Getting To “I Can Do This.”

There’s a whole lot of Swaziland and no Rwanda going on in this journal.
I need to fix that.
We landed in Rwanda in September. We gawked at how green everything is.

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We stayed with a Rwandan host family for three months. Our host father was a very thin, heavily wrinkled man with friendly eyes and a large smile. His first words to us were, “I am very, very old, but in my heart, I am a young, young boy.” He then proceeded to give us our first language lesson, which consisted of pointing to almost every part of his body and repeating the words for the body parts over and over again. I think we might have learned the word for “butt hole,” but I’m not certain.

We had more trouble than we anticipated with Kinyarwanda, which is a deceptively difficult Bantu language. We learned how hardworking and industrious Rwandans are. The farmers work in their fields from the moment the sun rises until the sun sets, and the men and women work side by side together, which I really like. We got through three months of training and model school, which was “practice school” to prepare us for being actual teachers in the Rwandan school system. We had a lot of food poisoning. And then in December, we moved to our permanent site, a misty mountain village in Northwest Rwanda, between Musanze and Gisenyi.

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We became good friends with one of the local Rwandan priests. He moves from parish to parish around Rwanda and stays long enough to accomplish a development project or two, in addition to his regular duties as a priest. He is kind and thoughtful and funny and welcoming and we absolutely love his company. He, along with our fellow teachers and my headmistress gave us Kinyarwanda names. My name is Teta, which I was told translates to “We must spoil her because she is much, much loved” and Tristan’s name is Hirwa, which means “Lucky.”

During one of our first evenings in our new home, my headmistress paid us a visit and gifted us with a massive sack of potatoes. She squeezed me tight.
“I’m so happy you are here! You may visit me in my house whenever you want. Please, if you are ever lonely, you may come and sleep at my house whenever you want.”
A teacher from my school translated for her, as she only speaks French and Kinyarwanda. The school system in Rwanda changed from French to English only a few years ago, so most adults (even the highly educated ones like my headmistress) do not have much knowledge of the English language.

Shortly after we arrived in our village, I started feeling sick. Sick in a really gross way. I told myself that I needed time to adjust to being in a new place and went about my business as usual. We worked on putting our house together and unpacking our things. On Christmas Day, we went to mass at the Catholic Church in our village. We were doing the thing we always do, where we try to act interested despite the fact that half of the congregation is staring at us and we have no idea what is being said because it’s all in Kinyarwanda, when I felt something wet land on my leg.
“It’s just rain,” I told myself.
Plop. I felt it again.
I knew what it was, but I ignored it because I didn’t want to believe it.
Plop. It happened again. I looked up.
People in the rafters above us were spitting on us.
“Tristan,” I whispered. “The people above us. They’re spitting on us.”

I left the church, hot tears filling my eyes. I stood outside, thinking. Some of the people in our village were more than happy to greet us and talk to us, but the majority seemed wary. They didn’t trust us. They didn’t respond when we greeted them and they mocked us when we tried to speak Kinyarwanda, but they had never spit on us before. I was mortified. A large cluster of children surrounded me.
“Give me money, mzungu (white person), give me money,” they repeated.

I was too upset to laugh it off and give my usual response of, “No, YOU give ME money.” I went home and cried. I missed being a valued member of a community. I missed being respected. I missed my family. I missed not being treated like an animal. I didn’t know what to do. I was used to responding to sexual harassment. I didn’t know how to respond to people spitting on me.

Our village is gorgeous and difficult at the same time. We are located at one of the highest points in the country. We can see the volcanoes on clear days and our home is on top of a large hill, overlooking a massive green valley. It’s breathtaking. There is a beautiful cemetery in the valley, which is the resting place for some of the people from our village who were murdered during the genocide. The genocide, or the “g” as we call it here (because it’s an extremely sensitive topic) affected the entire country, but dealt a more devastating blow in certain areas. I’ve been told that our village is one of those areas. The former President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, is from our village.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juv%C3%A9nal_Habyarimana)
His house is located near my school. Our village was supposedly a hard hit area both during the “g” and in the invasions and violence that followed in the time after the “g.” I think that some of the people in our area are closed off and distrusting because of the horrible things they’ve experienced.

It all hit me at the wrong time. Feeling sick made it difficult for me to muster up any positivity. By the time school rolled around, I was too sick to teach. I went to Kigali numerous times for lab work that was always inconclusive. I was asked if I was depressed. Well, yes, you’d be depressed too if you couldn’t control your bodily functions. Things went on like this for about three months. I felt homesick and sad. I felt sad because I wasn’t doing anything. I felt sad because I practically lived in my pit latrine, which meant I was having absolutely no interactions with anyone except Tristan. I was eventually given treatment for amoebas, which had previously been avoided because they had no idea what the heck my problem was and treatment for amoebas is notoriously unpleasant.

