Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Bleeding Heart Show

[please listen to the song “Vagabond” by Wolfmother if you’d like a soundtrack for this post]
I don’t necessarily consider myself a bleeding heart.  Then I start to recount the interactions I’ve had as of late, and the way I feel about people around here.   And it hits me.  As the once popular hip hop song declares, I’m sprung.  I feel like my interest, trust, fascination, admiration and respect for the people I’m working and living with in this country grows daily.  My kinyarwanda is no where near perfect- it can barely pass for “conversational,” but even with a hefty language barrier, I am able to have intelligent conversations, fun conversations, and everything in between.  
The catalyst for wanting to begin to broach this topic via blog post?  I was visited the other evening by two girls who are in my Senior 3 class.  Calls of “mwirirwe” (good afternoon) were sounded in my courtyard around 4:00, Sunday afternoon, and I was pissed that someone wanted to come in and interrupt my reading.  I begrudgingly answered the door, and to my (pleasant) surprise, I saw two of my favorite young girls.  Kabila and Drocelle came to say hi and hang out for an hour or so.  I invited them in and reasoned that I had no cause to be perturbed (after all, I had been reading for hours before they called) and instead decided that I would be happy to be their entertainment for the afternoon.  I ended up sharing two copies of National Geographic with them and our conversations went all over the place!  We talked about serious things like HIV/AIDS, what they want to be when they grow up, the differences between industrialized societies and traditional societies, and more casual topics like boyfriends, and the difference between the words ‘like’ and ‘love.’  If anyone is a fan of kitschy teenager girl movies, then you will sympathize with me: I wanted to say something along the lines of “I like my sketchers, but I love my prada backpack.”  After instantly evaluating that such a quote would soar over my students heads, I settled for “I like this book, but I love my mother.”  Or something along those lines.  What I really should say is that I love those students.  They are always ready to talk with me, ask me questions, converse, help me organize the library and they seem to be genuinely interested in talking with me.  
I have had similarly positive interactions with my community members as of late.  It truly takes a good deal of effort to go out and “integrate” like Peace Corps demands, but I find that when I do make the effort, it pays off.  And as time goes on, it seems to take less effort on my part.  The people here know my name, they know that I’m American and they know that I’m a teacher.  I hear resounding calls of “Allisoni” echoing through the valley during my walk to the market, I have total strangers greet me as “teacher,” and I even get the snide (but well-intentioned) “umuzungu wacu.”  “Muzungu wacu” essentially means “our white person.”  Not exactly the most poetic pet named I’ve ever been donned, but I’ll take it.  The point is, the people in my community have taken a liking to me... and if they don’t actively like me, they at least tolerate and respect me.  That’s all I could ask for.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of walking home from the near-by market town in the evening.  And on all occasions, I’ve been fortunate enough to find a lovely walking companion (or 6) to talk with.  Rwandans seem to never really want to do something alone.  When I tell my colleagues that I’m alone at my home (ie, when Jane is gone for the weekend) they say “Ah, you must call someone to stay with you!”  They constantly remind me that “to go alone” is not as good as “going” (read: walking/ traveling) with someone else.  This is a fairly social society.  One in which you greet your neighbors, and take time to ask about the news of their family; people will talk to complete strangers if they have a question/ curiosity about what’s going on; and, generally, people seem to watch out for each other.  
Which brings me back to my original purpose for this post: the reality that I’m falling in love with this place.  No, it’s not perfect.  In fact, it’s certainly un-perfect, but that just makes me like it more.  I can notice problems that at times make my blood boil with frustration.  But then I notice that my colleagues are also frustrated and I take it that nothing is going to be perfect out here.  There are more obstacles than advantages, problems seem to proliferate on the hillsides, and there are many people who likely have no interest in developing their country.  This country is developing, however, and in my opinion, the Rwandan people are on the right track.  I can especially notice this in my students.  I would say I live in a moderately rural and isolated area.  Many folks here never leave the vicinity of our village, but it’s not so inaccessible that I don’t see people coming and going (even foreigners from time to time).  My students, who come from poor rural families, have aspirations for education and development and a earnest interest in advancing their status.  This is the sort of enthusiasm that I was hoping to encounter, and it makes me hopeful for my students futures.  
[Now, not all students have an undying desire to achieve great things- these are teenagers we’re talking about.  And, believe it or not, a teenager is a teenager- be they American or Rwandan.]
The problem I find myself arriving at, is that I can’t help these kids.  I feel that, at best, I will be able to attribute to some level of education or critical thinking, and that when they’re adults they’ll remember the crazy American teacher they had back in 2011.  But I can’t enable them to fulfill their potentials.  They have to do that themselves.  And it’s tough.  Finding money for school is a huge burden on families, and if the students are lucky enough to make it to public schools, it’s because they earned high marks on their exams (no easy feat).  Overall, I am finally becoming aware of the internal struggle that (no doubt) every aid worker wrestles with: what can I do that will actually help?  My response to this is to do what I can, remain positive, and try to be a good, strong person in my community.  But, I’m only one person, and at times it feels like I’ve got a heavy burden.  I will certainly keep on keeping on, and I will love at least 80% of the moments, but I will not change the world out here.  I suppose that if I positively affect one person, I’ve done a good job.  But that seems like chump change when I think about how many people I’m actually interacting with.  Anyway, I’m not Superwoman (nor do I aspire to be) and I’m not what we in PC like to refer to as a Super Volunteer, but I am trying, I am succeeding, and I am falling in love.  
I’ll leave you with some wise Buddhist words that I happen to agree with:
“Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

