Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I'm coming home

After 4 years in Africa, I'm finally going home.

The sandstorms in Mauritania.

Canoes on the river near my home.

Getting water in the desert.

Living in the cold mountains.

It's been an awesome adventure.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The End of the Line

I was talking to this girl the other day, she was a PCV here in Rwanda for her two years and is now staying a bit longer. She wasn't excited about being in Africa and Peace Corps when she first arrived straight out of college. I guess I always thought that when you're doing something for the first time in a new place you'd be ecstatic about it.

So I asked why she stayed (Probably a sign of my awkward-African-adjusted-social manners...). The whole time she only complained about being here, being a PCV (it has been a while since then!), her students (she's a grade school teacher) and annoying things she puts up with.

All I could think of was what Grandma would say:

If you don't absolutely love it, then why do it?!

I guess I know this and have always tried to live by it, but it’s much more real when I'm at a crossroads--like now-- and have to make the big decisions that will affect my life.

I finished Peace Corps service on January 4, 2012, a full 42 months of volunteering in Africa! (Some say I'm dedicated, others, I'm crazy!)

I'm looking for a job in Kigali. Being in Rwanda already is a huge choice. If I don't 100% love it and see it as worthy, then I would need to get out ASAP! I've looked and interviewed with international, multi-million dollar NGOs (non-government organizations); smaller NGOs, international schools, and local schools.

It's a matter of looking at the daily tasks: can I do these with joy and feel accomplished at the end of the day? Can I do these and feel fulfilled with my life?

Being in Africa really highlights to me that I'm here --in Africa, on Earth, living-- to work, to DO good things. I give up my family and culture to love these people and invest in their lives.

If I were in the states it'd be much easier, almost inevitable, to fall into a state of complacency, contentedly staying in the pattern of life that for so many keeps them focused on the small things, and for me would breed mediocrity. Being here constantly reminds me that I don't belong here (Rwanda, Africa, Earth). But I am here. I am here to do good things, to work, to love on people! I am forced to repeatedly assess all that I am doing, its efficacy, necessity, sustainability, motivation, and product. If I were home I'd likely fall into the ease of daily routine, rarely question what I do, why I do it, or the purpose of all things together. Africa forces me to focus: on friends, relationships, food, work, time, learning.

And intentionally choosing how I invest myself in life.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Life Plan B: Staying in Rwanda

My Peace Corps contract is over on January 4th, 2012 and until them I'm working on my CV, networking with local big-wigs, and looking for a job in Kigali. I feel like I have so many capabilities that can be utilized well in Rwanda: language capacity, cultural understanding, situational adaptation, along with a western education make my skills set ripe for the region! I want to use these gifts I have to the FULLEST, maximizing the impact of good programs --and even my presence-- to make the biggest difference in the lives of every day people who are suffering and in need.

Does that make sense?

I hope you can understand my dilemma: I love you all. I miss you all. I dream about you all the time. I want to be where you are. I want to laugh with my brother and sister. I want to sit around with my dad. I want to have heart-to-hearts with my mom. I want to listen to Grandma's ideas. I want to be spoiled by Nana. I want to take 30 minutes to hug and say hello to our families at holidays and gatherings.

But I also want to help create that kind of love that we have amongst people who have no idea it even exists. Can you imagine a sadder life? We are so blessed to have not only our freedoms and material wealth, but more so to have our family, friends, love, happiness, joy, hope, and ideals. And this place is largely devoid of all of that. I think government corruption might always exist in Africa, and the people might stay poor forever. But the deep-seeded hopelessness, hate, distrust, coldness, and lack of education is so unnecessary and a problem that can be addressed.

Rwanda is actually a nation that does things. They are seen by international workers as a model of accomplishing positive change. They're making things happen and I feel hopeful for the work here. They've come a long way since the 1994 Genocide in rebuilding their nation, but I want to help them rebuild themselves (its especially sad to see the secondary trauma affecting the youth born after the Genocide--they weren't in or even near the War but are being raised by parents and a society that were severely traumatized by it).

Please understand how hard it was--and is-- for me to decide to look for work in Kigali, even if it is for just a short time (could be a few months or indefinitely).

Oh, I forgot to tell you The Plan! Life Plan B: look for a job in Kigali. See if I DO like international development and want to make a career of it. If I do, get a masters in something related. If I don't, I'll go back to Life Plan A: travel through Asia to California and become a school counselor. Unless of course a New Life Plan occurs to me :)

So my dear family and friends, I hope we hung out in August cause I can't say when we'll see each other again!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Condoms for healthy sex choices?

