Here are a couple of reflections on my third year as a Malaria Volunteer in Kigali:
· I have morphed from a sexual education nurse who is comfortable talking about taboo issues, to the overly enthusiastic malaria nerd. I think and talk about malaria all day long. I read about malaria every day. When volunteers in Rwanda think of malaria, they see me. I was told that I need to “be malaria” and I am…that’s me. I have observed people censoring the word “malaria” in conversations with me to avoid my enthusiasm and explanation. They tease me for informing them that the Anopheles mosquito rests at a 45 degree angle on their leg. “Nerd alert!” they have started to say.
· I am no longer a community development worker with a certain level of accepted informality, but a real professional. In my community, I altered my attire to reflect that of the villagers I was working with, or rather, for. I couldn’t expect to relate to people if I dressed better, highlighting the differences between us. I had to look similar to gain respect. My dressing down was hard for my colleagues to understand. They were always dressing up. “You have something different to prove,” I told them.
Now, I must dress like the professional I am. In order to do so, I desperately needed a new wardrobe. I left most of my clothes in the village, gave them to neighbors and friends, when I moved to the city. I had worn the same clothes for the entirety of my service and, as you can imagine, they were permanently stained from the dirt in Africa and filled with holes from the caterpillars that shared by house (and it appears, my clothes). I may have looked nice and appropriate in the village, but the city is a whole new world. Appearance is of utmost importance in Rwandan culture and everyone always looks clean and neat (smart, as they say). I am no longer meeting with villagers on a daily basis, but professionals and sometimes officials. I must look my new part. Needless to say, I’ve been buying and sewing a new wardrobe.
· Living in Kigali is somewhere between life in the village and America. As I said before, it is exactly where I want to be right now. I was ready to leave the village, - I would never give it up, but I would never do it again-, but I wasn’t ready to return to America. Sometimes, I feel like I am cheating on my Peace Corps experience with running water, electricity, and access to eclectic food. I was able to live in the village for two years; some people continue their entire lives and I have much more respect for them.
· There is something settling about working in malaria, and malaria only. When I was a volunteer in my village, I realized that there was so much to do and was overwhelmed. There stood HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, tuberculosis, diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria. They were right outside my door, literally reaching through the gate to grab me. “Help me! Help me!’ they said. How could I witness their suffering every day and select the ones to help without feeling guilty for ignoring the others? Guilt was a feeling that squeezed my heart and conscience every day of my service. Only by accepting my own limitations and responsibility was I able to extract its threadlike fingers from weaving around my throat and strangling me altogether. I was never entirely successful.
For my extension, someone selected malaria and told me to concentrate on it, not the others. It was not my decision and I don’t feel the guilt that once marked it. In contrast, it is a huge relief. I feel the burden of the others disappearing from my conscience. Malaria, that’s all I need to focus on. In addition, I felt during my service that my knowledge and skills in all technical areas were lacking. I knew a little about each and could perform adequately in all, but not well. Now, I have the opportunity to become an expert and engender a greater impact in one area.
· Now that I am part of one camp, I note the competition between malaria and HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS activities usually receive more attention (and funding) to the dismay and resentment of the malaria campers. “Malaria affects more people,” they argue, “and it is easily preventable and treatable. The interventions are known and relatively cheap.” “Why?” they ask. I am integrating into the malaria camp and have unintentionally adopted these arguments as my own.
· It is empowering to note the number of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers working in international development agencies or organizations in Kigali. In fact, nearly every American that I’ve met working here is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. It seems Peace Corps service is a necessary step for this field of work, a sort of obligatory internship, only instead of fetching coffee and making copies, Peace Corps Volunteers get to participate, even hold leadership roles. That’s one of the aspects that make Peace Corps service beneficial to our professional goals. And it’s just so cool. I can’t help but compare- with my experience at a job in America, I would never have the attention or responsibility I have here. In Rwanda, I am learning by doing, doing being the important distinction.
I am sure that I will note many more changes during the course of my third year, but they are waiting to reveal themselves in their own time.