Ikiganiro Cyiza: Definition

With visitors on their way and the Memorial period less than a month away, it’s no surprise that I recently found myself in a conversation with fellow PCVs about the appropriate way to handle introducing people to Rwanda’s past.

The dilemma we discussed is our mounting frustration that the first, and usually last, thing people associate with Rwanda is the Genocide. It’s all many people know about this small hilly country in the heart of Africa.

And when it’s the only thing a person knows, it can easily become the only thing a person sees. They may come to Rwanda to attempt to figure out why. To see the country where it happened, to fulfill their curiosity about the people, and to look around and be moved to tears or moved to action.

Rwanda has become defined by the Genocide of 1994.

When the tremendous rate of development in Rwanda is discussed it’s always said with a ‘despite the past’ signifier. As though Rwanda’s progress is only remarkable due to the past. As if being one of the fastest growing economies in the world isn’t impressive independent of
other factors.

Is Rwanda special because it has achieved so much in so short a time? Or because it has achieved so much after such atrocious brutality?

Is Rwanda the Genocide of 1994 or is it a country, like any other, trying to develop itself in a difficult world?

And if Rwanda truly is and should be more than the Genocide, when visitors arrive do you take them to the Memorial first? Last? Or not at all?

The National Memorial at Gisozi is one of the most impressive and moving memorials I have visited. Beyond reminding us of the history and circumstances that made 1994 possible, it raises awareness about Genocide around the world. To me, Gisozi demonstrates Rwandans’ commitment not just to never again seeing Genocide within their own borders, but never again around the world. It is a place to remember as well as to educate.

And that, more than anything else, has shaped my answer to the question of when and how much I should discuss the Genocide when I share about Rwanda.

As a child-abuse victim, I have learned that when people discover your tragic past, you fall victim, all too often, of it becoming the defining aspect of your identity. A survivor. Everything else about you is defined through that context.

But I am more than my past.

At the same time, I discovered that sharing my story helps others. Helps them heal or face their own past or that of someone they know and love. It helps people see a new part of the world, be more aware, more sensitive. It creates a commitment against victimization. It increases opportunities to fix the systems of neglect that perpetuate the violence and racism and sexism and hatred and ignorance that haunt our world.

I don’t only want to be seen as a survivor. Or to have that be the lens through which all my accomplishments are measured. But if sharing my story helps other people learn, or heal, or fight for justice in the world, then I will gladly be defined by it.

I will remember for myself and educate for others: To prevent child abuse, to encourage healing; to let my life, my story, be an opportunity for others to learn.

I cannot answer for the opinion of any Rwandan. I don’t know how they feel about being so completely identified around the world with their past. I don’t know if they want it discussed or would prefer burying it and moving on to a new day.

What I have personally seen is a people that did build a National Memorial committed to remembering as well as sharing. A country that does take 100 days every year to commemorate the past rather than hiding it in history books. Friends who do wear ‘Never Again’ bracelets every day of their lives. A reminder to themselves and all who see, that Rwandans do not want to see Genocide ever again; amidst their emerald green hills or anywhere in the world.

Rwanda is more than its past. But it is shaped by its past, as well. What I see tells me that it’s okay to connect the words ‘Rwanda’ and ‘Genocide’. Hopefully not as an end but as a beginning. 1994 was not the end of this country but the beginning of a brighter future for all Rwandans, and hopefully, through the sharing of their story, a brighter, more peaceful future for people around the world. Rwanda is largely defined by the Genocide but its story is just beginning and is about so much more.

Ikiganiro Cyiza [Good Chat]

In buses, the teacher’s room, bars or sometimes just walking down the street, I frequently find myself engaged in interesting or entertaining conversations which raise my awareness of cultural and worldview differences.

So here I begin my new series, Ikiganiro Cyiza or Good Chat, so you might also get a good chuckle or be challenged to think about something in a way you never have before.

ooOoo

Peace Corps versus Marine Corps

On a long, curvy bus ride – after sleeping through as much as I was able – I found myself engaged in a conversation with a man traveling from Kibuye to Kigali on business.

He worked weekdays in Kibuye at a development organization and had heard of Peace Corps but his knowledge of what we did was limited. After some explanation of the history and mission of Peace Corps, as well as our work in Rwanda at the request of the government, he asked the Big Question: Why do I do it?

He understood I am not making money. He even seemed to understand my desire to make the world a better place. What he didn’t understand was, what was in it for me?

