Peace Corps has a very extensive application process. In my case, although I applied soon after the position was advertised at the end of 2016, it took me three months to get pre-medical approval, during which I had to provide all sorts of documentation of things such as I won’t die without allergy shots, I get physical therapy as a general health maintenance, not because I have an injury that will put me at risk for being a volunteer, I can carry 50 pounds for short distance, etc. etc. I think I had someone new because she asked for information that , as a primary care physician, I knew wasn’t really important, and then didn’t ask for information that I thought was pertinent. So, of course, when my data made it to the next level, that person came back and asked for everything the first person hadn’t that I thought she should have! And right in the middle of all this, Peace Corps shut down all electronic activity for their annual overhaul, which lasted over a week, another delay which, it turns out, I could ill afford.
It is only after pre-medical, that you become somewhat “official”, at which time you begin the final medical clearance process (which was easy, although it did include more immunizations than I could imagine, despite the fact I was exempt from some due to my age and previous) as well as a mysterious legal clearance process that no one knows much about but, until you get it, you cannot go anywhere. And if you don’t get clearance by your projected departure date, you don’t get to go at all!!! In this case, you must start all over and apply for another position. In the end, the length of my pre-medical clearance process delayed the start of my legal clearance to the degree that my entire assignment was in jeopardy. I was so panicked by July, that I actually interviewed for something else that was to start at the end of September, instead of the beginning of August.
Two days before I was to leave, I finally received legal clearance, and had to activate all the various systems I had set up for things to proceed in my absence: moving my cats to their new home during my absence, clearing the house for closing, and storing things that I was using during my last weeks in Vermont. I heaved a sigh of relief, and set out for Rwanda fully confident that I had a job and a place to live waiting for me.
As it turns out, the delay with pre-medical clearance that led to a delay with legal clearance resulted in a delay in the house-hunting process here in Rwanda, which does not really begin until a volunteer’s actual arrival is confirmed. At this point, although I am scheduled to be installed in my site on the day after tomorrow, I may not be able to go due to a lack of appropriate housing and, if the problem isn’t resolved by my employer, who is responsible for finding housing that meets Peace Corps standards, I may not be able to go to the site at all! Since I am in-country, I will not be sent home, but a new search will have to begin to find me another site with appropriate housing where I can contribute my skills. The good news is that there were seven other requests for someone with my skills, so there are other options, but housing would still need to be found before I could be installed. So, once again, with two days to go, I am sitting here wondering whether I will be able to serve at all and, if so, where.
The irony of being homeless in Rwanda has not escaped me. For the last three years, I have had to take care of two houses in the U.S., one of which was really two houses connected together, and now, here, I have none. From three homes to none, in the blink of an eye. It does remind me of my days in Mombasa forty years ago where I had a suitcase and a mat on the floor in a room with three other people. Now I have an upper bunk bed in the Peace Corps transit house with different roommates passing through each day. Sometimes I am all alone, sometimes there is someone else. All I can do is be open to what is, and wait to see what each new day will bring. If I am left in Kigali for awhile, I shall try to use the time to work on my Kinyarwanda. An ongoing opportunity to live in ambiguity and trust, trust that I am here for a purpose and trust that we will eventually figure out what that purpose is.
In reality, I don’t actually know whether the problem with housing is a good or bad thing. I wouldn’t want to go somewhere where the housing was unacceptable, and apparently Peace Corps rejected one house that was offered. It feels good to know that someone is putting my well-being first. And housing is a challenge everywhere in this small country. I don’t even have an opinion about the possibility of having to go to another site, despite the fact that I have already met my counterpart at the one where I was originally assigned. I don’t have any way of knowing where I should be, or not: I don’t know the country, or what institutions are out there, I have nothing upon which I could base an opinion. I am just feeling sad for my counterpart who was so happy to meet another “enthusiast”. He will be disappointed if I cannot go to his college to work with him, and I will be sorry not to have the opportunity to get to know him better. But is this, in the long run, a good thing, or a bad thing? I don’t know. I suspect that it is neither. It is just part of the reality of living in a country where there is a housing shortage. Relative to the rest of the population, in fact much of the world, I am lucky, living in a compound protected by the U.S. government, in relative luxury, with running water and electricity.
I am reminded of one of my favorite parables from the east: A man has a white stallion. Everyone in the village said “Oh, you are so lucky!” To which he replied “Maybe, maybe not.” Then the stallion ran away. And everyone said “Oh, what bad luck.” To which he replied, “Maybe, maybe not.” Then the stallion came back with a heard of mares. “Oh you are so lucky.”….. “Maybe, maybe not.” Then his son was injured while training the mares; both legs were broken. “Oh, what bad luck.” ….. “Maybe, maybe not.” Then a war came and all the men in the village had to leave to fight, except the man’s son could not go due to his injuries. “Oh, what good luck!” …. “Maybe, maybe not.” So is being stranded in Kigali Rwanda without a home or a job a bad thing? Or a good thing? Who knows?
What I do know is that I love being back in east Africa. I love the feeling of the air around me, the warmth of the sun, the way people’s eyes light up when you greet them in Kinyarwanda and I absolutely adore the opportunity to learn another Bantu language, one that is a bit more difficult grammatically, and a bit more challenging in terms of pronunciation, I love the feeling when I greet someone and they answer back and I know what they are saying. It is as if a whole new world unfolds before me each time I have a little more access to the meaning that is being conveyed to me by words that were previously unknown and are still unfamiliar to me. What I can’t explain, and probably never will know, is why Bantu languages bring such joy to my heart. A friend said perhaps I was a Bantu language speaker in a past life. I don’t know. All I know is that I feel at home here, even without a home!
This feeling of being at home without a home is due not only because of the Rwandan people and their language, but also because of the Peace Corps staff here in Rwanda. They are amazing, the training, albeit brief for my program as a PC Reponse volunteer as opposed to a 2 year volunteer, has been fabulous, very professional with skilled facilitators using well-designed curricula from Washington. And my program manager, bless his heart, is working diligently to figure out how to place me somewhere else if his first choice for my site is unable to find housing. I couldn’t ask for more except perhaps…… a single room at the PC transit house here in Kigali (also alternately pronounced as chigali) !!