I’ve been home for 2 weeks now, and I’ve had lots of time to reflect on the last 2 years of my life. The highs were so incredibly high, and the lows were extremely low. But I learned more than I could’ve possibly imagined. I gained confidence in myself that I never thought I could have. I became strong and independent and proud of myself. I’ve gained incredible perspective about the world; how difficult it can be for so many people, and how much suffering there is in the world, but also about how much happiness exists in spite of suffering. I never knew that was possible.
I’m sure it’ll take my entire life to completely reflect on this experience. It will always be a part of me. I’ll take the mental image of my beautiful students, of my mountain top school, of the hilly paths around my village, everywhere I go. Maybe I’ll write another post in a few months when I’ve had even more time to reflect. But for now, I’ll write about my last 2 weeks in Rwanda, and my re-integration into American life.
Packing My Life Into 2 Suitcases
I’d never lived away from home before, aside from one year in a college dorm 20 minutes away from my family, which barely counts. I don’t know many people who can say their first experience living alone was in a rural village in Africa. But, here we are. I survived!
Peace corps volunteers often end up in giant houses, because there are pretty strict regulations about the location and characteristics of volunteer houses for safety reasons. I ended up in this massive 5 bedroom house with a giant living room and kitchen. It remained mostly empty throughout my 2 years living in it.
Cleaning it up was quite the ordeal. Somehow, over the course of 2 years, I acquired a lot of junk. Not nearly as much junk as I’d left behind in the States, but quite a bit. From gifts I’d bought for family, to books I finished reading months ago, to clothes I never want to see again, I had developed a literal room full of crap. And I didn’t want to leave it for the volunteer who is replacing me, so little by little, I gave most of my stuff away to some of my friends.
I managed to pack everything into two suitcases somehow. It was pretty miraculous! Want to know what was even more miraculous? My motorcycle taxi ride which included strapping both of the suitcases onto a motorcycle and somehow making it through the thirty minute uphill drive to the bus station without breaking or ripping the bags.
My last full day in my village also happened to be my school’s graduation ceremony for S3, the highest grade level my school offered. It was a pretty cool day. A neighboring school came by and all the students of both schools sang a lot of songs and did a lot of traditional dances. I got to see all my students graduate. These are the students I taught every day for 2 years, so it was pretty special to see. They all looked so grown up! One thing I’ve found that I like about being a teacher is watching my students grow, both intellectually and physically. It’s amazing how much people can change in just two years.
The Last Morning
I was expecting a very quiet morning on the day I left. I had my motorcycle taxis scheduled to come at 12, so I woke up at early to do some last minute cleaning and packing. My neighbors came by to help me clean, which was incredibly kind of them. By 11am, to my surprise, pretty much everyone who lives in my village, plus a bunch of my students and co teachers, came by to say goodbye. About 30 of my students and I ended up watching Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2, their favorite American movies. I received lots of hugs, letters, and drawings. My heart was so full!
Here are pictures from some of my hardest goodbyes:
The staff of my health post
My neighbor Bonzu, one of my best little friends
My next door neighbors Brian, Karine, Todori, Ishimwe, and Sandrine, who drew me some beautiful pictures the day I left
Angelique, one of my super star students
My fruit seller at the market, Pacifique
My best friend Rosine
Of course there were many more that I didn’t get pictures with. Goodbyes are hard, and some of these were made all the more difficult by the fact that communicating internationally can be impossible. But I appreciated every moment I had before I left.
The days leading up to the COS (close-of-service) ceremony, volunteers go to the capital city and have a bunch of medical appointments and meetings to tie up loose ends before becoming a returned Peace Corps volunteer. Other than some difficult goodbyes to friends I won’t see for a long time, the week was enjoyable. It flew by- before I knew it, I was on my plane heading home.
The Trip Home
If you followed my journey from the very beginning, you know I had an interesting beginning to Peace Corps experience. My flight from NH to Philadelphia for our Peace Corps orientation was canceled. Then, I was rescheduled on a flight from Boston to Philadelphia, which got delayed. I showed up at the very end of the orientation, feeling like this travel disaster was some great sign that I should go home. I overlooked that feeling, obviously, and made it to Rwanda.
A few days before leaving Rwanda, I joked that my Peace Corps service would really come full circle if my flight home was canceled too. I was joking, of course.
As life would have it, that’s exactly what happened. My flight from Brussels to Newark was canceled after being delayed for 12 hours due to a snow storm in the northeast. Typical.
On the bright side, the airline put us up in a swanky hotel in Brussels and I got to eat at a delicious dinner buffet. The hotel room had a shower and a bath tub, complimentary chocolate, and the comfiest beds ever. It was honestly a pretty sweet deal, and I was happy I got to go home cleaner than when I left Rwanda!
Once I got to Newark, the rest of my trip was smooth. My grandma, mom, and sister met me at the airport and gave me a nice welcome home.
Former volunteers had warned me that reintegration is difficult. When I went home for a week last summer, I didn’t find that to be true. And honestly, I haven’t found it to be true this time around either. Maybe some big mental breakdown is coming. But truthfully, the past two weeks have been mostly filled with hellos and hugs and gifts and delicious food and dog cuddles and I couldn’t be happier. Two of my sisters are taller than me and my youngest sister has mastered the duck face during my absence.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be moving to South Carolina to start my MPH! I’ve got some medical issues I’m sorting out (having tests for Celiac disease and IBD- hopefully I’ll get my digestive system under control soon!!) and I’ve got to get some logistical things straightened out (student loans and insurance and banks and cars are so much work, I took my freedom in Rwanda for granted).
In the long term, I want to keep learning more about public health, building on the foundation of knowledge I developed in Rwanda. I’m not sure if I’ll continue working with malaria or HIV/AIDS prevention in the future. I’m open to learning about anything and everything I can! I’m not opposed to going back to Africa in the future for research. Who knows where I’ll be 5 years from now?
Lastly, I want to thank you for reading my blog. Whether this is the first post you’ve read, or you’ve read every silly word I’ve written for over 2 years, I am so grateful for your support. Just knowing that I was able to share this journey with other people means so much to me. Joining the Peace Corps is something I’d wanted to do since I was in middle school, and I am incredibly appreciative of everyone who has supported me.
If you are interested in joining the Peace Corps, or know anyone who is, please send me a message! I am so happy to give advice or share anything about my Peace Corps experience with anyone who is interested.
Thanks again for reading! Enjoy these pictures of my trip to Akagera Park.