Monday, January 18, 2010
Rwanda... The Next Big Adventure Coming Together
So, I think it is finally time to talk Rwanda. After almost 5 months living at home, my toes are beginning to wiggle in my shoes and I am starting to show signs of severe withdraw from the greater world. Mexico was a great escape, one that quenched my thirst for adventure for a short period. Now, I am ready for a new one.
For the past year and a half, I have undergone a rigorous application process to the Peace Corps. After a seemingly endless initial application, including a questionnaire covering topics from personal interest to family history, a couple essays and a comprehensive resume; an extensive medical review; a long interview; and countless phone calls and updates, I was accepted to the program. Following that, I endured several more months of waiting... and waiting... and waiting to receive a country placement and job assignment. Finally, I was invited to serve in Rwanda for 2 years as a organizational capacity building and community health volunteer. What exactly does that mean? To be honest, I won't know until I get there and begin working. But for now, this is what I do know. I will be working for the Ministry of Health, helping to set up, improve, and expand the health care system. My primary focus will be on HIV/AIDS, Rwanda being a country with a very high percentage of people infected by the virus.
One might be familiar with Rwanda's recent history. The Rwandan Genocide of the early 90s brought this small African country to the attention of the international community. To this day, when one mentions the country Rwanda, the immediate response is to recall images of genocide and mass death. The movie, Hotel Rwanda, further disseminated the image of Rwanda as an unstable country, torn by ethnic conflict. Today, the country had successfully undergone huge strides to overcome these ethnic tensions and move forward from its bloody past. In Rwanda, it is illegal to question after one's ethnic background and efforts have been made to mitigate the individual wrongdoings that took place during the genocide through apology and restitution. Rwanda has emerged in the present as a stabilized country, full of promise, but one whose history is still remembered as a lesson for the future.
I am very excited to be spending the next 2 years of my life in Rwanda. I remember reading the book, Shake Hands With the Devil, about the Canadian Commander who organized the UN response in Rwanda during the genocide. He spoke of the atrocities that took place during this time, but also said that the country was one of great beauty and that the people here were always smiling. I knew then that I wanted to visit Rwanda. May I remind you that this was many months before I was invited to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in that country.
What is it about Rwanda? When one thinks of Africa, they imagine a land of dry desert and extreme heat. Rwanda is much different. It is supposed to be a beautiful country, green and lush. Mountains rise on the horizon and tropical forests cover the land. A great lake is situated on its border. Gorillas and other animals flourish. There is a huge diversity of fruits and vegetables. When I first heard that I would be serving in Africa, I was scared that I would be placed in a country where I would be stuck eating mashed cassava root for every meal and spend the majority of my time trying to escape the sun, extreme heat, and humidity. I'm glad that this will not be the case. It's not that I am picky. In fact, being in this line of work, there is no way that one can be choosy. If I had been placed in any other situation, I would have approached the experience with the same zeal I have for this one. It's just that, given the option, I am glad that things turned out the way they have.
That being said, I do not really know what life will be like in Rwanda. Everything I do know is from second hand accounts. When I found out my placement, I immediately went to the local library, took out every book I could find about Rwanda, and read as much as I could about the country I would be living in. I think that it is very important to have a solid introduction to the country. However, upon speaking to Peace Corps volunteers who terminated their service early, I have realized that the overlying reason for their return is that their experience didn't turn out to be what they expected. They had read through the material the Peace Corps sent to them about their country and their assignment, did individual research on the country, and began their service with a preconceived notion of how things were going to be once they got there. In most cases, the reality was much different from the image they had created in their mind. They were unable to adjust and as a result, returned home early. I want to avoid making the same mistake. For this reason, I am conducting research in a different manner. I am feeding my own curiosity, but not regarding the information as an ultimate truth. In this way, I am keeping my mind open and flexible for whatever the reality will be. This may be the only was to approach a situation like mine. In fact, this may be the way to approach many situations in life. The unknown breeds preconceptions and expectations that we must overcome to live fully.
Now, on to the packing... What on earth do you pack on a trip for two years?!? I'm trying to keep it light, seeing as transportation can be a tricky thing in this part of the world and I don't really want to be lugging a heavy pack... Besides, where there are people, there are the necessities of everyday life. So far on the packing list are the essentials- lots of dental floss (refer to earlier entry), deodorant (stick deodorant is hard to come by in the African outback and there are just certain things I am unwilling to give up at this point), and my ipod (music ties me to home and brings me through the most difficult times). More to come...