May 26, 2016

B-O-O-K. Book.

"You are only as strong as your weakest link." 

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at a small workshop that a Peace Corps volunteer coordinated in her village. Because Rwanda is the smallest thing ever, it is quite funny how it all came to pass. Robert, my co-fellow in crime, was at a Chinese restaurant a few hours outside Kigali a few months ago and they met, because hey - white people in Africa. Robert invited her to one of our trainings and then she invited us to her village to assist her. She has single-handedly revived and grown the small library in the sector office. Her vision was to have a workshop for teachers in the sector to learn about the importance of reading and get a walk-through of the 3 shelf-library and learn how to use it (checking out books, books are free to read, etc.) The whole idea is new, so it was a great concept come to life. 

One of the interesting things about Rwanda is that it looks amazing on the surface. Since genocide, Rwanda is an NGO's gem and has become a symbol for fast economic recovery post-war. However, when you scratch deeper beyond the surface there are human rights violations (How do they keep the streets so clean? Beggars are put in jail) and discrepancies across the country once you leave the capital. If you only come to Rwanda (or any African country for that matter) and see the capital, you will have not seen Rwanda. I fully believe that. 

Another issue is the mis-direction of aid. There are many books on this subject (Dead Aid, When Helping Hurts - are two great ones) that highlight the negative impact or neutral/wasteful impact of aid. An example that is very obvious in Rwanda is the donation of books. It seems to be a popular thing to have embassies, NGO's, well-meaning religious groups in Western countries, send books to Africa. The problem is - getting a huge bag of books in a language you can barely understand is overwhelming! Those books typically get locked away or not even un-boxed. (As was seen at my university job, and at schools across the country). Just giving something DOES NOT HELP ANYONE. That donation needs to come with a training, a teacher, someone to explain how to categorize books, how to distribute books, how to READ. Gah, I could go one forever. 

The PCV we were working with has done a fabulous job of seeing a need (a room of books locked away and dirty) and totally revitalizing the space and introducing the library concept. We were there to discuss reading with groups of teachers. Because everything must be taught. Even the importance of reading must be taught to teachers - nothing is intrinsic. (HUGE Africa lesson right there, ya'll). 

I began my session like this: 

"To be a good driver. You must drive." 
"To be a good runner. You must run." 
"To be a good reader. You must....what?" 

And I was met with blank stares. From teachers. 

This is our Rwandan education reality, people. No CNN article telling you how great Rwanda is for it's economics could come close to touching this reality in the education system. 

When I gave enough time for thinking and gave them the answer,
"To be a good reader. You must Reeeead!" 
Their sweet faces were like, "Ohhhh!" 

But that wasn't the shocking part. (Actually nothing is shocking anymore). 

In my session with the primary teachers, who typically have lower level english than their secondary teacher counterparts, I asked them to tell me if they read books to their students. I was not prepared for the response. 


I had to teach the word "book" to an english teacher. 

THIS is the reality of English education (and perhaps all education) in very rural Rwanda. 

It is a light on a greater problem within this country, the continent, and perhaps the world over. Because truthfully, we are only as strong as our weakest link. If the teacher in the village does not know the word, "book," how can the country be praised as a global leader? When wealth, opportunity, education, health care access, and transportation development are concentrated on one small area of cannot say the entirety of the country is successful. 

BOOK. It means freedom. It means knowledge. It means awareness. 

And we don't all know what those things are. 
Because the advancement, bright lights, opportunities...they don't reach all of us.

walk slow. xoxo. 

Integration of the World. And Heat Rash.


The intensity of pre-conceived notions is heavy.

Genocide. The president is a wanted war criminal by ICC. U.S. sanctions. Sharia Law.

When I was offered the fellowship in Omdurman, Sudan last summer I yelled at my computer, "SUDAN??" I took 24 hours to research what living in Sudan meant - I didn't want to be closed minded, but eventually I turned it down because 1. I am way too much a free-bird for Sharia law 2. HEAT, 3. Terrorist sympathizers as neighbors...ya....not so much. My next match was Rwanda, I accepted happily (moderate weather, moderate people, moderate freedom), and the rest is history.

