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

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Website Quest

The quest to make and host a website, all for free.

For our ICT initiative, one of the things I am working on is creating a web site. I have very minimal experience with HTML coding, and even less with other codes and scripts like CSS, Python, and Java.

Another issue we have is cost. The basis of this Task was to use our resourcefulness as Volunteers to find a FREE way of hosting out information on the Internet. Volunteers tend to be really good at getting out of paying for an otherwise non-free service.

Let’s recap. Here are the goals:
1-Design clean, professional looking website
2-Host it for free (preferably at, but that’s flexible)
3-Be finished by November 12th, the Launch Date for STIR (the Resource in development)

You’ll know the project has succeeded when you can click that link and it works.

I started refreshing my brain on the syntax and references of HTML code. Not too bad. A quick look through took care of that. Still not an expert, but enough for this project.

I spent a few hours constructing a small webpage in Notepad, then changed the extension to .html and launched it in Google Chrome. Everything looks good, although it occurs to me that there are 2 problems: 1) There is very little style in my webpage. Adding this will require the use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) in an external document. Not proficient at coding style sheets. 2) Even the simple web page is getting past my organization ability in Notepad. As I add more complex elements to better the site, this will become a major problem.

After poking around again for CSS syntax, I was thoroughly confused and a little annoyed at my prospects, so I’m tabling that one for now. The second project is much easier. A quick Google search for ‘free html editors’ reveals several choices. CoffeeCup looked to be the most appealing, so I downloaded the free version and installed it. It appears to be a little limited (can’t use the really cool ‘snippet’ feature) compared to the licensed version, but we’ll make do. Contemplating trying to torrent a cracked copy of the full version, although this technically counts as software piracy. Hmm.

CoffeCup's HTML Editor, one of 'the best in the world'

The next problem area is free hosting. There are tons of places that host websites for a small annual fee. They have some great perks (large storage space, free email address, stream updates, etc), but most of them are just fluff for us. Our website won’t be too large (still debating if we wish to host our resource documents on our site or if we wish to keep them as direct-downloads from Google Drive). With the prevalence of free email accounts with just as good features as ‘professional’ email clients, having an email address through the site host becomes pointless (although the address would be kinda cool). This google search yielded fewer results, and no real.

After some digging, I am again turning to Google for a solution. There are two possible platforms: Google Sites and Google App Engine. Google Sites is extremely user friendly, but it doesn’t look like it’s possible to upload a full website built independently. While I like the Blogger feel to Sites, it’s not what we want.

Google App Engine, on the other hand, looks promising. Up front, it doesn’t seem to fit. Websites get generated in Python, which is a problem because I know nothing about Python. But after some more rooting around, I found a web review that reassured me Google App Engine was the right fit and gave me everything I needed to get started.

The Login for Google App Engine

Goal 2 finished. We will be hosting our website with Google App Engine, totally free. The address is

The URL is not pretty, but I’ve picked up a few hints in my rooting and digging that it may be possible to redirect the index to a new URL for free. Well, we’d have to get the domain name and register it for a nominal fee (something like sub $5). So maybe this won’t be totally free. Or maybe we’ll stick with an appspot URL.

Uploading the website is a little trickier than I thought. Following the directions from the review above, I downloaded the Python (2.7) runtime and the Google App SDK. Python installed fine and is up and running, so did the App SDK. However, the App SDK wraps up everything in a (somewhat) simple Launcher, but I had to redirect the file paths to the proper executable for Python and the App SDK. The Labnol website had a very basic website pre-built to launch with Google Apps. Downloaded, unzipped, and modified the application identifiers to load to our project. Launcher tested well and the default website loaded. Done.

The Google App Engine Launcher interface

The App Launcher was a little tricky to get down. Mostly because App Engine runs in Python. The basic website I downloaded came with a Python script file (.py) that compiles properly with App Engine. It also included a YAML file (.yaml), a sort of all-script-use file designed for use by non-genius people. Sweet. In order to upload, I have to load the project into the Launcher (this is only required the first time), and then Deploy it. The Launcher requires an email username and password (that has access to the App Engine Project). Launcher verifies the information, connects to App Engine, checks prior versions, and then loads the Python file (I think). The Python file initiates the YAML file, which loads the index.html file (the website’s homepage) and then all the other pages, style sheets, images, etc. A simple 5-page website takes about 20 seconds to Deploy. A larger one takes about 5 minutes. Not bad for Africa.

There seemed to be a problem at first with the Launcher actually publishing the website. I was editing the YAML file’s ‘version’ code so I could check the functionality. However, just because the App Launcher uploads it doesn’t mean App Engine publishes it. App Engine allows several versions to be hosted and linked, but recognizes a default that is live at the URL. If the ‘version’ code of the YAML file is the same as the live version, it gets published. However, we lose the previous version (App Engine overwrites it). The only way to keep all previous version remotely in App Engine is to change the ‘version’ code each time (it accepts alpha-numeric [like 12c]), upload, and then open up App Engine, go to the ‘versions’ tab, and set the new version as the default. A little annoying, but it works. It helps that the App Launcher has a shortcut to open up the App Engine Dashboard in your default browser. That’s nice.

I’ll move forward with the actual building of the website and style sheets later.

