in defense of America.

My family is from the Midwest. Before my generation, hardly anyone in my family lived outside of Southern Illinois or Indiana (except my mother’s few years stint in Louisiana when she was a girl). I take a lot of pride in knowing that my grandfather received an 8th grade education, yet my father and most of his brothers graduated from college and continued past – two becoming doctors, one a dentist, one an accountant, and the last worked his way up the ladder in a steel company and is now the owner. These are leaps of achievements to make in just one generation.

We are common Americans. We’ve lived our lives and tried to do our best. I am an outlier in my family, having lived in Rwanda for 29 months.

I knew that I was headed to Peace Corps. I decided to do it right after college because I knew I’d have nothing holding me back. It was timing. Serving in the Peace Corps doesn’t make me your average American. I can detect distinct forks in my life’s road that would have put me in a very different place today. But where I am today does not mean I don’t identify with Midwest, USA.

To some of you back home, the fact that I am here probably surprises you, shocks you, or makes you jealous. I’m aware of that. I’m jealous of my friends working in India. I’m jealous of one of my distant friends for being a missionary in Philippines (hello, proximity to Bali!). I’m jealous of anyone on a beach. I’m jealous of all my friends who are married because, hell, I don’t even have a boyfriend (nor am I dating) and I’m really lonely. But ABOVE ALL, I am so proud of my friends. I’m proud of the leaps and bounds you’ve made. I’m proud of the accomplishments and the knowledge and the life experiences my high school friends, college friends, siblings, cousins, and so on have made. I am lucky to know so many solid, good hearted, goal-oriented people.

To anyone who is jealous of PCVs: Every person has their own story. Don’t doubt what your goals are just because they’re not mine and mine aren’t yours. Living here sucks sometimes.

Some people back home might look at my life and my fellow PCV’s lives and say, “That’s an adventure!” “Ah, you must love traveling!” – something that implies we are living fluidly in many places around all of Africa or the world. The very opposite is true. We live in small places. I lived in a village for two years, where the most exciting thing to do was to eat a hot pancake-like capati with my friend Jen or to dance like a cow with my students for a few hours. Now, I live in a town that is, in many ways, similar to the town my father and his brothers grew up in. There is a large market and a few restaurants. There are two hotels and a pool. There is a post office. I can buy things like yogurt, powdered milk, peanut butter, and nice oil without having to trek it on a moto just to get it home. And my house has a toilet.

Sometimes, especially at the beginning of my service, an everyday conversation was exhausting, having to think about the cultural mess of things with implications and lies, unspoken hidden meanings. I would sit alone in my room, wondering if I would have any real, true friends here, wondering if I would be happy.

And now, 29 months later, I view my life here as being very simple. I take pleasure in everyday things like seeing a nice view, laughing with a coworker over a universal joke, or overhearing and understanding bits of conversation in Kinyarwanda.

I recently went back home to Indiana for the holidays, and I didn’t have the easiest time. I enjoyed it – seeing my family and friends, meeting my niece, eating all the things, and sharing a few bottles of wine with my brother and sister-in-law by the fire. Those things were wonderful, but I found myself at a loss as to what to say. Or do. Maybe because there was too much to say and do.

I wrote about the problems I had in a recent blog post. For weeks after coming back to Rwanda, I still felt it. This crazy America out there. I was and am focused and busy with my job here, but fears of someday returning to America would pop up in my mind…How will I ever fit in there again?

I’m sure you all have experienced this – something happens and affects you. You become opinionated about it, sometimes obsessive. And then, some time later, another thing happens that forces you to reconsider, relax, and center yourself.

And just that happened.

I was spending so much time thinking about Crazy America, that I wasn’t recognizing it as Crazy Awesome America.

I had a bad week, everything just kind of fell into a mess. I had a mild security problem, I was busy with work, and I got a stubborn cold. And during all this, I met some folks from the UK.

During my time in Rwanda, I’ve met a lot of foreigners – South Africans, Norwegians, Italians, Dutch…

Many of the Europeans I’ve met have been nice and open. They’re curious about the village; they’re interested in the average PCV’s experience. Some, though, talk as if they’re playing a game and they’re out to win a contest.

They ask you where you’ve been. They ask you what you’ve done in those places. Normal expat/traveler conversation.

They might ask you the number of how many countries you’ve visited. And then specify, “Oh, well, how many in Africa?”

And then the inevitable, “OH! I’ve been to x number of countries!”

Their number is inevitably higher than yours.

After several conversation twists, they bring up America.

One Dutch guy completely changed the vibe during a pleasant conversation by interrupting and turning to me and my fellow PCVs, asking, “So, are you proud of being American? Why?”

As if we couldn’t possibly be.

The English I recently met began our afternoon in similar ways, asking about what I was doing here and so on. I asked them what they were doing here while visiting. The usual tourist stuff, basically.

We spent the afternoon and evening together. We had a relatively good time, but at a certain point, when the subject of America came up, I felt my inner Midwest self come out.

I don’t want to throw these specific English under the bus because I know their attitudes of Americans are not unique; many Europeans share a trait called pomposity.

In short, they implied on more than one occasion that I, being a cultured American, must feel ashamed for being American. They generalized Americans as not owning passports, only visiting places in North America, and use the word uncultured more than once to describe the American People.

I felt disrespected because they said these things, disrespecting all common Americans just because they haven’t filled the English’s country quota, but I was also thrown off by their rudeness. They trashed my nation in front me of, interrupted me after asking me a question, not having the patience to actually listen to my answer.

And all of this happened after and during an afternoon and evening of them complaining. About electricity going out. About the hot water not working. About the slow service at the restaurant. About the bad road on their one kilometer journey off the paved road. I held my tongue when they talked about having a picnic. Outside. In Rwanda. Near a village.

I held my tongue, but I wanted to say, “That’s incredibly disrespectful and insensitive.”

Because it is. Here.

But they don’t know that. Because they’re tourists.

