The next steps

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.

 

I had THIS waiting on my when I got back

Things I won’t miss about the village: Muzungu

This may not be the most politically correct post I’ve written. If you are easily offended, you’ve been warned.

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.

Don’t worry, my friend got called Muzungu too

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’.

Muzungu…Muzungu… that’s most likely what these kids are saying

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

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

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

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

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

Despite all that, I blended in. Mostly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Return

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.

Kigali’s Convention Center–the most expensive building constructed on the African continent.

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

Lake Kivu…, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo

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.

Among the hill in Northern Province… somewhere near Byumba

**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’]

Happy Peace Corps Day

Happy Peace Corps Day!

On this day, 58 years ago, John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps. All over the world and back home in the US, Peace Corps staff and Volunteers celebrate March 1st as Peace Corps Day.
 
 
My official start day with Peace Corps was June 4, 2018 so the question I get the most is –What is Peace Corps’ Life like? 
 
To be honest, some days drag and I’m convinced that I’m living life in a time warp where time moves in reverse, but the weeks, surprisingly, move quickly. Often when I’m bogged down in a day, I think just get through the day and it’s one step closer to COS. Then it’s Friday, and I’m amazed at how quickly the week has passed. Being at home last month has made me realize how much I love my ‘American’ life, and how happy I am to have returned to it. Being a PCV is [was] but a chapter in life, and as I have found out, the world of development is not where I belong, and I truly can’t wait until I start the next chapter of life.  As it turns out, despite the fact that I have a lot of skills, even life-saving skills, these are not necessarily the skills the Peace Corps’ wants nor are they the skills my community wants.  Peace Corps’ or at least Peace Corps’ Rwanda is transitioning from the ‘strong backs’ building projects to the PC buzz ward of  ‘capacity building.’  However, in a community that has had previous volunteers build things, many can’t get past the fact that I’m not going to be participating in any building projects [which is somewhat ironic considering I spent my time at home ‘building things’]
 
 
I applied to Peace Corps because I wanted to be a PCV. If that seems simple, it’s because it is. PCVs are a special breed of people. There is no other organization that does what we do and lives how we live. It’s challenging, and it’s awesome, but sometimes it sucks. I’m awesome for enduring the ‘sucky’ parts when I know I have a complete life waiting for me in America.
 
 
I’d be more modest, but it’s Peace Corps Day and I’m a PCV even if I am not actively serving. So let me reflect on my life as a  Volunteer.
 
Little by little, I’m learned another language and spoke in another language on a daily basis [a language that I’ll most likely never speak again, but still]. I’m brought new ideas into a rural community [Multiple times]. I’m taught basic first aid to school children and their teachers. I’m helped combat childhood nutrition, and a host of other childhood diseases. I am made amazing friends. I’m learned to be more patient and to think critically when things did not go as planned [and things rarely go as planned]. I’m integrated into a new culture, took on new customs and ate food I never knew existed. I’m lived a completely different life, and how many people can say they’ve done that? I’m a new person, really. I even changed my name to fit in. It was so damn hard in the beginning, but the Peace Corps wouldn’t be the Peace Corps if it was comfortable or easy.
 
 
Oh, and did I mention that I applied for grad school while in the Peace Corps?  Because I did.  It’s not easy to study for the GRE from underneath a mosquito net while mentally blocking out the screeching of the roosters or the moo-ing of cows, and  with the electricity cutting in and out. Or prepare oneself for said program by learning all the ‘common’ medical things I’ve forgotten while I’m here. But I’m doing it.  One day at a time. 
 
And even more exciting is that I got accepted to a graduate program in a field I am truly interested in.
 
 
To be honest, I haven’t done much to celebrate today. After all, I don’t feel much like a PCV  these days.  Today  I woke up late with Molly and Lucy snuggled by my side. I did a load of laundry in the machine. I went out for pizza with American friends.  I drove around the city in my car. I spoke exclusively in English. 
 
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I am glad I’m doing it, but I’m also so ready to move on with my life.
 
