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.