How Rwanda Stole Christmas

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Christmas ‘fore Peace Corps was all in good cheer
With good food and cocoa and plenty of beer

But coming back home is a bit more morose—
All the giving and getting is becoming quite gross
For all of those presents, given and got—
Are proof that a few people have quite a lot

So for me it’s been tough to settle on in
For a season that’s more about money than kin
I’m flustered, I am, and I feel sort of blue
For NOT giving things, is to judge those who do
And a homemade gift—while thoughtful and quaint—
Is showing (perhaps) TOO much restraint

Rwanda has changed me, a little too much
For now I’m the girl who prefers going dutch.

An Odd Day

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Today was an odd day. I have two days left in my village, so I never really know what to do when someone swings by for a visit. Do I go into a long rant about how much they’ve meant to me? Do I offer to give them my cat? (I did a complete 180 and decided not to take CW with me on my travels home—I guess writing out that last blog entry and not being satisfied with my own logic forced me into reevaluating things). So I’ve started shutting the door to my house and watching T.V. instead. Super healthy. But it’s honestly just so much easier to pretend like I’m already gone—it lessens the stress of a prolonged, inevitable goodbye with people I truly care about.

So the day started out in much the same way that many days in Gitwe have over the past two years; staying in my pajamas much later than is culturally appropriate and watching Sherlock. A knock on the door announced a visitor, and so I grudgingly handed over what was left of my chapatti omelet to Charles and shuffled over to let them in. What followed was bittersweet—a good friend of mine dropping off a gift for my parents in America and a wall hanging for me. I hugged her, told her I’d miss her, and went into a long rant about how much she’s meant to me.

Shortly afterward, I was picked up in a CAR (yes, ladies and gentlemen—a CAR) by Divine and Eunice’s family. So much for no prolonged, inevitable goodbyes. They generously offered to take me to visit the King’s Palace in Nyanza, which is a 30-minute car ride away. On the way we stopped at the lake to take some pictures and talk about traditional fishing.

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From there we arrived at the King’s Palace museum and found a guide to take us through and talk to our group in Kinyarwanda. Simon, the girls’ father, translated for me. I’m sure the American family we ran into in the reception area was a little confused about who I was and what I was doing there with that particular group. Who doesn’t belong in these pictures?

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I’m lucky to have gotten this unique opportunity. Rwanda’s past with foreigners is a troubled one, and it’s a rare moment when you can explore those tensions with people that you are completely comfortable with. Looking at the photographs on the walls, the girls would be quick to point out the first foreigner in Rwanda (a Prussian explorer in the 1890s, if I’m remembering correctly—my memory has been damaged by all the T.V.) or a female European who looks ‘just like me’. It was interesting to see what they focused on and why. After the museum was lunch at the hotel where I’ve gone to swim in the past with other volunteers—how strange to go with my family from Gitwe! My world in Rwanda has been separated between my life in the village and my life with other volunteers, and this was one of those few times when those worlds intersected.

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After a thoroughly filling meal the girls and I headed out to the playground to snap more pictures and hang out. Another shock—a PLAYGROUND. Wonders never cease. I guess my last few days in the village are preparing me for my first few days in America in a week. Buhoro, buhoro.

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The Charles Wallace Problem

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Note: If there are words underlined in blue, that’s wordpress’ fault and I apologize. I am not technologically savvy enough to get rid of them.

A friendship between a human and an animal is strange under the very best of circumstances. People talk to their pets, and get upset at them, and curl up next to them after a long day. People pay unbelievable amounts of money in order to keep the animal healthy and happy—neutering, food, shots, toys, etc. And some people who are insanely devoted to their little Fido or Spot even decide to send them on a plane halfway around the world in order to avoid saying goodbye to them. I am, it seems, one of those insanely devoted pet owners.

The decision to take him along has not come without reservations. Taking an animal on a trans-Atlantic flight is embarrassingly costly, complicated, and potentially (well, definitely) traumatizing for the animal. And yet I made this decision based on a very selfish and petty need of mine to keep my cat, Charles Wallace, around. When my fellow volunteers inevitably ask me why on earth I’ll be bringing my cat home, my only answer will simply be that ‘he’s my friend’. Because although the answer is a little more complicated than that, the fact that he is my friend is really at the core of why I decided to go nuts and book his passage to Minneapolis.