I don’t consider myself a tourist in Rwanda. This isn’t vacation. This is where I live and have made a home. I have neighbors and a job. The thing is, I don’t feel cultured for living in Rwanda. I feel like Rwanda is a part of me, that I’ll never be able to remove it and that, at this point, it is a part of my lineage.

I feel fortunate to have been given the Peace Corps training I did, to learn the language and about the culture. Knowing the language makes it so much easier to catch social cues, which in turn help you to respect the culture.

I think it is so incredibly fulfilling to really know a place. To form real relationships and togetherness with people of that place. It makes my life more satisfying than saying, “I’ve been to x number of countries. What about you? …Oh, I see you’re uncultured.”

I’ve learned during my time here that I don’t really like being a tourist. I enjoyed Zanzibar because it is a freakin’ paradise. I enjoyed Jinja, Uganda because of the time I spent on The Nile. I didn’t like Kampala so much. When I think about the ideal vacation, I picture somewhere relaxing with a good drink and book. I picture being with my family and friends, enjoying sites and eating good food. I picture Yachats, Oregon and St Patrick’s Day 2011. What I don’t like about being is a tourist is this: not knowing where things are and not knowing how to get to places. Having spent a lot of time in both the village and in Kigali, I can tell you that these places are very different from each other. If I were a tourist in Kigali, Rwanda, here on business or to see the mountain gorillas, I would see Clean Rwanda. I would eat at the fancy restaurants and would probably have brunch at The Mille Colline. I most likely wouldn’t eat boiled plantains or beans and rice. Having spent so much time in the village, I don’t view Kigali as real Rwanda. This year, I go to Kigali for work, but while there, I treat it almost like a refuge, a place to go to when I want a burrito.

And so, I don’t think the number of countries a person visits defines how cultured that person is, and I don’t think being pompous about it gets you anywhere.

She, one of the English, made a good point in saying, “Seeing the poverty – seeing it does something to you. It’s good to know about how these people live.”

No one can argue with that. I respect her for voicing that. I respect her for getting something out of her experiences here in Rwanda and in other nations.

But.

You could say that – x does something to you – about almost any other experience in the world.

People have different interests. We should, as a People, respect those interests and understand that every person has limits.

My Midwest self is very proud of being an American. I feel lucky for having been raised in a place that puts a lot of concern in protecting our community: how we treat each other, what we can do to progress our nation, what we can do to help other nations. In many ways, I think community exists in America through public service, through public interest. I am proud of the way we come together in times of crises, whether it is through personal prayer, volunteer work, getting a bill signed, or serving our country.

Each country and culture has different priorities. In America, it’s progress and time management. In Rwanda, it’s patience and unity. No matter the country, individual people have financial and physical limitations that can hold them back from doing a variety of things. But none of those limitations takes anything away from the genuine essence of an individual’s life experience.

No, I haven’t really been to Europe (except for a lucky day in Brussels), but I have been in most regions in USA. No, I didn’t study abroad, but I did volunteer for one week in Appalachia with Nazareth Farm, working and talking with some of the poorest in our nation. No, I haven’t seen the pyramids in Egypt, but I have road tripped with a best friend and got lost. A few times. No, I haven’t couch surfed, but I have enjoyed Christmases with both of my elder siblings’ in-laws, learning about each family’s traditions. No, I don’t know French, but I sometimes dream in Kinyarwanda. No, I haven’t done a lot of things, but I’m living my life the way it’s coming to me, and I don’t feel left out of the human experience.

Neither should you.

“They believe, and I believe, that here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.”

“America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble, we make mistakes, we get frustrated, we get discouraged, but for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside, and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress. To create and build and expand the possibilities of the individual achievement.”

-President Barack Obama, State of The Union 2014

first week in Nyanza.

I left America with a lot on my mind. The vacation went by quickly and slowly at the same time. I was going back to Rwanda with a new job and goals to conquer. Failure is my biggest fear.

Anxiety mixed with the worst jet-lag I’ve ever had has given me a week of sleeplessness, going to bed early, waking up early in the dark and worrying…all that kind of bad stuff that just leads to more anxiousness in the mind when you’re busy thinking, “WHY CAN’T I JUST FALL ASLEEP?”

So that happens. At night. But luckily, my days have been productive.

I landed Sunday in Kigali. By noon on Monday, I was settled into my new house. Katie (the PCV I’m replacing) gave me all her files. Tuesday was my first real day on the job. I went through the files, familiarized myself with the way emails, budgets, work orders, etc were formatted and sent. Wednesday was New Years Day, and therefore, a holiday. I went to Kigali to buy a new hot plate and other odds and ends. I enjoyed being able to travel TO KIGALI and BACK in one day :-). I spent Thursday working on the budget, and I spent Friday working on the Teacher’s Manual.

During the evenings, I organized my clothes in my armoire (Thank you, ILPD for giving me furniture!), organized my food in my trunk, and got used to having a bathroom (with a toilet!) in my Rwanda House. By Saturday, I had finished decorating, hanging up my tapestries and imigongo (cow poo art).

I didn’t do anything special for the new year, but I did spend several hours calling and texting my friends in Nasho. I received these lovely texts in response:

“Thank you and to you too, I wish you a happy new year. We miss you so much.”
-Samuel, my old landlord

“Days and years pass away and disappear, but friends like you will always be treasured. Happy new year 2014 to you, your family and your beloved ones.”
-Steven, one of my old co-workers

“I wish you to have NEW year. NEW hopes. NEW plans. NEW efforts. NEW successes. NEW feelings in Nyanza and HAPPY NEW YEAR 2014.”
-Jean Damascene, my old headmaster

“Sarah I am very happy, God BLESS YOU.”
-Angel, one of my Kigali friends

“Thank you, Happy new year and long time, how are parents? Tell me, how are you? We miss you, when you will come at Nasho? be blessed.”
-Jen, my capati makin friend

“Special card for you:
**A picture of a heart**

Happy new year!”
-Eugene, one of my old co-workers

“You too, I’m greeting them for you, we are celebrating this new year at our grandfather. don’t forget the 18th jan 2014″
-Domitille, reminding me of her WEDDING!

