The following content is comprised of personal opinions, and in no way reflects the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. Government.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

This is a conversation I had with a man on the street on Nyanza Sunday morning as I was walking back to Mugandamore.

'Mwaramutse" he says to me, dressed in his Sunday best, no doubt just off the bus on his way to Chruch. Good Morning.
'Mwaramutse' I reply. Good Morning.
'Amakuru?' he asks, tilting his jaw slightly to his right. How are you?
'Ni meza, wowe?" I am good, and you?
'Nanjye ni meza. Ugiye he?'I am also good. Where are you going?
'Ndatembeye gusa, ariko ubu ndagenda mu rugo i'Mugandamore.' I was only wandering, but now I am going to my home in Mugandamore.
'Ahh, ni byiza. Ufite Noheli Nziza?'Ahh, it is good. Did you have a good Christmas?
'Yego, niziza cyane. Yes, very good. He smiles a broad, nearly toothless smile as he extended his arms and nearly shouts his last words.

Normally, it would be near blasphemous for me to celebrate Christmas without snow. However, for Rwanda I will make an exception. With only 1 week of training left, Christmas was descending on Nyanza and the Peace Corps Trainees.

To start the Holiday off right, Friday morning found most of us undergoing a Mock LPI (Language Proficiency interview), which we will take for real next Thursday and must achieve at least an Intermediate-Low level. The plan was to take over a bar we had rented for the occasion and have a White Elephant gift exchange, talent show, and dinner.

For the talent show, the Farside houses performed a rendition of 'Crayola Doesn't Make a Color' in which many instruments we played, including two guitars, a glass-fork combo, and some rice in a bottle. Other talents included spoken word for one of our visiting Fulbright Scholars, several house songs/raps, and a rather brilliant retelling of the 12 days of Christmas as the "The 12 days of Model School." Halfway through the Talent Show, our kitchen staff arrived with our dinner and a small feast of meat and potatoes commenced. Before we could resume the Talent Show, however, a typical Peace Corps Dance Party broke out. Tables we pushed out of the way and more than a few Primus bottles we broken before or Talent Show MC's were able to rein everybody in (after they had they own fill of dancing for the moment) and finish the last few acts of the talent show.

With nothing left on the Christmas Eve agenda and it only being 8:30, the Dance Party once again hit full swing. A Peace Corps vehicle arrived at 9:15 to bring those of us living in Farside home, but many of us had already received prior permission to stay at other Peace Corps houses closer to town. The party continued longer into the night and eventually had to be moved in respect of our curfew.

Breakfast was served on Christmas morning, although many of us at the house where I crashed slept through it. A few Trainees were kind enough to liberate some food from the Center and bring it back to us. The morning was bright, albeit cloudy, making it a rather nice day to go for a walk. Just south/southwest of Nyanza City Center is a small reservoir with a few walking paths around it and some places to sit and enjoy the day. By the time we returned to town and ordered a cold Sprite to offset the now hot sun, it was almost time to return to the Center for Lunch. A few of the Trainees (Aaron and Deanne, I believe) had come up with one of their award-winning chili recipe and a few other Trainees helped make it and some cornbread-ish muffins.

After lunch we had scheduled a Christmas Movie Marathon in one of our Tech Training classrooms. We covered the floor in borrowed mattresses and pillows form the Infirmary and covered the windows with blankets as best we could to darken the room. First up, out of tradition, was A Muppet's Christmas Carol, followed by Love Actually and then Elf. Last up at 8pm was set to be The Big Libowski. Not really a Christmas movie, but still none-the-less great. We also filled in some time gaps with clips from Top Gun. I have to say, it almost gets no better than watching two Peace Corps Trainees reenact 'She's Lost That Lovin' Feellin'' while it's also being projected on the wall.

