…With Counterparts and the US Ambassador to Rwanda

Our last training day was a gem, with our site hosts arriving to participate in several sessions and with the US Ambassador to Rwanda addressing us.

Meet Dr. Balinda Ruteruka, the Director of the college where I will be teaching, and Jen Hedrick, our Country Director.


And a group photo with US Ambassador to Rwanda, Erica Barkes-Ruggles.


Ambassador Erica Barks-Ruggles spoke briefly, with great clarity, on priorities for Rwanda and their alignment with PC Rwanda’s program priorities.  She commended the progress Rwanda has made and is making.  For example, in the push to eliminate HIV, present projections predict that within 18 months Rwnda will become one of 3 nations in the world to achieve the 90-90-90 goal.  That goal is that 90% of high risk individuals will have been tested and know their status, and of those who are HIV positive 90% will be on treatment, and of those 90% will have achieved a status of viral suppression.  She also highlighted Rwanda’s success in reducing the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty.


She explained that teachers in Rwanda are facing a unique challenge.  They typically have grown up in communities using Kinyarwanda and perhaps Kiswahili, and until 2008 were teaching in French.  At that time Rwanda changed to instruction in English, so a great many teachers are now teaching in their _fourth_ language.  In recent years the proportion of age-eligible students actually enrolled has been advanced to near universal service. Now the importance of improving the quality of education is high. Barks-Ruggles framed the issue in this way: there is a five year window of opportunity to achieve quality instruction or a generation of Rwandans will not be economically competitive.


As impressed as I was with her prepared comments, her answers to questions showed additional strengths.  She was on point, detailed, and concrete. Asked what surprised her most here, she said that it’s not possible to be alone here, the population density produces the effect that wherever you are, driving or walking, you will be in sight of others at all times.  She said that while out taking morning exercise she probably greets about 400 people a day.  Asked what evidence there is of positive effects from Peace Corps volunteers’ efforts here she cited the libraries established and enhanced and increases in students and citizens’ computer literacy.  She also sensitively assisted in helping a volunteer reframe a concern in a way that respected both the volunteer’s priorities and challenges of change processes.


Dr. Balinda Ruteruka provided me important information about the work at ICE in Ruhango and I am very grateful to have joined that institution this morning.

(That was Thursday, April 28.  In the next week I should be moving from Kigali to my site.)


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Introduction to Development Work at PC Kigali

(I had posts out of order, so I’m fixing it.  You may have seen this already)

Before I talk about our 8 days of training, let’s have a passing mention of jetlag, delightful and unique volunteer colleagues (we’re a group of 6), and some logistical awkwardness. That done, on to the training content.


Peace Corps has been back in Rwanda since 2008, through their standard sequence of invitation from the country, visits, and negotiation.  The programs in the standard Peace Corps option (or the classic? Two year version) are Education and Health.  The Peace Corps Response (PCR) is a smaller program populated by returned volunteers and other individuals with specific qualification for particular assignments who serve shorter terms, in our case of 12 months. In Rwanda, PCR provides volunteers to NGOs with development projects not covered by the specific goals of the other programs.  These posts also encourage bridging between their NGOs and the volunteers in the 2 year positions.


Rwanda had ambitious Millennium Development Goals and achieved a dramatic amount.  That push has come to its term, and now Sustainable Development Goals are the new frontier.  Perhaps I am mistaken, as my understanding of the history of aid work and development work over the decades is weak, but the new push seems to be a push for measurable outcomes that are monitored to determine effectiveness.  This seems to typically lead to more effective programs and better efficiency in development work, within limits. More about the bitter and the sweet of this as time goes on.


Outcomes of the Millennium Development projects were assessed along the way between the gal setting in 2000 and the finish line of 2016, so at 2012 the proportion of the population that was living in poverty had already been reduced by 50%, infant mortality had already fallen to half the original rate, and so on.  Rwanda instituted universal anti-retroviral treatment and HIV transmission dropped.  In their battle against malaria Rwanda provided 100% of the population with insecticide treated bed nets (okay they were defective and didn’t last the guaranteed 5 years but Rwanda is suing the manufacturer so there may be money to try again on that).  One indicator that was particularly unresponsive was the rate of child stunting.  This became the focus of the agreement between Peace Corps and the Rwandan Ministry of Health.  The health volunteers now work in community health centers on a First Thousand Days initiative that provides services to women and children starting before pregnancy.  The participants are monitored and supplemental nutrition, exams, and immunizations are all included.  The volunteers have also initiated a community-based WASH program, through a grant, to help Rwandans improve home food safety, handwashing, sanitation, and laundry methods.


