Tanzanian Travels

Hello all!

It’s been a whirlwind this past month, with Mid Service Conference marking a year at site, Trainer of Trainers training, and a trip to Zanzibar, Tanzania in between! I have compiled a list of places to visit, things to eat, and places to stay in case you ever find yourself on the paradise island that is Zanzibar.

We spent a total of two days in Dar Es Salaam, a major port city on the coast of Tanzania. We found many hidden treasures in the form of food, beaches, and sights. Our AirBnB hosts were so great and invited us to a night run event, local to Dar Es Salaam. It was a great way to explore the city on foot, though starting a ten mile run at 10PM almost caused us to miss our morning ferry.

For Dar Es Salaam:

To eat:

  • Chef’s Pride: a melange of offerings, from fresh fish curries to Indian naan.

  • Thai Kani: a treat in and of itself—featuring fresh spring rolls and seafood from the coast. Thai Kani is located on the slipway, a modern open area with restaurants and small shops. A great way to relax before a flight!

  • Food Lovers: Located in the area of Misaki, Food Lovers is the Whole Foods equivalent in Dar Es Salaam. In the store itself, there were many coconut oil products, fresh produce, and snacks. We ate outside, having fresh fish and chips, probably some of the best I’ve ever had.

To stay:

  • Seedspace is a co-working space that offers apartment style living in a co-living setup for short term stays. The apartments were clean and centrally located and provided a great view of the ocean at sunset.

For the island of Zanzibar (outside of Stone Town):

A bit of history…

Zanzibar is much more than a beach vacation. Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region located in the Indian Ocean, about 30 miles off the coast of Dar Es Salaam. It consists of the island of Zanzibar or Unjuga, Pemba as well as smaller neighboring islands.

A former centre of the spice and slave trades, present-day Zanzibar is infused with African, Arab, European and Indian influences. The mix of cuisine and culture can be seen in the daily life on the island.

In 1964 members of the African majority overthrew the established minority Arab ruling elite. A republic was then established and the presidents of Zanzibar and Tanganyika, on the mainland, signed an act of union, forming the United Republic of Tanzania while giving semi-autonomy to Zanzibar.

Where to go, what to do

On the island, we traveled to Matemwe (located in the northeast) and Nungwi (in the northwest). Both areas are known for different things. Matemwe is very quiet, mostly populated by those from Zanzibar and some tourists. This area also has very extreme high tides and low tides, making it difficult to swim until high tide. The upside is that there’s some tourism industry on the beaches, but not a lot. Nungwi, on the other side of the island, is quite touristy, has many resorts and restaurants, but it’s possible to swim at any point during the day, the best being at sunset when the tide is high. Each month, there’s a full moon festival at Kendwa Rocks. Unfortunately, we weren’t there for it, but next time!


  • We stayed at La Villa Victor and ate at the Sevi Boutique Hotel, a ten minute walk on a dirt road.


  • We stayed at the Miti Garden Bungalows (5 min walk from the beach)

  • Kendwa Stars—great for renting a beach chair for the day under umbrellas and for the full moon party that happens once a month.

  • Jerry’s Bar—great for live music, you just need to figure out which day to go!

  • Z Hotel Restaurant—the best meal I had outside of Stone Town. The tuna salad, would 100% recommend.

Last but not least, Stone Town:

Wandering the streets of Stone Town was such a wonderful experience. As a UNESCO heritage site, it means the buildings are original and if they aren’t, they’re in the style of the city itself. Stone Town has great dining options, sights to see (mosques, the birthplace of Freddy Mercury, and the main fort to name a few), and beautiful beaches looking out onto the ocean.

  • The Coffee House: beautiful old wood interior coffee shop, with high ceilings and delicious coffee from Zanzibar.

  • Swahili House: offers a great selection of lunch and breakfast options, located on the top of a building, providing 360 views of Stone Town.

  • Monsoon: a great place for after dinner, to hear local traditional music and drink spiced coffees and teas.

  • Emerson Spice: a hotel and restaurant that offers a prix fixe lunch and dinner option. Here, I had the best octopus salad and a plate of fresh raw seafood.

  • Forodhani Market: a night market that features displays of fresh seafood and meat, as well as some samosas and “Zanzibari pizzas.”

  • Lavender Spa: great for a reasonable, relaxing massage, using cloves and local spices for a good post beach exfoliation.

For photos, see the new album titled, Zanzibar and More!

Hands Up, It Wasn't Me

2pm on a Wednesday afternoon—I brush the curtain aside, to see what made the thud outside my door. To my disbelief, a child around the age of 10 had climbed my concrete wall (around 7ft tall), up and over, and had landed in my front courtyard. In his hands, I see a jar of wood varnish I had left outside. Maybe it was my fault for leaving it outside. I quickly opened the door, asked the child what he was doing. He looked at me, his hand shielding his face. While I had been at work, he had hopped over my fence the first time, emptied the container of varnish somewhere else, and thought he could get away with putting the container back, unnoticed. Before I could ask any other questions, he was gone, but I caught the glint in his friends’ eye, the one on the lookout outside my gate.

I knew his friend’s face. I told my neighbor who happens to be a sector official in my village. He tasked his house boy*, Eric, to find the boy that did this. As I didn’t properly get a look at the boy’s face, I couldn’t possibly identify him by anything other than the fact that it was a boy around the age of 10. The next morning, at 8AM, Eric knocks on my door and tells me to come outside. In the corner of my yard, I see a boy, around the age of 10 looking at me, scared. Eric explains that he has found a suspect and asked whether or not this was him. I said I didn’t know. 