“Peace from God be with you! Happy new year!”
-Revelien, one of my old co-workers

“Happy New Year 2014 may God will be with you all times.”
-Moses, one of the bus drivers Nasho to Kabarondo

I also called/received calls from some students and other coworkers.

Aren’t those nice messages to receive? So nice. Love my friends.

So, yes, my days have been productive. I’m trying to create a healthy routine for myself this year. Less TV. More work. More activity. I’ve been waking up at 6, preparing myself for a goal that I won’t write here because I don’t wanna jinx myself (ah, the mystery).

Nyanza has been good to me so far – even though I moved here a week ago, people already know my name, the market ladies have already affectionately given me discounts, and I found one in particular who said she has “apples everyday” – yep, she and I are gonna be friends. My co-workers seem friendly enough, but there are so many, it’s gonna take me a while to learn all their names!

I feel positive about my future here; I know I’ve made the right decision, though some may disagree. And to hold my heart at ease, and to show them where my mindset is, perhaps these quotes can better explain:

“Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential.”
-Bruce Lee

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
-Steve Jobs

“I will not cause pain without something new to be born.”
-Isaiah 66:9

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
-Galatians 6:9

“You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.”
-Oprah

“Be daring. Be different. Be impractical. Be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.”
-Cecil Beaton

“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”
-Sigmund Freud

Here’s to 2014!

27 months in…america vaca #2.

I’ve been back in Rwanda for a week now, and I’ve been procrastinating this blog entry. Ever since I arrived in America, I’ve been wondering what I would write because, well, a trip to America after experiencing 27 months in the developing world warrants…something. Some insight. Some reflection. Some stories. And as I’m writing this now, I don’t yet quite know what I will write…

I arrived at the Indianapolis International Airport the afternoon before Thanksgiving. I saw my family and friends waiting for me…and also a camera guy…? I tried my best to ignore the camera in my face as I hugged my family for the first time in 11 months. After I greeted everyone, a newsperson from some Indianapolis news channel introduced herself and asked if maybe in a few minutes I’d like to answer some questions. I was eager to be with just my family and friends, but the “I’M IN AMERICA – I’LL DO ANYTHING” elation gave her a friendly, “Yes.” However, after some minutes of brewing over the fact that I hadn’t bathed in over a day, had been traveling for 23 hours-ish, and pondering over what kinds of questions she might ask me and what my answers would be…”You’ve just returned from the Peace Corps! Are you happy to be in America?” “YES! I AM HAPPY TO BE IN A PLACE WITH PLENTIFUL CHEESE AND GOOD CHOCOLATE.”…yeah, that would be a little embarrassing. So I whispered to my family before she could catch me, “Let’s go, GRAB EVERYTHING, let’s go.”

It’s like, WELCOME TO AMERICA YOU DON’T HAVE TWITTER OH LET THIS CAMERA MAN DOCUMENT YOUR RETURN TO THE DEVELOPED WORLD AND LET’S MAKE YOU FEEL A LIL OVERWHELMED.

Thanks, America.

I don’t wanna give you a play-by-play of my vacation because that would be boring. I saw family and friends. I shopped in stores and online, finding office-y clothes (in hand-washable friendly fabrics) for my new job, ate a lot of cheese-chicken-basil-spinach-pesto-sundried tomatoes-cookies-pizza-pie-cereal-fruit-ice cream-bagels-CHEESE, and watched annoying TV. I watched the “news” for awhile, but then stopped watching the news because they weren’t reporting on the Central African Republic. I guess the American public has more interest in speculating whether or not Hilary Clinton will run in 2016 on 24/7 news. Um. There are other things happening in the world RIGHT NOW. And I don’t care about all of your gift suggestions, Today Show, especially when the young woman claims that without this handy iPhone charger thing, you’ll inevitability experience “THE WORST THING EVER” when your battery signal goes red. “Yes!” I said to my mom, “There’s NOTHING WORSE than when my phone battery dies…it’s not like a genocide is brewing right now, anyway…” YEAH.

Things like that in our media and the rudeness I encountered with strangers led me to think over and over again…”America is a strange land.” I held my tongue a number of times, when I wanted to point out the blatant un-nicery I witnessed.

That’s not to say I wasn’t rude either…more than several times I had to stop and think when I began to do or say something that would be considered rude in American culture but perfectly normal, even encouraged in Rwandan culture.

About a week and a half into my visit, I went to Walmart and bought goods I wanted to bring back with me to Rwanda. Triscuits. Pesto mix. Oreos. Latte mix. Lemonade mix. Shampoo. Face Masks. Razors. I didn’t find this experience daunting, but instead I found some things laughable. Like the number of FLAVORS of Triscuits. All I could do was look at the spectacle in the aisle and laugh a little. I was happy to get the shopping outta the way. I was happy to look at my full suitcase and think, “I’m going back.”

It took me just 4 days to miss Rwanda.

Last year when I came home for Christmas, I didn’t think about Rwanda at all. Well, if I did, it was in a sentence kinda like this, “Yeah…I’m going back. *shrug*” I immersed myself in the people and the food and I loved it all. I loved being in America, and in many ways, I dreaded being in Rwanda again, in my village, all alone again, without…everyone I loved the most.

I’m not gonna lie, I was a little concerned I’d have a similar experience this year. That, especially because I’ve finished my initial contract with Peace Corps and I made the choice to extend, that I WOULDN’T WANT TO GO BACK AND DID I MAKE THE WRONG DECISION?!?!?!?!?!?!

Like I said, it took me 4 days to miss Rwanda.

I closed my eyes while I was lying in my comfy bed, and I imagined the hills, the dirt roads, the smiling mamas, and the bananas. I imagined my students greeting me and dancing the cow dance. I imagined Nasho and I imagined Nyanza, my new home with some modern comforts (like a toilet). I thought about the new experiences I was about to have, the professional skills, the resume, the time to study for the LSAT without the business of TVs and traffic distracting me. I thought about the ability to visit Nasho and my old landlords.

