Tuesday, August 20, 2013


I realize I’ve been a little off the grid lately. When I see that my last entry was a whole three months ago I’m amazed at how quickly the summer has flown by, and on top of it, just how busy I was. So much has happened and yet sitting down at the computer to write about it all seems like such a difficult task. I’ll try to summarize as best as I can.

In the beginning of June I headed to Kigali with some other PCVs to take the Foreign Service Officer Test. The test, which is offered twice a year, is a computer based test that quizzes you on your knowledge of currents events, random trivia, the English language, etc. It’s hard and the truth is that there no way to study for it unless you consider reading The Economist everyday studying. This was also my first trip to the US Embassy in Rwanda, which I have to say, is posh. The bathrooms were so…clean! Despite showing up almost an hour early, there were some technical issues, and after waiting another four hours we were told to come back the next day. It really shattered my but everything is perfect in America bubble and reminded me that yes; even in America there are technical issues. After returning the next day we were finally able to take the test, and three weeks later I learned that I had passed and was being sent to the next round for consideration.

The next day of few of us were off to VAT Training. VAT stands for Volunteer at Training, and they assist Peace Corps staff to train new groups that enter the country. I was excited for the opportunity but the quick two-day training on how to be a VAT turned out to be a bust, which seems to be the only way Peace Corps knows how to run a training. Staff was late, unorganized, and there really didn’t seem to be any reason for dragging us all the way out of our sites. The first day I was feeling a little light headed, and by the time I went to bed I broke out into an all out fever. Luckily Darren was there to pile blankets on me, but no matter how many clothes I slept in I was freezing! After vomiting several times throughout the night, I finally caught a little bit of sleep. The next morning I called our Peace Corps Medical Officer, who sent a car out into the country to bring me back to Kigali. Luckily, the initial fear that I had malaria turned out to not be the case. I had some kind of viral infection coupled with a low white blood cell count. I stayed in Kigali for a couple of days and then was released to go back to my house. What followed was about six weeks of off and on fevers, and a constant cough that took almost two months to subside!

The first week of July it was finally my turn to head to Kigali and meet the new Health training group. I stayed at the training site for a week and helped assist in teaching the trainees about nutrition and gardening. All in all it was a very successful time and meeting the new group was refreshing (PCVs tend to get a little negative after a while). Unfortunately for me, I picked the week that had two national holidays; July 1st (Rwanda Independence Day) and July 4th (Rwandan Liberation day, the day the RPF overtook Kigali, effectively kicking out the old regime and ending the 100 day genocide). I spent most of the Fourth of July alone trying to find out how I was going to eat, as all the shops and restaurants were closed. Not the best planning on my part…

Preparing for our cruise!

After a week back at home, I was once again racing across the country to head to our Mid-Service Conference. That’s right, I’m over halfway done with my Peace Corps service! As a special treat, we were being put up in a nice hotel in Kibuye, Rwanda, overlooking the mountains as they plunge down into beautiful Lake Kivu. Yeah…the hotel wasn’t that nice, in fact it was pretty disgusting. Our toilet leaked everywhere, we had bed bugs, and the ice water came out of the shower in a trickle. But I suppose for a Peace Corps volunteer that is luxury. The conference went all right, most of it was tackling issues related to future groups, and so despite it being our Mid Service Conference, it didn’t always feel that way. There were a few good sessions where we were able to reflect on our successes as volunteers, as well as point to the failures and come up with solutions as a group. During the conference our Program Manager kept telling us we were going to finish the conference with a ‘special cruise’ around the islands of Lake Kivu. We were all excited about this special little treat, as Kibuye is jawdroppingly, breathtakingly beautiful. Of course, we later found out, Peace Corps simply reserved the ‘cruise’ for us, we had to pay for it ourselves. Weird. But it was worth it. We took the boat around and headed to an island named ‘Napoleon’s Hat’ (mostly because of it’s shape), which happens to be home to thousands of bats. And yes, our guide was nice enough to descend into the cave and wake them all up so they could fly around us! After our conference was finished I headed back home for about a day, only to leave again for our annual GLOW Camp.

