Thursday, 9 August 2012

The final post!

So now I've been back home in England for two months I think its time to muster up the courage to write the final post as Camilla is no longer in Rwanda. I will miss writing this blog as it has been my constant companion since I was recruited to do VSO right through to now as a returned volunteer. It has helped me to focus my attention on all of the positive, memorable, funny, strange and wonderful moments doing VSO. Of course there have also been difficult times, times when I just wanted to go home, times when I missed my family and friends and times when I just felt totally frustrated by a culture that was so different from my own. And looking back on my blog I can see from my posts exactly when those moments occurred!

It has been a learning process to try to capture and communicate some of my experiences. It is by no means a complete account of all I have done and experienced and you always have to remember that an internet blog is a very public forum and that is a difficult aspect of using one to write about personal experience. So I am going to finish by thinking about three big questions....

Would I volunteer again?
Yes definitely but not right now. I would love to do it again when I retire as its such an amazing way of sharing your life experience with others while also creating a whole load more life experiences at a time when others are sat at home. I think having lots of life experience is a huge benefit when doing VSO, both for yourself in terms of riding out the tough times and also for others whom you meet in that you have lived such an interesting life and developed so many skills to share. I met a volunteer in Rwanda who had volunteered for the first time when he was about my age and then again when he retired and I think it gives you a really interesting perspective on doing VSO.
Timing is such an important thing when doing VSO. You have got to be at a point in your life when there is no one depending on you back home and when you have the freedom to enjoy the experience without any guilt about leaving for 1-2 years. You have also got to be a point where financially you can cope with it. Although you don't need stacks of money to do VSO, your volunteer allowance certainly doesn't cover mortgage payments on a house, help you save towards a pension or property or pay for you to have any holidays so financially you do still take a hit.

Is volunteering effective?
Certainly it can be on an individual level with some people you work with directly. Also I think that you can have a very small impact on a process of change within a country, for example in my role with changing the curricula for TTCs. While the curricula may well change again or progress might not be sustained, it is a change in thinking that is really important. I certainly think that sending volunteers is more effective than just sending stuff that people don't know what to do with eg. huge inkjet printers, like some of the big NGOs and organisations do.
However I sometimes wonder about the effectiveness of sending a European like myself to work in Rwanda. It is difficult because I am well trained and experienced in all of the child friendly teaching methods etc that they want to introduce in Rwanda and sure, I can adapt them for a different context. However I still think that it is much more powerful to be trained by an African who has been very successful in an African context with limited resources etc than a European person who grew up and worked in Europe, however well they have adapted to the African context. Africans training other Africans is definitely the way forward and at least VSO is trying to achieve that through national volunteering and diaspora programmes.

Has doing VSO changed you and if so, how?
This has been a question that I've wondered about since coming back. It certainly changed me while I was in Rwanda as I had to adapt to a very different way of life, and when I returned there were definitely some things such as shops, public transport etc that took a while to re-adapt to in the UK. As time has gone on I realise it has changed me in many subtle, small ways. For example I am much more interested in what happens in Africa and I seek out the news there, particularly the area around and including Rwanda. I still love listening to East African music back in the UK. I have eaten a brochette recently! In the sale of a clothes shop I bought a top because I loved the colours and african style print. But the most important lesson it has taught me was about having a balance in my life. Having recently worked crazy hours for a few weeks back here it makes me realise I don't want to return to work burnout, no matter what I get paid. It simply isn't worth it. It is important to have time for yourself, your family and friends.
I will always be linked to Rwanda and I have no doubt at all in my mind that I will go back there for a visit in a while.

So thanks for reading my blog, I hope you enjoyed it. I will definitley be writing another blog soon with a different theme so perhaps you haven't heard the last of me yet...

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Culture and the classroom

For the last three weeks I have been doing some work teaching English at a summer school for 9-14 year olds held at a very prestigious boarding school. It has been a bit of a culture shock to say the least. To have students who spend £60 on a school trip on chocolate alone and who drop £50 notes on the floor like they are trash has been a challenge for me after my time in Rwanda where the students had so little that they would take my paperclips! But as the time went on I was reminded again that kids are kids anywhere and of whatever wealth. Most of them are good young people who are just trying to learn how to survive in whatever world they come from be it rich or poor. And in fact some of those children came from homes where the whole world of expectation was on their shoulders and that not easy to live with either. It was great to teach students from so many different countries and to learn a little about all of their cultures.

So life goes on. I have been back for 7 weeks now and although I still miss Rwanda I know I couldn't be a volunteer forever. It was one of the best experiences of my whole life and I'd love to do it again some day, but for now I have to look to the future and think about what it holds. In about a week's time I'm going to do the CELTA course so I'm qualified to teach adults English. I'm starting to look for jobs and to figure things out. I have made a lovely photo book about my time in Rwanda which is nice to look at now and then and which provides a convenient way of trying to show my life in Rwanda at a glimpse to family and friends, although it is hard to capture a year and a half of experiences in just 48 pages....but I have tried!