Finally Peace Corps Volunteers at last. My best PC friend and me–at our swearing in ceremony in August.                                                     photo courtesy of Kerong Kelly

 

 

Readjusting After Medical Separation

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.

Long Story:

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.

My leg the night of the injury… See the lump on the left side… That’s the problems spot

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.

The government is shut-down—just like meeting with my community health workers–there’s no one there to do business
with

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.

Minimal improvement after almost a month

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.

Malaria Camp!

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.

Day one back in America: I get to hang out with my 5 week old niece

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.

My best friend and companion in Rwanda–Octavia

Your’re Confused; I’m confused

Wait? Are you still in Rwanda? The Peace Corps? The short answer to that question is no. No, I am not.

As of February 3, 2019 I left Rwanda for what I think will be the absolute last time, but I’ve learned to never say never. Earlier this year I was medically separated from the Peace Corps. No hard feelings there, but as medical separation goes, it is a bit of a cluster-fuck.  PC rarely gives you warning that you are being medically separated, therefore there are a lot of unresolved issues that crop up. Rarely is there the opportunity to say good-bye to your cohort, let alone any friends you may have made in other cohorts, and even worse, there’s no opportunity to say good-bye to your community, or pack up what ever of your belongings you want to take with you.

Lake Kivu

I was medically separated on January 4, 2019. I was medically evacuated a week or so prior. I lived in the infirmary at Peace Corps Head Quarters in Kigali for 36 days. I left my little house on the corner on November 17, thinking I’d return in just over a week thanks to a Peace Corps training. But no, I never did return owing that to an injury suffered while at said training.

See the extremely swollen area to the left? That, my friends who are not in orthopedics, is a Morel-Lavalee lesion. It’s usually caused by blunt force trauma. In my case, I just tripped over a rock, and fell into more rocks. NBD, right? So, so wrong. This was the beginning of everything.

However, I already had Peace Corps vacation plans for the month of February so upon arriving back in the US, I did my laundry, organized my stuff, and prepared for returning to Rwanda [I KNOW!], this time not as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but as a private citizen with a still somewhat banged-up leg. I arrived to Kigali on January 22, spent the night in Kigali, shot down to Butare and hung out with friends. Made my way to Nyungwe National Forest… which was just as amazing as I thought it would be. Then I scooted up the coast of Lake Kive to Kibuye and Gisenyi, did some hiking on the Congo-Nile trail, crossed over into the DRC, scooted over to Musanze, made a run for the border and made my way to the ‘Equator’ sign in Uganda, and had a short but memorable safari at Akagera National Park. Finally it was onward to Kigali once again for the originally scheduled flight back to America.

The second continent on which I have crossed the equator

So to recap:  GSP–>ATL–>BRU–>KIG–>[11 days in Rwanda + 2 days in Uganda]–>AMS [7 hour layover in Amsterdam where I went out and explored the city]–>WAS–>GSP and in a month’s time I’ll go GSP–>WAS–>PAR–> LON–>ATL–>GSP. 6 weeks of a true whirl-wind exploring parts of Rwanda, the Netherlands, France, and England.

So what’s next?:  After my injury, I did some contingency planning and applied to a couple of grad school programs.  I just found out that I’ve been accepted to at least one of them. Starting tomorrow, I am back to work at the same job I was at before leaving for the Peace Corps [I’m not sad about that; I loved working there and my co-workers]. I still need some time to process everything that has happened in the last 9 months, but one day I hope to be able to look back on my time with the Peace Corps as a positive time where I did my best to help the people of the community of Mbazi. That time is not today, but I think with time, it will come.

Murabeho Rwanda

‘Murica–and all that entails

Did I really just go to good ole ‘Murica?  Only a few days back in Rwanda, and the entire trip back to South Carolina feels like a dream. I left Rwanda on a Saturday night and was in my own bed by Monday. Lucy and Molly inspected me with above normal curiosity… Maybe they know I’ve been cheating on them with Sadie Mae. Thanks to the generous soul who came to fetch me, my first America meal was a home cooked feast complete with time spent with some of my favorite people.  The combination of a full belly and a little more than 24 hours worth of travel had me collapsing into bed around 10p despite the party that was still going on downstairs.

