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December 2, 2011

Reflections of a US Peace Corps Volunteer - 09/07/11

Legal Disclaimer
The following represents the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official positions or opinions of the United States Government, the United States Peace Corps, or the Republic of Rwanda.

Now that that's out of the way...

What is this blog?
This blog is designed to give you an insight into what it's like living (and, in my case, serving) in a foreign culture and country. It will be written by me, Shawn Grund, and drawn entirely off of my experiences in Rwanda where I currently serve as a Volunteer with the United States Peace Corps. I graduated from UMD in the spring of 2010 with a degree in Communications and a minor in Mathematics. In October of 2010, I was officially accepted into the Peace Corps and now serve as an Education Volunteer. More on me later.

This blog will hopefully cover many different topics, all of which will give you a better understanding not only of what it's like to live abroad (especially in a post-conflict country in Africa), but also of Rwanda and what it's like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. But before we get into all of that, let's do some introductory topics.

A little background on the Peace Corps

"What kind of a peace do I mean and what kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax-Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. We must re-examine our own attitudes towards the world. Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."-- John F. Kennedy

In 1961, The United States Congress officially approved funding to begin a humanitarian program for third-world countries aimed at sharing the knowledge and experience of Americans with the world at large. With heavy backing from President Kennedy, the United States Peace Corps was born. Educated men and women from all walks of American life were called to volunteer 27 months of their lives in the poorest and least developed places in the world. There they would fully integrate into a community and begin to transfer their knowledge and skills to the local population with the overall goal of building capacity. Fifty years later, Peace Corps has participated in the development of 100+ countries through the use of over a quarter-million Volunteers. Today, Peace Corps operates in more than 70 countries and supports almost 8,000 active Volunteers.

The Peace Corps has three primary goals:
1- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans

In every case, Peace Corps is asked by the host country to send Volunteers. Peace Corps Volunteers serve in a host country as invited guests of the host government. Peace Corps' role in development takes a community based approach. They do not provide funding to build schools, materials to pave roads, or almost anything of material value. What they do provide is knowledge. Peace Corps sends trained men and women into a requesting country to help develop the people, not the infrastructure. The foundation of all the work Peace Corps does across the world is the Volunteer.

A Peace Corps Volunteer serves for a total of 27 months (3 months of training and 2 years of actual work). Each volunteer serves within a specific Sector of Peace Corps. These include Education, Health, Community Development, Youth Outreach, Business, Information Technology, and Agriculture. During their service, a PCV is given a primary assignment to carry out; they may teach schoolchildren, train teachers, plan and conduct HIV/AIDS seminars, work in hospitals, or develop sustainable farming practices. In addition, PCV's are encouraged to find secondary projects as requested by their communities. The PCV will live, work, eat, sleep, and play within their community. For all intents and purposes apart from actual citizenship, the PCV is a full member of their host community. Yes, this includes speaking the local language.

A Brief History of Rwanda
Rwanda is a democratic republic in the heart of Africa. It shares a common border with Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east, Burundi to the south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. Even though it is approximately the size of the State of Massachusetts, Rwanda boasts 11 million citizens, making it one of the most densely populated countries in Africa.

Due in part to the region's relatively isolated location and in part to the military strength of the Rwandan Kings prior to the late 1800's, the territory then referred to as Rwanda (which encompassed present-day Rwanda, most of Burundi, and parts of neighboring Uganda and Tanzania) wasn't breached by a European explorer until 1832. This means that while neighboring regions we being colonized and, in many cases, assimilated into the slave-trading world, Rwanda was left untouched. Because Rwanda's colonial period happened so late on the world stage, virtually no Rwandans (if any) were ever sold into slavery.

It wasn't until the Berlin Conference in 1884 that Rwanda was legally colonized by Germany (as part of then Ruanda-Urundi) and put under its protection. The Germans, however, had very little actual interaction with the Rwandan Kings or the Rwandan people before being defeated by Belgium in 1916. In 1919, the League of Nations declared Rwanda a mandate territory of Belgium. After the United Nations was established, the former colonies of the world were to be made ready to govern themselves. Rwanda was again placed as a trust territory of Belgium in 1948 under the arrangement that Belgium would provide assistance in establishing an independent Rwandan nation. Rwanda formally gained independence in 1962 and replaced their monarchy with an elected democracy.