From teaching here....

To teaching here....

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The transition curve

According to vso, when volunteers return home they experience excitement, followed by anxiety and pining, apathy and depression, followed by gradual acceptance and then finally, moving forward. For me this seems to be true at the moment. I’ve gone past the initial excitement stage when turning on a tap and seeing hot water come out made me feel insanely gleeful. It’s been lovely to catch up with old friends, but when I’ve caught up I find myself missing my old friends in Rwanda, in particular Lindsey, Kathy, Mary, Tricia, Jen, Rachel and Mark and Tammy. I miss my friendly work colleagues and the lovely young people I worked with. I miss drinking big bottles of Primus in the lovely Rwandan sunshine. I miss riding motorbikes down bumpy dirt tracks with the wind in my hair. I miss the beautiful green hills. It’s amazing how quickly you see everything through rose tinted spectacles, you remember only the good things and forget all of the little things that drove you crazy. 

So that’s the pining. But I’m also experiencing lots of anxiety about the future. I have a few things planned for the summer. I’m shortly about to spend three weeks teaching English at a residential summer school so that will keep me busy. Then I’m doing a four week intensive course on teaching English language skills to adults. But after that...who knows? Life feels like a bit of an open book at the moment which is both exciting and scary and a bit destabilising. But as in Rwanda when things got difficult, these feelings will eventually come to pass and be replaced with new ones. Doing vso itself felt like a rollercoaster and it seems that the process of coming home is just another part of the ride. 

I’ve made a photo book of all of my memories of Rwanda so I can bore my family and friends to death with my tales of Rwanda. It’s given me something positive to do over the past few days and it’s been interesting reminding myself of the whole journey I’ve been on. Tonight I’m going to the Bristol vso supporter’s group to hear my friend do a talk about her experiences volunteering in Guyana and it’s nice to spend some time with returned volunteers who ‘get it’ and are further on into the transitional process than I am.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Home through a new lens

So I have been back in Somerset, England for a few days now. It is the summer but it still feels cold. The days seem very long after the regular 6 o'clock darkness in Rwanda. But we have had a few sunny days, and today as I walked through my home village of Brent Knoll I found myself noticing things in a way I never did previously. I noticed the beauty of the houses in the village, some of which have been standing for more than 100 years. I noticed the greeness of the landscape and the variety of colour in the sky. In Rwanda I learned to appreciate all the little things I saw around me that gave me joy, and I don't want to lose that perspective I have gained.

So with my new touch screen phone I took some photos of a few things that caught my eye in the village. I photographed a 'beware of wandering' sign that just made me laugh for some reason. I feel thats all I've done with my life for the past year and a half. Wander. And perhaps it should come with a health warning. You never know where your wandering might take you! People who know me well outside of this blog know that my wandering in Rwanda is likely to lead to me wandering around other countries. So beware. Wandering can't always be cured.

I also took some photos of the new swan family in the water ditch near my parent's house. There are loads of fluffy grey ducklings and they really are very cute. However, they seem to be very agressively guarded by both swan parents. When I walked past the parents had them herded into a fluffy grey heap of beaks and feathers. I couldn't count how many there were or distinguish one grey swan duckling from another. But seeing them certainly did brighten up my day.

So I'm enjoying being back but it does still feel like a holiday. So far my time in Rwanda feels like a year and a half long dream. So far I haven't been able to reconcile my life there with my life here. Rwanda feels very far away. I know I have definitely changed as a person, but I'm still struggling to identify how. I know I have learned some lessons but I'm not sure if I'm ready to live by the lessons I've learned. But then I think it all takes time. Eventually I'll find my way again, but for the meantime I just need to remember 'the beauty is in the journey.'

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again....

So I know this is the exact same title of a post that I wrote 17 months ago on my last night in the UK before I embarked on this whole Rwandan adventure. So on my last day in Rwanda before my flight this evening I thought it was time to reflect again. I feel sad to be leaving a place that has been my home for nearly one and a half years. Rwanda has so much going for it. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful country I have ever, ever been to (and I am lucky enough to have been to many). It has the most amazing wildlife and the most stunning scenery. It is clean and well organised. The people here are incredibly strong when you think about the horrors of 1994 and the huge progress that has been made up to this day. They carry on with their lives and they continue to have hopes and dreams for the future. People care for their families and friends and look after one another. I think I was lucky to have been placed here and very few volunteers have a bad experience volunteering in Rwanda.

