Here’s how the Peace Corps works: you apply and you can list a preference for the region of the world you would like to be sent to. They don’t have to respect it though.
Then, if they think you’re a good candidate, you’re nominated and they give you a possible region and job assignment. They don’t have to stick with it though.
Then, you have a final interview either via e-mail or over the phone and your placement officer may give you some indication of the region where you’ve been placed. They don’t have to though.
Then, then, then — finally! — you will get an invitation in the mail that says which country you’re going to and when. And this one they have to stick to.
It was the middle of the day and I was at home alone when I opened my envelope. I prayed before I opened it, praying for peace and joy with God’s plan for me. When I saw the word “Rwanda” I was scared, excited and surprised. I’ve never been to Africa, I’ve never particularly wanted to go to Africa, and now, just by opening the envelope, I was going to Africa. It was enough to make me shaky with the mix of emotions.
Then I realized that the only thing I knew about Rwanda is probably the only thing you know about Rwanda: there was a genocide there sometime in the recent past.
In the month since I found out that I was going to Rwanda, though, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and I’ve learned more about this small central African country.
First:Google Maps. I found out where Rwanda is.
Second: Wikipedia. I learned that Rwanda is a small country in Central-Eastern Africa. It’s about the size of Maryland. It is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. The country’s primary languages are Kinyarwanda and French although English is gaining usage as well. Rwanda is known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills” and is one of the few places where gorillas still live in the wild. Rwanda’s primary exports are tea and coffee. Near to the equator, Rwanda’s climate is temperate and the temperature is around 70-90 degrees year round.
In 1994 there was a genocide in Rwanda during which members of the majority ethnic group (85% of the population), the Hutus, killed at least 800,000 members of the minority ethnic group, the Tutsis, along with tens of thousands of moderate Hutus. Since then, the country has taken many steps to heal relationships between the two groups as well as to modernize the country.
Third: movies. So far I’ve watched Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April. Both of these films are hard to watch but do a very good job of communicating the scope and emotional atmosphere and trauma of the genocide. There is another movie, called Kinyarwanda, which came out in 2011. I haven’t seen it yet but I would like to.
Fourth: books. As part of the Welcome Packet which accompanies the invitation, the Peace Corps recommends a number of books and movies to educate volunteers about their country. One of the books that they recommended is a very unsettling, difficult to read book called Machete Season by Jean Hatzfeld. This book is comprised mostly of interviews with killers who are currently in jail, serving sentences for their crimes during the genocide. As I prepare to go to Rwanda, I’ve been looking at pictures online and trying to visualize what my temporary home will look like. Hatzfeld’s vivid descriptions of Rwandan civilians trudging through papyrus marshes, machetes in hand, seeking to “cut” their neighbors replaced these picturesque images in my head and, honestly, scared me. Although I know that the genocide happened almost 20 years ago, it’s hard not to be frightened by the images of neighbor hunting neighbor in the marshes, fields and city streets. The book is very evocative and powerful.
I hope to read some other historical books and guidebooks about the greater Central/Eastern Africa region so I can learn more about the natural and political history of Rwanda and its neighbors.
Finally, of course, I’ve been reading the blogs of other current and future Peace Corps volunteers in Rwanda. I can’t get enough of hearing about people’s living situations, job assignments, crazy bus stories and pictures. I’m so excited to have some Rwandan stories of my own before too long!