Friday, July 20, 2012


DISCLAIMER: The following blog contains spiritual and religious ideas that may differ from yours. In no way am I attempting to preach, convert, or dismiss. These are my beliefs and opinions. This is not designed to attack, insult, offend, or put down. It is, however, meant to give you an inside view of my life, my thought process, and how I operate. Just like all of my blogs.

Today is the first day of Ramadan.

Ramadan is an Islamic event during which Muslims fast from sunup to sundown for a full lunar cycle (a little less than a month). In general, they abstain from consuming anything during daylight, including food, water, or any other material meant to fill the flesh. This is not meant to be a punishment, but rather a purging of the soul, a cleansing of the body, and a refillment of the spirit. The signals of hunger, thirst, and craving sent during fasting are designed as a constant reminder of those who are less fortunate, those who have not, those who go hungry every day through no choice or fault of their own. Many Muslims attempt to read the Qur'an all the way through, but the focus is very much on knowing who you are, what you are capable of, and what is realistic. In Islam, unlike Christianity or Judaism, fasting is a core tenant (or pillar) of spirituality, and observation of Ramadan is required for all those physically capable. Ending in Eid ul-Fitr (or the 'breaking of the fast'), the sighting of the new moon, Ramadan is a time to grow spiritually, as a family, and as a community.

I am not Muslim. My family is not Muslim. Most of my friends are not Muslim. I do not live in Mecca. I have never been with 100 feet of a Mosque.

I am American. I am a practicing Christian. I do not understand Islam in its entirety.

This year, I am observing Ramadan.

This does not come out of some misguided attempt to become more worldly. This does not come out of a challenge to my personal faith or spirituality (although such things are not necessarily unhealthy). This is about the experience. The experience has been explained to me before to be like the excitement of Christmas Eve. Personally, I feel like there was either a serious translational error there or that person never experienced a Christmas Eve before. How can someone compare the anticipation of not eating or drinking during daytime for 30 days to waking up to your house getting broken into and tons of really cool, really expensive stuff left underneath a tree that you drug into your living room 3 weeks ago for no other reason than looming over said stuff?

Regardless of the probability, that correlation between the experiences is there. To me, that only says how powerful Ramadan and its fulfilling sense of community, piety, spirituality, and generosity are to compare to the endorphins a child's body receives at the mere thought of gifts.

Ramadan is a highly personal 'quest,' if you will. There are very few rules, and many practicing Muslims do different things. As a Christian observing Ramadan, here are the principles I have decided to follow for my own Ramadan:

-Fasting: No consumption of anything designed for the flesh (all foods, water, sex, etc) from sunup to sundown. In Rwanda, that will be something like from 5am to 6:30pm.

-Fasting of the limbs: My hands should not do evil, my feet should not take me to bad places, my tongue should speak nothing ill of myself or others. This is not restricted to daylight hours.

-Spiritual Growth: My thoughts and reflections should guide me towards a better understanding of my God and my faith

-The Bible: I will read the Bible. From start to finish. Not just the New Testament, but the whole thing. THE WHOLE 1200 PAGE BIBLE.

-Mental Clarity: Abstain from impure thoughts.

-Alcohol: No alcohol during daylight hours as well as a reduction of occurrences and amount consumed during night hours.

-Community: Significant increase in actions designed to create and foster communities. This is saying quite a bit, given the fact that I'm a Peace Corps Volunteer.


-Understanding: Develop a more detailed and in-depth understanding of the world's major religions with specific emphasis on Islam as well as its connection and relationship to Christianity.

This is not an attempt to live as a Muslim for a month. This is not a 'translation' of Ramadan into Christendom. This IS Ramadan. The only thing that's different is my spirituality (which, honestly, is different for each Muslim as well) and which Holy Book I take my faith from. During my initial research of Ramadan in preparation to making this decision, I came across many websites about Christians taking the month of Ramadan to pray that Muslims find the clarity of God and Jesus Christ. I disagree. Prayer, spirituality, and your religious savior are HIGHLY personal things. What any person believes is between them and God. I would (and do) pray that every person in this world can know the life and love of Jesus. I would never pray that this happens against their own urging. A person COMES to their Savior. They are not BROUGHT to their Savior. Their relationship with their God is theirs and theirs alone, whether it's based out of a book written in Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or English. Whether that book preaches the teachings of Allah and Muhammad or Jesus of Nazareth, God, and the Apostles.

Many Muslims believe that Islam is a continuation, or an evolution, of Christianity, just as Christianity is a continuation of Judaism. While I'm not about to get into who's right (because that's not the point), the concept and spirit of Ramadan is something that neither Christianity nor Judaism have. Is it not possible that the idea of Ramadan can be naturally applied to Christian thought and ideology?

My decision to observe Ramadan was not made lightly. I have never attempted to fast. Ever. Now I'm going to be doing it for a whole month. Also, school break also happens to start today. Meaning I will out of a structured job until September. On top of all that, I have my Close of Service conference with the other 54 members of my intake groups next week. It will be quite interesting sitting in sessions when I cannot have a beer, let alone a bottle of water or a meal, until the sun goes down. Luckily, I am not doing this alone. I have my own pillar. His name is Jed.

