Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Long time, no blog. I’ve had some questions about where I am and what exactly is going on with me. Rest assured that I’m alive and well, though there certainly hasn’t been a dull moment in my life in 2010.

Many Peace Corps volunteers are required to take an anti-malarial based on their regional assignment, and Rwanda is no exception to this. Shortly after my cohort’s arrival in country we were given a supply of our assigned medication. Peace Corps prescribes a few different types of anti-malarials, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Based on the information in my medical chart, I was assigned mefloquine, the cigarette smokin’, school skippin’, don’t-answer-to-no-one drug that gives the other anti-malarials a bad reputation by association. Before we were to take our first pills we were instructed to read through a packet of side effects, discuss any concerns with our medical officer, and sign on the dotted line. I’m pretty good at following instructions, so after I skimmed through my packet and reminded myself that even Tylenol has side effects I signed my name and popped my first pill. I was finally in Africa!

And that’s when things got weird. Mefloquine has a full spectrum of side effects that run the gamut between amusing, annoying, and terrifying. For those who can tolerate it, it is a miracle drug: it’s cheap, it only needs to be taken once a week, and it is effective against strains of malaria that have become resistant to other drugs. Those who can’t tolerate it end up serving a nightmare of a sentence that can last for months after ceasing to take it.

The fast forwarded version of my story ends with the revocation of my medical clearance and the longest one-way flight of my life. Remember that episode of Full House in which Michelle and Stephanie accidentally fly to New Zealand? Imagine my surprise upon boarding my flight in Kigali that I thought was direct to Brussels, getting all buckled in for my eight hour flight and as the plane was pulling away from the gate I heard “our flight to Entebbe will take approximately 35 minutes this evening…” For a moment I thought Danny was going to ground me for life. Kigali. Entebbe. Brussels. Atlanta. Seattle.

It has been a long journey. I’m feeling like myself again, and just beginning the uphill battle to get my medical clearance back. Mefloquine aside, I have nothing but good things to say about Rwanda, and I will be back, one way or another. Congratulations and best of luck to my public health cohort!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Being a white girl in Rwanda is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, people can see me coming from a mile away and like to stare at me, touch me, and sometimes ask me for money. On the other hand, no one really expects me to be able to speak or understand Kinyarwanda, which I’ve found comes in handy for deflecting both requests for money and marriage proposals.

Earlier this week I was walking along the road when a little girl walked up next to me and said “good afternoon” and I responded in Kinyarwandan. Two men who were accompanying the girl rubber necked to me with a surprised look and asked me if I really spoke Kinyarwandan. At that particular moment, I couldn’t remember how to say “I speak a little” so instead I just started listing a few words that I knew, which got the point across and the family lost interest. About ten minutes later a group of children called out to me from the side of the road using vocabulary I’m more familiar with, and we had a little introductory conversation using conjugated verbs about what my name is, who I am, and where I am going. While I was running through this conversation with the group of children, the original family looked over and gave me a look that said “you do speak this language, you were just pretending so you wouldn’t have to talk to us.” I wanted explain again that I speak a little bit and it was nothing personal, but I had already used up all my vocabulary, so I let it go. Then I started to feel pretty good about myself that someone might hear me saying “what is your name?” and mistake me for someone who can actually speak this language but chose to pretend to be unable to understand. So, overall I’m calling that whole exchange a success.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Famous in a Small Town

I had heard about how life in Peace Corps can sometimes make you feel like you’re living in a fish bowl, but for some reason I didn’t think about how obvious it would be in Rwanda. After a couple of days in Kigali for orientation and enough shots to make a pin cushion blush, we moved on to Nyanza where we will be training for the next ten weeks. Immediately upon being dropped off at my training house, about a half dozen five year olds came running down the street yelling “Muzungu! Muzungu! How are you, muzungu!” over and over again. And then again. And again. And again. “Muzungu” is the Kinyarwandan word for “white person,” and coincidentally it is also the first word I learned in my new language.

I get stared at pretty much constantly when I’m in public, which is sometimes funny and sometimes frustrating depending on how I’m feeling at any given moment. It does give me a good excuse to practice my greetings, because really, what better way is there to make an awkward situation feel more comfortable than to take control of it? Sometimes people will call out to me in English first, and occasionally they will say “good morning” to me in the evening or “good afternoon” to me in the morning, which I really appreciate. Sometimes it helps to have a reminder that language doesn’t have to be perfect to get the point across. And, when the language I’m working with is Kinyarwanda and its sixteen noun classes, I’ll take whatever I can get.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Episode One

Seven weeks to the day after receiving my invitation to Rwanda, I’m all packed up and sitting on a plane to staging. In the past two months, I’ve accomplished my most daunting to do list to date: quit my job, sold my car, moved halfway across the country again, taught myself Rwandan History 101, overcame my childhood failures and finally learned to ride a bike, and somehow managed to fit the next two years of my life in under 80 pounds of luggage.

I thought packing would be the hardest part, but try as I might I kept coming up under the maximum baggage allowance. Over the last couple of weeks I turned my parents’ dining room table into Packing HQ. I was surprised and a little bit appalled to watch my packing decrease by about 1/3 of its original size after I took everything out of its packaging. My test bags came in 20 pounds under my maximum weight, and even after a last minute run to Target for two years’ worth of Sour Patch Kids, I only gained about 10 more pounds. So, it will be fun to find out what 10 pounds worth of things I forgot to pack!

I will do my very best to update regularly. So, sit back and enjoy watching as my English steadily deteriorates over the next two years!