October 7 2018

How I spend my days

When I was preparing to go into Peace Corps|Madagascar, I read a lot of PC blogs from a lot of countries and I found that there are a plethora of “Day in the Life of a PCV” posts out there.  At first, I read them with fascination, completely hooked on every activity.

Example:

5:30am – Wake up.
My thoughts: Wow! They get up so early!  They must be so productive! I’d also like to point out that this was my usual bedtime for non-working days in the US.  I am the epitome of a night owl.
6:00am – Start cooking breakfast.
My thoughts: Wow! I wonder what they’re eating? How do they cook? How long does it take? I’ve never really been one to eat breakfast… mostly because that’s my bedtime.

7:00am – Fetch water.
My thoughts: Wow! Fetching water! Just like Little House on the Prairie!

I know. I am a Peace Corps nerd.

Truth be told, my day-to-day life in the Peace Corps is, not unsurprisingly, much like day-to-day life in America.  We get up, we do what it takes to eat,, and clean up. We work, we sweat, we come home, we bathe, eat again, and we relax. We have days off, we travel, we come home and panic about how much work we have to catch up on.  See?  Just like at home.

Well, almost. Peace Corps life, while much like life at home in some ways, also has its dramatic differences.  I think a lot of people really wonder: just what are you doing over there aside from your assigned job?  Today, instead of the hour-by-hour breakdown of my daily routine, I want to give you a glimpse of what fills my days.

I’ve never been one for routine, but in rural Rwanda  it’s all about the routine.  Here, I rarely use an alarm clock. Instead, the roosters go off around 4:30am, and continue pretty steadily and increasing incremental volume until around 5:30am when I am awake and just procrastinating getting out of bed. I usually get up around 7 or so depsite the roosters cockle-doodle-ing for hours[In Ecuador, it was the monkeys howling, here roosters.  At least the monkeys are cute. I threaten the roosters with my soup pot]

First order of the day: eating.  Like many volunteers, I try to organize meals around what will involve the least amount of dish washing and water consumption.  For me, this is generally a piece of bread and a fruit, usually a banana or sometimes an apple. I don’t drink coffee or tea so it’s usually just 500ml of water to go with it.  On the mornings when I have a wild hair to do something crazy and have extra time or Saturday or Sunday, I may whip up a batch of pancakes complete with hot chocolate. [<—–This does not happen often].

After eating, it’s usually time to haul water. I use about 80-90 liters of water a week, all of which must be hauled by hand or head from about 150m away. I usually haul water 2x/week. 50L at a time. [of course during the frequent water shortages, this chore become infinitely easier as there is no water to haul] Then, I have to treat and filter my drinking water. Next, I may glance around and find dead insects or any number of other deceased night invaders. Sometimes I find a dead mouse head if SadieMae [the friendly compound cat] has been a good cat instead of a lazy cat. 

Finally, it’s time to dress myself for work and head out to the clinic. Or maybe someone has given birth overnight and I’m doing baby measurements. Or maybe I’m going to the market to buy some vegetables. Maybe I have a meeting, and everyone is likely to be two hours late.  Either way, these work related activities can take up a good chunk of the day, and as a rule it’s always longer than I expected it to take.

By mid-afternoon, if it’s not raining, the sun is hot and it’s time to ‘rest’ or in my case get some chores done and cook my big meal of the day.  This means dishes, laundry if I’m getting desperate for underwear, taking a bath if I’m feeling extra ambitious, and hauling the water to go with those activities. Laundry must be hung to dry, and it can take a few hours to hand scrub sweat stains out of T-shirt sleeves. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_26421-e1544959426267-768x1024.jpg

As the sun creeps lower in the sky, I might fire up my the stove. I’m still wary of cooking with gas.  I have a somewhat not-so-irrational fear of blowing myself up.  Then, cooking. I never know what I want so often I boil water and cook vegetables or something easy. Finally, just as the mosquitoes are coming out, I’m headed under the bed net. I use this time to edit pictures, blog, write letters,talk to my US peeps, or read.  Sometimes I read for fun; other times I’ve got my nose stuck in medical books.  I’m usually in bed no later than 9pm, but often don’t actually try for sleep until 11p or 12a.  (Once a  night owl, always a night owl).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_26571-e1544959510474-768x1024.jpg

So there’s a day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Rwanda.  And this is just a village day. Conference days are really different.[Breakfast at the ungodly hour of 7a; meetings all day] Travel days are different in that they involve a whole lot more sitting and gnashing of teeth [get to bus station, buy ticket, wait for bus, sit on bus, arrive to Kigali. change buses,ect] . Each of us do the same chores and daily routine activities that we did back in America, but here, these things can take half the day instead of a few minutes. Take laundry for example: instead of wadding up my dirty clothes, tossing them in the machine, pouring in soap, and walking away and doing something else for a bit, laundry here can take hours. I have to first haul the water, get the clothes soaked and soaped, scrub until my knuckles are raw, do a whole rinse cycle in a different bucket, then wring everything and hang it to dry.  While you learn little tricks to cut down on the time consuming nature of these activities [like soaking your clothes in a bucket of water and soap overnight], maintaining ourselves at our sites takes a lot of our time and energy.

