Rwanda trip creates lifetime memories
(Publisher's Note: Marie Fitzsimmons is a retired Watkins Glen teacher and is also a writer for the REVIEW&EXPRESS. Fitzsimmons has traveled extensively throughout the world visiting and serving communities in various capacities. In May through September of this year, Marie and her husband Kirk traveled to Rwanda, Africa and served as Peace Corps volunteers for five months.This story features some of the highlights from that trip).
SCHUYLER COUNTY--Marie Fitzsimmons and Kirk Peters have returned from Rwanda where they served as United States Peace Corps Volunteers for five months at a vocational secondary school. The rural mountain boarding school offered veterinary, agriculture and food processing programs. Marie and Kirk were assigned to teach English to all the students and facilitated language workshops for the teaching staff. The school is a working farm with acres of crops and a plethora of animals. In addition to language instruction, Kirk assisted in the veterinary program while Marie taught stove top baking to food processing students.
Rwanda is located south of the equator in central east Africa. It is a small landlocked country bordered by Burundi, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. It has a population of 12 million. Marie said, "The land is lush and green and every hill is terraced with sorghum, coffee, tea, banana, avocado, beans, potatoes, papaya and such. Almost everyone is a farmer. Their lives depend on the land."
Marie and Kirk are not new to international travel and service. The couple first served with the Peace Corps by traveling to Lesotho back in 1981. They spent their first two years of marriage in a dung hut without water or electricity. The two lived in the Maluti Mountains with an elevation of 10,000 feet. Marie rode her horse to schools within a three hour radius to assist intern teachers while Kirk taught science, math and English at a secondary school. In 2014, they volunteered at a university in northern China and in 2015, they were invited to serve at a secondary school in rural Namibia. They never imagined they would have the opportunity to serve in Rwanda, a country recovering from a time of horrific genocide.
Marie and Kirk were a part of what is called Peace Corps Response, a program designed to maximize the skills and experience of former volunteers in assignments around the globe for a period of three months to a year. The training for first time volunteers who serve for two years is usually 10 weeks, but for Peace Corps Response, it is 10 days. Marie said, "With 10 other response volunteers, we got a quick introduction to Kinyarwanda [Rwanda's official language], learned about the education system, cultural norms, security and safety, and of course, lessons on the genocide that devastated the country and claimed the lives of one million people."
Marie added, "The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is the resting place for 250,000 of those victims and while the daily work of a volunteer is enveloped in the vibrancy of community, no volunteer ever forgets their journey to the Memorial Centre. It is seared in their hearts and sets a determination to be their very best and to do right by a country that has suffered the unspeakable."
Marie recalls the day she and her husband experienced a four-hour drive with a four-wheel drive vehicle to their rugged Peace Corps site. Their sport-utility vehicle was loaded with their fat-tired mountain bikes, mattresses, a propane tank, two burner camp stoves, water filters, pots and pans, boxes of food and their suitcases from America. Marie said, "The roads soon turned to dirt and thick dust rose thickly as the vehicle doggedly climbed the mountains through the country." Marie added, "We peered out at cement shacks, mud huts, bicycles loaded with hundreds of bananas, women walking with babies on their backs and baskets on their heads. The native goats and sheep claimed their passage on the mountains' unguarded edge with more ease than most of the vehicles navigating the terrain.
"We wondered how we would ever get back down the mountains when it was time to go."
Living at a boarding school with 350 students and the staff in a tiny village was quite an experience for Marie and Kirk. The Peace Corps expects a volunteer to be on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For Marie and Kirk, most days began with a local person clanging a stick against a tire iron at five a.m. daily. Some days, the Muslim call to prayer would first echo through the valley followed later by a the church bell ringing.
Students followed morning prayer by cooking breakfast in large kettles, setting up the dining hall, sweeping the campus, washing clothes by hand and then laying them out for the rising sun to dry. Outhouses and cold showers, bunk beds crammed tightly, morning study at seven, classes and practicums throughout the day and evening study ending at 9 p.m. left no modicum of privacy for students. Rwanda places games and sport in high regard. Many raucous games of football (and soccer) were great fun for all. Marie said, "We also had many morning runs with the students that were joyous with songs and chants filling the air."
Rwanda is determined to become adept at English speaking. The government believes it is imperative for their economy and development for their country to be fluent in English, Swahili, and of course, the vernacular language of Kinyarwanda. While students have been studying English since grade school, only a select number of students have been privileged to gain speaking experiences. Marie said, "Our main assignment was to improve the oral skills of both students and staff. For students who were accustomed to a more traditional class of note taking and lecture, it was quite a new experience. Songs were particularly beloved and vocabulary improved significantly. Some students were a little disappointed at the lack of modern songs--but the Beatles, CCR, Jessie Colter and Johnny Cash are now better known with our students and staff."