On Sunday morning, Farside came together to make breakfast American style. AS I was the last straggler to return to Mugandamore from Nyanza around 11am that morning, it fell to me to pick up the last of the supplies needed for the banana bread and French toast. Unfortunately, I didn't get the text message until I was already halfway home and knew that it would be difficult to find vegetable spread on the way. Alas I finally tracked some down (in the last shop remaining shop no less) and made my way to the girls' house where I was handsomely rewarded for my efforts with a full plate of French toast and bananas.

After a rather productive afternoon of rewriting lesson plans for my portfolio and taking some 'me' time to work on a rather nerdy math project for another Trainee, I returned to the girl's house to make Macaroni and Cheese. I have to say, it wasn't Kraft, but it was still awesome. We bummed around for a few hours playing catchphrase and Kinyarwanda Balderdash with Cate's boyfriend Joe who was visiting from Kenya where he works with an educational-based NGO (I think). He also reintroduced a game to us called 'Chinchilla' in which essentially the point is either to receive the fewest burns on your hands or be the bravest, and stupidest, player. One person will start by removing a glowing coal from the charcoal stove and lobbing it in the general direction, or towards the face of, another player. The goal is then to keep the coal in the air using nothing but your hands. It is actually much preferable to use only your hands because the hot coal tends to do a number on hair and clothing. By far the hardest part by actually picking up the coal as it involved the most time of direct searing contact, although the spectators also had an interesting time dodging the rogue coals.

As this is being posted (9:20AM local time on Thursday), I am just getting ready to take my Language Proficiency Interview. After that, I have to jaunt into Butare for some last minute shopping (read: ice cream) and then I have an interview with my training staff to discuss their recommendation for my service. I received a few emails with some questions in the last few days: I promise I will answer them in a timely matter (within 1 week).

Don't Forget To Be Awesome,

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The End of Model School

From now on, I will post a quote from the past few days at the beginning of these blogs. Some of them may be juvenile, immature, or just not right. Just a warning.

“Shawn, I’d just like to tell you that I was just sexually harassing Scott and said your name instead….”-Jed

Last week represented the final week of PST Model School in Nyanza. With the chalk finally off my hands and no more lessons to plan at 11:30 at night, we decided to throw a celebration (even though the other half of the Trainees still have a full week left). The gang gathered at Inzu Ubumwe, one of the larger houses in downtown Nyanza close to all the action, and was joined by Mary our Country Director and most of the senior training staff. A small band of amazing Trainees made tortilla chips to much success as well as some other smashing-good food. Toasts were made in honor of our APCD, Kassim, who coordinated all of model school and Allison, our main Tech Trainer. We also cheered to Charles for his newly-created role a faux-pseudo-interim Science Tech Trainer, probably the only Trainee to ever fill a vacant PC Staff position. Unfortunately, Charles likes to go to bed rather early and, although we held the party at 6pm, he had already made his way back to Farside (although he claimed to be lesson planning). I only feel comfortable poking fun at him because he’s my roommate and I have been informed that his grandmother reads these blogs. Yeah, that just happened. After the toasts, a typical Peace Corps dance party started, which was continued in spirit at the bar. I really should say plural ‘bars’ because there were many stops involved. And there was much rejoicing.

During PST, we occasionally catch a lucky break and are given a choice in what we do. Ok, that may be a little unfair to the Peace Corps Training Staff, who are all excellent at their job. Sunday was one such day when we were given the opportunity to visit Nyungwe National Forest for some hiking. Nyungwe is a standing protected rainforest in southern Rwanda and contains one of the believed sources of the Nile River. Even though it is rather close to my school, I decided to go along with the group and visit the park so I could stretch my legs for once in 2 months.

From Nyanza, where we are housed for Training, we loaded onto buses and headed for Butare, the next city over. There, we met up with our Training Manager, Mup, for a short breakfast. By some random chance, I ended up in the back of the Peace Corps Landcruiser with the driver, Mup, and Chelsea (a fellow Trainee) when we left Butare to continue south to the Forest. The two hour ride down poorly-maintained roads would not have been so bad (and really wasn’t) save for the fact that the seats in the back of the PC Landcruisers face sideways instead of forward. For the first hour, it was pretty awesome to watch the landscape roll past in front of me. After that, it became a little nauseating to endure and Chelsea and I ended up attempting to not look out any windows while occupying our minds with German punk rock and Blue October.

