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, September 23, 2013

The American Problem

(Or) How English Lexicon Exhibits Signs of Psychosis


We hear it all the time. African civil war. African politics.  The Aids Epidemic in Africa. The 'African Problem.'


We speak of Africa as one entity. We speak of Africa as if all its trials, tribulations, pitfalls, successes, shortcoming, hurdles, and yes, its problems, were one thing. One really big thing. We speak of it in the same way we speak of other large things. We speak about it like we speak about countries. Sovereign states. Whole entities that are governed and represented by one set of people across the whole.


This idea of seeing Africa as one contiguous entity is not new. The word Africa actually comes from the Romans, who used the Punic term 'Afri' to denote people from the city of Carthage (in present-day Tunisia). Roman historians determined that this term itself derived from Epher, the son of Abraham who settled the region.  The Romans added the Latin suffix –ica to words to denote lands (like Britannica), hence, Africa. Because the Romans had little contact with other people from the continent (besides the Numidians and the Egyptians), it would have been common for them to refer to anyone from the southern continent as African. Combine that with Roman conquest and cultural domination of Europe, and we see the Western adage of Africa.


Africa, which is a whole CONTINENT (something not everyone knows), contains 54 sovereign nations. It is home to 1.1 billion people (over 3 times as many as in the Unites States). Somewhere between 1000 and 2000 languages are spoken in Africa (yes, there are so many that we cannot even agree on the number to two significant figures). Over 50 independent currencies. 11 million square miles. 30 million square kilometers. 6 time zones.


So when we say the 'African Problem,' we're talking about a whole lot of diversity here. It's literally the most diverse continent on the planet. Chew on that for a little bit.


But this article is called the African Problem. It's called the American Problem.


Ask anyone in Africa what an American is. You'll struggle with the wordage for a bit, but they're eventually say one of three key phrases. USA. Les Etats-Unis d'Amerique. The United States of America.


True, 'American' is officially listed as a demonym of the United States. Otherwise we'd be calling ourselves the United Statians (actually, much of the Spanish and French world do have words in usage that mean just that…it only really sounds funny in English). Even in Kinyarwanda, the word in Umunyamerika.


Am I an American? Yes. Is someone from, say, Chile, an American? Yes, but they wouldn't call themselves it. And that's the point.


We don't clump together America like we do Africa. The Western world has this one singular notion of what it is to be African, but a very fragmented notion of what it is to be from the Americas; to be an American.


The two American continents (from now on let's just call them America) together are 1.5 times the land area of Africa. America has 35 sovereign states (plus eight UK territories, three overseas collectives and three overseas departments of France, three public bodies and three constituent countries of the Netherlands, two unincorporated territories of the United States, and a very lonely autonomous country belonging to Denmark). That's a total of 58 separate recognized entities. That also makes it the most colonized place on the globe.


At first European contact, the Americas boasted approximately 1800 languages. Of those, 468 are known to still be in use today. America has 972 million people (just 130 million shy of Africa), spans 11 time zones, holds both the northern-most and southern-most points of land on Earth, and stretches north to south a total of 8,700 miles. America also holds 40% of all Christians in the world. To further purge the issue, the United States isn't even the largest player on the twin continents. New York City, the US's largest city by population, comes in third behind Mexico City and Sao Paulo, Brazil. The combined nominal GDPs of America would be about 21 trillion dollars (actually, 21,139,299,000,000 USD), which not only eclipses all of Europe, but is double that of the combined GDPs of Asia, Africa, and Oceania.


What all these statistics about America have in common is that they are all unfair. The twin American continents may have a powerhouse GDP, but also includes economies like Haiti (with a per capita GDP of $771), Nicaragua ($1,754), and Honduras ($2,264) compared to USA's $49,965 and Canada's $52,219. America is so northern-heavy, especially when it comes to financial matters and quality of health care, that any policy applied to all of America would either hurt the Northern countries or be ineffective in the southern countries.


The whole unfairness of the problem can be boiled down to one extreme comparison; taking an economic policy devised to help… say… Rwanda and applying it to the whole of Africa would be like taking a policy devised for Haiti and applying it to all of America, including Canada and the United States.


We don't talk about the twin American continents as one America, and for good reason. America is so financially, racially, ethnically, linguistically, educationally, historically, and geographically diverse that any broad statement would be wrong on so many levels. We might refer to North America and South America, but even those lines are a little blurred, like the geographical versus economic association of Central America (just pick a side already, amiright???).


