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, October 13, 2011

Shades of Gray

A while back (as I'm sure most of you will recall as it's come up
several times now), I wrote a blog entitled 'The Dark Side of Peace
Corps'. Admittedly, that blog was, well… dark. In reality, Peace Corps
Service isn't 'dark,' but neither is it 'light.'

One of the best word I feel could be applied to being a Volunteer
is 'ambiguous.' We come into a culture that we have almost no ties to,
that we have to attempt to understand and comprehend at the same time
as we try to learn a new language, develop technical skills,
rationalize our life choices, and generally stay sane. But let's be
honest, that last one is questionable.

My point here is that we are (quite literally) on our own. Yes, we
have Rwandan counterparts and co-workers. Yes, we have other
Volunteers. Yes, we have Peace Corps. There used to be a time when
Peace Corps literally dropped you off in a remote village with a
2-year supply of anti-malaria meds and a pat on the head (actually,
they still do this, but now they only give us a 3 month supply). While
Peace Corps does provide support, Volunteers are generally left to
their own devices when it comes to our projects (so long as we
actually try at our primary jobs). In the realm of other people, our
counterparts and coworkers are simply not equipped culturally to help
us define our roles here. Peace Corps usually gets invited into a
country to help facilitate behavior change and capacity building.
While it is possible that some Rwandans (like my Headmaster) will give
me project ideas, most of them either see themselves as not part of
the flaw in the system or see no way to fix the flaw, and therefor
simply do not worry about it. While we can have fun and work with our
co-workers, the improvement techniques usually need to come from the
Volunteers, rendering the Counterpart relatively useless in the realm
of determining our roles.

While other Volunteers have the capacity to understand us culturally,
they are also going through the same ambiguity. Of course, we share
our jackpot ideas and best practices. And yes, this can and usually
does help us to define our role in our community. However, every
Volunteer, every community, every village, every school, every
hospital, and every Peace Corps experience is different. Just because
my school wants me to build a recording study (sidenote: telling
students who live in a country literally obsessed with Justin Bieber,
pop music, and AutoTune that you used to help produce music is a
horrible idea) doesn't mean it would be a good/applicable idea for
another volunteers. Just because one Volunteer is asked to only teach
8 hours per week doesn't mean we all will. Just because I have to deal
with one cultural burden doesn't mean that another has to.
Some days you find yourself accompanied on your 45 minute walk to the
market by a gaggle (I believe that's the appropriate term) of school
children who speak Kinyarwanda you can actually understand. Other days
you find yourself crammed into a mini bus with 20 drunk people, none
of whom speak English and all of whom are curious as to how your hair
feels, if your skin will rub off, why your teeth are so straight, or
why you do not seem to understand the difference between 'gusura' and
'gusuura' (they're actually spelled the same, just with different
lengths of the second 'U'). Some days your students are rays of
sunshine; answering your questions, doing their work, passing their
exams. Other days you find out your neighbor was never married. The
father of her only child, who didn't die in the War (as you expected)
but was actually a local officials and she, in her words not mine,
"was required to sleep with him.' Some days, this country, these
experiences, make you feel like the world is coming together, that we
finally have hope, that you are being productive. Then some days the
experiences make you want to hurl. To curl up in a ball and just...
let it all go. To fight back. But this is the Peace Corps. We all
signed up for this knowing it would be the furthest thing from easy
we'd ever done or been through. Some days you're the dog...

These are the physical ambiguities. If you ask Peace Corps what we
should be doing, they will simply stare at your, puzzled, and ask what
we see as potential projects in your communities. And perhaps
rightfully so. After all, we are the ones who live here. We are the
ones who eat, play, live, work, and drink with these people. We are
the ones who will have to do the projects and have the talents. It
isn't the Peace Corps Office that is making changes in this country,
it's the Volunteers.

The problem most of us run into is that we are relatively
inexperienced. I had never taught a class before. I had never led
training sessions on SMART objectives. I've never built a computer lab
or written a textbook. But here, we are called to do these things. I
fell it's a little absurd that we're sent here to 'build capacity' in
the education sector when we can barely teach ourselves. That
withstanding, I think it breaks down to culture on issues like this.
I'm not a licensed teacher. I don't have a degree or a Ph.D. in this.
Damn near the only training I do have is 16 years in Western schools.
But it more so boils down to how we see things. It never occurs to my
teachers that lesson plans can be re-used. Or to relate your new
material to something that the students have already learned (or,
ideally, are currently leaning or just have learned). In that realm,
maybe I have a leg up on my co-workers. Not because our way of
education is better, but because Rwandan education is trying so hard
to be western and I have that down pat.

Everything is ambiguous. If you ever find yourself in Rwanda and wish
to test this, just try to get a straight answer out of a Rwandan. It's
not that they won't tell you definitively, it's that you can ask 10
different people and get 10 different answers when they really should
all be on the same page. For instance, I asked around to find out when
exam week would starts. My Headmaster says October 17th. The Dean of
Studies says the 10th. My Counterpart, Anatole, says somewhere in the
middle. When I point out the discrepancy to the Dean of Studies, he
rescinds and says the Headmaster must be right. When I say something
to the Headmaster, he says the Dean of Studies must be right. I've
just decided that no one actually knows. But of course, as figures of
authority, they MUST know the correct answer to every question I pose.

On top of all this, there is a general emotional ambiguity. I could
talk and talk about how we have emotion swings strong enough to rival
McGuire and Sosa, but I think I already did that once. We know we have
ups and downs. However, one thing that perhaps isn't obvious is what
happens when you couple this with serving in a post-conflict country.
How am I supposed to feel about Rwanda, the government, and its people
when my best Rwandan friend says he cannot finish University because
of the 'ethnicity' of his father? Or how he describes to me the day
they came and 'cut down' his cousins because of whom their father was
(the 'they' he is referring to is the INTERAHAMWE, which is
Kinyarwanda for 'those who fight/work/kill together' and was the main
militia force used during the Genocide). How am I supposed to feel
about this? How are we supposed to reason that away and do our jobs
when our Counterparts have been trying to do this for 17 years and
still face the difficulties of it every day? I've been in the country
for a year and am still reduced to tears when I walk through my
church, running my hands over the bullet holes in the brick left over
from a 4 day, 3,000 person massacre.

Yet every day I see the hope in the eyes of my students. I asked one
of my Senior 4 students (about 10th grade) why he decided to continue
school. You should remember here that Rwanda is currently a 9-year
basic education system, meaning that Senior 4, 5, and 6 are not
considered 'basic' and therefor rather expensive to attend. He told me
that he knew he will be nothing even if he finishes Senior 6, but he
would be even less if he stopped at Senior 3. What drove him, he said,
is the simple hope that he will find something, anything, to support
him and his family. And he will not stop learning until he is on top
or out of money. Unfortunately, the latter is much, much more common.

My emotional connection to this country, culture, and these people is
torn. On one hand, I see them smile through adversity, I see them take
what they're given and be happy with it. I see them deal with
corruption, discrimination, ageism, and sexism and still proclaim that
they are proud to be Rwandan. And then I remember what happened. What
still happens. I remember what happened the last time a large group of
Rwandans unified and declared that they were proud of who they were.
How in the world can a people come back from a million-person
massacre? How can they trust their leaders when the last ones twisted
and distorted one group into systematically destroying another out of
pure hatred? How do they rationalize these emotions? How to they carry
their grief, doubt, shame, honor? How? How? How?

I tell my students that I love Rwanda. That I came here because I love
the people and want to help. I can never explain the pure bewilderment
in the eyes when I tell them this. It's almost like many Rwandans are
ashamed to be Rwandan. Give them an opportunity to leave and live
somewhere outside Rwandan and they'd be gone. Don't get me wrong,
there's nothing wrong with going to the States or to Europe if your
Rwandan, and I would definitely encourage any of my students to get to
the best University they can get into regardless of where it is. What
bothers me is Rwandans who 'jump ship.' This is your country and you
should be proud of what you are, especially considering where the
country was 17 years ago. Rwanda has made remarkable strides in
thrusting itself into the world community despite the War, despite
it's overwhelming lack of resources, despite the general lack of
education options, despite the poverty levels. Kigali and Rwanda were
once compared to Mogadishu and Somalia. No one who has ever been to
either would make that comparison now.

Things are not black and white in Peace Corps. Nor are they in Rwanda.
The ambiguity, the open-endedness, the flip flopping and the back and
forth can easily destroy any semblance of consistency and normality we
are used to in American life. Yes, on the surface everything seems
clear-cut, straight-forward, and obvious. And then you start trying to
learn Kinyarwanda….

But the ambiguity, the duality, and often monotony of it all is well
worth it. We are not here to feel good about ourselves. Trust me when
I say there are much better ways to do that then join Peace Corps. No,
we are not here for us (as much as we actually are in the end). Our
time here is about moving forward. America and the West do not need
people like me just yet. The most productive I can be in the States is
to help get burgers to your plate faster (that's mostly a joke). But
Rwandan can really benefit from us. Not only can we bring our
educations, but we can start to condition Rwandans to see America and
the West for what it really is. America is not its military force. It
is not the democratic foundation or its politicians. Believe it or
not, America is not Barack Obama or 'Yes We Can.' America is its
people; you and I. Furthermore, America is and will be its Youth. If
the only thing I show these kids, these students, is that I am just
like them, then we all win.