Christmas lights at Biltmore in Asheville, NC

My nearly one month back in ‘Murica had me meeting my new niece [born November 14 ], seeing friends and family, visiting the DMV [in person!], checking out Christmas lights at America’s largest house, dealing with the state nursing board [on-line], making doctor’s appointments, doing some light decorating to my house, and eating pizza! and salads.

glorious cheesy pizza!

I weeded through piles of clothing for clothes that fit [I’ve lost 35 pounds while in Rwanda], donated two large tubs of clothing to charity [maybe I can buy them again in Rwanda] ate out with friends, sat in hot tub, and just enjoyed America’s luxuries in general.

We have matching gold reflections in our eyes

Here’s some general observations I have about going back to America after living 7 months in the rural Rwandan countryside:

  • America is rich. Excessively so. Even though I stayed in my own house [modest by American standards], I was amazed at the luxury I have. 1 acre of land. 3 TVs. Running water that you can drink straight from the faucet. Toilets. Washing Machine and Dryer. A car.
  • American bureaucracy sucks just as much as Rwandan bureaucracy–I just understand the language better. #governmentshutdown
  • Americans eat so much. My Burrito Bowl?  Easily 3 Rwandan meals; it lasted for two in America. Nearly every meal I had in America was easily 2-3 Rwandan meals.
  • Small towns are the same wherever you are.  Even though my American neighbors don’t call me ‘muzungu’, they were definitely aware and curious about the fact that I was home.
  • I got off the plane and went through a fancy customs kiosk. But it literally stunned me, how professional the airport security was. They called me “ma’am” and said “please move this way”.  Did you know there is no Rwandan word for please? Professionalism is something we DEFINITELY take for granted in America. It’s expected that you will be treated with respect and courtesy when you enter a service situation where money changes hands. Professionalism in Rwanda? Definitely not what Americans are accustomed to. People are late, answer their phones in meetings, sometimes even drink beer during training. Professionalism is not a value in this culture. As Rwanda tried to increase it’s service sector and therefore its economic position in the world, its people could learn a thing or two about professionalism, courtesy, and manners.
  • It was nice to be back in an area that is diverse–even if only somewhat. Rwanda, of course, has foreign visitors. And even refugees from Congo and Burundi, but Rwandas are just Rwandan. They have made a concentrated effort to stamp out any ethnic diversity in part due to their history. I love diversity. I love seeing different races and nationalities in the same place at the same time.  I love hearing multiple foreign languages spoken at one time.

I  haven’t been back in rural Rwanda long enough to assess my feelings.  I had to go back to America; I didn’t have to come back to Rwanda. I had appointments to manage, licenses to renew, certifications to maintain, and medical appointment to see about.  These are things I could not do from Rwanda, and these licenses weren’t something I was willing to let lapse.  I also took the GRE, and while I could have done that in Rwanda, it was just easier to do from America. I wanted to see my people, and despite all the rumors you hear about Reverse Culture Shock, being back home felt ‘right.’  Oh sure, some things felt foreign, but overall, it felt comfortable, and I ‘adjusted’ real quick.

‘Light’ decorating… in my office at home

and the living room

There are decisions to be made for sure, but none of that has to happen right now. And for now, I can enjoy my remaining time in Rwanda whether it be weeks, months, or two years, hang out with friends, and enjoy exploring this tiny, yet incredibly diverse country.

The real reason I was home… Rwanda is exceedingly difficult to navigate on crutches.

one month later, I’m back in the woods…. Not 100%… but 100% better than walking on crutches

By the numbers: Medical

Even though this is only #3 in the series, by the numbers posts seem to be among the most popular, so here goes another one.

1:  # of x-rays taken

2: # of MRI’s taken [one of my head and one of my leg]; also number of instances I’ve been on med hold.

3:  # of weeks I was on ibuprofen for the pain; 189 number of tables actually taken during those three week. 0 number of times it helped.

7: # of visitors from my cohort who visited my while in med hold… I also had visitors from ED 8, ED 9, and ED 10 in addition to Health 9.