buses, taxis and motos, oh my!

I mentioned, in my last post, my affinity for riding in imodoka (vehicles).  The actual ride is only part of what makes transportation so interesting and (usually) enjoyable.  Looking out the windows and taking advantage of the opportunity to zone out and stare at the passing scenery is quite calming.  I live in a very densely populated country here, and it is VERY rare that I find quiet time outside of my home.  While a bus or taxi ride will typically start with some level of conversation, the depth and length of conversations are usually up to me.  I’ve even started to listen to my iPod from time to time during my bus rides.  This is something that I didn’t want to do until I was comfortable with the transportation to and from my house.  Heaven forbid I fall asleep and neglect to inform the driver that I need to get off the bus.... But I am now quite comfortable and confident that I can handle traveling around this country with no problem.  Since I don’t live in a large town/ district center, I have to alert the driver when I want to stop.  I have taken to saying the phrase “driver, I stop here” in Kinyarwanda, but seasoned veterans (aka Rwandans) can accomplish the same thing by tapping a coin on a window.  I don’t take any chances with that.  And on many occasions, I get the strangest looks from folks on the bus.  “Why would this young, female muzungu be stopping a such a small place?”  Many times this question gets asked aloud, and I get to answer and tell people about who I am and what I’m doing.  I actually love these opportunities and try to use them to inform my fellow bus riders about why I’m there.  

