Moments

I like to think of life as a mosaic of moments, with each individual piece colored and designed to match the mood of that moment.  I envision at the end of my life this vibrant work of art representing all of the meaningful moments I’ve lived.  It’s why I treasure and value the present so much.  I want as few blank spaces on that mosaic as possible.  I want it to show that I’ve truly lived the moments life has given me.  And I’m happy to share some of the past year’s with you…

Family

After returning to my village following a week-long New Year celebration in Zanzibar, I greet my neighbors sitting in their front yard on wooden chairs and woven mats.  They always greet me with this enthusiasm and excitement, as if I’m their child who’s been off at university for several months.  Jeannette is the same age as my mom in the states, and Anastase has quirks that are way too similar to my father’s for it to be coincidence.  We sit together and speak only in Kinyarwanda.  We wish each other “Happy New Year” and talk about how much (or how little) rain there has been as we look at the maize and beans lining the property.  Their 9 year old adopted daughter sits with me and practices her English.  They also adopted a little boy named Regis.  He is maybe 5 or 6 years old.  He can’t walk or speak, but boy does this little guy have a personality.  You can always tell how he’s feeling, and his big bright smile and contagious giggle has given light to some of my darker days here in Rwanda.

He’s having his own version of a “tea party” using empty containers and dirt.  He’s thoroughly entertained until he gets super excited about the yummy porridge he just made and absolutely needs someone to pretend taste it.  He scoots up to my criss-crossed legs and hands me a container, looking up at me with his big brown eyes.  I play along and grab a blade of grass to use as my straw to drink Regis’ Fanta in true Rwandan fashion.  “Mmm.  Delicious!”  The smiles his parents used to give me when I first started hanging out with Regis used to say, “Thank you for giving him some attention.  It’s nice of you.”  But now they say, “I’m glad you’re such good friends.”

I take my blade of grass “straw” and turn it into a grass whistle.  Cody taught this to some kids in my village when he visited, so I try to remind the little girl, Alliance, how to flatten it between her thumbs and get the noise to come out.  She tries a few times but struggles.  Her dad clicks his tongue and shakes his head (just like my dad used to) and grabs the grass from her in frustration as if saying, “You’re not doing it right.  Do it like this.”

He’s a tall and thin man, usually showing gray scruff on his face and wearing clothes a bit too big for him.  He uses a walking stick to go back and forth from the community water tap that he is in charge of.  When everyone is going about their daily business, I usually find him sitting on a wooden chair in the corner of his front yard, legs crossed, people watching, smiling and shaking his head at Regis, who is always putting on a show.

He hastily brings the grass and thumbs to his mouth expecting it to make a whistle sound.  After he lets out a deep blow of empty air, completely missing the grass, he bellies out a laugh and reaction I can imagine being similar to how he laughed as a kid.  His wife joins in, laughing and rolling her eyes at her husband.  The kids and I start laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.  I take a mental photo.  Simplicity.  Communicating through expression.  Pure joy.  I go to my house and think to myself how happy I am to be home.

 

“We Can Be Decent”

To get to my regional town of Musanze, I usually have about a 30 minute hike down my mountain to the place where the small buses run.  On this particular day, I’m not treated any differently than usual.  When I exit the mountain and approach the place to wait for the bus, I get a variety of greetings.  “Hello my sister! You are welcome!”… “Give me money” … “Muzunguuuuu”. I feel hands on my arms as I walk through a crowd of people.  When I shake the hands off me, a group of children run away giggling, probably to tell their friends they touched the white person’s skin.  As I sit, waiting for the bus to fill up and leave, I overhear a man saying to another, “She says she has no money, but she has lots of money.  She takes this bus, but she has enough money to pay for a moto, or even her own car.  She has lots of money.”  These are all normal occurrences that I usually am able to ignore.  But on this particular day, I’m in a different frame of mind.  The date is November 12th.

I let what is usually something I can brush off get to me.  I tell this man that he has bad culture, that even his own President says it’s bad culture to ask a foreigner for money.  I tell him that I am here to teach and not to give money.  This gets me nowhere, as I’m just laughed at.  During the 40 minute ride to Musanze, I think about why I allowed this to get to me.  I think about how a large majority of my service has been sharing American culture with Rwandans.  I try to make this inaccurate picture that has been painted of America a little bit more realistic.  “All Americans are white.  All Americans are rich.  I want to go to America because as soon as I arrive I will be rich like you.”

As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are ambassadors of our country.  We’re given this powerful tool to show the diversity of America, Americans, and American culture.  And in doing this, we feel like we have a pretty good grip on our country.  We know it pretty well.  But on this particular day, and every day since the election, I feel that powerful tool being pulled away.  I feel like I don’t even know the country I’m supposed to represent.  I feel confused about how to even go about talking about my country…as a place that is accepting of all people, that has made improvements in gender equality, a place where you don’t have to be rich and white and a man to be successful, and so on, while my Rwandan friends are hearing on the radio a representation of the exact opposite.

Of course it’s true that these challenges have always been present.  Since the beginning of my service, I’ve often struggled with finding the balance of shining a positive light on America while also being realistic.  But now, there’s a tattoo on America’s forehead, and my friends and colleagues listening to the radio in some of the poorest and most rural pockets of Rwanda prove even more true that the world is watching.  I don’t really know what to do or think of that.  It’s out of this confusion and anger that I react to that man.

I take a few more days to work through the anger/grieving stage.  I cry in a corner of a restaurant watching Hillary’s speech thinking of my female neighbor who told me how happy she will be when we have a woman president.  Then I give myself a mental pep talk one day on my beautifully scenic moto ride home.  I realize that even in a small way, I am doing something.  I am, in some sense and in the beginning stages of being “the change I wish to see in the world.”  I want people to be compassionate, to be open-minded, to accept and embrace all people and to realize that privilege is a real thing that affects all of us every day..whether we have it or not…whether we want it or not.  I want people to treat others with kindness.  I realize that I, too, have a long way to go and that there’s always more we can do.

I recommit to my Peace Corps service and why I’m here.  I think about a quote from one of my favorite shows, The Newsroom.  “There are things we can do.  Things we can do every day.  Things that are free.  We can be an inch nicer to each other, an inch more polite.  We can be decent.” I’m going to take that a step further and say we can be more than decent.  I know we can.

Finally, for the first time since the election, I feel empowered.

 

“Rwanda Mountain Gorillas”

On Cody’s last visit to Rwanda, we had the opportunity to go gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park.  We were lucky enough to be the only tourists in our group, so it was just us, the trackers, the guide, and porters.  One of my favorite moments was when the guide set us up on the edge of the path that he knew the silverback gorilla was going to pass through.  He gave us a quick rundown of how to act: to stay crouched down, to “talk” to him by making low grumbling grunting noises so that he doesn’t feel threatened, and most importantly, not to look him directly in the eye.

You can imagine just how powerful of a moment it was when we saw him slowly approaching and truly felt his presence and his size, about 350 pounds.  He stopped right in front of us and all I saw was the bottom half of his body as I stayed crouched down and gave a go at my best gorilla grunting.  I’m assuming he did a once over to identify us as non-threatening (thankfully) and then continued on his way.  The balance of scary and beautiful in that moment was remarkable… knowing that I was experiencing this wonderful animal in his own habitat, getting a close up look at his wrinkly fingers and toes with absolutely nothing between us, and at any moment he could ruin me… but he’s not.  I just kept thinking “wow, what a moment.”  (The main photo of this post is a shot that Cody was able to get in that moment)

 

Check out this video below that Cody also took of another silverback charging through the jungle, just playing, or making his presence known.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B6sHWPxdPidLTDc0cnpWMnNndG8

In other recent happenings, I took a trip to Namibia and it was amazing and BEAUTIFUL!  I’m going to “3rd goal” Namibia and tell you to check out my Facebook album to see what I’m raving about.

https://web.facebook.com/carrie.borkowski/media_set?set=a.10154684489387098.1073741847.673852097&type=3

 

As always, thanks for reading, following, and the continued support 🙂  Always happy to chat by email if you have questions, are considering Peace Corps, Rwanda, or just curious!