(This is my reaction to my previous blog post, an article from an online international news site)

Many of my PCV teacher friends and I have had this question in our own classrooms and lessons. There is a common strategy in safe sex teachings called ABC: Abstinence, Being faithful, and Condoms. In America most of us learn about all of these options by high school (about 15-18 years old).

Rwanda is a very religious country, with many schools ran or supported by churches that advocate AB (abstinence and being faithful) only. With the vast majority of people proclaiming religious reasons and moral obligations against teaching condom use, they haven't provided the people with any real solutions to prevent AIDS, disease, and unwanted pregnancy.

Fortunately or unfortunately, this culture has a long history and love affair with sex. Long, long ago it was common practice for fathers marrying off their sons to force the young soon-to-be-bride to sleep with them; if she refused, the old man would advise his son against marrying her saying she wasn't obedient or whatever. Not as long ago, men would take several wives, depending on their capacity to support the women and children. Still today, most young people (those in secondary school, about 15+ years old) are actively engaging in sexual activities. It's often accepted by wives that their men have other women on the side; men proposition countless women on a daily basis, and girls often flirt with men. Older women either not satisfied by their husbands or widowed, may take a younger man to "show him the ropes" or just for the pleasure; there is even a word in Kinyarwanda that roughly translates to "a vigorous young man with the necessary capacity to satisfy an older woman". Young girls are often engaged in the horizontal tango with older men, aka Sugar Daddies, who in turn pay their school fees or give them lotions, phones, or other things their families can't afford. In a recent, independent survey I took, (30 participants, 50% male, 50% female, 5 participants in each of the following age categories: 14-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40, 41+) 100% of girls aged 14-20 believe it is ok to have sex in exchange for goods.

Not a day goes by that I don't hear or am on the receiving end of some sort of sexual joke. It seems to be on many people's minds and tips of tongues.

But ALL of these activities are very hushed to be sure that the religious aspect of life shows through.

Accordingly, there are many not-so-miraculous conceptions all around the country, AIDS is spreading around the continent, and diseases are running rampantly.

I could be wrong but strongly believe that there are many unreported sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including AIDS. Possibly like many westerners, locals may not enjoy going to the doctor. In casual conversation I've been told that having AIDS or other STIs as an adult is not important: he/she has already lived his/her life and will die anyway; now they just focus on farming and providing for their children (breaks my heart). Another person, a health care professional, explained to me that AIDS is the "common cold of Africa" and that everyone has it.

Some of the cases I've seen are truly heart-breaking:

Sandrine (her name has been changed--as have all names appearing here) is a secondary school student (7th-12th grade in USA equivalent) who just wasn't getting high enough grades to pass on to the next level. Like others before her, she approached her teacher to "discuss" her options...9 months later she was out of school anyway due to pregnancy.

Esperance (her name has been changed) is also a secondary school student, so proud of her good grades, her pretty clothes, family love, and her new boyfriend. She was so in love with him! Then he pulled all the cards on her: if you love me, you'll sleep with me; if you don't sleep with me, I'll leave you; everybody's doing it! So she did it. It's illegal to get abortions in Rwanda, so she begged her teacher (one of my PCV colleagues) to help her go to Uganda for an abortion claiming how badly her life would be ruined if she had a baby: her parents would beat then abandon her; she wouldn't be able to study; her boyfriend already left her because he has no money and doesn't want a child. Esperance left school and hasn't been back, so we don't know if she gave birth, got an abortion and lived, or, like most in her position, got an abortion and died.

Marie Claire (her name has been changed) had already graduated from secondary school when she moved to a new town for her first job. She immediately fell in love and got pregnant. Though her lover won't acknowledge the baby, he is still seen leaving her house at all hours of the night, she still loves him, and is waiting for him to make it official...meanwhile he's out flirting with other girls. Marie Claire still has her job but has had an unnecessarily hard fight: her parents told her to leave work, but she refused to give up a salary that could support her and her baby girl; she's publicly gossiped about by her lover; the community talks behind her back then smiles to her face. Its like the drama, self-doubt, self-hatred, and majority-party voracious desire to destroy of junior high (who can explain it? but no one can escape it). At least in junior high you went back home and your mom or friends could make you feel better; poor Marie Claire lives there and has no escape.