So why do we talk about Africa as if it shares all its problems? Yes, Africa has unstable countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it also has Botswana, hailed as the most stable, democratic, and transparent countries on the continent and one of the few former colonies to have never experienced instability since independence. Then there are the economic powerhouses, like Equatorial Guinea and South Africa, but also weaker economies, like Burundi. Treating Africa as one entity with one set of problems that can be solved with one set of policies is no fairer than doing the same to America.


So what is the American Problem? We don't have an all-encompassing problem in America, and neither does Africa. The African Problem is a sham; a tool used as an easy way to pretend we know and care about the region with little to no effort of understanding.
How do we go about solving the African and the American Problems? Start by recognizing that they don't exist and finish by doing some basic research on Africa. This would be a decent place to start understanding mondern African culture and media.


Newly featured: read the professionals saying it better than I just did.


Keep up to date on what's going on in the world here, here, and here. Also, have a look at this, this, and this. Surprises behind every link!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sway _or_ How I Ended Up Still in Africa

A lot has changed in the past 12 months.

For those of you that do not know, I completed my original Peace Corps Service in November of 2012. When my training group of 71 arrived in October of 2010, none of us were truly prepared for everything we were about to go through. 25 months later, all of us had walked through a life-changing experience, but the 48 of us that remained had truly seen some amazing things.

5 of us chose to stay.

In late September of 2012, Peace Corps Rwanda's Country Director, Dr. Steve Miller, asked me to consider an extension of my service. He had joined the post in May of 2012, along with our new Director of Programming and Training, Bryan Dwyer. Over the course of Steve's first six months, he had started instituting a number of changes. He reworked the way the Volunteer Advisory Council supports and represents the Volunteer Community to Staff in addition to clarifying the role of Volunteers in development and in Rwanda. Steve was also looking at bringing on a Volunteer Leader.

Volunteer Leaders are Third Year Volunteers, that is, Volunteers that have finished their traditional service and chosen to extend for an addition year to help the post with matters somewhere between what Volunteers do and what Staff do. Traditionally, Volunteer Leaders help support the Volunteer Community by not only acting as a go-between from Staff to Volunteers (and vice versa), but also in serving as the first-line of defense in Volunteer support. From fielding questions about how to get around the country to welcoming new Trainees and finding ways to improve the ability of Volunteers to serve, Volunteer Leaders provide highly relevant experience and dedication to an organization that traditionally has a hard time keeping up with the innovations of the modern age and the capabilities of its Volunteers.

Dr. Miller's proposal was that I extend as a Volunteer Leader with 2 main scopes of work. He wanted me to serve as that front line of support to Volunteers, thereby providing a person who worked in the Peace Corps office, but was still a Volunteer and could relate to and understand both Volunteers and Staff, removing some of the burden off of Staff who have been spending considerable time on support issues that were outside of their job descriptions. He also wanted me to use my knowledge of technology, both in Rwanda and back home, to help reinvent the way Peace Corps Rwanda uses technologies and integrate more of their use into the life and service of the Volunteer. They even let me pick my own title; Technology Integration Coordinator.

So I was offered a position that basically allowed me to identify defunct pieces of our post and fix them, in addition to helping my fellow Volunteers manage their services. After two years of living and serving in Rwanda, it would have been incredibly hard to pass up the opportunity to reshape the post in any way I could. I accepted the position with little hesitation. In November of 2012, instead of moving back to the United States, I moved to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. In my mind, I was still embarking on the next chapter of my life.

The realities of serving as a Volunteer Leader, just like those of serving as a Volunteer, weren't quite what I was told to expect. While it's a great idea to have a Volunteer who relates to both Volunteers and Staff, I quickly discovered that neither Staff nor Volunteers would claim me as their own. I was constantly stuck between two worlds that both created artificial and nuanced reasons to see themselves as different. The Volunteers are no longer simply my friends. They are now mostly people I helped train, people whose hands I held during their early days of service. I now have a commitment to serve them just as they have a commitment to serve their communities. They are my village, my school, my health center, my Rwanda.

In the same light, the Staff that I work with now is the same Staff from my normal service. My old Program Manager, who was my Peace Corps boss for two years, is now supposed to work with me as just another Staff member. No matter what I do or how well I do it, the Staff will always see me as a Volunteer first.