Eric then tells the boy to get on his knees and put his hands in the air to be beaten. I said that absolutely isn’t necessary, especially if he wasn’t sure who the kid was or if he had done it. Instead, spared, the child timidly put his hands in the air and said (rough translation) “KK I swear it wasn’t me, I swear I didn’t do it.” And I believed him. 

The thing that struck me most was that they were willing to punish a child without knowing whether he did committed a crime, for the sake of appeasing me and for the ability to say that they had been able to place the blame on someone. A cultural moment of discomfort. I am not sure if I would have told them it was the child who had done it. Public corporal punishment and corporal punishment is viewed very differently than in the states. Here, in Rwanda, teachers even have the “right” to beat children openly as a stern method of discipline. It’s an archaic form of punishment in a developing education system, one which I do not support, but it is a product of a different time. Development takes time. Simply because Rwanda has high rates of childhood education, doesn’t mean that the systems in place reflect modernity nor advancement. 

*House boy is a term used by Rwandans to describe live in help, indentured servitude if you will. These children/young adults usually work 24/7 in exchange for some modest pay and room and board. Eric is 22 years old. In Rwanda and in many other African countries, having live in help is typical and expected. Eric is also one of my closest friends in village and always has my back, asking if I need help with things. I really appreciate his friendship and presence. 

She Doesn't Care

Each week, like clockwork, I see the same malnourished children come to the health center, to be weighed and monitored. And each week, though there are exceptions, they weigh the same. This week, one particular case stood out. 

There’s a child who has weighed between 7.2-7.5 kilos for the past 6 months, weight varying very little. She is 18 months old and hovering around 15lbs, she is the size of a 5 month old. And, like we do with most mothers, we take them aside and try to explain why this stagnant weight is such an issue—for mental development, for stunting (height x age) and for the overall health of the child. After 20 minutes of myself and my two counterparts trying to hammer in this fact, one of them says to me, in English, “she doesn’t care.” 

Those are tough words to hear. She doesn’t care. She doesn’t care that her child is severely underweight and can pass as a 5-6 month old. In an earlier post, I referred to the idea of poverty in the development world. The mothers have told me that poverty inhibits children from being healthy from birth, that poverty is inevitable, that poverty cannot be changed. It also then made me think about why I care about certain things and not others. I cannot fault this mother for having a hard time seeing through this tough stage in her child’s growth. If I saw that, for 6 months, my child hadn’t put on even half a kilo, I too would be discouraged. 

But, alternatively, I have seen children thrive, even in the lowest economic category. It is about mentality. This one particular child was born to a single mother. Her mother is illiterate but yet when we talk about health and how to improve a balanced diet and how to make use of the resources available to her, she understands that this is important. So while poverty, in many cases, is a block to child growth, it’s also very much a mentality and a cycle that people have accepted is their “destiny” and/or future. 

But I also can understand why this is a sentiment and frame of mind. The people I work with are heavily influenced by their peers, who are also farmers, whose families are also traditionally farmers. School for them goes until secondary because up until then, it’s free. 

Influence from peers and family is stronger than you could ever imagine, especially in a small village, where outside influence is minimal. I am not expecting that my presence or any kind of development projects that throw money at the problem, will change anyone’s behavior. Behavior change comes from within, it comes from peers believing that they can continue school and read and have a future that isn’t necessarily in farming, that the health of their children is in their hands and control. 

“You will give me English”

“You will give me English,” proclaimed one of my nurses, directing this imperative at me, not realizing that unlike in Kinyarwanda, you can’t really order anyone to do something like so, it’s often considered rude. But the point was taken. She wants me to teach English. This week, we had our first planning session for how my English lessons will be run, detailing mostly the times and places of meetings. 

It has been approximately ten years since Rwanda changed its language of education instruction from French to English. The legacy of this change can still be seen, blatantly so among my health center staff. At the beginning of my service, they asked if I could teach them English. As a newbie at teaching, I made placement tests and quickly learned that the levels varied so much, that having one class was nearly impossible, and that having 8 different levels was also not an option. The levels ranged from absolutely no comprehension, to practically fluent. But as you can imagine, those who had very little comprehension, also were taught in French, throughout their entire education. Those ages 25 and under, knew more English than their older counterparts. I see this dichotomy as a problem, as much of the paperwork these nurses and administrators are filling out, is entirely in English. It means that the comprehension levels are lower than required. 

It is not for a lack of ability that some of my nurses speak only French and Kinyarwanda. It’s just that the system changed, and now, the recipients of said education systems don’t have a common ground. 

English is a gift, but the way that my health center staff views my value, is that I will somehow plant information and the language of English into their brains directly, that practice is futile, that note taking will get them all they need out of my lessons. It’s been a challenge explaining the methodology behind talking hours, about hearing and listening, about the importance of pronunciation and less focus on copying directly from a chalk board. Sometimes they just laugh and say, practice ha ha. Or they’ll say, “But my level is very low, you will give me english.”

The level autonomy on the part of the students in the education system varies greatly from what I have seen in the U.S. The education system focuses much more on test taking, on grades, and of pure memorization of knowledge, less so on the creative aspects that education can provide. 