‘I learn about Rwanda,’ I said.

‘I like helping people,’ I added.

‘I believe all people should do what they can to encourage peace,’ I tried.

‘But what do you get?’ he insisted.

Money? A guaranteed job afterward? School fees? What?

Well, I do get a small amount of money to help me transition back to life in the U.S. when my service ends. But not very much. Peace Corps does have a career link to help us find jobs. But nothing is guaranteed. I guess Peace Corps might look good on a resume. That’s something. Nope. No money for school.

Basically, no. I explained. You don’t do Peace Corps for the material benefits.

My seatmate pondered this for a moment. We’d already covered the difficulties of Peace Corps: moving far from family and friends, forgoing the luxuries available in a developed country, having to learn a new language just to get by. So I knew he was beginning to think I’m crazy.

‘I like what I’m doing,’ I begin to defend my choice. ‘I believe it’s right and good and I enjoy it.’

‘Yes, yes,’ he says. ‘I understand. But what about money? What if you cannot get a job after your time in Rwanda? You need money. If I were you, I would be a soldier. I have a friend who went to America and he became a soldier. He says he is paid well and has job security. Why don’t you become a soldier?’

‘Well,’ I begin, ‘the military has a very important role in our world. I know that. But it’s not right for me. Truthfully, I keep hoping for a day when we won’t need the military. That’s why I chose the Peace Corps. I think it can help improve relations around the world so maybe we won’t need the military to make the world safe.’

‘But money!’ He insisted.

‘I’m not worried about that right now,’ I reply. ‘I believe in the Peace Corps’ goals. I have the freedom to work for peace in this way and for me, right now, that’s more important than money or job security.’

And that’s when it hit me.

We were looking at this from two totally different worldviews.

I come from a country of relative security, of choice, the privilege of having spare time to volunteer. The freedom to choose a career based on fulfillment and not just income. Money is still important in the United States. Absolutely. But I have a choice.

I’m an educated, 30-year old, debt-free, single, childless woman. If I don’t have money in the bank, it won’t mean the end of me or my family.

This man didn’t have that freedom. That privilege. There is no free time in Rwanda, between work, maintaining a home, and likely growing your own food, to pursue your passions. Even the national day of service isn’t called ‘volunteering’ – it’s community work. Nearly everyone in Rwanda gets married young and a child is usually born within the first year. Families are large and men are often the sole source of income. People will live hours away from their families just to get a better position so they can give their loved ones a brighter future.

Money and job security are crucial to life in Rwanda. You help your neighbors, yes, and those blessed with much are expected to help those who have little. But working for free? Investing several years far away with little guarantee of a better job or higher income afterward? Those are difficult ideas in the Rwandan reality.

I don’t want to pick up a gun. And as an American with privilege, I don’t have to unless I want to. But if I was Rwandan, it might be the best life choice for me and my family. For some Americans, it is the same.

Privilege is a powerful divider.

Developed country to under-developed. Rich man to poor. Black to white. Our life, our circumstances, the wealth of our nations, and the biases of society – those are what decide our options; the extent of our freedom.

I have every respect and appreciation for our armed forces. For most who serve in the military, it is about far more than money and job security – it is a passion, a calling, a duty. And in its own way, the military serves the cause of peace as well.

But I am also incredibly thankful for the privilege I have to make my own choice about what position is best for me. And right now, that is to serve freely in the pursuit of peace as a Peace Corps Volunteer. With or without job security.

N’umuhanda ku Bwiza [The Road to Good]

When you live in a rural village and people laugh as they tell you the place you want to visit is actually rural…you know you’re in for an adventure.

When moto drivers refuse your business because the place you want to go is kure, kure [too far], you’ve got a problem. When they finally accept but charge an arm and a leg, you better know your reason for going is good.

When I came to Rwanda, I was assigned to work directly with Ecole Secondaire Murunda. ESM is where I spent last year teaching students and advising clubs. And where this year, I planned to begin supporting teachers’ English and teaching methodology.

I love teaching students but discussions with teachers, Headmasters, and local leaders has helped me see that real long-term development needs to begin with Rwandan teachers. Peace Corps cannot, and should not, stay in Rwanda forever. The government of Rwanda also sees this and has begun asking Peace Corps to focus more on teacher training, a task several other development organizations are already helping with.

Working with teachers at ESM would be relatively easy. I know them, I know the schedule, and I have their support. But the Sector I live in has six schools and the Sector leaders wanted to know how I could help all the teachers. That was a bigger problem.