Cristina, a fellow PCV, teaching girls important life skills

GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World, and is a leadership camp for girls that PCVs put on all around the world. Our camp was being held at the Kayonza Modern School where we were able to teach health and life skills to around 80 high school aged girls. The week was fun and exhausting, but I think most volunteers would agree that teaching girls at GLOW and boys at BE (Boys Excelling) are some of the most rewarding parts of service. Of course, the camps are more than just classes; we also do campfires, talent shows, career panels, sports, and this year we were even able to bring in some local artisans to teach the girls how to make traditional Rwandan art (which I should add is made out of cow poop).
Teaching about the biology of HIV/AIDS
Playing games with mosquito nets to teach the importance of malaria prevention

I’m finally back home now and in less than two weeks my dad will be here in Rwanda! I’m excited for a our trip and I’m sure the next entry is going to be pretty entertaining.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Community Kitchen

These past few weeks my Health Center got a group of interns from the Kigali Health Institute who are specializing in nutrition. We’ve been touring the countryside doing different demonstrations and presentations on proper nutrition. Malnourished children are a huge issue in Kirehe District, which is incredible because the soil here is some of the most fertile on the planet. There is no shortage of food and there is an incredible diversity. So what is the issue? It seems to be education, or lack thereof, when it comes to creating a balanced meal.

One activity that I’ve become involved in is the Cuisine Communitaire, and initiative lead by Community Health Workers, where they teach new mothers, or mothers with malnourished children, how to create a healthy and balanced meal. We talk about the different kinds of foods (construction, energy, protection) and how they can mix and match these to create a whole plate. The demonstrations are fun because they are a time to talk about a variety of health issues because cooking for large groups on charcoal stoves takes a long time!

We recently went to a demonstration that was on top of a mountain! Here are some pictures.

Stomping around trying to find the right village.

Community Health Worker teaching about nutrition.

Discussing components of a well-balanced meal.

The kids enjoying their meal! Boiled bananas, beans, peanut flour, and avocado.

Awkward group photo.

Monday, May 6, 2013

World Malaria Day

April 25th was World Malaria Day, a day we set aside to raise awareness about this deadly disease that takes the lives of over one million children every year.  The amazing thing about malaria is that it is incredibly preventable, and thanks to measures taken around the world, the disease has been eradicated in many places. Today, however, it still remains a huge problem in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 90% of all malaria fatalities occur.

The female anopheles mosquito transmits malaria during the hours between dusk and dawn. Because of this limited time frame, it is important that people sleep under a mosquito net each night to prevent bites. Lucky for many Rwandans, the country’s high elevation helps to curb the mosquito population, however here in Rusumo, a low lying area wedged between two large rivers, the malaria cases are exceptionally high and the percentage of the population using a net are exceptionally low. There are many reasons for this; one of the largest reasons is poverty. Even though estimates show that it is more cost effective to prevent rather than treat malaria (example: buying people nets as opposed to buying them Coartem to treat the disease), the problem is that many of the hardest hit countries are too poor to afford simple prevention materials. NGOs and foreign aid play a large role in getting out nets to those in need, but priorities are often pregnant women and young children, leaving many people in the family without a net. Also, despite the constant campaigns to ensure universal net coverage, many people use their nets for fishing, or building a kitchen garden.

Teaching about malaria
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I have neither free nets to distribute nor money to help people buy medicines. Our main goal is to increase awareness and promote education about malaria. The more people we can convince to sleep under a mosquito net and to seek medical care (not the witch doctor!) immediately, the more we can reduce malaria fatalities.

This past Thursday I worked creating some educational malaria posters that discussed issues such as symptoms, prevention methods, and why prevention is important. Together with some of the new interns at my Health Center, we presented the information to people in the waiting room and the lessons went really well! Afterward, some people even came up to ask us questions, which I always take as a good sign. One lady even showed me her mouth full of chancre sores and asked if they came from malaria. (I told her no, but they can be caused by too much stress, sugar, acid, or blowjobs!)

After teaching, I caught a bus to Kigali to meet up with Darren, and we headed south to Butare, the old colonial capital of Kigali. Butare is the largest city in the Southern Province, about two hours south of Kigali and an hour from the border of Burundi. Established by the Germans during colonial times, the city has often served as the ‘intellectual capital’ of Rwanda, while Kigali served as the political capital. Following the war in the 90s, many of the original structures were still left standing, giving the city a fun look and feel, which is missing from most of the rest of the country. The city is also home to the National University, meaning it is full of students and professors.