Some of you may remember Jed as the oddball that used to burst into room singing rap songs at the top of his well-tuned lungs. Well, he still does that. What's changed is that we tend to do it together more often than not now. I do believe there is a video out there somewhere of me playing Green Day's 'Good Riddance' on the guitar while sitting on top of Jed's shoulder as he sang in an ear-piercing falsetto. It was a Tall Doctor moment straight out of Scrubs

I digress. Jed is also observing Ramadan (as he has for the last, oh, seven years). When it comes to the logistics of how this whole fasting thing works, Jed is my man. He is also an incredible person and a great source of information on 2 or 3 world religions. And I'm not just being this flattering because I cc'd him on this email…

In order to stay healthy, I'm going to have to wake up early. Those of you who know me know that this is NOT something I like to do. I've been called many things in the last 25 years, but 'morning person' has never really been one of them. However, if I do not rise before the Sun, that means no breakfast. While my breakfast is usually more aptly named 'lunch,' I still like to be able to eat after sleeping for more than a few hours…

So here I go. Expect a higher frequency of blogs from me over the next month. In part because of Ramadan, but also in part because this month will help shape the next few years of my life.

-Don't Forget To Be Awesome


Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone powered by MTN.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Man

Human beings are cooperative by nature. Here's an example

Last month I was riding my bike home from Ndago, the district capital. Without warning, my bike jack-knifed, sending the handlebar into my rib cage and ejecting me from the bike. My first two points of contact were my right palm and the left side of my face. I didn't lose consciousness, but when I reoriented I was lying on my back, my backpack ripped open, writhing on the ground. The knees of my jeans were ripped open and blood was already congealing on my skin-less palm. In other words, I was broken and helpless.

Within seconds, a Rwandan man was at my side. In my delirium, I could only stare at him first. I could not process what was happening. He was talking to me quietly, asking me something. Repeating it over and over. He was then yelling. Yelling at someone else. Yelling at others who were running towards us. No words were ever exchanged. I have no idea what he was asking me. No idea what he was shouting to the others. Remembering back, I know now he was speaking Kinyarwanda. I can remember bits and phrases of what he said, but nothing that makes a cohesive thought. I also know the man spoke no English. He was a Rwandan farmer. Covered in dirt, missing most of his teeth, and had abandoned the plantains he had been carrying to come to me. In a normal state, I would have been able to communicate with him in Kinyarwanda. But it this state, I was going nowhere on my own. I was saying nothing. I was doing nothing. This man had no obligation to me. He owed me nothing, in my eyes or in his.

He laid his hands on me. When he touched my left rib cage, the place where the handlebar caught me before I went over it, I almost screamed. I was concerned, scared, frightened, pissed off, and really scared. The man ran his hands over me. In my mind I was convinced he was relieving me of all my possessions. All of the things he would never be able to afford. By now more Rwandans were around. Kneeling around me. Whispering and yelling. It was like I was removed, out of my body, watching all of this happening. Around me. To me.

What the man did, what he was doing, was saving me. We had almost nothing in common. We couldn't communicate, we couldn't understand each other. He had nothing on me and I had nothing on him. He was in total power. And he saved me. He picked me up, literally. He packed my things back up, every last one of them, and put them in my torn backpack. He brought me over to a motorcycle taxi, one that I hadn't noticed until I touched it. The man helped me on the back. I reached behind me to grab the handle bar with my right hand and picked my feet off the ground. I immediately slipped off the seat and almost fell to the ground. I painfully turned to see why I hadn't stayed on. The handle bar was smeared in blood. A lot of blood. My blood. I hate blood.

I was unable to close my right fist. I reached back and held on with my uninjured left hand. The tension of the muscles in my wrist and had caused the open skin on my forearm to bleed profusely. The moto driver and the man had a rapid fire conversation that I wouldn't have been able to understand if I had been on my game anyway. As we took off (to where I did not know yet), I could only think one thought: my bike. Where is my bike?

Halfway back to my village (which is where we were going, I found out when we got there), my head rolling with the difficulty of holding it up, I glanced at my right arm. Blood was pouring down my arm, dripping onto my jeans. My eyes caught my green shirt, where the color had turned red. With blood (did I mention I don't like blood?). I gingerly touched my face and my fingers came away red. I smeared the blood on my shirt and touched my ear. They came away red. I could literally watch the blood saturate my shirt.

The moto driver dropped me off at my house, where my site-mate Volunteer came down to help clean off the blood. The moto driver returned with my mangled bike. He stood in my living room for a few minutes, fascinated by the scene of the broken white man. It wasn't until he noticed the trail of blood droppings leading from my door to where I sat at the table. Bloodied rags and bandages littered the table. He promptly left. He did not ask to be paid for his double run.

I would later have three stitches put in my chin to close up the inch-long gash and another put in my ear. I was missing most of the skin from my right palm, my left forearm, my left ear, and the left side of my face. The Peace Corps doctors said I was lucky my ear was still attached and that the handlebar hadn't hit 3 inches higher, where it would have broken a rib or two. It took me 9 days in Kigali to regrow most of the skin and be able to walk without feeling like I had been beaten with a 2x4.

The point of this story isn't that I was hurt, or how cool I am now because I went through that. The extent of my injuries weren't that bad and at no point did I fear for my life. The point of this story is the man.

That man had nothing to gain from helping me. He had no real reason to coming running to me. He could have kept walking, he could have ignored my whimpers. He could have stared and said "Dore, Muzungu" (Look, a foreigner).