I'll leave you with this quote that was in the Peace Corps/Rwanda
Volunteer newsletter that I think is pretty fitting for this post.
"Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing
opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new
structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit
must go on.'
-President John F. Kennedy, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, 1963


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Re: Blow-Your-Mind Delicious (or How I Ended Up in South Africa Part II)

After rolling across near-all of South Africa for 28 hours on a train,
I was as ready as ever to get off and get my real vacation started. I
held on to the rail as the train slowed and watched the other tracks
converge together as we approached Cape Town Station. The train had
barely stopped before I jumped down and made my way out of the
station. I was headed towards Long Street and the rest of my Peace
Corps vacation buddies.

But I had done my homework. I knew that Long Street was 4 block west
of the train station. I also knew that there was a Subway Restaurant
two blocks off Long Street just passed the hostel. Yeah, that

After getting my fill of Americana for the first time in nearly 10
months, I turned back and found Two Oceans Backpackers, where we would
be staying while in Cape Town. To my dismay, the rest of the crew were
not there (remember, their flight landed at about 9am in Cape Town)
but the receptionist informed me that they had come and gone and
hadn't said when they would return. I told her I was the last member
of their group and she showed me into the room.

Two Oceans is a pretty awesome place. Set above a small furniture
store, we had a fully-stocked kitchen and laundry room (which was in
the kitchen, how… European), a flat-screen TV with more channels than
Aaron and I could surf through in 10 days (we tried), a pool table,
hot showers, and a balcony overlooking the best and worst of Long

I tried to call Aaron using MTN (the cell provider in Rwanda who is
also a major provider in South Africa and, in fact, most countries in
Africa) and managed to eat through a few thousand francs on several
failed attempts. With nothing left to do but wait, I tapped into the
hostels wireless internet (oops, did I forget to mention they had
that, too?) and checked my email. While on Gmail, I noticed that
Danielle, one of Rwanda's resident Fulbright Scholars, was online. In
a moment of sheer brilliance (mostly on her part), she was able to use
the MTN Rwanda services to send me some phone credit while I looked up
on Google how to dial internationally from inside South Africa (which
is actually really tricky). With some more money and a plan, I was
finally able to get ahold of Deanne who, as it turns out, had just
sent Markey and Kerry into the hostel to find me. She remarked that
they were all just down the street 'with Emma and the car.' Wait,

As it turns out, we knew a South African. Something like Matt's
brother had studied in South Africa and had had a local Teaching
Assistant of sorts. The whole connection was kinda lost on me. But
also as it turns out, Emma (our new friend) had a car. I grabbed my
jacket and booked it down the staircase while a guy on the hostel's
couch remarked offhandedly about two girls coming to look for me.
Outside, I spotted Markey and Kerry and caught up with them at 'the

The car was admittedly not very big. I peered inside and said hi to
Emma in the front and Aaron and Matt in the back, who were soon
scrunched in by Kerry and Markey. I climbed in the front and we took
off in search of a place to eat. It was several stoplights (what an
invention!) later before I realized something was amiss.
"Wait," I said, counting the people in the small car. "Where's
Deanne?" Aaron let out a laugh and Emma just grinned.
"Back here!" came Deanne's muffled reply. She was in the trunk.

We arrived at a local Mexican restaurant and, after letting Deanne out
of the trunk, headed inside. The place was filled with locals from the
nearby University. But these locals were also white, so as long as we
kept our mouths shut or didn't speak too loud, they'd never know.

Now, something peculiar happened as we sat down to order (maybe not
too peculiar, but a little out there for me). See, in Rwanda, I had
decided that I didn't like how I didn't like a lot of foods,
especially ones I had never tried. I had already vowed to challenge
these unknowns, but the variety of food in Rwanda is rather limited.
However, not so in South Africa. I had in front of me the perfect
opportunity to challenge my blind taste perceptions with 'exotic'
food. I don't remember exactly what I ordered that night, which might
be due to the two giant pitchers of margaritas we sucked down prior to
eating as a group, but I do remember that it was good.

With our livers on duty and our stomachs overly full, Emma drove us
back to Long Street and the hostel, where most of us were content to
simply crash and watch TV. Matt, however, had been in contact with
another local South African who had promised to take him out for a
drink. Not wanting to go alone, he invited the rest of the group. They
all had, however, just rediscovered Sports Center (something I had
done earlier that day) and were pretty complacent. So Matt and I
headed back down out onto Long Street and met up with our new new
friend (who also had two American study abroad students with him).
Side note, apparently it's legal to park on the corner of two streets
on the side walk cap in South Africa. Yeah, we did that. (As it turns
out, this isn't legal; it's just that no one pays traffic tickets in
South Africa.)

Our new new friend led us back onto Long Street were we walked into a
random building and got into the elevator (another great invention!).
At this point, Matt and I were both wondering what we'd agreed to when
the elevator opened and we found ourselves inside another hostel. We
walked down the hostel's hallways, through the kitchen and then
through an emergency exit door and up a flight of stairs. Our doubts
started to creep back in until we walked through the door at the top
of the stairs and found ourselves on the roof, where a quaint and
beautiful open-air bar was set up. College students shot pool, others
played foosball, and the beer was decently priced at 12 Rand (about
$1.75). Save for being on a roof overlooking the southern cape of
Africa, it was just like being back in the States (this is going to be
a reoccurring theme of the vacation).

We arrived at the Rooftop Bar (I have no idea what the real name of
the bar was [which will be another reoccurring theme of the vacation])
at about 10pm and were already feeling the margaritas from the Mexican
place (which I want to say was named Harry's). A few beers, games of
pool, and a foosball tournament later, Matt and I decided it might be
a good idea to call it and head back to Two Oceans. We checked our
watches. It was almost 1am. And that's Day 1.

Day two was one of our few days with absolutely nothing planned or
scheduled. Aaron and Deanne snuck away from the group for a day to
have a getaway in Simon's Town on False Bay, so Matt, Kerry, Markey,
and I awoke a little late (Matt and I more than the others) and met
Emma who drove us down the coast to a breakfast place that she loved.
After breakfast, our on-the-spot plan was going to be to try to climb
Table Mountain, but Emma convinced us to take advantage of her day off
and let her tour us around. We agreed without much hesitation (having
a car opens up so much more of Cape Town).

After breakfast, Emma drove across the cape towards False Bay. We
turned off the main road and ended up on the side of a decent sized
hill with awe-inspiring views of mountains on three sides and massive
False Bay on the other. Continuing on, we visited a winery where Emma
used to work and tasted some wine (there's just something about
drinking wine at noon…) before heading into Muizenburg.

Muizenburg is one of the premier surfing spots in Cape Town and, even
though it was 'winter' and therefore a little cold (but nothing like a
good Minnesotan winter), was rather active. We swung into Knead, a
restaurant well-known for its bread and pizza and had even more great
food. Sorry, nothing too 'exotic' at this meal. Emma had some work to
so she dropped us back off at Long Street. After a swing-in to the
hostel while the sun set, we headed out for a Long Street pub crawl.

We started out at the Dubliner, an obviously-themed Irish pub with
nightly live music. The music that night, however, was a not-so-decent
set of 90's covers. We finished our Guinness' quickly and ducked out
to avoid going insane. Too bad; we had heard great things about the
Dubliner although it wasn't our last experience with it. The Dubliner
having been our only real recommendation, we resided to walking down
Long Street until we found a place that looked intriguing. 3 blocks
later we spotted what appeared to be a rather fancy Italian place
where the tables were all set in a front yard of sorts under massive
oak trees. What better place to laugh and drink?

Pleased with the atmosphere and the humorous waiter, we asked him
where we should go next for drinks. He recommended another place just
a few more blocks up Long Street that also had good drinks (it was
also coincidentally owned by the same company). Cool Atmosphere Place
#2 was cool for completely different reasons and it was difficult to
see how both restaurant s could be owned by the same group. CAP #2
(the whole Peace Corps acronym things is rubbing off, I guess) was
almost like a scene strait out of Moulin Rouge. The wait staff were
all in vaguely Bohemian dress, all of the inside tables had rope
swings instead of chairs, the outside was stucco-white with brown wood
trim and growing vines. Another round of drinks later, in which Kerry
was convinced there was no gin in hers and the bartender congratulated
her on her ability to take alcohol because he swore he put more than
usual in it, we were on our way back down Long Street to investigate
some places we passed up.

Next up was a random bar that offered R10 (that means 10 Rand) vodka
shots of questionable quality. We ducked in for a minute for the
novelty of the literally hundreds of kinds of horrible vodka. That
place is mostly memorable partially because of their tip jar. It was
hung from a rope behind the bar by about 6 feet with a sign taped to
it that claimed that anyone who could throw a R2 coin into it would
get a free shot. What we didn't know what that as soon as Markey was
getting ready to toss the coin I gave her, the bartender reached up
and swung the bucket in quick circles. Markey still took her shot and
sunk it on the first try. And we'd already been drinking for several

After the novelty wore off, the general consensus was food. We
remembered a place we'd past up earlier that wasn't too far from our
hostel; Pickwick's. We walked in and, even at midnight, had trouble
finding a place to sit. Finally snagging a picnic table on the
upstairs balcony, we asked the waitress if they still served food,
which was apparently a stupid question because 'everybody knows
Pickwick's serves food until 4:30am.' I am not making that up.