It worked. After I finished my treatment and killed whatever was living inside of me, everything seemed to turn around. I had energy. I could leave the house.

We took a much needed vacation during the school break to recharge our batteries and adjust our perspectives. We spent two weeks in beautiful Thailand and had an amazing time (more on that later).

We arrived back to Rwanda for our in service training. It helped us refocus and we returned to our village, cautiously optimistic and ready to accomplish something. Things are slowly progressing and getting much better. I am teaching the equivalent of 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English Communication Skills at a Catholic boarding school for girls. I have about 240 students. Tristan is working at his school to organize the library, establish a functional check-out system, fix several broken computers and set up a computer skills class. I’m getting to the point of where I think I can do this. And be happy about it.

We focus on appreciating the little things. The shop owner who we buy bread from, who will occasionally throw in a few free pieces with a smile. The women who know me by name and watch me clumsily descend the slippery rock steps down from my school, yelling out “Komera!” (“Be strong!”) with each step because they’ve watched me trip over myself/fall down so many times. Our friend, Emile, who occasionally walks with us around the community and outlandishly yells at people who don’t respond to our greetings or who insist on calling us Mzungu instead of our names.
“HEY. MWIRIWE.” (GOOD AFTERNOON.)
“AMAKURU?” (HOW ARE YOU?)
“OYA MZUNGU. YITWA RAHSHELI. YITWA TREESTAHN.” (NO MZUNGU. HER NAME IS RACHEL. HIS NAME IS TRISTAN.)

And my students.
My students are my favorite part of being here. I teach five classes. Two 10th grade, two 11th grade, and one 12th grade. They range in age from 16 to their mid 20′s. I absolutely love teaching older girls. I established on the first day of class that questions are good and they are free to ask me whatever they want. Students were typically discouraged from asking questions in the Rwandan school system. This is starting to change, but is still regularly practiced in most locations. Most kids don’t ask questions because they’re afraid of looking stupid. I think I’ve managed to convince my girls that questions are good because they seem to have no shortage of them for me. They’re very curious about American culture and the opinions of the strange American girl who teaches them.
Some of my favorite questions so far:
“Does Lady Gaga have both sexes?”
“What is the Illuminati?”
“How many machines do you have to do things for you in America?”
“Which machine is your most loved machine?” (They forget how to use the word “favorite.”)

All of my students are very sweet, especially my 10th graders. They always tell me how much they enjoy their classes and have asked me to teach through their study hours on more than one occasion. They love debating and I feel like I can almost see their thoughts moving rapidly around their heads like cogs in a machine, as they rush to think of how to make their next arguments. They ask to discuss gender and women’s rights fairly often and many of the girls are quite passionate about it. We recently had a debate about whether or not a woman would make a good president and I taught them about the current President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who is also the first woman president in Africa. At the end of their debate, I shared a comment that Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame made recently. He said that he wanted the next President of Rwanda to be a woman. My students’ faces lit up. I often see excited little fires burning brightly behind their eyes when we talk about equality and gender. These girls are going somewhere and I love being part of it.

-R

ps: I’m going to update on a more regular basis now that I’m not hosting any parasites and I’m actually doing something of value with my time.

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Leaving Swaziland

Our last weeks in Swaziland were rushed and hectic. Our service ended with the successful completion of the community’s orphan feeding center/preschool. They finished the construction close enough to our departure to cause us an immense amount of stress, but none of that matters now. They succeeded. On their own. And I knew they could. As promised, we painted the classroom portion of the feeding center after they were finished. The inside is yellow, bright, and sunny, and the walls are decorated with numbers, letters, shapes, and animals. We covered one wall with blackboard paint for the caregivers to provide basic education to children who are not in school. One of the caregivers entered the classroom on our last day of painting, dropped everything she was holding, and cried tears of joy. “It’s beautiful, beautiful, very beautiful,” she said over and over again as she wept. Her reaction was so moving to me. Building this structure provided a more comfortable environment for the caregivers and children, but it also created more work for the caregivers without any increase in pay (they made an extremely small amount of money each month which may or may not have been suspended because Swaziland is having “financial problems”) because the classroom meant the caregivers would start teaching. She was excited at the prospect of providing a better quality of life for these children without any additional payment for herself, other than the empowerment of knowing that she was helping her community.