The food choices in Rwanda are plant based with meat eaten only occasionally. Cookies were virtually unknown.
Marie proudly claims, "My teaching of baking cakes and cookies with three stones and a pot will be remembered by most of the students and staff for quite some time. But they were all thrilled with the results."
The Peace Corps volunteer said, "We taught a food processing program designed to teach students how to take Rwandan products and make them marketable. They learned to make fruit jams, banana and pineapple wines, sausages, hams and breads."
The school has two small stoves that attach to propane tanks and the students can use these for cooking whenever there is propane. Because there is no propane in the village and the trips to the lowlands are rare, cooking often takes place outside on charcoal fires.
They were able to purchase basic goods like flour, maize, sugar, ground peanuts and rice from local shopkeepers in their village. Marie said, "A weekly market provided a colorful venue for beans, avocados, tomatoes, cabbage, onions and more. At first our trips to the store generated local people shouting 'mizungo' (foreigner) and dozens of children crowded closely to see our different skin and to hear our awkward use of the Kinyarwanda language. Westerners had not lived in the area since the genocide and it was weeks before "mizungo" was exchanged for 'Mwaramutse Marie na Kirk.' Good morning Marie and Kirk. This transition from foreigner to neighbor, teacher, and friend was heartwarming."
Marie said Sister Aurelia was the school disciplinarian and she kept the pulse of the entire school. She is a strong woman who lived through the horrors of genocide and is devoted to ensuring the well-being of the students. Her face is serious and her voice firm and unyielding as students attempted to explain any misbehavior.
She expected everyone to work as hard as she does. Marie said, "We became good friends on a nighttime truck ride up the mountain where it seemed unlikely that they could survive disaster." With a mixture of Kinyarwanda, English and French, the two women held hands, prayed and sang until their safe arrival. On Sister Aurelia's birthday, Kirk drew a picture of her on a card and Marie baked her a cake. Marie said, "Her serious face broke into a smile and she beamed happily. She had never had such a gift."
Marie said one of Kirk's most poignant experiences occurred on his daily trek up the mountain where the small children in the most dire poverty waited for him to lift them into his arms for a hug and a smile. He recalls one day where he was engaged in conversation with a student who had joined him when he heard the most heart wrenching cry behind him. Turning back, he saw a small child with arms uplifted, wailing beyond control. Kirk had passed by without pausing for a hug. He quickly ran back down to make amends. At 63, Kirk remains strong and fit but in Rwanda, his age made him "umusaza" which means old man. It is a term of respect and is delivered with warmth but no expectation of sport prowess. When Kirk joined the much younger staff for a competition against a neighboring school's staff even the opposing fans crowd cheered as the mizungo umusaza (old man foreigner) headed the ball.
Marie said one of her favorite evenings took place in a small cafe with a raging rainstorm outside. They sat on low benches as the rain poured down the walls and supper was cooked outside under a small shelter. Their language teacher, Placide, had Marie and Kirk to the cafe for a language practicum. Marie said, "As the thunder deafened our voices and the lightning electrified the sky, the most beautiful evening unfolded as the Kinyarwanda that had made its way to their brains but had not yet been expressed, poured out like the rain outside."
Marie and Kirk's time in Rwanda was cut short by the death of Marie's beloved stepdad (Donald Meaney).
In 24 hours, they had their mountain home packed up and the Peace Corps had procured airline tickets to get them home. At the same time, the students and staff gathered and sang funeral dirges and performed traditional mournful dances. Students spoke eloquently in their practiced and polished English. Marie said, "Kirk and I spoke their words of love and gratitude in Kinyarwanda." Marie added, "Our tears mingled with those of students and staff. Our hearts felt the agony of loss in America and also the loss of leaving our new friends in Rwanda."
The Peace Corps' goal is to promote world peace and friendship. Volunteers help countries to meet their development needs while providing an understanding of Americans and promoting a better understanding of the people of the world. Kirk is now back working at the Watkins Glen Veterinary Hospital and Marie is spending the winter writing. Students in Rwanda continue to exchange letters with Watkins Glen students in Mr. Durfee's English class. The quest for world peace and friendship continues.
Kirk and Marie's daughter Sophie Fitzsimmons-Peters is now a Peace Corps volunteer in neighboring Uganda with her fiancé Anton Schneider. They will serve for two years and on one fine school break, they will make their way to her parents' former village in Rwanda and bring their family's greetings and gratitude.