Darren in the courtyard of Hotel Faucon
 After checking into our hotel, we went on the prowl for good food, of which there was no shortage! I’m guessing I may have spent too much on food, but sometimes you wanna get away from the boiled bananas! One of the highlights was the four-course Menu du Jour at the Hotel Ibis where we had an amazing meal of pâté, vegetable soup, and veal osso buco with pommes frites.

The next day we wandered the mostly empty streets trying to find somewhere to have a cup of coffee. We eventually settled in the Hotel Faucon, an old colonial building that used to house the Belgian Royal family, but this afternoon was housing all the abazungu looking for breakfast. It turns out that Butare was having a Genocide Memorial Day and all shops and restaurants were ordered closed.

National Ethnographic Museum
 Our plan had been to pay a visit to the Rwandan National Ethnographic Museum, and lucky for us it stayed open that day to let us take a look around. Though the admission was pricey ($5, quite a bit for some lowly PCVs!), the museum was incredibly interesting, full of historical artifacts, as well as many photos of the former Kings of Rwanda.

Darren observing the artifacts
 After the memorial ended, the shops reopened and the city picked up. There was even karaoke that went well into the night (try sleeping through that!). We ate dinner at a Chinese Restaurant, appropriately called ‘The Chinese Restaurant,’ and spent most of the night drinking nice cold Primus and enjoying the many amenities of South Province, namely cold beers and running water.

We woke up early Sunday morning and began the long trek home, a journey that included a lot of waiting, bus transfers, and a head on collision with a motorcycle that had us waiting long into the afternoon. After about 8 hours of traveling, I was back home in Rusumo. After watching the umucecuru barf all over the front yard I quietly suggested that maybe I should cook dinner, and made myself a big bowl of spicy chili (all with fresh ingredients!), the perfect dinner for a cold rainy night.

Me in front of a traditional Rwandan home.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

April Showers Bring...

This was a difficult month to be in Rwanda. During April, the rainy season reaches its climax. The days are damp and wet, the nights colder and darker, as the stars hide behind the clouds. My shoes are caked in mud, but there’s little point trying to wash them when there’s little chance of them ever getting dry. April is also the start of the genocide memorial period, a time when the entire country takes a moment to pause, and remember the events of 19 years ago.

On April 7th, 1994, the President of Rwanda was returning from a diplomatic trip to Arusha to settle disputes between the Rwandan government, and the Tutsi rebel armies, who had taken refuge in neighboring Uganda during the preceding decades. As the president’s plane was flying into Kigali, it was shot down around midnight. The official word was that it was the rebels who shot down the plane, but to this day nobody knows. Within minutes the Rwanda genocide began. Many tell me that it’s important to say ‘within minutes,’ so people realize the genocide wasn’t a retaliation against Tutsis for the assassination of the President, but rather a long planned out event that was simply waiting for some kind of catalyst. The first day 10,000 people were killed. The killings lasted for a hundred days. It seems like such a short time, but it was long enough for the seasons to change. Long enough for the rest of the world to turn its back. It was long enough for one million people to be slaughtered.

When the Rwanda Patriotic Front (the current ruling party) took control of Kigali on July 4th, the city was destroyed. 2/3 of the population was displaced, with many Hutus taking refuge in neighboring Congo (then known as Zaire). When the RPF crossed into the Congo, mass atrocities ensued, leading to the Congolese Wars, which are still going on to this day. Since their start, over 6 million people have been killed. The Rwandans say that after God created the world and rested on the seventh day, he chose to sleep on the shores of Lake Kivu, because he viewed it as his most beautiful creation. It’s hard to disagree, Rwanda is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth, but during those 100 days in 1994, it’s hard to believe that God was thinking of Rwanda at all.