What I didn't know is that though I turned down the chance to live in Sudan, I would be given an extraordinary opportunity to visit Sudan and collaborate with my fabulous co-fellows. It ended up that the fellow in Sudan and I became very close through messaging and emails over the first semester. When we all met in Ethiopia in February, my boss, her boss, and the Sudan fellow, Denise, were having beers one night in the hotel and Denise mentioned she wanted to plan an event and have the Rwanda fellows join her since we are close friends. My boss is great at going with the flow and throwing US dollars at our ideas, so he was quick to say yes! As was her boss. Denise was then tasked with getting us into Sudan (not an easy task) and planning a conference in the dead of summer in Sudan.

After much bribing, emails, being sent out of the Sudan embassy in Kigali, a million small passport photos sent here and there and everywhere...we were eventually granted visas to Sudan. We still aren't sure exactly how it happened - but the important thing is that it happened. Thanks to the steadfast support of the international school where our conference was going to be held. Getting international visitors into Sudan to hold a conference based on teaching best practices is not something that happens every day. The school really placed value on our attendance and apparently was willing to front a bunch of black market money to make it happen.

Leanne and I flew first to Khartoum because Robert had some trainings to finish up in Rwanda. Stepping off the plane in Khartoum the dry air hit my face like I had opened a giant oven. I smiled and laughed to myself - I was walking into Sudan! How serendipitous.

Over the next 10 days we facilitated a teacher - training conference with over 60 teachers from across Sudan. A large tent with giant fans was rented, it was bright red and looked like a fancy wedding tent (probably was). A generator was rented and we did the best we could - eventually teaching over 10 presentations each over the course of the week. It was like teaching bootcamp and there couldn't have been a better staff of teachers.

Each morning we put on our long skirts (no calves allowed), our scarves (no necks allowed), and got picked up by a driver to head to the school. After work, we went to eat amazing Lebanese food with Denise's friends or laid on her floor in the air condition and drank smuggled vodka. (It's amazing the lengths the US Embassy goes to to get alcohol into the country, like, it's not that important, guys, but thanks anyways).

It was all a hot, sticky whirlwind that concluded with a day trip to see the Meroe Pyramids a few hours north of Khartoum. In ancient times, Egypt and Sudan were one civilization and there are smaller, but better preserved and more remote pyramids in Sudan! An interesting thing about Sudan is that there are no tourists. You can't just go to Sudan for fun. (And why would you? It's hot as hell). But there are a lot of interesting things to see, which means when you go see those things (like the pyramids) you are ALL ALONE. As a world-traveler and someone who has stood in the shadow of the Great Wall, Taj Mahal, Victoria Falls etc, I can tell you that being alone and quiet in a tourist destination is priceless and rare. It was surreal. It was also surreal when my chacos literally melted into the sand beneath my feet. The heat was so hot it felt like science. Hot science whirling around you.

I was touched by Sudan. There are so many directions I could write about. And I hope I do. I just want something up on the website to commemorate the experience because these days are a whirlwind and I might soon forget. I have more "friends" in Sudan after 10 days than I do in Rwanda after 8.5 months. It's just a warmer, more friendly, outgoing culture. You would have to work hard NOT to make a friend with a Sudanese person. In this way, I was quite jealous of the Sudan fellow and wishing I had taken the job! (Also her washing machine, cable tv, and access to having international mail made it look posh.) In the end I am thankful for my time in Rwanda, as chaotic and far from what was promised as it has been. If anything, I am thankful for the experience to see Sudan with my own eyes, shake hands with the people, share tea and cake, and be taught that not everything is on the surface. International travel warnings do not a culture make. There are vague, distant warnings, and then there is humanity. I will take this lesson away from my time in Africa at large, and specifically Sudan.

During the tea breaks, I would pause and look around and often would get a sense that we were part of something much bigger than ourselves. Something that will outlast us and our little conference the desert. To the average American, Sudan is a place Osama Bin Laden used to hide. To the average Sudanese, an American is a closed-minded twat who is aggressive and Islamophobic. Both of us are wrong, in many ways. Sudan is not a place to be feared, and I, as an American, was very happy to be there with my Muslim brothers and sisters. Laughing at jokes, drinking endless amounts of tea, complaining about the heat. To be there and to be welcomed, and also to be a gracious, curious, and respectful guest, was such a powerful experience. For all. Perhaps some wayward pre-conceived notions were dropped on both sides. Inshallah. ;)

During one of the closing remarks, the founder of the international school said this,

"If you do not know the other, you will consider them something to fear. We are here for the integration of the world."