30%:  Percent of ‘functionality’ I have in my left leg at my first physical therapy appointment

33: # days on med hold before being medically evacuated from the Peace Corps

*** *** ***

Bruising–a month after the injury

What’s Next?

The short answer is : I am currently back in the US getting treatment for my condition. No on knows when/if I will be cleared to resume Peace Corps service or even if I will go back. Basically I’m living in the great state of limbo. Which I hate.

The long answer is a bit more complicated that that, and since I have no actual answers, it’s pure speculation on anyone’s part. What I will say is that I do not like leaving loose ends unraveled and despite what I was able/unable to do, the fact is Peace Corps service is two years, and by not serving two years and leaving not on my terms, leaves me feeling unsettled.

I always thought that if I left Peace Corps prior to the end of my scheduled time, it would be my choice. Turns out, it doesn’t quite work like that.

This is what my leg looked like approximately 24 hours after the injury. The small scraped area is of minor concern, but the large lump on the left side–that’s the area of concern.

All about the money

At home, I have a pile of foreign currency that I used to decorate my house. Some of the more colorful bills are framed; others are just in a jar, or more accurately, a glass block with the term ‘travel fund’ applied to it. It reminds me of places I’ve been, and I’m still just a tiny bit sad I was never in Europe prior to the introduction of the Euro. All that to preface that fact that I still refer to Rwandan Francs as ‘play’ money instead of ‘real’ money. So are you curious about the finances of a PCV in Rwanda?  Just how many Rwandan Francs do I earn each month.  What exactly is a Rwandan Franc. No? then move along. If the answer is yes, have I got a post for you.

Prior to joining the Peace Corps, I was an Amazon addict.  I ordered everything, and I do mean everything, I could on-line so that I would not have to go to a store. I hated everything about shopping from going to a store to search for what I need to standing in a check-out line.  Shopping in Rwanda was one of the tasks I looked least forward to.

Enter market shopping.

Tomatoes, onions, rice, fruits, beans, toilet paper, clothes… All of these transactions are now done in person, in cash, in the market.  Which means not only talking to people, but also having the cash to carryout that transaction.

First stop–getting that cash to start.

Rwanda has several main banks, and most of the time they work as expected. Unlike in America, if your bank card is misplaced or stolen, you cannot get a replacement the same day. The process could take months. Months! of having to plan your banking around banking hours to actually go in the bank. [shudder]

I am paid by the Peace Corps approximately $200/month in local currency. These funds are deposited into a bank account in my name.  These funds do come with a debit card; however, at least in my banking town, I find very few people who will accept it.  So usually twice a month I go into the banking town to withdraw funds so that I can do the market shopping. The only thing worse than market shopping is going into the banking town for banking purposes AND carrying around large sums of money.

Picture this scenario, if you will:

I’m strolling through the local food market searching for the tastiest tomatoes, freshest fruit, most exceptional eggs, or whatever. I see something I like, approach the vendor and ask the price [all of this occurs in a language I’ve had exactly six months practicing.] The vendor sometimes replies back in French; sometimes in Kinyarwanda.  Great, two languages I’m not very good at plus math. My eyes roll around in my head as I try to remember how to count in French; I then repeat what I think is the number in Kinyarwanda.  No matter the price, the reply is always ‘You’re crazy… That’s too much…’ I go back and forth trying to get things to a reasonable price, and when I do, money exchanges hands along with a very heart-felt ‘Murakoze’. And then the scenario is repeated at each and every market stall for every item I may wanted to buy.

It. Is. Exhausting.

This scenario is a prime example of about half the interactions I have when I go food shopping in Rwanda. BUT I will not be taken advantage of because of the color of my skin. Or the words that come out of my mouth.

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Before Training

There’s a lot of tasks that you must do prior do setting off for some far-off destination.  And a lot of that costs money.  In theory, the Peace Corps gives reimburses you for some of those expenses.  In practice, however, I never received anything. So I’m starting off in the hole.

