second day in Rwanda, our group of 24 trainees was split into six groups, and I sat beside three other trainees watched our Language and Cultural Facilitators, act out a short dialogue.

They stood a few feet apart, facing away from each other, then turned around and began to walk slowly with their heads down, as if they were walking along a street. Then they make eye contact with each other and one, and upon doing so, one of them breaks into a wide smile and exclaimed “Muraho!” to his freind. On cue, after hearing this, the other also grinned and returned the word. “Muraho!

The dialogue then came to a quick end. Upon ending, each of our language teachers looked at our group inquisitively. “Iki ni iki?”. They continued to stare at us, in silence, waiting for someone to respond.

“Wait. What are they asking?” someone asked. “What is an eechie neechie? Are they asking us what an ichy nichy is? I don’t know what that is.” The group agreed, none of us had any idea what an ichie nichie was. We all nodded together, feeling that we had exculpated ourselves of our task by coming to collective group indecision.

Our teachers, still smiling, said nothing but went back and repeated the little sketch, beat for beat. After saying Muraho! to each other again,  they repeated their question: “Iki ni iki?”. The lightbulb then managed to click in someone’s mind. “Oh! They are just asking us what Muraho means. It means hello!”. We all nodded with recognition as we got our first taste of what language classes in Rwanda were going to be like. “Yego!”, they said laughing.

As they continued, some of the smaller and more basic words were written down, with their english definitions so we could reference them consistently. Yego means yes. Oya means no. Iki means what. Murabyumva means, do you understand? Iki ni iki means, what it it/this?  Our teachers never used English during this first session, instead addressing our translational needs by writing them down and posting them on the several large paper easels that flanked them on either side of their teaching stage.

On this first day, our foursome buzzed with excitement. The teachers, staying true to form, continued to act out small dialogues in lieu of telling us the words by didactic translation. They waved to each other and walked away, saying to each other “Mwirirgwe!”. “That means goodbye!”, someone blurted. They would award our correct guesses with a resounding and enthusiastic “Yego!” and punish a wrong guess with a soft and disappointing “Oya…”. 

    Amakuru?” means, how are you? We figured out slowly. “Ni meza” means, I’m good. “Wowe?” means, and yourself?

Our teachers had successfully hijacked the puzzle solving parts of our brains. The evolutionary mechanism that had once provided a hit of dopamine when our caveman ancestors recognized a lion in the bush hundreds of thousands of years ago, had been co-opted by two strange men teaching us the most basic of Kinyarwandan greetings. We loved it.


One. Month. Later.

I have Double Language today. Double Language. Four straight hours. No snacks. Can’t I just get food poisioning for the day, and skip the Double Potions with Snape….

On a random morning in our fourth week of training, I thought this to myself as I walk to language class. The thought rattles around my mind with every step down the road. DoublePotions. DoubleLanguage. DoublePotions.

The best week…. No language scheduled… but ha, haa….Peace Corps snuck it in during the supervisor workshop.

No matter how many times I’ve mentioned that I’d prefer both fruit AND eggs for breakfast, I rarely get both.  Some days its one or the other, and thankfully not all that often, it’s neither. Today, it just a piece of bread.  Walking to my language teacher’s class, I just kept thinking ‘no snacks today because double language…I need snacks

In the one short month I have been here, I have learn one thing:  I need protein in order to function. And I need lots of protein to function optimally.  And my Rwandan diet, has been devoid of protein most meals… As a result, I feel sluggish most of the time and randomly emotional.  As every American knows, BREAKFAST is the most important meal of the day and why Rwandans think one piece of bread and tea is a proper breakfast is beyond me.  But here I am.  On the day with double language, my breakfast is sweet bread. And water.

 

But like the conscious and disciplined American I am, I arrive for DoublePotions right at 7:45am. I am here. Just as The Schedule says to be.  However, none of my classmates are here nor is the teacher ready for class to begin. AND so I sit, in a somewhat uncomfortable plastic chair and nibble on my sweet bread, and drink my water…  Best to fuel up, I mumble to no one in particular.

By 8:00, my other classmates have arrived and my teacher begins asking questions. All in Kinyarwanda, of course.

I fumble, my brain searching for the right words.  Oh…past tense… we haven’t learned that yet. Kurya… the verb for to eat… How do you conjugate it again?  