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The evening before we left, the inner council surprised me and Tristan with a nice, intimate dinner. They invited us, Thabsile, and some of the caregivers, health workers, and peer educators in the community, and we all sat in a circle, eating maize porridge and fried chicken with our hands. We talked about our two years together and they gave us a traditional table setting, hand carved by a local craftsman.

The next morning, our host family and Thabsile gathered to see us off. We were all very quiet. Thabsile kept her eyes downcast.
“I am glad you will have another volunteer,” I told Thabsile, as I hugged her. “Yes,” she said. “But she won’t be like you.”

We drove away and I concentrated on burning as much of the landscape into my memory as I could. The mountain behind our house that always kept the rain away, which made everything so damned dry and dusty. The acacia tree that the family laid under, topless, when it was too hot to move in the summer. The tiny store where we bought Cokes and fried dough. The building where the community held all their meetings. The deep, red dirt, the cacti, the prickly aloe plants, the cloudless, electric blue sky, and the plant spikes that destroyed about four pairs of my shoes. We left without knowing when we would return.

I think back to our final days of service and recall tromping the 45 minutes to and from the construction site every day, returning to our home, dirty, covered in paint, and too exhausted to cook. I remember the stifling 120+ degree summer days, where it almost hurt to breathe or move. I remember the colorful neon sunsets and the way they scattered beautiful orbs of light around my hut. I remember the heavy wave of helplessness that collapsed over me when sick and starving babies stared at me with their dark, hollow eyes and I knew there was nothing I could for them. I remember searching around my pit latrine for black mambas before I used it. I remember conserving every little drop of rain and having only enough water to bathe once a week.

I find myself mourning my departure from Swaziland in a way that I didn’t expect. I miss the familiarity of our community and everyone yelling out our Swazi names as we passed, demanding to know when we were going to visit them. I miss my host mother’s gravelly laugh at our reactions when she would call us over to watch her bludgeon a puff adder or spitting cobra to death. I miss watching our nephew, Khetselo, the child our host brother asked us to name, toddling around the homestead and chasing baby chicks.

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I miss Thabsile’s tight, uncomfortable hugs that pushed the breath out of me. I miss the stark, strange beauty of the African savanna. I miss the peer educators, caregivers, and health workers we worked with for two years. Sometimes when I’m thinking of nothing in particular, their faces will pop into my head. I worry for their future whenever I read about the current state of affairs in Swaziland. I fear the Swazi Government will use “running out of money” as an excuse to stop paying the already meager allowances they were giving some of our most productive community members in exchange for providing health and social services. I feel anxious when I remember Thabsile’s tendency to donate so much of her own food to her neighbors that she and her children have nothing but rice to eat for the last week of every month until she is paid again.

I can’t find adequate words to describe the experience of my service in Swaziland. I do know that whenever I think of it, I will always think of the women. 1/3 of the female population in Swaziland has experienced some form of sexual abuse by age 18. This sexual abuse is usually in the form of rape and occurs most often during childhood. Sexually based crimes typically go unreported because women are not respected and gender based violence isn’t taken seriously. The women of Swaziland are the strongest people I’ve ever met in my life. In spite of their painful backgrounds, most of the women are warm and kind and dedicated. They work in the fields, they cook, they clean, they sell baked goods for income generation, and they take care of their children. Some of them have husbands who sleep with other women and bring home HIV. Their husbands refuse to use condoms, so they often have too many hungry children and not enough food. Their focus is on survival. Thankfully, women are slowly beginning to understand their worth and take action to protect their families. During a workshop on health and family planning, we talked about the importance of the prevention of mother to child (HIV) transmission and many women discussed the birth control methods they used without their husbands’ knowledge.
“I have enough food to feed my children because I’m not having more babies,” many of them declared proudly. “I am protecting my family.”

I don’t know what kind of impact we made on the people in our community. I know that they ended up trusting us enough to ask us a lot of questions and let us get to know them. I know that we developed relationships with people who have changed us forever. And I know that I think about them every day.

-R

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The Good And The Bad

I haven’t written for a while. I didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel like it because I couldn’t figure out how to compose a journal entry for my friends and family without including the negativity and obstacles I’ve been facing. I tried several times and found it impossible. And then I realized that I need to write about the difficult things too. That’s a large chunk of being a Peace Corps Volunteer and living and working in a small village in a developing country…difficulty. I want to be more honest on this thing.