In order to plead my case I’ve written this blog entry in the hopes that it will ease the minds of my family and friends back home, who undoubtedly think that I’ve gone a bit mad over here in Rwanda (which I suppose is true regardless). But let’s go back to Charles.

Charles Wallace is my 10th cat in Peace Corps. Wow. I guess I’m not doing a great job of sounding sane. Let’s start again.

Charles Wallace is a delightful kitten that was dropped off at my house four months ago. At the time, he looked like this:

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This kitten was one that I grudgingly took in after my previous cat disappeared. CW was a month old, precocious, and a gigantic pain (which he hasn’t grown out of). He chews through all of my headphones, helps himself to the food on a guest’s plate while they’re still eating it, and presses all the keys on my computer at once, which screws up the settings in a way that is nearly impossible to reverse. He eats a ton and goes to ‘visit’ my neighbor’s houses even though he knows he’s not allowed. He kills lizards slowly in front of me and then refuses to eat them, instead dropping them into my shoes and looking up at me like he’s done me some great favor. He terrorizes the birds and chickens in my compound, and goes off on adventures on the roof where he knows he’s not supposed to go.

This kitten is my friend. He’s awful sometimes, but he more than makes up for it by curling up next to me when it’s time for bed, following me with an obedient trot when I go to the store, and entertaining me with his numerous antics whenever I’m feeling down.

I know whether or not I take him to America, his life will change drastically. Because he’s known me since he was only a little bigger than a deck of cards, I like to think that he’s as attached to me as I am to him. My neighbor’s tell me he ‘misses me when I’m not there’. They also like to say that they’ll take care of him when I go, but things would be much different for him if I leave him behind, because there’s not a pet culture here in Rwanda. Dogs are used as guards, and even then they’re not given much food and they’re mistreated most of the time. Cats are only good for catching mice, and most people just leave them alone. He might get fed every once and awhile, but he wouldn’t be getting the attention he’s used to. If I gave him to a fellow PCV he would probably have a good life. He’d be fed, taken care of, liked or even loved, and he’d be alright. But that would mean uprooting him in a small way, and bringing him to a place he doesn’t know with people he doesn’t know…granted, America will do the same. But I like to think that my presence in the U.S. will help him out at least a little.

He’ll have a lot of adjustments. He’ll have to become an indoors-only cat (he’s not gonna be happy about that), and learn to be at least a LITTLE polite. No more eating off of people’s plates. Plus, you know, that flight isn’t exactly going to be a walk in the park for him, either.

This decision is mostly a selfish one, as many decisions tend to be. I think my last few posts have shown that this will be a difficult transition. I spent so much time preparing myself for staying in Rwanda for two years, and now I’ve had to start preparing myself to NOT be in Rwanda. Charles Wallace is a bit of Rwanda that I can talk to in my broken Kinyarwanda and cuddle with on cold winter nights. My hope is that his presence will bridge the gap in my mind between Rwanda and America, and make all the upcoming changes a little smoother.

I hope that he’ll like it in America, but there’s really no way to tell. If he doesn’t I guess I’ll just have to ship him back to Rwanda. No harm done.

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See You Soon

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This morning I cut my hair with a razor from the Czech Republic for the last time (or at the very least, what I HOPE to be the last time). It’s getting more and more common for me to stop what I’m doing right in the middle of it and think ‘Huh. Guess this is the last time I’ll be doing this’. Or ‘Huh. Guess this is the last time someone will say this to me’. It happened when I proctored my last exam a few weeks ago, and when I took a moto to a friends’ site a few days ago, and today at our teacher ceremony when a coworker of mine greeted me with:

“You are well dressing.”

This ceremony was one of the last that my school will have this year. We have one on Monday to congratulate the Senior 3 students, but the one today was the farewell ceremony for the teachers. It took a lot of effort not to burst into tears in the first five minutes, but I’m proud to say that I succeeded in holding them back for the entire night…just barely. First came business stuff—a review of how the students did this last year and what we can improve on for next year. Then came some speeches, and then some Fanta, and then some food.