-Carrie

 

Cultural Exchange!

I’m always trying to share about Rwandan culture (Peace Corps’ 3rd goal) through blogging. But what better way to learn about Rwanda than from my students themselves?

Check out this video I made of my students in Rwanda! We are doing a cultural exchange project with students in America. My students brainstormed a list of topics they wanted to teach American students about Rwanda, and also asked questions about America. My students were very excited to teach about Rwanda and they loved seeing themselves in a video. They are also very much looking forward to learning about the culture of America from students their same age.

We will compare and contrast the cultures of Rwanda and America. My students think of America as this faraway land where everything is different (and sometimes better) than here. I hope through this project my students and students in America can understand that although countries, cultures, and people can be very different from one to the next, that if you break it down to a very basic level, we are all very similar. We’re all people, we’re all students, we all laugh and hurt, and we all play games and jump up and down when our team wins. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to share!

Cheers,

Carrie

Making bricks out of landslides…

Hey all, get carried away into my very first video blog, including a look into some things that make up my daily life here, and some of my observations of this beautiful country and its people. If you haven’t realized it already, hopefully after watching this you’ll understand why I appreciate each and every day I live here. Some photo and video cred goes to Cody Rutherford, and some background music credit goes to my awesome Kinyarwanda church choir. Thank youuuuuu and enjoy!

-Carrie

” I Hope You Find What You’re Looking For”

Me: “I’m joining the Peace Corps!”

Various people: “Oh what a great thing to do before getting a real job.”  “Wow, that’s gonna look great on a resume.”  “Oh, you’re gonna find yourself!”  “I could never do that.  I hope you find what you’re looking for.” “Oh, look at you changing the world!”

In conversations leading up to my service, it was quite entertaining to find out (sometimes from complete strangers) that I am lost, or in search of something….that the US Peace Corps (founded by JFK) must not be a “real” organization, or that, snap! I just changed the world!

I jab fun at these responses because I know they are well intentioned, and quite honestly because they made the cut of some responses that I felt were even worth jabbing fun at.  The rest I had to shake off or they may have triggered a completely different blog post. My point is that we sometimes get thrown off when something out of the ordinary is put in front of our faces. My opinion is that we could stand to be thrown off a little more often.  We could stand to give our attention to more things that are out of the ordinary.

Peace Corps has been on my radar for at least 8 years.  My reasons for wanting to join evolved throughout those years: to help people, to learn about a different culture, to share opportunities that I was fortunate enough to have my whole life.  One reason that stayed consistent all throughout was to live simply.  The idea of living in a remote location somewhat off the grid and immersing into a local culture always attracted me.

Part of me also wanted to experience living in another country so that I could validate some confusions I had of my own country.   I have many reasons to love America, but some things leave me confused.  What’s with all the complaining? Why can’t we appreciate what we have? What’s with people hating their jobs? Why are there 10 brands of peanut butter? Why are we so wasteful?  These are obviously generalizations, but they were starting to get to me.  Experiencing a culture where these things might not exist was way more appealing than being that person who complains about obnoxious posts on Facebook but still makes a conscious decision to click and open Facebook. (Guilty).  The desire to live simply may have manifested itself into a need. I guess you could say that’s one thing I was “looking for.”

I’ve always been an open-minded person, and I could argue that my mind is a little too open, with lack of focus on one specific path.  I am no expert in one thing. (There’s a Tedtalks you can find on YouTube called “Why Some of us Don’t Have One True Calling,” that you should watch if you are nodding your head at my comment as if it applies to you). There are a number of social injustices and barriers to development in the world:  Education, gender equality, access to water, malaria, HIV, malnutrition, hygiene, small business development, agriculture, technology…the list goes on.  I didn’t have a specific passion to address, I just wanted to go.

And so, I was selected to serve in the TEFL and Teacher Support program in Rwanda, one of the most challenging Peace Corps countries to serve in.  If you’re the kind of person that assigns colors to things based on the feeling it gives you, then you might understand why when I heard that I was going to Rwanda, a big grey blob covered the word in my mind.  There’s another TedTalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the danger of a single story.  It talks about pre-conceived judgments we may have about people or places that only represent one story.Would you want to be known by only one story? What about your worst quality?  Even today, when many people hear, “Rwanda,” they think: genocide, killing, hatred, unstable, unsafe.  I’ll admit that I was guilty of thinking these things when I first found out I would be serving here.

It took me 10 minutes to Google about Rwanda, to skip past the top results about genocide, and learn that there is more to the single story.  In only 10 minutes, I learned that Rwanda is rapidly progressing, that it’s safe, there is a very strong and stable military, and that it’s absolutely beautiful.  In 10 minutes, my color for Rwanda changed from cloudy grey to lush and leafy green.  Of course I researched more and read Peace Corps blogs from Rwanda, but for the 10 months leading up to my service, I became an advocate for Rwanda, adding what I learned in only 10 minutes on Google to Rwanda’s single story that everyone so quickly reminded me of.

Fast forward 10 months, and where am I now?  I’m in love, that’s where! Don’t worry, this isn’t another post about Cody 😉 And don’t worry, he’s well aware of my affair.  I’ve got my simple living down pat and it’s a breath of fresh air, literally.  I’ve never been more in touch with the present moment, and I’m being introduced to beauty in all its forms: people, words, scenery, music, etc.  I’ve never been a fan of the phrase “meant to be” because it confuses me and weirds me out.  I don’t know if credit is due to a higher power or the energy of the universe and cosmos, or the patience and persistence it took to get here, but this is one of the few times in my life where I genuinely feel like I am where I’m supposed to be.  I’ll take this feeling over a line on a resume in a heartbeat.  I learn from Rwanda every day.

In terms of Rwanda’s single story, the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis is still very much a part of Rwanda, and always will be.  The energy you feel, however, among your first steps in country is full of progress, development, and moving forward. Every year, there is a period for mourning and remembering the Genocide.  It starts on April 7th (the first day of the killings in 1994), and lasts 100 days (the length of the killings).  In 100 days, about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were targeted and murdered.  During the first week of remembrance, businesses close and there are community meetings and memorial services held where people can share stories or testimonies.  It’s also a reminder of all that Rwanda has accomplished since then, constantly moving forward.

I mentioned above that Rwanda is one of the most challenging Peace Corps countries to serve in.  That’s not an opinion that comes from me.  This was told to me by Peace Corps among my acceptance.  When you think of a challenging place to serve, you might think of living conditions, or climate, or transportation options.  None of those are an issue in Rwanda.  The effects of the Genocide are part of Rwandan culture.  In 1994, neighbors turned on each other and families were split up.  In the Gacaca courts following the killings, some perpetrators came forward to share their knowledge of where certain people’s family members were killed or buried.  This could give survivors some closure, but imagine if that person coming forward was the shopkeeper down the street, or the father of the children that your kids played with after school.  Rwandans have reason not to trust, they have reason to be private.  There is no eating in public, and after you buy something at a shop you must carry it home in a bag.  You don’t show what you have.

