I had the pleasure of interviewing Joelle Angarola on her experience, thus far, being in the peace corps in Africa for twenty-seven months. Her story is truly fascinating, her adventure includes elements of fashion, positive thinking, and wonderful insights and lessons she's learned from her time spent in Rawanda.
Brianna: So you're going to be living in Africa for a long time, that takes a great deal of dedication. What makes you feel passionate about what you do?
Joelle: My passion comes from my desire to help and to learn more about myself and the culture. There is no better lesson than what you can learn from just watching and integrating with people of a completely different culture than your own. I know it’s corny but I have learned so much about myself, and not everything have I learned do I like, and I love the discovery of this. I want to improve myself - be the best version of myself I can be. I’ve never seen myself having a typical job or career - that sounds incredibly boring to me. When I was deciding what I wanted to do after college, I put my two favorite things together, helping and traveling, so joining the Peace Corps was the obvious choice. That high you get when you can help someone is great, and it gets even better when you see your hard work and how your passion truly makes a difference in, another person’s life. I am so passionate about exploring every opportunity that I encounter while I'm here. I’m blessed to get to be somewhere for an extended period of time, and I fully intend to make the most of it. I'll sleep when [I] am back in America.
Brianna: That's a very true statement. So, I was going through your Instagram and noticed that you have so many interesting pictures up-- in many of them you were wearing very unique outfits. Which is your favorite and why?
Joelle: So, one of the coolest things I have found in Rwanda is the clothing. In Rwandan culture it is important to always be dressed nice (or smart as they refer to it). Rwandans also get some of their clothing custom made. The process is so much fun, and I have become addicted to it. You first go to the market and pick out your favorite igitenge (the fabric). Then you go to an umudozi (tailor) and give them the design you want from the fabric, from there they measure you and make your clothing. It is incredible the things they can make. My favorite thing I've had made is the dress I wore for the swearing in ceremony, I absolutely loved the fabric I found for it, and the style fit perfectly. I got the inspiration from a dress my landlord’s 5 year old daughter was wearing and I wanted my own. I then wanted to be extra and got myself a matching scrunchie to go with it.
Brianna: That dress was beautiful, it looked like a special piece. I also loved the scrunchie- I thought it really made the outfit. Now, tell me what are three words that describe your personal style?
Joelle: Three words to describe my personal style is probably, comfortable, extra, and different. I really love to be comfortable but I also like to go over the top sometimes and wear clothing that no one else is wearing.
Brianna: I think that's the best part of fashion, finding what sets you apart from the crowd. It must be very exciting to be in a place where there's so many places to pull inspiration from, where do you draw your inspiration for not just your style but the amazing thing you’re doing?
Joelle: I’m in the education sector of the Peace Corps so I am directly working with children every day. These kids are so incredible and so willing to learn, they make it hard to not be inspired. Just existing in these kids’ lives I'm making a difference. With just being in the community I am somehow making a difference. Just my presence gives people hope and motivation to do better, to practice their English to work hard and to dream. I’ve had multiple people come up to me at any given time and tell me how happy they are to be talking to someone from America. A big part of my inspiration also stems from the host family I lived with during my training. I was the first American they had come in contact with. I can't say enough good things about this group of people. They showed me the best part of Rwandan culture and hospitality. They loved me and called me their daughter from the second I entered their home. I knew right then I was doing what I was meant to do, even if that just meant living with them, I was giving my family oddly a new kind of happiness. But they were helping me 10 times more than I could have ever helped them. Every day I came home, the kids ran to me and told me how much I was missed. When I left to go to my permanent site, we were all very sad, even though I was only moving about 30 minutes down the road. I especially connected with the three year old Jimmy, who didn't understand I wasn't going far and cried when I left. We could hardly communicate but I impacted his life by just being there. I don't deserve that kind of treatment, I am not better than anyone else. However the impact that I can make by just existing, gives me constant inspiration and motivation to do more, to do as much as I can.
Brianna: Wow, that's incredible. It must be so fascinating and eye-opening just being exposed to the culture. Now, you’ll be in Rwanda for 27 months—what’s it been like living there for such a long time?
Joelle: So far I have been here for 5 months. It’s different for sure and it’s difficult, but not for the reasons you think. Pooping in a hole, or taking bucket bathes are do-able. I’m now used to that. The hard parts are trying to go for a run outside and getting stared and pointed at because I'm white. Getting talked about and laughed at because I am taking the bus can get frustrating. The more language I learn the more I can understand what strangers say about me. It can be hard to stay composed at times like that, and it’s important to not get angry because word spreads, and everyone knows everything about the white person in the village. However, with every 8 steps I might take back, one good moment can mean 15 steps forward. The good things are just so powerful I can never stay discouraged for too long. For example, in my village we have a village drunk, Andrew. He likes to give me unwanted attention, last time it lasted about 20 minutes and many Rwandans were staring and laughing. That was hard, for something like that to happen in my village, I thought more people would have come to help. That’s a step back. When I got to my school that day, I did my best to shake it off and continue my day. That day for break it was a milk day, where we get milk to drink during break. My co-teacher enters the room all smiles, arms in the air overjoyed to get to drink a glass of milk. I personally think the warm milk is disgusting, but this was just such a beautiful moment I couldn't pass it up. All the teachers in the room drinking milk joking around, in English and Kinyarwanda. A small encounter like that, the feeling it left me with, that’s 5 steps forward.
Brianna: I really am inspired by just hearing everything you're saying. I have such a respect for you and what you are doing. So tell me, who, or what, was the main inspiration that put you on this Journey?
Joelle: Myself. This is something that I'm doing for me. I put my life in America on pause to do something that I am proud of. I felt so useless and undeserving in America. Living in Rwanda has opened my eyes to just how incredible the world is. A lot of times I feel like people think that countries like Africa are dirty, diseased, and sh*t holes. But it’s not like that. They have their own way to do things, their own style. I originally came here thinking I would want to change everything and do things like we do in the states, but that would be incredibly counter-productive. The people I have met and work with know what they are doing. Last week I had a huge 3 person couch delivered on the back of the bike for what would have cost 6 US dollars. It was incredible, I was able to give a local person some work, a workout, and it was eco-friendly. I also made a new friend out of the exchange. The things I see people do here surprise and impress me every day. Whether it’s a man biking with a couch three times his size, or my 10 year old students doing back flips during their lunch break. I didn't like what my future looked like in the States, I knew there was more out there and I've found it, I inspired myself to make the journey, but everyday a new person I meet is my inspiration to keep going.
Brianna: That's really motivating to hear. So many people go about their lives with saying they have no hope for themselves or even their futures, you completely turned yours around. So, finally, tell me If you weren’t doing this, where would you be and what would you be doing right now?
Joelle: Either traveling to Thailand to teach, or auditioning for Big Brother. Reality TV is my guilty pleasure and I think it would be too much fun.
Brianna: Thank you so much, Joelle for taking the time out of your busy life to allow us to get a peak in.