Friday, November 19, 2010

Climbing Mt. Bisoke

Pictured here (from top to bottom):
*Our hiking group begins the trek up Mt. Bisoke
*The crater lake at the top of Mt. Bisoke.
*Nehemie gives a speech at a party to celebrate the health center and its new supervisor. (Pictured here from left to right: the executive secretary of Rubona Sector, the mayor of Rwamagana District, the mayor's wife, and the supervisor of the health center in Rubona)
Volcano National Park is one of three national parks in Rwanda and it is probably the most famous. Located in the Northwest region of Rwanda (in the country's North Province), it shares a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and is home to a collection of endangered fauna, such as forest elephants and mountain gorillas.
Hikes through the mountainous jungles to track the gorillas exist for tourists and nationals. These tours, however, were a bit out of my price range. What was more affordable for me was a hike up Mt. Bisoke.
Located in Volcano National Park, Mt. Bisoke stands at approximately 3, 700 meters. It is one of five volcanoes (all of which are dormant) present at the park; Mt. Bisoke is the third largest. Of these five volcanoes, two have crater lakes at the top; Mt. Bisoke has the largest of the two.
There were seven of us that Saturday morning, the 13th of November. We set out at about 6am from the house we were staying at for the weekend. We were able to get a free ride to the park office, but once we were there we discovered that we needed another vehicle to take us into the park itself. Calls were placed and negotiations were made and by 10am we were well into our hike.
The park office assigned us a guide and arranged for porters and armed officers to meet us at the beginning of the 'trail.' I have now visited all three of Rwanda's national parks; each time we were assigned a guide, but this was the first time that we were assigned porters and an armed escort.
Our guide told us that we MIGHT see elephants and gorillas on our hike, but probably not. We didn't see any animals at all, actually. He also told us that because it was rainy season it would be about 4-5 hours up the volcano and 3-4 hours back down. Again, his predictions were correct.
The hike up was exhausting and, after reflecting on the experience, it was probably a bit dangerous, too. The rainy season left the trail in ruins; it was really one big mudslide. Some places were pretty steep and rocky, too. We all made it to the top safe, but some wrong footing could have easily left some of us with broken bones.
I felt bad for our porters, guide, and escorts. Each time we stopped for a small break, we (the westerners) took something out of our bags to snack on or drink. I could tell that we seemed like a bunch of huge fatties to them - eating and/or drinking something every 20 minutes. I could tell they just wanted to keep going. We offered them food and drink, but they took it in a way that insinuated that they weren't really hungry or thirsty at all; they just took the gift to be nice. They also hardly broke a sweat, which made me feel that much more out of shape because I was huffing and puffing all the way up that damn trail. Man, I gotta quit smokin'.
Anyway, we made it to the top by about 1:30pm, ate lunch, saw the crater lake, and walked back down. The view was beautiful and the crater lake was really neat. We couldn't walk around it, though. We had to stay on the Rwandan half of the volcano; the other half was on DRC territory.
For me, the walk down was probably the most difficult and the most fun part of the experience. Slipping and sliding down the trail, we mocked our falls and laughed at our mud-covered clothing.
My situation was a very specific sort of comic relief, however. A few hours into our trip up Mt. Bisoke, I split my pants. As I retreated down the mountain, I noticed that the split had taken on a life of its own and ran almost the entire middle seam from front to back, exposing my 'Ghostbusters' boxers. It was about that same time (noticing the split in the crotch of my pants and the thick layer of mud collecting around my knees and ankles) that I realized I had foolishly only brought one pair of pants with me for the weekend - the pair I was currently wearing!
Some people had no clothing malfunctions and less problems with the terrain, however. The seven of us were grouped with three others (2 Belgians and a Swiss) that were also hiking Mt. Bisoke that day. One Belgian in particular took great pleasure in running down the volcano's trail without getting so much as a puddle splash on him. I tried to keep pace with him but I was less graceful and soon fell back. My slips kept him entertained for the brief time I was sloshing down the trail with him, however. I never fully fell, but I caught myself from doing so several times; each time was followed by his giddy laughter and a witty remark in French.
We made it to the bottom before dark, headed home, cleaned up, then went out for a much needed drink. Now, not only did I not bring another pair of pants, I also did NOT bring another pair of shoes. I did bring pajama pants, though, so I wore those out. My boots, however, were caked in mud. Luckily the person we were staying with had another pair of shoes - girl's tennis shoes, but shoes none-the-less.
It was a great trip with a great group of friends. I want to visit Volcano National Park again to see the gorillas. I don't know when I'll have the money to do so, but when I do return, I will be sure as hell to remember to bring a proper change of clothing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

What I have been doing the last two years: An excerpt from my third year application

Describe the most important things you accomplished during your two years of service.