Throughout my time in America, I received Facebook messages from Samuel (my old landlord) and Mwami (my old counterpart), wishing me safe travels, a Merry Christmas, a request from them for me to greet my father for them. They told me they missed me. And I missed them.

Don’t get me wrong, I love America. I loved being able to see my closest friends, to drink coffee with them, to share meals with them, to talk about everyday things with them. I feel real with my best girlfriends in ways that I don’t feel with anyone else, and it’s because in so many ways, we are soul-mates and we love each other so much. I loved seeing my family (this Christmas was the first time we’d all been together since Matthew’s wedding!). Seeing the changes in Landon and Henry were so funny. Their personalities came out more and more everyday I saw them. Landon is such a helpful child, he’s always wanting to have a job (giving everyone their shoes and coats before leaving, helping me make chocolate crinkles!). He loves his sister and is a good, sweet boy to his parents. Henry is ALWAYS smiling. He looks around, taking everyone in, absorbing actions and sounds. He loves to be watched. He loves to laugh. Audrey, well, I met her for the first time, and she wasn’t SUPER keen on letting me hold her, but I did get a few moments in. She’s her mommy’s girl, through and through. She loves to move around, leaving many of us to believe she’s going to be a dancer.

So. I love America. But…

I felt uncomfortable in America the majority of the time I was there. Uncomfortable in a way I didn’t experience last year. During my last visit, I felt “like myself” after 15 months in being in a strange place I didn’t always like. This visit, I felt: I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to think. I felt out of place. It’s like someone told me I was a doctor and I look down and see the scrubs and think, “What am I doing here?!?!?!?!” One day, I was in my village, making peanut sauce. Three days later, I was in America eating at Steak n Shake and I was surrounded by loud white people.

Feeling this uncomfortable, feeling so out of place was actually kind of a relief to me. Why? This shows that in the last 11 months, I’ve adapted more to Rwanda, it’s become more a part of me, I’ve changed – I’ve allowed this culture into my life, into my everyday life, and my life is now strange without it, and that I’ve made the right decision to live in Rwanda another year.

A BIG part of my experience in America were my students. They were always on my mind. When I was in a nice restaurant; when I was walking around in Downtown Chicago; when I was at the Palmer House, looking at the murals and the big Christmas tree; when I was picking out chocolates; when I was at a BareMinerals Boutique, getting a makeover done; when I was trying on nice, new clothing; when I was baking or cooking anything in my mom’s kitchen; when I was putting ornaments on the Christmas tree; when I was at the Indianapolis Art Museum, looking at Matisse; when I was at the dentist and salon; when I was getting a facial…and so on…

I kept thinking, “What would my students say if they were here, in this moment right now?”

These are all normal, American, western things – all of them. I used to participate in these activities as if they were the MOST NORMAL THING EVER. It was just a part of life, maybe not everyday life, but still, a part of what a typical American does at least once a year. The way we think about these activities NEVER happens in Rwanda. One can, yes, walk the streets of Kigali (the capital of Rwanda). There are variations of these activities, but the impact of the cleanliness, the awe, the easiness, the CONVENIENCE, above all, does not exist in Rwanda.

My students, who all live 4-5 hours away from Kigali, most of whom have never been there or even to Kibungo…what would they say? Maybe “YEBABAWE” “JESWE” or “OMYGOD,” but above all, I imagined them in silence, looking a child’s gaze, mouth agape, taking it all in and not believing it’s really real.

from nasho to nyanza.

16 November 2013

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place. -Kurt Vonnegut

The last few weeks have been happy, sad, full of reflection and projection.

26 months ago today, Education 3, Peace Corps Rwanda’s 6th group arrived in country. Like every other Peace Corps group, we didn’t quite know each other yet, but over time, we became a family. Always supportive. Always storytelling and listening. We gave advice, and these people – my Peace Corps family – we had a good run together.

We’ve said goodbyes. Some were swift, plans for next month in America already set. Others were teary, not knowing when we’d see each other again. Heather and I held hands like two Rwandan young women, tears formed once the hug cemented, and we could only mutter out that we loved each other.

Now, in country, we are 9. The other 28 are on trips of a lifetime, back home in the States, or living abroad elsewhere. Some left the borders of Rwanda on planes, others on buses. Soon, we will be 5.

These last 26 months have been miserable and amazing. When I left my family in Indianapolis’ airport, I didn’t know if I would even make it a day. Or a month. Or the first year. And looking back on it now, I think I had those fears because I didn’t yet know the people I’d be working with. I didn’t yet know the kindness and love I’d give and receive from my neighbors and my friends. I didn’t yet understand how sometimes, a simple conversation or action can make any person feel better about their day.

You’ll ache. And you’re going to love it. It will crush you. And you’re still going to love all of it. Doesn’t it sound lovely beyond belief? –Ernest Hemingway, The Garden of Eden

I visited my host family a few weeks ago. I was helping with the Education 5’s training for a couple of days, and so I was back at the training site. I hadn’t seen them since I left for Nasho December of 2011. I hadn’t visited them because something happened at the end of my time there, and so I hadn’t felt comfortable seeing them. It’s not a story worth telling. But time passed. I started feeling guilty about not seeing them. I visited them for a couple of hours with their new trainee. There were changes at their house…new paint, the kids were taller and bigger, more English was being used, but my host mother hadn’t changed a bit. She still had her caring eyes, her excited laugh, and her wit. We talked about family. Her mother had passed. She lived to be 100. I showed her pictures of my siblings’ children. She reminded me that she prays for my family to have many children. I laughed.