On April 14th, Miranda and I attended a memorial service at Nyarubuye church, the scene of one of the most horrific atrocities. The ceremony began with a mass, and lasted a few hours as different speakers (and a few singers) got up to give their remarks. During the service, they also took the time to reopen the mass grave (which holds over 20,000 bodies) in order to bury the 12 new bodies that were found this year. They are still finding bodies. Rwandans, who are normally composed to the point of seeming numb, began to break down. Men and women were crying, some had to be escorted out. It was a jarring sight. After the ceremony Miranda and I went to a local bar to have a beer and talk about what happened. I was feeling fine and returned home only to find the power was out and I was alone. I turned on my computer to watch a movie, and as I was flipping through the various films, something convinced me to turn on the Frontline documentary I have about the atrocity at Nyarubuye. The film shows home video of the RPF visiting the church as they advanced towards Kigali. Lying at the feet of the Jesus statue that adorns the church was the body of a young boy, still wearing his khaki school uniform. His face had been bludgeoned in. It was a surreal sight, especially after having been to the church earlier. At that moment I received a phone call from home, and I couldn’t keep my emotions in check.

A fellow PCV and I had a long talk about serving in Rwanda. The country has a unique history, to say the least. And even though the genocide occurred 19 years ago, there’s no denying the effect it still has on the country. Today the country is stable, but with unrest in the Congo, and stories of rebels committing rape and murder, even out here in Rusumo!, it’s enough to make one on edge.

And sometimes you need to take the edge off!

The day after attending the Nyarubuye memorial I was a mess. I was depressed, unhappy with Peace Corps, unhappy with Rwanda, unhappy with almost everything and desperately needing a vacation. Luckily, some friends and I had one planned, and not a moment too soon! That Monday I took a bus to Kigali to meet up with some friends, and then we went north to spend the night with some fellow PCVs. It’s always fun to visit other volunteers, and I usually end up being thankful I don’t have to take the awful motorcycle rides that a lot of my colleagues end up having to take to their sites. Motos+rocky roads+steep cliffs do not make for a fun journey! After some beers and cooking by candlelight, we went to bed and woke early the next morning, ready to cross into Uganda. Though the two countries share a border, they are a world apart. Uganda is more relaxed, the people seem a little friendlier, and…did I mention they speak English? (In a small note of defense to Rwanda, Uganda was way dirtier and made me realize that Kigali is a freakishly clean city)

The first few days were spent on Lake Bunyonyi, a beautiful lake full of small islands and surrounded by terraced mountainsides. The pictures I took are really nice, but as always, dwarfed by the reality of the place. To get to the hostel we had to take a dugout canoe, which proved a lot more difficult to paddle than I was expecting. By the time we arrived, we were exhausted and famished, and lucky for us, the hostel had an amazing restaurant with a menu full of fresh seafood dishes. Also, it was incredibly cheap which is pretty amazing considering we were on an island with nowhere to go! During the night we slept in a geodome, which is like a giant bamboo hut that opened up to a deck overlooking the lake. It was truly paradise. The high elevation meant incredibly cold nights, but the hostel was prepared with thick blankets (and luckily we all had our sleeping bags!).

After enjoying a little slice of heaven, we boarded the Post Bus (literally the bus that delivers the Post!) and began the long and arduous trek to Kampala. Nine hours on bad roads made for a few crabby passengers, and lucky for Kampala it has fast food. We stumbled into the nearest burger joint and were soon refueled and excited. We slept in an old soap factory turned hotel, and the next morning woke early to head for Jinja, to go rafting on the headwaters of the Nile River.

Rafting the Nile

The whitewater rafting was truly the highlight of the trip. Even someone as terrified as me (I said go easy while everyone else in my group was begging for wild and crazy), I have to admit that it was terrifying and fun and I loved every minute of it.

Of course my incredibly burnt kneecaps might ask me to say otherwise.

We took the night bus back, which of course was not without problems, but we finally made it back to Kigali Monday morning. The vacation definitely helped to lift my spirits, and made me excited to get back to site, something which I would have never though possible a week earlier.

Since my return, things have been going really well. There is a new group of interns at the Health Center, and they are a lot of fun and seem interested in working with me. All of my time working in the Family Planning clinic paid off as I assisted one of the nurses with a Community Health Worker training on family planning. My biggest contribution was the always-important condom demonstration, and lucky for me my health center doesn’t have one of those wimpy wooden dildos. Someone, somewhere, managed to get a giant, black, veiny, rubbery one that made for a very complicated and yet very funny demonstration!

So I’m feeling good, and counting down the days to my year anniversary here in Rwanda (May 10th)!!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Balancing Act

I realize that I’ve been very bad about updating this blog. Which, in my defense, I knew I would be before I even started. As I pass the 10-month mark of my service I’ve finally become comfortable with work and life in the village. Of course, in terms of blogging this means I feel like I never have anything interesting to write about, and sometimes it takes talking to someone outside of Rwanda to remind myself that yes…my life is still weird.