All that said, I love my job. I have free reign over what I do when, what projects I work on and who I work with on them. I have the free time to also partner with other organizations in Kigali and still continue to serve the real Rwanda, even if it is the Kigali Rwanda and not the rural Rwanda I know and love so much. On the whole, extending my service was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

But now I'm faced with the same question I was faced with a year ago. What do I do in 4 months?

My new service ends in January of 2014. This gives me 4 months to determine what I do after Peace Corps. Dr. Miller has already uttered the term 'fourth year' more than once, which is usually greeted from me by quickly plugging my ears and singing the national anthem.  While I really do love my job and Peace Corps Rwanda, it's about time to come home.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more updates coming your way. In the meantime, stay up to date with what's happening with the world, the Syrian Disarmament, and the Rwandan elections taking place this morning. Also, take some time to understand more about Generation Y GYPSYs, Rwanda President Paul Kagame, and the 9/11 Falling Man Photo

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Aaaaand We're Back (Almost)

It has now been 7 months since I have written a blog.
That's about to change.
Well, not right now. I have a few things to take care of this week. Then it will be up.
Prepare yourselves.


Monday, February 11, 2013

The 25 List

I originally started this this past November, but was unable to finish it because I left it on my office computer while I was in America. Read on
In accordance with the fact that I have now been in Rwanda for 25 months (and the fact that I just turned 25), here are 25 things I didn't know when I left America:

25) Making a list of things to Google is nowhere near as effective as actually Googling them.
24) There is, in fact, such a thing as 'bad music.' Justin Beiber is currently running as its President.
23) Ask me to live without running water, fine. Ask me to live with a decent bed, I will cut you.
22) Avocadoes:  not so bad.
23) Hot showers are not counted as NEEDS, although they should be.
22) I can stare at a blank wall for 45 minutes before I begin to question why I am staring at a blank wall.
21) Alcohol made from pineapple = delicious. Alcohol made from bananas or sorghum = not.
20) Sarcastically talking back to Rwandans in English might not improve the situation, but it does make me feel a whole lot better.
19) Money isn't everything, but it is something. And if you spend all of it before the month is out, it becomes real hard to buy food.
20) I will read any book. Except Twilight.
19) Never underestimate the ability to use Google properly.
18) I cannot grow a beard. No, you cannot see the photos.
17) A flush toilet is always better that a pit latrine, except when the water goes out. That's when the 'flushing' part becomes complicated.
16) If you use a laptop for 6 hours every day, it's going to die on you.
15) Beer in Rwanda does not solve your problems. It just distracts you with its horrible taste so you can forget about the problems for 5 minutes.
14) American candy is a universally accepted form of currency.
13) Solving a Rubik's cube: not that hard. Getting people to care that you can solve a Rubik's cube: much, much harder.
12) Sleeping under a Princess-style mosquito net does not make you a princess. It makes you not have Malaria.
11) A college education does not prepare you for life; it prepares you to be able to prepare for life.
10) Drinking untreated water = bacterial diarrhea. It's simple math people.
9) A degree in Media Communication Technology and Social Scientific Research is mostly useless until you find yourself in charge of communication technology for a group of possible research subjects.
8) "War and Peace" By Leo Tolstoy is my Kryptonite; I can never get past the first dozen pages, and I've read "Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe," "Tony Blair: A Journey," "Before European Hegemony," "Ideology: An Introduction," and the Fifth Edition of "Diffusion of Innovations" in an attempt to put it off.
7) Regardless of what Ted Mosby thinks, a Pros and Cons list is NOT a scientific, reliable, or unbiased way of making a decision.
6) The single greatest travesty ever imposed on the American People by the entertainment industry was the cancellation of Firefly.
5) A concrete house CAN catch on fire.
4) It is common knowledge that intellectual property should be protected, but also that every person has the right to download EVERYTHING for free.
3) Personal space is a highly Western notion that is just as inconceivable to many rural Africans as family planning is.
2) Never, EVER underestimate the power of communicating with someone in their native language.
1) Sometimes, you just have to take action. Sitting around and thinking about it for too long is only straining your ability to process reality. Stop contemplating, get off your butt, and go get some things done. So they may not be perfect, they may not even have worked, but at least you had the courage to DO something and the foresight to learn from it. You did learn something, right?
More coming your way soon