Work, which can vary with the day of the week, takes up the other large bulk of our time.  Babies come when they want whether a meeting is scheduled or not. Screenings can take all day.  For example, if a mom/baby doesn’t show up to a scheduled meeting, we have to chase them down. Is the baby OK? Are they eating?  Is mom OK?  If it rains or there’s a funeral, your whole daily plan might fly out the window and you have to start rescheduling things all over again. 

Day to day life here is full of little joys, little disappointments, and lots of the regular things we did back home, but now we do them Africa-style.  In Peace Corps, no one day is quite like the next, and if you ask me, that’s the best kind of daily routine.

Handwashing station takes the place of running water and a sink.
September 23 2018

From Trainee to Volunteer 5: Home wasn’t built in a day

This is the last post in my series From Trainee to Volunteer relating the trials and tribulations transitioning from Peace Corps’ Trainee to Peace Corps’ Volunteer [See the others here:  Swearing In, Site, Goals, and Expectations]

 

The first time I cried during Peace Corps service was Monday during site visit.  We arrived on Saturday, and that Saturday morning had been last meal.   Also keys to the latrine and shower were missing and I was told to ‘just use what the others are using’.  There are a lot of things I can deal with but sharing bathroom facilities with 20 or so others isn’t one of them.  And so I didn’t.  I only went to the bathroom at the health center and didn’t bathe for the entire week [yeah, by Friday, I was pretty disgusted by myself].

I brought snacks—peanuts, eggs, chips, a couple of bananas and 8L of water smuggled out of St Agnes—I didn’t realize that these snacks would be my only food for three days. I went to work that Monday morning—really in a state of shock—came back at lunch, went in the room that is now the kitchen, sat on the floor and cried.  Big, giant ugly tears.  I was hungry. I didn’t know where anything was to even get food. Other volunteers were staying with host families and current volunteers.  I was in a two room house with no electricity [let me clarify that the house has electricity; I just had no way to access it during site visit] by myself. I called a friend and said ‘I have to get out of here now’, and to his credit, he didn’t say ‘just tell me when to pick you up.’  He probed around for the cause of my mini-mental breakdown, and we created a plan for getting me food which would lead to a better head space—one that was more equipped to deal with the challenges of serving in the Peace Corps.

All this to say that it was not love at first sight at my site.  I arrived late in the afternoon on Thursday and the first thing I did was set up a basic kitchen.  We’d missed lunch and St. Cristus’ breakfast was not nearly as complete as St. Agnes’ breakfast was and I knew that the last thing I wanted was to have another meltdown due to lack of food since I still did not know where anything was.  I had my pots and pans and a special bag of food I’d gotten in Kigali in preparation for making this meal easily accessible, and set about making my first meal.

First Peace Corps’ meal at site

Later on a full belly, I set about unpacking and settling in.  I hung my US Flag, SC flag, US map and UT flag on the walls.  I hung two large ikitenge fabrics on the walls. I made my bed then sat on the couch and opened up my first care package [from me]. While eating a Heath Bar [that amazingly didn’t melt] and reading going away cards/letters, I formulated a plan to turn the two rooms on the corner into something of a home.

‘Murica, the great state of South Carolina, and the University of Tennessee make up the wall decor in my living room

My bedroom has these amazing brown curtains that have hung in every place I’ve lived since 2009.  My bed has two pillows [from home], a nice weight quilt [from Target] and a fuzzy blanket [from T-2000]. Next to the bed, my large duffel bag now serves as an end table.  I keep all my electronic cords here since it’s near the outlet and I use electronics in bed anyway. [I know…I know…bad sleep hygiene]. The large green bucket has many uses but most of the time it serves as my dirty clothes container. I have a small trash can that I put trash in.  On the floor I have my small rug [purchased in Rwamagana] that allows me to walk around barefoot. The accordion wall hanger, an over the door hanger and about 15 nails make this room ‘homey’.  Lastly I’ve hung a few photos up on one side of over my bed, and cards, notes, and motivational sayings on the other side.

 

I had a local carpenter make a table that I sit my two metal chests on. [The smaller chest contains socks, underwear, tank tops, ect and the larger one tops and pants.