Speaking of talking about myself with a bus full of strangers, I would estimate that 80% of the time I have conversations on busses, I get asked about my umugabo.  Umugabo means husband.  Ntabwo mfite.  I do not have.  To date, all of these conversations have remained playful and erring towards respectful, and (again) I take them as opportunities.  I like to tell Rwandans that I don’t want a husband, that I’m young and want to do many things before I get a husband, and that muri Amerika, it’s perfectly normal to get married at the end of your twenties/ beginning of your thirties.  I should also add that I tend to lie about my age.  I’m 25... if anyone’s curious.  Anyone on the bus, that is.  Because (as most of you know) in reality I’m not yet 23.  I’m fine with that, but I have a hard enough time convincing people to take me seriously without them knowing my real age.  Now, I suppose that there is not much difference between 22 and 25- especially since either way, I’m a young, unmarried woman, but it makes me feel a bit more qualified.  Or maybe it’s sort of a defense.  I’m already assuring folks that I have a university degree, I have work experience, I have training in my field (albeit minuscule), I’ve been living on my own for quite some time... etc, going further into my age is just more trouble than it’s worth.  I’ve also been explaining recently, to co-workers and neighbors, that in America, I am a woman.  Here, I’m a girl.  Whatever.  Tomato, tomaaaato, ya know? As long as people see that I’m serious enough, competent, and secure, I figure I’m doing alright.
Now, this was NOT intended to be a monologue about my views on being a young, single woman (girl) in Rwanda.  I wanted to tell you some fun stories about bus rides and bus stations.  Bus options in Rwanda: if you’re super rich, you can take a private taxi (car) or you own a Land Rover.  I would like that privilege, but it’s not happening any time soon.  If you’re traveling to or from a larger town/ city, you take an “Express Bus.”  these are mid-sized, white busses that hold about 20 people, and are quite comfortable.    If you’re traveling a shorter distance, or to a remote area, you take a Twegerane: a “squeeze bus”- what Rwandans refer to as taxis.  In these lovely jalopies, people squeeze in as close as possible.  These taxis hold 16 people legally, but I’ve been in one with 20 before.  There is a driver, and a ‘conductor’ who deals with money and figuring out where and when to stop.  I can attest that these drivers clock long days.  My landlord is a driver of one of these taxis: he gets home around 8 on a good night, and leaves between 5 and 6 in the morning.  After taxis, you can take a moto, ride on the back of a bicycle taxi (literally sit on the back) or walk.  I love motos, but walking is probably my most preferred method of travel in the village.  When I walk I get to talk with people.  AND, if it’s rainy and I’m the only person out, walking in the rain provides me with one of those rare, quiet, public moments.  
As much as I rely on travel as a time for language practice and development for me, I’m also quite glad when I encounter folks who want to speak English with me.  This happens most frequently on Express busses, but it’s happened before in other vehicles- even the occasional moto.  What I can count on is that no matter what language I’m speaking, I am sure to have at least one overwhelmingly positive interaction with a Rwandan while I’m traveling.  I’ve told this to many Rwandans, but it can always bear repeating: the people in this country are some of the most generous, kind and patient people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.  This doesn’t mean that there are no “bad apples,” but not enough to make any sort of sizable minority.  
Last weekend, at a bus station in Kigali, I was buying a ticket to go home.  I was speaking with the ticket lady in Kinyarwanda, explaining to her that I wanted to buy my ticket for later in the day.  There was a nice, fancy, middle-aged Rwandan woman standing next to me who lit up when she heard me speaking in Kinyarwanda.  I’m used to surprise when Rwandans hear me speaking (attempting to speak) Kinyar, but praise and excitement is a bit more rare.  She implored me to keep trying, and let me know that she was quite proud that I sought to learn and use the language in the first place.  Little did she know, I don’t have much of a choice- if I want to be able to interact with my community members, I need to speak the language.... but it was still nice to hear.  
At this same bus station, a few weeks ago, I met a lovely young mother and her toddler.  They made for enjoyable seat mates during the bus ride, and I was able to speak English with the mom.  
Once, on a long bus ride, I was sitting next to a young, male student.  Ok, not so young... in fact he was probably my age... but he was clearly a student.  He was interested in what music I was listening to.  This was one of those bus rides where I was gearing up to take a nap, listen to music and tune out the world for a few hours.  But why not engage in a little cultural exchange before I get comfortable?  He asked to hear my music, so I shared with him.  He got one ear-bud, I had the other, and we listened together for a little while.  I played him some American punk music (a personal favorite), a bit of classic rock, some hip hop and we ended our listening party with some Rwandan pop songs.  I told him that I was tired and wanted to take a nap, and he said thanks for sharing.  This kid got a mini sampler of some of my favorites: Jets to Brazil, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Rolling Stones, Jay-Z, Kanye and Urban Boyz.  
Every time I get onto a bus or squeeze into a taxi, something new happens.  I could write accounts of every single ride I’ve taken in Rwanda and the story would be different.  I’ll try to fill you in on some of the more interesting stories as my time here marches on.  But, if you really want to understand what traveling around Rwanda is like, you have to come see it.  Maybe I’ll get real brave one day and make a video of a travel adventure here.  Can my camera take videos?  I’m going to go find out.  Be well. 

Akagera National Park (to supplement my travel photos)