Among the most striking things that I have learned is how much we have in common. I’ve sat down with people everywhere, discussing what was in their hearts and on their minds. And it doesn’t take long to find commonality, which is often overlooked, ignored, dismissed, and rejected otherwise. -Hillary Clinton

My closest friends in Peace Corps, Ginger, Michael, and I went to Musanze for the weekend before they took off to Cambodia. We enjoyed a few days in the cool air by the volcanos – eating at nice Italian restaurants, shopping, and sipping afternoon drinks. Ginger and I walked to the ATM on our last night there, and she got distracted by the view. The sun was setting over the mountains, and she said, “Look!” We stood there, hugging, looking at this mountain and the sunset. She started talking about our friendship, and I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t return the lovely words she was giving me because I was so choked up. In this moment, I realized that she was really going and I was really staying and I couldn’t comprehend how I was gonna do this without her.

I often think of you all, one cannot do what one wants in life. The more you feel attached to a spot, the more ruthlessly you are compelled to leave it, but the memories remain, and one remembers – as in a looking glass, darkly – one’s absent friends. -Vincent van Gogh

It wasn’t an easy decision, deciding to stay another year. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in Rwanda. I’ve felt completely isolated, being an expensive 1.5 hour moto ride away from other PCVs, and I’ve felt so incredibly happy, having the simplest of conversations and sharing the most basic of meals. The doubt I had about extending was all based on who I’d be leaving behind in America for another year. I thought about my family and my siblings’ children. I thought about my mom and my grandmothers. I thought about my closest friends, busy in medical school and planning weddings. It’s not easy knowing that decisions you’re making about your life are also affecting people back home, and that it’s not just that I miss them, but that they miss me too. Every day that I’m not there is another day I miss the anecdotes from their life: a story about an interaction between them and a cute guy at a coffee shop, a cute dress they found on sale, a professor they’re butting heads with, a dream they had…and the things we could share: bottles of wine, evenings on a porch, concerts, meals…

I miss all of this stuff, and I will continue to miss all of this stuff. Staying is what makes sense professionally, and though it hinders my relationships, the outcome is my passion.

Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity. -Carl Jung

Always go with your passions. Never ask yourself if it’s realistic or not. -Deepak Chopra

I went to Nyanza for a week to meet my new coworkers and transition with Katie, the current 3rd year PCV working at ILPD. I felt like I had gone back two years, on my site visit again. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Nyanza, so Katie was awesome and showed me around. We walked toward the King’s Palace, the Art Museum, she showed me the best shops in town and to the bar with good omelets. I took it all in, these paths along the (paved!) roads, the people (who because work in the southern capital, are dressed very nicely), the fact that I was COLD (!) in Nyanza and didn’t sweat through anything once I walked outside, and my new job. Yes, being a PCV is very difficult. Most of the difficulty, I think, is because of the cultural differences and dealing with the same annoying bullshit day after day (“Hello. You are beautiful. Will you be my wife?”). The easiest part of my job has been teaching, which is actually my Primary Job. But being in Nyanza with Katie, learning the ins and outs and hang-ups, back-and-forths, and REAL JOB STUFF got my heart beating a little more quickly. This is a legit job – people are going to depend on me for answers, and I have to depend on myself to get it all prepped so that it runs smoothly. Work Orders. Edits and Revisions. Scheduling meetings. Kigali and Nyanza. I’ve been busy before. In college. During Peace Corps training. Let’s just say I’m happy I’ll have this job as transition back into The Super Serious Work Mode in America.

Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn. -C. S. Lewis

Katie and I had a meeting with Peace Corps and ILPD that ran into the early afternoon. We bused it to Kigali afterwards, and I continued east. I was racing the sun, trying to get back to Nasho before 6:30. The bus I was on, though, had a different plan. Leaving Kigali at 4:00, it drove slowly. I frantically called Heather like an umusazi (crazy person). I was gonna try to crash with her because she lives close to the main road, but she was visiting her friend’s family in another district. It was already 7 PM. I didn’t want my last moto ride into Nasho to be in the dark. I wanted the view of the lakes from the Kabare Hill. I remembered that my friend Domitille’s family lives in Kabarondo. Domitille’s new job is in Rwinkwavu (she used to be a teacher in Nasho), so I didn’t know if she lived there or with her family. I took a chance. Calling her, we first greeted each other. And then I told her about my problem. I didn’t even finish my thoughts before she said, “Can you come here? Stay with my family.” She met me at the Kabarondo bus park and took me to her house. I met her parents and her many siblings. We sat in their comfy sitting room, electricity gone, candles lighting the space, so I couldn’t make out how anyone looked, really. We discussed our families, our jobs, and the fact that Domitille is getting married in January! I was incredibly impressed by her family’s English, and they laughed at some of the strange Kinya words I know (ikibahima – a word that means a small house within a family compound for a single person – always makes people laugh! I know it because I live in one). They gave me conversation with family, dinner, and a whole room to myself to sleep in. Generosity. Home. No questions. Love. Just given.

You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place. – Miriam Adeney

When I woke up that next morning, Domitille called her favorite moto driver to their house. He arrived promptly, and they walked me out, Rwandan style, not letting me hold a single thing. I thanked her family once more, said goodbye and took off. The air was fresh and crisp. There was a slight chill, it being just past 6 in the morning. We motoed past cows grazing, farmers digging, and mamas with babies on their backs. We motoed past the fields, rich due to the recent rain and children playing. Goats blocked our way twice, and the air ran low in one tire. When we approached it, the Kabare Hill, I felt my throat knot up, and I thought, “This is it. This is the last time this hill means, ‘I’m coming home’.”

The view was perfect. The sky was clear and blue, sparse clouds. I could see the whole valley.

I remembered the first time I saw it – all I knew about my site was that it was near lakes, and so when I saw them, I thought, “Ok! This is it! I’m close to my future home!”

I took it all in this last time. This view from the hilltop of the valley and its people. I looked out unto it, and I cried the whole way down.

My heart might be bruised, but it will recover and become capable of seeing beauty of life once more. It’s happened before, it will happen again, I’m sure. When someone leaves, it’s because someone else is about to arrive–I’ll find love again. -Paulo Coelho, The Zahir

On the evening of 8 November, I was with Ginger and Michael in Musanze, but I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about how, if I hadn’t decided to extend, I would probably have taken the Turkish Airlines flight to Chicago and how I’d be landing that evening. That night was when those two paths separated, and I’ll never know the difference.