Meanwhile in the education program Peace Corps folks like to quote the Minister of Education who was asked how many education volunteers would he like to have in the country.  He said, “250,000.” So the volunteers are welcomed here and appreciated.  There are about 110 two-year volunteers and will soon be 15 Peace Corps Response volunteers.


I’ll close by saying that we had the day today, Sunday, to be out and about, using the bus lines, visiting the big market.  The pictures are today’s.


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A Visit to the Rwandan National Library



There are adult sections in English, French, and Kinyarwanda


looking down the stairwell from the second floor all the way to the basement, children’s area

For fun, this post is formatted as a photo search task, followed by an explanation of the context of my visit to the Rwandan National Library.  Here are some photos of the library building, there is no photo of the outside as it was dark and that photo wasn’t worth the pixels.  And now for the puzzles.

In the adult fiction area many of the books are shelved alphabetically by author.  Find a title by an author who recently celebrated her 100th birthday.


In this next shot I/ve gone to the basement to see what’s available for children. This section is not as well organized. I’ve highlighted a favorite picture book, although the other books represent a range of fiction and nonfiction. Enlarge the picture (by clicking on it) and find a title from National Geographic.


Now find a reference book for a typist, and a classic phonics instruction book.


Something by Earnest Thompson Seton and something by Voltaire.


Pick your favorite title from this group.


And, see, we have space for many more books.  How to get more books?


One of the new PCR volunteers in my group learned of an evening event at the Rwandan National Library and invited others to come along.  Several of us took the bus down in the evening and some attended the event: a discussion of the role of France in the genocide with a couple of specialist scholars.  I went to the library, but checked out the “Kids Zone,” then took pictures, and finally sat down to read Clements’ No Talking.  You may know this author from The Report Card or Frindle.  The title I found was new to me, and Gandhi is important to the plot development.  I recommend it.



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Rwanda Wants to be Famous for Other Things


What country will be the first in the world to have a country-wide commercial drone service? In July Rwanda will launch, with a company from California, a service that will bring blood and medicines to remote locations using a fleet of 15 catapult-launched, 12 foot wingspan drones.  They carry a payload of 3.5 pounds and deliver without landing using paper parachutes. The turnaround time is very short, as replacing the battery with a freshly charged one, swapping out a chip with the delivery destination program, and loading the new cargo allow multiple trips in a day.

More information and a video http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/05/technology/drones-marshaled-to-drop-lifesaving-supplies-over-rwandan-terrain.html?_r=0



Another important attribute of Rwanda is that it is home to mountain gorillas.  Tourists vote with their feet, and Rwanda is the top destination for mountain gorilla viewing.  The infrastructure is well developed and conservation of the gorillas means that a visitor can spend an hour viewing a group of gorillas.  Each group has a month off each year, and is also out of view when babies are born.  The World Wildlife Fund lists ways to help the mountain gorillas, and visiting them is their first recommendation. Visits provide funds for conservation and support the local economy.

World Wildlife Foundation’s Mountain Gorilla page: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/great_apes/gorillas/mountain_gorilla/



I admire Rwanda’s Vision 2020. The government has honestly assessed the challenges it faces and has made a plan that names goals, lists measurable outcomes, and explains priorities. The country is geographically about the size of Maryland but its population, 12.7 million people, is more than twice the population of Maryland. The population density in my district, Ruhango, demonstrates a problem that occurs all over.  Subsistence farming is predominant (73% of Rwandans over 16 years of age farm) and the average family holding is under .5 hectare (which is about the size of a football field, just the playing parts).  As population increases more and more, families are averaging less and less land.  Forty-seven percent of rural children in Rwanda are stunted from malnutrition. On the bright side, the economic recovery since the genocide has been outstanding, GDP has risen an average of 8% per year over the last decade.  Four fifths of the agricultural land in Ruhango is protected from erosion. There are specific projects underway to meet desired outcomes.  Outcomes are reported nationally, but also district by district. My reaction to this planning is delight.  We should also have short, medium, and long term goals.  We should have a list of measurable outcomes including reduction of the proportion of the population living in poverty, what our status is in infant mortality, our score on the international corruption monitor’s scale, and so on.

Rwanda’s Vision 2020 (produced in 2000)


or the updated document (produced in 2012)




Tomorrow I fly off to be part of Rwanda’s development efforts.  I look forward to learning and writing about Peace Corps’ programs, the college where I will be working, and my new community.


