Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Rwanda
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service we take for granted in the United States. Mail takes a minimum of two weeks to arrive in Rwanda. Some mail may simply not arrive (fortunately, this is not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen). We do not want to sound discouraging, but when someone is thousands of miles away from families and friends, communication can become a very sensitive issue. We would prefer you be forewarned of the reality of mail service in the developing world. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to include “Airmail” and “Par Avion” on their envelopes.
The amount of time it takes for mail to reach Volunteers is as varied as their sites. Airmail from the United States to major cities in Rwanda will take about two weeks. More remote post offices receive mail less frequently, and sometimes a local courier is employed to ferry mail from isolated villages to trading centers. Although mail is sent regularly from the Peace Corps office, the timing of its receipt depends on the location of the Volunteer’s site.
We strongly encourage you to write to your family regularly (perhaps weekly or biweekly) and to number your letters. Family members will typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so please advise your parents, friends, and relatives that mail is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly.
Packages normally take about four to five months to reach Rwanda from the United States if sent via surface mail. Volunteers are requested to follow the mailing procedures described in the Peace Corps/Rwanda Volunteer Handbook. Your address during training will be:
It is your responsibility to forward the postal address at your site (once you know it) to the Peace Corps office in Kigali so mail can be routed directly to you. Remember that it is important to keep in regular contact with relatives and friends, not just for them but also for you. Write often so no one has cause to worry, which a lapse in letters for any period of time has been known to create.
Once at your site, you will receive a notification slip in your post box when you receive a package. Respond promptly; the sooner you pick up the package, the cheaper storage fees will be. Trainees and Volunteers are responsible for mailing personal letters and packages. Airmail letters and stamps are available at local post offices.
Most large cities and provincial capitals have domestic longdistance service; regional centers and some large cities also provide overseas telephone service. In some locations, the service is fast and efficient; in others, it may take several hours to get calls through.
Cellular telephones and service are available in Rwanda, especially in Kigali and larger towns. SIM cards are inexpensive and can be found in Kigali. Peace Corps does not require Volunteers to purchase a phone, but Volunteers may choose to buy a phone and service once they reach their sites and have a clear idea of the network coverage in the area.
Domestic calls: Volunteers are responsible for all toll charges on calls, but you may call the Peace Corps/Kigali office collect or reverse charges if it is an emergency. Peace Corps/Rwanda will provide a monthly telecommunications allowance to cover official and emergency phone calls.
Overseas calls: The Peace Corps occasionally authorizes a Volunteer to call home because of a family emergency. When you receive such notification from the Peace Corps, you may pay for toll charges and bring the receipt to the Peace Corps office for reimbursement. Volunteers will be responsible for personal overseas calls, which can be made from their cellphones for a higher charge per minute. Many Volunteers choose to call home and ask their families to call them back on their cellphones, as cellphones can make and receive international calls.
Computer, Internet, and Email Access
Internet access is available at post offices and cybercafés in towns and cities, but can be slow and costly. Because Internet use appears to be primarily for personal reasons, you are expected to use your living and telecommunications allowances to cover your Internet costs. Designated computers in the resource center at the PC/Kigali office do have Internet access. You are welcome to use these, though priority is given to Volunteers who are getting ready to finish their service, to assist them with graduate school and job applications. Volunteers are prohibited from using staff computers in all offices.
Housing and Site Location
As a Volunteer, you will most likely live in a small town or rural community, and not have access to indoor plumbing or electricity. Expect to use lamps and candles for lighting and to cook using a single-burner kerosene stove, wood, or charcoal.
The standards and conditions of Volunteer housing vary widely, from mud houses with thatched roofs to very modern cement houses with running water and electricity. The type of house you have will depend on your project, the area of the country to which you are posted, and the types of houses available in the community. You may also be required to share housing with other staff or to live in a room behind a shop at a market center. You can expect to have, at the very least, a room to call your own. The decision as to whether housing standards are “acceptable” lies with the Peace Corps staff. When it comes to your housing, you should not lose sight of the guiding goal of the Peace Corps. Maintain your focus on service to the people of Rwanda and not on the level of your accommodations.
Because Peace Corps Volunteers are often posted in poor rural areas to work with communities with little or no money for housing, the Peace Corps sets minimum housing standards:
- There must be at least a private, lockable room if housing is shared with other people.
- The room should have windows.
- The roof should not leak.
- There should be a cement floor and a place for a Volunteer to take a bucket bath or shower.