But he didn't.

He stopped. He helped. Even though we didn't speak the same language. Even though we didn't know each other. Even though he had nothing to gain. He did everything he could to help me.

I have tried to find this man. I've walked to the village (my bike is still mangled and, frankly, so is my desire to ride it). I point to my scar on my chin and ask for 'the man who saved me before.' The Rwandans do not understand me. They look at me just as confused as I look at them when they try to speak English. Finally, a young boy understands. He spitfires Kinyarwanda to the crowd. They all 'ahhh' in understanding. Finally, I will meet the man who was my model of human selflessness. The boy says they do not know who he was. They know he was a farmer who had come into that village to sell his plantains. They have not seen him in the weeks since.

Despite not being able to find the man, I am at peace. He could have found me. He could have walked to my door and claimed credit for his actions. But the fact that he did not only reinforces why this man is a great man. He did what he did not only without benefit to himself, but he did not claim the credit and admiration that he, by right, deserves. I may never know the great man's name. But I know him. I know him at such a level that I cannot describe it. I have seen into his heart and soul, and those I do understand.

-Don't Forget To Be Awesome
Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone powered by MTN.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Bus

I wrote this blog in real time, as it happened.

"I'm going to try to capture this moment with as little use of expletives as possible.

Its 3:15. The sun is high and there isn't a whisper of wind. I sit in a small bus designed for 15 people, although there are currently 22 of us. These buses are called 'mutatus' in most of Africa, but here in Rwanda we call them 'twagerenes.' Twagarene in Kinyarwanda means 'we squeeze tightly together.' Its true.

After a 2 hour previous bus ride, I found this bus which goes into my village. At 1pm. Yes, I have been waiting on this bus for over two hours. The driver, who disappeared the moment I sat down, promised we would leave by 2pm. We obviously did not.

This all wouldn't be so bad. After 17 months in Rwanda, I'm used to waiting for buses in the hot sun. But here is what's making this bus bad.

Of the 22 of us, 5 of them are children. 4 of them are screaming and crying their heads of, the fifth is too malnourished to make much noise. Their parents do nothing; their just as tired as I am. The others on the bus keep talking about me in Kinyarwanda. I haven't told them I can understand them yet because at first I thought it would be cool to see what they had to say about me. But now I'm just upset about what they're saying. They've been discussing why the 'muzungu' is sitting on a bus with them and why I don't just drive my own car that I must have. Another laughs aloud and says that he thinks I'm an American. I'm relieved slightly because I'd rather be classified by my country of origin over the color of my skin any day. But then he finishes his thought, saying that I wouldn't have a car, but rather a... what's the word? Ahh, yes. Airplane. I'm an American so I must have my own airplane.

They begin to use 'akazungu' instead of 'umuzungu.' Akazungu is a VERY derogitive word for a foreigner. While it literally translates into 'little white person,' most of its negativitey is in the connotation.

I ask the man next to me where the driver is and when he thinks we will leave. I speak in Kinyarwanda. He responds that we will leave 'soon.' He continues to discuss with the other about me. He still doesn't realize I speak Kinyarwanda.

They are laughing again. This time because the driver returned, saw the car could hold one more person before the doors fall off, and retreated to a nearby awning to sit in the shade and drink a beer. They think this is funny. The people I have been waiting with for 3 hours now in the hot sun next to an open garbage pit with all the screaming kids and flies and smells think its funny that the driver refuses to leave until no one can feel their legs and is now DRINKING before driving for 90 minutes down a treacherous road.

The people have gotten tired of laughing at things and the kids have toned-down their wailing. The woman in front of me decides that silence is evil and pulls out her cell phone. I cross my fingers. I hope that she's just going to make a call. Then the music starts. She is blasting Ugandan music. My toes have gone numb and my ass hurts. The music gets louder as the woman's husband shows her how to boost the volume on her phone.

I cave and put my headphones in, knowing exactly how this will play out. It takes about 15 minutes for the man next to me to realize what I've got and what I've done with it. He promptly reaches over and plucks the earbud from my ear and sticks it in his. He mimes rock music and laughs. I ask, as politely as is possible in Kinyarwanda, for it back. He passes it to his friend, who listens for 30 seconds before also passing it on.

Finally the man next to me has the earbud again. I hold out my hand, the international gesture for 'give me the damn earpeice.' He reaches over and jams it back into my ear. That hurt, you douche. At least now I cannot hear them.

My legs are numb up to the top of my calves now. I do my best to flex my ankles, slowly rolling my heels as far as I can. Once we DO leave, I still have another 90 minutes in this position.

But all the hotels in Butare are full tonight and there are no motorcycle taxis because this week is commemoration for the 1994 genocide. This bus is my one shot to get back into my village.

A herd of goats run by, followed shortly by the patter-patter sound of a barefoot 5 year old as he guides them down the road with a stick taller than he is. He notices me, sitting trapped in this bus and momentarily forgets his chore. He stares and begins to mouth my favorite world before his older sister runs passed. Without stopping, she chastises him and he breaks his stare, running after his sister and their family's livelihood.

At 5pm, the driver finally returns and gets in. It takes him 5 minutes to start the bus. It appears we are leaving. I'll tell you up front it was a trick. We pull into the gas station and fill up. We start to head out of town, but the driver missed the proper turn for the main road and we head towards the Hospital. My entire lower body is know numb.