I met with my friends Gloria and Ivan, two Ugandans who work as School Based Mentors in the area. Ivan is assigned to two of the schools in Murunda Sector. Gloria works at two schools in the neighboring Sector. Together, we decided we could reach all six schools in Murunda.

Our next problem though, was motivation. Gloria and Ivan have been doing teacher training for over a year and constantly run into problems finding time to train teachers. The teachers work long hours for low salaries and don’t want to stay after school or come in on weekends.

Teachers may come for Fanta and food but we don’t have that kind of money. Teachers want to learn English but don’t have the time. I knew we had the support of the local leaders but needed to find a way to channel it. So I suggested a marketing strategy. One that involves a strong but inexpensive incentive:

A certificate of Continuing Professional Development; granted by the District and acknowledging the commitment of teachers to their career and the overall advancement of education in Rwanda.

Certificates hold weight in Rwanda. They become a part of persons’ Curriculum Vitae and are considered with respect. A certificate from the District, in addition to cooperation by all the school leaders to find time in the normal daily schedule for training, was exactly what we needed.

And so the Teacher Training Program was initiated.

Ivan had two schools. I had one. That left three remaining. Three schools that were almost left out because everyone said they were too far. But that seemed unfair. To neglect schools and their staff simply because they were more rural just wasn’t acceptable to us. So “rain or shine,” we promised to travel to the rural schools one day a week so all six schools in Murunda would receive English Support and Student-Centered Pedagogy training.

And rain or shine we have gone.

It takes one-hour on a moto to arrive at the first school, E.P. Kajugujugu. The road is bad. Its steep and rocky with rickety bridges; at least one of which has nearly broken as I rode over it. My moto driver has dubbed it “our” bridge. I might think it cute if it wasn’t a joke at the fact we very nearly fell through.

Biyimana and Bwiza, the remaining two schools are even further. The first day we met with teachers to explain the program, the staffs of Biyimana and Bwiza met us at Kajugujugu. They admitted their schools were far, a two-hour walk on the main road. But they assured us it was worth it. Bwiza does mean ‘good’, afterall. And they promised Bwiza was very good indeed.

It is.

However…the road to Bwiza is very, very bad.

On my first trip to Bwiza, it had been raining most of the day. I was already soaked when I waved to the teachers at Kajugujugu as my moto raced by. I thought it would be another half hour on an equally bad road to arrive at Bwiza. I was wrong. On both accounts. It took twice as long and the road was at least twice as bad.

My moto slipped and slid on slick rocks and muddy terrain. Multiple times I had to disembark and walk as the umumotari [moto driver] carefully guided the bike up or down steep inclines. Once, we nearly fell. I have the bruises to prove it. We were both cold and wet and several times I considered turning to go back.

But, “rain or shine,” we had said.

So I held on for dear life, trusted my driver, and watched the scenery change as the road took us closer to Bwiza and I saw that it was, indeed, good.

High atop some of the highest hills, surrounded by a forest, thick with mist, and lush with green vegetation, Bwiza is certainly a beautiful site to see. And though I was shaking with cold when we arrived, wishing I had a hat and gloves, the teachers were eager to learn and thankful for my coming. I knew it was worth it.

Bwiza is good. The road to Good, is bad.

But the Teacher Training Program in Murunda is off to a strong start with teachers and trainers all committed to improving education for the more than 7,000 students who study here.

I will continue to journey to Bwiza on occasion, but not every week and hopefully not when it rains. As it turns out, there is another School Based Mentor living in that area who has agreed to join on with the Program. And so now we are four: Ivan, Gloria, Moses, and me, helping the teachers of Murunda Sector promote the development Rwanda seeks.

Isabukuru Nziza [Happy Birthday]

Birthdays are not widely celebrated in Rwanda. Many Rwandans don’t even know the date of their birth. When identity cards first began to be issued, January 1st was made the default birthday for anyone B.B.C. (Born Before Computers).

It does help explain why New Year’s Day is one of the biggest holidays in Rwanda!

Birthdays are big in the U.S. though. And some are bigger than others. This year, on February 22nd, I would celebrate one of those biggest of birthdays…my thirtieth. Goodbye twenties, hello adulthood.

I enjoy celebrating my birthday but I’ve never been much for social planning. I have always felt a bit silly planning a party for the sole purpose of celebrating me. So my birthdays are often quiet affairs when left in my own hands. This year, though, I did, at least a little bit, want to do something big.

