Monday, November 8, 2010

Last place, First

In the past few months, I’ve become more involved with a Peace Corps Rwanda project called Books for Peace, which is aimed at providing books to start or enhance libraries in volunteer communities. The project was initiated in Rwanda with the first group of health volunteers two years ago, in conjunction with the Books for Africa organization. For me, what first started as an agreement to take over a single school book order from one volunteer in my area, has grown into a 15 school project throughout my district of Nyamagabe. After meetings with the Executive Secretary of my sector (Gasaka) and headmasters around the district, this project is starting to take on a life of its own. My organization has noticed this as well, assigning me to an additional (unofficial) counterpart, Venuste, who is AEE’s Education and Health Services Officer. Sharing the responsibilities with me is a Peace Corps volunteer in my group who has been assigned to the organization Caritas, here in Nyamagabe. The journey is just beginning for this process, which I can already tell is going to be a long, interesting ride.

The first step in this process has been to visit schools and talk to headmasters and teachers about their needs. Riding the hype of one school in town which received books already, we’ve found many schools interested, ready to get books into their schools or libraries, and also ready to pay their part. In order to get books, schools must cover 25% percent of the cost in order to show community ownership. Although this seemed like a daunting figure at first it has turned into an insignificant hurdle, with most headmasters ready to cut a check by the time our meeting is wrapping up. Before leaving a school I always ask for a tour of their library (if they have one) in order to see what space, shelving, library system, etc they have in place already. Some schools have five books on an empty shelf, while others have a librarian on hand with 3 or 4 bookshelves categorized and numbered. These visits have proven to me that getting the books here is not the end to the means, but that much more will have to go into these schools in order for kids to benefit from these books.

Wrapping up this first step last Thursday was a quintessential example of how work gets done around here. Venuste and I had visited most of the schools around town so it was time to take a trip to the last few remaining schools near the edge of our district, about an hour and a half moto ride away. We got up early and hit the road by 7:30 in order to make sure we’d have enough time to visit all four schools, take tours, ask all of our questions, and get back to Nyamagabe before the rains of umuhindo (short rainy season) came in the afternoon. On our way out of town, we made one last stop at the gas station, which was apparently out of gas (Not a very good business model, eh?). Thinking that our trip may have to be postponed, Venuste unscrewed the gas cap, shook the moto back and forth, and confidently claimed, “We have enough.”

As we traveled up, down and around the hills of Nyamagabe, I was able to catch amazing views of the green peaks and valleys that surrounded us. Interruptions to the scenic route were only due to my urge to watch the rocky, rough road ahead of us. While we bounced back, forth, and side to side, I had a firm grip on the back of the moto 100% of the time, while my butt was actually on the seat around 50%. Before we knew it though we were in Musange, ready for a quick stretch, and then to our first meeting of the day.

Of course, we arrived at our first stop, GS Musange, only to find out that the headmaster we were supposed to meet with spent the night in Nyamagabe town, roughly 5 minutes from our office. His secretary told us he’d be back soon, and that we could wait for him if we’d like. Not knowing how long that would be, we decided to save time and walk the ½ mile to another school we were going to visit, to get our legs moving and to save on gas. After walking through a field of cows and hopping over a stream, we arrived at ESECOMU school, only to find the accountant there to bear the bad news that the headmaster of his school was gone as well. Should I be frustrated? If nothing else, I’ve learned that if these things annoy you too much, working in Africa is not your cup of tea. The accountant embarrassingly admitted that he did not have any tea prepared, but offered us a place to sit at his friend’s house nearby. After hiking up a small mountain, we arrived at a mud house surrounded by banana trees. We politely sat down and Venuste completed the customary questions about family and work that comprise Rwandan ‘small talk’, while Rwandan news was blaring in the background on the radio. After the brief exchange of pleasantries we were proudly handed a family photo album to look over while they prepared tea. Unfortunately, by the time the tea was ready, the headmaster from the first school we visited called and was ready to meet.

The GS Musange headmaster was eager to fill out the form and show us the school “library” which sits at the back of his office. He informed me that he knew of Peace Corps because he was approached to work with a volunteer from the new education group that is currently in training. He is securing a house for them now which will be ready to in January, after they swear-in. The PCT doesn’t know it yet, but a project will be waiting for them upon arrival, as sort of a welcome gift from us here in Nyamagabe.

After wrapping up our first meeting, we headed out to ESECOMU again to meet with the headmaster who had just returned. He too was delighted at the possibility of receiving books, and was proud to show us his library, which he unfortunately didn’t have the key to because the librarian had left with it. Peering through the broken windows, I saw four shelves, two of which were at such an angle, I do not know how they hadn’t tipped over already. In addition to new books, I think new shelving will be a topic in our next meeting as well.

Next stop was Kaduha, about 20 minutes away from Musange. Missing tea earlier and now approaching lunch time, Venuste and I stopped for a brief moment to have some juice and biscuits. It was important for us to get out of the public eye, in order to respect the Rwandan cultural rule of not eating in public. Finding an appropriate distance outside of town, we quickly munched down our snack and checked out our gas situation. Venuste shook the moto and once again declared, “We have enough”. So we were on our way.

At our first stop in Kaduha, we were once again faced with a missing headmaster. We were told he was at the next school we were supposed to visit so we quickly drove over in order to hopefully meet with both of them. Unfortunately, our informant was wrong, but we were still able to sit down with the headmaster of Group Scolaire Kaduha. The headmaster immediately was excited once I pulled out the Books for Africa paperwork, as he told me how he’d been in contact with the organization but hadn’t been able to get the school’s Parents Association to approve the spending. I was impressed by his willingness to take on such a large project as one school, but in the end it would have been very difficult and costly for him to do it himself. He asked me if I knew ‘Steven’ who works with BFA, and was insistent on showing me their email communication. Debating whether or not I wanted to use this opportunity to strike at the heart of the widely held myth that ‘all white people know each other’ and say no, I said yes thinking that I had actually seen Steven’s name before. My gamble paid off as the headmaster immediately was excited I knew Steven, and could now tell the Parent’s Association that the book program is real because the American said so. At first I was annoyed that my presence or appearance proved some validity to the program, but in the end if that means students receive books, I will gladly provide the muzungu stamp of approval.