- There should be a latrine that is private or semiprivate (not used by all schoolchildren at a school, but perhaps shared by other staff members).
- The Volunteer will be expected to use the same water source as the community.
Your site assignment is made during pre-service training, in collaboration with the training staff. The assignment is based on their assessment and recommendation regarding community needs and your skill levels in the technical, cross-cultural, and language areas. You will be interviewed prior to an actual placement decision so additional personal preferences can be considered in making the site assignment. Site placements are made using the following criteria (in priority order):
- Medical considerations
- Government of Rwanda needs
- Site requirements (community needs) matched with demonstrated technical, cross-cultural, and language skills
- Peace Corps/Rwanda needs
- Personal preference of the trainee
The final decisions on site placement are made by the Peace Corps staff. If you choose not to go to the site assigned to you, you will be given the opportunity to terminate your service with the Peace Corps.
Living Allowance and Money Management
Each Volunteer receives a monthly allowance sufficient to cover basic costs. The allowance enables you to live adequately according to the Peace Corps’ philosophy of a modest lifestyle. It is based on the [[Media:Media:Example.ogg--~~~~Insert non-formatted text here]]local cost of living and is paid in local currency. Your living allowance is intended to cover food, housing, clothing, transportation from home to worksite, utilities, household supplies, recreation and entertainment, incidental personal expenses, communications, and reading material.
Food and Diet
In most parts of Rwanda there is a wide choice of foods, ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables (such as cabbage, avocadoes, mangoes, bananas, carrots, and passion fruit) to starches (such as potatoes, plantains, corn, rice, and cassava) to meats (primarily goat and beef, with some chicken and fish). With a little creativity, you can enjoy a varied diet. Fruits and vegetables are seasonal, which means some items may not be available at all times. Vegetarian Volunteers will have little difficulty in continuing their diets after becoming familiar with local food items and their preparation.
All Volunteers will be expected to travel in Rwanda using local transportation (i.e., foot, public buses, or vans). This includes getting from your training center to your site both during and at the end of pre-service training.
Volunteers may not own or operate motorized vehicles, but they are allowed to rent vehicles during approved vacation periods. Trainees and Volunteers are not allowed to drive any vehicle during training or at their sites.
The most common form of entertainment is socializing among friends and neighbors. Some Volunteers visit other Volunteers on weekends and holidays. The Peace Corps encourages Volunteers to remain at their sites as much as possible to develop relationships with community members, but it also recognizes that they need to make occasional trips to regional centers and to visit friends.
You will find it easy to make friends in your community and to participate in weddings, funerals, birthday celebrations, and other social events. It is impossible to overemphasize the rewards of establishing that rapport with one’s supervisors, co-workers, and other community members. A sincere effort to learn the local language will greatly facilitate these interactions.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Volunteers will find that most Rwandans are very hard working. They expect the same of all foreigners, including Volunteers, and expect them to conduct themselves in a mature and professional manner.
Present-day transformations have made managers hesitant to confront issues, provide constructive criticism or to simply say "no" when they feel it might result in conflict. Volunteers will have to find ways of creating comfortable working relationships at all levels of the organization and in the community.
The business culture in Rwanda presents a unique set of challenges. The Volunteer will need to gain a thorough understanding of the host culture and then work to adapt strategies to fit within acceptable practices. For example, the process of giving direct feedback, which in the United States is expected, may be interpreted as rudeness or disrespect by your Rwandan colleagues. Women, particularly young women, and younger Volunteers need to be aware of a very different gender and age dynamic in Rwanda. Gaining the respect of colleagues and traditional leaders may require more effort than you may expect.
It is likely that you are curious about the events of 1994, specifically the genocide, and how the people you will meet and work with survived during that extremely tragic time. Rwandans do have their personal stories about the events of 1994, but it is extremely insensitive to broach this subject or ask questions. Rwandans, although polite and friendly, can be rather reserved about sharing intimate details without first establishing a relationship based on trust. Thus, you should refrain from asking questions about the genocide, but rather allow people to tell you their stories as they feel comfortable and ready.