I thought about gathering other Volunteers. We discussed a fun trip to the East, a part of the country I have yet to spend much time in. But work is busy and as my friends in Murunda began to learn of my special day, they made it clear I really should stay.

So my something big would be right here at home.
When Rwandans do celebrate birthdays, they do it a little differently. Rather than friends giving the birthday girl gifts, it is the birthday girl who gives. Perhaps you bring some treat to work to share or invite some friends out for a beer. Since I was already bringing in American culture just by celebrating, I decided to do my best to bring in Rwandan culture as well.

So after school on Friday, I invited some friends to our favorite bar for a drink and brochettes. Nearly thirty gathered, a somewhat large affair, but it wasn’t much different than what we frequently do after school meetings or community work days or any time there is something to celebrate and share. So even though I was seated in between all the actual VIPs (priests, doctors, government leaders, and headmasters), I still felt like this was just a gathering of friends.

And it was. Though my friends weren’t quite content with my humble attempt to make a low-key event of my American culture birthday.

After the food was served, Jerome was dubbed the Master of Ceremonies [M.C.] and speeches began. I was obliged to start and I explained a bit about American birthdays and said that I had no regrets about spending this important day here in Murunda. Though I always miss my family in the States, the people gathered here are also my family and friends and there is no where I’d rather be.

I hoped the speeches would end with me, the social attention threatened to make me embarrassed but my friends wouldn’t allow it. They embraced my culture with a bit of their own and one-by-one speeches were made. They talked about welcoming me and appreciating what I came here to do. They encouraged me in my desire to extend my service and stay in Rwanda longer. They told me I could stay forever if I embraced the maturity of my thirties by finally seeking a husband. They said they loved me and Ivan even sang a song written just for me. And yes, I even received one or two gifts.

Just as I thought the hoopla was at an end, the lights went off and Janvier entered carrying a makeshift cake with three candles burning brightly. The entire room sang Happy Birthday, first in English, then in Kinyarwanda. And as I made my wish and blew out the candles, I was showered with paper confetti.

It was a perfect night, spent with wonderful people and I couldn’t have hoped for a better start to my fourth decade of life then to see the result of the Peace Corps’ second goal, as cultures are shared and accepted and blended together by the truest path to peace – friendship.

Here’s to a decade of new friends, new traditions, and perhaps, at the sincerest wish of my Rwandan friends…my wedding.

Muraho na Murabeho [Hello and Goodbye, it's been a while]

23 August 2013: I’m going to America…I need to hug my family. So I’m going :) And I’m thrilled!

 

13 September 2013: Flights are booked! It’s official!

 

26 October 2013: School is over. It’s quieter. I have my guitar back. I even ‘spring-cleaned’ today. Now on to my holiday work. And soon, America. :) 

 

29 November 2013: Mom called on speaker phone yesterday. Danielle and I were both making sly jokes about my trip. They have no clue. 

 

30 November 2013: I’ll be with my family in 12 days!

 

1 December 2013: Yep, packing for a month is tough. But I did a little dance :) One week and 2 days!

 

3 December 2013: 1 week! I’ll be at the airport in 1 week!

 

10 December 2013: This is it! I’m at the airport waiting for my flight. Two days and I’ll be home!

*****

It felt pretty awesome going home. Surprising my family was a thrill. I was moderately worried about getting sick from processed foods and more sad to be leaving my village for so long but all I had to do was imagine the warmth of my family home to know it was the right choice.

I stopped in Doha, Qatar. With a 15 hour layover, I set out to explore.

I spent several hours lost in Waqif Souqe, a centuries old bazaar with winding alleys and everything you could think of for sell. The center has turned tourist – lined with gift shops and hookah bars – but the farther one wanders, the more treasure one finds.

From traditional fabric and clothes to daily cooking wares and shops full or aromatic spices. There was an entire courtyard of bird stores selling Qatar’s highly prized hawks as well as neon-colored chicks. Art stores and hookah shops. Shoe stores and local cuisine. An open-air square where women sat cooking flat brad with your choice of spread.

I heard many languages and recognized dress from around the world. Women in full hijabs and men also conservatively robed. If I’d had the foresight to get local currency, I may have stayed out all night. Instead I retreated to my hotel for an overwhelming buffet and my first bubble bath in over a year.

I arrived in America on December 11th. My family thought I was unreachable in Uganda. Instead I was eating sushi in New York.