In general, Rwandans are a tough façade.  They are reserved, but happy and appreciative.A few years ago, the statistic for the number of Peace Corps Volunteers who chose to end their service early was 50% in Rwanda, one of the highest of all Peace Corps countries.  You may have friends here, but it’s difficult to ever really know them. That was a concern of mine, because it’s usually me who has the walls up, and I depend on others to knock them down.  I am lucky to have found the Rwandan friends I have.  We are growing together, and slowly by slowly, we are all revealing more layers and building trust. Given the culture, the deep connections I am making here are truly special.  Another truly special part of Rwandan culture is the phrase, “turikumwe” meaning “we are together.”  Despite the violent history, every day in this beautiful country I see examples of working in unity, progressing together, and helping each other. (I’ll talk more about this in a future post.)

In terms of my area of interest…I’m doing a good job at continuing my lack of focus in one area.  My English teaching ranges from in-class instruction to three after-school English clubs for both students and teachers.  My counterpart and I are giving financial planning lessons to a cooperative of women living with HIV so they can increase their quality of life by spending less and saving more…which may be my favorite project so far.  I am planning to host a training creating small climate-smart gardens so that more students at my school are able to eat lunch.  In August, the northern region of PCVs will host a leadership camp called Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) that I will be able to take 5 female students to.  And when I can, I go to church choir practice and do my best to follow along in Kinyarwanda because any music, even if you don’t know the words, is the perfect outlet for stress and the perfect inlet for light and love.

Although I’m all over the place, the important common denominator in all of my community support and a growing passion of mine is: empowerment.  I’m not solving any problems or improving anyone’s life, but I’m assisting with tools, trainings, lessons, and encouragement for those to use if they are serious about learning or improving their well-being.  It’s the Peace Corps’ approach to sustainability and although it isn’t easy, I am seeing first-hand the meaning of the “teach them to fish” phrase.  Who knows, maybe even making a fool of myself at choir practice when everyone stops singing but I’m still going can empower others to try something new without the fear of making a mistake. Or at least give them something to laugh about..

So that’s what’s going on with me!  Takeaway message? Hmm. If you want to make something happen, make it happen.  Even if it takes 8 years, it’s worth it.  Just by clicking on my blog, you are digging a little deeper past Rwanda’s single story.  Thank you for that.  If you have the same questions I had about America and wondering if I’ve gotten any answers since being here…let’s see.  I “work” maybe 25 hours/week, I haven’t seen or used a plastic bag in 10 months (they’re illegal here), and the highlight of my day was watching a little kid proudly fly his homemade kite.  My answer to those who have similar desires to live simply: I have a spare bedroom…with a mountain view 😉  But you better book soon because depending on the outcome of November’s election I may have to start a waiting list.  So have I found what I was looking for? In a way, yes. And I’d compare the feeling to the relaxing exhale when a comfy reclining chair perfectly molds to the shape of your body and it just feels right.  “Yea, that’s the stuff.”  But on any given day, that comfy chair catapults me into a sea of unknown, confusion, learning, changing, growing..and that’s cool too.  After all, I did say we need to be thrown off more often.

Can’t wait for me to stop rambling in my written blog entries?  Well you’re in for the real deal.

STAY TUNED……for my first video blog entry! Covering Bucket Baths 101, my accidental commitment to a cow ceremony, and real life examples of why I am in love with this country.

Breathe in, breathe out, be kind, be happy.

As always, thanks for reading!

-Carrie

The Thrill of the Plunge, and Fear of the Flop

Hey All!

Long time!  I’m sorry for the gap since my last post, but life happens, right?  I have several updates, so they all may come as part of a few different posts over the next few weeks.  Ihangane (be patient/things will come).  I hope you enjoyed reading Cody’s post as much as I did.  It’s refreshing to hear someone else’s perspective on Rwanda and my life here.  Cody said he’s the sappy one, and he is.  But I think he still deserves a shout out…keep reading.

During our training, a few Peace Corps friends and I had a running joke that you know who your closest friend is here by the first person you tell your dirty (literally) secrets to.  “I accidentally dropped a whole roll of toilet paper (or cell phone) down the latrine,” or “I didn’t quite make it to the latrine..”.  Well, for the past almost 4 years, Cody has been my go-to “latrine story” person, (and I’m just now realizing that me trying to be sappy has resulted in talking about poop.  There is a point I’m trying to get to).

I’ve been painting a picture of my service for Cody over the past 8 months, and he was finally able to experience that picture coming to life.  It was really special to share the place with which I’ve fallen in love with the person I love most.  (That last sentence was literally all I had to say to be cute…).  He’s my biggest fan, always inspiring me to be true to myself and supporting me to accomplish whatever I’ve set out to do….with a sense of adventure, of course.  Speaking of adventure…..

Cody covered some of the adventure stuff that was part of my two-week break from school in April.  My personal favorites to highlight were white water rafting the Nile in Uganda, and getting to show Cody my village.

THE NILE:  Oh man.  I love water sports.  I love being in, on or near water, and I’ve always felt a sort of comfort from water.  Class 5 rapids on the Nile were another level, literally.  It was as if every inch of water that I’ve ever felt comfortable in decided to meet in Uganda, gang up on me, AND TRY TO SWALLOW ME.  Don’t get me wrong, we had the time of our lives.  It was both insanely fun and scary.  Good thing: We had a very strong and knowledgeable guide in our raft of 7 passengers.  Before getting to the first rapid, we even did a practice run of our raft being flipped over and what to do when that happens (which it did) and helped pull each other back into the boat.  Not so good thing: Figuring out how to survive when that strength and knowledge was catapulted out of the boat and blasted downstream, leaving us in a frenzy of panic and stuck in a very strong toilet bowl-esque rapid.  Apparently in our time apart Cody has been training to be a river-rafting guide and thankfully was able to calmly get us out of the scene of the Perfect Storm where….well… you know what happens.  I had to double check to make sure we actually did survive because the unlimited assortment of beer, beef kebabs, hummus, bread, REAL BUTTER and so much more that awaited us as we got off the river pretty much resembled what I imagine heaven to be like.  If that wasn’t heaven, then a few ridiculously relaxing and beautiful days on an eco-friendly and peaceful island on Lake Bunyonyi will suffice 😉

CODY VISITS MY VILLAGE:  I’ve talked about Cody to people in my village, so him coming to visit: not a surprise.  Small children thinking he was my father:  little bit of a surprise.  My favorite part was watching Cody take in/react to all of the things that bring me happiness here: simplicity, nature, beautiful views, my amazing friends and neighbors, interacting with children, and all the other “little things” that I consistently appreciate.  Sometimes I feel like a broken record telling Cody how much I love it here, but while he was here, his face had “I get it” written all over it.  He fit right in and just rolled with whatever was thrown at him.  One of my favorite moments was when he timidly sat into my hammock held up by two questionably sturdy posts in the ground.  After installing the posts a few months ago, my neighbor explained that “this is for Cody.  He must be the first person to use the tree chair.” Of course, I cheated and have been using the hammock regularly, but it was priceless seeing my neighbor’s proud face light up while watching Cody, a stranger very quickly turned friend, mask his fear and skepticism with a smile as the posts started loosening from the ground.  Luckily, it all ended happily.  Cody also partook in all of my “lack of luxury” activities like fetching water, taking a bucket bath, and even thought up several home improvement projects that he would take on for fun if he lived here..things that I haven’t thought about or maybe personally wouldn’t consider fun 😉 I’m glad he was able to experience rural Rwanda at the very local village level and I’m truly grateful for his visit and spending time together.

Some other recent happenings..