The local watering hole.

I had finally made a new friend at work. He was about my age and spoke a little bit of English and we hit it off well. He would come to visit before we started work in the various services and we would chitchat about various things going on in the Health Center. One day my roommate had to leave for an all day meeting at the District Office, so I decided to invite my new friend over for lunch. I was debating what to make, boiled bananas or rice and beans? I went up to ask him, and we were having a nice conversation, when all of a sudden the police showed up, cuffed him, dragged him out of the Health Center, and threw him in the back of the cop car. Apparently he had fake credentials as a nurse and is now in prison. Even more alarming is that this is a nation wide problem (estimates say 10% are working with fake credentials!!) and the government chose that day for their purge. I still never found out if he was coming to dinner.

*   *   *

In an attempt to get away from the Health Center every so often, I have begun an English club at the local High School. The first activity we’ve been doing is a weekly debate, and it’s been going very well! The students decide on a debate topic early in the week and then various classes are assigned to argue the opposing sides. Throughout the week I stop in to make sure everything is going well, and then Friday evening is the big event! I say that because it actually is the big event in the village with various local celebrities attending, including the Health Center muzungu. Because I’m a celebrity. The most exciting thing about the debates is the crazy topics they pick (Marriage: all about love or money? For example) and some of the crazy answers that come up. I’m trying to encourage the teachers to participate in a little bit of the Socratic Method, so that students are forced to defend the things they are arguing, but that’s still a ways to go. With exams coming up the club is going to be on hold for a few weeks, but when we return in April, I’m hoping to add a drama component and maybe even put on a play!

*   *   *

Recently, my High School literature teacher spent a month in Nairobi, but made the trip over to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. We agreed to meet up during her trip, and I made the trek into Kigali to see her and her travel companions. We ended up taking a crazy bus ride (record time, but way too scary to handle) back to my village, where I showed them around the Health Center, school, and community. They stayed in a hostel in my market town and I think overall they had a great experience. I enjoyed having a little bit of Wisconsin come to my community, and having them buy me dinner and drinks didn’t hurt either! Also, when you’re High School literature teacher ask what she can bring you to make your experience in Rwanda better, I gave the only answer that makes sense: red wine.

Of course, the week after they left I fell ill. Recently, I had been bragging about my seemingly super immune system. Almost a year in and I haven’t been sick even once! Obviously, everything that was avoiding me decided to hit me all at once. I had a nasty head cold with a fever which turned into the worst diarrhea of my life followed a nasty juicy cough that has all the villagers convinced I’m a TB patient. Literally, I’ve heard the word tuberculosis whispered as I walk past. I think I’m better now. I’ve taken about every drug concoction my little med kit allows but I still can’t hear out of either ear.

*   *   *

In every other aspect, life is normalizing. I have my favorite shops, my favorite people at work, the paths I walk to decompress, and my favorite TV shows. In many ways, it’s like life back home, except in four different languages. And with hills.

But as comfortable as life is becoming, there are still the moments that jar you and make you remember you’re not in Kansas anymore. The other day I was sitting in my room when the power went out, which is becoming the norm around 8PM. It was quiet except for the sounds of the crickets outside, when I could hear a screaming. It started softly, and I estimated it to be coming from the Health Center, but then I could hear running and scuffling, and soon the screaming was coming from the road right outside my window. I couldn’t understand every word he was saying, but some things ring very clear: he was screaming that the genocide is starting again.

At the moment I was alone and scared. I’m never sure how serious to take these things. When my roommate finally returned home I was relieved to see him and ask him what was going on. It turns out someone entered the man’s home with a machete and took a chunk out of his head. He ran to the Health Center but soon became delirious and wouldn’t allow any Hutu to touch him. According to my roommate, he ran off down the road still bleeding heavily. The moment scared me for a number of reasons, but the biggest one was the realization that no matter how ‘integrated’ I think I am, I’ll still always be in the dark.