We’re told a lot about reverse-culture shock by the Peace Corps and I know it’s a real thing. I experienced it deeply after my first trip to Africa. I wandered around NYC slightly dazed by the extreme disparity between where I had visited and where I then lived. But this time, all I felt was a happiness to be home.

Yes, life is different in America. The airports are bigger, the cars drive smoother, I could get ice cream at 1 am. And I did. Internet is faster and text messaging is free. Houses are bigger, fancier, and I only woke once thinking I’d heard a mouse – then laughed realizing it was probably the indoor plumbing, central heating, washing machine, or any of a million technological luxuries I don’t have in Rwanda to drown out the sounds of crickets and rats and birds and frogs.

I wouldn’t say life is quieter in either place – the sounds are just different.

My first week in America was rightfully chaotic and full of joy. I shocked the pants off my family. One sister thought I was a hallucination, another dropped her four-year-old son. Everyone cried. Including me.

Happy tears, of course. As my youngest niece succinctly said, “You were gone a very long time.”

I was.

And I’d be going again but maybe it wouldn’t be so hard this time.

I loved every second of being home. Playing with the kids, cuddling my cat, watching television with mom and dad. Visiting my church, giving presentations at my high school, hanging out with friends. Staying up late to laugh and play board games, going for coffee or ice cream or the tenth trip to Target. Girls day with my mom. Visiting my aunt in recovery. Surprising my uncle at his house. Making a two hour video to entertain (or bore) the kids on Christmas. Even spending most of the visit sleeping on the living room couch.

It’s true that, toward the end, I began to miss my other home. My yellow house and green hills. My friends and host family. My students and colleagues and even moto rides on muddy roads. I began to think about work I needed to do, people I missed, and waking up to the sunlight drenching my bedroom.

I would be happy to go home even as I was happy to be at home.

And that, perhaps, is my biggest lesson this holiday season. When it comes to home – I have many. Where my family is, my heart will always be. But I am also where I am meant to be in Rwanda.

There were tears as I said goodbye. My family is comfortable with emotion so I’d expect nothing less. But the tears were more happy than sad this time. We knew where I was going; had fewer unknowns. I had needed to hug my family and I did. Many times. Then I took four airplanes, a taxi, two buses, and a moto until I was home once again.

Until next time America. Murabeho.

Nta Muriro Uhari [There’s No Power]

When I moved to NYC, I heard a lot about the blackout of 2003. A children’s book was even published about the event to show how New Yorkers came together during a time of difficulty – BBQing on the sidewalk, games of tag, and neighborhood parties were no longer the sole jurisdiction of the suburbs.

Blackouts are the norm in Rwanda. Total 24/7/365 blackouts. Power lines are popping up everywhere in the hilly country but more than 89% of the population still live their daily life with it.

For New Yorkers, dependent on electricity for cooking, entertainment, temperature control, and communication, the Blackout was a major disruption. For Rwandans, a power outage is inconsequential.

For me, it’s somewhere in between.

I’m fortunate to live in a house equipped with fairly reliable electricity. I share it with my neighbor and we pay approximately 6 US dollars a month for our umuriro (power). We pay more than most, between his constantly blaring television, my electric stove, and both of our laptops, but still….cheap.

I’ve grown accustomed to the luxury of electricity in my daily life. Maybe not as much as when I lived in the Big Apple but I certainly take for granted that it will be there when I need it. Which, for life in Rwanda, isn’t all that often.

A sunroof in my bedroom and an open front door keep my house well lit during the day. A power strip channels the minimal electricity needed to charge my cell phone, computer, and Nook. A water kettle is indispensable to PCVs – providing both coffee and hot baths. But I’m careful to never waste; saving hot water in a big metal thermos so I’m not constantly heating more.

My stove is my biggest power drain, one I avoided relying on at the start but have come to appreciate more and more as my schedule became more hectic. I eat lunch at school most days and fruit in the morning, so the stove is typically used only at night. But the ease of turning one dial wins over 15 minutes lighting charcoal, everyday.

Also a winner – being able to see after 6:30pm.

Electricity is good. I like electricity. I will happily pay 6 dollars a month for the luxury of a hot bath and quick dinner. Not all PCVs in Rwanda have that option. And I suppose it was time for me to find out how the other shoe fits.

I was cooking pasta and tomato sauce on my two-burner stove last Monday when the power flickered. The power goes out regularly but flickering was something new. After several stops and starts, I got dinner completed. Then the power stopped altogether.

