Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Storm is Coming

Day 4
At 4am, an African storm rushes over our dormitory, a stampede of raindrops drums our tin roofs and soaks the walkways, lightning flashes, thunder claps, and we can still hear our resident bats squeaking in the darkness. Though all of us students wake up, our faculty members, Steve, Tim, and Lama, sleep soundly beneath their grass roofs.  
After breakfast, yes, plantains, eggs, fruit…we have a meeting to discuss how we are all feeling: mind, body, and spirit. In general, it sounds like no one is getting enough sleep, perhaps because of jetlag. Everyone feels spiritually connected to Rwanda and very much at home.
“We can only do so much,” Lama reminds us. We have to keep our own health in mind.
We head to Covaga to teach our first English lesson. When we enter the cooperative, the women look up from their weaving with broad smiles on their faces. They’ve kicked their sandals off and their bare feet sway casually. After Lama explains that we’ve come to teach them English, they start to squish together to make room for us on their straw mats.
Lindsey and Sara act out a basic conversation which includes “Hello,” “My name is…,” and “Nice to meet you.” Lama lets the women know the translations and we group up and practice. The women stare at our lips and repeat our words slowly, squealing and grabbing our hands and clapping when they get the pronunciation right. Some women are enthusiastic about learning and find paper and pens to write down the English phrases. We hope that the English will help the women sell their baskets to visitors in the future.
When it’s time to leave, the women start giving us gifts. At first we feel awkward, unsure of whether we can accept the gifts. But the women insist. They also insist on having their photos taken, although we often have to convince them to smile. They wrap their arms around us, and gently place baskets, earrings, and bags into our hands. It’s what Tim calls a “tender moment.”
During lunch at our usual place,  Yvone’s, Cedric leads us in a song to learn the numbers in Kinyarwanda. We get to number six before things become difficult. After he finishes eating, Rogers starts to play Taylor Swift on his computer, and we can’t help but laugh.
We then split up and some students return to the medical center. Upon arrival, the staff looks prepared with pens and paper in hand. They are eager to learn. Our group is still unsure about how much time we are able to commit. The public health educators wish to be educated about nutrition, and since none of us students study nutrition, Filimon and Carrie, the students interested in community health, will do some research. The public health educators tell people to eat a balanced diet but don’t have a comprehensive description of what that means.
Lama says that a balanced diet contains four different colors: yellow, red, green, and white (plus fruit). He tells a story of how Rwandans used to cook beans all day, but then they learned that they could soak the beans overnight and then would only need to cook them for one hour. It’s basic knowledge like this that some Rwandans still lack.
Instead of going to the medical center, Nicole, Brooke, and Lindsey take a longer walk back to the hotel. Before long, they acquire a group of children shouting, “MUZUNGU,” and rushing to hold their hands. They decide that finding a field and starting a soccer game sounds like a good idea.
They find a field, but the “soccer” game ends up consisting of a group of kids playing keep away. Nicole, Brooke and Lindsey decide they should head back. When they start walking, they say, “Murabeho” (Goodbye) to the children. Usually the kids understand that this means it is time for them to head home. This time it doesn’t work. The kids keep walking, big-eyed, curious, and grasping for hands. Nicole, Brooke, and Lindsey hold their hands above their heads to keep the kid’s from holding them and say, “Oya” (No). Nicole is a sucker though, and they quickly have their hands full again.
Once they make it to the main road, they create a large gap but the kids keep on coming, now far from home. Eventually Brooke, the stern education major, stops and encourages the kids to go back. This works and before long the kids say goodbye.
In Rwanda, the Muzungus (Westerners) are like celebrities. Everyone in the community stares at us, because staring is not taboo in Rwanda. The children shout and wave from their clay homes as we walk by. Some stand shy, swaying with their hands behind their backs, and say in their best English, “Good Morning” (whether it’s day or night).
Sometimes, they’re so cute, it’s hard to shake them off.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Getting to know Gashora

Day 2
Our dormitory is a cement building toward the back of the grounds.  In the morning, after taking cold showers, we get to see our surroundings in the light for the first time.
The lake which the hotel sits on, Lake Rumira, hides behind the leaves of banana trees in the gray morning. A cage with a baby monkey and his momma rests just outside of our dormitory, and we assume that the baby monkey was the animal scattering across our tin roofs during the night. We walk past the fields of pineapples, where pineapples pop up, one or two to a plant. We’re astounded; we thought pineapples got pulled out of the ground like carrots! We trot down the cobbled walkways, passing thatched-roof huts, and waving hello to hotel employees, “Muraho!”
For breakfast it's eggs, cooked plantains, beans, pineapple,potatoes, bananas, tree tomatoes, passion fruit, African tea, coffee:
 (the usual)
After breakfast, we head into Gashora to learn about current projects at the women’s cooperative, which Washington State University, and our buddies Taya and Cedric have worked on.
The dirt road looks much different in the daylight, and Jon realizes that his nighttime fear, the one about animals jumping out of holes in the road, is irrational. Big Dog meets us, wraps his arms around us, and says “Camera?” as he takes our cameras. We soon learn that he is quite the photographer.
We hear singing from a local Pentecostal church, a large building with an unfinished roof and unfinished walls. Children rest in windows and peer out at us. Big Dog rushes up to the church and snaps a photo before a woman shoos him away. “Nice.”
When we reach Covaga, the building is locked but we see colorful baskets through dusty windows. Cedric is one of the employees of Building Bridges with Rwanda (BBR: See side link) and has worked closely with Washington State University Students like Taya, on agricultural projects.
Currently in Rwanda, 80% of the population survives on subsistence farming of a few crops. Most meals in Gashora consist of only bananas, cassava (a local plant), and beans, and therefore, the community has many issues with malnutrition.
One project, a “kitchen garden,” is a circular, tiered garden that introduces more nutritious crops to Gashora. The top tier is carrots, the second tier is beets, the third tier is cabbage, and the bottom tier is amaranths (a plant from the spinach family). The kitchen garden is an attempt to teach the community how to cultivate a greater variety of plants to achieve better nutrition.