BIRTHDAY:  I turned 26! Cool?! Not cool?  I think birthdays are funny.  We give recognition to someone whose accomplishment was very simply not dying in the past year.  We also tend to correlate age with how much someone has lived/or should have lived by now.  I choose to live for the sake of living and age is usually an after (or non) thought instead of dictating the “a,b, and c things I should accomplish before I’m 30.”   Take that, buzzfeed. Okay my rant is over.  For my birthday I was planning on relaxing in my hammock with my friend Captain Morgan, but actually ended up having a weekend “meeting” in the lakeside town of Gisenyi followed by a few friends coming to my house for a few days of mountain relaxation, nature walks and pizza making!  My neighbors and closest friends in my village baked me a whole loaf of bread, gave me a bunch of bananas from one of their trees, and even sang me “Happy Birthday” in Kinyarwanda.  For someone who wasn’t planning on celebrating, I had a great time and am very appreciative of all of the special people in my life who went out of their way to make me feel special.

SLUMP CITY:  So I’ve officially had my first slump of my service.  I know some of you maybe be disappointed because you actually started to believe I was Supergirl and the only reason you keep reading my blog is because you were hoping eventually I would reveal my powers.  Well I’m sorry to say I have no powers.  And, ironically, at this moment I actually have no power and hoping my laptop battery makes it through this post.  Anyway, during our training, we had a session with our Peace Corps doctors on mental health.  They held up this diagram that had a curvy line showing the ups and downs of our service and at what times we will feel lonely, inadequate, etc. I left there saying, “Pshh…they don’t know me.  They can’t tell me how to feel!”  I’m too stubborn to pull out the diagram now, but they were probably right.  While Cody was here, I was on a vacation.  I stuffed my face with delicious food, acted like a tourist and put some of the challenges of my service aside.  Returning to my daily life after he left was a bold reminder that I’m out of the honeymoon stage of my service.  There are still often new and exciting happenings, but many parts of my life here, including some challenges, will remain for another year and a half.  Little things can add up:  A small setback, wanting to respond to community needs but where do you even start?  Feeling sick fairly often really knocking down your positive attitude.

Feeling bummed about things here makes it easier to feel bummed about what you sacrificed to be here.  I’m missing big moments like engagements and weddings, all of the “firsts” of my adorable baby nephew.  I miss family, friends, Cody, the ocean, going on long drives and bagels.  All of those sacrifices are motivation to pull myself out of my pity party pit and make my time here count.  Maybe it was the rainy season blues, but now I’m soaking up the sun!  I’m not sharing all of this to be a Debbie downer, but if you’re reading this as a potential PC applicant or nominee, my point is to be realistic and that some of your concerns or fears about serving will probably happen, and preparing yourself for that makes taking the blow a little bit easier.  Just like anything in life, that’s what comes along with stepping out of your comfort zone.  We don’t do it because it’s easy.  We know there will be unknowns and challenging times, but revisiting why you wanted to be out of your comfort zone in the first place and refocusing on what you are there to do/learn hopefully makes it all worth it.  At least for me it has.  You know going into it that the raft may flip over…in fact it probably will.  And it’s scary.  But when it does, the good thing is you’re prepared to handle the challenge, you have people to help pull you back into the boat, and it makes a really great story J

Thank you for sticking it out through this long post.  I know many of my readers want to hear about what my life is like in Rwanda, so sometimes it’s hard to avoid giving a play-by-play, but I also hope you are able to take some of my thoughts and experiences and relate them to your own lives.  I have a lot to say, and I have a lot of opinions.  I can’t tell you how or what to think, but I can at least give you something to think about.  Do you know who’d be the first person you’d call after dropping a roll of toilet paper down the latrine?  Is there a plunge you’ve been wanting to take, but you’re scared to fall out of the boat? The next time you say “Oh, I’m too old for that,” could it possibly be followed by “heck, no I’m not, now hand me that beer hat!”?  Thanks for reading!

As Ellen would say….”be kind to one another”.

-Carrie

 

 

Apples, Oranges, Bananas, and Carrie.

 

Hi. I’m Cody!

I got to visit Carrie for two weeks in April and then she asked me to be in her blog!!  =O

Since it’s my only one, it’s a little lengthy, sorry! We’ll start with me arriving in Kigali. Carrie was waiting for me outside the Airport. Her friend saw me first and said,” is that him?” Which was, of course, followed by Carrie screaming, “Yeeess!” and running to embrace me! Her friends left and we grabbed coffee to get caught up with one another. It was a funny experience. I realize it had only been seven months, but seeing the person you love’s face after that long of a period is like seeing them in an entirely new light. She smiled wide… and her eyes sparkled with a level of comfort and happiness that I feel had begun to fade from my memory.  In an instant I felt more alive.

Unfortunately for you folks, I’m a hopeless romantic. If given free reign, this guest blog would probably make you gag, smile, and angry- all at once. Luckily for you, Carrie gets to approve of the post, first. =P So you should be in the clear. I would love to share a day-by-day of this adventure, but it’s more important to me that I share how the experience impacted me.

You would be surprised just how much influence two weeks in a different culture can have on you. I didn’t intend for the phrase, “You would be surprised” to be cliché, either… I meant just that- You would be amazed… astonished… flabbergasted, even– by the livelihoods found in East Africa. I’ve traveled outside the US a bit and I’ve been in states of admiration in each new place. Communities in Europe vary extensively from the US…and even dramatically from one European Sovereign State to another.  Art, food, and language seem to change instantly as you cross some borders. Yet, the US and Europe would be like tangerines vs oranges while Rwanda/Uganda would be more like bananas (and rightfully so *see images). No matter how much you’ve seen, or heard, about bananas you would never understand the taste until you’ve tried them… Especially if you’ve only had citrus fruits.

Here are some quick notes about the two countries I visited: Rwandan’s dealt with a serious blow to their entire culture during the Genocide against the Tutsis in ‘94. They, and Uganda, are third-world countries. Their education system is young. Medical treatment is inadequate and slowly improving. There are children and adults who are actually starving- or sick. Entire families might never see more technology than a 2004 nokia style cell phone. Many don’t have shoes. Uganda barely seems to have roads to travel on, and there’s barely any sight of the western world outside clothing or a few other travelers you might meet along the way…

Yet, they still smile.

When you acknowledge them, they burst with curiosity and kindness.  Some see us as outsiders and aren’t quite as comfortable… but ‘hey,’ I get that in my own hometown. Kids there laugh, play, and learn about anything they can get their hand on. Family matters much more to them than most of the US. They don’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves. They band together to help one another in many ways that you wouldn’t see in the first world. They cultivate every square inch of land and build their own homes. They might ask for money, or a soda, but that’s their culture. They share. Our culture has been introduced to them as one that Donates. Why wouldn’t they ask? The people are curious, innocent, and kind. They aren’t hiding motives and they certainly aren’t wallowing away with their sorrows. Most impressively, Rwandan’s have worked through tough times to build a better society and are always looking forward. They know that there are even better days to come- and that improvement takes time and hard work. As they would say, “Buhoro, Buhoro.” (Slowly, slowly).

Ugandans and Rwandans both shared their love and views of the US with me on this trip. They view the US on a pedestal higher than the steps to Beyoncé’s throne. One even self proclaimed his name as “Obama” and campaigned for the president elect in Uganda during his second run! They couldn’t understand when we explained that there are poor, middle-class, and rich people here. To them, our government, infrastructure, and livelihoods are dreams. Even the poorest people in the US have opportunities far superior than most Rwandan’s, at the moment.