M-fee-tay  ke-ke na a-ma-zi….I sputter out and produce said cake and water as evidence that I do in fact HAVE cake and water…not that I was avoiding the question

And this is how every language class goes.  We are asked questions.  I translate what I think I hear from Kinyarwanda into English in my mind. Then I think of what vocabulary I actually have in order to answer the question, and do I have the ability to conjugate that verb correctly?  Once I run through this scenario in my mind, I compose the sentence in Kinyarwanda and then sputter out an answer that could come from a 2-year old child.

Gusa?  My teacher asks.  She wants me to expand on that phrase.  Make it a sentence or preferably a paragraph. 

“Donna-ni-way can-di da-shon-jay”, I answer, with a smirk. I am tired and I am hungry. All day every day, I am tired and hungry. One question down, four hours to go. Class has just begun, and it’s another two hours until there’s a break long enough to get snacks.

Challenges

Not unsurprisingly, learning Kinyarwanda is considerably different from anything I’ve ever tried to learn in my life.  I’ve always considered myself ‘decent’ at learning languages.  I’m semi-fluent in Spanish and have safely navigated around using Portuguese, French, Romanian, German, and Russian in addition to English and Spanish. But Kinyarwanda is different… just listening to it makes my head spin. I’m six weeks in and I am still very much at an elementary level. I don’t need an exam to tell me that.

My host family has had 8 previous volunteers so they are used to speaking slowly and enunciating words properly and switching to French or English when I answer their questions with blank stares.  Learning a language by immersion is exhausting. It takes a significant amount of mental energy, commitment, and time; and these three things are required every single day. After a long language session, in which I did nothing but sit down and occasionally stand for a few minutes to complete a learning activity, I was surprised to find myself more exhausted

When I hear Kinyarwanda, I have a hard time understanding it. My language progress checks with my teachers also reflect this fact. [Mid LPI result on July 7, I scored Novice-Mid.  Final PST LPI on August 7, I’m up to an Intermediate-Low, but don’t worry, we’ll be tested again in three months] Besides the fact that it is largely my fault for perhaps not putting in as much personal study time as I should be, I attribute much of this difficulty to the Kinyarwandan convention of blending words together.

While in American English we may blend two words as a matter of slang, Rwandans do it is a lingual rule. In Kinyarwanda, if you do not blend words together, it is an improper method of speech and people will know (among a million other things) that you are not a native Rwandan. In every instance where a word ends in a vowel, and is followed by a word that starts with a vowel, you drop one of the two letters, along with its entire syllable and blend the two words into one word.


Speaking the language is also difficult, although I would argue it is not quite as difficult as listening. This is in large part because as a native English speaker the sentence structures, particularly of questions, are almost entirely backwards. In Kinyarwanda, question words almost always go at the end of sentences. For instance, going back to the brain racking question my teacher asked me above: Saying to someone “Ukora iki”, means, what do you do?; but literally translates to “You do what?”. It is like that for just about everything. You are here why? This is what? The market is where? In addition to putting question words at the end, adjectives go after nouns; this is similar to Spanish. But when you put these two elements together, it forces your brain into cryptic problem solving mode anytime you have to say a sentence with any more than 5 words. When I think to myself a moderately detailed sentence like, “What do your American friends like to do?”, my head spins. The question word goes to the end, there are plural words, there are possessive words, there is one adjective. It all goes completely out of what we would consider “order”: Inshuti wawe muri Amerika bakunda gukora iki?  That translates literally to: Friends yours in America they like to do what? It’s a difficult puzzle to solve each and every time. Don’t forget to blend Gukora and Iki … or they’ll know you are not native Rwandan.


The words for things, and the lack thereof in certain instances, perfectly captures stark differences between American and Rwandan culture. The most glaring in my mind is the fact that in Rwandan there is no word for “Please”. You can just tell people to do things, in declarative sentences, and it’s not considered rude in any way. The thought of commanding some one to simply “Stop” or “Give me that” or “Come here”, or “I am hungry and I want dinner”, without manners, was impossible to understand.

Of course, these are just a few of the myriad differences in culture and language that I have seen in my first eight weeks in the country. I am constantly baffled, frustrated and amazed at how different the human experience can be. Learning the language is but one of the many ways we are trying with all our might to fit into a country that is wholly different from our own. The experience has been one I won’t forget.


Some of my favorite words to say are “Umudugudu” which means village. Oo-moo-doo-goo-doo.  ‘Abakoreabushake‘ which means volunteers. A-ba-co-re-ra-bu-sha-che.  ‘Ikigonderaubuzima’ which means health center post. Ichie-gon-der-a-u-bu-zima. ‘Nka Kibazo’ which means no problem, don’t worry about it… Naa che-ba-zo.