Providing Americans with a better understanding of Rwanda is an accomplishment of which I am most proud. I have a blog ( and I update it with pictures, personal experiences, and current Rwandan news; I also post pictures on Facebook and I even started the unofficial Peace Corps Rwanda Facebook Group, which provides information about Rwanda and Peace Corps to new/potential volunteers and to family and friends of current volunteers. These electronic forums allow friends, family, and other interested parties to connect with me in a private interface where they can ask questions and acquire information.

Furthermore, I have a WWS contact (Lincoln Township High School); I have regular communication with Club Interact, a volunteering and community service club that is sponsored by the high school. I am also in contact with a special education school where my friend's mother is a teacher. In addition to communicating with students from these two institutions, I frequently write letters to my family, my friends, and my church community describing my experiences.

All of these groups have told to me that I have played a large role in helping them not only understand Rwanda better, but Peace Corps as well. Many of these groups, in turn, have provided me with support, both financially and morally, to be successful in Rubona, Rwamagana my current site of Peace Corps service.

Providing Rwandans a better understanding of Americans has been a successful objective for my secondary projects. After the first three months in Rubona, I created a pen-pal exchange between neighborhood children in Rubona and the schools with which I am partnered in America. I also have a pen-pal exchange for my adult English class; these pen-pal relationships are between my adult Rwandan students and my adult family friends in Chicago. Fostering these relationships has given my neighbors in Rubona a better understanding of my family, my friends, and the culture of America.

The adult English class I teach four nights a week from 6pm to 7pm also provides me with a venue to discuss American culture with my neighbors. Together we study health topics in English; these topics have included personal hygiene, how to recognize and avoid risk behavior, and the nature of the human body. Every other English lesson, however, is about American history or culture. These lessons may highlight a state or city or they may be about a particularly notable American, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. When the lesson is about one of these topics, we discuss why this person, city, or invention is important to American culture and history.

As a result of creating pen-pal relationships between neighbors and friends and sharing information about America in the classroom, my integration into the community of Rubona has been easy and enjoyable. Through respect, effective communication, and presence at site, I have received an excellent reputation among community members.

I not only enjoy a high level of integration within the community of Rubona, I am also well integrated into the Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) community. I participate in events with fellow volunteers and I have built positive and mutually beneficial friendships and professional relationships with my peers.

I attribute my successes to both village community integration and PCV peer community integration to being reliable, responsible, reasonable, and having a positive attitude; I also overcome fears and apprehensions very easily, which allows me to be more open to new experiences, conversations, and points of view.

Just as sharing American culture with my community has helped me integrate, integrating into my community has helped me perform my primary assignments successfully. I am a trusted member of Rubona’s community and my ability to mobilize and motivate neighbors and health center staff is a direct benefit of this achievement.

As a community, we conduct personal hygiene and work place cleanliness trainings and tutorials. Working with the health center staff members on these projects, specifically, has given them a strong sense of empowerment and accomplishment. The nurses and staff of the health center, in turn, are serving their patients with more efficiency and with greater pride in their work. As a result, a higher level of patient care is being practiced, which is giving the health center more credibility among the community members it serves.

Through our trainings and tutorials, Rubona has made great strides in educating people about disease communicability and prevention. What has made the most sustainable impact, however, has been raising funds to provide Rubona’s health center with running water. With these sinks, hand washing stations, and showers, the community members I teach are putting into daily practice the lessons they have learned. More importantly, because these fixtures are permanent structures, the community will be able to continue their personal hygiene and work cleanliness exercises and tutorials well after I have gone.

My Days Are Numbered

"The Senior Staff decided to move your COS (Close of Service) date from 14 April 2011 to the week of 24-30 March 2011."

About 20 more weeks until I take that big plane home.

If you are sending packages, please DO NOT send them to me after January 2011.

Still waiting to here about my third year application.

Will keep you posted when I know more.