Saturday, March 21, 2009

Back to Butare

So ive been back in Butare for almost a week now. God it feels good to be back. This last week has been so much fun, and the compound really feels like my home. The pastor I worked with was nice but I do have some issues with how that week went. Dont get me wrong, I'm happy that he's my counterpart. He has traveled quite a bit, and he is going on his second trip to the U.S. soon. I think he is fairly well known. I tried to speak as much kinyarwanda as I could muster but it was difficult to say anything of any significance, and even more difficult to understand what people said to me-- i felt somewhat like a toddler who's first learning how to speak and cant form complete sentences, just selects nouns and verbs. I have trouble conjugating, especially when it comes to the noun classes (there are 16 noun classes in Kinyarwanda-- the ajdective conjugates to the noun.)

I am so happy that I will have my own house-- living with a resource family would drive me crazy! I am soooo happy that our PCT is at the compound instead of with individual host families like most Peace Corps groups. I greatly value my privacy, and I already feel like i'm constantly under a microscope, so living with a family only increased this. Let me explain, so I dont sound like a whiny little brat.

I had a little bit of a sniffle while I was at my site that week. It's not a big deal, its usually allergies and it goes away. However, ANY TIME I sniffled even a little bit, whoever I was around would act like I was dying! They'd ask me a million questions-- was I ok? Did I need to go to the hospital? What did I have? They'd readily offer to go to the store to get me medication, and I'd have to almost yell at them so that they wouldn't. I explained over and over again (often to the same people) that it's just allergies, I get sniffles all the time and its not serious, plus I had decongestant meds already. Its like I had to say the same thing 20 times in order to get through to anyone. This sort of concern was not limited to the family I was staying with, but with ANYONE I even so much as said hi to. It happened while I was walking to school to teach, I was even talked to by a man who looked MUCH sicker than me, it felt kind of offensive.I wonder if it has to do with the fact that i'm white or a foreinger, or if Rwandans behave this way towards other Rwandans. I also had quite a few mosquito bites, and anytime I scrathed one I would again be bombarded with questions and looks of concern. To top it off, I cut myself while shaving my legs, and the skirt I wore didnt cover up the cut. I tried to hide it, but sure enough word spread that I was injured and needed medical help. Pretty frustrating.

Another incident which was both strange and entertaining happened one of the last days I was there. I hadn't locked the door to my room, and I was changing my shirt. Not naked, just changing shirts. The Pastor's daughter walked in while I was still in my bra, and she caught sight of my belly button piercing. She looked concerned and, thinking that something had gotten stuck in me, started pulling on it to take it out. I tried to explain to her (she speaks very good English) that i was not injured, that the metal bar was SUPPOSED to be there. There really is a big difference between Rwandans in terms of this. I was originally told that no one in Rwanda has tattoos/piercings or has even heard of them, but I have seen local women who have both, so I know that's not true.

One aspect of Rwandan culture that makes me feel very uneasy is that there is a heavy religous influence, specifically a Christian influence. Of course I know that I have to adapt, but I feel like there is a lot of conflict to come in terms of this. I remember that, many years ago, my cousin Cloe told me that when she lived in Senegal, she told people she was Jewish, because it is better to have some kind of religion than to have no religion at all in Africa. Even though I'm sure Senegal is vastly different from Rwanda, I took her advice, and I've been telling people I'm Jewish whenever I'm asked a question about religion. I have often been asked what church I go to, if i'm a Christian, etc. Asking someone if they are Christian is along the same lines as asking someone their name or what they do for a living. There are different branches of Christianity here, and there are Muslims as well, but as far as I've been told, there are no Syagogues. I guess there are very few Jews in Rwanda, if there are any at all. When I told the pastor that I was Jewish, he appeared to be somewhat familiar with Judaism, but I think the majority of the people here do not know what it is, and it's difficult for me to explain to people. I'm still going to stick to telling people I'm Jewish, it's too late to change now, and since i'm not lying (i'm cutlurally and ethnically Jewish, but not religous), I figured it would be the best thing to say. I thought that telling people this would stop them from pushing me to go to church all the time, but i'm not so sure that's true. The principle of my school was familiar with the holocaust, but then he went on to ask me if this meant I was rich, and if i'm orginally from Israel. Oh well.

