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.