I’ve got two years, right?

Ipusi wanjye ee-puss-e wan-j… My kitty… I miss her very much

 

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.  Therefore, I usually bathe in middle of the day, when it’s hot, or after having done exercise so that the cold water is not so jarring.  So how exactly does one bathe in a bucket.

Tools Needed:

  • 1 Bucket
  • 1 cup [anywhere from 8-16oz will do]
  • Soap of choice
  • Shampoo of choice
  • Flip-Flops
  • Non-electrical lighting
  • Towel and washcloth


Every morning, my alarm goes off at 6:30am. Resistance is futile as the world around me is already buzzing although resist I try.  I finally pull myself into action about 6:50, and by action I mean pull on presentable clothing and try to flatten my hair which has taken on the appearance of someone who has stuck one’s finger in an electric socket. Usually a cap-ful of water does the trick. I grab breakfast, which if I am lucky, is a boiled egg and fruit, and if I’m not, bread. At 7:15am, I leave for language class.  It’s about a 30 minute walk if I don’t walk too fast, and I try not too, because if I do, the back of my neck will get all hot and sweaty.  Before 8AM.

I go about my day, trying to be slow and deliberate, trying not to sweat. Once again, resistance is futile, and sweat happens. Once again, if I am lucky, I return home about 5:30pm.  There is still daylight.  I gather my supplies and head to the bathing room.  I like to get in before dark for two reasons:  1. The mosquitos start to come out at dusk, and I’d rather not have my naked body be their dinner. 2.  When the sun set, it gets dark. Really dark, and my solar-charged lamp is a poor match for the African night.

Getting ready to do the deed

Gather the aforementioned tools and head into the room.  Most times, I am lucky to find a half-full jerry can of water–which is approximately 10L; usually, though, it’s more like 1/4 full–so 5L—slightly more than a gallon of water. Strip naked and hang clothes over the door and towel on the long nail that has been crudely pounded into the concrete wall.

My usually method with the limited water is such:

Fill my bucket with about 1-2 inches of water.  Fill my cup full.  Take my soap and washcloth and wash my face first.  Somehow, it seems that if my face is clean, the the rest of my will be too.  I use the cup to rinse out the washcloth that I used on my face. Every.Single.Time I am amazed by the amount of dirt I see in the cup.

Next I take the cup of somewhat dirty water and pour it on my head.  It’s brutal. It’s always colder than I anticipate it will be, and the tendrils of water that escape down my back are much much colder than the cup I’ve just dumped on my head.  But I’m strong. I power through.  I get the shampoo and lather up.  It feels so good. Then another cup, sometimes two to rinse the shampoo from my head.

At this point in time, I am sufficiently wet from the head dump that no more water is needed other than to rinse.  I soap up, starting at the shoulders and working my way down.   I make sure to really clean the pits and my chest… I have a dream that one day, my back will get clean too, but in the LAND OF BUCKET BATHS, it will remain just that–a dream.  I take two half cup-fuls of water and pour one over each shoulder.  Soapy residue makes its way down my body.

This process usually takes approximately three minutes.

With your torso cleaned, things start to get interesting. It’s time to address things DOWN THERE, and DOWN THERE requires more soap.  Lots of walking + hot, equatorial sun =  a thriving home for bacteria, and we do not WANT that.  So more SOAP.  And more water.  Cleaning the Caboose is the final crucial area. It’s difficult, but you’ll always be happy you did so.

The final check

I do a once over just to make sure there is no soapy residue hiding in any valleys or crevices. This takes approximately 30 seconds.  And finally, I wash my feet.  I’m amazed at the amount of dirt my primary mode of transportation collects.  While I am mentally aware of the fact that is is DUST season, I am visually aware of the fact as well by the end of my bucket bath.

On a thorough wash day, including conditioning my hair [I do this once a week], the process from stripping naked to putting on clothes again takes less than 10 minutes.

Bathing becomes just another chore to get done, not something to enjoy.

Bucket bathing isn’t all that bad, you tell yourself as you walk back into your room.

Then it is time for bed, and in another 24 hours, the entire process is repeated again.

 

 

Why am I here?: Part 1

I’m a stranger here myself

When you hear the term Peace Corps Volunteer, a certain image pops into your mind, doesn’t it? It certainly does mine, and I am both fortunately and unfortunately, painfully aware of the stark discrepancy of that image of a Peace Corps’ Volunteer and the perceptions of who I am as a person.  When most people think of Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m sure the image of 20-something political activist, crunchy-granola type, professional do-gooder, and dare I say it, modern day hippie. People who have minimal life experience, still see the good in everyone, still want to save the world types of people. People who are unsure of their career/life’s goals.