Pickwicks was also our first encounter with spiked milkshakes. That's
right, milkshakes with alcohol in them. After a massive burger (I
PROMISE we'll get to the interesting food soon) and a Jack Daniels
shake that didn't taste like alcohol at all, we were ready to crash.
Good thing the hostel was only 2 block away. No TV this night.
Straight to bed.

Day 3 Matt and I concocted a new plan. Seeing as we canceled the
previous day's plans to summit Table Mountain, we decided today was
the day. Matt and I set out just before 6 with crude directions from
Emma as to how to get to the trails that would take us up. Our
original plan was to hike up the mountain, revel at the top, then take
the cable car back down midday. Admittedly, we had no idea what we
were doing.

Our first attempt at getting to the Mountain was met with the locals
laughing at how we were in the wrong part of town. We quickly
regrouped, asked for clarification, and walked back past the hostel
and to the train station, where we caught a 15 minute train to the
opposite side of the Mountain and started walking towards the summit.
The trail (at least what we were convinced was the trail) switched
back and forth across this side of the Mountain before turning strait
up and heading into a place I swear was called 'Dead Man's Ravine.' I
had experienced nothing like the steepness of this ravine since being
in Scotland…

Finally dragging ourselves onto level ground, we found ourselves in
The Devil's Saddle. Aptly named, if you ask me. We had another
climbing council and decided we could still make it up to the actual
top of Table Mountain and to the cable car (which we could now see for
the first time) and back down in time to keep our original meet-time
with the girls. We set out to the south and began climbing towards the
actual Table Mountain, which from the Devil's Saddle requires class 3
scrambling (hands and feet most of the way). 45 minutes later, Matt
and I stopped before a 100 meter cheer cliff wall. As it turns out,
it's almost impossible to climb from the Devil's Saddle to Table
Mountain. With the summit taunting us the whole way, we escaped back
down into the Saddle, off the south side of the Mountain, and strolled
back into Cape Town.

We met Markey and Kerry at the train station and hopped on a train to
Simon's Town, where we were meeting Aaron and Deanne. An hour later,
we all met up at a decent restaurant in Simon's Town for lunch. Given
that Matt and I had just tried to summit Table Mountain (even though
we failed) and they only had one line fish special left (which Aaron
claimed dibbs on), we both opted for a two-burger special. 2 bottles
of wine for the table later (which included a bottle of Goats Do Roam,
a play on words with the famous French wine ________) and we were all
pretty happy.

Finally, the day's main event: Penguins. Yes there are penguins in
South Africa. I forget exactly what kind of penguins they were, but
I'm pretty sure they're the only penguins indigenous to a place that
is a block of ice. They inhabit a protected beach about half a mile
south of town which allows tourists and penguin enthusiasts alike to
observe them via boardwalks set a few feet above the sand. The park
staff warned us that these penguins will bite you if you get too
close, something the group ahead of us didn't listen to. After seeing
that, I really had no desire to attempt to pet a penguin.

Up next we had a dilemma. The last train back to Cape Town left at 7pm
and it was already 4:30. We were all really excited for seafood dinner
in Simon's Town, but knew we would never make the train. Aaron came
through in the end and called a local driver (who was supposed to take
Deanne and him fishing the previous day if it weren't for the high
winds) who agreed to drive us back later.

With that set we headed to a place nicknamed 'The Naked Chef.' To our
initial dismay, the Naked Chef wasn't working that night (although as
it turns out he just cooks shirtless), but we were assured his
full-clothed son was just as good of a cook. As we waited for our food
to come, we notice a bakery across the street, where most of us
discovered donuts and assorted pastries for the first time since

Dinner that night got a little… filling. Now, I've never really been a
seafood person (at least not beyond fish and shrimp poppers) but
tonight was MY night. After perusing the menu, Aaron and I decided to
order together: one kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of ribs and one kilo
(again 2.2 pounds) of Prawns. Now, if you're like me, you have no idea
exactly what prawns are. Think of them as oversized shrimp. Or if
you've ever seen 'District 9' (where the aliens are nicknamed 'Prawns'
due to their facial resemblance to the food), my plate reminded me of
the scene where they open the mothership and all of the aliens are
lying about starving to death. Not the best way to start a meal. Also
up for consumptions was a small portion of calamari (I have no idea if
that how you spell it or not). I wasn't the biggest fan mostly due to
its rubbery texture, but Kerry assured me that good calamari doesn't
taste nearly as rubbery.

Luckily, you don't normally eat the heads which were visually the most
obnoxious part. Aaron showed me how to crack open the shell and
removed the head and tail. I do have to admit, the prawns were pretty
good. The waitress quickly came over and showed us how to remove the
heads in such a way that all of the brain-juice stayed inside, which
she insisted was the best part. Hesitant to believe her, Aaron and I
tried it. Aaron was a much bigger fan of the prawn brain juice than I
was. Can't win 'em all…

The ribs were admittedly nothing 'exotic' to me but were still pretty
damn good. Like falling off the bone good. With over 4 and a half
pounds of food (not including the salads and fries), Aaron and I were
doing pretty good when he dropped to help Deanne finish her food. He
came back, though, to help me top them off which was good because my
stomach was about to burst…

Day 4 brought us east of Cape Town to what we'd all be waiting for:
shark diving. Our diving company's van picked up in at Two Oceans
ridiculously early in the morning and shuttled out about 2 hours east
to Gaasbei (that's not how you spell that, I'm sure). As we pulled
into the parking lot, the driver (and later on our Dive Master)
pointed out the boat we'd be taking out in a little bit. Aaron
careened his neck to be able to see it out the window and just shook
his head. "We're going to need a bigger boat."

3 waivers and $247 later, we boarded the boat and chopped our way away
from shore. The tour company had had a group out previous and let the
cage tied to a buoy. This had the added effect of having sharks
already lingering around the cage for us. When we arrived, the crew
strapped the small cage to the boat and began to chum the water while
we donned wetsuits and facemasks.

The cage was wide enough for about 5 people shoulder-to-shoulder and
left just enough room for you to almost be able to fully extend your
arms. Once inside the cage, the crew slipped a weighed sash over our
shoulder that was desgined to lower us a few extra inched below the
surface once we let go of the hang-on bar. We had no SCUBA devices, no
snorkels, no breathing apparatuses at all. When a shark passed by the
cage (lured by the bait the crew would throw out and then pull back in
at the last minute), the Dive Master would yell 'DOWN!' and we'd all
let go of the hang-on bar. While visibility was really good above the
water, once you were submerged it dwindled to about 4 and a half feet.
We'd usually get under the water just in time to lose sight of the 17
foot Great White Shark, only to have it instantly appear in front of
our faces and turn to swim alongside the boat, wondering where the
tuna heads had gone.

We were told not to be afraid of the sharks. First of all because
sharks generally know that humans have alotta bones and not much
energy-rich meat. Also because, while they were capable of detecting
us moving inside the cage, they overwhelming sense of the cage's metal
was more prevelant to them than our form. They know what a boat is and
know it isn't alive. They then associate the big metal thing with
moving parts as a part of the boat, and therefore not alive. This
sounds great until you are quite literally staring one of these things
in the face. On top of that, these massive sharks we were seeing (we
had 7 total) were mere adolescents. They are curious about the boat
and merely intrigued by the bait (they know dead fish don't provide
much energy), which is why they come to the surface. Their wiser and
older (and much bigger) friends stay beneath the surface where the
prey is better.

After getting our fill of the sharks and fighting our way through
4-meter high swells, we made it back to land, dried off, and were
shuttled back towards Cape Town. On the way, we stopped at another
small bay to try to spot a few whales. We could see them in the water,
but they were far enough out that we wouldn't have been able to tell
what they were had the drive/dive master/tour guide not told us what
they were.

That night we went out for dinner at a burger joint as a group. Aaron
and Matt sampled some of the local beers while the rest of us opted
for more spiked milkshakes. First up was a Jack Daniels with Peanut
Butter. I almost died. Most of us got burgers that night, and while my
lamb burger was pretty spectacular, Aaron took the cake with the Fat
Bastard. I can't remember what was all in there, I just remember there
being 4 different kinds of meat and being surprised that Aaron didn't
have a heart attack then and there. But I think I took the dessert
cake (hehe…) with my milkshake concoction of Oreo, chocolate brownie,
and Kahlua. For the win.