Bicycle delivery of two tables costing approximately $20 each; also you can see the health center where I work in the back ground.

My living room is more generic with the sofa, two chairs, and coffee tables all belonging to the landlord. In this room, I just moved the furniture to a different location than where the previous volunteer had it. I hung up the flags, added some glow in the dark stars, another accordion wall hanger, and a hook for my moto helmet. I have a small stool and two basins by the front door for no other reason than I don’t know where else to put them and that space looks empty.

The curtains hanging over the two windows and front door I made myself from a panel of ikitenge fabric I’d bought because I liked it, but had no idea what to do with it.  I also like that it’s black, and although not black-out does a decent job of keeping it dark. I keep the windows open nearly 24/7 [I know…. I know… bad example for preventing malaria], and most of the time the breeze coming in keeps it pretty cool in here.

The latrine is your basic squatty potty, but instead of just having a hole directly underneath, this one has a concrete step and is built at an angle.  So I have to pour water in after I use it to ensure the products end up in the intended destination.  I have to ‘flush’ my latrine.

I’m most impressed with my little shower room. I still don’t shower every day [for example, I’m not getting naked outside when it’s cold out], but this room makes is a lot nicer when I do.  I keep all my supplies together so it’s a ‘just add water’ situation when I do shower.  It still smells like shit but what can you expect when it’s located next to the cow stalls and has ‘open-air ventilation.’

Finally on the tour of my little house on the corner is the kitchen. I spend more daylight hours in this room than any other, and not because I’m in there cooking all the time. Twenty five nails in the wall have made this kitchen a home. I have a place for the pots and pans, the hand towels, the oven mitts, coffee mugs, and kitchen utensils.

 

One table, courtesy of the health center, holds my gas stove, PC-issued water filter, and a dish drain.  I had a table similar to the one in my bedroom made and keep it in the kitchen. I use this one for food prep and dry goods storage.  The 4 tier plastic shelf holds fruits and vegetables as well as plates and plastic storage.  The chair in the corner was relocated from the house. I moved it from the bedroom to the kitchen.  It gives me a place to sit ‘outside’ but still inside. I also have a small stool and two basins that are put into use when I’m doing dishes or laundry.  My favorite pieces are the two shelves I made from scrap wood.  I’ve got one hanging in the kitchen as a spice rack of sorts, and the other in the shower room holding toiletries.

I still miss my little house in the country, and the two kitties that live there, but over the last month, taking the time to make this a little space a little more like me, makes it easier to be away from my ‘real’ home.

I miss this girl more than I should

September 16 2018

From Trainee to Volunteer 4: Lowering Expectations

This is the 4th post in the series From Trainee to Volunteer [See the others here:  Swearing in, Site, and Goals].  This one is all about expectations. During PST and even before, Peace Corps tell its trainee not to have expectations because whatever expectations you may have  [good or bad] will not be met.  Come into service with a blank slate so to speak, and you’ll have a chance to mitigate disappointments.

BUT…

Back home, most of my jobs had clear expectations, and there were generally accepted ways of doing things.  Be at work on time [call if you are going to be late], take care of assigned patients/customers, don’t be a smart ass, and don’t kill anyone were the basics of just about every job I’ve ever had.  How exactly said job was accomplished was generally left to me, and as long as I didn’t break any rules [or laws for that matter], I was generally left alone to do said job, and ask for help when needed.

Peace Corps jobs are a little different.  One month in and I still haven’t met the boss. I wouldn’t know who he was if it weren’t for the supervisor conference we had in training. I still don’t have a schedule or any semblance of a schedule.  I don’t know when ‘work’ starts.  I’ve shown up at 7am and have been late and shown up at 8a and been early.  I still don’t know what I am supposed to be doing or how to do it.  Oh yes, I have my site goals, but without support and honestly without a plan those are just ideas.  My assigned counterpart doesn’t show up to work a lot of the time which leaves me to either sit in the office, go home, or just find something to do.  I’ve been ‘finding something to do’ but when I mentioned this to PC, I was told to ‘not be so flexible’.  It’s damn near impossible to co-create, co-teach, co-plan, co-present, co-anything when the person you are supposed to be co-ing is unreliable [PC’s new mantra is Co-co-co… We should never be doing any projects on our own; every project needs to have a counterpartsomething about fostering sustainability and having local-level buy-in so when I leave, the project continues on…]

During the first three months, the focus is on ‘integration’—meeting neighbors, establishing a house, getting comfortable in said home, learning even more Kinyarwanda, basically allowing the community to ‘see me.’  My job as described by Peace Corps is to be seen.  And for an introvert like me, being seen is hard.  Talking to strangers in a language I don’t have full mastery of is hard.  Meeting and greeting people is hard.