For the next 32 years, the Government of Rwanda grew more and more corrupt and violence became more and more common. Policies made legal practice under colonial rule distinguished Rwandans into two basic ethnic groups; the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. The Colonial governments generally saw Hutus as the common workforce and Tutsis as slightly more upper-class; and, the Tutsis, therefore, were generally wealthier and capable of holding high social and political positions with their colonial masters. Post-Independence, these ethnic divisions became major political and social flash points. By the late 1980's the primarily Hutu government began aggressive campaigns against the Tutsi ethnic group in an attempt to overturn the social structure. In April of 1994, then-President Habyarimana had re-opened peace talks with the President of Burundi, who was having similar ethnic troubles in his own country. On the 6th of April, 1994, a plane carrying both Presidents was shot down over Rwanda, killing both heads of state. Within hours, Rwanda descended into engineered chaos and, for almost 100 days, a strategically planned genocide designed to totally eradicate the Tutsi ethnic group ensued.

Men and women turned on their neighbors, their friends, and their families. The Interahamwe (Kinyarwanda meaning 'those who kill together') took to the streets armed with guns, grenades, and machetes to carry out their government's plan for 'ethnic cleansing.' It is unclear to this day exactly how many lives were lost, but it is estimated that nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in those 100 days (a staggering 20% of Rwanda's population). With this, Rwanda holds a single bloody statistical legacy: one of the highest number of deaths per day of any genocide-based conflict in human history, including the Holocaust. With nearly a million dead, another million living as refugees in neighboring countries, and half of a million guilty of murder or other genocide-related crimes, Rwanda was left in tatters by the time the Rwandan Patriotic Front seized control of the capital in mid-1994, forcing the former government, the 'génocidaires', and the Interahamwe to flee the country.

In the 17 years since the Rwandan Genocide ended, the Government of Rwanda has come a long way; having removed the concept of ethnicity entirely and begun promoting peace and unity among Rwandans as well as ensuring that those responsible for the events of 1994 are brought to justice. Differentiating based on the former ethnic groups is now illegal. Even use of the words 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' is illegal (which is why this is probably the last time I will discuss this using the terms themselves). While the Rwandan courts are still trying and convicting Interahamwe members and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is still convicting high-level officials of the former government, Rwanda has moved on to unity. Today, all Rwandans are seen as one ethnic group: Rwandan.

The Rwandan people speak a Bantu-derived language called Kinyarwanda, although French and English are also National Languages. Over 99% of Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda, but Swahili is also common due to its use by returned refugees from Tanzania. Kinyarwanda, in many ways, is a straightforward language; every letter always makes the same sound and the vocabulary is minimal compared to English. Yet, Kinyarwanda is complex in its own right, mainly because of its 16 noun classes. In comparison, English has 2 (singular and plural). These noun classes affect almost every word that the noun deals with. For example, there are 16 different ways to say "it is good," depending on what 'it' is and which class it belongs to.

Peace Corps in Rwanda
In 2008, Rwanda made two major changes to their education system. First, they changed from six years of free basic education to nine years of free basic education. Second, they changed the official language of instruction from French to English. Before implementing this policy, the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, invited Peace Corps to return to Rwanda (Peace Corps Rwanda was established in 1980 but abandoned in 1993) to work in the Health and Education Sectors.

Currently, there are 129 Volunteers in Rwanda, with about 70 of us serving in the Education Sector. The majority of the Education Volunteers teach English in secondary schools (approximately grades 7-12), although we also have Math, Science, and ICT teachers. Most of us Education Volunteers work in rural schools and live in very rural communities without running water or electricity.

The Peace Corps Rwanda program is still rather young in terms of Peace Corps posts. Most of the Education Volunteers in country currently spend most of their time teaching students and training teaching in English and methodology. However, a few secondary projects have already begun to take hold, including a judges training program, an ICT teaching and training textbook, and a program designed to prepare students for the science portions of the national exams.

It is my pleasure to offer my experiences in Rwanda in the hopes they can be used to further the understanding of Rwandan culture, living abroad, and what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. If you wish to contact me directly with questions (or want me to write about certain things), feel free to email me at grun0177@gmail.com. Please understand that I have limited access to internet in Rwanda and may not be able to receive or respond to your email for several days.

-Shawn Grund
Peace Corps Volunteer, Republic of Rwanda (Education 2/ Rwanda 5)
Education and Technology