Ndi Munini [I am Big]

We’d just begun a steep ascent when my moto driver yelled over the strain of the engine, “Elisabeth, how do you say: ‘umukobwa afite ibilo’ in English?”

“Umukobwa afite means ‘the girl has’ but I don’t know ibilo,” I shouted back. I thought I’d heard the word before but wasn’t sure of it’s meaning.

My driver helped, “like munini.”

Ah! “Big,” I said. “So umukobwa afite ibilo probably means ‘the girls has weight, the girl is fat.’ Like she has many kilos.”

“Yes!” my driver shouted, “Ibilo is many kilos! Wowe ufite ibilo.” You have many kilos.

“Yes,” I said succinctly, “I do.”

ooOoo

Constantly having your weight discussed might make some women pretty unhappy.

Everyone here in Rwanda feels free to comment on how big I’ve become, how much I must eat, or how heavy I am on the back of a motorcycle.

Sometimes American women say living in Africa, where ‘Bigger is Better,’ makes them feel more beautiful, more confident in their body than they ever did in the States.

Not me.

I’ve always been big, or curvy as I prefer to say. And for the most part, I’ve always been okay with that.

Oh I have days when I feel fat. When none of my clothes seem to fit and I feel particularly unattractive. But I like what Meghan Trainor says about curves in her popular song, All About That Bass: Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.

Living in Africa hasn’t made me more comfortable with my body because I was already comfortable with it.

What it has done, what constantly having my weight and size commented on has made me feel is, who cares? This is me. I’m beautiful in Rwanda where big is better. I’m beautiful in America where big is often obese. I’m beautiful because I’m me.

Whether you point it out or keep quiet out of social respect, your words won’t change my body or my mind.

Yes, I’m big. A bit fat even. Definitely curvy.

I won’t lie, I won’t prevaricate. This is my body and it’s my confidence in my body, more than anything, that makes me beautiful. In any culture.

That being said, I’m sorry Moto Driver but at least I pay you the muzungu rate!

Umuturanyi Mwiza [Good Neighbor]

First day in my new village, I hugged nearly 80 people.

The traditional Rwandan greeting does include a sort-of near-hug: you grasp each other’s shoulders or upper arms and lean in to touch temples three times.

But either because she likes hugging a lot herself, or because she has a son in the States who has told her Americans hug, my new neighbor just wouldn’t settle for a near-hug.

Only a full-body embrace with three strong temple taps would do.

I am not much of a hugger.

The upside? I have now warmly, and humorously been introduced to a good portion of my new village.

They know my name, my job, where I live, and that, apparently, I’ll hold evening English lessons at my neighbor’s house for anyone who wants to learn.

Umukecuru [Old Woman…though this is a title of respect in Rwanda, not an insult] is a good neighbor.

In addition to the hugging, she introduced me to half a dozen shopkeepers as her friend and warned them not to rip me off. She gave me water when I discovered my house had none, arranged for a boy to cut my grass, informed the neighborhood watch group to look after my house, and has shared food on multiple occasions.

I feel very well cared for.

I’ve met more people in a few days in my new home than I did in 6 months in my previous. That’s thanks to Umukecuru as well as 2 years experience living in Rwanda. Confidence in my communication skills helps too. Confidence period! Such a difference two years make.

My new home is bigger – both the village and my house. My work seems to have increased as well. I’m working with the District to train teachers – developing their English as well as methodology in preparation for a new competency-based curriculum to begin rollout next year. But I have a second office in Kigali, where I’ll support the Rwanda Education Board [REB] to develop a national plan and curriculum for teacher training.

I’m really not sure how I’ll have time to host evening English classes for the villagers but I can’t let my good neighbor down!

It’s a new year. I have a new home, new job, new friends and new neighbors. Rwanda is new, as well. Developing and growing more everyday. And though I don’t wish to be new myself (I rather like who I am), I do know I am growing and changing and stretching with new skills, new perspectives, new awareness, and new warmth.

I have good neighbors, a good home, good friends, and good work. I believe it will be a good year!

Ikiganiro Cyiza: Common Sense

(this post was first published in SOMA, the Peace Corps Rwanda magazine)

I will never understand when to go places in Rwanda.

I get invited to ceremonies all the time: wedding ceremonies, baby naming ceremonies, anniversaries, celebrations, memorials. I consider myself lucky if the invitation includes a start-time.

I shouldn’t.

It never means a thing.

I’ve tried everything. Showing up early. Arriving late. One hour. Three hours. I think, this will be the day I get it right!

Wrong.

I ask friends to give me a call or a text or a beep. Anything to let me know when they’ll be arriving so I can follow suit. Sometimes it helps. Other times I’m reminded that when a Rwandan says, “Ndajye,” (I’m coming), it can still take them an hour to arrive.

I was sitting with two friends recently and I asked them, “How do you always know when to arrive?”

They looked at me strangely. What an odd question, their looks seemed to say.