Day 5 brought us once again out of Cape Town and into the Stellenbosch
wine region to the north where we had arranged no less than 4 wine
tours. Throughout the day, we dried more wines (and cheeses, too!)
than I think I have ever seen in my life. I still would never claim to
be an expert on wine, which is why I really cannot go into specifics.
We were treated to a steak lunch by our awesome tour guide between the
third and fourth vineyards. By the time we piled back into the van to
return to Cape Town, we each must have had a solid 8 glasses of wine.
It was then that Aaron busted the road wine…

Day 6 was supposed to be one of our relaxation and no-planning days in
Cape Town. Unfortunalty, it was alos our last day in Cape Town. Emma
returned to take us to this amazing food festival. If you're ever in
Cape Town, I would highly recommend it. Although I cannot remember its

We arrived early morning and feasted on waffles, truffles, oysters,
cheese steaks, pizzas, beer, chocolate liquor out of tiny chocolate
cups, and many other fantastical things I cannot remember. At one
point, I couldn't find any of the others and sat down with a massive
chocolate and cream Oreo-esk puff ball to wait it out. Just as I
finished it, I noticed a wine shop offering free wine tastings and
talks with the Wine Master. I knew then and there I had found Aaron
even before I walked in.

We headed back towards town, where the girls decided to do some
last-minute shopping before dinner that night. Us guys headed to an
Irish pub (let's call it O'Malley's) to drink expensive whiskey none
of us could pronounce the name of and watch the end of a cricket
match. That as my second time watching Cricket (the first in Scotland
for a full 4-hour game) and I must say I still have no idea what the
hell was going on. We waited around a little bit for the rugby match
to start (South Africa was playing to qualify for the world
tournament). Rugby is one of the most brutal yet awesome sports I have
ever seen and I have to say Aaron and Matt and I really got into it
towards the end.

For the main event, we all went to one of Cape Town's well know sushi
restaurants. Yes, you read that correctly. We went for sushi. And I
ate sushi. With chop sticks. I have pictures to prove it. Later that
night we had heard that Pickwicks would be having karaoke. We decide
it would be cool to go as a group, drink some more spike milk shakes,
and sing a few songs. Matt was the only one brave enough to sing…

In the morning, the rest of the group scrambled out of bed early to
catch their plane to Johannesburg, where they would spend the day. I,
on the other hand, had another date with a train. As I found out on my
return trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg, me initial trip was rather
lucky; we were only 20 minutes late.

At about 3 in the morning, I was awoken for the most peculiar reason;
the train was NOT tossing me from side to side. Peering out the
window, I could see we were in the middle of nowhere, stopped. For 8

We would find out later that a section of the track was without
electricity, meaning our fancy new electric engine couldn't carry us
across it. So we had to sit and wait for a diesel engine to work its
way down the line, grab us, and tow us across the dead section. It was
an interesting show to watch the European man in the cabin with me
freak out on the train manager (who had slept through 'the incident').
Because of the delay, we pulled into Park Station in downtown
Johannesburg at 9:30pm instead of the schedule 1:48pm. Not sure why
they bother being so precise if the trains are always late…

The group had stayed with Bash (a friend ofEmma's) and her parents the
night before and had to be at the airport for a 1am flight. Unsure if
I really wanted to hang out in the airport for 12 hours until my
flight, I caught a taxi to the 'burbs were Bash lived and met up with
the group for an amazing dinner (including more South African Wine).
After dropping the others off at the airport, I had a full-sized bed
that was HEATED. Yeah.

in the morning, Bash had to duck out early, so her mother forced me to
eat some breakfast and drove me to the metro station, where I was able
to catch a downtown train to the airport, board my plane, and return
to Rwanda. But not after 8 hours in the air and 6 hours in various

And that's How I Ended up in South Africa.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Spur in the Moment (or How I ended up in South Africa, Pt 1)

Let's Tarentino this thing: I'm writing this from inside the airport in Nairobi, Kenya on my way to Cape Town, South Africa. Hook, Line and Sinker…


The whole story starts with a meeting, as all good stories should. In Peace Corps, we have what we call a Volunteer Advisory Committee, or a VAC (there's the Peace Corps acronym thing again). Essentially, the VAC's job is to facilitate communication between Peace Corps Staff and the Volunteers on the ground. Volunteers in Rwanda are broken up into 10 regions based around our Emergency Action Plan's consolidation points (where we go in case of a natural disaster, civil unrest, or when Peace Corps staff runs out of things to do and decided to run a drill). We have regional meeting every month or two, and we choose a VAC Representative to represent the Volunteers of their region. My consolidation point is Huye; the largest region at 20 Volunteers. Last month, I became the VAC Rep for the Huye region (This is going somewhere, I promise).

The VAC gets together once a quarter for a day-long meeting to discuss the issues raised by the Volunteers. It was for this reason that I found myself in Kigali last Thursday, eating amazing pasta salad and drinking beer at our Country Director's house. Too fast? Let me slow down a bit.

Our meeting was set to start at 9:30am on Thursday, and since I am about 4 hours from Kigali (on a good day), I got permission to come into Kigali on Wednesday afternoon. Chelsea parents were on vacation visiting her here, so I dropped by Nyamagabe (where Chelsea's new school is) on Tuesday to hang with them for a while before they headed off on their safaris. Wednesday afternoon they dropped me back in Butare after touring a few museums and I caught a bus to Kigali and the glory of a hot shower and couches. Thursday morning the 10 VAC Reps and the 3 Interim Representatives met at Mary's (our Country Director) house. We were warned that the meeting would be long but I don't think any of us were prepared for what that really meant. 10 hours, 2 meals, and 2 rounds of beer later, we wrapped the meeting up and headed back to the Office for a just-as-long nap.

Friday morning I was supposed to go home, but I got roped into staying another night to help with a secondary project (read: begged them to add me to their list so I could have just one more hot shower). Friday afternoon several of use went out to Sol Le Luna, an amazing Italian place with the best pizza in Rwanda (also pretty close to the most expensive) before regrouping with the mass of PCVs and heading to Papyrus, a nightclub not too far from the office. You remember Papyrus? The last Tale about the 15,900 tab and why Chelsea had to buy me a tequila shot. We didn't arrive at Papyrus until near 11, but the party had just barely started. If you thought I was going to divulge was happens with 25 PCVs and alcohol are mixed with late nights and auto-tuned music, think again. We finally tuckered-out around 3 and caught taxis back to the office. Most of the Volunteers had to be up for the meeting at 8, but not I.

While the now 30 or 40 so Volunteers sat upstairs in a conference room, I sat downstairs and watched half a season of How I Met Your Mother. Productive afternoon. Saturday night I ended up downtown with several other Volunteers, where we hung out a juice bar (not that kind of juice bar). Rumor was Kitoko, one of the more well-known Rwandan musician who sings a song called 'Bella' (look it up!) would be at a small dive in downtown Kigali to play a show at about 9pm, so we decided to hang around town until then and try to catch the show. While at the juice bar, I got roped into actually participating in the secondary project I had used as a cover to stay another day (they're doing English training for Judges and are wanting to launch an online component…) by Ellie.

Now, here's where things start to turn South (literally, not in a metaphorically bad way). The following Friday (the 5th of August) I was supposed to head to Uganda for a friend's wedding. Actually, that friend is Steve-Charles, my roommate during training and fellow farsider. The problem is, Peace Corps really didn't want him to go through with the wedding (although this was only the ceremonial wedding, no legality involved) mainly because of visa reasons. I was discussing this with Aaron (one of the Married Men (his wife is Deanne, you'll meet her later)) who is on the VAC as well. He kind of looked at me strange and asked me to recap the vacation plans. It was then that I saw his concern. During the VAC meeting, we had had a 2 hour discussion on exactly why we were not allowed to go to Kampala (the capital of Uganda), although my vacation would only take me as far north as Mbarara, a place we were allowed to go, I began to see several issues with my plan. Aaron checked himself and mentally stepped back

"I should stop talking before I talk you out of your vacation" he says. Deanne, his wife, nods in agreement and chuckles. In a split decision, I acted rashly (or geniusly, depending on how which side of South Africa you look at it) (Sidenote: I guess 'geniusly' is not a word. Guess it's a good thing I don't teach English). I press Aaron to continue; I really wanted to know what he thought.

"Let me tell you why this is the worst idea you've ever had" he leans forward and begins to tick off on his fingers. "You want to go to a place Peace Corps doesn't really want you to go..." One. " a wedding Peace Corps doesn't want to happen…" Two. "…with your ex-girlfriend." Three. He leans back a folds his hand, his face an equal blend and concern.

"When you put it like that…" I think.

"You should just come to South Africa with us, we leave next Sunday." I scoff.

"There's no way Mary will approve that. International travel halfway across Africa with a six day notice?" Deanne smiles and Aaron retorts with a bet that I can. "Mary loves you."

"Tell you what," I sit back and think it over. "I'll call Mary tomorrow and ask to move my vacation. If she approves it and I can find a decent plane ticket, I'm in.


And that was that. In the morning I called Mary, who, to my utmost surprise, approved the changes with no hesitation. All that was left was to get a plane ticket. I hung out at the office until Monday morning when I could get access to my credit cards from the safe and hit up the travel agents downtown to find a decent ticket.  With a ticket booked (but not yet paid for), I had to head back to Cyahinda. I'd already been in Kigali for six days and desperately needed some alone-time. Its amazing how quickly that kind of things become normal.


On Thursday (we're up to August 4th now), I had to head back to Kigali to work on a new secondary project with Keira. About 2 months ago I had a 'great' idea (it was really more like a frustration). IN order to teach my ICT classes, I have to reference 8 different textbooks all with varying levels of correct-ness and ease of use. I decided then and there that I was going to do something about that. Not by trying to find a better textbook in Kigali, but by writing one myself.