I try not to think about things like that too much, and instead focus on the blessings I have here in Peace Corps. I have a great family of PCVs here. We look out for each other and support each other through the tough times. I also live in a country that is jaw droppingly beautiful. Whenever I’m feeling down, a quick walk amongst the Thousand Hills provides me with clarity of mind. Being a volunteer is balancing act in more ways than one, and so far I’ve managed to avoid tipping too far to one end.

Rusumo Falls

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Conferences, Camps, and the Congo

The past three weeks have been incredibly busy for me and only now am I finding time to sit down, take a deep breath, and reflect on everything that has happened. A few weekends ago I invited my friend Sara over to help me with my patio design. While the district office finally came and took away their stuff, the walls were still filthy. I spent a few days scrubbing them as best as I could and then made the trek to my nearest strip of shops, about 3 kilometers away, and bought a few kilos of paint. Sara and I woke up early Sunday morning (quite an accomplishment, considering how many beers we had the day before) and began sketching out the design. Once we began painting we had a small audience, which seemed to grow by the hour. By the time we were finished many of my coworkers were coming over to do photo shoots in front of the wall. One of the walls we painted was plain white so I cut up a stencil in the shape of Africa and painted it in black. That was a big hit and I’ve received quite a few requests to borrow my stencil.

As soon as we finished the painting and Sara left, I came down with a pretty nasty cold. I couldn’t find any Kleenexes in the village, so I resorted to blowing my nose with sandpaper what passes for toilet paper around here and, needless to say, I had a pretty red nose for a while. Had it been any other week I could’ve just laid around in bed but no sooner had I put down the paintbrush I was on a bus bound for Kigali to attend the 8th Annual Pediatric Conference at the Serena Hotel. This year’s conference theme was Community Engagement in the Fight Against Children Infected and Affected by HIV/AIDS. These kinds of events can go one of two ways here in Rwanda: either they are incredibly effective or a total bust. Usually though, you get some kind of goodies, and seeing as it was held at the Serena Rwanda’s only 5 star hotel, where lunch would be provided, I jumped on the chance to attend.

The first day was opening ceremonies, which were long and boring and full of a lot of speeches. We were told to report the next morning at 8:30 to officially begin the conference. Knowing Rwandan culture we arrived around 9:00, and at about 10:00 the presentations actually got underway. The event was kind of a good place to rub shoulders with some of the who’s who of the Rwandan Healthcare System. The Minister of Health was there, along with the Director of Partners in Health in Rwanda. Several specialists from all over East Africa, Europe, and America were also in attendance, many presenting on their abstracts related to the HIV/AIDS situation within the country. The conference proved to be an interesting forum for doctors, NGO workers, local politicians, and even a few Peace Corps volunteers to share ideas, disseminate information presented, and make recommendations for the future. Of course, with any conference of this nature, there was a fair share of controversies. Some of the presentations touched on the underground homosexual community Kigali, prevalence of oral sex amongst young people, and the growing influence of pornography. While many of the suggestions given by politicians were unsurprising (“I think a simple solution is to outlaw homosexual acts,” “I call on all internet providers to block any webpage carrying pornography!”), it was also very refreshing to hear some of the more cosmopolitan members of Rwandan society refute these ideas and seek practical solutions to the problem.

One discussion that went on for quite some time dealt with the complete absence of sexual lubricant in the country. Intercourse that isn’t properly lubricated (either the women isn’t aroused, or a couple is engaging in anal sex) greatly increases the risk of transmission because of the risk of genital tearing. One doctor mentioned how many in the gay community have begun using car and vegetable oil as a substitute, but this isn’t safe by any means. Couple this lack of available lubricant with an extremely low rate of condom usage, and you have a true problem on your hands. A small debate broke out with many people offering different ideas when finally the head of the Rwanda Biomedical Center stood and mentioned that the center has ordered a whole shipment of lube to be distributed to Health Centers across the countries. Talk about fast acting!

The conference wasn’t always so engaging, and many of the recommendations made at the end are sure to be ignored, but I found it to be a rewarding experience overall. I also was able to meet and talk with people working in the healthcare system at a much higher level and pick their brains about concerns that I’ve seen within system. For example, one administrator questioned the audience about the low rate of condom usage among young males. ‘What is the reason for this?’ he asked. Many of the answers were a rehash of the same old same old. After the session ended I rushed over to him to offer my view, that the complete lack of privacy within Health Centers plays a role in curbing boys from going there for condoms (as well as young girls seeking birth control).