I just really need to learn how to deal with these sorts of situations better. Right now I still feel uncomforatble when it comes to this. The pastor had some guests over to the house, a very nice couple who spoke fairly good English, and then out of nowhere the woman asked me if I was saved. I felt caught off guard, so I just said yes (I don't even really know what being saved means), and then she asked me if my family was saved. In hindsight, I should have answered differently, but I still don't know what I should have said exactly.

I did however, agree to go to church with the pastor's daughter one time. I really don't mind going to church once in a while, in fact, I feel like I should out of respect since I'm working primarily with a pastor and with all the people who attend his church. However, I don't want to go every week for hours at a time, and I don't want anyone to try to convert me. I respect their beliefs, so they should respect mine. I don't go around telling people God sucks or is fabrication just because I'm athiest-- I honestly don't care what people believe in as long as they let me be.

Anywho, going to the church was quite an experience. I walked in expecting the typical scene, but the pews were all backed up in a corner. Instead, there was a large circle consisting mostly of women sitting on the floor, with one woman in the center on her hands and knees. The man who I'm assuming was one of the pastors was standing above her with a microphone connected to two huge speakers. As the only caucasian walking into church in the middle of a service, I definately brought a lot of attention upon myself. I just followed the girl's lead, walking past people and then eventually sitting down. We watched as the pastor put his hand on the woman's head, then scream things I could not understand. This took some time, and he rubbed her back and shoulders as well. The woman was moved to tears, it was obviously very emotional for her. After he was done, they played recorded music while a bunch of people got up and danced around the woman. I watched as he and other pastor did this over and over again with different people, mostly women, but one man. The pastor would ask who was sick, or had a problem, or knew someone who was in trouble and needed help. A volunteer would come forward, and the pastor would then "cure" the problem by touching the person in a certain way and screaming for an unspecified period of time. Each "healing session" (i don't know what else to call it) would end with music and dancing. It reminded me of the church scenes in the movie "There Will be Blood". I really hoped that the pastor would not ask me to volunteer. At one point, I was given an interpreter. I woman got up and sat next to me, then suddenly started speaking to me in English. I was grateful for this, because it made me feel more included. It made me feel welcome there. The stories people had for needing healing were interesting. At one point, the pastor fixated his eyes on me and told me my fortune. My interpreter told me that he was saying I,("umuzungu", as they call white people) had come to Rwanda for a good purpose. I was going to help improve Rwanda, and then I would be going to the Congo to improve conditions there. This was fun and I was flattered, but was also a bit difficult for me to hold back laughter-- as a PCV, I'm not even allowed to go into the Congo. I managed to keep a calm composure, and shrotly afterward, the daughter led the way out, as I guess the service went on all day. It was an interesting experience, but I don't know how many times I'd be able to go in there. I don't know if the church has several different styles of serivce, or if it is always like that. I found myself craving the comforts of being surrounded by people who understand me, so I was relieved once I got back to Butare.

I guess this entry hasn't been the most upbeat. I want to stress that I still really like Rwanda and am proud to serve here. I guess I just feel like I have to tell it like it is while still censuring myself (trust me i'm leaving out a lot). I don't want to lie about stuff because years later, when I read these blogs, I want to remember what really happened and how things really went down. That's all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Site Visit+Birthday