The next thought through my head was just how much work such a thing was probably going to be. I probably should have been discouraged, but instead I called Keira, who also teaches ICT, and asked her if she was interested in helping. She agreed it was a 'great' idea and that we should begin immediately. Two months later, we had the basic foundation and permission to start our work on Project SABRE. The name has a little bit of back-story. When we were discussing what exactly we wanted to do, Keira and I simply referred to it as 'the resource.' This got a little dull after a while and we began brainstorming new names, which turned out to be on the same level of difficulty as writing a textbook. Therefore, I codename for the time being is Project SABRE, where SABRE stands for Super Awesome But Really Exhausting.


So Keira and I met in Kigali and Friday and Saturday to nail down more specific formats for writing this thing and a general timeline to accomplish our work (we also REALLY wanted more hot showers). Needless to say, after two days of that I was ready for a 10-day vacation for sure. So with my bags all packed and goodbyes and jealous stares in order, I left for the airport at midnight on Sunday for my 3AM flight.


Now, because I tacked onto this trip a little later than the others (which included the Aaron and Deanne, Matt, Kerry, and Markey), my travel was a little different than theirs. While they were flying out Sunday afternoon and flying all the way to Cape Town, I was not. The flight from Kigali first took me to Nairobi, Kenya, and then jumped to Johannesburg, South Africa. Once in OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg, I met up with a private car I had hired a few days previous to take me to Park Station, where a train was waiting to take me all the way across the country to Cape Town.


Little known fact: South Africa is larger than Texas and California combined. Therefore, my trainride took about 28 hours. While I had left Rwanda before the other, they beat me to Cape Town by about 4 hours on Monday. But I won the scenery-war. What's that? A whole flock of pink flamingoes? Check.


So that brings us up to Monday the 8th and we were in South Africa until the 15th. Don't think I'll derive you of all the amazing details; I just need a few more days. Look for Part 2 of this post in a few days…

Friday, June 3, 2011

Kigali Peace Marathon

A few Reminders:

1)   Although many of you receive these blogs from me via email, they are also being archived on the blog itself. It can be found at Look there for all past blogs (even going as far back as Scotland 2009!)

2)      Yes, my email changed. You can now reach me via email at this address ( by simply replying to this email (rest assured, it will only come to me and not everybody on the email list)

If you do wish to reply to what I say, you can email me directly (which will be private) or you can comment on the website (once again,, although this will be public.

4)      If you do NOT wish to reply to what I say… well, can't help you with that one.

Yes, I do maintain a Twitter account. It can be found @LivingInRwanda. I try to use it as a way to do daily updates on anything from what I'm doing to random thoughts to what it's like being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Essentially, it's a mini-blog.

I also maintain a Picasa Photo site. Check it out for photos from Training, my new house, Lake Kivu, and visits around Rwanda. It can be found at:

Over the weekend of May 21st and 22nd, Kigali put on the 7th annual Kigali Peace Marathon. Given that 2011 is the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps, our Country Director decided to support several runners in the marathon.

Now, I think it goes without saying that there was no way I was going to run 26 miles. I mean, let's be honest: I tried to train for the month leading up to this, but it really cut into my sleep time. Instead, I joined one of our 7 relay teams, meaning I was only responsible for a quarter of a marathon, around 6 and a half miles. Much more realistic…

The Marathon took place on Sunday, but Peace Corps brought us all (or told us to come via public transportation) to Kigali Saturday morning. Our Peace Corps office recently acquired an adjacent building and just finished remodeling it into new medical offices and a Case de Passage (that's French for… I really am not sure what; we just call it the Hostel). While the new med offices were still waiting on more beds for the infirmary and the Case had no mosquito nets, we were allowed to spend our nights in Kigali there.

The Case was designed to comfortably accommodate 30 volunteers at once, although given Peace Corps standards of comfort we could probably put 50+ volunteers there and had no complaints. I mean, there are decent mattresses, electricity, running water, couches, a DVD player and TV, porcelain toilets, showers (WITH HOT WATER), and a kitchen with a stove, oven, and refrigerator (although we still have to make our own food). Rolling into the Peace Corps Office early on Saturday morning, I dropped my bags and immediately headed back downtown to run some errands. It was difficult not to immediately take a shower, but I figured I'd be getting dirty on Sunday anyway, so decided to forgo that for the moment. Chelsea also ended up in town for the weekend as she had some issues she wanted to discuss with our Programming staff.

Saturday night our Administrative Officer (they have a new acronym of the position, something like DPT) held a massive carbo-loaded dinner at her house for all participants. I know I have never seen so much magnificent (and healthy) food in Rwanda, but I might dare say ever in my life. Either way, it's definitely in the top 5. We had pasta, garlic break, salads, olives, guacamole and chips, beer (ok, not ALL healthy), desserts with real, non-frozen or preserved raspberries, and many more things my taste buds wish they could remember.

Sunday morning it was up bright and early (well, not bright; it was 5 am) in order to get ready for the marathon, tape for feet against blisters, and load the buses that would take us to Amahoro (Peace) Stadium, where the marathon would start and end. In true Peace Corps style, we arrived at 7am when the race was set to start at 8 am. It started at 9.

All told, Peace Corps sponsored 22 Volunteers and 6 staff members to run on 7 relay teams, 4 half-marathon runners, and 1 full-marathon runner (shout out to Steve Charles Cahill, the only one brave enough to even try). The relay teams would embark in waves, meaning that the one running the second leg couldn't leave until the first runner finished. I was slated to run second, so I had some extra time to stretch and get ready.

By the time Kelsey, my teammate who ran first, made it back I was feeling pumped. Feeling like true hard-care athletes, I was waiting to untie the tracking chip from her shoelaces while she caught her breath before it was off. Another Peace Corps Relay runner came in at about the same time and switch with Kay, so she and I ran off together.

While Kigali is pretty hilly, the route we took was not so bad. The course took us out towards the Nyatarama neighborhood before turning around and following the same route back to the stadium, or so we thought. Kay and I made pretty good time for the first 'half,' only getting passed by the full marathon runners. You know, the 95 pound machines from Kenya. Just before the turnaround, we passed the Peace Corps office and were more than a little disappointed to not see the non-participating Volunteers who happened to be staying at the Case out front. We soon found out that they weren't there because they were 5 minutes further down the route at the turnaround, fully prepared to cheer us on. The gate guards at the Office did wave and cheer on our way back, too.

Kay and I reached the turnaround, what we thought was the halfway point (that makes sense, right?) in about 17 minutes. If it were the halfway point, like we thought it was, I had just set a personal best for a 5k run. Needless to say, that was not the halfway point. We figures that out at about the 30 minute mark, when the route deviated onto a side street and started heading away from the stadium. It was around minute 35 that I had to let Kay go; she was doing much better than I was. I slowed down for maybe 5 minutes but kept Kay in my sights until near the stadium.  In the end, I entered the stadium and circled the track at just about 58 minutes. Not the best time ever, but still pretty decent I feel.

After a quick tag and chip-swap with Emmanuel, our new Health Program Manager, I was a bottle of water and three bananas away from never moving again for the rest of my life. After the marathon, the buses returned us all to the Peace Corps office where we laid in the grass, sat on couches, slept, or anything else that didn't require movement of the legs. Come nightfall, Chelsea and I headed out to a Chinese restaurant (yes, they have those in Kigali) for a quiet night out by ourselves. A weekend in Kigali will make you forget just how much you've gotten used to the loneliness of site.

Stay tuned for another update coming soon about a visit to Chelsea's site (you don't really have to stay tuned; this isn't radio and I'll probably send that post out right after this one…)


PS. 'Case de Passage is french for House of Passage, ie Hostel. I think. If your French is better than mine; no judging.

The Visit

This one'll be a long one, so grab a beverage and something to eat; you might be here a while.

2 weeks ago, I posted a blog that I had been working on for some time called 'The Dark Side of Peace Corps.' Since then, I have received numerous comments and emails from friends, family members, Peace Corps Applicants, Nominees, Invitees, Volunteers, and Returned Volunteers (I even got a call from our Peace Corps Country Director…that was fun). In response to these, I wish to thank you for your concern, thoughts, prayers, and wishes in general. Also, it was never my intention to dissuade prospective Volunteers from Service. Peace Corps is a wonderful opportunity that I personally feel should be seized if presented, even though I still maintain it is not for everyone. If you're thinking about applying or in the process, understand that these words were meant to be enlightening and… other positive things.

A few weeks ago, I took a few personal days to visit Chelsea in Burera/Kirambo. Those of you with a map handy will see that Nyaruguru, my district, is almost in Burundi while Burera is almost in Uganda, meaning our two sites are clear across the country from each other (even if it is a rather small country).  Peace Corps has many travel policies, one of which is that I'm not allowed to travel at night. It can complicate things (especially when you have to teach half the day and then try to traverse the entire country), but it makes sense.