At the park, we took a 3 hour canopy walk that circled around the main trailhead and info center. On the far edge of the trail, a suspended metal bridge had been erected that jutted out from the hillside. By the time we had arrived at the Canopy (as they call it) it had started to rain. Imagine that. Rain in a rainforest. Only 8 of us were allowed to accompany the guide at one time out onto the walkway for safety reasons, so the rest of us huddled under umbrellas and behind raincoats while the rain grew heavier. The first section of the Canopy takes you 45 meters away from the hillside to the first metal tower. From there, it is a 90 meter stroll on a steel gangplank about 10 inches wide, holding on to the side-ropes with both hands. We stopped about halfway along this section to enjoy the view while suspended about 200 foot or so above the forest floor. By the time we made it to the final tower and over the last short section to the hillside, it had begun to hail and lightning. It was then a quick strut back along a short trail to where the Canopy began followed by the return trip to the trailhead. About halfway back, the rain stopped and the clouds lifted enough for us to be able to see Lake Kivu to the West, a short but surprising distance away.

On the ride back to Burtare from Nyungwe Forest, we cracked the windows of the buses in a futile attempt at drying our clothes. After a further futile attempt at obtaining hamburgers in Butare for lunch, we settled for more traditional Rwandan food (‘pizza’ and brochettes) before zipping back to Nyanza at last.

This one is for Jed’s family. Yeah, I know you read this, too. For all of you who are scratching your heads right now, Jed is one of the Farsiders who lives in Inzu Amahirwe with me in Mugandamore, 3 miles from Nyanza City Centre. Charles ( yet another Farsider) and I were discussing codependency in the context of the Peace Corps Experience when Jed bursts into the room and begins to sing “No Air” by Jordan Sparks and Chris Brown (I’m told). Charles turns to me and says something to the extent of “Do we really need to be codependent with him too?” My response: “I keep Jed around for times just like this. See, Jed does his normal thing like bursting into a crappy song at the top of his lungs, which is in no way normal. But as long as Jed still seems insane, I know my own sanity is intact. It’s the moments that Jed starts making sense that we need to start getting concerned.”

-Don't Forget To Be Awesome


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Adventure Corps goes to Kigali

This past Saturday we had what Peace Corps calls a Banking Holiday. It essentially means that us Trainees are allowed to travel to Butare, the nearest large city to Nyanza, to access our walk-around allowance. This money is basically so we can buy food when it is not provided at the training center and other incidental expenses. However, instead of going to Butare, I found myself in a Peace Corps Landcruiser on my way to HQ in Kigali. I’ll explain.

Two of my fellow Trainees, Chelsea and Kim, had asked for my extensive expertise as a technical liaison (that bit is a little egotistical, I rescind it) and asked if I would accompany them to Kigali to help them buy computers on Wednesday. Our initial plan was to skip a teacher training session and take the time to zip into Kigali, get what they needed, and get back. I should note that we had cleared all of this with our Training Manager, Mup, just to cover ourselves.

On Saturday morning, just before breakfast, Mup came to the three of us and gave us the option to go to Kigali instead of Butare with some of the training staff, allowing us to not miss any training session, do our banking, and get our shopping done. He happily agreed and jumped in the back of the truck without much of a second thought.

Here’s the catch. In the Kigali HQ office, our credit cards and other important documents are kept in a safe to which only one person has the key. We were told that person would be at the office, despite the fact that the office is technically closed on Saturdays. She was not at the office. We had absolutely no way of accessing the safe and as such no way of buying computers for the ladies. I had no real need to access my things, although I was exploring the option of buying a guitar in Kigali, which required me to either spend almost all of the Rwandan Francs I had left or change some money (which is kept in the safe as well).