Over my last holiday I went on a few mini-vacations around Rwanda.  The main ‘attraction’ during my travels was Akagera National Park, in the east of Rwanda.  This is the only game park in Rwanda, and while it isn’t entirely on par with a Serengeti safari, I had a really swell time in the park.  I was with a sizable group of American Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) from my group: 19 PCVs total.  We slept out in the park the evening we arrived.  Now, our journey out to the park was nothing short of comical and undisputedly Rwandan.  We piled into a taxi “bus” that barely made it out there, arrived hours later than initially planned, and ate snacks for dinner by a bonfire.  There were large canvas tents set up for us at the camping local, and we were the only visitors at the park.  The only ones in that area at least.  We were all woken up by monstrous noises throughout the night: hippos milling about.  Fun fact, hippos walk around the banks of rivers and lakes during the night.  They are also potentially quite dangerous.  I’m sure that we were in extremely close vicinity of hippos that night (judging by the sounds we heard) but since it was dark, we weren’t able to see them.  We did see little hippo heads sticking out of the water in the lakes the next day, but seeing their little ears flapping on the surface of the water really doesn’t give us an accurate picture of how big these animals are.  
After a night filled with light partying by a huge bonfire (which was built by the park rangers to ensure that we would be safe from curious jungle animals) and little sleep due to loud, nosy hippos, we had an early wake up call.  Right as dawn was breaking, it began to rain.  We anticipated this. To an extent.  We were camping during the rainy season after all.  What we didn’t really anticipate was how lousy canvas tents would be at offering dry shelter.  It took nearly no time for the tents to be soaked through.  Luckily there was a large, concrete picnic gazebo between our tents and the lake, so we sought refuge there and prepared PB&J sandwiches for breakfast.  
A few hours later (again, later than we anticipated) we were met by our drivers, and distributed ourselves (and our bags) among 3 safari vehicles.  Two of these vehicles were your typical safari Land Rovers, and the last vehicle was a little safari taxi-bus.  Guess which vehicle did NOT get stuck in the mud over the course of our day driving through the park?  Yep, the little engine that could.  I was fortunate enough to snag a seat in one of the Land Rovers, but after comparing accounts with some of the other PCVs, the little engine was a fine ride as well.  
So we drove around the park for hours, the sky finally cleared up, and we got some amazing pictures.  Being Peace Corps Volunteers, we are meant to live like the locals.  I think the official jargon is something like “live within the same means as the people in your community.”  Integration is a MAIN goal of Peace Corps, so many times PCVs don’t do the traditional sort of tourist attractions.  That’s because we find ways to do them better.  We still had to pay a pretty penny for this excursion, but it was much less than it could have been.  A prime example of how we may be a bit different than your average tourist:  The car that I was in had a nice driver.  Young, spoke good English, was nice to all of us.... and it was his first time in this particular section of the park.  About halfway through the day, we came across a particularly bad portion of the “road.”  Now, keep in mind that we are driving around through a national park.  The “roads” are mud tracks through grass and trees, winding between lakes and hills.  AND we were there during the rainy season.  Our car got stuck.  Something about being the third out of three cars traversing suspect patches of knee-deep mud with less than perfect tires leads to increasing changes of getting stuck in said mud.  So we got stuck. Not once, not twice, but THREE times.  Finally, on the third time, all of us volunteers got out to help push the car out of the mud.  We got covered in dark mud, but we all ended up with smiles on our faces.  And we continued.  No problem.  I know that I didn’t want our driver to feel bad or flustered because this was clearly not his fault, and it’s difficult enough to drive through the park for hours on end.  Some of my fellow volunteers and I were talking about the various ways something like that could have been handled.  I could just imagine that some folks would sit in the car and pout and yell at the driver and be generally unpleasant.  And I was quite glad and proud that my colleagues and I were able to be cool.
By the time we were driving out of the park, we were all about to fall asleep in the car.  We drove down the road (back on the paved road, amidst civilization again) for about an hour to a nearby town.  I had a lovely, sleepy ride.  Looked out of the window and took in the sight of eastern Rwanda.  It’s incredible that such a small country (keep in mind that Rwanda is the size of Maryland) can have such a diverse landscape.  There are volcanoes and huge mountains in the north, large lakes in the west, and gradual, rolling hills in the east.  And parts of the east almost look like the subtle, rolling hills of northern Florida (or southern Ga).  
Some of my favorite times in this country have been during car rides.  Especially when I’m lucky enough to be riding in a car (or bus or taxi) during the magic afternoon hours.  You know the ones I’m referring to.  When the light is perfect and you feel like it’s ONLY possible to see beauty.  The hills get lit up.  The fields of crops begin to glow.  The sky appears clear and calm.  It’s my favorite time of day.  And when I’m never the one doing the driving, I get to sit back, relax, stare out the window and soak in the beauty.

hello there, it's been a while

I follow a fair number of blogs.  And nearly every time a new entry is posted on any one of the blogs on my list, it begins the same. “Sorry I haven’t written in so long, I’ve been _____________.”  Fill in some excuse and explanation.  My blog is no exception to the above rule.  But instead of pointing out how bad I’ve been at keeping up with this blog, or how many times I’ve started a post only to realize I want to share something entirely different with you, or how lousy I am at communication when it doesn’t fit nicely into my daily agenda- I’d like to press on and tell you a few stories about my life here.  You don’t need to know my feelings (not all of them), I’ll try to avoid long diatribes about the weather and I really don’t need to elaborate on the daily frustrations that go along with teaching (I’ll save those for later).  I’m looking at the beginnings of about 5 blog posts here that I never felt compelled to finish and share.  They are nearly ALL about the weather.  Let me save you some reading time by NOT posting them.  The weather is nice.  Perfect, really.  It’s warm and sunny during the day, and cool during the night.  Most of my mornings are foggy... which I figure is a constant in morning weather since I live in a valley.  The sunny days make me happy and make this country look absolutely beautiful.  I’m still trying to sculpt this blog into what I want it to be... and I’m sure it’s going to be an ongoing process.  Perfection is not my goal.  But I do want to be able to share my life here with all you lovely folks back home.  I’m going to try to give you some fun stories to read.  I figure it’s the least I can do.