In the coming weeks, my main focus and challenge will be to encourage speaking among my staff, to practice without having to be told, about knowing that the greatest tool I can give, is my fluency. Learning a language, as I have learned time and time again, requires time and energy and it doesn’t happen simply with one hour of practice a week. 

If you have any recommendations for activities or learning experiences, feel free to email me, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

A Year and Looking Forward

It’s been a year living in Rwanda and as people say, the days move slowly but the weeks fly by. But I wondered why that was. Adjusting to a different pace of life, among other things, was the most challenging part. When you’re used to living a certain way, to a certain rhythm, changing that also changes you to the core.

What have I been doing for these past few months?

In village, time moves slowly, the days aren’t distinct and aren’t marked by events or by doing things. Trying to think of days like that is actually quite depressing. Of course there are weird days and off days, but life happens on a continuum, at least for me. I liken it to Our Town, a play that highlights the subtleties and banalities and predictability of what it means to be human. This commonality is the thread that shapes the human condition regardless of time and space. People are born, they get married, and they die.

The other day, I passed a few acquaintances of mine who were just staring into the distance as if there was something there, something of interest. I asked them what they were looking at, in a jovial way. The response, a direct translation, “We are watching the road,” followed by a giggle. A giggle that signified that they too saw the humor in what they had just said. And to clarify, the road they’re talking about, isn’t more than a sandy dirt path capable of accommodating a single car at best. 

I still try my hardest to not be upset when people stare vacantly at me or call across mountains “muzungu” or “good morning,” even as the sun is setting. The elders in my village have told me kids and adults have a tendency to do this, but that there’s no problem in it. As someone from NYC, I learned from a very early age that staring and giving someone one second more of unwanted attention, it’s simply not done. Eye contact with anyone for more time that is necessary is taboo. But here, I can link eyes with someone and rarely win the staring contest. 

In matters of work, there’s a lot to be done, and my counterpart Marie Jeanne and I have accurately identified that most of my job and the hardest part of her job is bringing about behavior change. If you grew up in a house where you were one of five, you knew that you were destined to be a farmer, and that you were almost certain you would be poor, it’s hard not to accept that you will have a very similar life, not to mention that all of your friends and peers, and generations before you have done the same. The cycle of poverty is as much psychological as it is material. Advocacy and education have proven to be the strongest tools in trying to change this mindset. 

They (returned PCVS) say that it takes a year to feel acclimated, to get the rhythm of work, to feel some sort of productivity. Looking back, there were days in the beginning of my service in village when two years seemed absolutely undoable, that it was a grave mistake and that maybe there wouldn’t ever be a sense of normality, of acceptance, of routine. As I watched and shadowed nurses at my health center, trying to pick up the few words I could, my presence felt like more of a burden. But I am happy to report that this is no longer the case. Of course, as this roller coaster continues to have its ups and downs, there are always new things you realize about yourself, about what works and what doesn’t. And as my dad always said to me, “80% of success is showing up.” Even if the math isn’t entirely accurate, here I am. Still trying (hopefully not in vain) to show up for my community, the mothers with malnourished children, for the lifelong friends I have made, for my family and loved ones, and for myself as this is absolutely something I and my fellow volunteers are capable of doing, even through the ups and downs. 

A Country Remembers

April 7, 2019—Marks the 25th year since the start of the Genocide Against the Tutsis. In my village, among many villages, there is history and it is recent. While the international community stood by and watched, decided what to do from 7,000+ miles away, in Rwanda, what were once safe havens became places of mass genocide.

Being a foreigner in a small town where such histories run deep, it is absolutely a different story to participate in the “Kwibuka” (Commemoration Events). The recent news and press coverage of Rwanda has highlighted survivors and their stories, stories of sexual violence overcome, of coping, of healing, and of reconciliation—a memory of Rwanda’s darkest point in history.

I attended several town hall meetings, mandated on the national level. In these meetings, the sector officials read a very basic timeline of the history of events, highlighting the longer history before the events of ‘94, and asking the villagers questions about what it means to say “never again”.

For those over the age of 25, they will have had a least some recollection of the genocide or at the very least the challenges that faced Rwanda post ‘94. There has been a major emphasis on the terminology. The official lingo is the Genocide Against the Tutsis. It has been tough to live in a village, knowing that my neighbors and friends, colleagues, mourn the loss of one million people.

I also recently watched Hotel Rwanda. While I think it’s important that this movie was made, I take issue with many of the plot lines, and the way that the Genocide was portrayed. The history actually predates ‘94. There have been tensions and colonial ties that reinforced such tensions and hierarchies, in addition to several key events, that provide a more informed view of what had happened. The movie shows one story, one hero, and has a very positive view of international forces. In reality, the world stood and watched for 90 days before they decided that an intervention was necessary.

I cannot imagine what it was like to live in Rwanda during this time. I am currently reading Philip Gourevitch’s history on Rwanda titled “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda".” I highly recommend it, as I think it provides a better explanation of the Rwandan context. He also wrote an interesting piece for the New Yorker in Dec of 1995. Here’s is the link:


Church on a Bus, among other things

Church on a Bus

Living in a country that is predominantly Christian and highly religious, means that any experience can be a religious one. A couple weeks ago, I was on a bus. In front of the bus, in the middle of the road, two people had collided and fallen off their motos and were at risk of being run over. Our bus swerved, narrowly avoiding the two people. What ensued was a feeling that rippled through the bus goers, shouts of praise for the bus driver, praise of God, cries of excitement, and people rushing to the windows to see what had just happened. It was the type of genuine feeling of gratitude and happiness that I have never felt and seen before. But I was shocked. Just as quickly as it had happened, people returned to their seats and continued with their daily lives. I liken this experience to Church. Except this was church on a bus. 

