Friday, July 8, 2011

10 Months

written July 5th, 2011

10 months from today I’ll be heading to Kanombe International Airport en route to the good ol’ US of A. As exciting as it is to think about reaching holidays that I can say ‘in a year from now I’ll be with family and friends’, it’s a bit unnerving to think about what lies ahead.
Before I start prematurely packing my bags however there are some pretty large items on my To Do List which remain currently unchecked.

1. Nyamagabe Community Library
Although we are days away (fingers crossed) from hearing back about funding to complete the rehabilitation of the library building, that approval will start a chain of events that will undoubtedly be time consuming and hectic. Starting construction, recruiting a librarian, receiving books, organizing books, figuring out a library system…the list will continue to grow. For sustainability purposes, community leaders are in the driver’s seat. As a PCV with 10 months left and 6 months already committed to the project, it’s hard to not want to reach over and press the gas pedal from time to time.
2. Camp GLOW and BE
Currently at square one with this project, volunteers including myself are starting to organize holiday camps for local students. Although this isn’t a new idea in Rwanda or for PCVs worldwide it will be new to Nyamagabe, where one of the camps will be held. Lodging, food, transportation, lesson planning, budgeting are all on the list of things to do at this point. All of this is starting now and must be finished for camps to start the first week of December. Ready. Set. Go.
3. Primary Project
Oh yea, I still have a primary project with AEE that I should be at Mon-Fri. Finding areas or projects where I can fit in and can actually contribute is a challenge in itself. Some weeks consist lengthy meetings with cooperatives to discuss problems they are facing, while others are spent waiting for money from Kigali to actually conduct these visits. Still, other days are spent going over how to do things in MS Word or looking up the equivalent French or Kinyarwanda word to help colleagues write their reports in English, although few know it.
4. Grad School
Send GRE scores, fill out the FAFSA, write personal statements and essay questions, email people about letters of recommendation. For some reason I don’t remember any of these tasks when I applied to college for undergrad, but these are weighing on my mind more lately. This could explain the recent influx of coffee consumption as well. With applications coming online in the late August-early September I’m taking the next month to focus strictly on essay writing. Good thing Modern Family and The Office won’t be starting back up for a few more months.
5. Language
My kinyarwanda is decent, although it can always use some work. Working with my French tutor two nights a week is making all three languages swirl in my mind. I’m going to mu muji acheter MTN credit. At least people will know what I mean here. High school French comes back to me at times which is promising, although it’s nowhere near a level I feel comfortable stating on Facebook that I know. 7 more months of language classes coupled with Rosetta Stone should get me there.

The 10 months leading up to Peace Corps, I remember thinking about what would define my volunteer experience. Would I be at a health center in Senegal, a school in Tanzania, or possibly in some office in Togo? (Yes, I had this dream). Here I am with 10 months left wondering how these events will impact my community, how they will shape my memories of Rwanda, and how they will define my Peace Corps experience. With 16 months down and 10 to go, I know how time can fly. I just hope this list gets done before I have to decide before chicken or fish on the flight home.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

1st Year Reflection

With one year down and one year to go, there have been quite a lot of lessons learned. Although I’d like to be able to say that after one year in the PC I’ve accomplished XYZ, things just don’t work that way. PC embeds into every volunteer’s brain that the first year of service is mainly to learn. Learn about the needs of the community, boundaries, available resources, and our own capabilities. We aren’t here to impose American standards or see how many schools we can build, we are here to learn about Rwanda, teach Rwandans about America and develop a sustainable relationship with a mutual respect. Through these relationships we challenge ourselves and the people around us to expand our knowledge, exchange ideas, learn new skills, and develop a mindset that focuses on progress. Although to date, I think my greatest tangible achievement is having my colleagues drink more water, because “it’s healthy and Ryan does it”, I’ve created a list of some humorous, serious, seemingly insignificant, and breakthrough moments in the past year.

