Monday, February 7, 2011

My Favorite Memory At Site

My favorite experience so far at site was during Umuganda, a community work activity that citizens partake in one Saturday morning every month. I went to Umuganda one morning. The location was about a mile from my home. The community work that was being done was the building of a new secondary school. I had no idea that an entire school could be build out of dried mud and rocks. I really found out that day just how resourceful Rwandans are and just how hard they work.

On my walk to Umuganda, I met up with a neighbor of mine, Mama Dionne. She took me under her wing that day. We walked together for a while sharing about our families. I thought we were heading to the site where Umuganda was taking place. We stopped prior to the site at the bottom of a mountainside. Mama Dionne told me to wait for her there. I asked her what she was going to do and she explained to me (at least I think) that she was going to get a rock to bring to the school. She wanted me to wait because she felt I was incapable of carrying a rock. The school location was in eyesight. I explained to her that part of my being here was to learn about her culture and that I wanted to go with her to get a rock. She proceeded to tell me that she felt I was not strong enough to carry one. I told her she was probably right but if I was to become Rwandan, I needed to learn how to become strong like the women here. This apparently convinced her enough to let me tag along.

As I headed up the mountain, I slowly began to regret my choice to partake in this activity. I had not realized that her plan to get a rock involved hiking up a mountain for nearly two hours. I could not understand why we needed to climb the mountain in the first place to get a rock. Rocks are everywhere in this country. She could have found an easier place. I also began to wonder how in the world I was going to carry a rock down the mountain.

Adults are required to partake in Umuganda. Children are not. As we climbed, we passed many homes where children, unoccupied by the supervision of their guardians, stopped their chores to, of course, to watch the muzungu climb the mountainside. Most of our hike was done in silence. I followed Mama Dionne's footsteps, watching her feet as she went. The treads in her broken sandals did not fail her. She never slipped once.

We finally made it to our location. Mama Dionne stopped near a patch of banana trees. I took a seat in the shade while she searched for our rocks. In less than five minutes, she emerged with two big boulders large enough that I began to doubt my ability. Of course, I knew what was coming next. Rwandan women carry everything on their head. This was not going to be any different and I was expected to do the same.

Mama Dionne began to make the traditional padding used to help cushion your head when carrying things it. It is made out of woven banana leaves and grass. She made one for herself and one for me. No turning back. I placed the padding on my head and with her help, lifted the boulder on top. I stood there for a second to get my balance. It was heavy, but manageable. I knew I could do this. Mama Dionne then lifted her boulder to her head and we were off.

We slowly made our way down the mountain. No breaks. Sweat dripped off my face, the rock became heavier, and my arms grew tired from holding them upright to keep the rock in place. The same children we passed on our way up now stared in amazement what I was managing to try. Myself, I was impressed about my determination. I kept watching Mama Dionne. She showed no sign of weakness. She just kept going, as if this was just an ordinary activity in her life. Then I reminded myself, it was.

We made our way to the school just as the mornings activities were finishing. As we passed, still carrying the stones on our heads, people commented about my ability. They were delighted I was willing to take on in such a difficult task. I really think that was a moment I gained a lot of respect, especially from Mama Dionne. More importantly, I think my respect for life here grew as well.

My Favorite Memory From PST

My favorite memory from PST was my first home visit. First off, I must point out that a much defined part of Rwandan culture is visiting people at their homes. My stay in Nyanza at “laundry house” (my home for my first 3-months in Rwanda) allowed me to develop a relationship with the house worker, Jose. My kinyarwanda was less then adequate to hold any conversation with her at that point and with her inability to speak English, our relationship was solely based off of hand gestures, broken kinyarwanda, hugs, and laughs. I learned Jose was a single mom who lived a few kilometers outside of the town.

Near the end of PST, I and another volunteer, Devin, decided to accept Jose’s invitation to visit her at her home to meet her children. It was our last Sunday in Nyanza. We along with our language teacher and close friend, Charlotte, met up with Jose in town. Jose walked us through her village along a dirt path passing house after house. We walked through what felt like the back yards and outdoor kitchens of people’s homes. We were stared and gawked at. People seemed to be surprised that two “muzungu’s” would be in that area.

When we arrived at Jose’s home, we were greeted by numerous children, all members of her family. Her home was a dry mud house with concrete floors, a typical village home. It had with small rooms, one being a room to visit with people. We sat on her sofa where we chatted (as best as we could), shared a fantas, took photos, sang songs, and danced. Slowly, neighbor children made their way to the house to partake in the festivities. It became what felt like a huge ordeal. The children fought over who would sit next to Devin and me.

Another important part to Rwandan culture is accompanying your visitors on their walk home. That evening, Devin and I walked for an hour with at least 10 children holding on to each of our arms. I recently had been taught words to a local Rwandan pop song. Of course, I pulled that out of my bag of tricks on how to relieve awkward silences. The children and I sang this one song together repeatedly. Villagers came out of their homes to join in on our parade. We literally had a line of people singing and laughing with us during out walk home.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dear family and friends,

I know it has been a while since my last updaye. Please forgive me for that. It is difficult for me to even know where to start! First and foremost, Grandma Marge and Grandpa Bob, thank you both so much for all of the letters and packages. I have recieved so much joy reading about the quirky things that are going on back at home. I especially enjoy your style and presentation. I have found the familiarity of your writing and arrangement of gifts, which are so specific to your personality, to be very comforting and special. Speaking of style and presentation, I want to thank you, Mom, for the cards that you sent. How perfect they were! Your humor is one of the many things I miss so much about you.

So, I have realized that living in a developing country is a wonderful time for self-exploration. There is so much I have learned about myself so far. Let me explain... I never knew I was a fan of beans and pumpkin. Cooked together, they make the most wonderful meal! I never thought I would be voted president of the "Eaters Club" in Rwanda (thanks to my neighbors who feed me every night), and Vice President of the girls soccer club in my village (keep in mind that I have never played a game of soccer before coming here). I never thought I would have a baby named after me (I have yet to meet her so I am hesitant to believe it is true). My popularity status has certainly rise to its highest degree since my arrival at site. I never thought I would become comfortable with unexpected visits from strangers who know all about me, waking up on Saturday mornings at 7 a.m., and accepting the fact that old women here are ten times more stronger than I am. I never thought I would be able to start a fire without using lighter fluid, cook rice without a measuring cup, build relationships with people without speaking their language, speak in front of big crowds without hyperventilating or breaking out in hives, and actually enjoy being a vegetarian (for the most part). My life here has become quite strange, but wonderfully so.

As far as work is concerned, I am still settling into it. It has been a slow process but will hopefully be starting some projects in my community soon. Right now, I am just taking advantage of getting to know my community and building trust here.

Please know I am well, safe, and happy. Continue to think of me and send me good thoughts. I encourage anyone who has the desire to come visit and experience this unusual way of life to please do so. You have no idea how special living purely can be.