“No, seriously!” I exclaimed, “That ceremony at school this week,
it started three hours late. AFTER the stated end time! I arrived one hour late, thinking I was finally the smart one, only to sit and wait, alone, in the hot salle while decorations were being put up. But you all arrived right on time. How’d you know?”

They both tilted their heads a bit, pondering this weird american girl and her strange confusion.

“It’s common sense,” one said.

Common Sense.

Registering the complete decisiveness in his voice, it hit me: Common sense is cultural.

It’s common sense to all Rwandans when you should arrive. There are secret rules embedded in the culture, taught to you in unspoken social cues from birth. Weddings start two hours late, memorials one. But if a VIP is coming you better be prepared. They may show up right on time, angry if you’re late, or they may be several hours past due and expect you to be ready when they are.

It’s common sense.

“It’s common sense to you,” I said. “It’s common confusion to me.”

But at least now I know. I’ve gained a lot of common sense in my life, but all based on the wrong culture for where I currently live. I’ll never arrive at the right time in Rwanda.

Some things just aren’t common around the globe.

Abakobwa Bakunda ICT! [Girls love ICT]

Sixteen Rwandans, twelve Americans, and two Koreans were standing in a circle…

Sound like the start of a bad joke to you?

It’s not.

Rather it was the start of Camp TechKobwa’s Training of Trainers. And while it did involve making goofy sour-lemon faces and passing a hoola-hoop around a circle of connected hands, it wasn’t bad at all. It was very, very fun.

Camp TechKobwa (“Kobwa”, pronounced kobga, is from the Kinyarwanda word for girl) was founded in 2013 by United States Peace Corps Volunteers and partners from Girls in ICT (Information Communication Technology), an organization committed to increasing the number of women in ICT sectors and altering the stereotype held by many young Rwandan girls that ICT is a man’s field.

The goal of the Camp is to provide young women with unhindered access to computers in order to develop their skills, confidence, and creativity through the use of technology. Through lessons covering everything from basic computer skills, to programming and robotics, the Camp encourages women that they can pursue careers in technology sectors.

Additional lessons in goal setting and self-esteem empower the young women to become active citizens and to start computer and media clubs at their schools.

This year, Camp TechKobwa has been organized by Peace Corps Volunteers, faculty and students from Michigan State University, professionals from IBM, and entrepreneurial experts from ELERwanda. Additional support has come from Girls in ICT, kLab, Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda, KOICA (Korean International Cooperation Agency) and the U.S. Embassy in Kigali.

Hosted at G.S. Janja, a secondary school in Gakenke District, Camp TechKobwa began on Tuesday July 29th with a four-day Training of Trainers. Twelve ICT Teachers from all around Rwanda will spend this time being students so they are prepared not only to teach during the student camp that begins on August 2nd, but to also take these lessons and new skills back to their schools to share with even more teachers and students – exponentially increasing the reach of the Camp.

It’s officially Day Two of Camp TechKobwa and energy is high. The Teachers have already completed lessons including: Computer Lab Maintenance, Programming with Scratch, Touch Typing, how to teach Basic Computer Skills, and Teaching ICT without a Computer (a required skill in a country still developing its ICT infrastructure). The favored lesson thus far, though, has been Lego Robotics. With kits donated by IBM and MSU, the teachers have already learned to build and program a simple robot!

The Training of Trainers lasts another day and a half and then sixty young women will join us in Janja for seven-days of intense learning and energetic activities, all designed to teach them that they, too, can study and succeed with technology!

Ikiganiro Cyiza: Yaributse (She Remembers)

It’s common to greet abakecuru and abasaza as I move around the village. Unlike younger Rwandans who may nod their ‘yego’ in passing, the older generation always take the time to stop, shake hands, and make a formal greeting.

Often, after the muraho’s have been exchanged, the abakecuru (old women) and abasaza (old men) follow with a longer comment. But as they usually speak quickly and rarely repeat when I ask them to speak slower, I seldom know what they wish to impart and we say our komera’s and move on.

This whole exchange happened recently as I was walking with a few friends. I greeted an umukecuru, we shook hands, touched foreheads, and she spoke rapidly in Kinyarwanda for a minute before saying Komera (Be strong) and moving on.

As I joined my friends waiting a few steps ahead, they asked if I had understood.

“No,” I replied honestly.

They explained, “She said that when she was a young child, white people came to her village and helped her. They gave her family food and clothes. And she thanked you for helping our country.”

She has always remembered these people who helped her once, long ago.

This act of kindness would have happened several decades ago, before the Genocide of ’94, based on her age. The white people who helped her may have been Belgian or French or the Red Cross. Or anyone. I have no way to know.

She wasn’t saying that I was them. Or even from the same country. She was simply making a connection that foreigners have helped. They helped her as a child and now I am here helping today.

I don’t always feel pride about the way foreigners have behaved toward Rwanda. I have good reason to feel shame on behalf of my country and the rest of the developed world. But this old woman was telling me, in her own way, not to focus on the bad but to remember that one small act of kindness can make a difference.