Rwandans are conservative in professional and casual attire. It is considered disrespectful to be dressed too casual or in an untidy manner. The settings in which Volunteers are placed make this a particularly important consideration. Men wear trousers such as chinos and button-down shirts in work settings. Jackets and ties are occasional requirements. Blue jeans, T-shirts, and very casual sandals are not considered professional attire. Shorts should only be worn when engaged in athletic activities. Women wear dresses, skirts, or trouser suits with tunic style tops in both work and leisure environments. Short, low cut garments are not appropriate for women. You must be willing to comply with acceptable Rwandan social norms of dress and grooming. This may require that you modify the manner of dress to which you are presently accustomed. Men must wear their hair neat. Dreadlocks are not appropriate. Facial piercing should be kept to a minimum, with discreet studs. Accommodating Rwandan sensitivities in dress and grooming will greatly facilitate your own professional credibility and effectiveness in your assignment.
Rewards and Frustrations
Challenges are many in this placement. If this were not the case, there would be no need for Volunteers! The Rwandan government has very high expectations for the performance and work of expatriates, even those who are Volunteers.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will be expected to act professionally and maturely at all times, as your behavior on and off the job will be noticed. Some challenges which Volunteers find most difficult to deal with are: the psychological aftermath of the genocide; the poverty of many community members; the overwhelming number of orphans and the difficulty in envisioning how to assist them; issues of death and dying; limited resources and minimal facilities and the misuse of resources which do exist; hunger among children; beliefs which limit the ability to implement “simple” solutions to enormous problems; too many demands placed by the community; the sense that there is too much to do; the need to slow down and understand; and the lack of organization and collaboration among partner agencies.
It is difficult to share these challenges in such a limited way, as each is so complex. Coping with them, as well as with the challenges that come from daily life, demands flexibility, patience, humility, and good humor. It is not possible for a Volunteer to "fix" things. Volunteers work creatively to get around the fact that there are so few resources available, or that the systems to deliver resources are in their infancy. Volunteers develop relationships with community members, build trust among the various stakeholders in the health system, and find ways to motivate the staff of health facilities and organizations about their role in contributing to the well-being of their service areas and communities. Each activity Volunteers become involved in brings its own reward, small steps forward, enjoyable moments, “Aha!” experiences, and a sense of connection. With all the "challenges," it is nonetheless universally agreed upon by Volunteers: We gain more than we could ever hope to give.
The AIDS pandemic strikes across all social strata in many Peace Corps countries. The loss of teachers has crippled education systems, while illness and disability drain family income and force governments and donors to redirect limited resources from other priorities. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will confront these issues on a very personal level. It is important to be aware of the high emotional toll that disease, death, and violence can have on Volunteers. As you strive to integrate into your community, you will develop relationships with local people who might die during your service. Some Volunteers will be meeting and working with people who are HIV positive and living with AIDS. Volunteers need to prepare themselves to embrace these relationships in a sensitive and positive manner. Likewise, malaria and malnutrition, motor vehicle accidents and other unintentional injuries, domestic violence, alcoholism, and corporal punishment are problems a Volunteer may confront. You will need to anticipate these situations and utilize supportive resources available throughout your training and service to maintain your own emotional strength, so you can continue to be of service to your community.
Although working in Rwanda can be a tremendously gratifying experience, the new life and job you are considering will be challenging. Please take some time to seriously reflect on your decision to live and work in Rwanda. Working in Rwanda requires great sensitivity and maturity related to the genocide. We encourage you to exercise caution when discussing the genocide. As you work and interact on a daily basis with the people of Rwanda, you may notice that almost everyone has a story, and the genocide (to which most Rwandans refer simply as “the war”) pervades nearly every aspect of society. Working in Rwanda will require an understanding of and respect for historical events and their aftermath. As a Volunteer you might experience the “gacaca,” a process during which suspected génocidaires are brought to justice. The death penalty is not permitted and generally the punishment is to work on a neighbor’s field, to repay the cost of stolen goods, or to perform general public works. Non-Rwandans are not permitted to attend gacaca and the Rwandan government has been very careful to ensure that this somewhat private process continues to be locally owned and driven, without outside influence. Rwanda has made great strides in its reconciliation, but its wounds have not yet fully healed. Genocide memorials, which you will be visiting as part of pre-service training (PST), are scattered across the country and are integral to understanding the extent of the trauma suffered by the Rwandan people. In an effort to unify the country and, hopefully, make the ethnic divisions a thing of the past, the post-conflict government has instituted a policy that ethnicity no longer exists and that everyone is simply Rwandan. It is illegal in Rwanda to inquire about or discuss ethnicity, as this is perceived as divisive, and one can be prosecuted for doing so.
Lastly, while Rwanda is considered to be a peaceful country, we urge you to exercise vigilance and use common sense during your service. We strongly discourage cultural or safetyrelated "adventurism" that can put you at risk.
See also: Rwanda