The excitement was not enough of a distraction for the headmaster though, as it also reinforced the notion that he had to show me Steven’s email. I politely suggested we look over the book order forms again so that he might start putting the pen to the paper, but he nonchalantly put them to his side, while clicking ‘refresh’ on his Yahoo account. This continued for about an hour, while I awkwardly sat there, sipping my tea, while he furiously clicked refresh and told me the network must be down. My bailout option was gone as well, because Venuste was working with the accountant on budget issues related to the OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) that AEE sponsors. Finally, the internet won, never bringing up Steven’s email and forcing the headmaster to once again look at the paperwork. He asked for a few days to look it over with his teachers, but will have the form delivered to our office on Monday.
Leaving his office, I was a bit annoyed and disappointed that we were only able to get to 3 of the 4 schools after coming all this way. In addition, what could have taken a few hours including travel time, had taken nearly an entire day. As I came to terms with the fact that we might leave one school out of this order, Venuste slammed on the brakes and hollered to a passing moto. It was the headmaster we had missed earlier, so we turned around and pulled up alongside him. Venuste gave him a 30 second speech in Kinyarwanda and then the headmaster turned to tell me he’d have the form in to me on Monday as well. The irony of sitting in one office for two hours while a headmaster clicks refresh on his email while another says yes without even seeing the book options brought a smile to my face.

A little further down the road Venuste stopped and unscrewed the cap for the last time, shook the moto, and confirmed once again, “We have enough.” I wanted to ask him if we should check again maybe when we aren’t parked facing downhill, but I just sat back, packed away our notes and was ready to hold on tight.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dear Pen Friend

What would you say if you were given a piece of paper and told to write a letter to a student in a foreign country, using a language that you are just learning to get a grasp on? As part of my correspondence through the World Wise School program, I’ve decided to add an element to the cross-cultural exchange by asking the English Club at Sumba Secondary School to write letters to the American students describing themselves, their family, and their country. Now, after reading 95 letters, and hearing the stories about these students’ lives, I realize that this exchange is providing me with a new opportunity to learn more about Rwanda, through the eyes of Rwanda’s youth.

Most of the letters begin in the same way, with specifics about their height, weight, eye or hair color, and often their current marks or passing grade for their class. I’m sure reading 1.60 meters or 55 kilos will pose a small conversion challenge as it did to me, but for the most part, the American students will be able to relate. After these physical facts however, the stories of these kids’ lives that contribute to the heart of cross cultural exchange begin to take shape.

One letter describes being a genocide survivor, while another describes how during the holidays he and his brother must cultivate with their mom to earn schools fees for the next year. Stories like these are common across Rwanda, although each time I hear one it makes me sit back and think about the strength of these children and their families. Typically following the brief family introduction, the students move into their favorite subjects in school, and lastly, their hopes and dreams for the future. In just a few short paragraphs these letters take the reader from the information you fill out at the doctor’s office, to stories of survival, and finally to expectations for a better life.

I don’t expect the American students to relate to cultivating cassava, but that’s exactly the reason why I want these students to exchange letters. I hope the similarities and differences in the students’ lives and letters will provide a new learning opportunity, just as it did for me.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Three weeks. Two presentations. Two Lakes. Two countries.

Wow where has the time gone? I left September 2nd for a financial literacy training with AEE in Musanze, went to my in-service training (IST) the week after that, and followed those up with the post-conflict workshop in Uganda. Now I’m back home, slightly worn out form living out of my backpack, but ready to get back to daily life.

I won’t bore you with the minutia of the financial literacy training, because it was very detailed and in Kinyarwanda so I’m still not even sure of all of the content.

My IST was not only a chance hear stories of success and challenges from my fellow PCVs, but also a chance to see beautiful Lake Kivu. We were spoiled with great food, great views, and a chance to relax as a group while learning about possible funding opportunities, how to design and manage a project, and last but not least, how to report what we are doing to Peace Corps. On our second to last day, we took a group trip out to Amahoro Island, about 20 minutes from our hotel by boat. As small as the island was, it came equipped with a small restaurant and bar, a volleyball court, and a short trail which provided “hikers” with the chance to see the single monkey living on the island. While all that sounded exciting, my friend Jarod and I took to the water to test our lungs and our breast/crawl strokes by swimming to a nearby island. We made it there and back, but probably won’t be testing Michael Phelps anytime soon.

After IST, I made a quick trip home to get new clothes and then it was off to Entebbe, Uganda for a week-long workshop on Peace Corps’ programming and training practices in post-conflict countries. We hit the ground running from day one with broad questions of how to train a PCV to work in a post-conflict country, all the way down to the small details of what resources should be included when inviting someone to a post-conflict country. From regional advisors, to country directors, to volunteers, all voices were heard and all ideas were up for debate. The “Rwandan perspective” proved challenging for many of the ideas that people presented and continually became the last hurdle for ideas to be post-conflict worthy. For instance, when discussing how PCVs integrate into the local community, one may think conversations about family history, livelihoods, and education would be commonplace. What happens though when these subjects are not culturally appropriate to discuss or might go against government policy as can be the case in Rwanda? In addition, how do you convince a community that has been receiving handouts of food, medical supplies, and shelter to accept a volunteer who doesn’t bring any of these things outright, but merely wants to work with you on achieving these things by yourself? Post-conflict countries are some of the most aid-saturated environments there are, adding the challenge of integrating into one of these and convincing the community you are there to work with them brings forth a truly different Peace Corps experience.