On Integration

Integration in a new culture happens at different times and to varying degrees. On this week’s episode of Kerong does integration, I got slapped by my counterpart, Jeanne, with whom I work with on a daily basis, on growth monitoring and on maternal and child health. But let me explain the full situation before you jump to any conclusions. I had gone to another town to purchase a flip chart (poster size paper) for teaching lessons on nutrition. My counterpart asked how much I had paid, to which I responded 5,000 RWF (approx. $5.60). She then slapped me on the back and said “ndagukubita” which roughly translates to “I will beat you.” Keep in mind a couple of things, this is the way she shows she cares, because she later told me that a. She had flip charts in the health center’s supply closet b. This was one of the first times I felt like I was treated like a Rwandan. The integration points were real. She felt comfortable enough to treat me as an equal, as a colleague, rather than the outsider. I am appreciative of this experience as strange as it was. Jeanne and I both laugh about it now. 

The Rain

The rainy season is upon us. For  the month of April and into early May, Rwanda experiences a rainy season, that floods dirt roads, that saturates the fields until they cannot take in any more water. But people keep telling me that Rwandans have an innate sense of when it will rain. It can be sunny one minute, the next minute, the skies filled with black clouds. So I asked my neighbor who told me that only the first born can tell when it will rain. I have started to ask different people if and when it will rain, and usually, they are pretty accurate. Rainy season will be tough, as the roads become unusable and going for runs is pretty much not an option, but we will see. Stay tuned!

Run Club

With the impending rainy season, I have talked to some of the local female students, who have expressed great interest in having a run club. As someone who went to an all girls school during high school, I value the importance of having clubs and outlets specifically geared towards women. There isn’t a lack of a run club at the school because of a lack of interest—it’s more due to the fact that running is still stigmatized in Rwandan society (especially in the village) and girls running even more so. On Thursday of last week, we had our first run club. The students were so excited to get out and have time specifically dedicated to them. Next week, at 5pm everyday, we are meeting to have practice, but also to learn about ways to stay healthy. I am excited that the students have an interest and that starting to run at such a young age can instill life long routine exercise. 

It's March 11

It’s been a busy start to 2019: readjusting to life in village after a brief pause in Germany, planning ahead for maternal and child health projects, photographing the Tour du Rwanda among other things, running the Nyungwe Forest Half marathon.

This past weekend was spent in Nyungwe Forest, at the Nyungwe Marathon (I ran the half). This was one of the toughest races I have run thus far—the total elevation climb was 2,700 ft above sea level, not including the start elevation of around 9,000 ft above sea level. After the half marathon, our small group of volunteers enjoyed brochettes, bonfires, and camping among the vast expanses of the western tea fields. On a clear morning, we were able to see the hills of Burundi in the distance.

But here are some things I have noticed more recently. It is easy to generalize. To generalize a person’s intent, capabilities, and possibly the way they see the world. In the recent months, I have been humbled by the smallest experiences, by the things you’d least expect. For all intensive purposes I am a stranger in a foreign land and that’s a fact. I have struggled a lot with the intense stares, the type that will follow you across a mountainside, that will watch your every move, that will seem blank and not present. It’s hard to have feelings other than ones of annoyance and dread, for each time you leave your house, it becomes the event of the day for many small children and some adults. The quotidien things I don’t think about, my walk to work, locking my front door, going food shopping in village. But there is always a flip side. 

Being a Chinese American adoptee in Rwanda has also had its challenges—both in translation and in cultural understanding. When I go for runs in my village, I am called one of two names “umuzungu” which roughly translates to foreigner or “umuchinois” which is someone from China. As a volunteer in the U.S Peace Corps, I do not identify as Chinese, culturally speaking. But explaining this to someone who has never seen a foreigner, often doesn’t make sense and diversity is a strange concept. 7 months in my village has taught me patience and the knowledge that I am not here to change everyone’s perspective. It’s the small changes like calling me “umuzungu umunyamerika” (the foreigner plus american) is a small step in finding a common ground.

“Sometimes the slightest things change the directions of our lives, the merest breath of a circumstance, a random moment that connects like a meteor striking the earth,” The Power of One 

Slowing down a fast pace

In life, you get from it what you put into it.

In a world where the days look fairly similar, the nights short, life has become the ordinary.

The fast pace of New York City prepared me in many ways, to take chaos in stride, do deal with many different types of people, to insulate myself in my own small bubble at times. What New York City did not prepare me for: profound loneliness, a slower pace, and a life not based on activities but rather interactions.

Each day, I know that the women who visit my health center have a certain routine. They get up early, with the sun. They fetch water in 5 liter jerrycans. They walk however far to the health center, children in tow. They wait for three hours or so, while we weigh and measure their babies. Then they go home, cook the main meal of the day (dinner) and go to sleep a couple hours after nightfall.

There is rarely deviation from this routine.

But adjusting my life to this notion of time has probably been the majority of the culture shock I have experienced.

Recently I have made an individual commitment to my village and to myself—to go the extra mile, to attend more village kitchen cooking demonstrations, to work more frequently and tirelessly with a village in my catchment area that is currently dealing with chronic malnutrition among children under the age of five.