With no possible way of obtaining computers, the three of us decided we would still take advantage of being in Kigali for the day. Once the Peace Corps truck was ready to head back to Nyanza around noon, we had the driver run us around town for a bit. We tried to go to the bank to get some more money from our accounts, but found the line too long (not to mention that some sort of glitch had caused the walk-around allowance to never be transferred to our accounts). We then were dropped off at Nakumat, sometime referred to as the Umuzungu (Foreigner) Mart. There is a saying here that you can find anything in Kigali. Usually, you find it at Nakumat, although for a price. After being inundated by all the American products, eating the best bacon cheeseburger I’ve ever had, and buying a bottle of Teacher’s Scotch Whiskey (I thought the name to be a novel notion), we descended into the crowded shop-streets to get bus tickets back to Nyanza, find some igitenge (fabric used either as a waist wrap for women or to make clothing) and look into the possibility of getting a guitar. The igitenge was found along with the help of a woman from the United Arab Emirates who spoke more languages than I could count, but no such luck on the guitar.

When we returned to Nyanza, we found most of the Trainees staging a minor and mostly non-serious coup over not getting their walk-around allowance. This was carried out at one of the few bars in town and involved mostly alcohol and words, which we heavily slurred in reaction to the alcohol. During PST, we have a curfew of 10pm (don’t ask why, I’ve tried to come up with a very good reason and haven’t found one I think is acceptable). This means that if I am in Nyanza late at night, I have to start waking home to Farside by 9:15 at the latest because it takes me 40-45 minutes on foot. Problem: it was 9:15 and my food had not yet come.

In a unique moment of sheer responsibility, I called Valens, my house LCF, to inform him that I would not be home by curfew. He said it was no problem, but that I could consider staying in town at a different PST house. Preferring this over the 3 mile walk, I called Mup to further explore the notion. Mup gave me permission to crash at the house nearest to the bar. I politely informed him that I believed that to be a house of female Trainees. His response? Sleep in the living room. While the concrete floor wasn’t the most comfortable, it actually wasn’t much worse than the RwandaFoam mattresses and preferable to the walk back to Farside.

Having spent most of Saturday preoccupied, I had not gotten around to writing the short speech I had ‘volunteered’ to give during our visit to a Genocide Memorial on Sunday. This, coupled with not walking home Saturday night, found me at 6:30am in the living room of the girls house where I had crashed the night before attempting to write a serious speech. In addition, I somehow got put in charge of the 45 Trainees who decided to visit the memorial. Still not quite sure how…

Without going into too much detail, the memorial was optional for a reason. Over 50,000 Rwandans had been murdered at this site and some 800 bodies had been exhumed from mass graves and preserved with limestone. They were on display in the rooms in which they were killed. It was very difficult to handle; many of us could not finish the entire tour. Afterwards, I gave my short speech I had prepped a few hours prior:

“We have chosen to come here today in an attempt to further our understanding of such a significant event in Rwanda’s history. We had seen the photographs, heard the stories, and felt its impact on society. Now, we feel it is important to see for ourselves. This memorial has been preserved to remind Rwanda and the World of the need for unity and peace. Rwanda is a place of change. Rwanda is a place of forgiveness.  We pray for Rwanda. We pray for its people. We pray that together we can make a difference in this world. As educator, this is our all-encompassing focus during the two years we will be in Rwanda. The Unites States Peace Corps wishes to take part in the perpetual peace that Rwanda is striving towards. We as Trainees, and soon as Volunteers, are grateful for the opportunity to contribute during this special time in Rwanda’s history. We wish to thank the Memorial Authorities for having us today and I would also like to thank my fellow trainees for being here as well.”