This is where I am going. Moving forward in Rwanda. A new place. New coworkers. Ignited passion for my future.

A woman’s life can really be a succession of lives, each revolving around some emotionally compelling situation or challenge, and each marked off by some intense experience. -Wallis Simpson

I don’t know how much measurable good I’ve brought to Nasho. I can say, to Peace Corps’ probable relief, that I am as integrated as a foreigner can be here. I can say that it’s changed me and given me a much better understanding of what life is like for most people in the world. I better understand what being happy and grateful really mean and how to actively live with those characteristics. I better understand my personal limits. I know things I never thought I’d need to know, like how to train cockroaches to go down in their hole so they don’t disturb me when I want to be in my water room. Yeah, that’s a strange thing to need to know.

Nasho and its people have taught me to feel good about what I’m doing. They didn’t always understand why some American girl would want to live here for two years, but they welcomed that fact and opened bits of their world to me. My girls have shown me through their words and actions that mayyybe their world is a little bit different because I was in it for a little while. My friendships with people who speak zero English have truly taught me how important body language, miming, eyes, and love are.

Thank you, Nasho. I have just 8 more days here. It’s time to pack.

You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own. -Michelle Obama

 

 

last day at school.

25 October 2013

I woke up to the sunshine through my windows, and got outta bed. It was time to get ready for my last day of school. Thankful the water pressure was strong, I took a shower, despite it barely being the rainy season.

Walking to Jen’s shop, I greeted the neighborhood children. The capati was finished, but more was coming, so I opted for an amandazi, taking peanut butter out of my bag. There were whispers about it – what was this strange thing the muzungu spreads on her amandazi?! Jen and I made eye contact, laughing, for she knew what it was. I gave her and her daughters a bite and they laughed. Jen explained what it was, but the men still looked very confused. Capati finally arrived, and Angelique served me first – one super oily, milky, pancake-y capati. It was gone in minutes, and I was nearly out the door before I saw Samuel, my landlord, enter. His shirt said, “Your village called, their idiot is missing.” I lost it. I asked Samuel if he understood what his shirt said – he said a little bit, so I translated it. Jen overheard, and now she was the one losing it. She was laughing so hard that tears were forming! We stood there, at the entrance to her shop, for minutes, just laughing.

I walked to school and waited.

Today was the last day of school. Today, we were to distribute certificates, have a teacher’s meeting, and, according to Chantal, there was a party planned in celebration of…me. I didn’t know what to expect of any of this, especially how organized it was gonna be, so I brought a book.

I sat in the teachers’ room until about 11, reading. Then we had a teachers meeting. No one translated for me. We drank Fanta. Then I was asked to give a speech. I said, “Thank you so much for being together with me for two years. You are welcome to visit me in Nyanza next year! We can go swimming in the pool! Yeah!”

I didn’t feel like being verbose.

I went back to my book. Certificates were handed out casually – no special ceremony. Students trailed into the teachers’ room to collect them. I asked to see some of their grades and congratulated them if they performed well.

I finished my book. It was all timed very well because about 30 minutes later, the party “for me,” which was actually for the teachers, began. In the meantime, I hung out with my students, having a bit of a photo-shoot. It was a cute, good time. They fought over getting photos with me, so I stood there, with a camera smile, hugging each new student as they came up for a photo.

The party began with a speech. How could it not? The MC of the party “introduced” all the teachers in attendance. When he got to me, he said that in Rwanda, there are a lot of outside visitors, and they come and go. He said, “How long has Sarah been here?” “TWO YEARS!” was the response. He did this many times, creating a kind of call-and-response. I got excited, the students got excited, we all raised the peace sign with our index and middle fingers, celebrating our two years together and laughing.

The students had prepared dancing, singing, and speeches. The teachers were each given time to give a speech. Most of them encouraged the students to do well on the national exam, to continue to have good behaviors, to have good discipline – pretty standard topics in Rwandan culture.

I was nervous to speak. This would be my last time giving advice, being there to teach these students, who, for two years, have been a lot of the reason as to why I am still here. When I was down, I’d be together with them, I’d think about them and their situations, and I saw and felt possibility. These are really good kids. They deserve the best, they deserve better than what they were given, yet they still thrive.

My speech was relatively short, with three parts.

I spoke about tutoring women at the Vigo County Public Library. How one of them, Elizabeth from Brazil, had told me (after I told her about getting into Peace Corps), “Sarah – going to a new place is difficult, but when you have friends, life is okay.”

I told them how when I had come to Rwanda two years ago, I had zero friends, how I didn’t know or understand anything, but when I came to Nasho, I saw that they, even though my students, could be my friends. The people of Nasho welcomed me, invited me into their village, and allowed me to be a part of their families.

And then, I spoke a little about development, how each person has a different definition of development, and my belief is that development begins with the people. I said, “You, when I look at you, my students, I see that you work hard, you try, you are intelligent, you have confidence, you have good hearts and good ideas in your minds – Rwanda has a difficult past with the Genocide – but if all Rwandese are like you, with these qualities of having good hearts and good minds, Rwanda can have development, it can move forward.” I wished them good luck on their exams.

These students who danced with me, who sang with me, who laughed and joked with me, who defended me in the market and distracted the crazies, who always greeted me with a smile, who learned from me and taught me, who matured and became young people while I’ve been here, and let me take them on weird adventures to GLOW and BE camps…they were there with me in this one room with smiles yet again, and it dawned on me amidst their applause that I might never see some of them again. I sat down from my speech and looked at each of them, hoping and praying that I would never forget any of them, that I would remember as much about them as I possibly could.

They gave me gifts – cards with flowers drawn on them with messages of love, bracelets they had made themselves, multi-colored wire to string around somewhere, and the big gift – they’d all chipped in – a woven grass mat, which I will surely bring to my new home in Nyanza.

