My days as a Peace Corps Volunteer came to a sudden end late January when I was sent home to get my health in check. I have spent hours reflecting upon my positive experience serving in Rwanda and how to conclude my blog for my readers. My pondering returned again and again to a conversation I had with my Grandmother before I left. I was telling her of my successes and frustrations when she summarized it with an old expression from her mother:
“It’s like water falling on rock. Eventually it makes a dent.”
This is exactly how I feel about the work of a Peace Corps volunteer. It is slow, frustrating and sometimes your results are not visible. Most volunteers don’t even get into the swing of service until one year has passed. Since I was un/fortunate enough to change sites mid service, I was able to step back and see the positive effects of my service as a high school English teacher. As many Africans say, slowly by slowly, buhoro buhoro, things take their course. Examples of the successes of PCVs in Rwanda are in English, health education, the promotion of customer service and a strong work ethic and the cross-cultural exchange between the USA and Rwanda. I like to think my market food choices and hygiene habits were observed and mimicked by some Rwandans. The strides my students made in English after just one year were enough to send me home happy and proud.
Just as a Peace Corps Volunteer slowly works towards sustainable development, so does life in a post-conflict country slowly wear on an individual. I would like to share a very grim personal story that affected my mental state and service in Rwanda. This is a heavy story, one I debated publishing but it made as big of an impression on me as my personal relationships and success stories. I have kept my writings positive up to now but this I have to share.
One late afternoon I arrived at my secondary school for my daily teacher English classes. I arrived as school was finishing and to my surprise, all the students were gathered on the basketball court instead of playing, bathing, washing clothes or studying. The teachers were also congregated on the playground under the hot sun, pointing and whispering.
“What was happening?” I asked fellow teachers, openly concerned.
It turns out that three students were caught in a sex scandal in which one jealous boy locked another boy and girl in a classroom at night. This would be a big no-no at any boarding school but in our small rural community, this was outrageous. The students had been sent home as punishment but upon their return, one staff member felt they had not been adequately punished and he decided to make an example of them.
This staff member rounded up the three students on a grassy hill that the other 500+ students were gathered around. The teachers, including myself, stood at a distance on higher ground where we could view the action. The staff member verbally humiliated these students, particularly the female and asked the crowd of students if they thought the culprits had been sufficiently punished. Following mixed responses, the man called up four or so of our youngest students to where the three were standing. He had the three students lie down on their stomachs and repeatedly beat them with a bamboo stick until it was frayed. The young students had the task of counting the number of beatings the students received.
At this point, all the teachers were cheering and jeering at the three students’ cries. One of the male students who were being beaten jumped up to runaway and our staff member threw him to the ground and kicked him over and over. I sensed that many students were uncomfortable and as for myself, I held my objecting stomach and turned away. My heart raced, I was nauseous and had tears in my eyes. My throat closed in a tight, protesting rage. A good friend turned to me and said, “I know this is not how you do things in America. But this is what we do.” The beatings finally came to an end and I cancelled class and ran home. Everyone was happy to have class cancelled; there was too much to talk about.
I was thrown and shaken by this corporal punishment for three reasons. First of all, this was my school and students were being beaten despite the fact that the government “looked down” upon corporal punishment. Second of all, the colleague orchestrating the violence was one of my closest, favorite colleagues at the school. He was someone I trusted. Thirdly, I saw this as a cycle of violence much bigger than anything a mere volunteer could tackle. The perpetrator must have seen violence himself so when he was in a position of power was able to control people in such a way. Those three students, I realized, would think to use violence when they themselves finally rose in the Rwandan hierarchy and could humiliate those beneath them just as they had been humiliated.* This was tragic and confusing for me to process. Through discussions at school, I was relieved to know that some colleagues disapproved of the public beating. Still, I was left with the sad truth that my English teaching was secondary to many of the other struggles in this country.
I have dozens of stories along this same line. And like water falling on rock, these episodes of violence caused a depression in my psyche that wore me down. Such psychological struggles in development work are expected but I encourage those abroad or at home dealing with violence or residual aggression to seek help and support and to develop coping mechanisms.
Despite this event, I loved my Peace Corps experience. There were so many positive experiences to overshadow this event. The best part of Peace Corps? The people I met. Would I recommend it?
*I would like to mention that the female student struggled and eventually left the school.