I lit a candle to eat by, read on my nook and went to bed early expecting to wake the next morning to the steady beeping from our power-console that heralds a return of the electricity.

Birds, cows, and children playing were all the sounds that greeted me.

I went to school and the market, returning to silence.

A 24-hour absence of power is unusual but not unheard of. I lit my charcoal stove outside and made dinner the Rwandan way.

Morning two: No beeping.

Evening two: Still no beeping.

I arrived back home late and wet from rain to realize just how inconvenient no-electricity living is on one’s own. Most families have an umukozi (domestic worker) who stays home to cook. When the family gets home late, the charcoal has been lit for hours and dinner is on the table. Not so when you live alone. Most houses also have a sheltered outdoor kitchen so cooking goes on, rain or shine. Again, not the case for me.

I ate my last pack of tuna from America and went to bed.

Morning three: Beeping!

Oh the glorious sound of power returned! I nearly danced out of bed! I filled my kettle and set it to boil water for my morning coffee then cracked an egg on a frying pan, looking forward to making up for my meager dinner.

No beeping.

I turned the stove off in despair.

Beeping!

I turned the dial on again.

No beeping.

Stove off.

Hmm. It appeared as though two appliances at once was a problem. A new challenge but I’m a smart girl. I finished boiling the water in my kettle, then fried my egg. Voila!

I went to school, returned home; No beeping.

I admit to getting a bit frustrated with the fickle nature of my electricity. Everyone else had power: the school, the Parish, the hospital. It was just me and my neighbor living the hard life. Okay, and 89% of the rest of the population. But come on! I had grown to expect a certain standard of life here!

Thankfully, I left the next day for a weekend in beautiful Kibuye, determined to duke it out with my wayward electricity upon my return.

Unfortunately, my electricity also took a vacation. A long one.

I arrived home on Sunday to a quiet house. No beeping, no power.

I cooked on charcoal, graded exams by candlelight, and went to bed early.

The next day, I took my dead computer and e-reader to school to charge. I also took a cold bath and pretended it was refreshing.

Life repeated the next day.

I could do this! I had a system: fruit for breakfast, carrots and peanut butter for lunch, a real dinner at night. Use the charcoal to boil water for my thermos, enjoy a little romantic candlelight, charge electronics at school and conserve their use.

Look at me! I can live without power!

Nonetheless, I asked around. I was feeling accomplished but not at all prepared to indefinitely accept this new lifestyle. So I got tips on how to contact a technician and went to bed dreaming of the imminent return of that annoying beeping sound.

I dreamt so well that, upon waking, the high-pitched pulse rang in my ears.

I sat up and strained to hear better. Could it be? Why, yes! I wasn’t dreaming! The beeping was back!

I ran outside to find my neighbor grinning as he explained the technician discovered our problem – a damaged fuse. Fixed. We paid less than a dollar each to the miracle-worker and he went on his way.

I reached up to push the button that would silence that incessant beeping, then stopped. I think I rather need to hear it for a bit, I thought. A little reassurance.

I didn’t play tag or have a neighborhood party, but my charcoal stove’s a bit like a BBQ and I can now confidently say I would have survived that New York Blackout. Though, I’ll be rather glad if I don’t have to test that theory again anytime soon.

Still beeping…

Umuryango Wanjye [My Family]

My family has always had a tendency toward steadily increasing in size.

I was born with three siblings, then acquired five more. I had a Grandma and Aunt that I don’t share a drop of blood with but are family of my heart. I gained a father a few years ago – an immeasurable blessing. And I’ve got nieces and nephews aplenty but am always happy for more.

Then I came to Rwanda and my family grew again. A Mama and Papa and five younger siblings. And Muneza, of course, one can’t forget my King-of-the-Household host nephew.

But my family hasn’t stopped there.

Gillian lived with my host family before me and called me ‘Sis’ the very first time we met. This year, Nikki, joined us and we eagerly hugged and laughed over Big Sister Clementine’s hot-and-cold personality. Last month, I gained a brother, Kyle – the newest addition to both my Peace Corps and Rwandan families.

Yes indeed, my family does like to grow.

I took an evening last week to greet my new brother and catch up with the Rwandan family we now share.

Not a lot has changed back home. The couches have new, plump cushions and there is a makeshift shelf for the small TV. But Clementine is still cooking all the meals, the boys are fetching water and listening to rap, and Angelique pretty much takes care of everything else.