In order to accomplish ‘being seen’, I set little goals for myself each day.  Some days it’s ‘go to the AM meeting at the health center [even though there’s a 99% chance that I won’t understand most of what is said and isn’t applicable to me].  Walk across the street and talk to my neighbor for 3-5 minutes [this is about all my vocabulary will allow].  Go to the market and buy some things [I proud to say that I now have an egg guy and a tomato lady that seem nice and don’t try to rip me off]. Talk to the HC staff. Sit outside [weather permitting] and cook, or wash dishes or do laundry…

It doesn’t seem like much, but some days it’s exhausting.  Usually on Saturdays I don’t leave my house [I love Saturdays]. I may do laundry, cook, and fetch water, but I don’t often leave the front gates.  I have been assured by past and current volunteers that going slowly in the first few months are the best approach.  Show up, be available, and be friendly.  If I can do that, I will have a successful service.

September 9 2018

From Trainee to Volunteer 3: Peace Corps Goals

PC |Rwanda is trying something new with our cohort of Health volunteers [He10] called site goals. In theory site goals are created by the PC staff and the health center boss prior to a volunteer’s arrival.  Once again, in theory, this gives the volunteer a little more direction on where the PCV should be focusing his/her time.  Site goals are developed to be completed over a period of 6+ years using 3 volunteers total.  Volunteer 1[He10] is the plan/lay ground work person. Volunteer 2 [He12] is the carry out the plan person and volunteer 3 [He14] is the wrap up person.  In theory, after 6 years the site will ‘graduate’ and no longer need a PCV.

Like I said, all this is great in theory, but putting it in practice is another beast entirely.  For example, I am the third volunteer at my site.  People here are somewhat used to having a volunteer around doing various projects.  They are used to telling a PCV what they’d like to have, and the PCV working on it either by education, tangible building projects, or receiving a grant.  Site goals create some issues with that.

For example, my site goals are reducing childhood malnutrition to 0 and to increase women delivering babies at the health center from 15% to 50%.  However, when interviewed both the staff and some of the inhabitants of the villages, said that bad hygiene practices/lack access to clean water is a more pressing issue than women having babies at home. Some of the nurses at the health center say malaria is more of an issue than women having babies at home.  It’s hard enough to convince people that have limited access to water that washing hands is important let alone to convince a women in labor to walk up to 2 hours to the health center to give birth, stay for about 24 hours, and then walk back 2 hours post-partum while carrying a newborn.  If I were in their place, I wouldn’t do it.  So nutrition, hygiene, and malaria are what I’ll be working on.  He12 and He14 can tackle the women giving birth at the HC issue.

So, while PC has their goals, I have mine, and they have absolutely nothing to do with PC’s site goals.  I’ve identified 5 goals I’d like to work on in the next two years, and to be honest, they’d be the same goals I’d work on back in America.  Instead of NEW YEAR’S resolutions, think more along the lines of NEW LIFE resolutions.

  • PC Goal 1: Lose weight.  Lack of motivation to exercise combined with unhealthy eating practices [I really don’t enjoy cooking and eating meals on the go] and schedules all over the place [should I eat a full meal at midnight?  Or what about breakfast at 8am even though I’ve just worked 12+ hours] has led to an unhealthy weight gain.  Add that to the 50 pounds I gained while on high dose steroids for six months, and you have a chunky Michelle.  I’ve already lost about 10kg in the 3.5 months I’ve been here so I just need to keep it up and keep it going.
    • Goal 1.2: Commit to an exercise program that will be possible to maintain whether I’m in my village, my country house, or traveling back and forth to work/school every day.  Right now, that’s yoga, and while I’m still finding it difficult to make it a daily habit, I am finding it easier to start back when I miss a couple of days. #progressnotprefection.

I can no longer wear those pants, and that shirt has room enough in it for a small animal.

 

  • PC Goal 2: Learn to cook. Well.  While I can cook, and have no doubt that I can cook well enough not to starve, with [extremely] limited options for dining out, I need to learn to cook a variety of things with very limited ingredients.  Learning not to rely on quick cook foods, frozen dinners, and snacks is like rewiring my brain.  And since my primary goal here is nutrition, I should be [at least] a better example. To that end, one of my fellow PCVs is teaching me how to cook all sorts of interesting things… all from scratch… all from common ingredients that we find in the market.  We meet periodically to buy fresh ingredients from the market and whip up something delicious while watching a movie.  These recipes are featured in posts called Cooking in the Corps.