My journey to visit Chelsea started at 10am on Friday, just as my class wrapped up. Thursday night I had called one of my neighbors/friends, Hubert, who is a motorcycle-taxi driver, and arranged a ride to Butare, the first checkpoint of my voyage. I told Hubert that I wanted to leave just after my classes at 10. Now, Hubert only speaks Kinyarwanda and French and, despite my repeated attempts to convince him otherwise, thinks that I also speak French. After getting over that obstacle, I conveyed to Hubert that he should be ready to pick me up at my house by 10. What does Hubert do? He rides up to the school, asks where I am, and parks outside my classroom at 9:45. My students thought that was hilarious.

After detouring past my house to switch bags, it was off to Butare. The road between my village and Butare is a little… dichotomous.  For the first 14 kilometers, which takes about 35 minutes, the road is gravel, washed out, and in generally horrible shape. However, the 'road' soon meets up with the Main Road, which is paved, has painted lanes, and speed-limit signs. We follow the tarmac north for about 20 kilometers (20 Minutes) before pulling into Butare.

Once in Butare, my next task involves getting a seat on a 'coach' bus to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The nice things about these buses is that everyone gets an actual seat, which should tell you a lot about the lesser bus companies (hint: the smaller bus' name literally translates to 'squeeze'). Having made it to Butare around 11:15, I was able to reserve a seat on the 12pm bus, allowing me time to catch lunch at a local restaurant. The trip from Butare to Kigali takes somewhere from an hour and 45 minutes to 2 and a half hours, depending on how many trucks we get stuck behind. On this particular day, I reached Kigali at about 2:15.

Kigali is sort of the central hub for travel in Rwanda. No matter where I go, I almost have to travel through Kigali. In order to get to Kirambo, which is northwest of Kigali, I have to get off the bus at Nyabugogo instead of downtown and get another ticket for a different bus going to Base/Gakenke. Having gotten a ticket for 3pm, I board the filling bus and wait for it to depart. To my surprise, it actually left about 15 minutes early (which never happens). The road between Kigali and Base has been under construction for nearly 4 months now, so the normal 45 minute drive turns into a little over an hour and results in the woman sitting next to me vomiting into her dress. At Base, I trade the coach bus for another motorcycle ride over dirt roads for about 45 minutes before arriving in Kirambo just before 5pm, having been travelling for 7 hours and spent nearly 13,000 francs (about $22).

Friday night Chelsea and I made fries and guacamole at her house. Yes, I did eat guacamole. Yes, I am aware that it is made out of avocadoes and other vegetables I never would have eaten in America. I've been trying this new thing with Chelsea's help where I don't refuse to eat food I've never tried before. Those of you who knew me and my eating habits in the States would hands down say that I was a very picky eater. But I realized after I came here that I was convinced I didn't like things (like avocadoes) that I had never actually tried before. Having become uncomfortable with this, I asked Chelsea to help me break this habit and expand my tastes a little. Our first attempt at this, to my initial dismay, was the guacamole. I'm still going with I only liked it because Chelsea made it, but I'm willing to accept that it's not bad.

A good portion of my time spent at Chelsea's site (at least during the day) was spent at her school where we would sit and talk with students and eat meals with the teachers. Our time with the students involved Chelsea and Rodrigue, an accounting student, have a rather vivid disagreement over the purpose of Tai Chi, teaching them English slang like 'booty' and 'bromance,' and playing a makeshift game of catch using my hat and our heads. Romalice and I actually got pretty good, to the point where we could consistently land the hat squarely on the others' head from about 25 feet away. Hey, it's harder than you'd think…

Kirambo has a rather large market (which is NOT a 45 minute walk spanning two valleys like Cyahinda's) on Saturdays, so Chelsea and I spent the day picking up food for an epic chili she was going to make and shopping for fabric to have dresses made out of (for her…I assumed that was obvious). Having no conventional stove, the chili had to cook over the charcoal stove (Imbabura) for a little over 3 hours, during which we continued our epic shenanigans with her students. After securing permission from her school's Dean of Studies, we were able to discreetly take a handful of her student back to help us eat the chili (we made waaaaay too much).

Chelsea's site varies from mine in a myriad of ways. For starters, her town, school, and house have power. This is kind of a game-changer as it allows things to be accomplished after 6pm and before 6am (although let's be honest: nothing happens prior to 6am even when we do have electricity). Since my region is devoid of power, I have to go to my school every night at 6:30 just so I can continue to plan my lessons (or do anything that involves more light than a candle or kerosene lantern can give off). In addition, her school is nearly dichotomous to mine. My school administration almost never interferes in my work (my headmaster's idea of ensuring I am productive is to ask me if I am 'ok' once a week), but they are also much more uptight in relation to the students. My students have at most 3 hours a day where they are not studying, and in that time they have to clean out the classrooms and dormitories. However, because Cyahinda is so remote and most of my students' families live in the area, the students are allowed to leave campus without permission (within reason) so long as they actually come back.

Chelsea's school, on the other hand, has a few more luxurious aspects than mine does. Because they have power, there is usually music played when class is not in session and movies on a few nights each week. They also routinely have dances (yeah, even in Africa teenagers have to go through that ordeal). However, perhaps because Kirambo is a bigger town, her students need permission to leave school grounds (which they are not usually granted). I'm going to try to say this next part as fairly as possible. The administration at Chelsea's school really likes to… interfere… with her ability to fulfill her primary responsibilities. Don't get me wrong, it's not the entire staff. Her Dean of Studies, Ferdinand is a relatively laid-back guy. We joined him and John, another teacher from the Teacher Training College in Kirambo, for dinner one night and they wound up helping us kill a liter of scotch (its ok, it was truly terrible tasting as far as scotch goes). But there are a few of her colleagues who do not really understand what a Peace Corps Volunteer is supposed to do, nor are they very receptive to learning.

All in all, the spending the weekend away from my site and relaxing with Chelsea was a lot of fun (not that there was any doubt it would be), and exactly what I needed. Sometimes, no matter how good or bad our work in our village is going, we just need to change things up a bit for a few days. Escaping my school and visiting Chelsea, even though it meant being drawn into another school, was a perfect getaway.

-Don't Forget To Be Awesome

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Dark Side of Peace Corps

I'll preface this blog with this: I'm not quite sure how this will turn out or what exactly I'll say. I would like to say, first of all, that this is not meant to be completely negative, pessimistic, or ominous. My intention in writing this is simply to show you a side of Service that few know about and even fewer can understand. Secondly, this is mostly unedited and free-flowing.

I've realized over the past few days that my blogs have been mostly event-oriented with any negative aspects of my Service completely neglected or sugarcoated over. This, coupled with the Peace Corps Policy mandating that Volunteers stay politically neutral and level-headed in any and all communication, has led to what you've been reading for six months now (Yes! It has been that long!).

When you're applying for Peace Corps, they tell you it is the hardest job you'll ever love. At the time, I'm sure none of us doubted it would be difficult, or that we'd love it (most of us, at least).  We knew full well we would leave behind the relative comfort and richness of America for some poverty-stricken corner of the world. What we didn't realize is in just how many ways we were rich.

When we landed in Kigali six months ago, the immediate effects were simple. Sleep deprivation from a 14-hour flight, shock and realization at the physical reality of Rwanda. Physical discomforts. Getting stuck in the arm for some improbable disease. Sitting in an uncomfortable, hand-made wooden chair for another two agonizing hours. That moment of utter disbelieve that the last year of your life has culminated to this, to these trials and tribulations, these extreme extremes. The path that was ahead of us six months ago was, albeit long, an exciting one. One where every corner brought another new surprise, even after you felt like nothing would ever surprise you again after what you've seen. I like to think of this as a 'honeymoon' phase. We show up here, having idolized and idealized what this life would be like. We (I) had these ideas of grandeur, of sleeping on dirt floors, bathing in rivers, being the 'cool' Peace Corps Volunteer who had been there, done that, and lived every awesome experience you could possibly imagine.

The first riches we had stripped away were not these physical comforts we see as 'necessitates' in the States. The first things we lost were the things it would ultimately take us the longest to realize they were riches in the first place. Prior to landing in Rwanda, my training group 'staged' in Philadelphia. Prior to flying off into an African sunset, I stood in the airport in Minneapolis and did what I now understand to be one of the hardest things in my life. I stood there, literally the final boarding call for Philadelphia and the Peace Corps being called throughout the terminal, and had to look my kid sister, my father, my mother, my whole family, essentially my whole world at that moment, in the face and tell them goodbye for 27 months. For them, there was no choice in their reality; they couldn't stop me from going. They had to accept the fact that I was leaving. On the other hand, I made the conscious decision to 'jump,' knowing full well that there would be no one to catch me, that, for the lack of a better metaphor, it was fly or die. They can write this off as 'he's doing what he wants to, he's making the world a better place, he's making a difference, he's doing this for a reason.' I, however, have to live day-to-day with the question of 'what the hell am I doing here?' No amount of soul-searching, and no measure of resolve, can completely stop this from happening.

