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…

1 comment:

  1. Amazing stories! And you are an amazing young man! Keep up the good work you are doing! Be safe.