We are here for the integration of the world.

Thanks for the memories, lessons, and heat rash, Sudan. I will cherish those days in the desert.

walk slow. xoxo. 

May 21, 2016


Hey hey! Here's a few things that have been happening around here in short story form...way too much going on for several blogposts (and I just worked 12 hours and I'm tired...)

Alice and Her Girl: 

Today my co-worker Robert and I had the chance to travel 4 hours outside of Kigali (moto - bus - taxi to arrive, then taxi - bus - bus - moto home). Robert met Peace Corps Volunteer Tara at a Chinese restaurant in another town a few hours away and the two of them hashed out a few ideas for collaboration. Because that's the way things go around here. 

A few weeks ago Tara invited us to be the presenters at a workshop focused on reading. Her main project has been revitalizing the local village library (most books seem to be locked away in this country for "safe keeping") and she wanted to invite local sector officials and teachers to learn about the value of reading, how to teach reading skills, and how to use the library. It was a great event that really shows how much of an impact Peace Corps has on their villages and how collaboration across US Gov agencies is beneficial for all. 

Between my first and second presentations, I went outside the sector office where the workshop was held and just waved at people and wandered around. Eventually, I stumbled upon Alice sitting in the grass, leaning back in obvious pain. Alice is a primary school teacher in a rural area and she is very pregnant. She had been a great addition to my morning session, in fact, she was one of the few teachers with an english level to even understand me. I walked up to her and offered her my water, asking if she was ok. 

"I was labor last night and slept in the health center. But this morning it stop and I had to come here because the teachers were coming to us. We need to have more more more lessons." 

"What?? You were in labor last night??? You are 9 months pregnant and came to this workshop? WHERE IS THE HEALTH CENTER?" I started having visions of delivering a baby on the concrete sector office floor. 

"You are good teacher, you know teaching. Please come back to have more more lessons." 

"Alice, where is the health center? Thank you for coming here, but we need to make sure you and baby are ok!" 

"Oh, just over the hill. I fine. Thanks for water." 

"Is the baby a boy or girl?" 

"A girl. I have 3 already. I mean 2. I have 2, this is 3. How many children do you have?" 

I sank a little bit inside. I hate this question. To a Rwandan, me being almost 30, single, and childless is practically a crime. At the least I am a shame to my family. "I have no children...yet." 

And then I walked away. Alice, 9 months pregnant, laboring overnight in the village health center, chose to come to the workshop because she knew foreign teachers were coming. When she didn't feel well, she went to sit in the grass outside. Alice has no cell phone. If things got serious, I assume we would get someone to drive her to the health center. Her determination and grit amazed me. My co-worker and I mused on the way home, "She came from the health center just to listen to us!" But that is the reality of rural Sub-Saharan Africa. Any chance to learn new skills, be given new activities as a teacher, or be exposed to new ideas is gold - because it doesn't happen often. I am encouraged by Alice not to have excuses when it comes to my own development. And the district of Muhanga will have a new baby girl very soon, with a rockstar mama. 

International Pee Pee and Saving My Soul: 

Peace Corps Tara was awesome enough to arrange a driver for Robert and I the 1.5 hour ride on a dirt road to the closest town where we could catch a bus to Kigali. (She literally lives in the middle of nowhere). Our driver's name was Thomas (Toe-mahs), he was young, spoke no english, and was only 15 minutes late which is practically early in Rwandan-time. We had a super early start from Kigali, and had stopped for tea on the way because we got to the city early (gosh darn American-time). Thus, while swerving along the mountain-side dirt road, natured called. "Do you think I should tell him to stop, what do we say?" Robert wondered. I leaned toward Thomas and said in my most grown-up ESL teacher voice, "Stop, please? He has to go pee-pee," pointing at Robert. 

Thomas started howling laughing. "Pee-pee! hahahahahaha. You pee-pee!" He promptly pulled the car over and Robert hopped out. When everything was right in the world again and we were all in the car rattling our way toward our destination, we kept laughing. "How did you know to say that??" Robert asked me. "'Pee-pee' is international," I said, "And I used to teach pre-school. Pee-pee always works." What a great morning laugh for all of us. 