At the hospital, it appears we are waiting for someone. After 20 minutes, two officials wander up and have a conversation with the driver. He seems upset. Our last passenger is not here. We turn around and head the 10 minutes back to the gas station where we find our missing doctor-passenger. Everybody cheers. The doctor doesn't when the driver tells him they upped the rate today by 200 FRW (about 30 cents). He decides not to go, so we turn around once more and finally, after 4 hours and 35 minutes of incompetence, we are cruising towards my village on the main road.

5 minutes south of town, we pick up a random, who finally caps the passenger list at 23. Still, we stop 5 minutes after that when a family of 5 flags us down. This cannot be. There is no way the driver wants to... Yep. He tells those in the aisle jump seats to get up and crams the 5 new passengers in. Even though everyone is in pain and we'll probably all die a fiery death, every laughs and says its hilarious. They tell me to move closer to the door. I tell the driver I already have an imprint of the handle in my stomach and my hips don't get any smaller. He laughs.

Now they know I speak Kinyarwanda. It's going to be a quiet ride."
Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone powered by MTN.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Next Big Adventure

As I tap this out on my phone, I'm just starting a 6 and a half hour
bus ride from Kigali to Kamembe, a town in the south-west o Rwandan,
clear on the other side of the Nyungwe Rain Forest. Between my legs is
12 pounds of gear, including a tent, sleeping bag, 2 changes of
clothes, some emergency medical supplies, and a camera. In my lap sits
a thick piece of map with a rough map and a thin orange line drawn on
it. Can you see where this is going? That's right; Pack.It.Up
Adventures is returning to its roots.

Tomorrow, I will set out from the Peace Corps Regional House in
Kamembe, Rusizi with two other Peace Corps Volunteers. Over the course
of the next 10 days, we will hike the 247 kilometer (141 mile) Congo
Nile Trail. This trail will take us up the Eastern shore of Lake Kivu
(in Western Rwanda), spanning 5 of Rwanda's 26 Districts and touching
borders with Burundi, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and
Uganda. Rwanda is the land of 1000 hills, and we'll certainly
understand that after this adventure. Not only will we have the
typical Rwandan hills, but the CNT is established specifically to
follow the watershed between the Congo River and the Nile River. If
you remember your geography, you'll know what a watershed will do to
your elevation gains.

We carry no food. We carry no GPS units, compasses. The trail is not
blazed. Essentially all we have to navigate by is our crude map I
printed yesterday with the hand-drawn line and a list of villages we
*should* go through. On top of that, we'll be totally dependent on
local villages and villagers for directions and a place to get some
grub. These people will not speak English.

This will not be easy. We need to average a decent 14 miles per day.
Elevation change per day will be near 1000 meters. We'll have to
navigate in a foreign language, camp among people who do not
understand the idea of walking for anything other than necessity, nor
sleeping beneath a piece of fabric. We will literally be the only 3
white people in a sea of Rwandans. Kids will stare, children will
follow, old woman will spit-fire Kinyarwanda to us, the poor and lame
will beg for money. This will be like any other hiking experience in
the world.

I leave you now for the next big adventure.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Track Seven

As many of you will recall, I returned to America over Christmas
mostly to visit family. I also gave a lecture at the University of
Minnesota Duluth called "Rwandan Recovers: Reflections of a Peace
Corps Volunteer." This title was proposed by the Director of the
Alworth Institute (who sponsored the lecture) and is in all regards a
good title. In retrospect, perhaps a more applicable title for what
the lecture turned out as would have been something like "Rwanda
Recovering: Reflections of an Outsider Who Will Never Really
Understand This Place in Two Years."

That being said, a former Professor of mine was in attendance at the
lecture and made some well-thought comments. I would like to take the
time to respond to a few of them.

"[After watching the film 'Hotel Rwanda'], I found myself struck by
the unequivocal 'evil' in the form of political and military leaders
who used the 1994 conflicts as a way to line their pockets with money
and power -- and it is these who, I assume, were tried for their
crimes. In your talk you mentioned that some leaders did indeed face a
trial process."

Yes, the majority of what happened during the 1994 conflict was
organized by leaders who wanted mostly to advance their won benefits
one way or another. They saw an opportunity to exploit the uneducated
(and, in some cases, even the educated) masses using extreme
indoctrination and group-think. As I mentioned in my lecture, but not
in great detail, the United Nations created the International Criminal
Tribunal for Rwanda in late 1994 to judge those responsible for
'serious violations of international law in Rwanda or by Rwandan
citizens in nearby states from 1 January to 31 December, 1994.' The
ICTR has full jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and
war crimes (as defined by the Geneva Conventions' section on war
crimes committed during internal conflicts). As of January 2012, the
ICTR has conducted 50 trials and convicted 29 of the accused. An
additional 11 trails are still in progress. Another 14 accused are
being held pending the start of their trial and 5 of the accused are
still at large or suspected to be dead. In general, the ICTR was
established to try those who committed level 1 offenses (that is, the
organizers). This includes the Akazu government members like Interim
Prime Minister Jean Kambanda. Kambanda pleaded guilty to genocide and
agreement to commit genocide, public and direct incitation to commit
genocide, aiding and abetting genocide, failing in his duty to prevent
genocide which occurred while he was Prime Minister, and two counts of
crimes against humanity to which he was sentenced to life in prison in
Mali. Kambanda appealed his sentence, claiming that he was a puppet
for the Rwandan Army to legitimize their control of the government and
asked for a reduced sentence of 2 years because he 'acted under duress
with limited responsibility'. The Appeals Chamber reject this as a
defense for the crime of genocide. Kambanda's trial serves as a
hallmark that challenges the legal precedent of State Immunity as he
was one of the first Heads of State to be convicted by an
international court. The ICTR has also tried and convicted leaders
from the Impuzamugambi and Interahamwe Militias and RTLM Radio, which
was the lead platform for the Hutu Power Media.