In the end the discussions were challenging and thought-provoking, and probably could have lasted for another week or so. Time outside of the conference was spent enjoying the views of Lake Victoria, watching CNN World News, and making sure monkeys didn’t come into the conference room to steal food. One of the mornings, I woke up early to access the high-speed internet in the conference room, only to be distracted by a curious monkey who relentlessly tried to get his little hands on the mints on the conference room tables. I managed to close most of the doors, but apparently missed one of them, which I later realized by the same monkey jumping up on the table across from me, shoving candy (wrappers included) into its mouth. As I got up to scare it away, a hotel employee came running around the corner wielding a chair over his head. I’d like to think my clapping and “Hey Monkey!” scared it off, but it was most likely the metal chair that frightened the little candy thief.

It has been a great three weeks, but now it’s time to get back to work and reality…whatever that may be.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Rwandaful Times Vol 1, Issue 2

Local News:

The Rwanda presidential elections have come and gone with incumbent Paul Kagame winning by an overwhelming majority. His 2nd seven year term, which officially started last Monday, was attended by heads of state from many African nations and the American Rick Warren.

In addition to the fiber optic cables that have been installed in Nyamagabe, construction has begun on new, paved roads around Nyamagabe town. One of the roads happens to be in front of my house and office, which comes at the delight of many of my neighbors and colleagues. Although I will enjoy not having to cross the small “bridges” on my short walk to work or town, I’m not sure if cobblestone roads are the most urgent of needs in Nyamagabe.

International News:

During my Pre-Service Training (PST) I signed up to take part in the Peace Corps Coverdell World Wise School program, which links current PCVs to classrooms in the US. I recently found out that I will be pen pals with twelve 1st graders in Allen, South Dakota. If you have heard of Allen, SD before it is probably because it has been deemed ‘The poorest place in the US’. I really look forward to learning about the lives of these twelve children, as well as providing them with a glimpse of life outside of the States.

In addition to the first grade class, I will also be corresponding with a 7th grade class in Southfield, Michigan. I was extremely happy to receive the news of my pen pals in South Dakota, but wanted to have an opportunity to discuss and exchange ideas about the Rwandan culture and way of life with older American students as well. The 7th graders in Southfield will be studying Africa in their social studies class this year, which I think will be a great opportunity for this exchange. I was also excited when I received an email from their teacher who asked if it would be possible for her students to exchange letters with Rwandan students. I now plan on linking them with a classroom in my town, after completing a Needs Assessment scheduled in October. I hope I will be able to find a motivated teacher and classroom to keep up with this exchange throughout the year.

Lastly, this month I will be taking part in the African Region Post-Conflict Workshop in Entebbe, Uganda. Peace Corps is assembling staff members and volunteers from post-conflict countries including Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda to discuss issues related to programming, training and PCV and staff support. I’m looking forward to discussing the needs and best practices of Peace Corps Rwanda, and hearing about the other country programs as well


We have now finished the 2nd phase of the ISLG trainings which focused on the technical side of bookkeeping and accounting. During the initial assessment phase, many groups had trouble answering questions about their finances from the previous year and they had very few notes in their ledgers. Extra time was allotted to review and emphasis the importance of this bookkeeping as it allows the groups to hold themselves more accountable for their savings and lending practices, and helps AEE understand what areas the group may need additional assistance.

As the ISLG trainings wrap up Flavien, Emmanuel, and I will begin working with our cooperatives in the Nyamagabe district. The co-ops have been deemed “Pre-Cooperatives”, based on their size and income so we will be working with them on establishing themselves as “Model Cooperatives” within the next year. To attain this title, they will need to demonstrate a period of growth which coincides with developed business skills in marketing and accounting. The cooperatives activities range from making drums to selling honey, so our approach will not be the same for any two groups. I visited the drum-making cooperative on my initial site visit during PST, and I’m looking forward to meeting the other groups and tasting the “best” honey from Nyungwe Forest.

Home Life:

One of the frustrating aspects of being a ‘muzungu’ is that some people think our possessions are easily replaceable. Although I feel safe at home and generally believe my belongings are secure inside my home, items that I normally wouldn’t think twice about have been taken. It first started with a compost pile Tressa and I constructed at her site. Our plans were to start a garden, but when we found that the compost pile was stolen, we figured growing food wouldn’t be a good idea. Next was my wallet, which is an obvious target, but something I thought was easier to hold onto. Lesson learned: Being first in the push-pile to board the bus isn’t worth losing a wallet. Next was the wood behind my house, which has now included the gate on the fence as well. The gate provided access to the forest area behind my house and luckily is only the first hurdle to getting on the compound. The eight foot tall cement wall with locking metal gate is a little more intimidating and can’t be used as fire wood. I now know to keep small bills in my pockets, and to never leave a compost pile unattended for more than a week.

Monday, July 26, 2010

No Planes or Trains, only broken down Automobiles

Last Friday concluded the first set of training sessions for the internal savings and lending groups I will be working with for the next few months. The last session brought Flavien, Emmanuel and I to Kibumbwe, roughly 45 minutes to an hour (moto ride) away from Nyamagabe town. My first visit to Kibumbwe was nearly a month ago, when I first met the four ISLGs we are working with in the area. They gave me a very warm welcome with a round of applause after each sentence I completed in Kinyarwanda. The people, along with the fact that the heart of the “town” seems to be a soccer field, make Kibumbwe one of my favorite places to visit in the area. Other than the soccer field there is a health center, a sector office, a school, and a restaurant/store. Not much comes and goes in Kibumbwe, which was a point I understood in greater detail as the day wore on.