One of my first cooking lessons—recipe coming soon

 

  • PC Goal 3: Apply to and get accepted into NP school.  I’ve only found one school that advertises the degree I want [dual FNP/PMHNP], but it is possible to combine programs at other school to get the same program offered at the one school. To this end, I am taking the GRE at home in February.  Some schools require it; others don’t, but it will be easier to take it in the US versus trying to schedule it in Rwanda. At present I have a list of five [with two others in reserve that only offer the FNP portion so I’d have to apply to a different school to do a post-masters PMH] schools I plan to apply to [I can’t afford any more on a Peace Corps’ budget]  They are as follows [in no particular order]: UTHSC [the only school I’ve found that offers the dual program], UT-Knoxville [the only school on the list that offers a Coverdell scholarship], USC [they have both degree programs; they don’t have the dual degree as an option], Frontier Nursing University, Eastern Kentucky University [both have both options available; neither have a dual program], and the two schools in reserve are both South Carolina schools that only offer the FNP degree [meaning I’d have to go to a second school for the PMH degree] Clemson University and Francis Marion University.

My goal is to start no later than Spring Term 2021.

 

  • PC Goal 4: Learn photoshop.  I have a copy of Photoshop Elements downloaded on my computer, but I barely know how to do much more than crop. I’ve got nearly 50000 photos on my hard drive that need editing so I’ve got a lot of material on which to practice.
    • Goal 4.2: Edit and organize said photos
    • Goal 4.3: Re-design the blog and ensure every post has at least one photo in it.

 

  • PC Goal 5: Strengthen relationships.  This one is kind of esoteric but with the exception of 2 [very important] outliers, the people important in my life today are people I’ve met in the last five years. These are the people I call when I’m down; the people I WhatsApp with regularly; the people who send me mail and care packages; the people I draw strength from when I think about quitting; and the people I don’t want to disappoint.  This also applies to PC friendships too.  I’ve identified a couple of others who have a similar outlook on Peace Corps service and life, and I am in contact with them weekly about how life is going at site, what’s coming up, just life in general.  Facebook and other social media apps make keeping in contact with others a whole lot easier than it was say 1998… I don’t think I would have survived PC circa late 90’s/early 00’s when technology was available, but oh so hard to access… especially in the developing world.

The best co workers on the planet

My favorite children at their favorite place

New friends are awesome too

August 26 2018

From Trainee to Volunteer 2: Site announcement, first visit, and first week

I touched on the fact that I wasn’t altogether happy with my site back when we had the announcement.  I didn’t pitch a fit, cry, or really display any type of emotion, but the fact was nearly everything I had said in the interview concerning site placement, I ended up with the opposite.

I wanted to be a ‘first generation’ volunteer; instead I’m the third at this site, the last having been a Peace Corps’ poster child. [The only poster I’m ever going to end up on is a ‘Wanted’ poster].

I wanted to be rural. While I do live in a rural village per se, I can, and in fact do, walk to Rwanda’s second largest city. There’s pizza and ice cream and Chinese food.  There’s a university and an arboretum. Connectivity leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s a small inconvenience.

Huye has legit coffee milkshakes that are worth hanging around for

I wanted to be in the mountains, near one of the national parks. I’m near exactly zero mountains and the closest park in over three hours away.  I have a lot of hills, some very large hills to be exact, but it’s not like being in the mountains. It’s like being in the Midwest; you’re not exactly at sea level, but not really in the mountain and both the mountains and sea are quite a long way away.

Site visit was rough.  There was a food issue [there wasn’t any], a bathroom issue [missing keys meant I was to share with everyone else],  a work issue [what the hell am I supposed to be doing], a counterpart issue [he took me to bars after I said I don’t drink and left me to find my way home in the rapidly approaching darkness], and a supervisor issue [when I called PC about the lack of food, he became offended and probably embarrassed—I haven’t seen him since].  Getting home was no picnic as I’d agreed to meet some others and while I was at the bus station by 8am, no one else was.  One person of the four showed and we were on our way at 10:30, a full two hours behind schedule.

The day went from bad to worse and at 10p when I crawled into my bed back in Rwamagana, I wanted nothing to do with anyone.

Sometimes I am amazed at my own stubbornness and why I didn’t decide to GTFO after that week from hell, I’ll never know, but here I am, a full month later, still in the Peace Corps, still at my site, still trying to figure out what to do.

My first week at site was challenging, and to be fair, I’d guess most people’s week was challenging as well.  However, in addition to starting a new job and meeting new people, and figuring out what it is exactly that I am supposed to be doing, I had the challenges of having both an absent boss and counterpart.  Throw in that I still struggle a lot with Kinyarwanda, it made for a very long week [even though I only ‘worked’ four days].

I’m trying.  That’s all I can do.