And THEN, just as I was beginning to think I’d get away with not showing any emotion, my coworker introduced the topic of Elisabeti’s upcoming flight to America.

Just so you’re aware—my coworkers at G.S. Rusororo are pretty much the best group of people in the world. Seriously. And they were so sweet and generous in their goodbyes that it took absolutely all my concentration to keep my tears in check. I kept thinking of the scene in The Incredibles when Edna Mode is slapping Helen’s face with a rolled-up newspaper and shouting “pull yourself together!”

They gave a speech about my leaving, and then I made a speech, and then Noel, my good friend, asked everyone to give a round of applause for me and we had a question and answer session about what I would do next and how we could all keep in contact. Not so bad in retrospect, but it was tough to look around the teacher’s room where we’d all teased each other and became friends, and to think that ‘Huh. Guess this is the last time I’ll be doing this’.

My coworkers are one of the many families I’ve picked up here in Rwanda, and I had to make it very clear that I didn’t want anyone to say goodbye to me. I’ve never been great at goodbyes, and so I’d rather just slink out of Gitwe unnoticed…but I’m pretty sure I’d regret that later. Instead ‘see you soon’ seems to be a good compromise. Although it might be a few years before I make it back to this beautiful country, it’s nice to think that this isn’t the end of my time in Rwanda, just the end of the first two years I spent here. In the next week I know there will be more tears, some not so easy to hold back. But I guess that just means that I truly love it here, and so it will never be ‘murabeho’ or ‘goodbye’.

Just ‘see you soon’.

23

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The countdown continues. I’ll forget I’m leaving, get frustrated with the culture or language, remember that I’ll be on a plane in a few weeks, and feel a familiar swell of melancholy creep up as I think about how this experience is going to end very, very soon.

For a long time last year, my emotions were relatively constant. I wouldn’t feel particularly angry or sad, but I wasn’t necessarily ‘happy’ (whatever that means), either. There would be those quintessential Peace Corps moments where everything would seem heightened, but most of the time I was just living my life—going to school, cooking, visiting my friends, and watching way too much T.V. Lately, I’ve been either deliriously happy about going home or completely terrified about leaving behind my family here in Rwanda. My parents will be the first people to tell you that my emotions have been unpredictable and intense; they’ve had to deal with many a nonsensical phone call this month. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Because of the mood swings and an increasing amount of work, it’s been a rough few weeks. The government shutdown was stressful because we’ve been waiting for grant money and it was possible it wouldn’t come through (thankfully we don’t have to worry about that anymore-whew). I said goodbye to my host family, had a few premature goodbyes that involved more than a few tears in my village, and soul-searched with my fellow volunteers about what’s next and how to move on from Peace Corps. Somehow we’ve made it this far, and it’s reassuring to think that we only have to deal with the delicate balance of mood-swings and stresses for a little bit longer. Soon we can go home and binge on cheese and candy or go on an awesome COS trip full of new adventures.

Lately I’ve taken comfort in little symmetries that I’ve manufactured for my own sanity—like that I will leave Rwanda exactly one month after my replacement arrived in my village for site visit, and that my plane ticket home will follow a similar route to the plane that carried Ed3 to Rwanda over two years ago. My favorite band came out with an album recently, and one of the refrains is ‘we’re going home’ over and over again; another small comfort. Little coincidences like that help me reaffirm that returning to the States is the right decision.

For a variety of reasons, this upcoming transition will be really tough. Writing blog entries and talking it over with people here and family back home helps, because it forces me to sort through my complicated mess of emotions and thoughts, and hopefully make SOME sense of what I’ve been thinking and feeling during this last leg of service.

But I’m still worried that my life in America will fail to satisfy the person that I’ve become in Peace Corps. In the past few weeks, it’s beginning to dawn on me just how much I’ve changed, and it’s disconcerting to think that who I am now might not match up with my old life in Minnesota. I know certain things about my future, like that I would like to go to graduate school next year, and that I would love to live somewhere outside the U.S. once I’m finished with school. But the 8 months between when I COS and when I would potentially leave for grad school are ambiguous and a little terrifying. A lot of changes are on the horizon—a lot of freak outs, too. 23 days!