The ride to Kibumbwe was just like any other field visit. Emmanuel and I on a moto with books, pens, and paper strapped to the back end. When we arrived at Kibumbwe, instead of meeting in the health center, like we did last time, we decided to meet in the school. The second term has just ended, but children were around awaiting their grades. Instead of accompanying Flavien and giving my “motivational speech” I decided to sit in on Emmanuel’s session and watch his teaching style and his interaction with the ISLG members. He doesn’t quite have the dance moves that Flavien likes to bust out during his trainings, but his linear teaching style provided a clear and concise lesson on savings and lending practices. He also did a great job in handling the kids, who seemed to be taking shifts staring at the muzungu in their classroom.
As the day wrapped up, Flavien suggested I ride back with the car that brings the meals for the ISLG members. I didn’t mind, but was a bit worried since they were late bringing lunches because of car trouble. Nonetheless, I got in and away we went in a Honda Civic, which was weighed down by 5 people, 50 empty glass Coca Cola bottles, dirty plates and silverware and had little to no tread on the tires from what I could see. After bottoming out a few times on a road that was clearly not suitable for anything but a 4-wheel drive car or moto, we came to a screeching halt, before we started going backwards, on a very steep hill. The driver was convinced we needed to add water to the radiator (not sure I understand the radiator to steep hill relation), but I didn’t say anything. We parked on the hill and sat for a half an hour after getting water from a local stream. After two more failed attempts to make it up the hill, I decided to get out and call Flavien who was going to send Emmanuel to pick me up whenever they were done. After waiting for 15 minutes, a truck (with a good radiator) came by and asked I wanted a ride. I gladly accepted and away we went, bouncing over ditches and rocks that I don’t know how the Civic made it over in the first place.

As we were crossing the final bridge before Nyamagabe town, I heard a CRACK and felt the back end of the truck drop. The narrow beams, which were barely held together with bolts and screws, snapped underneath us, dropping the truck a few feet above the stream. The truck was surely not going anywhere, which amused most of us, but annoyed the driver who was busy running around trying to find a log to prop up the tires. Luckily, one of the onlookers was a moto driver, who was able to give me a ride the last 2 km to my house.

I forget sometimes that transportation here is far from a sure thing and arriving on time anywhere is not only a challenge, but also success (when it happens). We have another field visit to Kibumbwe in a few weeks which I’m sure will bring a whole new set of challenges. The first however is getting across the bridge that will hopefully be “fixed” by then. We’ll see!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Rwandaful Times, Vol 1, Issue 1

Has it really been a month since I’ve last written? My apologies for the brief hiatus and for those that have requested an update, I hope you like the new format. I think that somewhere between my writers block and the World Cup, I lost track of keeping notes and writing down my thoughts. I’ve realized though that my scattered ideas don’t always translate into a well written blog entry, so I’m introducing The Rwandaful Times as a happy medium. I figured I’d be able to touch on various areas of life here, while breaking from the traditional, coherent blog entry. I was going to announce it on ESPN “The Decision II” but thought this was a much better platform.

The Rwandaful Times

Local News:
Nyamagabe is receiving highly anticipated fiber optic cables, which will provide high-speed internet to the area. Despite the fact that that meant water was shut off in the region without warning, many people are excited for the opportunity to use high-speed internet. On what you might ask? Well that is to be determined. But hey, if that means I’ll be able to stream Seahawks highlights come this Fall, I’m not complaining. In the mean time, it’s providing jobs or at least paying lots of men with shovels that are struck with a confused look on their faces while staring at the red and yellow tubing.

International News:
Uganda has recently been added to our Peace Corps do not travel list which effectively means we cannot travel to 3 of the 4 surrounding countries. Good thing Tressa and I picked Tanzania/Zanzibar for our Christmas/New Years plans!

The 4th of July was celebrated in true Amerrrika fashion with hot dogs (yes they have them here), mustard (yes that can be shipped here), ketchup, and chips. Tressa and I invited some of our friends over for a 4th of July weekend which was a lot of fun. We all wore red, white and blue, sat up on my deck and cooked hot dogs over the kerosene stove while listening to music from home. It was refreshing and for a few fleeting moments, felt like we were sitting around a campfire back in the states.

We have moved past the Internal Saving and Lending Group (ISLG) assessment phase and have moved into the training (or in some cases re-training) phase. The typical day consists of arriving out in a village (usually at a school room or a local leader’s office) to greet roughly 60 farmers/merchants who have divided themselves into 3 ISLGs based on location, which is typically their village (umudugudu). Flavien who I mainly travel with now, outlines what ISLGs are, how they work and other big picture stuff. For the first few trainings, I’ve mainly played what I call the ‘motivational speaker’ role in which Flavien asks me to talk about benefits of ISLGs. Most of the time he just tells me when to start talking and will translate anything I need help with, which at this point, is still a lot of what I say. Unfortunately, discussing how and why to save the little money that many of these people earn was not in my Pre-Service Training Language classes. I’m confident that as time goes on however I’ll find my niche in these sessions. In fact, last week while attending a conference put on by CHF, we were taught new lessons in ISLG training, some of which Flavien and I both agreed would be great ways for me to be more involved in the trainings, while at the same time using Kinyarwanda.

The World Cup has come and gone, and although Spain won, Rwandans stopped caring once Ghana lost to Uruguay. I’m sure this goes for most of the continent, as many countries seemed to suddenly become general “African” supporters once the Black Star nation was “their” only hope. I’ll have to admit that I was a bit happier after Ghana lost. Hearing Rwandans chant “Yes We Can” after Ghana beat the US struck a protective, patriotic cord with me that was somehow ameliorated with a Ghanaian loss. In the end, I’m very happy that Africans are proud to have hosted the World Cup (although it was SA) and am lucky to have been here while it was happening.