When you join Peace Corps, you will be willingly subjecting yourself to certain things, 'extremes,' if you will. A lot of these will be physical. You will have insomnia. You will get sick. You will vomit on a routine basis. Chances are, you'll succumb to some disease (or three) that would have potentially been extremely serious if you hadn't paid attention during training, If you weren't given health care that far exceeds that given to your community members. At first, a full-night's sleep will seem impossible (especially if your country has a sizable Muslim community that cherishes 4:30AM prayer calls). This will change over time, but can (and will) revert to deprivation at the drop of a hat. You will sweat. You will cry (in the privacy of your own home, that's not usually kosher in public). You will bleed. You will marvel at the sheer amount of mucus your body can produce in six hours. You will be able to scrap the dirt, dead skin, and God knows what else off your arms with your fingers. Your hair will be absolutely disgusting (bring a hat), and there'll be more dead skin on your scalp than on your arms (if that's possible). And these are just the physical changes that will happen.

The far darker side is the mental effects. For all intents and purposes, you will feel more alone than you have ever been, felt, or dreamt of being in your entire life. Sure, you will be a 'member of your community,' insofar as a 20-something foreigner with a very limited knowledge of their language and even less understanding of their cultural norms can integrate into a community which is physically and emotionally homogeneous.  Let me say again: You Will Cry. You will cry, you will want to curl up in your empty bed and scream for the 'simple' things in life. You will want somebody to hold you, to just wrap their arms around you and pull you into them. There will be days when you feel like you are empty inside, there will be days when you feel like going nuclear and destroying anything you can get your hands on, including your neighbors, students, colleagues, and yourself.

Talking with friends and family in the States helps, too. But only to a certain degree. Some days a call from mom or news from your brother is exactly what you need to persevere for another day. But you'll get this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that, for as much as they can say they understand, and as much as you'd love them to be able to, they cannot. Confiding in your parents, purging your emotions to your old friends, and talking to you loved ones can only get you so far. Sure, you can build up fantastic relationships with your community-members, you can get to know them pretty well, and you can confide in them and become really good friends with them. But in the end, they still cannot fully understand what you're going through because you do not share the same cultural connotations (just like between you and your family).

In the end, the logical place to turn to aid your emotional well-being is your fellow Volunteer. But, just like everything in Peace Corps, it is not that simple. Yes, these people understand what you deal with on a day-to-day basis. They were there during the 11-week trial that was Pre-Service Training. They, too, have chosen to fly or die. However, they are obviously dealing with their own problems, their own nuclear time-bombs about to detonate. And if you put yourself too far into the hands of another Volunteer and if you are unable to stop them from going nuclear, you'll get burned just as bad. When it comes down to it, regardless of how counter-intuitive this is, we all left behind the majority of things that made us happy when we came here. Once here, it becomes so tempting, so easy, to allow your happiness to rely on a single thing, a single person, a single ability. Then, just as you feared, that solitary thing that makes you happy and is what keeps you sane is gone. You will have the darkest, coldest winter in your life, even if you're 3 degrees away from the Equator. You'll learn you're lesson; that a life revolving around a sole object or concept it's a life devoid of any protection, lacking any real emotional security and that yes, for 6 months you might be able to play fast and loose and come out ahead, but the stakes will get too high, the game too rich for your blood. The House always wins in the end.

Peace Corps service is all about these extremes. As dark as it is, perhaps even masochistic on many levels, this is why we signed up, right? We tell ourselves we are here for some noble purpose, that we are not here to find ourselves but to lose ourselves. To change who we are at the very core. Make no mistake; Peace Corps will change you, hopefully for the better. But this is not for the faint of heart or the weak-willed. There will be times when you want nothing more than to quit, to say 'screw all of this' and go home, curl up on that comfortable couch, watch The Daily Show, eat as much food as you can see, and never move ever again. But what we are really here for is to take the punches, not to roll with them. Rolling with the punches assumes you can see them coming and avoid getting hurt. During Service, things will come from the left just as you were so preoccupied by what was to your right, slamming into your head and sending you sprawling. When you finally pick yourself up (and you always will), you'll look to the left just in time to see…nothing. Whatever knocked you down so hard was so minute, so trivial that it begs to be laughed at for even affecting you. Peace Corps service is a time when ants can topple giants. Most days you'll feel like the giant; on top of the world, having it all because you chose to be here. Then, BAM! An ant grabs you by the collar and roughs you up a bit. Then, after the ant's got the better of you a few times, you'll realize the truth. You are not a giant. You are an ant, and just like the ant brought you down, you can bring down your giants, the massive black holes that try to consume your heart and mind, that suck up all the positive energy in your life and spit it out as some unrecognizable, twisted, evil version of the world. I think that metaphor may have gone too far…

It is impossible to compartmentalize your emotions and feelings here. Attempting to bottle them up and put on your 'game face' will only make it worse. Those of us who claim to be expert compartmentalizers will simply be able to hold out longer, but they will eventually crack just like everybody else. At the same time, you cannot risk wearing your emotions on your sleeve. You have to allow the bad things to either roll off your back or limit their expression to the privacy of your own home all while actively seeking the positive things (the reasons we came here in the first place) and allowing them to seep in. Holding back your emotions in a situation like this makes implosion only a matter of time. Above having to cry, you will need to cry, sometimes for no reasons. Some days you will not want to get out of bed (and it's not because you're too comfortable, trust me), some days you will not be able to fall asleep no matter how many drugs you take or how early you have to teach in the morning.

The only constant in this life is that nothing is as it seems it was, is, or should be. If it feels like rain, put on sunscreen. If you feel on top of the world, bring a parachute. If they tell you classes start Monday, don't bother showing up 'till Thursday at the very earliest. Whatever you think will happen will not and no matter how creative your imagination is, you will consistently be baffled at what actually does happen, at the seemingly random occurrences and outcomes that meld together to blow your mind every night. Daily events will seem like something out of a bizarre dream, yet your new reality won't hold a candle to what your subconscious mind can now conjure up while you're sound asleep. Plus, I'm pretty sure our anti-Malaria medication (Mephloquine) is actually just a mild hallucinogenic designed to keep Peace Corps Medical Officers and Psychologists employed.

Peace Corps Service is a rollercoaster. There will be ups. There will be downs. There will be times when you feel like you are in free-fall and you start to question the engineer's decision to make the safety bolts for your restraints out of brass instead of stainless steel. You will feel like you will die. But you won't. The only guarantee is that you will rise up again, only to come rocketing back down until that day comes when you pull into the station and the only thought that pops into you mind is "Wow, what a ride.' Unless, of course, you're bowels weren't as strong as the rest of you. But, hey, Peace Corps for the stories, right?

-Don't Forget To Be Awesome


PS: Don't take this too seriously. And for the love of God (sorry mom), don't question my physical, mental, or emotional well-being or sanity. What Peace Corps Volunteers world-wide need is to know that the ones they love are behind them all the way, not that you're worried. They need to know you are there for them and that, above all, you care about them.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Again and Again

Two bits of news:

1) Email change: I've been having problems with my email account, so I
have switched to gmail. The new email address is
2) I have also discovered that I can update Twitter through text
message while here. While I was never really one for Twitter (who
chose the name, anyway?), I think it might be a good way for me to
send out small witticisms and the other random crap that comes into my
head. The username for my new twitter is @LivingInRwanda. I'll try to
post a link if possible. In the future, look for these messages to
also be tied to my facebook account. Hey, I'm an IT volunteer, what
exactly did you expect form me?

For once in the past 6 months, I feel like I'm actually repeating
something I've already done. Let me explain.

October, November, and December were Pre-Service Training (PST).
Although rather monotonous, they were brand new experiences that I
will (hopefully) never have to repeat. Not because it was bad, but
because it would mean Peace Corps Rwanda was shut down. January,
February, and March brought the first term of teaching, by almost
every account a new experience for me. April saw the first school
holiday and In-Service Training (a topic I'll get to in a minute).
Now, the last week of April and May, June, and the first week of July
brings the second semester. Finally, I feel like I've actually done
something before, know what I'm doing, and know what to expect.

The day before IST, the Volunteers in my area scheduled a regional
meet-up. In Rwanda, PCV's are broken up into roughly 7 'regions' based
around our consolidation points in case of a country-wide emergency or
PC evacuation. See, mom (and all other PCV mothers who happen to read
this), they do take our safety seriously. In fact, sometimes too
seriously, I feel (once again, in a minute). Peace Corps Rwanda Senior
Staff (aka Mary, our Director) has been encouraging us to start
monthly or bi-monthly regional meetings, so we took the opportunity to
escape a day early and meet up.

Even though Rwanda is a rather small country, it would still be
difficult to get out of our sites, have a regional meeting, then get
back without breaking at least 3 travel policies. For that reason, we
chose a PCV with a more 'posh' house so we could all spend the night.
Side-note, Peace Corps Rwanda sometimes gets referred to as 'Posh
Corps,' perhaps for good reason. While my site is not posh by most
standards, I have a rather sturdy house (it survived a 4.8 earthquake
a few weeks back) and access to normal, albeit bland, food. However,
there are PCV's that live in houses or complexes with several spare
rooms, flushing 'western-style' porcelain toilets, appliance-full
kitchens, and living room furniture. I can see why the post wouldn't
receive any awards for being 'hardcore' by Peace Corps standards.