I am none of these.

My 20’s have long passed [thankfully]. I about as apolitical as they come. No one would dare call me the crunchy-granola type with a straight face, 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 wish I could say my reasons were entirely altruistic. That I just want to ‘help people’.  I’d love to climb up on my soapbox and tell you about the ills of the world and how I, personally, plan to address and fix all of them. But that would be the EGO talking, and I try daily, to keep the beast in check.  However, I am a human being, and sometimes the EGO runs amok, does thoughts to run through my head.

My reasons are as varied as any other PCV’s reason are.  At my core, I would like to do some Good, as much as it is possible. GOOD being composed of Concrete GOOD and Abstract GOOD. Also, I have never been one to follow the PLAN.  The PLAN being go to college, start a career, get married, buy a house, have babies, retire with a healthy pension. I did go to college [and again, and again and plan to go again]. I have bought a house, butI don’t ever plan to have babies, and pensions are a thing of the past. So aside from doing GOOD, I want to travel and do something different, immerse myself in a culture foreign to me, go not only somewhere I’ve never been, but somewhere I’d otherwise never go. What better place to accomplish that than the Peace Corps? They have volunteers that are strewn, quite literally, all over the globe. And while I have traveled somewhat extensively even at times for long periods of time, I have never lived in one area other than the Upstate of South Carolina for a period longer than two years.

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.  When planning your last vacation, how many of you even considered sub-Saharan Africa? I’ve never even seen an advertisement for anything other than a safari. Even in this age of the ubiquitous travel blogger, very, very few are from Africa, and even fewer still visit/write about things other than Safaris and Vineyards. So if not for this Peace Corps opportunity, not only would I likely never go to a place like Rwanda, but no matter how much money I made or prestige I earned or opportunities I had to travel, I would likely never even consider it.

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.

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. Of course, I say that now… while I sit here in the relative comforts of familiar environs with reasonably fast internet.

“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-worker 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, ostensibly through their own blog which many volunteers take advantage of. I would encourage many of you, if you are interested in getting great stories and reading great writing, to take a look at these blogs and get a feel for what life is like in other countries. The majority of them are very well done and informational. I’m excited to have what I think is a legitimate avenue to share my thoughts and writing in the context of traveling in the Peace Corps. There isn’t much more I can do other than report my story, simply, as I see it whether that is GOOD or BAD.

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.  Momentum is carrying me along this path or that path and sometimes I can’t seem to stop it.  Of course, there are less dramatic and more practical methods of changing your habits and behaviors than signing up to live in an African village 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, Exams, and Talent Shows

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.

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.

Language Learning and Settling In

Days 2 and 3 involved getting ourselves safely to Kigali–an adventure by itself. Our bus was about an hour late getting to Philadelphia. Then the driver wasn’t really sure where he was going so he was on his phone both as a GPS and texting.  There were a couple of close calls where he tried to occupy a currently occupied lane, but we made to JFK airport without incident.

Imagine this X 23 others checking in for our flight to Kigali via Brussels

While yes, we are all legally adults, and have a fair amount of life experience, I thought there’d be a little more assistance in the getting from Philadelphia to Kigali, but nope, once we waved good-bye to the desk officers, we were on our on.  We departed the US with 24 Peace Corps Trainees and arrived in Kigali with 24 Peace Corps Trainees so I call that a success despite sitting in the last row of seats on the trans-Atlantic flight [they don’t recline… at all].  Nearly 24 in-transit hours later, we were reunited with out bags, successfully passed customs, and were whisked away to the convent.

You may think I’m kidding when I say convent, but no, out first two nights in Kigali were spent in a Catholic convent/ Jesuit priest retreat [thanks US budget cuts].  The nuns were nice, the food was basic, but entirely edible, and there were flushing toilets.  I call that a win.

We spent most of the time in Kigali being herded around like cats, interviewing with several people about several things, setting up Rwandan bank accounts, getting an intro into the Kinyarwanda language [it’s hard], and getting up-to-date on shots.  Then just as we’re getting comfortable at the convent, we are whisked away again–this time to our training site which will be our home for the next three months.

These three months consist of a lot of language training and some basic ‘how-to survive in Rwanda on your own classes in health and sanitation.

Friday ended with us being placed in our host families which I lovingly call –being dropped off at the pound.