I feel that in addition to all of the positive things I’ve said about the conference, I should also point out the best part of all was the free lunch. They certainly didn’t skimp out on quality and though I may have embarrassed myself a little bit by practically running to the buffet line to be the first one, I have no regrets and I was able to have a very delicious Thanksgiving dinner.

As soon as the conference ended I was on another bus headed for Rwamagana to attend the BE Camp that our group of volunteers in the Eastern Province was putting on. BE stands for Boys Excelling, and it’s an opportunity for Secondary School boys to attend a five-day camp focused on leadership, life skills education, and just plain fun! Many of the boys applied to attend the camp and then about 3-4 were selected from each school.

Without a doubt, the camp was one of the best things I’ve done yet in Rwanda. Being a Health Volunteer can often be a bit depressing seeing as you are constantly working with issues such as HIV and malnutrition, so it was nice to have a small break and work with an incredibly intelligent group of young boys. I took on a few roles; one was as the head of Monitoring and Evaluation, which basically means I was the asshole who got to test the boys over and over again to determine the effectiveness of the camp. I also taught a lesson on Goals and Good Decision Making which wasn’t nearly as exciting as teaching Myths about HIV/AIDS I’m sure, but I think it made for a good lesson overall. Many young boys you talk to will tell you about how they want to eventually go to university, and then when they are finished they want to become doctors and teachers. My lesson was a chance for them to identify a goal and create a Plan of Action on how they are going to feasibly achieve what they’ve set their mind on.

Much of the free time was spent just having fun. We played volleyball and soccer, some of my colleagues even taught the boys how to bake bread on a charcoal stove (I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was among the crowd eager to learn the recipe). Each night we hosted an array of different activities; one night we had a small-scale carnival, another night was the talent show, and we also managed to have a bonfire complete with s’mores! Before the bonfire started we asked each of the boys to write down a barrier that they’ve come across in their lives, then once we gathered around the fire the boys were invited to share their story and throw the ‘barrier’ into the fire. Hearing the boys, many of them living in poverty or orphans from the genocide, tell their stories was one of the most powerful moments of the camp.

BE Camp ended on Saturday with a low-key ceremony that was held in the school’s Great Hall. Each of the boys’ groups was invited to do their ‘cheer’ which they had come up with the first day, and then we stood in a large circle for the candle lighting ceremony. The ceremony begins when one candle is lit and then the flame is passed from person to person until everyone is holding an illuminated candle. The idea behind it is that just one person has the ability to share information with a huge group, and we are hoping that many of the boys will be leaders in their communities when they head home. As we began lighting each candle one by one, one of the visually impaired students in attendance picked up his guitar and began singing Silent Night. Glancing around at the Americans in the room, I could see many of us were getting teary eyed. As soon as the ceremony ended, we handed out t-shirts and certificates, took a fair amount of pictures, harassed many of the campers to finish packing and then sent them on their way.

The rest of Saturday was spent cleaning up and once we had finally finished, a few of us headed to the bar to decompress after an incredibly successful week. After a brief snafu with the ATM in Rwamagana, I was able to withdraw my December stipend money and head back to Rusumo after two weeks away!

The past two weeks haven’t been all fun though. Right before we left we had received word that the M23 rebel group (believed by many everyone to be partly supported and financed by Rwanda) had invaded and taken control of the Congolese city Goma. Goma lies just across the border from Rubavu, one of the larger cities in the north of Rwanda. Within days bombs were flying across both sides of the border and we quickly received word that we were forbidden from traveling to that region. Several of the volunteers living there were moved to Kigali and have recently found out they won’t be able to return back to their sites. For many volunteers, these two weeks have been tense as we are constantly checking BBC news to hear the latest updates. Personally, I feel safe. Which is good for me. But the stories coming from the border are devastating. Over 200,000 people have been displaced. Many are fleeing into Rwanda with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They are sleeping on the road, bare, during the rainy season. The rebels have left Goma but are returning in civilian clothes, still maintaining unofficial control of the region. The Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda’s main source of tourism) has been deemed unsafe for American tourists by the United States Embassy. Just this week one of the gorilla trekkers, who guides around tourists, was killed.

The Congolese Wars, combined with the Rwandan genocide, are some of the greatest tragedies of this century. The loss of life is second only to World War II. These are people just like you and me who were born into one of the poorest and most conflicted places on the planet. It’s not fair and it’s not right.