I didn’t write much about my difficulties in Swaziland although they were numerous. This was due, in part, to the sensitive political situation there (expressing my opinions about the Kingdom could have been dangerous for myself, my community, and my fellow volunteers), but mainly because I didn’t want my family to worry about me because they already had too much to worry about. My father died during my service in Swaziland. I haven’t written much about that. He suffered from alcoholism and severe manic depression for as long as I could remember. I left for Swaziland in June 2009. Shortly after my departure, my father decided to hit the self destruct button. He refused therapy and became violent. It was horrifying. I woke up every morning, terrified for my family and what he might do to them. I cried myself to sleep for months. I expressed my worries to no one but Tristan and two of my best friends. I struggled to stay strong, I worked my tail off, and I read a lot of inspirational quotes to quell my anxiety. I found that living in Swaziland helped me to forgive him and make peace with the things he did to my family. I watched the way my friends and neighbors bravely handled their challenges…poor access to health care and water, AIDS, tuberculosis, hunger, droughts, and sexual abuse. Without realizing it, they helped me see what was important. They helped me develop a better understanding of life and they made me into a much better version of myself. A more accepting, less selfish version.

My father killed himself a few days before my birthday in July 2010, about a year after I departed for Swaziland. I remember when my father died, the chief’s wife came to me to express her condolences. “You mean so much to us,” she said. “Because I know you, I know he must have been a great man.”

I rarely wrote about the challenges of living in rural Swaziland because my family already had too much to handle. I wanted them to focus on healing.

So I didn’t write about the feeling of living in a place where people are constantly dying or the ghostly, heart-wrenching wailing of mourning women at the traditional night funerals every weekend. Or how I could feel the hope slowly draining out of me whenever I looked at severely malnourished babies who were covered in sores and dying painfully of AIDS related illnesses. Or how children who have AIDS and are extremely sick have no light behind their eyes…just utter exhaustion and a dull stillness that makes your blood feel cold. Or the seemingly never-ending string of men outside of my community who sexually harassed me by pulling out strands of my hair to put in their pockets and grabbing my breasts and butt. I never went into detail about my little host sister’s death. I focused on being positive. Additionally, there are already too many negative stories about Africa. The only things that make the news are war, genocide, corruption, child soldiers, poverty, starvation, disease, and death.

I wrote about the motivation of the local health workers in the face of our community’s 50% HIV prevalence. I focused on people like our friend, the architect, who learned he was HIV positive after he nearly died from tuberculosis, but made a miraculous recovery, began ART, and eventually regained his health and optimistic outlook on life and used his experience to teach youth about HIV prevention. The women at the neighborhood care points, who cooked meals for up to 150 orphans almost every day. A prominent member of the inner council, who unknowingly infected his wife and child with HIV, but after learning his status, later became a passionate advocate and community educator for HIV prevention and treatment. His wife, who is a caregiver at a neighborhood care point and uses vegetables from her own garden to supplement the diets of malnourished children. And my best friend, Thabsile, my inspiration, and the ultimate mother, who took care of everyone.

My family doesn’t have any horrible, life changing catastrophes happening at the moment, so I am going to be more honest and candid about the stuff I talk about. I want to write about the good and the bad. And I’m going to start here.

-R

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Our Brief American Vacation & Spearheading Peace Corps Belgium

So, we haven’t updated it a long while. I wrote most of a post our last few months in Swaziland, but I didn’t transfer it to our new hand-me-down computer, so I guess that’ll stay on the cutting room floor. I meant to post during our stay home in Florida, but you know me, I am quite possibly the least consistent blogger ever.

Our seven weeks in America were a nice reprieve in between services. We saw as many people as we could. Of course, we didn’t manage to meet up with everyone. Didn’t get to meet my new nephew Nathaniel, but I’m sure I’ll meet him in a few years.

For the most part, our visit home was quite sedentary, not terribly exciting, but wonderfully relaxing. The exception to this was the five days spent at Disney World and Universal, riding roller-coasters, which was a crash course American integration experience. Really, Space Mountain and Rip Ride Rockit are about as overstimulating as you can get after two years on a quiet savanna.

And that segues alright into this list of things that shocked me upon my return to America:

—the Cereal aisle. Really, the massive selection for every conceivable product. There are forty variations on a theme for everything from soda to greeting cards.
—No staring. We were no longer celebrities. I could walk down the street without having to greet every person I passed (though I did try, which is a sure fire way to get strange looks). On one hand it was relieving. Being in the spotlight constantly is exhausting. I’m not sure why people want to be celebrities. On the other hand though, it was kind of sad. I missed that sense of community.
—Private transport. Groceries go in the trunk, not in a PVC bag on your lap in a busted-up VW bus with 20 random people. You pick your own music, and, as the Swazis would say, choose your own atmosphere. The downside is you have to drive, and Florida drivers err on the side of incompetence. I’ve become more conservative in my driving since the accident, and that apparently offended your garden-variety commuter.
—-Everyone has smart phones. Or almost everyone. We could count the number of non-smart phones we saw on one hand. Every single person is connected at all times. The idea of being out of reach just doesn’t exist anymore. In personal protest, I didn’t have a cell phone during our vacation, and I’ll be honest, it was damn liberating. Of course, now I must pull my foot out of my mouth, because Garrett’s old iPhone is in Rachel’s bag.
—Instant gratification. Your every want is within five minutes of you at all time. Want a burger at 11 at night? Burger King is literally next door. Need to buy luggage locks at 3AM? How bout the 24 hour CVS down the street. Transitioning from that:
—Being out at night. This still catches me off guard. The idea that there are street lamps for miles in every direction so you can stay out past sunset without having your day ruined by one of seven deadly snakes. Such a novel idea America. Shine on you crazy diamond.

We’re over the Atlantic Ocean now. Our flight from JFK to Brussels was delayed three and a half hours for dubious maintenance reasons. We aren’t going to make our connecting flight in Brussels, and the next flight out to Rwanda isn’t until Friday, so hey hey, we get a day in Brussels! Here’s to hoping we aren’t confined to an airport hotel.

Arrived a staging a bit late too. I see the pattern. We’re readjusting to Africa time. Staging was fine, if a bit boring the second time around. The comparison I came up with is that it’s like watching a magic trick, having it explained, and then watching it again. It lost its mystique. It didn’t help that we were sleep deprived and would rather be staging with the super comfy bed in our room. Really, the hotel beds were divine.

The new group is very energetic and a great group of future volunteers. Out of 37, we are the only extending volunteers and the only married couple. Quite a different experience going from our last group that had 7 married couples. It’s nice to watch the newbies, how excited they are and ready to go conquer the world. It’s refreshing to see that spunk again.

Met up with some Swaziland group 6 (Erica and Jason) volunteers in Philly. It was nice to see some of our Swazi family, although it did make me miss our group. Rachel and I keep matching trainees in our Rwanda group with volunteers from our Swazi group. It probably isn’t healthy.

I’m excited to get off of this plane. It redefines cattle car. I can’t even fully open the laptop due to limited space. I’m going to cut this entry off here. Hands cramping.

-Tristan

Off the plane. Going to enjoy Brussels tonight (possibly longer if there aren’t 37 free seats on tomorrows flight).

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Kids, Aid, and Pilgrim Shoes

I was sitting at home the other day, filling out some paperwork to complete our kitchen project. Tristan was meeting with some community members who recently expressed interest in painting the Gogo Center (the community center where most events and activities are held). When I texted him to ask if they wanted to paint that day, he responded with, “No. Watching an NGO lady give orphans depressing black pilgrim shoes.”

If you accept a job working in a second or third world country, you’re going to witness a lot of aid work. If you spend two years working in a second or third world country, you’re going to become at least a little critical of that aid work.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some organizations do amazing work in the field of community development. The problem is that a lot of them just swoop into poor communities, build something or throw around some food or money, and swoop back out, without actually communicating with the people in the community or involving them in the project. As a result, you get people (especially kids) who chase around foreigners, asking for money, food, candy, etc, because so many groups of foreigners have just given them these things in response to the guilt they feel over the overwhelming poverty they witness during their visits. This creates a dependency, which is the exact opposite of what needs to happen in order for second and third world countries to progress.

This particular organization gave shoes, which is good because kids need shoes in order to attend school. Most children in our community run around without shoes. If they own shoes, they own one pair that is used for school only, and that one pair is used for many years. When kids show up to school without shoes, they are beaten and belittled by their teachers and their classmates.

When the children were given the shoes, the organization took pictures of them, urging them to smile and look happy. It occurred to us that the attention they were receiving from this NGO woman is probably the most attention those children have received in months. These particular kids have lost both their mothers and their fathers to AIDS. They live either alone, on child headed homesteads, or with neighbors or extended family members who rarely pay attention to them. They are underfed, malnourished, and typically treated like slaves in their new adoptive homes, tasked with doing the majority of the household chores. In the worst cases, they are beaten and insulted on a regular basis due to the stigma associated with their HIV positive parents.

They’ve had rough lives. They’ve witnessed death, loss, hunger, and desperation at an early age. Some are HIV positive. They are ignored, with the exception of the occasional kind community member who barely has enough food to feed her own family, but manages to pull together a bundle of spinach to share; or the NGO worker who comes through, all smiles, yelling “Smile! Look happy! You are blessed!” as she snaps pictures to put on the website so donors can gawk at pictures of the “poor African children.” I imagine it has to be humiliating and dehumanizing. But when we ask these children how they are, they nod, pull a smile, and say, “I. Am. Fine!” in the best English they can muster. They don’t understand the definitions of the words “humiliating” or “dehumanizing.” They, like most rural Swazis, don’t understand the phrase “human rights” or the liberties to which every person on earth should be entitled. They just know they’re sad.

