Just want to say thanks to everyone who supported me throughout my Peace Corps journey. Without y’all, I never would have made it! Peace Corps was a wonderful ride, and I’m glad I was able to share parts of my experience with you.
For Rwanda invitees who stumble upon this blog, please feel free to send me an email if you’d like to chat. You can also check out the Peace Corps Rwanda Facebook group. Good luck!
In order to contribute to Africa, I would have to know myself better and be clearer about my goals. I would have to be ready to take Africa on its own terms, not mine, and to learn my limits and present myself not as a do-gooder with a big heart, but as someone with something to give and gain by being there. Compassion wasn’t enough.
Jacqueline Novogratz “The Blue Sweater”
I can count the days I have left in my village on one hand, and that realization has thrown me off my game. This past weekend, I was in Kigali for a VAC meeting and spent some time with some other PCVs. It’s an odd thing when the conversation turns to mapping out the next few months at site, while my mind has shifted to the transition home. It’s not that I can’t relate, it’s just that I already feel removed.
Leaving Peace Corps will be difficult. Of course, it will be hard to leave my co-workers and friends behind. The relationships I have built over the past two years have surprised and surpassed my expectations and I feel incredibly fortunate to have been welcomed into my village with patience and love. Even the acquaintances I have – from the Volcano bus ladies who treat me like a rockstar, to the market mamas, to the neighbors who bring Ukuli treats – have enriched my time here. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), that I would not have made it through service without the unwavering support of my PCV friends. That’s not to say that my family and friends from home haven’t been invaluable, but sometimes you just need to be with someone who understands what you’re going through. I know the friendships that we’ve cultivated will help ease the transition back to America. Professionally, leaving Peace Corps is also conflicting. I know I will never have the opportunity to integrate and (attempt to) understand the community with which I work that Peace Corps has afforded me. Yet, while I can’t stay in Peace Corps forever, I can hope that this experience will be able to inform my future career in international development. Often, I feel like the expats in Kigali look at PCVs as cute, naïve children while we (or, I) look at expats as privileged ignoramuses. Now, I know that’s a gross oversimplification, but I also know I don’t want to lose the idealism that Peace Corps has cemented in me.
As often the case, I feel like I received so much more than I gave. So what now? Peace Corps has provided me with the skillsets to be a productive, creative and dedicated individual and I hope to carry that over to my life in America. It will be hard not to get swept back into the fast-paced, consumer-driven culture that I call home. But while I order delivery pizza from my iPhone, I hope I don’t lose sight of the person Peace Corps has helped me become. At minimum, I know it will be a while before running water and flush toilets lose their magnificence.
It’s official – I have less than a month left in Rwanda before I hop on a plane (with Ukuli in tow) and head back to America. Running the gamut from excited to nervous to sad to elated to anxious to perplexed, I haven’t been able to wrap my head about finishing service quite yet.
A few weeks ago, we had our COS conference in Kigali. Our group is pretty small – we’re down to 10 – and it was the last time we’ll probably all ever be together. While our dreams for staying at the Serena (a swanky 5 star hotel) were crushed, we still had hot showers for half a week and pretty decent food. COS conference was the first opportunity I had to start thinking about, concretely, the next steps and beginning to process what these past two years have meant. Regardless of existing friendships within my training class, we’ll always be connected by our Peace Corps experience and I find comfort knowing I’ll be able to call my buds when I’m overwhelmed in Whole Foods or need to update someone on my gastro-intestinal situation.
In my last few weeks here, I’m just relaxing. I’m visiting two PCVs at their sites this week, before spending a weekend away with a handful of my favorite PCVs to say goodbye in style. Then, it’s back to site for a week. I have a party planned with my co-workers, which should be an experience. Hopefully, cow dancing will be kept to a minimum. Afterwards, I’ll be heading back to Kigali to finish all my paperwork with Peace Corps, get Ukuli his pet passport and before I know it, I’ll be on my way to America. Mom, I’m expecting to have Chipotle and Lou Malnatis waiting for me. No joke.
PS: Before I leave, Ukuli will get his own blog to document his adventures and transition to Americaland, the place where pets are loved and other pups are plentiful. Stay tuned!
When you leave Africa, as the plane lifts, you feel that more than leaving a continent you’re leaving a state of mind. Whatever awaits you at the other end of your journey will be of a different order of existence.