"In the film, [the character) Gregoire initially uses the conflict as
an opportunity to occupy the 'presidential suite' at the hotel, to
refuse to work, and to exercise unfettered access to alcohol and other
amenities, all the while expressing the pro-Hutu ideology. Within the
movie, Gregoire was responsible for several deaths and posed a threat
to Paul Rusesabagina and his family. I try to imagine Hutu and Tutsi
friends and neighbors (from before the 1994 uprising), even 15 years
later, being compelled to welcome Gregoire back into their community,
in the name of "unity." The film narrates Gregoire's betrayal of the
evacuation plans of Rusesabagina and other Rwandans who had secured
sponsorship in other nations. Beyond that, Gregoire is not mentioned
again. There is no narrative 'come-uppance' for Gregoire."

The character of Gregoire is an important one in understanding some of
the dynamics behind what happened in 1994 (and leading up to 1994) and
how Rwanda is recovering. To my knowledge (although I must confess I
have not watched the film in some time), Gregoire did not directly
murder anybody or commit any direct serious crimes. It can obviously
be argued, however, that people like him played a significant role in
perpetuating genocide before and during the conflict. The reference in
this section to unity and Rwandans welcoming people like Gregoire back
into their community is to various programs in Rwanda designed to make
all Rwandans one group of people; Rwandan. Occasionally, when a person
convicted during the Conflict is released from prison, they are
re-integrated into a Rwandan community, granted, this does not always
happen, but what it leads to is a community of survivors and
perpetrators living side by side, BOTH helping Rwanda to recover. This
is, of course, not a perfect system and there has been occasional
back-lash towards the convicted and the government, but in general
(when done correctly), it leads to deeper bonds, better understanding,
and a more meaningful peace on all sides

"You mentioned that there are movements to increase internet access in
regional capitals. And with an average annual income of $400.00 (or
whatever it is), it is not currently likely that everyone will go out
and get a laptop/pc. That said, I wonder what will happen to the
tendency you described for Rwandan citizens to accept authority
unquestioned if more people at lower socio-economic strata DO get
access to the World Wide Web. It seems to me that internet access
might be destabilizing and frustrate the interests of unity, although
in so doing, might pave the way for a more authentic 'democracy.'"

The basis of this comment gets back to a macro-scale point I was
making during my presentation about 'African democracy' and how it is
not the same as American democracy (or Western democracy). This
difference is extremely evident in the fact that not only did Rwanda
record an extremely high voter turnout in the last election (somewhere
upwards of 70%), but over 95% of them voted for the now-President.
This isn't inherently negative, but just imagine an American
politician winning with 95%. If I remember right, the election was
authenticated by several international groups. The question I was
raising was 'what is best for Rwanda today and in the future?' Does
Rwanda need a 'pure' form of democracy or is the blend of governmental
forms they have now what is best for the country? Is Democracy really
what Rwanda needs? Is the governmental system in place now the best
way to protect Rwanda and prevent atrocities from happening again? I
don't have an answer to this for multiple reasons, not the least of
which is that Peace Corps forbids me from taking political sides.

But whatever happens, the Internet will play a major role in the
evolving Rwandan culture. The World Wide Web is a tool designed
specifically to spread information, make it easy to access, make it
free, open, readable, sharable. This is the core fundamental behind
the Internet. Connect everybody. Everywhere. In general, Rwandans
respect and accept authority with little counter thought process. To
be fair, they have had very little contradictory media outlets in
their history. Will access to the virtual treasure trove of
information available online change their culture? Here the answer is
obvious, and I am even allowed to say it. YES. As access to the
Internet increases, so should Rwandans understanding of the world at
large. The Syrian revolution, Iran's nuclear attitudes, American
politics, banks failing world-wide, truths about the rule of dictators
in African states, the military coup d'etat in Mali. Rwandan culture
has developed this severe respect for and adherence to authority
without the Internet. Before now, they never had an option, were never
given an opposing viewpoint. Now they will. Once a Rwandan is exposed
and integrated into the digital world, good luck taking that away from
them. Once Rwandans get used to having the world's wealth of knowledge
at the fingertips like most of the world has had for a decade or more,
good luck convincing them they don't need it. Try to take that away,
try to rationalize to them that access to this information is bad, and
see what happens to their blind adherence to their leaders. Luckily,
Rwanda is in no way trying to do this. The largest sponsor (and
participant, in fact) to my Information and Communication Technology
projects has always been the government. Heck, the President has a
Twitter handle which he personally writes, going as far as having it
out with journalists who thinks he's not paying attention or tech
savvy enough because he's the head of an African state. The truth is
Rwanda is coming on to the world stage in several realms, not the
least of which are digitally and virtually. True, not every Rwanda
will be able to buy a computer or a laptop. But that's quickly
becoming unnecessary to access the Internet. There are phones here
that cost about $15 that have mobile Internet. The cell company
charges about 5 cents per megabyte of data transferred. Business
Development Centers are springing up all over Rwanda with brand new
Dells, projectors, wireless Internet, printing, and all the other
amenities. And they're cheap too, at about 30 cents per hour of
internet. Whether the Rwandan Government, the International Community,
or Rwandans themselves like it, this is happening. It is coming.

