Genevieve and I woke up early and headed down the mountain towards the bus station at Kidaho, where we met up with the volunteer from Butete and rode to Musanze. It was Genevieve’s intention to visit with a friend in Musanze before leaving, so we ended up parting here, and I accompanied the volunteer from Butete to Kigali. We grabbed breakfast at a restaurant/coffee shop in the shopping center at the heart of Kigali, and then secured tickets and grabbed a seat on another bus.
The trip to IST was exceptionally long (I had not yet visited Kibuye, and therefore had not been fully prepared), but we eventually arrived in a cluster of ten volunteers. Once we were standing outside the bus station, though, none of us knew where to proceed. Someone called one of our program managers and got vague directions, and after a hanf-hour walk (first on a road at the base of a mountain, later a curving mountain pass), we arrived at the Centre Bethany Hotel and Conference Center, which was extremely posh by Rwandan standards. Most of the PCVs in my group were still on their way, so the group I had arrived with went to the reception desk to be assigned rooms.
When I reached my room, I found the door open, and a blonde PCV with glasses greeted me. I didn’t recognize them, and suddenly I wondered if I was invading a tourist’s hotelroom- had the front desk given me the wrong room number? Just as I was about to offer a lame apology about forgetting a lot of the people from training, he resolved my confusion by introducing himself- Mark, from Niger. We had all heard that a couple of the PCVs who had been serving in Niger had been consolidated into our program, but they had not mentioned that we would have the good fortune of sharing IST with some of them. I introduced myself to Mark, and then learned that our other room mate was Tyler, who had roomed with me in Philly. Since nothing was on the agenda until morning, we decided to go grab a late lunch (or early dinner?) down at the hotel’s lake-view restaurant.
There was the ubiquitous excitement and perceived camaraderie expectant at a reunion of such proportions. Most of us had not seen each other for months, and as each wave of volunteers arrived at the hotel; as each PCV dropped off their bags in their rooms and came out to join the swelling horde, there would be excited screams, showy hugs, and the vapid chit-chat one reserves for people they have not seen nor heard from in months. It was a time for reconnection. Dinnertime arrived at long last and everyone grabbed food from the nice buffet and sat eating. Mark and Tyler and I were joined by Mackenzie, who was another of the Niger transfers. Tyler and I explained our group’s fascination with Niger to them and they did their best to give us the insider perspective.
As it happened, Mark and Mackenzie were extremely positive about their time in Niger, and that was somewhat surprising as one of the PCVs in their group had died very unexpectedly while they were in the country (Mark had actually been her site-neighbor). I appreciated their stories, recollections, and openness, and their authoritative attempt at dispelling the myths that clung to Niger’s name. Tyler and I each shared a story of perceived hardship in Rwanda- mine was about my bush kitty’s untimely death- but nothing is going to compare with the loss of a friend. I think that having heard this story helped us to fully appreciate how good we had it here. The four of us continued to get acquainted late into the night.
The next morning we got dressed in our business casual required outfits and headed down to a breakfast buffet before IST kicked off. One of my old housemates from Izuba House in Nyanza had seen the picture of my bush kitty and offered a guess as to what it might have been, but the picture we pulled up on the internet did not look quite right. I would continue trying to identify my late pet for much of IST.
The training began with going around the room and having each of us say one challenge and one triumph we had encountered during our first term. I found it to be somewhat interesting, since I had not heard much about the experiences of many in my group, but many people felt that this was essentially what people had done on their own the night previous, and that this was therefore a colossal waste of time. The initial checking in with everyone ended at lunchtime and we broke for the provided buffet.
Once everyone had finished their meal and returned to the conference room, there were some announcements, a role-play concerning some safety and security related issues we may have encountered while at site, and a couple of question and answer panels. The first day, once wrapped up, felt a little unnecessary to a lot of the PCVs, but it was a nice, low-key introduction to the training, and I felt had been doing an effective job of easing us back into the larger group dynamic. The schedule for the following day seemed more substantial, but for now we had the evening free.
Mark and I decided to head into town for dinner, following an unwieldy group of PCVs through the forming darkness. We ended up at a cute little dive bar and everyone got a drink, but the establishment was unable to make me chips- what self-respecting Rwandan bar doesn’t have potatoes?! Finally, they agreed to fry a banana for me. It was so delicious, and cost about five cents, American, so after I had eaten I kind of wished I had ordered ten! After we had all eaten, a lot of the PCVs decided they wanted to go to another bar, but I had never understood the practice of bar-hopping, so I decided to return to the hotel. My room mates went with me.
On the way back, the three of us discussed writing, and it turned out that each of us had experience in this field. Mark had actually received an English degree, however, and it seemed from our discussion that his portfolio of written work was also the most expansive. We all made proclamations about wanting to read each other’s poems and stories at some point while we were all in Rwanda.
The next morning, we ate breakfast, had a brief session of announcements, and then it was time for my presentation. One of my program managers had asked me two weeks ago whether I’d be willing to give a talk at IST on teaching the Communication Skills course. I had simply assumed (since he was asking) that everyone would be presenting something- by the time I learned that this was not the case, I did my best to keep it a secret from the PCVs, and people were very surprised. I tried my hardest to make my talk be interesting and informative, but as I was the only PCV teaching Communication Skills, few of my peers seemed to consider my information useful.