When we met Thomas again several hours later after our workshop, we climbed into the car and were greeted with the same kinyarwanda church music we had listened to in the morning. I didn't even notice it, but Robert exclaimed, "Not this song again!" I laughed and we continued to zoom along the road in quietness until we almost reached the town where we would part ways. As we approached the town, Thomas pulled out a DVD out of his bag. On the cover is the picture of a Seventh Day Adventist choir (including him) and a large Jesus figure photoshopped coming out of the clouds above the choir - seeming to look down upon them in favor. 

"I...sing...take...there America!" he said and pointed out across the abyss to "America". 

Robert and I exclaimed how great it is that he sings, he didn't understand a word of it but he grinned so proudly, and then he parked at the bus station and we went to leave the car. "Is this for us?" I asked Robert. "I don't think so..." he said. I laid the DVD back on the seat and went to leave. Then Thomas yelled out, "You no??" seeming very disappointed. "For me?" I gestured. "Yes, America need." 

And that is how I got proselytized to by a Rwandan village car driver. And you know what....I think he's right. America does need something. 

Arabic-African Booty Alert: 

Last week I was in Sudan, (long post to come - short version, It was fab!). On one of the days we didn't have to work, the other Fellows and I ventured out into the heat and dust to the National Museum of Sudan. The museum is heralded on Trip Advisor as "the top museum in Sudan!" which is quite hilarious because it might be the ONLY museum in Sudan. But I digress. 

For a huge sum of 15 American cents, we each got to see old relics from the Eqyptian times, ancient jewelry and caskets of mummies and carvings. It was cool. I don't know hardly enough about that period of history - the ancient times when Sudan was filled with wonder. As I walked around the museum's first floor, eyeing the baubles and touching the stone carvings, a female museum worker approached me. "You have Arabic roots?" she said. I was so confused. " I have red hair and blue eyes...I have European roots." "You no have African roots? she pressed on, changing the possible location of my ancestry. "No, I am very white. I think I am just American." She sighed, obviously disappointed, and I just kept walking around looking at the artifacts. 

Several minutes later I approached a stone carving of a woman. Life size, round and curvy, her shadow was thrown against a purple wall behind her. I loved the shadow and took out my phone to take a photo of her. While I was taking the photo, the same worker lady came up to me. "See! See! This one! This is why you have Arabic African roots. You have our body. You body so good like her." pointing to the statue. 

I chuckled whole-heartedly and finally understood her. This lady spends all her days looking at these artifacts and must know them by heart. When she saw me...a round, curvy white girl...she assumed since I had a body like the statue that I must come from the same part of the world. 

"Thanks, girl. I'll take that as a compliment." I shook her hand, chuckled some more, and walked away. 

Ya, girl. I'll take it. 

Just a little slice of what has been going on in Africa! So many hilarious, meaningful, and interesting interactions. 

More to come. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

May 5, 2016

Mustard seeds are small. So is my bravery.

This afternoon is sunny and warm. I just got back from lunch with my friend and her toddler and I've opened the windows so Mushu can run outside and chase the birds that circle around our blue concrete compound. I've pulled my backpack down from its perch above my clothing cupboard and I'm packing again. 

I've got the routine down now, after many months and dozens of flights across the African continent. Water is boiling in the kettle to be left for Mushu, a last minute underwear batch is soaking in the bathroom sink, I'm hydrating with my Nalgene full of water, emails are up-to-date since I'm not sure the next time I'll have internet, the essentials like baby wipes, baby powder, my headlamp, power convertors, and tea for my host are all packed. All electronics are charged and backup power banks are ready in case electricity is out at my destination - which it probably will be. Entry permits are copied, extra passport photos are ready to be passed out like candy, and my little pink pouch from Thailand is ready for another adventure. 

I've had this pouch since 2005 when I backpacked in Thailand with some crazy friends. Since then, I have kept my passport, passport photos, vaccination cards, boarding passes, and random tidbits in it as I travel around the world. In 2007, I took this little prayer card off the refrigerator at my parents house before I was to fly to China for the very first time. I've kept the prayer card in my pouch ever since. When I am packing, it is a gentle reminder that I have all the power of the universe inside me, if I just have a tiny bit of faith. 