I do need to give many props to Chelsea, who proofed the speech as I was writing it and didn’t hold back when she though one of my ideas was utter crap. After the memorial, we stopped off in Butare to get some lunch and ice cream before returning to Nyanza and to the normal grind of PST. One more weekend down. Only 5 day until the next one…

-Don't Forget To Be Awesome
Shawn Grund

Monday, December 13, 2010

What PST is all about

Over the past few weeks, I have been attempting to keep everybody informed as to what I’m doing here in Rwanda. Right now, I am in what is called Pre-Service Training (PST). During this time, I am called a Peace Corps Trainee. PST lasts for about 11 weeks (October 21- January 3) and takes place in Nyanza, Rwanda. At the end of PST I will travel to Kigali, the Capital City, for a swearing-in ceremony where I will take the oath that will officially make me a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Currently, there at 68 Trainees in my training group. While we are all Education Volunteers, some of us teach English, some Science, and some Mathematics. However, we are all teaching at the Secondary Level, which is called Senior Level. In Rwanda, there is a policy of 9 years of free education. This currently includes Primary 1-6 (the equivalent of grades 1-6 in the US) and Ordinary Senior Level (S1-S3, or the equivalent of grades 7-9 in the US). In addition to the free 9-year education, student can also go on to take Advanced Senior Level (S4-S6, or grades 10-12). The majority of us will be teaching Ordinary Senior Level, but I have so far been told that I will be teaching Mathematics on the Advanced Senior Level, more specifically S4 and S5. Back on the topic of PST…

 While the 68 of us are at PST, we attend classes for 10-12 hours per day at our Training Facility. We are sectioned into 11 separate houses, some with as few as two Trainees and some with as many as 11 Trainees. I live in a house with three other Trainees (Charles, Dylan, and Jed) and one Language and Cross-Culture Facilitator (LCF) named Valens. Our LCF’s are essentially our teachers during PST. They live with us, teach us the language, and show us how to integrate in the Rwandan Society. Each house group is given a house name; ours is Inzu Amahirwe (pronounced a-ma-he-gway), or House of Luck. We find this name to ironic in several ways, not the least of which is the fact that we are located three miles up the road from where we attend training. Luckily, there is another house of female Trainees just a few doors down from us. Because we are so far from the Training Facility, we have been dubbed (perhaps by ourselves) as the Farsiders.

After swearing in on January 3rd, I will be transported to my permanent site where I will be teaching for two full years. My site is in the Southern Province in a district called Nyaruguru. My school is a catholic boarding school with about 700 students in P1-P6 and S1-S5. When the 68 of us are placed at our sites, we will be scattered across the entire country, almost completely cut off from regular interaction with other PCV’s. I say almost because of two reasons. First of all, Rwanda is a very small country and once the 68 of us swear in, there will be nearly 160 volunteers serving here. Second, during my visit to my site two weeks ago I found out that there is a PCV from the original health group who is also living in my village. Even though she will be done with her service in March/April, there is a possible chance that a new Volunteer will replace her when she leaves.

This past week we started what the Peace Corps calls Model School. Essentially, Peace Corps invites about 500 Rwandan schoolchildren in S1 and S2 to attend classes led by the Trainees. This is designed for us Trainees to gain first-hand experience being in front of a class of about 50 students and practice our teaching. We learned very quickly that there is only so much we can gain from talking about teaching; you eventually have to just get up there and do it. We will all make mistakes. We will all have lesson plans that fail horrible. There will be derailments and train wrecks, some of which may be on fire. The point is that we as educators take a leaf out of our student’s book and LEARN. There is no better way to comprehend exactly the level of English you can use with Rwandan students until you get in front of a class and your word choice goes way over their head. It will, and has, happened to all of us trainees. But now we have learned from these experiences. We know that they speak quietly mostly because they are not confident with the language. We know that they know words like sublimation and microbiology but not words like anybody or convert.

I do have to apologize for the relative lack of information flowing your way from me in the last two weeks. We recently have had internet installed at our training center, but it cut out last week and we have been trying to work with MTN, the phone company in Rwanda that is providing us with the service, to get the proper parameters for the routers. If you think dealing with Tech Support sucks in the states, you should try either speaking through a French translator or with the very minimal (and very non-technical) Kinyarwanda that I know. Luckily, Peace Corps Rwanda has recently acquired a new Technician from Peace Corps Senegal. Even as I write this we are working to reconfigure our router and modem. And look at that, it works.