It is already here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Or So They Say

When you are applying to Peace Corps Service, it's natural to poke around your available resources for information on what this grand experience will be like. Friends who served in the past (if you're lucky enough to know some), your Recruiter or Placement Officer, or the Internet. All of these things will tell you the same thing: You will have a lot of down time.

I literally remember watching a YouTube video that was just a Volunteer who got so bored in her straw hut in South America that she made of video of herself dancing. This tells you several things. 1) I'm willing to bet her straw hut did not have electricity, meaning she was using precious battery power to film this video. 2) She was literally so bored that this seemed like the most time-effective thing to be doing at the moment. 3) She spent a considerable time preparing to make the video. Either that or she is a naturally-talented dancer because her moves were good.

I have certainly had my fair share of down time. Mostly in my first year of service. This down time is in fact how I know that I can stare at a wall for 37 minutes before wondering how long I have been staring at said wall. But this down time is also a necessary part of how Peace Corps Volunteers do what they do and stay (relatively) sane. Consider the fact that everything is new here. Every small piece of a Volunteer's daily life requires us to mentally process nearly everything around us.

In my field, we call this Schema Theory. I'll have to be a little careful here because there are three people (that I know of) who read this blog and quite literally are experts in this field. And because, well… Its been quite a while since those UMD days. Under Schema Theory, people create scripts for how certain situations will play out. These cognitive scripts are what help us get through repetitive daily tasks without having to think too much about them. For example, when you go to a grocery store. You have a list of things you know will happen, or have to happen. You know you can put your food items on the small black conveyor belt, the clerk will scan each one, a small screen will show you the total, maybe someone will be at the other end to put them in bags for you. You can put all the bags back into your cart and take it outside to your vehicle as long as you return the cart to one of the designated spots in the parking lot. Just imagine how difficult all of this would be if you had never been inside a grocery store before, meaning you would have never developed these schema for how to act in one. Don't believe me? You should see some of the Rwandans who wander into one of the three grocery stores in Kigali. It's actually really humorous. Or the fact that one of my best students, who's actually from Tanzania, was reading over my shoulder and asked what it meant when I wrote 'the clerk will scan each one.' It's not that he's stupid, he just doesn't have those cognitive scripts.

These scripts allow us to go about our daily lives without processing every minute detail around us. They also are the basis for stereotypes and, therefore, racism, but that's for another day. The 'problem' this creates for Peace Corps Volunteers, as anyone who has spent more than 36 hours in a foreign culture can tell you, is that these schema are based on the culture we live in. When you completely change the culture, those scripts are nearly no good any more. It's like currency: a Rwandan will not take Ugandan Shillings. Why? Because they have no use for Ugandan Shillings; they're in Rwanda. My cognitive scripts for how just about anything should work, from schools to meetings, relationships to stores, do not usually apply here. This means that every time I leave my house, I'm faced with situations I have to mentally process in order to understand them, instead of already having built the schema for them and just being able to interact without thinking. So while you may see these YouTube videos and hear the stories of Volunteers being bored out of our minds, or doing such senseless things as staring at concrete walls convinced they will eventually move or reorganizing their bedroom because, well, there isn't anything else to do and it makes them feel like they are back in the States, we do this in part because simply stepping outside forces our brains into over drive and a person can only take so much.

Wow, that was a long sentence.

To bring this back into the point I'm trying to make, this is all fine and dandy until you get comfortable with the new culture. During my second year (which I'm now between 2 months and 5 months into, depending on if you include my training), I began to get far more involved in secondary projects; the ones that didn't involve me in the classroom with students. Without really recognizing it, these became a huge tax on my time. Here's a simplified list of all the projects I either started or have agree to help with:

- An ICT resource (read: textbook) that another Volunteer and I are building from the ground up
- Rebuilding my computer lab (which is a never-ending struggle
- Tutoring a dozen or so of my teachers in English
- Tutoring a dozen or so of my teachers in science methodology
- Tutoring a dozen or so of my teachers in basic computer skills
- Working with a Volunteer-led project to teach Judges and court staff English to create an online-based resource
- Helping to create a seamless digital way for Books For Africa libraries to manage and organize their books
- Helping our Safety and Security Coordinator to prepare a pocket-sized version of our Emergency Action Plan so Volunteers will always have the information on their person
- Serving on the Peace Corps/Rwanda Volunteer Advisory Committee as a Representative for my region as well as the committee's Secretary
- Working with the Office's IT Specialist to re-work the way Office Staff and Volunteers share information and resources when Volunteers are out in the field
- Coordinating the first-ever flash mob in Rwanda

With the exception of that last one (which, let's face it, is pure amusement), all of these projects have taken and are taking majoring chunks of my time. As it stands now, I wake up around 7am and am at school by 7:30am, either teaching or working in the computer lab. I zip home around 1 to each lunch and am back by 2. My time from there to dinner is either filled with more work in the lab or with helping other teachers. I again zip home for dinner at about 6 and am back in the lab after that until 9 or 10pm, which allows students to access the lab during their self-study time. This does sound like a good amount of work, but not too over the top considering that I'm working on my own most of the time, or remotely with other Volunteers. If I were in America, you'd get absolutely no complaints from me. But I am not in America.