It made a difference for her. She still remembers the white people who helped her family decades ago. Maybe years from now, something I do today will be remembered the same.

One person can make a difference and everyone should try.
~ John F. Kennedy

Ni gute ntabwo wagusuye? [Why didn’t you visit me?]

Visiting is a fundamental aspect of Rwandan culture. I often avoid visiting, not because I tremendously dislike drinking overly-sweet tea while watching blaring music videos, but because of a slight cross-cultural barrier I consistently struggle to overcome.

To visit in Rwanda means to simply show up.

Unannounced, sometimes uninvited. You don’t set a date and time or call beforehand to confirm. You just go.

This is not my culture.

In the USA, visiting is pre-arranged. Planned in advance, marked on the calendar. It often happens not at your home but at some cooperatively chosen location. And on the rare occasion things are left vague or done last-minute, you always call ahead to confirm someone is home, dressed, and available.

Time after time, my friends have invited me to visit.

‘When?’ I always ask.

‘Anytime,’ the consistently reply.

Some live far away. Some travel on weekends or work odd hours. Some are men who I wouldn’t want to go visit unless I knew their wife was home.

So I wait. I wait for specifics. A day, a time, even directions on how to find their house. I wait.

Except they don’t know I’m waiting.

By their culture, the ball is in my court.

So I see them at the market or at work or in the canteen and they ask, ‘Why haven’t you come to visit me? I’m waiting for you.’

So now we’re both waiting.

I finally got over my fears long enough to visit the Catholic priests. After they’d chastised me multiple times, I realized this was one part of my culture I needed to let go. It helped that the priests live nearby and their home and office are one. They’re priests, so they receive visitors all the time. Nonetheless, it took me several attempts – in which I planned to go but chickened out – before I finally knocked on their door.

I’ve made small steps in my visiting since then, but it still feels very improper to simply show up at a person’s house.

So recently, when my friend Modeste asked why I still hadn’t come to visit him and his wife, I took action.

‘I’m ready,’ I told Modeste, whose permanent home is an hour away. ‘I’m going to Kigali just now, but will return on Sunday and will pass by your village.’

‘Good, you will come!’ Modeste said.

That was it. A start but still a bit vague for my tastes. I knew the name of the village but had no clue where his house was. And I could only assume that his reply meant he and his wife would actually be home on Sunday. An additional dilemma was that due to the distance and timing, my visit would likely have to extend overnight. Was that acceptable?

This was going to be a big leap for me.

Sunday morning came and I was prepared to leave Kigali. I was still uncertain about this whole visiting thing. Would they be there? Would there be a place for me to sleep? Would I even be able to find their home in a village I’d never before seen?

Then my phone vibrated with an SMS from Modeste:

DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR PROMISE?

Okay, it’s on.

I called him to inform him of my schedule and ask the moto price to the village. I finished my bus ride, flagged a moto, negotiated the correct price and was off…still not knowing precisely where I was going.

Once we left the main road and began winding up the mountain toward the village, I was completely lost.

Then it began to rain.

We came to the second string of storefronts just as the mist turned to a downpour and I told the driver to stop. We took cover in a small store and I called Modeste. I had no idea if we’d reached his village or passed it or were anywhere near it at all.

Turns out, we’d just passed his street.

The rain lightened, Modeste showed up with an umbrella and we slipped and slid down the road, past the curious villagers staring at the new muzungu in town, and reached the house just as the storm let loose again.

Alice greeted us at the door with flip flops and ushered me to a private bedroom to change out of my rain-drenched clothes. I had made it. I was officially a visitor.

We all chatted for a bit, then Alice disappeared to kill a chicken and Modeste put on christian music videos with English subtitles that we sang along to like karaoke. His twin brother came by to greet me, then we watched a Tanzanian film called, “The Best Wife” while we ate a delicious meal.

If I thought it was going to be awkward, this whole visiting thing, I was wrong. I drifted off under my mosquito net, in my friends’ home, knowing I was welcome and warmly received.

I woke early in the morning, not knowing the family routine, and caught Alice and the umukozi unprepared. I felt bad that they had to rush to light the fire and heat water for my bath. Modeste slept in and I packed up my belongings while the women did womanly things – like prepare breakfast. Modeste rolled out of bed and the two of us drank our morning tea and ate eggs and bread laid out by his wife.

Then we all set off. They walked me through town, showing me the village and the school and the health center where Alice works. It was a half hour back to the main road where we waited on the first of the day’s buses to rumble to a stop. We all boarded and sat in a row, the other passengers tittering at the muzungu with her Rwandan friends, out for a morning journey. The tittered even more when Modeste and Alice disembarked without me at the District capital to take care of some paperwork.

I continued alone, but with a happy heart. I had succeeded wonderfully at this whole visiting thing, I thought.

Now if I can just get the courage to do it again.

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.