Do laundry while its sunny; rain clouds blow in a soon as it’s hung up to dry. An apt metaphor for how things are going.

August 19 2018

From Trainee to Volunteer 1: Swearing in and Moving Out

On Tuesday August 14, 2018 despite any reservations anyone may or may not have had, I, along with 22 others was sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda representing cohort Health 10.

I wore a fancy dress. I put on make-up. I danced on live TV. I listened to speeches given by my fellow trainees/volunteers, the Charge d’Affairs, the Country Director, the Program Manager, the director of Training, a Ministry of Health official, and a tuitulaire.  Some speeches were in English; some were in Kinyarwanda, and around noon, after starting nearly an hour behind schedule, I stood, raised my right hand, and swore to protect the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

It’s the same oath everyone who works for the government takes including the US Military.  The military was never intended to be my career path, but in taking the same oath that several friends and family have taken, I felt a momentary surge of patriotic pride.

After becoming an official volunteer, we munched on snacks and Fanta, and mingled with the people there.  All in all, it was one of the happier days since arriving in Rwanda.

All good things must come to an end, and around 1:30 we were escorted to immigration to get our Rwandan ID cards made.  These cards mark our official residency status and in theory gives up Rwandan citizen status especially at places that charge a higher price for foreign tourists [Rwandan national parks, I’m looking at you].

Things get crazy while waiting out turns at immigration

On Tuesday evening, after the ceremony and after immigration, nearly everyone went out for drinking and dancing. I know myself well enough to know that would have been a mistake on my part, so I spent a quiet evening at home—home, one again, being our Catholic nunnery.  Before anyone starts to feel sorry for me for ‘missing out’ on anything, having the nunnery to myself was pretty awesome.   I had unlimited food and drink [I think I had 5 fantas and at least 2 plates of food], I was able to take a hot shower that lasted longer than 5 minutes [seriously, only my second since leaving America. The first one being at the PC infirmary a mere two weeks prior].  Without any competing devices, I was able to use the internet to my hearts’ content, download books to my Kindle, movies to my hard drive, and even video chat on WhatsApp.  I had a perfectly enjoyable evening doing the things I love with the people I love, and didn’t suffer the hangover that most of my cohort had.

Glow in the dark Jesus for the win

Thanks to a Catholic holiday, we had a free day on Wednesday saving the actual moving until Thursday, and thankfully, most stores are not Catholic and were open for business. I’m not a huge shopper, but I did enjoy hanging out at the bookstore with the rooftop bar, getting my gas stove and a few other home goods, and going to the grocery store getting some food favorites in preparation for my first weekend alone.

Thursday morning involved moving all the stuff that had been stored in a room up to the parking lot to be loaded in to the moving vehicle.  I was as surprised as anyone when everything was loaded, and two volunteers’ stuff for two years fit in one Toyota pick-up truck.  Good byes were said; tears were shed, and off we went [I admit to remaining mostly stoic until one of my Northern friends hugged me and had tears in her eyes. Then my eyes did the same].  With bananas and bread in hand [who can eat breakfast at an emotional time like this] plus a couple bottles of water, my fellow volunteer and I set off to the South.

 

I still can’t believe nothing fell off the truck while we we’re moving

We dropped her off first, and I was a little envious of her site. A proper house with a small front porch, right in town, with neighbors for visiting.  Her HC happened to be a 15 minute or so walk which is just about perfect.  [I can hear the babies being vaccinated from inside my house].

Somewhere between her site an mine

After she was ‘installed’, we bumped along back roads for about an hour until we reached the town of Nyanza, and the dirt roads once again turned to pavement. Another 30-45 minutes later, we pulled up to my house. Things were unloaded; the gas stove was tested [it worked!], and suddenly I was alone… truly alone for the first time in quite some time.

I had planned for this eventuality, had ample international phone credit and data, and set about to making my first meal in my ‘new home.’ [It was delicious].  I unpacked a few things, hung some wall decor, made my bed [pulling out my quilt for the first time], and listened to some tunes.  Later on, I called some friends. Past experiences have taught me that I don’t make the best decisions when I’m either hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, and on my first night here, I was two of the four.

First meal at the new homestead… Moving all that stuff in the house is hard work

On Friday, I made my way down to the city, to get a few more food items, go to the bank, meet some current volunteers, have some Chinese food, and start to figure out how all this works.

I am in a small village in rural Rwanda.  Doing things the way I am used to doing is no longer an option.

This is my new normal.