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Looking Forward to Peace Corps Response, Rwanda

My departure will be on Sunday, and I am relatively ready.  Here’s what it means to me to be ready.

I researched my district in Rwanda, where 73% of the people are subsistence farmers and they sell an average of 13% of their crops.  That means there isn’t a lot of cash economy.  Seven percent of the people in the district get their water from a pipe.  Two percent get it from a pipe in the home or the yard of their home and 5% get it from a pipe in the center of a village or town.  Forty percent of the people in the district can get water from a safe source on a walk of 15 minutes or less (one way) so 60% have to walk farther than that or use water from an unprotected source.  Most of the protected sources are springs that have been capped with a pipe arrangement so the water stays clean.

I read two books on the country and its recent history, meaning the 1994 genocide.  I recommend both of them, A Thousand Hills by Stephen Kinzer and We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.  The genocide was clearly orchestrated but the UN and western countries tried to convince themselves it was “just” centuries-old tribal strife to justify staying out of it.  In the time of the killings, people were rounded up to do the killing and those who didn’t participate were given the choice of killing the next person or being killed as a sympathizer.  Besides the hundreds of thousands of deaths in a period of about 90 days inflicted largely with machetes by neighbors on neighbors, there was an enormous exodus to nearby countries.  The refugee situation was murky with the losers in the military conflict fleeing as well, so that genocidaires in the camps continued to arm themselves and make forays across the border into Rwanda.

My take away lesson from this is that I don’t understand what it must be like to live through the aftermath.  It isn’t possible to put all the killers in prison; it was a very large fraction of the population.  It isn’t possible to try everyone although efforts are being made and have been made to try the leaders of the genocide.  The government is intentionally a coalition of the two demographic groups (although they aren’t really distinct genetically) and pushes anti-genocide thinking and peace-making in schools and communities.  It pushes anti-corruption.  And its leaders have studied repressive systems like Singapore and Thailand as role models, taking the stance that until the situation is more stable it has to be controlled.  Nearby regions, across the borders (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda) continue to have some genocidal activity ongoing.  It’s not done to ask about this recent history.  If a person chooses to talk about it after getting to know you, that’s fine.  It is still too raw and personal for many survivors.

As to my role, for the next year I’ll be teaching at a teacher training college.  My candidates will be preparing to teach English and to teach other subjects in English. Rwanda has recently changed to English from French as the language of instruction in schools.  I’ve been given a list of eight modules (courses to us) which I’ll teach, four each semester.  It would be indelicate to state how many of these are courses that I’ve never taught before, but I have had a big push studying.  I’ve watched a Great Course on Linguistics, fished around the internet for syllabi of courses similar to mine and bought some of the texts I’ve identified.  I get them online from used book sources.  Some arrived and were just what I was hoping for, but some were unfortunate.  At this point I have a 50 pound suitcase of children’s books so that we can have some short and sweet, light and lively readings for relaxation and to celebrate our skills. Then there’s another 50 pound suitcase of professional books and teaching materials. That covers my allowance, but there’s also a 50 pound suitcase of clothes, bedding, and a couple of kitchen tools.  I will pay for one suitcase of excess baggage as it’s still cheaper than mailing myself the books.

I’m grateful to relatives who will live in my house while I’m gone (thanks Adam and Corrinne), a friend who is managing a few things like my post office box and alerting me of action items (thanks Mary Dell), a retired friend who gave me a fabulous collection of ESL teaching resources (thanks Sarah), and the usual band of encouragers and soul mates (you know who you are).

Here are some predictions:

Peace Corps Thailand gave me the gift of greater compassion for myself and its conjoined twin, greater compassion for others.  I suspect that Peace Corps Response Rwanda will have some gift of personal growth for me and I don’t know what it will be.  My hope is to be open to it, whatever it is.

This experience will be fabulous and challenging.  I’m looking forward to walking a lot, to studying my students in order to serve them well, and to building friendships with community members and other PCVs.   I expect to be blindsided now and then, and am fully prepared to toss out the preparations I’ve made for my courses if it turns out I’ve misunderstood what they are to be like.  The preparations were to give me some confidence at the outset.  That’s done.

Into the mystery!


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Quick post on walking El Camino de Santiago de Compostella

Last May and June I did walk El Camino, from St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain.  Although I intended to post to the blog during those 6 weeks I couldn’t manage the interface between my cell phone and the blogging site. So here are a couple of notes.

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It’s true that anyone can do this.  I walked 35 days including lay over days in some fascinating places. There are plenty of spots to stop and sleep (albergues, casa rurales, hotels).  I carried my pack every day except for one when I had hip trouble from a fall: services to transport the pack are readily available.