As one of my counterparts said to me, half in Kinyarwanda, half in English, “I talked to her (head of social affairs at the sector level). She did not understand why you want to do a care group with mothers who are good examples. Why not mothers who are poor?” He then followed with, “but at first they don’t understand so they don’t want to try, but when they see it is working, they will be happy and want to help.”

The idea of a care group is not new. It is a form of peer to peer training. The concept being, a group of ten mothers who have a good understanding of hygiene and nutrition, can share their knowledge with other mothers. But behavior change is the hardest thing to instill.

In the coming weeks, my counterpart Victor and I will carry out our plan. We will walk 4 miles each way, to the village that needs the most help. We will train our first group of mothers so that in the process, they will have a better understanding of health on the whole, and be able to authentically teach their peers.

2019 set into motion

Each new year, millions of people make commitments to themselves and to others. I’ve never been one to goal set exclusively because it’s a new year, but here I am, in Rwanda, dealing with much change and adjustment. There is no better time and place to set these goals into motion.

This year started off a tad rocky, as I had schistosomiasis (a treatable disease caused by infection with freshwater parasitic worms in certain tropical and subtropical countries aka Rwanda). In addition, I was sick the entire time I spent in Germany.

But this year I have committed myself to fight complacency. So much of life here, resiliency, the ability to thrive, is dependent on the obligation we have to not be complacent, to live an active life, not a passive one. It is easy to accept the comfortable, the role of the foreigner, that we (the Rwandans and the Americans) are operating on parallel planes rather than intersecting ones. But this mindset has proven to bring up feelings of apathy both about my abilities and the way I measure impact in this role.

I recently finished Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” I often think about where I will be in a year and a half and how it’s a large amount of time, but also very short. Change and behavior change doesn’t happen in two years, not even in lifetimes. Michelle’s use of the word swerve is something that resonated with me, especially in thinking why peace corps, why Rwanda, why now? But after a Harvard law education and time at a big law firm, Michelle had to accept a truth that made her swerve, away from the comfortable, the normal, the conventional.

Peace Corps is definitely not the traditional route but in life there are no guarantees. I took a chance on a different path.

In 2019, my professional and personal goals include the following

  • working with my counterpart to start a care group of mothers
  • write and fulfill a grant for a latrine building project
  • work with the local primary and secondary schools on health promotion programming
  • use running as a means of gender equality education and the promotion of healthy habits
  • improve my language capacity
  • study for and take the GRE
  • apply to grad school

Any questions on future projects? Feel free to message me via this site or on WhatsApp.

A New Year

This year, I spent the holiday season a little differently than in years past. This December marked the end of 2018, six months in Rwanda, but also the first time leaving Rwanda since arriving in June. Upon arriving in Amsterdam, subtle reminders of reverse culture shock came up, of western development and modern convenience, the importance of consumerism, how I had been living in Rwanda for the past six months. The bright lights, the bustle of a well organized airport, the fast and free wifi, was a welcome change of pace.

Though life isn’t easy living in a small village, I am appreciative of the challenges I am faced with daily, with regards to language but also the ability to develop problem solving skills, and to be okay when things happen not according to plan. Life throws hurdles, some big, some small, but being able to face them and to see alternatives as they come, is something I was not proficient in before coming to Rwanda. 

In Germany, spending time with family and friends was a much needed respite, with hot showers and lots and lots of cheese, I wouldn’t ask to do it over in any way. I even learned about how the German people celebrate Christmas—on the 24th and not the 25th. They light candles on a tree and sing carols. They exchange gifts on the 24th, so my family and I partook in this new Christmas tradition, talking of all that the next holiday season will bring. 

While coming back to Rwanda was hard, and I questioned a lot of my reasons for being here. I am confident that these road blocks, these challenges are meant to be faced head on, and that while my reason for being here isn’t always crystal clear, these are challenges I would face anywhere, at any point in life. Shying away from them isn’t necessarily the easier route. 

I am thankful that my parents and friends are so supportive of what I am doing, that they push me to think about life differently, that they admit while they don’t understand what it’s like to live in a small Rwandan village, they can empathize that this is life, and these are common challenges that anyone at age 24 faces. 

Now, it’s back to the rice and bean life. And I am okay with that.

(see the newest gallery titled Alpine Adventures for more photos of the Germany/Austria trip)

Thanksgiving fried chicken

This year, Thanksgiving has taken on a new meaning. It marked the end of the first three months at my site, also known as the integration period. I am grateful I was able to spend time with my cohort and our respective counterparts at a week long training. Among other things, this time was much needed—to reset, speak in English, clarify and plan for what we are capable of accomplishing in the next two years, and most importantly, take hot showers. Just kidding.

Among the list of things I am grateful for, is this unique opportunity to challenge myself and experience more of the world, not from a birdseye abbreviated vantage point, but from a very real place of cultural integration and exchange. The novelty of taking bucket baths and cooking on an open fire has worn off, but on the other hand, it has become quotidien and routine because this is the new normal.

This past week has grounded me in many ways—being able to plan projects and discuss the needs of the community with my counterpart gave me a sense of purpose. As someone from Peace Corps said to us early on, “your reasons for coming here will likely not be the same as the ones that keep you here, so it’s important to figure that out.” The crux of this statement is that sometimes you don’t fully know what brought you here in the first place. That said, I am slowly gaining an understanding of both simultaneously.