Condom use, in my opinion, is 110% necessary in this country, on this continent, in the world. Though my personal choices are AB, I, we, policy makers, have to accept that those are NOT the popular choices. No matter how much people say they only want AB, the hoi polloi is having sexual relations outside of those parameters and the people are doing nothing to protect themselves.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Parents, teachers divided over condom initiative

This is an article a friend emailed to me (my own on-the-ground views will follow in the next posting):


KIGALI, 24 October 2011 (PlusNews) - A proposed initiative to distribute condoms to Rwandan secondary school students has divided parents, teachers and other members of society, with some cheering the plan and others concerned that teens are not mature enough to use condoms responsibly.
Local NGOs, including Health Development Initiative (HDI-Rwanda), Rwanda NGOs Forum on HIV/AIDS and Health Promotion, and Association Ihorere Munyarwanda are fronting the initiative on the grounds that young people must be protected from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.

"We developed the idea for this project following numerous secondary school students' complaints [about lack of access to condoms]," HDI Rwanda's Cassien Havugimana said during the launch of the campaign in September in the capital, Kigali. "But for effectiveness, behavioural change awareness must accompany access to the materials needed for safe sex."

In November, the campaign plans to carry out mass mobilization and awareness-raising for stakeholders including school heads, teachers and local officials. If the government gives the NGOs the go-ahead, condom distribution should start in December; the NGOs aim to reach the entire country, but will start with secondary schools in Kigali.

According to HDI-Rwanda's communications officer Christine Calouro, any distribution would be accompanied by education on abstinence as a preferred choice for young people and with additional reproductive health information.
Some secondary school officials have already expressed their vehement opposition to the idea of condoms being handed out to their students.
Missed response

"I don't believe in condoms being distributed in secondary schools... It's a no go zone," Innocent Nshimiyemungu, deputy head teacher at Kigali's Lycée de Ruhengeri APICUR, told IRIN/PlusNews. "The children are, in the first place, not mature enough to know how to use condoms."
We should emphasize postponement of sexual activity by encouraging these young people to embrace abstinence. How do I start encouraging my young girls to engage in sexual activity instead of concentrating on academics?

"We should promote abstinence instead, and introduce condoms at a higher level - say universities and other higher institutions of learning," he added.
Edward Asiimwe, a father of two girls of secondary school age, is also against the proposal.

"To say that condoms be introduced to these young children means we have lost our sense of direction and morals," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "We should emphasize postponement of sexual activity by encouraging these young people to embrace abstinence. How do I start encouraging my young girls to engage in sexual activity instead of concentrating on their academics?"

But Jean Marie Twahiirwa, business director at the International School of Kigali, says it is important for young people to be equipped with knowledge of and access to condoms.

"We should educate these young people about condom use and avail them because either way, they engage in sexual intercourse, so the earlier we teach them the better," he said. "I don't think this will necessarily push them into early sex because emphasis will be put on the essence of sexuality so that the students understand the rightful purpose of sex and condoms."

Loretta Umukunzi*, a student at the International School of Kigali, told IRIN/PlusNews she would not object to condoms being dispensed at her school. "I think it's OK since I see girls getting pregnant and dropping out of school," she said. "As long as they teach students how to use them properly then we shall not be faced with such problems again."

Early sex

According to a 2009 Behavioural Surveillance Survey, an estimated 6.1 percent of girls and 14.7 percent of boys aged 15-19 had their first sexual intercourse before the age of 15. The survey found that the percentage of comprehensive HIV knowledge among youth aged 15-19 was 9.4 percent for girls and 11 percent for boys.

Young women appear to be at higher risk of HIV, with the government reporting HIV prevalence among young women aged 15-24 at 3.9 percent, compared to 1.1 percent for young men in the same age group. The country's national prevalence is about 3 percent.

Deputy Speaker of Rwanda's parliament Jean Damascene Ntawukuliryayo has thrown his weight behind the campaign.

"I support the campaign. This will help us curb unwanted pregnancies in schools - of course not forgetting other solutions like involving parents in reproductive health education of their children and including such issues in the school curriculum," he said.

Officials at the Ministry of Health say while the distribution of condoms in secondary schools is not official government policy, the issue has been under debate for some time.

"Discussions have been ongoing between the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health and the National HIV Control Programme around the issues of the many cases of unwanted pregnancies, a clear indication that unprotected sex is real in secondary schools which could lead to the transmission of HIV," said Sabin Nsabimana, head of the HIV division at the Institute of HIV/AIDS Disease Prevention and Control at the Ministry of Health's Bio-Medical Centre.