After months of planning and anticipation, my mom came to visit me in Rwanda. It was her first time stepping foot on the continent, and my first time planning a family vacation – so new experiences for both of us. I was eager to show her the country I’ve been living in for the past two years, but also apprehensive of how she’d see everything. The day of her arrival, I checked into the hotel and experienced culture shock in the lobby. It’s funny how after living here for a significant chunk of time, there’s still places I haven’t been and manage to surprise me. Carpet on the floors, complimentary fresh juice, air conditioning – what was this magical place?!? In accurate Rwandan fashion, I was late to the airport to pick her up, but she was ready to go with Ukuli’s crate in tow.
We spent the first half of the visit traveling around Rwanda. My mom met my host family, who had prepared a feast for us with all of my favorite foods – including some chickens. I got to meet their newborn baby and play with my host brother, who was being quite petulant. We exchanged gifts, which was coupled with an extended photo shoot. It was great to return to the place where my service began – and equally great to be recognized and welcomed, as if I had just left the day prior. We also spent some time at my site, where she got to meet the notorious Ukuli and see my workplace and co-workers. I was a tad nervous about the roads leading up to my site, because it had just rained the day prior but we made it safe and sound. After traveling around Rwanda in a private car, I never want to go on a Volcano again. My co-workers had literally been calling and texting up until the moment we showed up, somehow doubtful that my mom was actually going to come. She was greeted with smiles and laughter, and I could tell how excited they were. Ukuli, as always, was overjoyed to meet another dog lover and she even brought some new toys for him. We ended our stay in Rwanda with a short trip to Kibuye, a town on Lake Kivu. Rwanda did not disappoint with its varied beauty.
Next on the agenda was a short trip to the Serengeti, to view the Great Migration – something that’s been on my bucket list practically my entire life. The trip there was an adventure in it of itself. We had a very early flight to Uganda, before continuing on to Tanzania. Upon landing, we were directed to the transit room where we waiting African style for someone to come and assist us. Finally, after almost two hours, we were escorted to the departures terminal so we could grab some food. While we had the plane all to ourselves, it was also quite small – which I have a fear of. We landed in a random field on a grass runway after crossing the Tanzanian border. I felt pretty out of place as farmers stared as two wazungu walked off the plane. We continued to Ndutu, a small airstrip in the Serengeti. We stayed in a remote tented camp in southern Serengeti and were lucky enough to be the only people at the camp until our last day, when some travel agents popped in to review the camp. Our camp was fantastic, and we saw wildlife in our “backyard” daily – and heard ’em nightly. While the camp was quite cushy, I was impressed that my mom took it almost all in stride. When the travel agents came in on our last evening, they were full of complaints about the bugs and food (that night they served traditional African buffet – I guess ugali is an acquired taste), my mom was willing to try everything, even the ugali.
I feel so lucky to have shared this experience with my mom. At times, there were bumps in the road and frustrations were shared – but ultimately, I think she got to experience a little taste of my life here. It was great to show her a place I’m so passionate about and after hearing countless stories, I’m sure she appreciated seeing Rwanda (and Tanzania) with her own eyes. Contextually, I think she’ll be able to relate more when I explain how life’s been going during our weekly chats and be able to put a face to the name, or maybe why I’m frustrated with the slow work pace, or how the view from my backyard is absolutely breathtaking.
Mom, I love you and truly do appreciate you coming to visit. I hope it will be the first of many return visits to this continent. After all, we have to track down Emmanuel and make him find that elusive black rhino for us.
To see more pictures from my mom’s visit, go here.
I’ve come across two articles in the past handful of weeks that really hit home. Both authors succeeded at conveying their ideas more eloquently than I could ever master. I thought I’d share them with y’all. The first is a post by a Peace Corps volunteer currently serving in Cambodia:
An Open Letter
Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps,
I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.
But should you? Is it right for you?
Honestly, you might not know that until you’ve arrived. You can research by reading books and official publications or by talking with current/returned volunteers, but everything you read and hear will probably tell you the same thing: every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site.
I’d like to think, though, that there are a few things that are universal throughout the Peace Corps world, and those things tend all to revolve around how you yourself will change – for the better and for the worse – because of your time in Peace Corps.*
‘Sanitary’ will become an obsolete concept. You will eat on mats that you know are saturated in urine. You will prepare food on counters that also serve as chicken roosts. You will not have consistent/frequent access to soap. You will eat street food that is undoubtedly questionable. You will be dirty, dusty, and sweaty at all times. You will have mind over body battles to force yourself to bucket shower in the winter. Bugs, lizards, chickens, ducks, and mice will crap on everything. These things will be ok. You’ll adjust. The sterile environment of the States will become a distant odd memory or a constant fantasy.