The woman taking the pictures inquired about the ages of each child. Most of them were around 10, 11, or 12. They all looked closer to 4, 5, or 6, and certainly no older than 7. This is due to stunted growth resulting from years of malnutrition. Shoes are fantastic. But food is vital.

Everyone watches the NGO woman drive away in her pristine, white SUV, the red dirt rising around the huge, shiny tires, and covering everyone in a fine coat of filth.

What’s the solution? We keep thinking about it. There are a couple organizations that donate food to orphans and vulnerable children. Unfortunately, the process of getting the food to the communities is often corrupt, mismanaged, and convoluted. Records are outdated and/or incorrect and kitchens (like the one currently under construction) frequently receive food (cereal, maize, and beans or peas) to feed 50 when the kitchen is actually feeding 150. So, children only receive miniscule rations of food and their daily caloric needs are rarely met. People have tried on many occasions to inform the organizations of their errors, but to very limited success. My opinion is that many organizations are willing to receive comments and criticism, but they have to go through several people before reaching someone of “importance.” It’s a telephone effect and comments are lost or misunderstood along the way.

There is so much we can’t touch as volunteers. So many needs we can’t meet. It’s a rough reality because we all so desperately want to meet those needs.

I often think of my first day in our community. Thabsile thrust a whining, gasping baby into my arms. He was about 2. His face was covered in sores.
“Is he…”
“Yes,” she said. “He has AIDS. His parents just died.”
“Is he on ART?”
“Yes, but he started too late. The doctors say he will die soon. All we can do is love him.”

My first experiences with severely ill, HIV positive children were almost surreal. It’s depressing. I know that’s obvious, kids with AIDS are depressing, but it’s true. The pain in their eyes makes you question everything you know. They don’t cry because they’re too exhausted. They don’t play because it hurts to get up. Instead, they watch the other screaming, running, laughing children. They don’t watch with longing. They seem to have no desire to move. It’s similar with malnourished children. You can see it in their eyes…the look of complete and utter exhaustion, of being completely disengaged from their surroundings. Seeing that look in children has been the most painful part of being here.
What do we do, what do we do, what do we do? We all keep asking ourselves that.
What can we do? They are invisible.

I just spent about 10 minutes trying to figure out how to salvage this entry and imbue some optimism into it because right now, I know it’s pretty depressing. But this is the truth of what we do, and I want people to know it. We have hard days. We see horrible things. We cry. We get angry.
But then we push the sadness to the backs of our minds and we hold on like hell to the goodness we know that exists here. We throw ourselves into work: educating people and initiating the tough, awkward conversations that no one else wants to initiate; cultivating hope and strength in ourselves and trying to teach our friends and neighbors to do the same.
And then we wake up and do it all over again the next day.

“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins

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Updates

It looks like we’ll be living in Africa for 2 more years! We were recently offered positions with Peace Corps Rwanda’s newly developed English education program and we’ve decided to accept. We’re very excited about this opportunity and the chance to gain experience working in a post-conflict environment. Additionally, back when we were still in the Peace Corps application process (over 2 years ago), Rwanda was my first choice for placement. :)

We are leaving Swaziland for the US on July 20 (yay, I’ll be home for my birthday!) and we’ll stay with our families in Florida until September 11. On September 12, we’ll have our orientation for Rwanda and fly back to Africa soon after.

I’m not going to talk too much about Rwanda right now, as I still want this journal to be about Swaziland until we finish our service here. So, I’ll just post a few details:
1. Rwanda is safe and stable. They have made very large and impressive strides in the past decade in regard to development, economy, education, and human rights. Rwanda actually has more women in parliament than any other country in the world.
2. Rwanda is in the process of overhauling their education system to make English the official language (in addition to Kinyarwanda), instead of French. Peace Corps Volunteers working with their education sector are assisting them in this process. This change is for a variety of reasons that I’ll talk about later.
3. I’m really hoping to integrate health education into my job, as well as possibly carrying over our health and child development trainings with teachers and community educators.
4. If you’re interested in learning more about Rwanda, I strongly recommend reading We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.

That’s all for now. We’ll be home in 15 weeks! Can’t wait to see our families and our amazing friends who are making trips across the US to see us.