You might be asking, "Shawn, what exactly do you guys do at a regional
meet-up? Discuss teaching methods? Trade horror stories? Talk about
how awesome you all are?" Well, we did do some of these things,
although with less griping than you'd think (I hadn't seen most of
these people in 4 months). True, we did have a formal meeting where we
discussed business. After an agonizing 35 minutes of that crap, we
went to the bar. Did you expect anything less? We still talked shop,
although with much less formality and way more enthusiasm (probably
due to the alcohol…is that a bad sign?). Needless to say, we
accomplished a lot more (professionally, at least) in the 35 minute
meeting that we did in the 4 hours at the bar.

In the morning, the handful of us Education (Group 2) Volunteers left
Nyamagabe, where we had our regional meet-up, for beautiful Kibuye on
the shore of Lake Kivu. Once again, even though Rwanda is small, it
still takes the better part of a day for travelling any good distance.
Maybe it's all those hills. Even though Kibuye is sub 100 kilometers
north of Nyamagabe, we had to take a 30 minute bus to Butare, a 2 hour
bus to Gitarama, and then a 2 and a half hour bus to Kibuye. If you
ever visit Rwanda for any reason, renting a private car would be a
VERY wise decision.

Prior to heading for IST, Peace Corps had told us it would be in
Kibuye at the Centre Bethanie. What they didn't tell us was how to get
to the venue, nor that it would take 45 minutes on foot to get there.
Had I known that, I wouldn't have packed so much. Centre Bethanie,
however, was well worth the walk. Situated on a peninsula with great
views of Lake Kivu (see Picasa for sunset photos), Bethanie was our
secluded paradise for a week. Peace Corps provided us lodging,
breakfast, and lunch every day. Dinner was on us in an attempt to
allow us to 'get out and see Kibuye,' although the 25 minute walk into
'town' and the lack of public transport made it rather difficult.

Similar to PST, we had several sessions each day, mostly led by other
PCVs or ourselves. The aim was simply to give us an easy and clear
forum to express concerns and discuss successes/failures at our sites
as well as to update us on some new policies and projects. At night,
well, what do you think happened? 64 20-somethings isolated in
paradise on a beach resort well-stocked with beer. The 6:30am wakeup
was brutal. The night before we left, Peace Corps took us by boat to
Amahoro (peace) Island, a small island just up the shore that is
popular with western tourists. Complete with hammocks, private
cabanas, their own cows, and enough beaches for all of us, we were now
truly on vacation. However, Peace Corps forbade us from swimming due
to one nasty disease or another in the water (oops), so the beaches
were more a slap in the face than anything else.

Now that school has started again, we're back into the swing of
things. Classes are underway, I have homework to correct, and I'm once
again being told that tomorrow will be the day we get power in
Cyahinda. While I doubt that, I did watch some workers string
electrical lines all day yesterday. Its only a matter of time now.


Thursday, March 31, 2011

End of Term 1

First off, I apologize for my relatively long absence. Things have been picking up speed here in Rwanda as the first school term comes to an end, and I haven't been able to make it out for internet in some time.

Speaking of school, first term classes officially ended on Thursday, March 17th.  Students take exams in every subject they have classes in, which under Ordinary Level (grades 7, 8, and 9) is about 13 exams. Advanced Level (grades 10, 11,12) is a little different because they do not all have the same classes. After 9-year basic education, classes take on 'combinations' which are essentially specializations. There are dozens of combinations for A-level, but most schools only offer a few at most. My school offers HEG ( History – Economics – Geography), MEG (Mathematics – Economics – Geography), and MPG (Mathematics – Physics – Geography).

Exams are broken into two categories: out-series and in-series. Almost all classes are on-series and only a few (namely ICT, French, Spiritual Activity, and Creative Performance) are out-series. Exams officially started Friday the 18th with all out-series exams, including my ICT classes. The grading system for each class in based around marks, like points. Students get 10 marks for each class-hour per week on homework and another 10 for their final exam. This means that my 2-hour ICT classes get 40 marks total while my Mathematics class gets 120 marks.

In-series exams took place the following week and wrapped up yesterday (Friday the 25th), but we're not done with the semester yet. Next week (the 28th-1st) is the final week of term and is set aside for grading exams. Holiday officially begins the 2nd of April, although many teachers (and students) will travel home before then.

The exams themselves are also something of an oddity. Students usually have between 2 and 3 hours per exam, although it rarely takes them that long. As English is the official language of instruction, all exams are also given in English (except, of course, French and Kinyarwanda). This leads to a few relatively minor complications as many students (and, indeed, many of my fellow teachers) have difficulty with proper English grammar and syntax.

NOTE: I hardly claim to be an expert on Kinyarwanda. As such, you should neither 'risk your life' nor 'bet the house' on the following information about Kinyarwanda.

One of the major difficulties my students (and again, the teachers as well) have with written English is punctuation, more specifically with sentence length. However, there is a rather logical explanation for this. While Kinyarwanda has a general syntax, it is almost devoid of punctuation except the occasional period. For example, the have a specific word to add exclamation to a thought, 'pe', and as such rarely use the exclamation point in writing Kinyrwanda. For example:

Go quickly.   =   Genda vuba.


Go quickly!   =   Gende vuba pe.

In addition, the conjugation of Kinyrawanda verbs combines all parts into one single word, meaning that simple English sentences can be expressed as a single word in Kinyrawanda. For example:

 I am dancing.   =   Ndabyina (root verb 'kubyina' is 'to dance', remove 'ku-' and add prefix nda- (present continuous single))


You all crowd around and stare.    =  Bashungereye (root verb is 'gushengera', remove 'gu-' and add prefix 'ba-' (you all), suffix 'ra-' become 'reye-' (past tense))

Now you can begin to see the complexity of this language, although once you understand how to conjugate a root verb in the different forms, its' easy to pick out the objects of a verb, even if you have no idea what the verb is.

 Because Kinyarwanda verbs are consolidated into one word (sometime the objects of the verb can even be made into infixes), and a Kinyarwanda sentence of 10 words can contain many different thoughts. Here's an example of an English sentence I found on a student's history test:

"The water is very important part to Roman people because everybody need water for cooking, drinking, washing and this water need to be near people so they could have it easy and this is why I say they made city near water.

(I find it ironic that as I typed that, spellchecker didn't flag any part of it as grammatically incorrect)

Besides a few minor subject-verb agreements (a whole other can of worms), this sentence expresses about 19 different ideas at the same time and should probably be streamlined and broken into several distinct sentences based around complete thoughts. You could probably write this sentence in Kinyarwanda using far fewer words (I'm not even going to try to translate it correctly).

One of the major non-linguistic challenges here in Rwanda is the previous (and sometime still on-going) reliance on rot learning (learning my strict memorization). For instance, I can recite the squares of the number up to about 16 just because I used rot learning to memorize them. Past 16, I need to start doing actually calculation in my head to find them. It isn't uncommon for a teacher to simply give a student his notebook and tell them to write the notes on the board and have the other students copy it down. The first few weeks of my math classes, it nearly blew the students' minds that I would actually explain a concept to them and re-explain if they didn't yet understand. They are so used to having to copy everything down (remember: no textbooks/ very very few textbooks) and trying to make sense of it later.

One of the ways this manifests itself in my ICT classes is in the way they answer their exam questions. For instance I defined Information Communication Technology as 'any tool used to send, receive, or process news, data, or information of any kind.' I then proceeded to explain the definition I a way they could readily understand. Even though they were able to paraphrase my definition in class, all 200 of my ICT students answered the exam question using the exact same wording I had given them with almost no deviation in word choice. While they scored well because this is, in fact, the definition I expected, I have no idea if they actually know what ICT means or if they simply fell back on their rot learning and memorized the pattern of words to answer the question.

I think I've mentioned before that Cyahinda, my site, has no power. Well, I now I have proof that this is about to change. Last week a fleet of industrial trucks rolled into my backwater town and started dropping power poles and erecting carriage towers. Still, the actual date the electricity will come depends on who you ask. The local Rwandans say 'tomorrow', my school staff say 'by the end of second term', but my mind just prays 'before December of 2012' (because that's when I'm scheduled to finish my service, not because the Mayans say the world will end, although the actual date I am expected to close service is awfully close to December 21st…)

Speaking of which, I led my Senior 4 ICT class on a tangent a week or two ago about the solar system. Just as class was ending, it started to downpour outside and, seeing how Rwandans believe they'll melt if they get wet, my students insisted I stay until it lets up. While waiting, I noticed they had a poster on the wall describing the 9 planets and I dutifully informed them that our solar system actually has only 8 planets as Pluto was ruled to not count a few years back due to its irregular orbit, among other things. This, of course, blew their minds. A student then promptly raised his hand and asked, and I quote exactly, "why do all Americans think the world will in in 2012?" After a good laugh and informing them that not all Americans believe this, I gave them a crash course on the mechanics of the cyclical Mayan Calendar and a little insight into why some people believe ion the '2012 doomsday prophecy'.

Semester break starts on April 2nd and runs until the 25th. While there won't be any classes, and thus not much structure to my days here at my site, Peace Corps still wishes me to stay here as much as possible. Thankfully, I'll have what Peace Corps calls IST (In-Service Training), a week-long additional training event held during the last week of break. All 65 or so of us in my training group will reunite for this one week in Kibuye (on Lake Kivu to the west). Sure, there will be technical training and workshops to attend, but if Peace Corps thinks that there won't be any shenanigans, they're sadly mistaken.