 

 

August 5 2018

Splish splash… I was takin’ a [bucket] bath

Splish, splash, I was takin’ a [bucket] bath
Long about a Saturday night, yeah
A rub dub, just relaxin’ in the tub
Thinkin’ everythin’ was alright
Well, I stepped out the tub
I put my feet on the floor
I wrapped the towel around me and I
Opened the door……………………………
Bobby Darrin
It has been 53 days since I have felt hot water on my naked skin. It will be another two weeks until I’m back in Kigali at the nunnery with the hot water. In these 53 days, I have taken approximately 30 bucket baths of cold water.  I do not enjoy this, but as my host family does not have running water,  asking them to light a fire and boil some water seems a bit too presumptuous, cold water is my only option [Edit: during the  last week at my host family, I found out that they have an electric kettle that they had been keeping from me. It did not endear them to me.  Yes, I asked before hand. No they didn’t just get it.  I only found about about it by waking up earlier than expected. To say I was pissed would be an oversimplification of fact. Also this post is edited now that I am at my house I do things just a little differently than before]  So how exactly does one bathe in a bucket?

Tools Needed:

  • 1 Bucket
  • 1 cup [anywhere from 8-16oz will do], or empty plastic bottle
  • Soap of choice
  • Shampoo of choice
  • Flip-Flops
  • Non-electrical lighting [not necessarily needed if you are bathing in the middle of the day]
  • Towel and washcloth


Taking a long, hot shower [or even a short hot shower] along with relaxing in a hot tub are two of life’s greatest luxuries, in my humble opinion.  As neither are available to me at the present time, I can only dream… dream that one day my back will get clean, the hot water will pulsate and rumble all around me working out any muscular kinks. [To be fair, the hot tub didn’t happen all that often back in America, but it was the fact that it COULD.  In Rwanda, that is but a dream.]

There are currently no such luxuries in  my life. In Rwanda, my life revolves around a bucket. Or more accurately, buckets, but that’s another story for another day, and to say that I am not a morning person would also be a gross understatement of fact. SO. More times than not I do not bathe in the morning, I use those extra few minutes for another cat nap, and everyone’s is a little happier.

I roll out of bed around 6:45am. The roosters have been cockle-doodle-doing since about 4:30a and the cows are moo-ing about who knows what and despite the fact that I sleep with my windows open, and do in fact hear the world coming to life starting about 5a, I roll over, pull the blanket over my eyes, turn the music up just a little bit louder, and drift in and out of consciousness for the next two or so hours.  6:45 is the absolute latest I can arouse myself, find clean[ish] clothes, make my hair look like I, in fact, did not stick my finger in an electric socket, drink 500ml of water and eat a piece of fruit and call it breakfast, brush my teeth, take my vitamins, and get to the health center by 7:00a.  Most of the time, I am the only one present at 7a, but they say work starts at 7 and like the punctual American I am, I’m there at 7 [or at least by 7:15].  Also, notice there’s no time to be messing around with buckets at this time of day, but what I do, is pour water from my jerry-can into my bathing bucket until it is about 1/3-1/2 of the way full, probably using  about 7-10 L of water. I then set this bucket outside in the sun, and let that amazing star perform it’s magic.

It’s rarely what I call hot these days, [and though sometimes I do sweat while going on long walks, it’s usually confined to the back of my head… dry shampoo is a wonderful thing] so cold, straight from the tap water is a no-go; if it’s a choice between cold water on a cool day or being dirty, being dirty may just win out. My day usually ends around 2p so I walk the 50 or so steps from the health center to my house, make lunch/dinner, and if it’s been a sunny day, whooooo-weee…. my bucket now contains lukewarm water, which is more than adequate for me to do the deed. [It’s amazing what we can become accustomed to/ becomes normal]

Step-by-step for bucket bathing

I have tried to make my shower room ‘rural Rwanda luxurious’.   Bucket bathing still sucks but at least with all my tools in the designated spot, and not having to schlep them around from here to there, makes it not suck as much.

 

Step 1:  Get nekkid… except for flip-flops.  No amount of cleaning will make that floor clean.  Wear the flip-flops.

Step 2:  Hang clothes on the nails loving pounded into the concrete

Step 3:  Fill my cup with water.

Step 4:  Take washcloth, wet, take soap and wash face. Use the water in the cup to rinse soapy face. 20% done. [Every.Single.Time I am amazed by the amount of dirt I see in the cup.]

Step 5:  Fill cup again and pour over head.  This part is so much nicer with lukewarm water.

Step 6: Shampoo. Lather. Rinse. Rinse again. 40% done.

Step 7: Using a washcloth [or loofah scrubby thing], soap it up and begin scrubbing.  I usually start at the top and work my way down… over the hills and valleys and peaks and crevices, if you know what I mean. 60% done.

Step 8:  Rinse.  It’s actually not too bad with warm water. I still miss a faucet and actual hot water, but this will suffice. 80% done.