Also, here is an article about the US Peace Corps, written by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame for The Huffington Post:

“The United States of America has just sent a small number of its sons and daughters as Peace Corps volunteers to serve as teachers and advisors in Rwanda. They have arrived to assist, and we appreciate that. We are aware that this comes against the backdrop of increasingly scarce resources, of budget discussions and campaign promises, and of tradeoffs between defense and domestic priorities like health care and infrastructure investments. All that said, I believe we need to have a different discussion concerning the potential for bilateral aid.

The Peace Corps have returned to our country after 15 years. They were evacuated in 1994 just a short time before Rwanda collapsed into a genocide that killed over one million people in three months. Things have improved a lot in recent years. There is peace and stability throughout the nation. We have a progressive constitution that is consensus-driven, provides for power sharing, embraces diversity, and promotes the participation of women, who now represent the majority in our parliament. Our economy grew by more than 11% last year, even as the world entered a recession. We have chosen high-end segments of the coffee and tea markets in which to compete, and attract the most demanding world travelers to our tourism experiences. This has enabled us to increase wages by over 20% each year over the last eight years — sustained by, among other things, investment in education, health and ICT.

We view the return of the Peace Corps as a significant event in Rwanda’s recovery. These young men and women represent what is good about America; I have met former volunteers who have run major aid programs here, invested in our businesses, and I even count them among my friends and close advisors.

Peace Corps volunteers are well educated, optimistic, and keen to assist us as we continue to rebuild, but one must also recognize that we have much to offer them as well.

We will, for instance, show them our system of community justice, called Gacaca, where we integrated our need for nationwide reconciliation with our ancient tradition of clemency, and where violators are allowed to reassume their lives by proclaiming their crimes to their neighbors, and asking for forgiveness. We will present to them Rwanda’s unique form of absolution, where the individuals who once exacted such harm on their neighbors and ran across national borders to hide from justice are being invited back to resume their farms and homes to live peacefully with those same families.

We will show your sons and daughters our civic tradition of Umuganda, where one day a month, citizens, including myself, congregate in the fields to weed, clean our streets, and build homes for the needy.

We will teach your children to prepare and enjoy our foods and speak our language. We will invite them to our weddings and funerals, and out into the communities to observe our traditions. We will teach them that in Africa, family is a broad and all-encompassing concept, and that an entire generation treats the next as its own children.

And we will have discussions in the restaurants, and debates in our staff rooms and classrooms where we will learn from one another: What is the nature of prosperity? Is it subsoil assets, location and sunshine, or is it based on human initiative, the productivity of our firms, the foresight of our entrepreneurs? What is a cohesive society, and how can we strengthen it? How can we improve tolerance and build a common vision between people who perceive differences in one another, increase civic engagement, interpersonal trust, and self-esteem? How does a nation recognize and develop the leaders of future generations? What is the relationship between humans and the earth? And how are we to meet our needs while revering the earth as the womb of humankind? These are the questions of our time.

While some consider development mostly in terms of infusion of capital, budgets and head counts, we in Rwanda place equal importance to relationships between peoples who have a passion to learn from one another, preparing the next generation of teachers, administrators and CEOs to see the exchange of values and ideas as the way to build the competencies of our people, and to create a prosperous nation.

We will do this because we see that the only investment with the possibility of infinite returns is in our children, and because after a couple of years in Rwanda, working and learning with our people, these Peace Corps volunteers will be our sons and daughters, too.”

–Rachel

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Today is one of those days where I really don’t want to be here. Not as in, I want to leave and never come back, but as in, I want to magically Harry Potter apparate to a first world country and spend a week clearing my brain before returning back to site. I have days like this rarely (Except for the apparating part. I frequently find myself wishing to be a Hogwarts alumnus), and typically don’t discuss them with anyone except Tristan and other PCVs.

I arrived home last night covered from knee to toe in mud and cow shit. It finally rained (yay!) for the first time in months, and I’m so grateful because the water system is broken, all of the crops are dead, and we were in desperate need of a good shower. During the rainy season, rain tends to fall all around us, but never directly on us. So, it rained and the dirt roads flooded and the ground sucked my feet down like quicksand. Laughing children ran around in the rain, their feet significantly cleaner than mine, despite their lack of shoes.

The storm cracked our window and knocked more holes into our walls, so our house was covered in rain, mud, and dirt. Sleep didn’t come easily because of the intense heat and humidity, which became even stronger when the sun rose again this morning. Tristan described it very well when he said he felt like we were living in hot soup.