Often, people who don't know me very well tell me how brave I am. It usually goes like, "Wow, Jessica, you, *insert random comment* , you are so brave and strong!" I usually roll my eyes. They don't know that I am actually afraid of a lot of things. I'm scared more often than not scared. I say, "I'm nervous!" probably 100 times a week. Having a life like mine doesn't mean you are unafraid, it means you have faith to face the fears.

This upcoming trip gives me an eensy bit of anxiety. I've been to dangerous places, but I've never been to an enemy of the state. I turned down the fellowship at a women's college in Omdurman, Sudan. It turns out the most perfect person ended up taking the fellowship and we became close friends. Tonight, the 3 Rwandan fellows are off to provide a week-long training for Sudanese teachers, a feat that is a small miracle in terms of international diplomacy and the education landscape in Sudan. Because of sanctions against Sudan, foreign education materials are hard to come by. But now, we get to take our bodies over there and do some teaching! I'm mostly excited, I know everything will be fine, but a tiny bit of fear is natural, I think. While packing up my purse and checking off items: chapstick, sleeping mask, ear plugs, e-reader, pens, travel documents...I came across my little card and it gave me some peace. 

Mustard seed faith. That's not so hard. 
Off to Sudan we go. 

Thailand pouch. Florida prayer card. Chinese Cat. Rwandan apartment. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

The Miss List.

This afternoon I was walking down the street, arm in arm with a dear Rwandan friend and a woman passed by carrying her baby in typical African fashion - blankets wrapped around the babe and little feet popping out the front around the woman's mid-section. 

And I got teary-eyed. 

I'm going to miss seeing little feet popping out from around random women on the street. I love those little feet! 

I added "little baby feet in the air" to the mental list of things I am going to miss about Rwanda. Time is absolutely flying by, and with the mayhem of work travel that is May - there is not much actual time left in this country. I welcome the coming change, Rwanda is not somewhere I would like to stay forever, but in my daily life I find small things that have become endeared to me that I will truly miss. 


The Congolese tailor who takes sheets of fabric and makes dresses that hug my body so perfectly I feel like a kitenge Goddess. 

50cent mangos purchased from buckets atop women's heads. 

The ever-present green mountain view. It's everywhere in Rwanda. Every inch has a scenic view. 

Red roof tops. I love the red roof tops cascading down into the hills. 

The fact that this country has literally 3 roads that span outside the capitol city. 

Boiled bananas in tomato sauce. 

Fanta. And "chips" (french fries). I will always associate Fanta and Fries with Rwanda. 

Motorcycle taxis. Love 'em, hate 'em. I'll sure miss the wind in my hair, about to die but don't care feeling. 

"Imperial Leather" soap bars. I love that stuff! Liquid soap is extremely expensive so I have become a bar soap convert and I might never go back. 

Guesstimating how much electricity I am using. Here, we buy electricity in little shops and add it to our meters outside our homes. When the electricity you have purchased runs out, your electricity shuts off. Thus, I have perfected estimating the amount of electricity everything takes (taking a hot shower, running the refrigerator for days at a time, etc). I'm pretty proud of myself for figuring this out and I'll miss checking the meter every few days to make sure my usage is on target. 

Geckos. Little baby geckos everywhere. Cute, except when Mushu leaves them in our bed. I'll actually miss them. 

The African sky. It's just so blue. And so expansive. Clouds look like candy. It mesmerizes me. 

My co-workers. I've been insane lucky to have been placed in a country with two other fellows. I might not have made it through the chaos that was the first 5 months of my fellowship without that fabulous pair. 

Being told I look, "Smart." "Smart" is the way to say "You look nicely dressed and put together." 

And this is just the beginning of the "Miss List." Things I never want to forget (but probably will in a few decades).  I'm compiling what I will miss, and what I never want to forget about this surprising, beautiful, confusing, interesting place, Rwanda. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

May 3, 2016

quote of the year.

"You are not so other. 
When I walk with you, it is as if I am walking with a Rwandan." 

-my dearest Rwandan friend. 

*cue philosophical thoughts on immersion, integration, adapting to knew cultures, acceptance, and the perpetual "otherness' that comes with expat - especially white, female expat in Rwanda - life. 

walk slow. xoxo.