Home Life:
I’ve recently found that American English is a great bargaining tool and have since struck two important deals. First, I agreed to teach my neighbor Joseph in exchange for Kinyarwanda and French lessons twice a week. Second, I agreed to teach my neighbor’s cook Manzi in exchange for dinner most weeknights. It’s a win-win-win situation for all of us and one that I’m hoping can last awhile.…especially the dinner deal.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A franc for your thoughts

It is now been a little over a month now since swearing in and I’m feeling more and more each day settled into life here in Nyamagabe. My work thus far has been mainly observational, as my counterpart Flavien, colleague Emmanuel and I work on the first phase of our project with Higa Ubeho, which translates to “Be Determined and Live” in Kinyarwanda. It’s a 5-year program funded by USAID , overseen by CHF International, and operated through RPOs or Rwanda Partner Organizations. The organization that I am working with, AEE, is one of these RPOs and recently became of the specialized organizations to work on economic strengthening. This broad term translates into very specific goals for AEE Nyamagabve: Assist three “Pre-Cooperatives” into becoming “Model Cooperative” and develop 57 new ISLGs over the course of the next year. This involves assessing existing groups, finding and establishing new groups, providing trainings in coop development and market literacy, etc. It also involves many trips to the field which I have no problem with for two reasons: 1. It means I don’t have to sit at a desk and type all day 2. I get to ride a moto (Of course with my PC issued moto helmet, which by the way includes firey stars and lightening bolts). Our job is also to work with youth in the community in either going to school (AEE Nyamagabe funds over 300 orphans and vulnerable children’s school fees), providing vocational training, and ultimately finding them an employer. The families that we contact to join ISLGs are all family members or guardians of the OVCs that are also sponsored by AEE to attend school. In addition, the youth that AEE works with are from CHH or Child Headed Households.

Currently we are in the assessment and sensitization phase of this process which has brought me out into the rural areas in the surrounding sectors of Nyamagabe town. It is great to meet and see the faces behind the numbers and names on paper, while at the same time learning of their challenges and successes. One group that we met last week has been established for 10 years, which has allowed some members to buy cows for their families or remodel parts of their house. However, they struggle with bookkeeping, enforcing repayment schedules and utilizing the social fund. They will be trained in the coming weeks in all of these areas.

It is hard to contribute anything tangible right now because I feel like it is the time for me to observe and ask all of the questions I may have. It’s one thing to learn the saving and lending practices that AEE teaches, but also how and why these practices work Rwanda as well.

My house is coming together more and more each day. In Kinyarwanda we’d say “buhoro buhoro’’ which means “slowly by slowly”. I have my bed frame (which I need to buy a larger mattress for), my chairs, my small and large tables, and my couch (which I need to buy cushions for). My book shelves will arrive this week (fingers crossed). I’ve slowly been picking up items that I need around the house like a hammer, cleaning supplies, and cookware. I’ve started cooking for myself which has mainly consisted of oatmeal in the morning (who knew oatmeal can taste so good with any mixture of peanut butter, honey, cinnamon, and/or jelly), lunches are provided by AEE, and dinner which has mainly been hot sandwiches with some sort of mixture of veggies, cheese, and spices. I eat great fresh fruit from the market which is amazingly cheap. For example, I bought a pineapple, 12 bananas, 3 green peppers, and 3 onions for about $1.50! I’m going to attempt pasta sauce this week for the first time…where’s Newman’s Own or Ragu when you need em?! (Actually Ragu was $12 in the market in Kigali, either the import tax needs to drop or Safeway needs to expand to Rwanda)

The rainy season is wrapping up or so they say, which means it should heat up here pretty soon. It’s surprisingly a bit chillier than what you think of when you think “Africa”. I had to go home today to get my North Face fleece because our office was so cold. The elevation of my site and its proximity to the forest keep it cool and the clouds lingering, but it’s still nothing to complain about.

Well I think that's it for now, feel free to email anytime!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Development as Tourism?

This past weekend I went to Nyungwe National Forest in the Southern Province near my house in Nyamagabe. The allure of seeing a chimpanzee while hiking in an eco-montane forest screams AFRICAN ADVENTURE. After arriving at the visitor center and looking over the potential hikes, I noticed an unexpected sign which listed USAID and the American People as the donors of the visitor center. Really? I thought to myself, is this the most pressing development issue? On the way to the forest we passed town after town of underfunded schools, acres of subsistence farms, and no health centers. Easily this money could have gone to fund a smaller project directly impacting one of these areas. But it in the end it didn’t, and this is the problem with development as tourism.

Tourism has proven to be a tool used in increasing GDP and the standard of living in many developing countries. Natural resource/wildlife rich countries who find themselves in the bottom of the HDI such as Tanzania and Kenya have used their natural gift of the Serengeti, Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Great Migration to attract tourists from around the world who bring in enormous amounts of cash. For example, Tourism remains a significant portion of the Services Sector in Kenya, which consists of nearly 60% of the nations GDP. By creating an atmosphere for tourism they have increased the standard living for all citizens. Rwanda is currently hoping to be a part of this tourism as development success story, yet has a long way to go.

Arriving at Nyungwe with my girlfriend and her visiting friend was exciting, as we had high hopes of seeing chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Once we arrived however we learned that the chimpanzee tracking starts at 5:30 AM, a fact that the Bradt guide book we had, the flyer the park ranger gave us and the multiple internet sites failed to list before arriving. No problem, let’s do another hike we thought. A beautifully displayed list of hikes, estimated distance, required time, level of difficulty and highlights of the trails were listed (all compliments of the plaque provided by the American People). As I glanced over the hikes the first one I saw was an opportunity to use a canopy bridge. Lets do it! The ranger then mentioned that the bridge wasn’t finished yet, sorry…next time. I disregarded the fact that they already had a picture of people walking on a treetop bridge. Ok, let’s do the hike that guarantees a waterfall! Nope sorry, a tree fell and it’s difficult to pass. Sounds like a typical problem in a forest I guess, so we went on and chose the Yellow Trail, a nice trail that provides the opportunity to see monkeys and is moderately difficult. DEAL! As we handed our money to the ranger at reception and waited for our change….Oh sorry we don’t have bills to change here the ranger said. Really? So everyone has the exact amount that you ask for EVERYTIME? The frustration of this was also compounded by the fact that there is one bus service that runs to the visitor center. It must be caught in Butare, 30 minutes in the opposite direction from my home, which is closer to Nyungwe AND which Sotra (the bus services) would have to pass. Luckily, with the help of my counterpart, I was able to find a driver to personally drive us on the terribly paved roads, past the six landslide areas.