So, this is the first blog Im writing as a 23 year old-- yes i know, its a corny thing to say but im easily entertained. Anywho, my birthday was a lot of fun. I started out by going to a wedding, which actually turned out to be the dowry ceremony. In Rwanda, an engagement comes in several parts. I dont know all the details, but there is always a dowry ceremony some time before the actual wedding. From the time I arrived there with the woman who invited me to the end of the ceremony took about 2 and a half hours. It was held outside in someones front yard. There were about 100 people there, so sizable but not big by Rwandan standards. In Rwanda, you dont need a formal invitation to attend a wedding, people are generally ok with just someone walking by and joining at the last minute out of curiousity. I didnt get cake, but they did serve Fanta (like they do everywhere). The way the dowry ceremony is set up is that the family (and friends?) of the bride sit together on one side and the family and friends of the groom sit on the other. Both are separate from the audience. The two groups take turns talking to the other, presumably telling stories or wishes of good luck. My kinyarwanda is not good enough yet to say for sure. There were two sets of dancers, the first were young men and the second were women. They danced in the traditional Rwandan style, which I really want to learn-- its beautiful. After the two dance sequences, the "groomsmen" and "bridesmaids" walk in with the bride and groom. I was surprised to see a white guy and an asian in the groom's party. The woman who brought me to the wedding told me that the groom is from Kenya, so maybe theres some relation to that? Im assuming Kenya has more expatriots and is more multicultural/multiethnic than Rwanda, but thats just a guess. Hopeuflly nothing Im saying is offensive, its always a risk anytime race or ethnicity is mentioned. Anyway, the bridesmen and groomsmen all drink jugs full of milk which I correctly assumed symbolize fertility. Two cows were presented as the dowry for the bride, and after some time, groomsmen and bridesmaids leave, ending the ceremony. Quite an interesting and enjoyable experience.

It was easy to put something together for my bday that evening since Im still in training with all the other PCVs, and it was on a Saturday night, when we all eat out anyway (the nunnery doesnt provide food on Saturday). So we all went out to dinner and I had a few beers. Other stuff happened, but well, this is a public blog so I'll keep that information to myself ;).
Im really going to miss everyone here, its hard to believe I have less than a month before I swear in as an official PCV. Last week was spent at my future site. I got to see my house-- yes, Im 23 and I have my own house! I've never even lived alone before so this should be ineresting. I could get used to having a whole bunch of space to myself. My house isnt furnished yet, and the construction workers (or whatever they are) are still putting the finishing touches on it, so I didnt stay in my house during my visit. But it's super cute. It's painted turquoise on the outside, with a front and back yard. So I have a few little trees to admire from my window, running water, an actual toilet (that flushes!), electricity and a real shower-- not a faucet! I took pictures but due to the speed of internet here (which I always complain about) it would take me over an hour to upload a single photo, so unfortunately I probably wont be able to show anything on here :(

I stayed with a pastor's family. Turns out Ill be working for him (I dont know if im allowed to name the organisation im working for, so for now I just wont say). He seems like a fairly decent man. He speaks French and some English. He's well traveled and fairly well known; he's going on his second trip to America soon. My future house, the pastor's house, his church, and the organisation's building are all right next to each other, which is both good and bad. Its good because it means that I can easily go back and forth, if i have a question or if I need something. I do think I might start to feel a little claustraphobic, especially since Ive come to realize that this culture doesnt really consider privacy, at least not the way we do in America. This is also a very conservative society, so if I have a visitor, especially a male visitor, I might turn into the talk of the neighborhood, and be judged. It's already odd to many people here that a little white American girl is going to be living in a house all by herself, since no one lives alone in Rwanda. You either live with your family or your spouse, which i guess is the same thing.Ill have to figure out how to respect Rwandan culture while still living my life. Maybe its immature, but Im used to my freedom, and I definately think my respect of the culture will have to be compromised in order for me to be happy, thats just the way it is.