To everyone living in a 1st world culture- be proud. If you’re broke, you can get a job (yes, you can). If you have a job you hate, you can change it. If you’re lonely, you can always look to your family and friends. If you are pitying yourself, remember that you can visit public parks, drink clean water, eat Mexican today and Chinese tomorrow, use kitchens, find world-class healthcare access (except in my hometown), get cheap/amazing furniture, and that you have access to education systems beyond reach to more than half the world’s population. Hell, the US even gives you money to help you transition if you lose a job or need food. Oh and taxes… our Tax system isn’t as unfair as many would like to think. In Rwanda, it’s 30% across the board. In the US, the average tax for everyone is a whopping 11%! We could go all day into PPP, GDP, or BOP, too… But, who wants economics lessons in a blog?

I’m not addressing this to say, “You should be happy,” or that you don’t smile enough. I know that we have different expenses- and everyone has different circumstances- but, (and this might just be because election season) I’ve ran across a lot of folks who feel their lives are totally derailed… or that there’s no hope for a better life.  To them, I say, “There is, start by frowning less…”

Wanna know who does frown less? Peace Corps Volunteers! . . . Or, at least the ones I met! The Peace Corps Volunteers, or PCV’s, who go out to these countries and give up many, or all, of the luxuries above are impressive human beings. Whether they’re doing it for personal reasons, or not- they’re giving up time to pave the way for long term positive impact that they may never see. Which brings me to the next portion of my guest blog: Peace Corps members!

I always thought of PCV’s as the Snow Leopards of the volunteer world. I always knew that they exist, but I never saw them growing up. I put these folks on pedestals my entire life. Now I’m dating one! Carrie and I met up with several other PCVs in Uganda. I had the chance to see how well they had adjusted to their locations. Most of us had traveled in small groups, by bus, for upwards of 15 hours from various parts of Rwanda to get to the campsite where we were staying.  After a logistics snafu landed each group at the wrong campsite before finding the right one, Carrie and I arrived first. It was pretty late and we had no way to contact the others. So, we waited. At this point, I was drained. Mentally and physically. Carrie was great, though. Even though she was just as worn, she was trying to keep me moving, happy, and fed- but the travel plus my jetlag was getting to me. I thought I might fall over any second. About that time, this group of girls shows up- laughing and yelling something about a chapati (flat bread) place outside. Carrie heard them, jumped up, and ran to say hello to her friends/co-PCVs: Shelby, Christina, and Grace. Even though they were all worn out, they were chipper and care-free. I couldn’t help but be relaxed. I think that up until that point I had been in a sort of culture shock. They were all in the same situation as me, but they were comfortable and joyful. Over the next few days, everything improved dramatically. We all went white water rafting on the Nile before taking a bus headed to Lake Byunyoni for a few days of relaxation…on an island!

While spending time with them, I noticed that they were comfortable in their environments. Things that might have caught me off guard or intimidated me were already part of their new Peace Corps comfort zones. I was impressed by each person’s story and their dedication to the part that they are playing. Each person had a different ‘air’ of adventure and I felt like I fit in with the crowd while I was there. Thanks for that, PCV’s!

Having these brief experiences even further validated, to me, that Carrie is doing something amazing. She’s trading time and energy to give better opportunities to others.  A lot of what I saw in other PCV’s, I’ve always seen in Carrie. She’s determined, kind, adventurous, capable and happy.  Whether it was in the Rainforest Canopy, rafting, or playing cards- She was making the best of all of it. So I followed her lead. Because, occasionally I lose sight of the ‘best of life.’ But, I know that Carrie will always be there to remind me!

Thanks for reading folks! Enjoy some pictures, and keep an eye out for Carrie’s next post. It’ll probably be about the things we actually did!

Banana Trees are everywhere here!
Banana Trees are everywhere here!

Carrie leading the way!

He's known by the locals because he is missing one hand. So they toss him fruit and scraps to help him out.
He’s known by the locals because he is missing one hand. So they toss him fruit and scraps to help him out.
Carrie got this shot of me teaching some kids to play the grass whistle. =)
Carrie got this shot of me teaching some kids to play the grass whistle. =)
This is John, he's a teenager and he's building his own house out of mud bricks.
This is John, he’s a teenager and he’s building his own house out of mud bricks.
One of the views from Carrie's Village.
One of the views from Carrie’s Village.
=)
=)
Carrie's friends, neighbors, and local family.
Carrie’s friends, neighbors, and local family.
The view fro out campsite of the Nile river.
The view fro out campsite of the Nile river.
Rwanda PCV's
Rwanda PCV’s
Nile Rafting.
Nile Rafting.

When life hands you a baby goat..

Muraho!

We all know that feeling when we finally get something down pat.  When we own it…we’re so confident in the process of doing said thing that no one could take it away from us.  Your commute to work, for example.  You know exactly what time you need to leave your house so you can avoid getting behind the school bus and garbage truck, you catch every green light and even have your dunkin’ donuts coffee and bagel order waiting for you at the counter before arriving to your destination at exactly the minute you need to.  You’re on fire.  No one can touch you.  Your mornings are flawless.  Until….CONSTRUCTION NEXT 5 MILES… FOR THE NEXT 10 MONTHS.  Oh come on man, really?  A roadblock….literally.

Enter Carrie’s life in Rwanda:

TRANSPORTATION: It was very silly of me to think I had a grip on transportation in my area.  In my two months of down time before teaching started, I really did get the hike down my mountain, packing in a van to my regional town, and hopping on a bus down pat.  It actually seemed easy…until the hike became more like a “slide down this slope of mud and hope someone catches you,”  the van is full so take a moto but the moto gets a flat tire…and when you finally get to the bus station they are truly and honestly “out of buses.”  ROADBLOCKS

UNWANTED ATTENTION:  Most people in my community now know me by name and treat me like any other passerby.  It’s actually a really great feeling to not get “UMUZUNGU” alllllll the time and I remember thinking that while on a walk a few weeks ago just before having my first paparazzi moment in country (okay fine…ever).  The hospital in my community brings a lot of people who aren’t from here.  I had to be the first foreigner this man had ever seen because his face lit up as he walked toward me, repeating “muzungu” in a state of awe, and forcing his camera phone in my face.  I naturally displayed my best “no pictures please” pose and told him he has bad culture.  I’ve also gotten pretty accustomed to handling confrontation with the banana beer drinkers who linger in our town center, but when a drunk man tells you to hold on, jumps over the side of a mountain, returns with a baby goat (that’s definitely not his) and insists you take it as a gift…you just have to laugh and recognize it as an “only in Peace Corps” moment.

WEDDING: So, I attended a Rwandan wedding during my second week at site.  It was all very new to me and very interesting and I remember taking it all in and thinking how different it was from weddings in America.  When I was invited to a second Rwandan wedding I was all “oh goodie, now I know what to expect!” WRONG.  Surprise! I arrive to the wedding only to find out that I’m actually IN the wedding.  Needless to say the day was full of many “what is going on?” moments.  Perhaps the most memorable being when I was “presented” as the bride (as some sort of joke?) and the father of the bride had to reject me in front of 200 people because…well… I wasn’t actually his daughter.  Do you remember that show on MTV called “Next”?  Yea, I was Next’d.