Chantal walked me home in the dark, helping me carry my gifts, only the light of the stars guiding us, and she spoke of her fear of swimming. We parted ways at my door, with promises of us meeting to work on her Gashora application.

…And now here I am, writing this, and not at all liking the goodbyes. Even though I’ll still be in country next year, sentimentality is taking over.

One month until I move to Nyanza. One month and two days until I arrive in America. One month and three days until Thanksgiving. Two months until Christmas. Two months and three days until I return to Rwanda and begin my new job.

Nasho, how is it that you’re becoming a place I am from?

busy times in October.

The last month has been busy! In recognizing that most of my fellow Ed3-ers will be leaving soon, I’ve been trying to soak up as much time as possible with them. I’ve been in Kigali twice in the last month to do Judges-related work (the Final Evaluation and Certificate Ceremony) and for COS Medical (to be approved medically for next year). When a PCV goes to Kigali, there are always other PCVs there, so I’ve been quite social with PCVs in my training group but also with Ed4. We went to the Top Tower Casino (for my first ever night of Blackjack!), to the bowling alley, and, of course, had evenings of classy food (hello, Ethiopian, Indian, and Italian) and evenings of un-classy food (hello, goat cheese grilled cheese day).
The last weekend of September, I went to Kibuye…just because. Ginger has this habit of calling me up and saying, “Let’s go to [insert name of place here]!” and I’ll be like, “Hmmm….Let me think about this for 10 second before saying OKAY!” While in Kibuye, we were lazy by Lake Kivu and it was somehow nice.

The second week of October was when my replacement visited my/our site. He was at Nasho for two days, during which time I showed him around the village, introduced him to people, took him on a hike up to the new Catholic church and around a hill back to the village, cooked him food that anyone 3-4 weeks into Peace Corps Training would be craving, and took him to the bar where we drank Fanta. That Friday, we met up with the other PCVs and their replacements in Nyakarambi. We all socialized and had a good time. That night, we split up, some going to Sara’s site, and others going to Ian’s. I went to Ian’s. The moto ride from his place the next morning for me was a new route. I can definitively say I’ll never take that route again, as it took about two hours and involved hiking up two mountains because the paths were so full of loose rocks – way too dangerous for me to ride up.

And then last week, Heather visited me! I haven’t had a lot of visitors because my site is kind of complicated to get to – most of the time, it’s easier for me to just meet up with other PCVs in Kigali or some other large city. Heather, though, has said many times that she’s wanted to visit me – she wanted to see “this place called Nasho” that “isn’t real.” Haha. It took me about a year to KIND OF figure out where my site is on a map, so it’s kind of become a joke with us. Together, Heather and I spent a lotta time at my village bar (I broke my rule of NO drinking in public for her!), walked around, greeted students at my school, checked out the pretty garden at the health center, and ate (CAPATI!). The second evening, my electricity went out for several hours (not typical, what can I say, I’m lucky!), so we had to cook by charcoal. I’m lucky I had her here because I don’t really know how to keep the charcoal going, so she used her skills. Friday morning, we left my site bright and early. Why? Because Ginger had called me earlier that week, saying we should go to Kamembe. Heather already had plans for that weekend, so we parted ways in Kabarondo, and I went west!

Kamembe is far. From my site, I had to moto to Kabarondo, travel to Kigali, and from Kigali, take a 6ish hour long bus ride to Kamembe, a city by Kongo on the south edge of Kivu. I was there with Tim, Ginger, and French. Our first evening was spent at our hostel’s restaurant and discussion was varied, but I mostly remember discussing art and places to see art. The next day, we saw the two parts of Kamembe – there is the new city and olde towne (yes, I wrote it like that on purpose). The new city is up the hill and has all the banks and whatnot. The olde towne is the border area with Bukavu, Kongo, and has a cheap French restaurant where we ate veggie curry (YUM). On Sunday, we traveled two-ish hours further south to reach Cimerwa and the hot springs. We swam in the hot springs. As a person who now prefers cold showers, I can tell you that IT WAS REALLY HOT…and almost painful. The park the hot springs are in is really beautiful. It was quite the weekend…being so close to both Kongo and Burundi.

Things at my school have been slightly complicated. This is the first year my school has S3 students, and so it’s the first time they’ll have to do S3 National Examinations. Because of this, the schedule changes every time I go to school, and so I’ve learned to deal with the fact that I never really know what’s going on and sometimes that’s okay. It’s frustrating that they’ve changed the date of the S3 party so many times that I can’t schedule other things to do in case they end up conflicting. For example, they had it as one date, and then they changed it to the 21st, so I had to take the 3 am bus outta Kamembe so that I could get to site by noon, not missing the party. I’m really glad I was able to go to the party – I would have regretted missing it big-time. The teachers sat on the stage, the students sat on one side of the room, and guests & parents sat on the other side of the room. The students had prepared everything – modern dance, traditional dance, skits, and songs. All the boys wore suits and the girls wore traditional wraps. They looked very nice, and the parents looked so proud. After all the performances, Fanta and food were served and gifts were presented. Students gave gifts to teachers and parents. Parents gave gifts to students. Chantal gave me a hair clip – super sweet and cute!

Chantal visited me yesterday and presented an invitation for another party for this Friday. It’s written in Kinyarwanda, so she translated it – basically it’s a goodbye party for me that the students of S3 have organized! Other PCVs in previous groups have talked about their goodbye parties, but I hadn’t expected my students or school to plan anything. All I know right now is that the party will be at school and that “it’s a time for people to come and present you with gifts!” according to Chantal. Let’s face it, I’m gonna have a good cry after that.

Other things coming up:
Being a VAT at ED5’s PST, ED3’s COS Dinner, Transition in Nyanza, a few last weeks at site, and lastly, moving to Nyanza right before flying back to the good ol’USA.

Looks like next month will be just as busy as this last month.

july.august.september.

It’s been a long while since I’ve updated this blog, so I’m sorry America. As we’d say here in Rwanda, “Kwihangane” (be patient). So I figure to catch y’all up with what’s the haps, I’ll give you a rundown of the major events that have happened in the last few months.