I had a meeting with the pastor and two of the women I will be working with. The two woemen barely speak any English, so it was pretty much just the pasor and I engaging in conversation. The building He works in has three rooms from what I could tell. A large office, a meeting room lined with benches, and a room full of sowing machines where women make clothes, mostly school uniforms. Even after my meeting with the pastor, Im still not sure where exactly I fit into this equation. I know that he wants me to teach English to the adults who work there, and to conduct these lessons in the meeting room. He also wants me to help sell women's handbags and handmade cards. Im not clear on what the money for these items would be used for, and until I do Im not very pleased about this part of the job description. Ive never really liked customer service/sales, and I know that people here generally look at whites/Americans, and assume that we have money or connections to big money. They're not completely wrong with their assumptions about Americans and American culture, but most people here take it to a rediculous extreme--I'll explain more about that later.
Im not sure what the pastor wants me to do with the women who sow sweaters, but generally it seems like he wants to use my knowlege of English to get grant money and interpret documents his organization recieves. He said that he only wants me working about 3 or 4 days at the school, which saddens me because I would rather spend the majority of my time teaching. I dont want to be a teacher as a career choice when I get back to the U.S., but what I like about teaching is that its something established. There's a set schedule that everyone's familiar with, and the objectives are clear. I wouldnt have to do much organizing, just setting up lesson plans and developing a teaching style based on what my students need. I already started teaching while I was there, which surprised the the other PCVs since it seems like most of us only toured our town and (possible) workplaces. I think Im pretty lucky. I like the principle of my school, hes a nice (and attractive) 30 year old. He speaks French and fairly good English, even though he doesnt think so. The school is about a 20 minute walk from my future house, and its what i would call a middle school and high school combined. The school is small, and fortunately, so are the classes. I dont think there are 5 different classes, and none of them exceed 25 students. I thought I would just be teaching English, but Im apparently teaching computer science as well, which is what I taught while I was there. Im a little uncomfortable teaching computer skills--Im pretty ignorant when it comes to technology. When I told my friend Shaun in the U.S. that id be teaching computer classes, she laughed and said "they must be desperate". Yeah, they kind of are. The school has two computers, one of which works and, due to the frequent power outages, only works if the generator works. I could go into more detail about teaching--its going to be difficult but i actually really liked it. Instead, you can ask me personally. If youre reading this blog, you have my e-mail.

That Friday night I met up with some other PCVs in Kigali, which was A LOT of fun. We talked about our different experiences, and ate American style food which we greatly miss. Rwandan food is good, but its also fairly unhealthy and very repetative. We met up at Nakumatt, which is a large 24 hour Target/Ralphs type store inside a mall. I hate to admit it, but I almost jumped up and down for joy when I went inside that place. I could spend hours just admiring the alchohol section alone-- not that its huge, but huge by Rwandan standards. Its definately a hotspot for the "abazungus" (whites/foreigners) to go. It made me realize how materialistic I am, but so what? It was nice to have choices, and products Im familiar with. I bought shaving cream and an ice cream sandwich, I was on cloud 9. Its hard to find ice cream, especially ice cream that actually tastes like ice cream here. I spent the night in Kigali then took a 20 minute cab ride back to my site. I was then almost immediately whisked off to a huge wedding reception, or rather, the dowry ceremony (once again). This one was HUGE-- much larger than the one i went to before. It was held, oddly enought, inside a school auditorium. There were maybe 1,000 or more people in the audience, I have no idea how they managed to have enough food to feed us all at the end of it, but Im so happy they did since it lasted about 4 hours! It was fun comparing this ceremony to the previous one. It was fairly similar-- still the two groups from each side, still the wedding party of groomsmen and bridesmaids with the drinking of milke. However, since this ceremony was held indoors and in an urban area, there were no cows presented. Instead, there was a fairly comical episode of a man walking up onstage wearing black and white poka dots to represent a cow. While he spoke, the recording of a cow mooing would periodically be played. I have no idea what he said, but the audience cracked up a lot.

Well, thats a huge blog entry. Bravo if you made it this far, and sorry for talking your ear off. Once again, I want to reiterate that I'm happy here and I made the right choice in joining Peace Corps.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Halfway Done

Ok, so I'm halfway done with training, I can't believe it! Once again, so much to write, so little time to do it. I guess I'll try to be chronological...

So a few weekends ago, we went on a field trip to Muranbi, which is a huge memorial site where mass killings took place. It's also the site where the French soldiers were during operation Turquoise. There aren't any plaques or pictures, only bodies. On the one hand, I wish there was more to the memorial, but it makes it much more real and blatant without having the usual entertainment that museums have. It was hard seeing room after room of halfway decomposed bodies-- many of them still have hair and skin, they're well preserved. We were allowed to take pictures and I took a few, but I felt awkward and disrespectful doing it. Many of the bodies were maimed and many of them were babies. There was also a room full of just clothes. Really eerie to think about how recent all this is--I was 7 years old when this took place.