1) Most Rwandans think that Washington state, is DC and that when you say you are from the West Coast, they think you know Snoop Dogg.
2) Development in one sector will undoubtedly affect another, for good or bad.
3) Trash bags = soccer ball
4) Baking powder can substitute for baking soda, but not vice versa.
5) Cleanliness is relevant.
6) A language with the word Imbangukiragutabara is not fair.
7) Interest rates on village savings loans are technically village savings rates.
8) Enrique Iglesias and Celine Dion should be ambassadors.
9) In Rwanda, L’s and R’s are interchangeable, for good or bad. ex Clap vs Crap
10) Positive personal relationships with a shopkeeper, a market lady, a sambusa lady, the bus ticket ladies, the sector leader, and my colleagues will be some of my fondest PC memories.
11) Hissing at waiters is acceptable in some parts of the world.
12) Free speech is a cherished right, but not by all.
13) The perception of development is a double edged sword.
14) I miss Papa John’s garlic dipping sauce as much as the actual pizza.
15) Everything is better with bbq sauce.
16) I can now identify sorghum, sweet potatoes, and cassava plants.
17) Humor and humility disarm.
18) Post conflict development is the most challenging and intriguing concept to me, and will hopefully be the main focus of my future studies and career.
19) Fiction books are nearly impossible for me to read.
20) Eucalyptus is used as firewood because it grows back much faster than other trees.

One year sounds a bit daunting and overwhelming, yet looking back it’s hard to see how so many experiences and lessons have been packed into the last 12 months. It’s hard to believe that a year ago today I didn’t know how much tomatoes cost in my market, what time Mama Amy would have spicy sambusa’s prepared, or where the best seat to watch football matches is at the local bar. Who knows what will happen in a year from now. Will the Nyamagabe community library be finished? What grad school will I be accepted to? I’m excited that I’ve reached the one year mark, but even more excited for the opportunities this next year will bring.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Produce what you can sell, don't try to sell what you can produce

Where has the time gone? A lot has changed with work and life in the past few months so let me get you up to speed.

Before leaving for vacation in December I found out that my counterpart was taking a job in Kigali and would no longer be working with AEE. I was surprised and somewhat worried about my role with my organization. He was the one who, from the first day, understood what it meant to be a PCV and how to incorporate me into the job activities. After returning from vacation to find out even more colleagues were taking new jobs, I questioned whether or not I should ask for a new assignment or direction in my work. However, my frustrations or worries were appeased when the new hire, my new counterpart, was brought in. He has hit the ground running, motivated, and understanding that we both have a lot to learn from each other. With his presence, I’m much more comfortable working as a PCV, co-facilitator, co-learner, working with the staff and our beneficiaries, not for them.

The direction of our work activities has also shifted, which has brought new and exciting activities to the work assignment. Continuing to work with the internal savings and lending groups and cooperatives, we are now in the business of monitoring progress, helping them with action and business planning, and organizing farmer field school trainings (coming soon!). To give you an idea of the challenges this entails here is a brief description of one of our coops and the issues they face. Coop #2 (we’ll call them) is a group of nearly 60 HIV positive members who are divided into 3 savings and lending groups, based on the cell or village they live in. Within their groups they save and lend with the money they earn from farming and selling items in the market. As a cooperative, they have 2.5 hectares of land in which they had planned to grow irish potatoes, sorghum and beans. The Rwandan government has subsidized these crops though so more people are growing them, which has reduced their sales and expected profit. Coop #2 then decided to switch to growing maize, but unfortunately the rains this year were not enough to produce a sizable crop to feed families and sell in the market. To make matters worse the maize they purchased was a hybrid (which was supposed to withstand harsher conditions), and thus they won’t be able to use the inputs to plant a second crop. In addition to growing maize, they would like to grow passion fruit (marakuja) for their own health, but face problems with the acidity of the soil. In order to buy inputs (lime) they need money, but without a crop to sell they don’t have many options. As you can see the list of challenges is daunting and overwhelming. Where do they start at solving their problems? What is our role in this process?

Starting with the organization of savings and lending groups was the first step. It will be the tool that, when run effectively, will help even small sums of money grow to hopefully buy the inputs they need. In order to make sure these inputs succeed though, we need to work with them on cultivating crops that they know how to cultivate (and cultivate well) and which are nutritious, profitable, and marketable. The rule of thumb, is produce what you can sell, don’t try to sell what you can produce. This will include a farmer field school training, which is not about teaching farmers how to farm, but bringing them together to discuss best practices, new methods, and helpful techniques. Simple methods such as using compost, which helps soil retain moisture and provides nutrients, is more than just throwing piles of food scraps in hole. Some farmers know this, while others don’t. If we can create a forum for this discussion, ideas and best practices will be spread faster, will be much more relevant to their land, and will decrease any sense of dependency on outside organizations.

This coming May, will be the one year mark since the program started which coincidentally will be my one year anniversary at site. I’m of course looking forward to saying I’ve lived and worked here for a year, but also to see the progress and difference one year can make. Development takes time, and I’m not under an illusion that anyone’s problems will have been solved. However, if even one of the challenges mentioned above can be addressed, I know this program is on the right track.