So, we got up and left. We’re sitting in the closest climate controlled location with refrigeration and an internet connection because I’m fairly positive if we spent the hottest part of the day in our soup house constructed of rocks and full of mud, we would have turned into crazy people. This is probably the first time I’ve woken up and said, “We need to leave. I can’t be here today.” I think it actually freaked Tristan out a bit because I typically lean toward almost manic optimism during times of stress.

And, yes, it’s times like this where I think long and hard about the fact that my neighbors can’t escape when it’s generally miserable outside and their homes are full of mud and animal poop. They can’t afford the transport fare to get out of the community (especially with the recent increase in transport costs due to the recent increase in gas due to the government’s declining economy), and they just…remain. They deal with it and they don’t complain, except to occasionally exclaim, “EISH, LIYASHISA!” (It’s hot!), as they trudge the many kilometers to collect water from the nearest source (a retention pond, which they refer to as “the dam”). I sit here in the air conditioning, I drink a beer, and I feel a strange combination of gratitude, guilt, and awe over all the luck in my life. Lucky to be born in a country where I have rights. Lucky because I was born to parents who fed me, sent me to school, enrolled me in ballet, spent ridiculous amounts of money on clothes and electronics, and acted as my personal chauffeurs in high school. Lucky because I never dated a man who beat me, talked down to me, or treated me like a child. Lucky because I can leave whenever I want, lucky because I can see the world, and lucky because when I return home, I can go back to school and have a career and a lifespan over 40. Lucky because I have choices and the people (primarily the women and girls) in my community do not.

Peace Corps has altered me in a way that can never be reversed. Altered in a good way, yes, but now I am also saddled with the curse of knowing that in order to be content and fulfilled in my life, I need to have a job that involves constantly learning about, serving, and seeking justice for other people.
So, thanks, Peace Corps. I mean this both sarcastically and sincerely.

We have roughly four months of service left in Swaziland. Four months. 16 weeks. That freaks me out. We spent such a long time in the application phase and such a long time planning and working for this, I can’t believe the experience is almost over. It’s all passed so quickly. There have been some ridiculously long days, yes, but like everyone says, it’s the weeks and months that fly by. Our time with the people of Swaziland and this strange little group of Americans who we met for the first time in a DC hotel conference room is almost over.
Feelings? I’m happy. Happy that we’ve come this far. Sad that we’re leaving people who have grown to be our family, and who have referred to us as sister, brother, daughter, son, and friend for the past several months. Excited to see our family and friends and pets and stuff ourselves with American food and have constant access to flush toilets and running water. Excited for what’s to come.

We have three projects we’re working on for the remainder of our service:

1. The kitchen (obviously). We expect it to be finished by next month. The caregivers are very, very excited about it, and the community has put a lot of time and effort into the construction. While visiting the kitchen the other day, we were thrilled to discover the community had recently built a new latrine directly next it, for use by the children and caregivers. The latrine wasn’t in the original plans, nor was it funded by the generous donors who gave money for the kitchen. The community obtained the materials on their own, dug and constructed the latrine without telling us, and even painted the outside. Yes, I’m excited about a hole to store poop, but I’m more excited about the initiative they demonstrated in getting the supplies and putting it together. During our recent health workshop with the caregivers, I repeatedly stressed the importance of having latrines at every homestead and neighborhood care point. Additionally, we talked a lot about malnutrition in children and I learned that a few weeks later, the caregivers were in the process of planting sorghum to supplement the diets of the kiddos they’re feeding at the kitchens. It’s a wonderful high note on which to close our service.
2. A supplemental first aid training to follow up the previous health education workshop. We’re working with one of our counterparts to write and translate materials on basic first aid (abrasions, burns, recognizing warning signs, etc).
3. Continuing our training with primary school teachers on psychosocial support for vulnerable children, recognizing and reporting abuse, alternatives to corporal punishment, and health education.

With the kitchen almost finished, I’m starting to feel a sense of closure in my service. I know we’re almost done and I feel good about it. But, I also know leaving is going to be hard. Our friends and inner council have started planning a going away braai (think bbq). Thabsile keeps asking what she’s going to do without us and saying things like, “I hope my children are like you,” which would choke me up if she didn’t follow those statements with loudly threatening to beat one of the many children who frequents her home for breaking something/screaming/running into walls/punching each other/throwing chickens. No, she doesn’t beat her kids, but yelling at people that you’re going to beat them is common in Swaziland. The exact phrase is Ngitawukushaya (I will beat you) [pronounced neetawoogooshyah], but has become shortened to sound like “D’ukshaya” [pronounced dockshyah] when they yell it at children, babies, dogs, cows, each other, etc.

Yes, I’m aware Tristan hasn’t updated in a while. I think he needs his parents to bug him about it so he does. :)

–Rachel

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