Well, it's not all depressing. The American ambassador to Rwanda came to our site and had lunch with us later that week. I got to sit next to him! He made it a point to greet every single volunteer and staff member, so by the time he was done with the rounds he didn't have much time left, but we did talk a little bit. He's a Columbia graduate, same school my mom went to. He said he used to be a lawyer but then met a bunch of diplomats and decided to switch careers. We didn't talk about anything deep or personal obviously.

I've been to my resource family's house about 5 times now, and yesterday I finally found their house without any help from neighbors! That's a good thing, considering the attention I get when I walk around aimlessly or wait in a given spot for more than a minute. One time when I went, I called up my resource mom and she said her kids would come meet me on the main road. The kids took a while, and within that time I had not only the 12+ kids who'd been following me for a good 15 minutes, but an entire crowd of (mostly) children surrounding me. I know it sounds cute, but it's also uncomfortable. I know little Kinyarwanda, they know only a few words in English and French, so eventually we run out of things to say to each other and it's just me in the middle of a bunch of kids staring at you and watching your every move. For some reason, its very common for kids to say "give me your money"--maybe because they think it's funny, maybe cause they assume I'm rich and should give them something, maybe both. Anywho, I'm really liking my resource mom. She had a guest over last time I was there, who invited me to a wedding on Saturday (my birthday). Hopefully there'll be cake :P. She taught me a few dance steps, I think I did ok. I'm excited for this weekend!

Oh, and I know my placement and job-- I'm going to be teaching English at an elementary school "somewhere" near Kigali. As a secondary project, I'll be working with women who make clothes for people with HIV and AIDS. I said during my interview that I wanted an urban area, and was very flexible jobwise. Most people here don't want to teach English, they want to do something health related, so I don't mind helping them out. I hope I do a good job. Even if it's not a very unusual job, I like that there will be a set schedule and structure already. I'm not very good at organizing my time. I'm also glad I'll be working with kids. I'm spending all of next week (monday through sunday) at my site, so if I don't respond to your e-mails I apologize. ooooo, soooo excited to see where I'll be working and living!

Last weekend we went to the national park. I don't remember the name. The drive was long but the park is gorgeous. We got to see two different kinds of monkeys. There wasn't really a "trail" to take---basically, along with 2 guides, all 25 or so of us walked downhill through a forest. Since so many people come through there, i'm surprised a trail hasn't naturally been blazed by all the walking that's been done there. It's really hard to figure out where to walk, as you squeeze between treas and get your face scratched by the brush. It was definately difficult, but rewarding. It's ironic, because we spent so much time and effort to see the monkeys, yet there weren't that many of them and they were very high up the tree (I couldn't even capture any on my camera), yet as soon as we got on the main road and sat down for lunch, a monkey came out of the forest! It had no fear, it got really close to us and tried to grab a fellow volunteer's sandwich. So, just fyi, if you want to see a monkey, all you have to do is take your food out of your bag.

I'm not doing so well language wise. We had a test last week where random people in the community sit you down and ask you questions. I had no idea that my voice was going to be recorded, so I kinda freaked out when the interviewer took out a huge tape recorder. The guy was nice but I barely understood a word he said-- I felt like such a fool meeting his questions with blank stares. I tried, but I know I did badly. We're taking another test this week, so hopefully I'll do a lot better this time. I know that it's my fault-- I've been spending my free time watching episodes of Reno 911 that I burned from a fellow volunteer instead of practicing my Kinyarwanda.

We've also been given tours of hospitals, an orphanage, and an HIV counseling facility. I liked the orphanage a lot-- the kids are just adorable. One of the nuns who worked there chose me to hold the baby, I was so happy! It made me realize how much I really do want to work with kids, so I'm glad I'll get to work with both kids and adults at my site. I definately want to revisit the orphanage.

I'm sure there's more to say, but right now that's all I can think of. As always, I miss all you guys!