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Before stained glass, use a slice of alabaster to let light in


Everyone walks his or her own Camino, and that’s good.  Some days I walked alone and took a lot of pictures, other days I walked with wonderful people and got to know them.  The setting is ideal for whatever meditations, problem solving, and healing are right for you.

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My highlights included spending time with memories of my mother, particularly in the mountains where I was suddenly singing songs she had taught me (in the mountains).  I had hoped to put my early memories of her back into the foreground of my mind and let the memories from the Alzheimer’s years fade to the background. That happened.  I remembered, which I had totally forgotten, that she had a fantasy of learning to weave and producing a carpet with all the flowers of the mountain meadows.  She’d have a family friend (ranger we saw every year when we camped in Yosemite) check for accuracy of each plant and another (also a ranger) play his flute and bring it to life. (Will Nealy and Carl Sharsmith, for the record).

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Another highlight was constructing, from the grass roots of experience and the forge of reflection, a personal understanding of simplicity.  On the Camino Frances if you go to sleep farther west than where you were when you woke up then you’ve had a successful day.  I wanted to come home with the ability to apply some ideas about simplicity to my life.  One central idea, for me, is that priorities are essential.  I benefit from identifying what’s really important so that I can let other things go.  On my return I was actually able to articulate my personal priorities in a simple way, something I’d tried to do many times without success in the past.  People around me noticed the difference. In one example someone asked me if I had an opinion on something and I said that I didn’t except that it would probably be helpful to keep talking and thinking about it.  He asked whether I was serious, as I generally have opinions to spare.  Yes, this topic is not in my first tier of concerns now, and I can let it go and let it be other folks’ decision.  For me, clear priorities allow me better stewardship of my time and energy.

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Feeling connected to people of the past was my easiest goal. Stone buildings, community hand laundry facilities, and the art in the churches are portals to spend some time reaching out to the past. Let the pictures suffice.

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Another idea that grew in importance for me is that sustained effort allows us to achieve things we may not have realized were possible.  We (at least I) accept limitations that are illusions.  We (at least I) know that sustained effort is powerful but I wasn’t applying that knowledge.  It was as if I had a gem that I wasn’t appreciating.  Or perhaps it was like the way we “know” a song or poem, memorized but without incorporating its wisdom into life.  I came home weighing where to put my energy into some sustained effort. Would it be a writing project, a service project, a learning project? It turns out it will be some of each.

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Next Sunday I’ll be at the airport for flights to Rwanda where I’ll serve in Peace Corps Response for 12 months.  The next posts will introduce that.  Thanks for reading, and for the encouragement you offer me.

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Roman Road

Additional reading on El Camino, if you’d like something

Camino Forum (crowd-sourced discussions on planning, choosing a route, shoes, and more) https://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/

A book: John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago de Compostella.


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Next Chapter: Walk Camino de Santiago de Compostella May and June 2015

If I look over my life for themes, I see different themes at different decades.  Which is neither here nor there. Except that when  person sets out to walk 500 miles along a medieval route, a route that’s now popular enough that over 100,000 people a year follow it, some folks would ask, “why?”

Connections are impportant to me.  One instance has been in my professional work addressing the difference between knowing things and understanding things, and methods of teaching for knowing versus understanding. Connections turns out to be essential.   Connecting with nature, as in experiences camping and developing an appreciation for varied ecologies, has fueled me.  Another instance has been in my appetite for connections with people outside my family, then outside my community, then outside my country.  Walking the Camino is a means to connect myself with people across time.

More on that in upcoming blog posts.

A more recent theme in my life is simplicity.  Peace Corps immersed me in a simpler life, and on return I downsized a couple of times. I’m curious where the “sweet spot” is along a continuum from frenetic to comatose.  I’ve had over-extended, I’ve had bored out of my mind by lack of structure. The “sweet spot” is elusive, and it also moves.  What’s right at one age can be wrong at another.  The Camino exprience, I’m guessing, has a high level of simplicity (which is not the same thing as ease).  Taking this walk, I hope, will give me a sustained experience of simplicity, it will contrast with the complexity of typical daily life around me at home.  We shall see how well I roll into the simplicity, I am challenged to resist adding superfluous cares and behaviors.  In the long view, I will come home from the Camino more ready to be intentional in simplicity.

Thanks for reading, friends.

Buen Camino to all!

photo credit for blog header is Marathoni62 at Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Route_napoleon_orisson.jpg

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