Papa is the only mechanic in town and business is decent. Mama still spends her days cultivating the family land. Pacifique seems to spend more time at home now, maybe moto business has improved in the area.

After joyous greetings and tickling the shy, but now talking, Muneza, I joined Clementine in the kitchen and insisted on helping her cook. I’m not a guest, after all. She still doesn’t believe I can cook, though. In fact, every member of my family asked for a list of the foods I can make then promptly laughed.

Clementine let me peel potatoes. Apparently it’s the only job I’ll ever be qualified for.

After chastising Clementine for not teaching Kyle to cook (‘He’s a boy,’ she said. As though that’s all the explanation needed), I probed her personal life – completely acceptable in Rwandan culture, as well as between sisters! I was pleasantly surprised to learn she has an inshuti – a boyfriend – and is already thinking about a December wedding.

Clementine is a smart, confident, beautiful girl but as a single mother she has faced a lot of societal gossip and challenges. I’m thrilled that much of that may soon be in the past and she’s found a man that makes her grin!

I wasn’t allowed to ‘cook’ for long. ‘Too much smoke,’ Mama insisted. So I was ushered inside to talk to Papa and help Kyle learn Kinyarwanda.

Papa watched the nightly news as Kyle peppered me with questions about life in Rwanda, the Peace Corps, and adjusting to life in a host family. Muneza shared some pineapple with me then played with my phone and giggled as I pretended to munch on his toes.

Angelique came in to study. It’s examination time in Rwandan and I was proudly told that Angelique is third in her class! I always knew she was smart but she was utterly quiet when I shared the house. I asked her why she had never spoken English to me as I hear her speaking now.

‘Last year, I was in Primary. I had fear. This year, I am in Secondary and I have confidence,’ she replied.

What a difference a year makes!

Angelique nodded off as she reviewed her economics notes and Muneza fell asleep with his feet in my lap. Papa asked about my home and work. He talked about the cost of travel and it became evident that Clementine really does want to come visit. If I can arrange it, I’ll pay her way myself. I can finally prove I’m more than a potato-peeler and show her the beauty of Lake Kivu, as well!

Angelique was woken up to bring the food out and I took up my former daily task of arranging the table and setting out the plates. Mama, Papa, Kyle, and I sat down to pray as Clementine put Muneza to bed and the boys brought in a platter of food for them all to share.

Rice, beans, frites, and meat. I’ve had the same meal a million times in Rwanda but here it tastes like home.

I couldn’t stay long after supper. It was dark and time for bed. Mama cried and even Clementine gave me a hug. Angelique was sent to buy a bag and Papa placed a huge pineapple inside. A parting gift. The family crowded onto the porch saying goodbyes and safe travel and come back again.

My new brother joined in with a big grin, possibly happy to see the depth and warmth of his new family’s love.

We’re together in this, he and I. Nikki and Gillian, too. Four American PCVs with a Rwandan family in Kamonyi District.

I’m thankful I was raised by a hippie mother whose door was always open. She prepared me well for the gift of an ever expanding heart. <3

Mwihangane [My Condolences]

I was on my way home, after a week away training a group of brand new Peace Corps Trainees when I received an SMS from a fellow teacher, Joselyne.

Joselyne: HOW ARE YOU ELISABETH? We lost one of our students. Eric.

Huh? I work at a boarding school where students cannot leave without permission. Nevertheless, they do. And occasionally, we have to track them down. But I wondered at the wording of her text.

Elisabeth: Ndaje uyu munsi. (I’m coming today). Lost how? Yapfuye? (Did he die?)

Joselyne: Yego. (Yes.)

Double huh.

Elisabeth: I’m so sorry. Are the students very upset? What happened? Was he sick?

Joselyne: He was sick. We’re all surprised of his death and we’re at school with his family.

Elisabeth: It is very awful. I will be in Murunda by 5pm if you will still be together then.

Joselyne: We will be together celebrating tonight.

With that heavy news, I continued my long journey home. I had never been to a Rwandan funeral and had no idea what to expect upon arrival. I didn’t know what day the student died but clearly the family had already arrived. I was surprised at Joselyne’s use of the word ‘celebrating’ but dismissed it as a translation error, as gatherings of all types are called ceremonies, in Rwanda. I arrived home fully expecting to participate in some type of family or school vigil as I might have expected in America.

Joselyne called to tell me she had returned home but the teachers were at the Parish and I should join them.

It was dark as I approached. I heard voices in the Parish Hall and entered to find approximately 60 well-dressed Rwandans. At the front was a priest, my Headteacher, and two men I didn’t know. I suspected they may be family of the boy.