Pre Service Training

Peace Corps | Rwanda arranges for  home-stays and gives that family a rather large sum of money to house and feed volunteer for the training period [Our training families received approximately 100,000 Rwandan Francs which is why after week 2 and my meals were dwindling in quantity and quality I made the off-hand comment that ‘I am supplementary income for this family. I won’t go into a lot of detail about the situation, but I will say that I was proven right. And was the situation was proven true with other volunteers from other cohorts. Again. and Again].

Peace Corps then gives you, the trainee, a bi-weekly allowance of 47,000 Rwandan Francs. In theory, this amount allows you to buy lunch everyday, phone credit, maybe an outfit or two, and snacks for yourself. It’s not a ton, especially when lunch is around 5000 francs, and when the host family isn’t feeding you, buying dinner with that 47,000 doesn’t get you very far.

Setting Up House

After swearing in you get a chunk of money to help set up house. For PC |Rwanda, we receive around 275,000 R Francs.  Is that enough? For me, it was plenty because my space came fully furnished except bedding [which I brought from home]. I did have to set up a kitchen so I probably spent 150,000 or so on that including a gas stove and a 15kg tank of gas plus 2 kitchen sized tables.  

The furniture in the house belongs to the landlord so the previous volunteer really didn’t leave me much of anything of value.The bottom line is that 275,000 Francs isn’t a lot especially when you have to buy furniture, and you might have to wait on some things.

In addition to the settling in allowance, PC will reimburse you up to 100,000 RWF  for the purchase of a bicycle if you convince them you need it [a policy change—they used to just give you a bike, and there are about 20 used TREK bikes partly covered by a tarp at PC HQ just wasting away] . 

Monthly Stipend

Each month after swearing in you get a stipend and sometimes another mid-month payment to cover one-time expenses and reimbursements. The stipend is supposed to be enough  to maintain a standard of living equal to that of your community, but in reality at least my standard of living is a little bit higher than my community.

For December 2018, I received 198,094 Rwandan Francs. Converted to US$, it’s just over $225.

 Peace Corps breaks it down in to categories:

Ultimately, how I spend that is up to me. Financially, I am comfortable in site. Sometimes I even save a little. This is not the case for all PCVs. Those in bigger sites or more rural sites sometime have to spend more.  

  • Living allowance: 120,596 [this is supposed to cover all food, laundry, clothing, internet/phone credit, evenings on the town [HA!], ect].  It rarely does.
  • Bank/ATM Fees: 1000 RWF.  Rwandan banks are worse than American banks and I can’t walk past an ATM without 1000 RWF being deducted from my account. But for example, it’s 236RWF for every transaction at your bank and 1587 for transactions at other banks.
  • Leave Allowance [goes towards any vacation I might take]: 30, 800 RWF
  • Utilities: 7,094 [we’re required to pay our own electricity and also includes someone fetching water for me]
  • In-country Travel Allowance: 6416 [for official PC travel, trips to banking towns for official business, ect]

I speak from experience: the second I leave site I start hemorrhaging money. There’s the expense of travel itself. And eating Every.Single.Meal out. I can’t put the amount of money I spent in Dec while on med hold in print because it’s so scary.  Let’s just say I’m glad I was frugal in Sept/Oct/Nov.

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Here is a sampling of prices:

  • One month of phone credit/internet: 30,000
  • Hotel room: 15000 Dorm 5000
  • A liter of milk: 1000
  • Enough fruits, vegetables, bread, eggs, ect to last me the week: 5000
  • Liter water: 500 RWF
  • Dozen of eggs: 1200 RWF

Finally,  unlike in the U.S. I never spend money on medical supplies like band-aids, ibuprofen, condoms or prescription meds. That’s 100% covered by Peace Corps. I have yet to be actually sick, so I’m not sure I’m realizing that benefit.

Of the living allowance 6400 is earmarked for travel. This covers any mandatory and/or Peace Corps organized travel but not optional travel, even if it is work related. If we don’t spend it on travel, it’s ours to spend how we please. But as one trip to the capital costs 6600-7600 round trip, it doesn’t go very far.

Long story short (too late!) I do okay.