As I thought about these my frustrations, part of me thought, this is Africa and I can’t come with my American comforts and standards and apply them to all things Rwandan. As I thought about it more I realized that these frustrations weren’t because of my standards, as much as it is my frustration with poorly planned development. USAID was happy to front the money, adding a visitor center to a widely unknown, yet tourism ‘diamond in the rough’ forest of Nyungwe in hopes of bringing in more tourists and opening the tourism money floodgates. This intervention is the typical shortsighted aid organization project that didn’t factor in all of the pieces to the puzzle. The simple addition of one item in the flow chart is what USAID felt was the missing. Visitor center + more visitors= development. Right?! Yeah! We just saved lives …Not really.

The small problems that we encountered are all problems that need to be addressed for this visitor center to reach its target of increasing tourism revenue, providing jobs, bringing money to the local communities… the list continues. Tourism can have tremendous benefits on the economy of a country, but without substantial planning, money is wasted, ending up in our case, spent on an empty visitor center in a hard to reach forest. It is great to see the signs in Kigali advertising Nyungwe with its 200 plus species of birds and 13 primates but what happens when someone asks, how can I get there? These are the questions that need to be asked before projects are funded and before time and effort are spent attempting development as tourism.

Monday, May 24, 2010

My kind of town, Nyamagabe is...

Well here I am finally in Nyamagabe, in the office of AEE and officially a Peace Corps Volunteer. My apologies for not writing anything sooner, as I just noticed my last blog post was days before my swear-in…nearly three weeks ago.

The swear in ceremony was held at the US Ambassador’s house, and attended by current PCVs, former PCVs, Government officials, PC staff, and even the Rwandan news, which mentioned us later that night during their broadcast. The feeling of taking the oath and becoming “official” was a bit surreal and still somewhat of a blur. During the ceremony I reflected back on filing out the PC application in December 2008, sitting on the couch with snow outside. Now I’m in Rwanda where the application process, interview, and endless waiting are a distant thought (as well as any snow).

After the swearing in ceremony I had a week to shop and relax in Kigali aka “mini Amerika” (Ikinyarwanda spelling) before going to site. As nice as the white chocolate mochas were at Bourbon Coffee at Nakumatt, I was anxious to get to Nyamagabe and start settling into life as a PCV. The plan of settling in was short lived however as I a few days after sleeping with my mattress on the floor with most of my bags still unpacked, I went back to Nyanza for training in Permaculture (Permanent-Agriculture) and then onto Butare for training on Internal Saving and Lendging Groups (ISLGs). As I sit now, my first full day in the office of AEE and no more trainings, at least in the next week, I’m looking forward to my furniture arriving tomorrow (fingers crossed), finding out where exactly to throw my trash, and asking the landlord if I can turn part of my yard into a permaculture garden.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Two Cups of Tea

As the sound of Amayobera (look up this song if you download music, its the biggest thing in Rwanda right now) faded at the close of our last dance party in Nyanza, it was hard not to get sentimental thinking about the past 9 weeks of training. The first step in the PC process here in Rwanda has come to an end and as quickly as it started, its now time to move out, swear in and move to site. Can it really be May already?

I settled into this temporary home or as we like to call it Camp Peace Corps, with an open mind and readiness to learn. Everything was manufactured to allow us to focus only on language and culture, with meals prepared, schedules made, and the summer camp euphoria of living and learning together. Beyond the PC bubble however I realize that in these short 9 weeks, I’ve made a home here in Nyanza, and one that I’m going to miss. On my morning runs, I have changed many of the “Mwaramutse Mzungu” to “Mwaramutse Ryan” (or shall I say Lion). I have small posse of soccer kids that never let me walk away without being deemed a new soccer star. I’d like to think its because they like the way I play, but it could just be the Barcalona jersey I wear around town. I’ve reached the “hug level” as I like to call it with my host mom’s children, who were always so shy when the muzungu came over. Also, Mama Francine makes sure I don’t leave without drinking two cups of African tea, because to leave after one is just plain rude.

Now here I am with three days until officially swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer; language test passed, bags to pack, and the bitter sweet feeling of leaving Camp Peace Corps. After swearing in on May 5th, I’ll leave for Nyamagabe on Sunday or Monday. I’m excited to make new friends, find new routines, and once again settle into life here in Rwanda.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Sweet Home Nyamagabe

AEE…Nyamagabe town…Microfinance…Nyungwe Forest… These ideas were passing through my mind on the bus ride from Kigali to my (future) home in Nyamagabe Town. The abstract ideas that I have read on paper about the work I’ll be doing, the town I’ll be living in, or the life I’ll have for the next two years is starting to be replaced by a more concrete understanding of what my Peace Corps experience will be.

To start, while in Kigali for the Health and Community Development Fair, I met Flavien from African Evangelical Enterprise who will be my counterpart for the next two years. He works with Internal Saving and Leading Groups (ISLGs) in the Nyamagabe District, facilitating training, helping start up groups, maintaining current ones, and everything that falls in between. As he is my counterpart, I will be doing a lot of these things alongside him. With 9 cooperatives and 16 ISLGs, I will be exposed to many of the challenges and successes of microfinance in Rwanda. Although I’m anxious to know what the exact projects I’ll be doing, but I’ll have to wait until May until those questions are answered.

On my town tour this morning, I stopped off at the AEE office with Flavien before touring the house I will be living in. Located near the World Vision compound, a two minute walk from the AEE office, I’ll have a nice little two bedroom house, with a living room (with electricity), bathroom (with toilet and hot water), a small yard, and a small rooftop deck. Not a bad humble abode for the next two years. I wasn’t expecting BOTH electricity and water, but I guess I’ll take it. The extra room will be a guest room/kitchen for any of you who want to visit by the way.