Consider the point I was making above about how whenever I am in any way involved with Rwandan culture, I have to mentally process everything. Even after being here for 16 months this is still true, even though sometimes it doesn't feel that way. Sure, I've developed cognitive scripts for the world I find around me now, but that only helps so much. By far the biggest thing it does is lull me into a false sense of adaptivity so I feel like I can take on more responsibility and work. A Peace Corps Volunteer really is working 24/7. Except when we're sleeping, we're always on the clock (do the math and you'll notice a Peace Corps Volunteer gets paid about $0.36 an hour). My mind set on my work in Rwanda functioned quite nicely until I was told by the Peace Corps Doctors that I have so much stress and anxiety in my life that I literally pinched a nerve in my upper back.

And there it is.

The day to day job I do here in Rwanda has become so stressful because I was never taught (or better yet, never learned) how to say 'no.' We operate under this inherent pretense that we will only be serving for two years. Two years and then it's over. I can barely resign myself to go to bed at night and accept the fact that my work for the DAY has to be finished. How am I supposed to look at my service, see that I'm already 16 months in, and NOT feel pressure to hurry it all up and be productive? Weather I like it or not, I'm well past high-noon in my service, and soon enough the sun will be touching the proverbial horizon. Wait, does that mean everything after Peace Corps will be dark? OK, so it's not a perfect metaphor.

So even though I'm on Doctor's orders to remove as much stress as I can from my life until my back is better (a point to which they were very serious, going as far as convincing some of the Volunteers I've been working with to not allow me to help for a while, requesting I stay in my village for a few weeks, and almost taking away my BlackBerry [an idea they rescinded after I pointed how integral THEIRS' was to their work and life]), I cannot help but remember the other thing I heard before coming to Peace Corps almost as much as 'you will be bored':

Peace Corps: the hardest job you'll ever love.

Truth be told, I work myself to death. And I know I do it. I do it not because I feel like I owe this word something (which is an arguable point), but because I truly LOVE what I do here. I could sit in my house all day and watch TV on my computer. I've got a terabyte drive with 200+ movies, 312 seasons of 40 different TV shows, 4024 hours of podcasts and NPR radio shows, 11,000 ebooks for my Kindle and 27 different computer games. Save for electricity actually in my house (which is an issue that is quickly being resolved, more on that later), I never actually need to leave my house. I could sit inside all day, lay in bed while the teen-aged boy I pay $10 a month to do all the chores I don't want to do takes care of all that unpleasant stuff. While I'm not out to fire my house help, I am also not about to become a hermit. I love going out every day and greeting my neighbors, helping my fellow teachers, playing Need For Speed with my computer-literate students, discoverying a typewriter in a locked closet and teaching my favorite student about codes and how to make them by switching the typewriter's keys around. I love meeting with my counterpart at the bar and eating skewered goat covered in hot pepper extract. I thrive for the thrill of opening the lunch pot to see what concoction of random foods Emmanuel has conceived of today. But most of al I love that rush of knowing that this is where I belong. That this is my home now. And I will work myself to the bone (or the pinched nerve in my back, pick your favorite) to help get these people everything they deserve, nothing they don't, and the knowledge to understand the difference.



Monday, February 27, 2012

Let the Blogs Roll

Hey all!

I know, its been quite some time since I lasted posted a blog. I now come at you with renewed vigor. You've got questions? I've got answers. But you do need to ask them first...

If you're new to this list, this is how blogs from me will look. You'll get an email from me mere moments after I hit the 'send' button over here in Africa. Gotta love technology. My blog is also archived at

From there, you'll be able to see ALL of my previous posts as well as some 'bonus content' (now doesn't that sound fancy). I update my blog through the same email you get. Don't worry, its all blind carbon-copied, which also explains why the email you just received has a 'To:' field as my address and not yours. This keep everything on the dl. It also explains that funky subject line you'll see every time. Just a little HTML so you know what the email is but the blog title isn't redundant.

Also, I run a second blog with the Alworth Institute for International Studies from the University of Minnesota Duluth. That blog can be found under the 'web-blog' tab of the alworth's website ( That blog is different than this one, but there may be some overlap.

If you DO NOT wish to receive these emails, just shoot me an email back (a simply 'reply' will do the trick) telling me so and, poof, it'll be done. No hard feelings.

Look for the next blog in about 10 minutes.

-Don't Forget To Be Awesome


I am also required to inform you, yet again, that anything contained in this email and blog (past, present and future up to December of 2012) is solely my own opinion and does not necessarily reflect that of the United States Government, the Government of the Republic of Rwanda, or the United States Peace Corps.

In addition, these writings are protected under federal law and are in the public domain. Therefore, it is not legal to copyright, trademark, and/or sell them in any way. Even I can't do that. Anyone can, however, copy and distribute them by any means.