Step 9:  Wash feet. It’s  amazing how much dirt they can attract… even while wearing socks and shoes.

Step 10:  Rinse feet and marvel at the amount of dirt/dry skin you’ve removed. 100% done

Addendum:  Dry self and put on clothes… Bonus points for remembering to bring clean ones.

This process usually takes approximately seven to ten minutes.  If it is a nice sunny day, there is nothing more enjoyable [in Rwanda anyway] than sitting outside, freshly bathed in the sun reading a book while letting the sun dry your hair.  It’s one of the few times I can enjoy bathing, because in rural Rwanda, bathing is no longer fun; it’s just another chore to be done.

Postscript:  I have one of those Amope foot things…It is essentially a battery operated sander for feet.  I use it once a week on clean feet, then slather clean, scrubbed feet in Vaseline. Finally, I put on socks and go to bed.  It’s amazing how much nicer my feet are since I started doing this.

 

 

 

July 29 2018

I’m a stranger here myself

What the actual F*ck am I doing here?

It’s a question I ask myself daily, sometimes hourly, and occasionally every few minutes.

I have been in Rwanda just under two months and have spent all that time save one week in our training village of Rwamagana learning Kinyarwanda and how to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, because as of now, I am still NOT a Peace Corps Volunteer, merely a lowly Peace Corps Trainee.  The one week not spent in Rwamagana was spent visiting my site aka the place where I’ll be living throughout my two years of service, and let me tell you, during that week I asked myself the above question about 100 times.

What the actual f*ck am I doing here?  Where the h*ll am I?  Why isn’t there any food?  How can I get the f*ck out of here? Why am I headed to yet another bar when I’ve told this person I don’t drink?  Is it too late to go back to work at my [nice] job in America?  The one with awesome co-workers? Or my house with my [oh-so-comfy] bed? Or my kitty cats? Why did I think becoming a Peace Corps volunteer was a good idea anyway?

Before applying to the Peace Corps in 2016, it was something I considered while I was in high school.  And then again after college. It was part of the reason I studied foreign languages in college.  But as LIFE tends to do, it got in the way and I saw my immediate post-college years running away from a bad relationship [quite literally as I  years 22 and 23 on the run in Mexico–and Belize–and Guatemala–and El Salvador…you get the drift] and then running towards a career [any career]. 24 would have been the perfect time for me to join the Peace Corps. I was mostly unencumbered by responsibilities. I was nearly fluent in Spanish. I’d spent much of the last year and a half teaching English as as Second Language in various places to various groups of people.  Aside from the political aspect [and while PC claims to be apolitical an overwhelming majority of PCVs lean democratic], at 24 I was a Peace Corps’ poster child–a person with just enough life experience to still see the good in everyone and still want to save the world. I was a person unsure of my life and career goals. I was exactly the type of person that the Peace Corps seems to attract.

At this stage of my life, my 20’s have long passed [thankfully]. I am about as apolitical as they come, 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’ve written about that a couple of times already, but even though there are several contributing factors, at my core, I want to help people. And yes, I could ‘help people’ without putting my life on hold, and moving 7800 miles and three continents away, but where’s the adventure in that? To date, I have traveled in 54 countries [although none in Africa until now], but never really lived in one area other than the upstate of South Carolina for a period longer than four months [except that one time, I moved to North Carolina, but my LIFE was still firmly ensconced in South Carolina.] My reasons are as varied as any other PCV’s reason are, and yes, at the end, I hope to get something tangible in exchange for my service.

My site seems to already know about permagarden techniques

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.  I know a few people who have visited a handful of countries, mostly in East/Southern Africa, but on the whole, not many people I know even consider Africa [as if it is one country instead of one rather large continent consisting of 54* individual countries] as a vacation destination.  And Rwanda?  If not for this Peace Corps opportunity, I can almost guarantee than I would have never set foot in the country. And I like to consider my self a traveler and not a tourist, and 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.  And in 2018, Rwanda is still off most people’s grid.

“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-workers 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 with people in America. A blog or Instagram account is an easy way to do that, but also writing for the local paper or sharing my story via local meetings would accomplish this goal.  In addition to writing about my experiences in Rwanda as a Peace Corps volunteer, I’ll be doing a presentation in at least one elementary school classroom during my service.

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.  The pressure to settle down, get married, have a career is intense.  Momentum is carrying me along and sometimes I can’t seem to stop it.  Of course, there are less dramatic and more practical methods of changing habits and behaviors than moving to a remote Rwandan village e for two years. But where would be the fun in that?

Back country transport–how things are here

July 22 2018

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.

July 15 2018

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.