July

I had an epiphany about my future – I want to work to help women, advocate for them, and to write policy. To be able to do that, I’ll be going to law school.

In recognizing the steps needed in order to get into law school, I’ve decided to stay in Rwanda for a third year. I’ll still be a PCV, but my job will change drastically. I’ll be working with the Institute of Legal Practice and Development, managing a program which teaches Rwandan judges and court staff English. Doing this will give me an incredible amount of professional experience, and it will give me time to apply to law school.

MY FATHER VISITED RWANDA! We hung out in Kigali, visited my village, saw Rusumo Falls, saw lots of animals in Akagera, trekked gorillas in the Virunga Mountains, ate a lot, talked a lot, and had a good time. It was both cool and very weird to host him here – Rwanda is a world away from Terre Haute, Indiana, so it was strange to see him in my house, at my school (giving SPEECHES, no less!), and in these places that I usually associate with “far away from home.” I think he enjoyed meeting the people who have become a big part of my life here. He thanked Samuel, Emelyne, Jen, and Mwami for being so welcoming to me, taking care of me, looking after me, and being my friends. I know nothing about parenting, but from what parents have told me, it can be difficult to see their kids do something different from what the parent expected of their kids, and so I think it keeps my parents’ minds at ease knowing that I have these four people (especially so), among others, that have inserted themselves in my life, in a parental sort-of-way.

August

GLOW CAMP! It was one long week of sex education, confidence building, games, and a lot of fun. This year I was the Scheduling and Curriculum Manager. I also taught a class entitled Promoting Gender Equality. The highlights of the week were anytime I saw one of my girls (Chantal, Francine, Marie Chantal, Charllene, Denyse, Solange) do or say something that showed how strong she is. For example, on the very first day of camp, Heather asked at the Opening Ceremony, “What is GLOW?” and my girl Solange’s hand SHOT up in the air. She stood, proud, and said, “GLOW means Girls Leading Our World.” NO FEAR.

My Language and Cultural Facilitator (LCF – taught me Kinya during training) Jerome got married in August! I was very happy to see him get married and to help out – I got to wear the traditional garb and serve straws (for the FANTA) and cake! Jerome is such a good guy, and I wish him and Valentine many years of happiness together!

CLOSE OF SERVICE CONFERENCE. This conference is where we learn about all the admin stuff we have to do in order to leave the country. We also learned a lot about career planning. I think the material helped out a lot of my colleagues, but as I mentioned above, I have a plan for my future, but it was nice to learn actual strategies (as opposed to ‘epiphany’) that I could use to practice and confirm my future plans. This conference was also bittersweet. When we arrived in country, we were 37, and at COS, we were 21. It’s sad to see how small our group has gotten, but also I think as time has gone, we’ve become more sentimental and attached to one another. I still remember during training, we wondered out loud, “When will we be comfortable enough with each other that we start to think of each other as family and we start greeting with a hug?” Now, I hardly ever greet one of my fellow Ed3-ers without a hug. We’ve all grown so much and we’ve been through it all together. I’m certainly going to miss those who aren’t extending next year!

I turned 25 years old. A few nights beforehand, I went with Saara, Sara, and Becca to Saffron (Indian food!) in Kigali to celebrate. It was delicious. On my actual birthday, I was in my village. It was market day. A new market lady, Betty, has started selling apples in my village (this is NOT TYPICAL), and so I slightly freaked out, bought 5, and cooked myself pan fried apple crisp as my birthday dinner. Good decision.

SEPTEMBER

I visited Heather in Kayonza District. We had a grand lil time.

For the first time since right before Swear In, I went to Kamonyi District (the place of PST) for a Training of Trainers. Basically, I’ll be going to Education 5’s PST to teach them things, and the TOT was the training for us. They said it would last until Thursday. We were finished by Tuesday at noon. But because I had to teach Judges that Saturday, I just stayed in Kigali with everyone else for the remainder of the week. It was a good chance for me to hang out with Ed4 (a group I hadn’t yet known very well, except for a handful of them) and hang out at Rz Manna, a new Café Bakery in Kigali that has All The Things I Want To Eat. Donuts. Pumpkin Tart. Waffles. Frappuccino. Ahhhh, drooling.

I thought I had a cold. I actually have allergies. The doc thinks I developed them during the Never Ending Dry Season. It’s especially dusty in my village.

The rainy season has begun!

Life is good, generally. But because I know where I’m going in the near future, I can’t help but focus more and more on that. To put it bluntly, I’m sick of the village. I love my village, I do. But I’m ready to move forward. The people have been welcoming, accept me, and most of the time, have my back. But there are certain aspects of life here that I’m ready to leave behind. The two big examples: I don’t really like teaching kids anymore. I love my kids, but I don’t like the material. It’s boring. I’m not growing at the school anymore. And I don’t like my moto rides anymore. They used to be relatively exciting, and now I just sit there on the moto thinking, “Really? 1.5 hours on this thing to get to the paved road? When can I move to Nyanza again?!?!”

Because I’m extending, I’m in this strange situation where I’m not leaving Rwanda, so I don’t really get sentimental when I think about saying goodbye to my village. Saying “Goodbye” seems so final, and so it seems awkward doing so, knowing that I’ll visit a few times next year.

More often than not, when I think about my near future, I think about the advantages ILPD and Nyanza will bring into my life. Access to a pool. Ice cream. Easy travel. Gaining professional skills. Working with professionals and the highly educated. Internet that works reliably. Feeling gratified by my work. Growing professionally.

I’m excited for Thanksgiving and Christmas in America. I’m excited to see my family and friends. I’m excited about my new job and all these changes, changes, changes.

 

“The essential question is not, ‘How busy are you?’ But ‘What are you busy at?’ ‘Are you doing what fulfills you?’” -Oprah Winfrey

“The old woman I shall become will be quite different from the woman I am now. Another I is beginning.” -George Sand

“Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be.” – Morris Adler