And now for probably the biggest roadblock moment…TEACHING:  I definitely can’t say there ever was a time when I had teaching down pat.  During training, I had the whole “I don’t really know what I’m doing” feeling going on, and now that I’ve been teaching for a month, I’ve confirmed that I don’t really know what I’m doing.  But that’s not to be a negative!  I love the challenge of being out of my comfort zone, and buhoro buhoro (slowly by slowly) I’m figuring out what is, and how I can be, most effective.  I teach all of the secondary students in my school (about 160) each for two hours per week split into 5 classes.  My school’s secondary includes S1, S2, and S3, which would sort of be equivalent to grades 7, 8 and 9 in the states, but my age range is from 13-40.  The students share bench-like desks and my classroom resources are blackboard and chalk….and my mind.  Despite the challenges that come with teaching English in a foreign country, I really love the students.  They are eager to learn and well behaved for the most part.  What I love most so far is that students have noticed me being my silly self in the classroom and I think it has helped some of them to show more personality.  Learning can be fun! At the students’ request, I’ve helped to start up an English Debate club with a co-worker, and I’m also helping some students with ICT (Information Communications Technology) because we just recently received several small laptops for students to become acquainted with.

I’m definitely learning just as much, if not more, as I am teaching.  I’m learning more Kinyarwanda because I have the students translate for me when introducing new vocab words.  I’m learning that I definitely am not, nor do I want to be, a disciplinarian, and I feel for all teachers/administrators who have had to be.  I’m learning that I can get used to the laid back, less than 50 hour crazy American lifestyle work week. (That’s a lie, I’m already used to it.)  And most importantly, I’m learning that the feeling of “I don’t really know what I’m doing,” might be around for a while in several aspects of my life.  But, that’s okay!…because even when we really really really do know what we’re doing….when we have that strong grip and have it down pat,….BAM! …CONSTRUCTION.

That’s why I truly and honestly believe flexibility is one of the most important qualities for Peace Corps service….and maybe even life?  You can’t control the roadblocks, but you can choose your own detour.  And when it brings you out of your comfort zone…that’s where you learn, that’s where you adapt, and that’s where the best stories come from….like being handed a baby goat from a drunk man.

Whatever your labors and aspirations,                                                                             in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,                                                             It is still a beautiful world.                                                                                                    Be cheerful.  Strive to be happy.” -Max Erhmann, “Desiderata”

Thanks for reading, friends!

Some other things coming up soon…IST (In-Service training) at the end of March with my Ed7 Cohort that hasn’t all been together since December!  An April trip planned to Uganda and white water rafting the Nile!  Cody is coming! And next month I’m excited to help launch a project giving household finance lessons to a cooperative of people living with HIV in my community.  Sorry, no photos in this post, but keep an eye out on my Facebook page for an album coming soon.  Until then…komera!

-Carrie

A New Normal

You know when you’re at the check-out line in ShopRite or any supermarket with those super necessary and fancy conveyor belts to help move things two feet? And everyone in the store notices you don’t quite fit in so they huddle around you, staring as you buy your items and making judgements based on your choices.  “Oh, she’s buying bread because she must not know how to make it,” or, “Pshh. She is rich.  She’s buying Dove and not Dial.”  You know what I’m talking about, right?  Your answer is probably, “No, Carrie…and thanks for being a smartass.  I miss that most about you.”

Well, picture that scenario happening here in rural Rwanda… except the store is a closet, check-out line memo hasn’t reached here yet, and your options for soap are the blue one or the white one.  The bread thing really happens, though.  This is just one example of my new normal here…something I’ve become used to and haven’t really thought twice about until writing this blog.  (I actually laughed at the thought of supermarket conveyor belts).

My new normal includes so many more exciting things.  Ya ready??

-I really enjoy the hike to my market town….and the challenging shortcut only made me cry once!

-It’s often that the neighbor kid, Regis, makes my day.  He is adopted by my neighbor’s family and I think has cerebral palsy, but I wake up to him singing outside every morning.  When I visit him, he greets me with the brightest smile, and I usually find him and other kids getting creative with whatever items I threw in the trash pit the day before… tin cans, wrappers, water bottles. etc.

-Sometimes a baby mouse lives in your hiking boot and you decide that he’s cute and it’s nice to have a roommate and to postpone the idea that he won’t be a baby forever.

-Lack of personal space when travelling.  No place to put your baby? My lap is open and I just have all these kisses to give!

-8-10 episodes of The West Wing in one day.  Proud of it.

-Never really knowing what the bathroom situation will be like.  Is it the basic pit latrine?  Is it the same concept but a porcelain hole in the ground instead of concrete? Is it a hole in the ground that also flushes from a water tank?  Is it a toilet with or without a seat? That flushes or that just leads to said pit? Or is it a sideways mini water slide where you “flush” by pouring a bucket of water with a lot of force and it leads to an unknown place?  I’m lucky enough to have that last setup 😉  There has to be a college major on latrine design…

-Knowing that I’m close to my village because the view from my moto ride is a tunnel view landscape of a winding river valley and folding mountainsides of banana tree plantations leading up to bold volcano peaks protruding through the clouds.  Can’t beat it.

There are many more examples, but none of these existed in my life 5 months ago, and if they did, I certainly wouldn’t have been calling them normal.

I really love my village.  It sits on top a small mountain and in any direction I look, there are taller mountains leading down to valleys and rivers.  When I meet people coming to the hospital in my community and ask where they live, often they point to a hill or mountain within sight that they are coming from, although it may take several hours by foot.  Without knowing much about the diverse terrain and climate of Rwanda, if you came to visit my site and looked at my views, you might think you were in a mountainous region of the states (minus lush banana trees).  It even gets chilly here in the high altitude of the northern part of the country and I get excited to warm up to a cup of coffee when I wake up.  The depth and texture of the landscape here make it a remarkable place.  And what’s even more remarkable is that it is completely different than the eastern part of Rwanda where it is hot and more flat, but just as beautiful.

So, these past two months, while waiting for school to start, I really have been admiring the beauty of my new home in every sense of the phrase.  My house itself is really starting to feel like a home. I decorated and had some furniture made and made use of the extra rooms so it doesn’t feel empty and lonely.  And by “make use out of” I put my water filter in a room and now call it “the water filter room”.  I put my broom in the other room….I guess you could guess what I call that one.  I’ve had some PCVs come visit and stay with me too, which was a treat!  I don’t have running water as part of my house or property, but the community water house is run by my neighbors and is right next door, so it’s easy to fill up my jerrycans whenever I need to.  Water is almost always available because it comes by mountain spring and we have plenty of mountains!  I’m pretty lucky because there are other PCVs who are without access to water for days at a time.  I have an outdoor toilet house/latrine, and I bucket bathe in a small indoor washroom in my house with a hole that leads to the outside.  My trash goes in a trash pit outside of my house and I don’t really know what happens once the pit fills?  I guess I’ll find out!

My neighbor, Emmanuel, and I had a fun day painting part of the inside of my house that was unfinished.  We played both Rwandan and American music.  Emmanuel told me he likes rock n roll, so I shared some of the music I took from my dad’s CD collection before coming here.  I now have this cute mental picture of humming along to “Life in the Fast Lane,” with Emmanuel while painting my house, and can’t help but smile.  The world felt very familiar and small that day.

I enjoy the people and serenity and simplicity of my village.  And right now, I like that the closest PCV is a 3 hour walk, or 40 minute moto ride away.  It’s like I’m tucked away in my own little world and I’m making it mine.  The other side to that is that I am a spectacle.  Everything I do is on display and the impression that I am making holds a lot of weight.  So it’s understandable when “city girl” mode kicks in and I’m all like, “can a girl just walk past people, speak fast English and anonymously sit at a café with her cappuccino and laptop?”  Well, I can!  I’m a little over an hour from my regional town, Musanze, which is the closest to any city feels I’ll get, but I’ll take it.  There’s some big buildings, a busy bus station, my favorite French café, and even other abazungu (foreigners).  There will be planned or unplanned run-ins with other PCVs who live in the nearby area and it’s a nice day-long way to re-energize before returning back to village life.