Divine and Eunice

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Divine and Eunice are my best friends. They are 10 and 7 years old, respectively, and they have been my allies in the village for almost two years. Crying with me when I lost my first kitten, laughing with me while watching Mary Poppins or Monster’s Inc., drawing with me, stargazing, dancing, reading, playing guitar. They sternly tell people not to call me umuzungu and they know ‘Ella’s Kinyarwanda’ (my Kinyarwanda is so awful that it needs to be distinguished from the real thing). I help them with their English homework and they write me letters. Their mother tells me that Eunice writes our names together all over her notebooks and papers.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned them at various times on this blog, but I wanted to devote an entry to them, mainly because I know that most times in the future when I think of Rwanda, I will be thinking of them.

I’ve known them since I arrived at site, and they quickly became two of my favorite people. Since I moved out of their compound, they’ve visited me every week that I’m in town. I walk to their house, pick them up, we walk back to my house to cook or watch a movie or torture whatever kitten I happen to have that week, and then I walk them back home. I visit them, too—last week they taught me how to make ubugali (cassava bread) and vegetable sauce. We watched Mexican soap operas dubbed into English and played Egyptian Rats Screw.

Meeting and getting to know these two girls has been the most important thing I’ve done with my service. Each time I get back from a visit with them I feel better; more confident about what it is I’m doing here. I know that they love me and I know that I love them–and I suppose that’s what Peace Corps service is really all about–realizing that you can connect on such a profound level with people from a culture so different from your own.

These two girls, despite the age difference, have encouraged me, inspired me, appreciated me, and shown me just how amazing Peace Corps service can be. Without them I wouldn’t have made it as far as I have, and without me, they wouldn’t know all the words to ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’. My best moments at site have been with them, discussing the plot of Harry Potter or Charlotte’s Web, learning the nuances of my village through the eyes of two extraordinarily perceptive children, being welcomed into their world and getting to know them as well as I know my family back home.

I know that when I go home in two months, it won’t be the last time I see them. We will write letters, and I will call them, and it won’t be goodbye. But I also know that to say even a temporary goodbye to them will be one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do. To not see the birth of their sister (or brother) next year, and to miss seeing them continue to grow and change—these are things I have to learn to accept.

I’m grateful for what I HAVE been here for, though. I was here when Divine was named the first in her class, I was here for two of their birthdays, and I baked cakes for each of them (with frosting—thanks, Mom!). I went to graduations with them, and weddings, and they were there with me during all of my kitten funerals (they even prayed for each kitten at each little ceremony).

My two years here in Gitwe were made exceptional by these two wonderful little girls, and I’m so grateful that I got a chance to know them. I don’t doubt that when my 27 months is up, it won’t be the end of my service. I will continue to know and love my family here in Rwanda; November 20th is simply the day that I go back to America. Rwanda will always be my second home, and Eunice and Divine will always be my second family.

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“Oh, you’re the best friends anybody ever had. And it’s funny, but I feel as if I’d known you all the time, but I couldn’t have, could I?”

– The Wizard of Oz

A Few More Thoughts on COS

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Routine has set in once again, and the idea that I will have to leave Rwanda soon has become a distant (though increasingly terrifying) thought. I go to school most every day, I visit the five families that have become my closest friends at site, and I cross off each day on the calendar that hangs above my bed. 80, 79, 78—time has slowed once more, so much so that my earlier COS panic seems silly and premature. Two and a half months! Plenty of time to collect souvenirs and fill out paperwork and take photos.

Sometimes the reality of leaving still hits me at unlikely moments—when I’m buying fabric (is this the last time I’ll see this print?), or when I’m lesson planning (shouldn’t I be making all my students stand on their desks and shout about carpe diem?) but the feeling is always fleeting, replaced with the normality of the life I’ve created for myself here.

The only things that have really changed for me over the past few weeks are that I now bring my camera everywhere and I no longer care when people say they can’t understand my awful Kinyarwanda. Life is mundane again—denial has made sure of that. I keep waiting for the second wave of emotion to hit, for the tears shed at our COS conference to make a reappearance, but it seems they are reserved for the final goodbyes.

Until then, I suppose I’ll have to get used to the odd limbo that Education 3 now finds itself in; do we have too much time left or too little?