However the challenges faced by this small nation are far from solved. 90% of people are subsistence farmers and as far as I can see this percentage is not really changing much. The population is going up and up and soon there will not be enough land to support this large number of people who need to live off of it. Education is still a huge challenge. Most children have access to an education, but from what I have seen many children do not learn anything in the classroom, so they still do not get an education. The house pride and extreme diligence with which Rwandans look after their property (the compounds of even the most basic mud houses are immaculately kept) masks the reality that many people live on less that 300rwf (30p) a day and that is well below the poverty line. The conflict in neighbouring DRC is escalating and huge UN trucks of refugees are streaming across the border and refugee camps are springing up in many places.

I get the feeling that while things are relatively good in Rwanda at the moment, especially compared to the past, the situation is extremely fragile. If I come back to Rwanda in 10 years time I don’t know if I’ll find one of the most prosperous countries in Africa or a place dogged by sporadic conflict, instability and a shortage of resources like neighbouring DRC and Burundi. And I think many who live here also feel this anxiety about the future of Rwanda, which results in a very tense society and an ongoing lack of trust and confidence.
If I ask myself if I have made a difference to the people of this wonderful little country I would have to say ‘I don’t know’. I would love to think that my resource centre will still be at the TTC in 5 years time, but pressure to put more and more people through teacher training and secondary school means it will probably be used as a classroom eventually. But actually, that doesn’t matter so much. The resource centre is only things. I hope that some of the teaching skills I tried to pass on to my trainee teachers will stick and be used in the classrooms of Rwanda. The reality is that I will never know if this will happen. I need a crystal ball to look into the future, and that is one of the hard things about doing vso. You will never know about the influence you might have had. I remember one returned volunteer saying ‘Doing vso is like preparing a garden. You will prepare the soil and plant the seeds, but the flowers will bloom long after you have gone.’

And this is just a note to say that this will not be quite the end of the blog. I will continue to post for a little while when I return, because there is also a transition period as you adjust to being back home. I think it is important to cover this aspect of my volunteer experience, in just the same way that I started to post before I left. I feel that this part of the journey can be neglected a bit, and it is interesting for other future volunteers to know what happens after you return.

Scenes from Butare

My penultimate night in Rwanda was spent back in Butare, my base for the last month or so of traveling around. I’ve always struggled to get good scenes of Rwandan life. I get quite self conscious about taking photos because everyone stares and looks at you, so the photos can be quite unnatural anyway, or you get asked for money or something. So I was delighted when I went on a walk to Butare market with Kathy and discovered that it was in a multistory building. It gave me the perfect opportunity to take some photos with my camera of unsuspecting people down below.

Also, I had to take some photos of a very unusual street in Butare. We call it ‘deserted street’. All the shops have been closed down and the whole road has a gently decaying feel. The old colonial buildings have peeling facades and there is a general air of emptiness which is quite unusual in heavily populated Rwanda. It is a strangely eerie place and I wish I knew why they are plans to pull everything down. So I thought I should get some photos of it before they do.

Deserted street...
 Another scene from deserted street
 Downtown Butare

Butare market

A trip to the lake on the vomit comet

My last Rwandan adventure had to be to the lovely lake Kivu. So after the High Commissioner’s party I braved a ride on the vomit comet, the name that volunteers have given the bus that heads out to the town on Kibuye on the lake. This name is certainly accurate unfortunately. The bus journey from Kigali to Kibuye takes in endless hairpin bends amongst some very steep valleys. Also, there is a myth circulating amongst Rwandan people that you should drink lots of milk and eat lots of yoghurt to ‘settle the stomach’ before a long bus journey...needless to say it results in vomit. Vomit splattering the windows and vomit running down the aisles. Man I’m glad my bus journey out to Nzige in the East was flat and relatively straight, I don’t think I could have coped with a year and a half of that.

So when I arrived in Rubengera, the town where my friend Mary lives which is near to the lake, I was shown around the sights and we ate in a bar charmingly titled ‘Le shit’. Le shit was actually quite a nice bar and it is a mystery how it ended up with such a name. We could watch people walking around the hairpin bend on the road carrying all manner of things from our vantage point at Le shit. The rest of the weekend was spent in Kibuye by the lake, relaxing and watching the world go by. Kibuye has to be the most relaxing place I know in Rwanda. Unlike the other lakeside town of Gisenyi, Kibuye is much smaller and quieter and you can genuinely find some peace and relaxation there. Also down by the lake are some lovely bits of tropical forest which we walked around quite a lot in search of a short cut to very nice lodge where we spent the afternoon eating really good food and lounging by the lake.

But it wasn’t all about sunning ourselves by the lake. I had actually gone to do some work with Mary at her TTC as well. So on Sunday afternoon and all of Monday I helped her to make resources and organise her resource room for an exhibition that was happening later in the week. I made a shop, some rice sack tabards and various other little things. It was nice to be back in a resource centre for one last time before going off home. It made me feel all nostalgic for snowman marker pens, rice sacks and bottle tops. 

View from the window at Home St John, Kibuye

Me and Mary in the forest by the lake

Relaxing by the lake

Spraying bottle tops to make coins in Mary's TRC