As a MCH (maternal and child health) volunteer in Rwanda specifically, my work priorities are very much aligned with those of Rwanda’s first 1,000 days initiative. During training, we had a guest speaker who discussed, in depth, the rates of malnutrition by district. It turns out, Rulindo, my district, has some of the highest rates of stunting at 42%.

Malnutrition isn’t simply what the mass media has portrayed it as—visibly underweight. Malnutrition also comes in the form of stunting. Stunting is a sign of chronic malnutrition and according to the World Health Organization, “stunting is the height for age value less than two standard deviations of the WHO Child Growth Standards median.” Stunting which is the most common form of malnutrition here, is critical in the first thousand days, but also for children under five, as this is when children have the largest and fastest rate of growth and development.

In a study done by Harvard University, scientists measured the level of activity of the brains of two children, one stunted and one not. They found that the level of white matter fibers in the brain were significantly less in the stunted child than the one on a normal/acceptable growth rate.

My role here is behavior change and that is very clear in how to affect change. But I am also not here for my own gratification. If that were the case, I’d probably be doing voluntourism, whereas now, if at the end of two years I have affected change, then that is a product of my work. Being a peace corps volunteer is a job, just like any other.

And in addition to the reasons listed above, I am grateful for:

  • The fried chicken we made on Thanksgiving
  • For my parents who have been so supportive on the darkest of days, and who have also shared in the small wins
  • For my friends who also happen send me letters and goodies (feels like my birthday each time that happens)
  • My peace corps friends who can empathize and support from a position of knowing and understanding
  • And for consistent water access for three consecutive weeks now
  • Oh. And for WhatsApp. To name a few.

You are your own best friend.

The feeling of isolation can creep up at any time, anywhere, in the midst of friends and family, and not. Peace Corps is tough. It forces you to take control of what you can actually control, and be okay with life sometimes just happening to you. This past week has been tough. From a mental standpoint, the idea of being in a small rural village for two years is daunting. Being in a small Rwandan village is even more daunting. There is the language barrier, the necessity of making friends and building relationships, the uncertainty of what it is your are doing at any given time, and the cultural barriers that exist despite your peers in village telling you they understand. 

Sometimes someone telling you “I am sorry” is not actually what you want to hear. I am sorry is sympathy not empathy. Empathizing with the muzungu is not possible because it’s hard to even describe what 24 years in New York City means, considering 90% of the Rwandan population are farmers in the agricultural industry. This is not to say that common ground cannot be achieved. I am an optimist, or I like to think so. When times are tough, when you think no one knows what you are going through, you are your own best friend. 

Yesterday, I decided to go for a long run, to bring some sense of normalcy back to my life. 7.5 miles in the hills of Rwanda isn’t exactly normal nor is it easy, but it brought me back to good times with my close friends, my running crew, having a good sweat—followed by the endorphins. After an elevation gain of 909 feet, being chased by children and goats and some adults, and several rocky stumbles later, I returned back to my village, met by my neighbors’ faces of shock when I told them I had just run to the next mountain and back. 

It is not just a feeling of boredom. It is a feeling that there are no options other than work, some socializing, but primarily a lot of thought about how best to be impactful and to not just have life happen to you. But sometimes it does. And on the rainy days, it seems like there’s not a whole lot you can do. 

Being a part of Rwanda’s First Thousand Days program has taught me a lot about the general landscape of health in Rwanda, the services available, and about how people live on a day to day basis. But it doesn’t emphasize the importance of behavior change, and how, despite day after day of giving the same talks, people continue to do the same things. I am not in the business of changing people nor convincing them that I know, above all else. From a non clinical aspect, behavior change has been my biggest challenge thus far. Not just behavior change but how to explain to a group of mothers that I have any street credibility when it comes to sound advice on how to keep children healthy, that the impact of washing hands might not be immediate and visible but is essential, that despite not having children, you still can have knowledge on the subject. 

All is not lost. The feeling of loneliness is real. But you can feel lonely almost anywhere, despite being in a city of 21 million, despite having everything at your fingertips. This new alternate reality is setting in—the Kerong in village reality, the bucket bath reality, the rainy season reality, the 27 month reality. 

Empathy for water

There’s a sinking feeling you get after having no water for 4 days. When the main water pipe bursts and you and your village have no access to clean water, you think about survival: what will I drink, if I use this dish, when will I be able to clean it, when can I shower. These questions rarely, if ever, have entered my mind but when we rely on our neighbors for what little water they have left, we start to have a shared empathy, one geared towards survival. While the instinct is there, life goes on as usual, only with the usual conversation starter of, have they fixed the pipe. 4 days later, I’m sitting outside my house when I hear a slight gurgle from the outdoor tap. The water is back. And in this happy moment, I was able to share it with my neighbors and people in the street. The kids started dancing, the mamas holding empty jerrycans started dancing, I started dancing. This shared understanding that life could continue, just a little bit more easily, a little bit more positively, life goes on.

Forest and friends

Forest and friends: a winning combination.

This past weekend, a group of volunteers and I went to Nyungwe forest located in southwestern Rwanda. Nyungwe forest is home to chimpanzees, miles of mountainous rainforest, and colobus monkeys to name a few. It also is home to many large ferns called “igishigishi” (so far my favorite word in Kinyarwanda).