So there are a lot of emotions all around. Being in Peace Corps is an incredibly bipolar experience. There are days where you are so happy you have to call up your friend to tell them about the amazing thing that happened to you. And then there are days, weeks even, when you are feeling down and useless and you realize no matter how idealistic you are, the answer to fighting poverty and conflict is way above your pay grade.

But for the time being, I’m happy, and looking forward to tomorrow…

Monday, November 19, 2012

After IST

The two weeks I’ve been back at site since our In-Service training have been uneventful and rather depressing. With my roommate gone at trainings, my counterpart teaching Community Health Workers, and the secondary school students heading back home after finishing their term, it’s been rather dead around here. Because of this my focus has been mostly on preparing for the future and tending to Operation Home Beautification. Because, simply put, I have a really ugly house which is why you haven’t seen any pictures of it on the internet…yet.

During our training in Musanze we invited some of our coworkers to join us for the last few days. These sessions were dedicated to project design and management, and I found the whole experience to be extremely gratifying. My coworkers and I seemed to be all on the same page and we actually came up with some great, albeit very ambitious, project plans. My one coworker is just awesome. She’s incredibly feisty and not afraid to tell it like it is, and possibly a little crazy. Which I fully admit I am too, so we seem to work together quite well. During the training one of my friends ran up to me during a coffee break and told me my coworker was in the hotel courtyard digging up plants. Baffled as to why, I ran into her as she was hauling away the booty and asked what she was doing with all of the hotel’s plants. ‘Taking them back to our house, duh.’ I watched her walked out the friend door, right in front of the hotel staff, with a stack of exotic plants in tow. Seeing as we live next to each and these new plants would undoubtedly make my home look a little better, I really had no problem with her plan. I was just amazed at how ballsy it was. The day after we got back we planted some of the plants she stole borrowed, and I took advantage of the colorful new flower pots I bought in Kigali.

Plants from the hotel courtyard.
My next order of business was to turn my entire front yard into a garden. We are currently in the rainy season and the soil is nice and fertile and just waiting for some cultivating. One morning I woke up early, grabbed my hoe, and began tilling the yard to get it ready for a garden. I quickly caught sight of the umucecuru peering at me through the window and I knew there was no way in hell she was going to let the skinny American boy work in the front yard without a comment. Before long she was heading out, hoe in hand, and began helping me. After a few grueling minutes we both stopped, ready to pass out. She told me this is some of the toughest land she’s ever worked (she’s a farmer, and pretty old so I guess that means something) but for one thousand Rwandan Francs (roughly $1.50) I could pay someone to do it all for me. I told her to make the call and I’m currently interviewing applicants.

See the small patch of dirt in the corner?
That's as far as I got...
My other big project has been turning the abandoned storage space across from my house into a patio area where I can entertain guests. The space, which I didn’t pay much mind to originally, has become the de facto dumping ground for the Health Center and Sector office. Amid agriculture equipment and broken chairs, one can also find unburned boxes of used syringes and bottles of expired pills. My goal to turn junky haven into Ian’s Heaven hasn’t been easy. It took no less than two weeks of prodding for the Sector office to come get their stuff, and I am still waiting on someone from the District Hospital to come and dispose of the medical stuff. I’ve already purchased some buckets of paint and I’m hoping to paint a mural on the back wall with a Rwandan imigongo design.

My future patio, complete with used needles and expired pills!
So despite the relative boringness of these past few weeks, the rest of 2012 is panning out to be quite busy for me. I’m leaving tomorrow for Kigali where I will attend a pediatric conference on working with children who suffer from HIV/AIDS. After the conference I’m heading to Rwamagana (a town about an hour outside of the capitol) to work at a boys camp for the weeks. I’m going to be teaching lessons related to good decision making skills and am also in charge of the monitoring and evaluation of the camp. Which, basically means I’m the guy who is going to be constantly testing the kids and recording the results, I’m sure to be everyone’s best friend. After ten days away from site I’m going to return home, but just for a few days because then I’m heading to the South Province to attend the wedding of the host parents I lived with during training.

The good news about slow weeks is that so far they have few and far between. Time is flying and I’m sure that before I know, it’s going to be the New Year!