Your body, though, might not adjust as quickly. You will have parasites and infections and illnesses that you had never heard of before training. You will be constantly constipated. Or go the opposite extreme. I hate to say it, but you will probably poop in your pants at least once. You will learn to vomit over a squat toilet and into a plastic bag during a bus ride. You will discuss your bodily functions openly and enthusiastically with other volunteers. No topic will be taboo.
The way you communicate will completely transform. Learning a language from scratch through immersion is a powerful experience. You will learn to have complex communications though expressions, gestures, and basic vocabulary. You will learn to bond with another human being through silence. You will answer the same basic questions over and over and over again. You may never achieve the ability to discuss ideas and concepts. You will develop a new English language which consists of pared down vocabulary and grammatical structures. You will actively think of each word before you speak. Your speech patterns will slow. You will have to define words whose meanings you had always taken for granted. You will learn to listen.
Your concept of money will entirely alter. Paying more than $1 for anything will cause you to pause and question your purchase. You will understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will learn to barter, even on cheaper items. You will consistently feel as though you have been cheated on the price. You will be enraged by all prices upon returning to the States.
You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. No one knows how to budget like a Peace Corps volunteer. And no one can binge like one.
You will be discontented with your work. You will wonder – and scream to the heavens – about the benefit of your presence. You will feel lost in unstructured expectations and crushed by promising ideas fallen to the side. Your expectations will fade into an unexpected reality. You will learn to celebrate small victories. You will look at mountains and see mole hills. You will try to tackle the impossible. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll just pick yourself up and take aim at another impossibility.
You will learn to do all of this through pure self-motivation. You will be the one to drag yourself out of bed and out the door. You won’t have anyone holding your hand or pushing your forward. Just you. You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself.
You will be a celebrity in your community. That status comes will hardships and benefits that will ineradicably change you. You will be the exception to the societal rules. You will be the foreigner, the one set apart. You will receive privileges and have special attention/status because of your nationality. You will always have eyes on you. You will have joined as an agent of culture exchange and understanding, but you will still find yourself falling into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Use it. Consider it. Contemplate the value we place on people because of arbitrary characteristics. You will come away from your experience more attune to your own merits, to those that are deserved and to those that are given.
Your culture of personal space, one that maybe you have always taken for granted, will be challenged. You will wonder why you need an entire room to yourself while no one else even has a bed to himself. You still won’t want to give your room up. Privacy will be a privilege or a rarity, not a right.
You will lose all control of your emotions and be on an unpredictable roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. You will go from happy and confident to sullen and tearful by things as simple as ants in your candy or yet another child saying ‘Hello!’ Your highs will be high, but they will be fragile. Your lows will feel inescapable. Your family and friends in the States probably won’t understand this. Your isolation will force you to become your own support system. You will become aware of yourself in the context of solely being yourself.
Your government-issued friends will be your reprieve. The love and closeness you share with people back in the States won’t change, but it will be your fellow volunteers who understand. They will be friendships forged from necessity, and they will be deep and fervent.
You will witness a whole new way of life, and you will question your notion of necessity. You will consider your personal wealth, and people will constantly remind you of it. You will discover what your ‘needs’ are to live a productive, satisfied life. I hope you will remember that when you return to a culture of plenty.
You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.
*I insert a disclaimer: I believe the above assertions to be true for PC Cambodia, a program in its 6th generation of volunteers; I cannot speak with authority on other countries’ programs.
The second was originally published in the Guardian and is entitled “Beware the ‘voluntourists’ intent on doing good, and is by Ossob Mohamud.
I recently came across an interesting article questioning voluntourism and assessing whether it does more harm than good in communities of the global south. It reminded me of my own concerns with “voluntourism” that originated in my college years in which I had participated in Alternative Spring Breaks. It was considered an alternative to what most college students did on their vacations: spending idle time by the poolside. The university-organised trips sent students to spend a week in disadvantaged and poverty-stricken communities to volunteer. This could take the form of teaching English at the local school, assisting in building and beautifying new homes for residents, or environmental cleanups. Interspersed throughout the week were also touristy getaways and souvenir shopping. Although I had memorable and rewarding moments, I could never shake off the feeling that it was all a bit too self-congratulatory and disingenuous.