The morning started off with a hearty hike in the forest, in an attempt to track the chimpanzees. We were met by a park ranger who was in communication with the other rangers in the park. There are several families of chimps that live in Nyungwe and we were lucky enough to see one of them, grazing high above the canopy. When it rains, they find cover on the ground, so we spotted them just before the rains hit.

Hearing the chimpanzees call to each other from high above the canopy was an experience you can only imagine. From the low guttural utterances to the higher pitched vocalizations, the calls were just like what I had heard in all of those National Geographic documentaries, growing up as a child. The calls were also communicated across species. There were smaller monkeys, whose calls alerted the chimps that there might be danger. In the rainforest, species can often work together to spot danger or interference.

Later that day, after a morning chimp trekking hike, we did another forest hike, across a suspension bridge that overlooked several mountain ridges. For more photos, please see the photo section!

Though it was a 7 hour journey to the rainforest canopy, I am very glad I was able to make it and cannot wait for more adventures in Rwanda!

The best of life

Each day I am reminded of the fact that I am living in an alternate reality—my friends and family living lives quite dissimilar to my own. But I am also reminded of how happy the people around me are, on a daily basis. It is not because of what they have, but it has a lot to do with their raison d’etre and how that has evolved around family, around work, and shared empathy.

I noticed this quite early on. Because of my many interactions with children on a daily basis, I am beginning to understand the idea of being content with just human connection from a very young age, without the use of electronics/technology or an excessive amount of “stuff” to interfere. On a regular basis, while weighing babies and educating on the importance of a balanced diet, it is hard not to notice the inherent lessons on social interaction that children learn from a very young age.

Each day, I learn at the rate of a small child. Learning about social norms, about how to find what I need, about how to survive in a small village in Rwanda. There of course are good days, and some bad days.

Today was a good one. I started a community garden at the health center today, planting onions and “dodo” (amaranth). The goal is that this garden will provide vegetables for cooking demonstrations—mainly for mothers with malnourished children.

I also have managed to learn how to bake outside on a charcoal stove. A few days ago I made banana ground nut bread and surprisingly it came out just fine. To bake, you have to create a dutch oven. The process is as follows:

  1. Let the coals heat for 30 minutes (similar to preheating an oven).
  2. Inside a large pot, put 10-15 smaller stones on the bottom, creating a layer of about 1 inch from the bottom of the pan.
  3. Put a smaller pot inside the larger pot, with the bread contents inside.
  4. Cover the smaller pot with a lid.
  5. Cover both pots with a larger lid.
  6. Let it bake for 1 hr - 1.5 hr without checking it, as heat escapes quickly.

I was able to share my banana bread with my friends. Yesterday, five of my fellow volunteers came to my site for lunch and we recreated burrito bowls—fresh guacamole, rice, beans and fried eggs on top! It was really nice to see familiar faces, to introduce them to my health center staff, and to share stories of triumph and struggle. 

The moral of the story? One step at a time. 27 months is often times a difficult thing to fathom, but thinking about it one week at a time, can make all the difference.

“You must go to Church, it’s Africa”

My neighbors could not have not been more right in giving me this piece of advice. Church is a religious experience as much as it is a social and cultural one. Yesterday I attended church for 4 hours, by far the longest I’ve ever sat on a wooden bench with 300 other people atop a mountain in a sun lit church. If you have ever been to “African church”, as my neighbor says, you would know that it’s a celebration of life and coming together as much as it is showing appreciation and thanks for the life lived.

And so here I am. The “muzungu,” trying to understand my place in this world of Rwandan farmers, dirt roads, and friendly faces. So what did I do for 4 hours you may ask. 4 hours of church in a language I do not know, actually provided time to think.

There’s a thought/apprehension that passed through briefly, the idea that despite being here for two years, there’s a chance that I will always be known as the muzungu. It could be “our muzungu” but muzungu nonetheless. Muzungu means foreigner and more specifically, refers to people with fairer skin.

Being a stranger feels exactly as it sounds. You walk down the street and hear muzungu echoing off the walls of the surrounding mountains, an alert of sorts, sounded by children in local and surrounding villages. You go to the market and the seller tries to overcharge you. Most of this is out of your control. But you can control your behavior and actions. While some days this can really hit home, it’s important to remember that the majority of people do not mean any harm and that if it were the reverse situation, I’m sure I would feel the same way about a stranger in the area.

Humble beginnings.

A lot has happened during the initial stages of “getting used to myself,” a phrase said often to me, with a literal translation that doesn’t make as much sense. I truly appreciate the emails, messages, and words of support I have received throughout, they have carried me through the power outages, thunderstorms and broken doors…

A couple days ago, I was in the process of changing my door locks when the wind suddenly took the door, leaving me stuck inside with no door handles and a broken lock. All of my windows have bars on them, there was a tremendous downpour, and the electricity had conveniently gone out, as it does during rain storms. I sat in the dark shouting for my neighbors. I didn’t have to wait long, they called a mechanic who helped break the door in. What I learned from this experience: no one is ever too far away, and they most certainly are always willing to help.

Today, I co facilitated my first health talk to a neighboring village. In this talk, myself and my counterpart discussed the importance of hand washing. This talk included a demonstration in which villagers helped show proper technique. Some key points we covered: hand washing with clean water is essential, children should also wash their hands regularly, and friends can teach friends how to wash their hands.

In addition to giving my first official health talk, I had three hours of Kinyarwanda tutoring. My tutor is a local secondary school teacher who teaches English and Kinyarwanda to the students.