I’ve also used my free time to travel some.  For Christmas, about 15 of us met up at two PCVs’ houses near Musanze, where we incorporated 400 Christmas stickers into fun games, did a gift exchange, and even had a mini Christmas tree!  The night was full of eating, dancing and merriment…and also a pretty intense grease fire and a PCV slicing his finger open and needing stitches.  Wouldn’t be a successful PC gathering without some danger and trauma.

For our New Year celebration, a decent sized group travelled to Gisenyi, a tourist destination which is the very northern part of Lake Kivu near the border of DRC.  We ate lots of good food, met people from all over, and had some good old fashioned lakeside fun….which obviously means duck boats..

My most recent trip was to the east where a group of us went on safari in Akagera National Park.  It isn’t one of the most known safaris in Africa, but it’s right here in Rwanda so we wanted to take advantage, and it didn’t disappoint!  We saw pretty much everything except the lions who were just recently brought into the park from South Africa.  We camped out the night before at a great spot in the park with a huge campfire and pretty views all around.  One of the highlights was approaching a lake with a bunch of hippos and some crocodiles, when our driver stopped the van and told us it was lunch time.  We got out and enjoyed our snacks while having a staring contest with twenty hippos that were less than 100 feet away.  Cool!

School starts in a week!  I’m eager and excited to start getting to know the students and teachers.  I still don’t know in what capacity I’ll be teaching…what levels, how often, etc.  It might be weird that I’m not stressed out about that, but I guess it’s just another part of my new normal.  It’ll all work itself out, and if it doesn’t, I’ll find a way to make it work.  That’s always been my normal.

Thanks for reading!  Hope everything is good stateside.  If you haven’t noticed, I really like talking about this place….and can’t cover everything in a blog post.  If you or someone you know have specific questions or are curious about something, don’t hesitate to email me at cborkowski8@gmail.com.  More people need to know about this country not only for where it once was, but for how it’s grown since, and where it’s going.  The progression, resilience and raw beauty I see every day is truly something for other people to learn from.  More posts on that to come.  In the meantime, stay warm, Jersey folks, while I try not to get too sunburned 😉

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I came across this boy on one of my walks who had a guitar and told me he is trying to learn to play.

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New Years Duck Boats!

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My buddy, Regis 🙂

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Lake Ruhondo, Rwanda…kids will be kids.

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Lunching with hippos!

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Zebra Butts!

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Our Christmas crew!

 

Change is always happening, even if we don’t see it.

 

I’m very much a here and now type of person.  I think people should enjoy living in the moment and making the most of what’s in front of them.  Of course, I dream and have goals and think ahead, but then I’m brought back down to focus on how I can use the current moment to get me there, while still making sure the current moment brings me happiness.  During pre-service training, there were so many moments to be present for:  Focusing my energy on creating effective lessons for model school (something completely new for me and out of my comfort zone), going to language class to learn new vocab or communication skills for that day, cooking American food for my family and taking silly selfies under table forts with my little kid friends (yes, that’s priority).  Sometimes I get so caught up in the moments that when I finally have a chance to take a step back and see where those moments took me, I’m pretty wowed.  Like right now….

Holy crap, I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer!  As of today, I’ve been living and loving in Rwanda for three wonderful months.  I’ll try to quickly catch you up on the past month and all its developments.

Model School

In November, we had two weeks of practice teaching with students who volunteered to come to school during their holiday and learn from weird Americans.  It was a way to take all of the trainings we have had about teaching and the Rwandan education system and to put them into action, make mistakes, and learn what we’re good at.  It was extremely helpful for me because I don’t have any formal teaching experience.  Turns out…I don’t suck! (Whew).  Also turns out…Rwandans are very blunt when talking about someone’s size.  While teaching adjectives, a student gave an example sentence, “Teacher Carrie is fat.” Subtle, no?  I brushed it off and used the opportunity to test my adaptability in the classroom.  Also, in Rwandan culture, it is more of a compliment meaning strong and healthy.  I’ll take it!  Oh, those kids…still something cute to chuckle about…

-Peace Corps Thanksgiving

This may have been my favorite day of training.  For many trainees, it is their first time away from their families for the holidays.  What better way to keep the spirit of Thanksgiving and family alive than to re-create it in Rwanda!  We turned our training buildings into Thanksgiving feast prep and had a big sleepover.  We had a shopping committee, a turkey killing team (who I will forever be grateful for), and we each joined a team to help create traditional Thanksgiving favorites.  We had great convo, we laughed, we danced, we sang, we enjoyed a delicious feast and shared thanks for each other and the amazing PC staff that has dedicated so much of their time and energy to ensure we have a successful training.  It was the perfect day.  It’s almost as if we didn’t want it to end.  Several, and by several I mean most, of us had not-so-friendly reminders of Thanksgiving dinner all throughout that next week.  We thought we were cooking with love, but we must have mistaken love for bacteria…oops. Either way, it makes for a great memory…of the time we all poisoned ourselves.  Hope everyone’s Thanksgiving was great!

-Host Family Farewell and Swear-In

A few days before leaving Rwamagana, our training town, we had a ceremony to show appreciation to the very generous Rwandan families that took all us weird Americans in over the past 3 months.  There was more singing, more dancing (traditional Rwandan and, of course, Taylor Swift), speeches in English, French, and Kinyarwanda, a skit to show how much we have learned from our families, and lots of fun photo ops.  I truly am grateful for my Rwandan family and how much they’ve helped me grow to be confident and comfortable living every day in Rwanda, and the humor they found in my “uh oh” runs to the latrine.  We exchanged some gifts, said our Kinyarwanda goodbyes, and then it was off to Kigali!

Our swear-in ceremony was held at the US Deputy Chief of Missions residence in Kigali.  The grounds were small and intimate with beautiful flower gardens.  We took the oath required by the US Government which is almost identical to the presidential oath.  Fellow trainees gave more speeches, as well as our Country Director, a representative from the Rwandan Ministry of Education, and the US Charge’ d’Affaires.  My watery eyes were 80% coming down a cold and 20% emotional (maybe).  It felt so official.  Well, that’s because it was…and it really hit me when we gave the Peace Corps oath.  It was a reminder that we put in the time, training, and dedication to become volunteers.  Now it’s time to start doing what we came here to do…whatever it may be and for whatever reason.

“I, Carrie Borkowski, promise to serve alongside the people of Rwanda.

I promise to share my culture with an open heart and open mind.

I promise to foster an understanding of the people of Rwanda with creativity, cultural sensitivity, and respect.

I will face the challenges of service with patience, humility, and determination.

I will embrace the mission of world peace and friendship for as long as I serve and beyond.

In the proud tradition of Peace Corps’ legacy, and in the spirit of the Peace Corps family past, present, and future- I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

After swear-in, we had a fun night in Kigali full of karaoke and dancing, and the next morning, volunteers started heading to their sites.  We’ve seen each other every single day of training and been each other’s rocks.  We’ve changed as individuals and as a group.  I am now a Peace Corps volunteer, a teacher, a communicative Kinyarwanda speaker, 20 pounds lighter and an expert (maybe still amateur) at lighting a charcoal stove.  My fellow Ed 7s were there for every step of these changes, changing and growing themselves.  Needless to say, I am proud of us all.  Goodbyes were bittersweet.