Voluntourism almost always involves a group of idealistic and privileged travelers who have vastly different socio-economic statuses vis–à–vis those they serve. They often enter these communities with little or no understanding of the locals’ history, culture, and ways of life. All that is understood is the poverty and the presumed neediness of the community, and for the purposes of volunteering, that seems to be enough. In my own experiences – also highlighted by the author of the article – this has led to condescending and superficial relationships that transform the (usually western) volunteer into a benevolent giver and the community members into the ever grateful receivers of charity. It makes for an extremely uncomfortable dynamic in which one begins to wonder if these trips are designed more for the spiritual fulfillment of the volunteer rather than the alleviation of poverty.
I couldn’t help feeling ashamed at the excessive praise and thanks we received from locals and those on the trip alike. I cringed as we took complimentary photos with African children whose names we didn’t know. We couldn’t even take full credit for building the houses because most of the work had already been done by community members. In fact, if anything we slowed down the process with our inexperience and clumsiness. And how many schools in the west would allow amateur college students to run their English classes for a day? What had I really done besides inflate my own ego and spruce up my resume? I had stormed into the lives of people I knew nothing about, I barely engaged with them on a genuine level, and worst of all, I then claimed that I had done something invaluable for them all in a matter of five days (of which most of the time was spent at hotel rooms, restaurants, and airports).
An entire industry has sprouted out of voluntourism as it increases in popularity, possibly equal to the increase in global inequality. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so too it seems does the need for those of the global north to assuage the guilt of their privilege (paradoxically, guilt only seems to deepen as many realise the illusory effect of their impact), or to simply look good. The developing world has become a playground for the redemption of privileged souls looking to atone for global injustices by escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalisation.
But does this address the root institutional and structural causes of the problem? I do not mean to deny, across the board, the importance of the work voluntourists do. Volunteers in developing countries fund and deliver great programmes that would not happen otherwise, but the sustainability and the effectiveness of the approach is what I question. Time and energy would be better spent building real solidarity between disparate societies based on mutual respect and understanding. Instead of focusing on surface symptoms of poverty, volunteers and the organisations that recruit them should focus on the causes that often stem from an unjust global economic order. Why not advocate and campaign for IMF and World Bank reforms? How about having volunteers advocate for their home country to change aggressive foreign and agricultural policies (such as subsidy programmes)? This might seem unrealistic but the idea is to get volunteers to understand their own (direct or indirect) role in global poverty. The idea is to get volunteers truly invested in ending poverty, and not simply to feel better about themselves.
Just some things to think about…
I was very lucky to spend the holidays at home with my family. America was great – everything I wanted it to be. I gorged myself with delicious food and got to bake with a real oven. People always ask if going back to Rwanda is hard. It’s certainly an adjustment, but after almost two years of no electricity and running water, living without those amenities seems normal. For me, the greatest adjustment is the pace of life. In America, I would be constantly going from the moment I woke up until I went to bed. In Rwanda, my days are leisurely. I can take an extra long lunch break, take Ukuli for a nice long walk and no one will care. I can stroll in 30 minutes late to a meeting, because I know everyone else will be at least an hour late. I can sit and read a book for hours, because, well, there’s nothing else to do. Even as an antsy person, I’ve found comfort and routine in a slower-paced lifestyle.
I have 6 months left until I COS and am finished with my Peace Corps service. We’ve lost a couple of fantastic members of our group in the past weeks to opportunities back home, and now we’re down to 11. As our numbers dwindle, I’m reminded of the reality that I, too, need a post-Peace Corps plan. I’ve begun the dreaded job search, and have applied to a handful of jobs, both in Africa and the States. I’m hoping one of them will pan out. In Kinyarwanda, we say tuzareba, we will see. People always say time flies in Peace Corps and I’ve certainly found that to be so true. These last 6 months are speeding by – and with an upcoming visit from my mom planned (that’s right – Mama Hooyman is coming to Rwanda), a trip to South Africa and our COS conference, I know it will be July in a blink of an eye.
Until then, I’ll be hanging out at my site – savoring the excessively long lunch breaks, children walking Ukuli with me and everything else that entails village life.