A few of my fellow teachers greeted me and made room on a bench. I quietly tried to ask if the boy’s family was present and was told, “It is sad, a student has died.” I guessed they weren’t aware Joselyne had already shared the news.

I was handed a plate of food and a beer. Beer at a funeral may seem odd but alcohol is big in Rwanda so I went with it.

Speeches began. I didn’t know the first two speakers and didn’t understand much of what they said. I kept hearing ‘abarimu’ (teachers) and supposed it fitting for the teachers of a student to be addressed when the student dies at school.

During a break between speeches, about 45-minutes in, I discovered my friend, Ivan, was present and went to greet him. Ivan is a teachers’ mentor from Uganda and doesn’t often come out for community events but figured it appropriate he would want to show support. One of his first comments to me was that there would be no dancing tonight. Well, no, I replied. That seems appropriate to me. ‘But a ceremony without dancing, isn’t a ceremony,’ he responded. Maybe funerals are different in Uganda, I thought.

The speeches continued and I noticed the audience was restless. I returned to my seat by my colleague, Corpice, and he said it had been a very long day as they’d spent many hours with the boy’s family. I jumped at the chance to learn more but only had it confirmed that the boy was sick and passed away the previous night. The family had come all the way from Kigali and they had buried the boy that afternoon. I was surprised on two accounts: that the burial happened so quickly and that he was buried at all, as a recent law now requires all bodies to be cremated. Corpice explained that not all Rwandans have accepted this decision.

More time passed and our Headteacher spoke in his fairly typical, somber tone. People had begun to slip out even as more fanta was passed around. Corpice echoed Ivan’s regret at the lack of dancing and I couldn’t help looking at him a bit oddly. Seeing my look, he clarified, ‘The ceremony was very delayed because of the funeral. Now we are all tired.’

‘What ceremony exactly?’ I asked, suspicion beginning to set in at last.

‘The Teacher’s Ceremony,’ Corpice replied matter-of-factly. ‘Today is Teacher’s Day!’

Oh! Right. I knew that.

Not.

The last speech began and I quickly wished it had been the first. I again didn’t understand many of the words but the young priest’s levity came through well and he had the remaining crowd laughing within moments. I sat there feeling a bit silly and thinking if the priest had spoken first, I surely would have had a clue from the start that I was not, in fact, at a vigil, wake, or any other part of a traditional Rwandan funeral.

I’ve lived in Rwanda nearly 13 months but I clearly still have things to learn.

Death is always a sad occasion and a child’s death, a tragedy. While teachers and students have been more somber these past few days, life has continued on. Exams began, football and shopping, and afternoon beers all resumed.

I now know that Eric was ill for three days before his death but ill with what, the teacher’s don’t know. His death is a reminder that healthcare is still lacking in Rwanda and diseases, like Malaria, can claim even the young and healthy. Though I didn’t know Eric personally, his death is no less heart wrenching and I regret missing every aspect of his illness and funeral rites even as I can still find humor in my own persistent ignorance as I make my way in my new Rwandan home.

My prayers are with Eric’s family who have lost a strong, beloved young son and also with his friends and fellow students quietly struggling with the sudden and incomprehensible loss of their peer.

Camp TechKobwa

I should write a post about Camp TechKobwa, but pictures are worth a thousand words, or some such.

PCV Lyla came up with the idea for Camp TechKobwa – a camp to bring girls from throughout Rwanda together to learn about computers and build on the emphasis Rwanda has placed on the development of ICT (Information Communications Technology).

48 girls from 7 different schools came to camp, along with their ICT teachers. Many of these girls have never used a computer, much less learned about programming, photography, and robotics – some of the lessons they were exposed to during the weeklong camp hosted at Gashora Girls Academy in Bugasera District.

We had help from the Ministry of Youth and ICT, kLab, Girls in ICT, and Peace Corps, in addition to donations of time, money, and resources from a variety of companies. Guest speakers exposed the girls to various careers in technology, from film production and journalism to computer programming and PR. Afternoon activities engaged the girls in creative thinking activities and taught them leadership skills as well as healthy living.

We believe Camp TechKobwa was a HUGE success and hope it not only gave the girls increased confidence in using technology but will encourage them to consider careers in technology as possible.

Fata Photo! [Take a Photo]

Kids like to take pictures. They like it a lot! Here’s a few photos of me and some of my students and various kids.