After my house visit, we walked through the market (market day is Wednesday) to see where I will buy food, clothes, etc. The prices were low when Flavien asked, we’ll see how much they are when the muzungu goes it alone. From there we passed through town to the health center (which I plan on visiting again for the detailed tour), and then the secondary school where Flavien taught French for a few years. The reception from everyone I met was warm and welcoming. I think everyone was excited I knew some Kinyarwandan and then even more happy to hear I’d be here for two years.

A few random thoughts and facts
1. I found the local resto/bar that plays soccer games. Phew… (sigh of relief)
2. Nyamagabe is 28 km from the Nyungwe Forest…When I get my PC issued bike I may have to make some trips. Want to send my road bike Mom?
3. Nyamagabe sits atop one of the high “mountains” in the area, thus the view in almost all directions is beautiful green rolling hills. Maybe I can find a spot to take a 360 degree picture.
4. Before 1994 Nyamagabe was not well liked by the government because of the high Tutsi population. They considered it “Congo” area and thus did not invest in development. Since then however the government is trying to develop all districts, and Nyamagabe is seeing more infrastructure and investment.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Umuganda Hands

Today was the first time I was able to participate in Umuganda (community work), the national day of community service which is set for the last Saturday of every month here in Rwanda. The idea of it seemed a bit Utopian when I first heard about it. Community work done by EVERYONE? Could it be? Today after an hour and half hike South of Nyanza, I realized how impressive and humbling it is witness and participate in umuganda.

The job today was to cultivate a field for cassava to be planted, possibly the project for next umuganda. It was amazing to walk up to the site and see over a hundred people from the local cell working together to clear a football field size area. It was overwhelming at first, not really knowing how or where we’d fit in. We were probably quite a sight, a bunch of confused muzungus that showed up without hoes, or any sense of direction for that matter. The confusion ended quickly however as I was handed a hoe and pointed to fill in for someone that was getting tired. From then on I realized the organized chaos that was happening. Shifts of people worked until they got tired, then they’d sit down as their replacement would take over. This process repeated itself throughout the morning until the hill was sufficiently churned and our hands were sufficiently blistered. The mark of hard work consisted of the scale of how blistered your hands were. I didn’t notice this until I finished my third shift and looked down at my 'umuganda hands'. One of the organizers noticed them as well, gave me a thumbs up and a subtle smile. After that, I knew that it was my first successful umuganda.

On a different note, this week we were given our site assignments which finally answered the question of what I will be doing for the next two years. Drum roll please…..I’ll be working in Microfinance with the African Evangelical Enterprise Rwanda (AEE Rwanda)! AEE works with cooperatives and Savings and Internal Lending Groups (SILGs), Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs) and People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs). Specifically they offer market development, business planning, and incoming generating opportunities.

Also, I’ll be living in Nyamagabe town in the Southern District of Rwanda, near the Nyungwe Forest...Chimpanzees anyone?

I will have the chance to visit my work and house next Wednesday so I’ll have more info soon enough.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

We're talkin about bed nets...bed nets

As some of you may know, PC Rwanda does things a little differently than other country programs regarding PCT integration into the community and culture. As most country programs will assign each volunteer to live with a host family, here in Rwanda we are given a Resource Family who we visit throughout our PST (Pre Service Training) but do not actually live with. Although there are pros and cons to this approach, it matters more the time and effort each volunteer is willing to put into making our RF an integral part of our understanding of the Rwandan culture.

At first it seemed a bit of a hassle. Our schedule typically goes something like this: Breakfast at 7, classes from 8-5, with breaks for meals, and then home after dinner around 8:30. Fitting in a few family visits each week, especially on Sunday, our “day off”, hasn’t settled well with everyone, myself included. Despite what might have seemed like an extra task on a full plate, the visits have been educational, insightful and inspiring.

I have also been blessed with a great Resource family, with Francine, Manuel and their two daughters Kevine and Helvine. Francine has been the one who has mainly facilitated my visits. She attended the introduction party at our Training Managers house to greet me, and is always setting up evening or day visits with her and her family. Although sometimes our schedules haven’t worked, she has been a great friend, helping me with my Kinyarwanda and discussing Rwandan culture. The last two visits have been especially interesting, touching on Rwandan school systems (she’s a primary school teacher), health policy, and the complicated subject of family (umuryango). After each visit I feel more inspired to learn more about this culture, language and more thankful that I was placed in Rwanda.

I’d been waiting to have the family discussion until I had learned more of the language and history because I knew the genocide would play its role in shaping our discussion. I wanted to be educated and prepared to ask insightful questions without probing too much. Whether I wanted it to or not, we discussed her family, which was sadly too short. Her story is one I’m sure can be replicated thousands of times throughout Rwanda, and its one I don’t chose to write about. It’s as if there was a life before the genocide and now one after. People often make the distinction of ‘before’ or ‘after’. It’s a time marker that sadly seems to change their story, often to a somber, sobering tone. It’s a reminder that it is still early in the healing process for individuals and the country as a whole. The idea that “Time heals all wounds” will surely be tested here.

During my most recent visit, Francine and I discussed the use of bed nets, a discussion brought on from her youngest daughter’s recent diagnosis of malaria. We discussed her family’s health insurance and what typically happens in a Rwandan household when someone becomes sick. Our conversation soon reached the tone of a lesson on development health however, as we discussed the relationship between health and education. Francine very bluntly and honestly stated that “education helps people understand the value of a life”. A true statement that I think has even more meaning in a country like Rwanda.