I’ve been at my site for almost two weeks.  A PC staff member and another PCV dropped me off, helped me get settled, and I stood there waving goodbye to their vehicle as it drove off thinking, “Well, what now?”  just like they say it happens.  I’ve been organizing my house, which is spacious and all around great, interacting with community members, and just enjoying some peace and quiet in the mountains…although I did catch myself speaking Kinyarwanda to a frog that made it into my house the other night.  He counts as a community member, right?  I’m at another transition period.  I have two months until the school year starts.  I have time to get settled in my house and integrate into the community that will be my home for the next two years. I don’t have a daily and regimented routine like I did in training.  I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow.  There’s a whole new list of unknowns coming my way.  How will my community react to me?  How will I spend all this free time?  How will I handle specific cultural situations? What will I learn from my new home?  I’m excited to learn the answers, but not stressed about the unknowns.  I’m in the here and now, whether that means staring at my wall for 3 hours or going to church choir practice….or going for a walk and hearing “Hello Carine!” screamed from children climbing trees somewhere on the mountainside….because as Al Pacino said in one of my favorite movie speeches, “That’s what living is.  It’s the 6 inches in front of your face.” Here’s to all the PCVs out there…constantly changing, but not always seeing it.  Congrats, ED 7!

 

Disclaimer: “The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan Government.”

So…What Am I Doing Here??

Hello, friends!

Sorry for the delay in posting!  Just been busy keeping my feet clean, pretending like I know what’s going on in conversations around me, dressing up as Prince Charming for Halloween…oh! And trying to become a PCV!  In previous posts I’ve hopefully been able to paint a picture of what my everyday life is like in Rwanda, but what am I actually doing here? And what will I be doing here?  No doubt, these are questions that cross my mind more than you would think….specifically today when a cockroach crawled up my leg while squatting over a hole in the ground.  For real, what am I doing here??

I am currently in PST (Pre-Service Training) located in Rwamagana, the regional town of the eastern province.  Our training is very regimented with scheduled daily sessions including Kinyarwanda language lessons, tech trainings on how to teach in Rwanda, health sessions about how to best take care of ourselves here, open discussions on topics about who we are and why we are here…and most recently, model school.  I’d like to add a side note about how impressed I am with Peace Corps as an organization from what I’ve experienced so far in my training process.  I take everything in with a business mind and to think of all the attention and detail that goes into training a group of 47 people to live, work, teach, communicate, eat, travel, etc. in Rwanda, or any country, could be overwhelming.  I know it is early on in my service, but I feel safe, healthy and supported every day.

Regardless of the support and resources in an environment like Peace Corps, there will always be questions that cannot be completely answered.  You will hear that the Peace Corps answer to most questions is “it depends.”  As we entered into more detailed trainings about the Rwandan education system, we started having questions specific to the work we will be doing at our sites.  An issue is that the answers to these questions depend on so many things.  On what?  The size of our village, the size of our school, the amount of students in our classes, if it is a day school or a boarding school, the level of English already spoken, access to resources, if it rains a lot (yes that’s a serious consideration), what direction the wind blows…(that one’s a joke…I think).  You get the hint.  Each of us will have a drastically different situation than the nearest volunteer to us, yet we all receive the same training.  So when it came time to visit our sites for a week, you could understand our excitement to see where we will be living for two years, get a feel for what we are dealing with, and begin to think about how we can apply what we’ve been learning.

My site is located in the northwest of Rwanda, very close to the Virunga Mountains and not far from Volcanoes National Park which is where people from all over the world come to visit the mountain gorillas. (The beauty of this country continues to amaze me.)  I remember the bus ride winding through the mountains to get to my regional town, Musanze, and seeing people walking through tiny trails of steep mountainside carrying all kinds of goods on their head and thinking, “Wow, what a workout.  I could never do that.”  I should have recognized that moment as foreshadowing.  I live on what is called a “hill,” but let’s be honest, any hill that requires you to use your feet AND your hands to walk up…is called a mountain.  The exhilarating moto (motorbike) ride up my “hill” was full of many “oh shit” moments hugging the edge of the road and literally looking over the edge of a cliff and thinking.. “so that’s where I’ll end up.”  I loved every minute of it and I absolutely love my site.  I spent the week being welcomed by teachers and staff at the day school I will be teaching at, introducing myself to local officials, and being shown around my village (with beautiful views in any direction at any given time) by my counterparts and community liaisons.  The students were adorable and even defended me in the village.  When a community member called me muzungu I would hear a child yell out, “She is called Carine!”  I found myself playing basketball at a small RDF (Rwandan Defense Force) base in the community with the 2nd Lieutenant of the Sector and several schoolchildren, overlooking a banana plantation with volcanoes in the distance.  What is my life?  Some other highlights were the hike down (and back up) the mountain to the closest market (about an hour and a half round trip) and Kinyarwanda church choir with my host!  I will be the first Peace Corps Volunteer at this site which is exciting both for the community and me as well.  They are very eager to make sure I feel welcomed and comfortable in their community and also are looking forward to learning about what I will be doing.  But really…what am I doing here?

My primary role as a Peace Corps Rwanda Education Volunteer will be to teach English to students at the Secondary level.  In my school, this will be the equivalent of grades 7, 8, and 9, although they may contain students ranging from 12 years old to around my age.  In addition to teaching, I can become involved in any extra projects that would be helpful to the school and/or community: Clubs for gender empowerment, debate for teachers, training in finance initiatives, projects with the nearby health center or hospital….so many possibilities!  Rwanda switched to English as the medium of instruction in 2009, but most teachers spoke only Kinyarwanda and French, which has made it very difficult to implement “English only” in schools.  Being a native English speaker in the school will not only benefit the students but also the teachers and help to contribute to the Education goals of Rwanda’s Vision 2020.  You can read more about it here.

Another promising phrase I’ve heard several times throughout training and site visit is “it’s changing.” This coming school year, a new curriculum is rolling out that focuses on student-centered learning, a competence-based approach and critical thinking.  There are core competencies and cross cutting issues that address things like information communications technology and gender empowerment.  This obviously won’t be an overnight change, but it’s awesome that the ball is rolling.  Rwanda’s progression towards its development goals is truly impressive and sends this positive energy throughout the whole country that has even reached the village level.  I feel lucky and privileged to be in a position to help water the seed that’s already been planted.  The willingness to keep moving forward is another aspect of beauty in this country that amazes me every day.

So, what am I doing here?  I’m learning…I’m teaching…I’m being part of a cultural exchange… I’m being silly, open-minded, flexible, and appreciative.  Will I ever be able to give a straight answer about the Peace Corps experience in general? Probably not because “it depends.”  But I can share with you my experience and how excited I am to be in a country and part of a journey where the phrase “it’s changing,” is often followed by “for the better”….

Thanks for reading, y’all, and don’t hesitate to message me if you have questions or are curious about anything.  Stay tuned for future posts about my recent visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, my experience being Teacher Carine in model school, and (hopefully) being sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, set to happen on December 1st! Until then…

Cheers!

-Carrie

Learning to make a climate smart permagarden in the tropics!

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We had an awesome Halloween party at our training site! Snow White and I found these costumes in our local market for about 2USD. We won a pineapple for second place in the costume contest!

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One of the many breathtaking views from my village in the Northwest part of the country.

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Volcanoes near the borders of Congo and Uganda! (another view from my village)

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After site visit, trainees and current volunteers in the North region met in Gisenyi for a regional meeting.  This is Lake Kivu and the very faint mountains in the distance belong to DRC.

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Fun hand clapping games can make anyone’s day.

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My buddy, Jack.  He’s an old soul but marches to the beat of his own drum.

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Neighbor kids getting a piece of my imisatsi.

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