Language learning and acquisition is so important in order to succeed in integrating well and being resilient in an otherwise very foreign environment. Language learning, in my experience, has to be a conscious effort. It’s easy to get by with the words you know, the words that help you describe basic human needs. But my job isn’t just simply to exist in this place. My job is to get to know people, to teach and use the tools as my disposal to do so, and to facilitate cultural exchange. Hence, language is important.

What a week, what a day

I am proud to announce that I have officially been a volunteer for exactly a week now. The end of Pre Service Training ended just as quickly as it started and just a few days later, we were sent to our respective villages. Swearing in went according to plan. If you would like copies of the written speeches feel free to reach out via the form on this site. Here is a link to the speeches: https://youtu.be/27SlZbet1Ul

The couple days after swearing in and before site installation were spent gathering the essential items not available in village i.e a gas stove, stovetop coffee maker, among other things. I even had time to go to the Kigali expo which is essentially a large country fair—it even had rides and grilled corn. 

The morning of site installation, we all said our teary goodbyes, as the first three months are solely spent at site and regional towns. I am located in the north, in the Rulindo district. On my 45 min moto to site from the main road, there are tea fields, steppe farmed mountains, and not a car in sight. 

The first day was relatively tough. After being dropped off, I immediately started to busy myself, by setting up my gas stove and buying food so that I wouldn’t need to resort to my few precious American reserves e.g peanut butter and ramen (not together of course). At that point, I had a mattress, two small stools and a stove and so the first night was spent thinking a lot about how it is I got there. On Saturday, I was able to pick up my furniture and started putting things where they belong. 

Cooking has been quite the adventure. For whatever reason I assumed that my stove was not self lighting, and then a week later, the stove magically turned on without the use of matches. Each day, my village has a small market where I am able to buy veggies and some fruits daily. I imagine when rainy season starts, there will be more variety and food available but for now, beans, avocados and rice will suffice. Cooking also takes ten times longer, as cooking includes prepping, the actual cooking, and hand washing all the dishes. Since there is no food storage other than room temperature, making larger quantities isn’t an option. 

This morning, I went for my first run. I found a 4 mile loop that winds behind a mountain and back around to my village. It’s nice to get going first thing in the morning, say hello to the neighbors both near and far, and head to the health center for my 7AM start. 

Part of being a first volunteer at a site is that no one really knows what you’re doing there, and your job, while it may be clear on paper, is certainly not clear in real life (to some degree). When I arrived to my first day of work on Monday, we had an all staff meeting which included introductions and formal words regarding who I was and why I would be living in a small village for two years. There’s a fine line between clinical work and the work of a volunteer. My job here is to assist the village in achieving their goals in health. So when the nurses start to see patients in the infirmary, I have been shadowing as I am not a HCP. But, I was given scrubs to wear so maybe that also confused my neighbors/villagers. I had to use “sindi umuganga” several times (I am not a doctor).

Life moves much more slowly here, the majority of my time has been spent trying to keep up with my own needs, food, rest, and exercise. But I also have been fortunate in taking time to go on walks, to meet my neighbors and truly to understand the ins and outs of village life. On a side note, I am also fortunate enough to have a water tap in my compound and limited electricity. So for that I am also grateful. 

For more photos from swearing in, please visit the photos section. 

I also officially have a post box now, if you’re interested in writing or sending packages, feel free to drop a line in the form on this site. I am big into letter writing, feel free to send addresses as well!

Never a dull moment..

Last week of training…

In just one week, I will be swearing in and will be officially a Peace Corps Rwanda Maternal and Child Health volunteer. At the ceremony, myself and another trainee will be delivering a speech in Kinyarwanda; it will also be televised on Rwandan tv. I will send a link once I find out if it will be streamed. These past few weeks have been quite hectic. After site visit, I had to prepare for the final exam (the language proficiency exam), a final presentation about the importance of a balanced diet given in Kinyarwanda, and preparing for site installation. It’s amazing how fast these ten weeks have flown by. 

Yesterday, I was able to catch the Tour du Rwanda, as it passed through my training site city. The course was actually the route I run everyday. It was exciting to sit near the start/finish line. My camera could barely capture the motion! Please see the photo gallery section for more photos.

On another note…

This morning, something very strange happened and I understood the culture on a deeper level because of it. My friends and I went for a run this morning. We saw a drunk man and a few other people heading towards us, but just ignored it for the most part. In a drunken stupor, one of the men came over and tugged at my hair. Keep in mind this was at 6:30 AM. After we told him to stop, he walked away. Two minutes later, we hear some yelling and a group had formed around the man and his friends. They chased him away, yelling and gesticulating in a threatening way. 

I did not think that this morning I would have my hair pulled by a fully grown man. But at the same time, what happened surprised me even more, and I understood the importance of community and relationships in Rwanda. After I got home, a man stopped by and told my host mother what happened. She was livid and said that the man had been chased, cuffed, and arrested for public intoxication and violated open container laws. As I walked to school, several acquaintances said they were sorry and that they had heard what happened. 

Personally I did not find this to be a big deal and to reiterate, I am fine. I found it interesting how this community understood what happened and made sure that the drunk man understood what he did wrong. I also learned that news travels very, very fast and so in a community such as this one, they are protective to the extent that this man was arrested for his actions. Never a dull moment in Rwanda!