I have been thinking about her statement since our talk and how education will play a role in my placement as a health volunteer. It was a reminder that my success as a volunteer is not based on an arbitrary act such as distributing bed nets, but rather to collaborate, educate and be educated by the people whom I will work and live with. It was a reminder that the physical bed nets is just as important as understanding how to use them, why we should use them and why health needs to be inherently valued. Understanding the why and how questions are just as important as the action itself.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Song and Dance

Monday, March 8, 2010
International Women’s Day? I’d never heard of it either. Apparently we don’t celebrate this in the US but here in Rwanda this is a holiday, which means no school, no museum visit, but lots of dancing and cheer. Today, instead of language and tech training, we went to the Nyanza soccer stadium (yes soccer) in order to celebrate International Women’s Day with the local schools and “authorities” (This term is used loosely when people don’t actually know those who are present). After walking through a short cut from our PC center, which revealed a new soccer field, we arrived at the secondary school to find students singing and dancing, clearly practicing for a major performance. A performance we soon found out we, were to be a part of.

After waiting on the cement bleachers for nearly an hour, the students entered the stadium ran over to our group, grabbed each of us by the hands and took us out in the middle of the field to dance, sing, and clap along. If you think you need coffee in the morning to wake up, try getting into a jumping contest and dancing along with Rwandan school children. The passion of the kids was contagious as they sang songs about the importance of their education, the country’s future, and rooting out genocide fears and ideals. Although the genocide is what put Rwanda on everyone’s map, it is rarely discussed here. This was a chance to see and hear the language (via our language facilitators) of how the rebirth of a country is discussed with the youth of this country.

International Women’s Day ended with a celebration at the PC center with a discussion on the role of women in global societies, a few enlightening statistics, and of course, more song and dance. If every day were Women’s Day, we clearly would much be happier, and a rhythmically gifted people.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Nitwa Ryan, ndi umunyamerika

March, February 4th
Nitwa Ryan, ndi umunyamerika
Has it really only been one week? This question has been asked countless times today. After three days of intensive language, cross culture, safety, and health training its easy to forget that my time in Rwanda has been short…thus far.
Now in Nyanza, we have started learning Kinyarwanda. I honestly have learned more in the last three days than I remember from four years of French. Granted that was in high school, I still am happy to be challenged by the pace set to learn this new language. I can officially introduce myself, ask where people are going, tell them I’m a Peace Corps volunteer (= ndi umukorerabushake…try saying that in one breath), and make small talk. Today we started learning basic verb conjugations which is a whole new battle. We have great LCFs however (Language and Cross Cultural Facilitators) which live with us and teach us Kinyarwanda in and outside of class. They are all between 20-30 years which makes it easy for us to relate to them and ask them about anything. Currently we are in small groups of 5-6 with each LCF so that we really get the one-on-one help when necessary. After three months I’m hoping Kinyarwanda will no longer be as intimidating as it sounds.

There hasn’t been much beyond language class…a few trips to Blue Bar to drink ‘guma guma’ however even then books are brought out and Kinyarwanda is the topic of discussion. Sidenote: ‘guma guma’ actually translates to ‘be strong, be strong’, however people say it as slang for the Primus beer. Its cheap and you can find it anywhere beer is sold…in Rwanda. When I’m not at school I’m at my house aka the Laundry House which houses 12 volunteers and 6 LCFs. It’s the largest house and one of the furthest away from the school house or kitchen house. It’s not a bad thing however because we have the best view: a green forested valley with distant hills faded in the background. I wouldn’t trade the view for anything….well maybe a hot shower once in awhile but cold bucket baths really aren’t that bad. The lack of running water and pit latrines are something we all need to get used to, so I might as well have a great view when I walk to breakfast in the morning.

A bit about the group: We have 37 people altogether in this Health and Community Development cohort. 32 women…5 men…a married couple and an age range of 21-34. We are the third volunteer group (second health group) since Peace Corps returned to Rwanda only a year ago. It’s been great to get to know everyone, a process which I’m looking forward to over the next few months and years.
Top 5 Indications you are in Africa
1. You question whether the noise outside is a baby or a goat. This has happened multiple times
2. You plan your day according to the rain.
3. You are called “Muzungu”
4. You are asked if you’d prefer running water or electricity for the next two years. I chose electricity.
5. Church is 3+ hours. Haven’t gone yet here, but I hear 3 hours is the minimum.

Welcome to Paradise

Saturday, February 27th

“Welcome to Paradise” I was greeted while walking up to customs. The excitement of finally arriving in Rwanda negated the anxious months of preparation and fatigue of back-to-back 8+ hour plane rides. As we departed from the plane entering the airport, we met the PC Country Director which gave us all a boost of energy and excitement we needed . The idea of being in Rwanda was finally a reality; and a feeling that I keep realizing when I look at the beautiful scenery, hear the sounds of birds in the morning, and meet the friendly faces of Kigali. Its hard not to be caught up in excitement and romanticism of being in Rwanda and back in East Africa. We have been treated extremely well by PC staff; with meals prepared, chauffeurs to take us to change money and buy phones, and amazingly skilled bus drivers who like to bring the Volcano Express (the name of our buses) within inches of the nearest ledge, wall or moto. It’s a welcome ease into the country, but one that we know will soon fade into hard work at training in Nyanza.

Friday was filled with getting shots, meeting staff, doing a bit of shopping (phones), and a reception at the house of CD John Reddy. The PC staff along with current volunteers came to mix and mingle sharing personal stories of placements, the highs and lows, and helpful hints in understanding the language, people, and becoming less of a muzungu.

Today (Saturday) will be filled with an exciting second round of shots, a trip to the genocide memorial, and free time that may potentially be our first taste of Rwanda outside the PC bubble.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Welcome to my Peace Corps Rwanda blog!

This is the first of many posting throughout the next 2+ years and I hope that you feel free to email, call, skype, facebook, gchat, etc. whenever you can when I'm in Rwanda. I promise to keep you all up to date with my adventures and I hope you do the same. For now, please send me your email addresses at so that I can be sure to have your contact info as well.