Following lunch, we had a handful of staff presentations, including a medical question and answer session that ended up being dominated by a discussion of schistosomiasis, which was a parasite that had caused the Peace Corps to forbid our swimming here in Rwanda. We were told that the risk of us getting sick was significant, and while we would get tested prior to returning to America, Peace Corps understandably did not wish to contend with sixty cases simply because everyone wanted to swim at IST. Some of the PCVs were swimmers back in the states, and as we were released to dinner, there was a fair amount of grumbling over this rule.
The lake looked so beautiful that night that one could hardly blame them. There was a gorgeous orange-pink sunset reflected on the water, a light sprinkling of golden stars, and as the sunset gave way to midnight blue dusk, one could easily see the DRC’s Nyiragongo volcano in the distance, and the blazing red glow peeping and flickering up from its gaping maw. I had never seen the radiance of lava before, and it was incredible!
My room mates and I sat in a gazebo and enjoyed a beer while admiring the scenery. Eventually they went to order dinners, and left to my own devices, I used the conference center’s internet access to finally conclusively identify my pet: it was a genet. After hours of searching, I had learned its identity from a google search for “African fox-leopard.” Surprisingly, another PCV in a different African country had seen one and described it in her blog the same way. I now knew what I had lost.
Another exciting development of the evening was that we were joined by the Fulbrights! People had told them where to come and they were going to crash with us for the remaining two days of the conference- what fun! It was nice to see them again. Most everyone decided to celebrate for the next many, many hours, but I went to bed at ten.
The next day, I was pleased to find that no one was perceptibly suffering from hangovers (though admittedly I am not an expert). Following breakfast, the PCVs of each region had an opportunity to sit down with representatives from the Ministry of Education, and ask them questions. My group focused on the issue of teaching computer science to classes of fifty students, with two or three computers to be shared between them- was this a practical way in which to teach these skills to students? Did it make sense to teach computer science to students who lived in areas without electricity and were unable to practice on computers? The ministry was resolute in its belief that in order for Rwanda to continue its development, its students- and future professionals- needed to be able to communicate and participate in the digital world. I can understand their argument, and assuredly computer skills would be useful for students to have- I’m just not sure that its priority should supersede access to electricity and running water. Might the one-hundred minutes per week that students might get of computer class, spent with twenty-five students huddled around each of the two screens, (or worse- in a classroom only hearing about these machines, if their school does not have computers, or lacks the electricity to run them) not be better used by teaching something that will have a better chance at being comprehended? It’s certainly a difficult question to answer. I defer to the ministry’s instructions.
After lunch we reconvened as one group in the main conference room, and several- I used to call them “established PCVs” but now we all were- gave us a presentation about an extremely exciting opportunity they were inviting us to participate in: teaching English to Rwandan judges. A clip board and sign-up sheet were passed around during their explanation, and just about everyone in my group signed up to get involved. Teaching English to judges sounded like a very impactful secondary project.
Next, we had a presentation from another more-experienced PCV, showing us some interesting ideas for teaching creative performance, which is an artsy class students take here. Only one or two of the PCVs in my group actually taught this course, but it was an extremely interesting lecture none the less- it was neat to hear about the variety of activities this volunteer had been doing with their students.
That night I played cards with a couple of volunteers and then headed back to the room, intending to go to sleep early. Instead, I found that Mark and Tyler had beaten me there, and we hung out a bit before going to bed.
We had breakfast in the morning, followed by a presentation on requesting grants with which to fund secondary projects (from Gordie), a talk on the peer-support network, preliminary information about running camps after the school year ends, and some Peace Corps FAQs. Most useful for me was the announcement concerning the camps. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and BE (Boys Excelling- you know why it’s not Boys Leading Our World) are two leadership camps that Peace Corps Volunteers run for kids in their country of service. Generally each region plans their own camp, and so while the purpose of each camp remains the same, they can all have their own activities and personality. I had read a lot about GLOW Camps on peacecorpsjournals.com and knew that I would definitely want to be involved. More information would be emailed to us, so I would know more soon.
That night I hung out with Mackenzie and Mark as they smoked sheesha from a hookah that Mackenzie had brought from Morocco, where the Niger evacuees had spent some time while Peace Corps found them placements. They seemed to have had a lot of really neat experiences during that time, and it was nice hearing about them. Before I left for staging, my Uncle Chad got me in touch with a PCV currently serving in Morocco, but while I would be perhaps interested in visiting her, I had not been able to communicate with her since coming to Rwanda, and for all I knew she could have closed her service and gone home by now.
The next morning we had breakfast, endured an extremely quick wrap-up for the training conference, and then got ready for Peace Corps’ treat to us: an afternoon on an island in the lake! We were taken on a scenic motorboat ride to the island, enjoyed Fantas and vegetarian sambusas, and were then allowed to spend several hours hiking the ten minute loop around the island, relaxing in hammocks, sunning ourselves on the beach, and generally hanging out. There was even an “awards ceremony” as we learned the results of a survey pretty similar to what people put in High School yearbooks- I was voted “most likely to be adopted by a gorilla.” It was a really great way to conclude our time together.
People ate dinner at a variety of times as some people took naps once we came back from the island, and some people decided to pack now so that they could stay out late without having to worry about getting everything together in the morning. I got a lot of goodbyes out of the way now (who knew if things would be crazy tomorrow?), and ended up going to bed hours earlier than most people. Rising early, I got my things together and secured a seat on the bus back to Kigali. Two transfers and six hours later, I would be back in Kagogo, and the second term would be about to begin. Thanks to IST, I felt ready.