Taya gives the group a tour of the Eco-latrine. The interior of the latrine remains consistent with Rwandan culture, and this is merely a hole in the ground. However, the latrine is elevated above ground and has a compartment below it where waste is collected to later be used as fertilizer.
The next stop is the mushroom house, a shed shaded with banana leaves to keep the house cool for mushrooms. A container of worms also exists to create worm compost to aid in fertilization.
Next, Taya shows us her baby, a solar dehydrator. The sun enters and gets trapped between plexi-glass and a black board, rises into an enclosed wooden box where the hot, dry air flows through, ripping moisture from foods. She tells us that, inside, are pineapples, bananas, and tomatoes, and that the pineapples and bananas worked really well inside the dehydrator. The hope for the future is that the dehydrated foods can benefit the Covaga economically.
We return to the hotel for lunch and meet near the lake for a discussion with Lama, our partner in Rwanda, and founder of “Building Bridges with Rwanda.”
“We don’t choose where we are born. You’re born in America, your life takes off. You’re born in Rwanda it goes somewhere else,” Lama says. He explains his history, how his family fled Rwanda in 1959 to Burundi when Hutus began to overthrow Tutsis.   
For a view of the hotel, and more information about Covaga and Building Bridges with Rwanda, please see the links to the right.
Day 3
As the first group from Western Washington University, part of our responsibility includes learning the present infrastructure and needs of Gashora as well as the community’s resources and future plans. A final cohesive document, an asset map, will provide the information needed for other groups to start projects in Rwanda.
On our way into town, we finally experience what Taya was talking about in reference to the children. They wave from their houses yelling, “Muzungu!” (Westerner/white person). Some rush out to grab our hands, and I wind up with three children on one of my arms. Their clothes and bodies are covered in the red Rwandan dust, but as their lips part for a smile, there’s nothing but white innocence.
We meet in the Gashora’s sector building with the sector’s executive secretary, and the Education Officer, Priscilla. When asked if she has any problems with her position of authority because of her gender, Priscilla shakes her head. Rwanda is on the forefront of gender equality, partially because many men died during the genocide, and partially because the constitution calls for a minimum of 30% of government positions to be held by women. Today, 60% of the government positions are held by women.
“There is a saying in Rwanda that ‘All women of Rwanda have Paul Kagame’s number,” jokes our Rwandan friend and Covaga helper, Rogers.
We then visit Covaga and have a meeting with the women who attempt to teach us Kinyarwanda and love to hear one of the faculty members, Steve Vanderstaay, speak to them in Kinyarwandan. They sound excited to have out help, and we plan to start teaching them English immediately.
After lunch in town at Yvone’s, where we ate our first night in Gashora. It’s the usual: plantains, rice, amaranths, pineapple, but somehow, we still love it. Also, Fantas for all! Rogers, unlike most Rwandans, is open to discussing the genocide. I think we feel as though our readings have prepared us, since we understand most of what Rogers talks about.
We trek the dusty roads to the Primary School where our magnetic Mazungu forces really take hold. Hundreds of children start running towards us. Suddenly, we’re surrounded by smiling, shy faces. Then, Rogers gets all of the children to start singing and clapping, joining in on a Rwandan song about children leading the future. Big Dog takes pictures on our cameras. Eventually, the party has to end, the children need to learn, and so do we.
We meet with the Vice President of the Primary School and five other teachers who tell us about their needs. Currently at the primary school, there are 18 teachers, and 1,200 students (the students attend classes in two different periods, AM and PM). One of their largest problems is learning and teaching English.
After the genocide, the Rwandan government ordered a switch from teaching French to teaching English. The denouncement of French is partially due to France’s involvement in arms deals which supported genocidaires during the genocide as well as after the genocidaires fled the country into the Congo.
Another reason for the switch to English is simple: English is the international language for business. With Rwanda’s dense population, there is not enough land for so many Rwandans to be subsistence farmers;  Rwanda needs entrepreneurial developments and will benefit from learning the English language.
Since the switch was relatively recent, some of the teachers do not know enough English to adequately help their students. Unfortunately, with a schedule that starts at 7am and goes until 5pm, there’s little time in the day for teachers to receive help with English.
Finally, we tour the Gashora medical center. It’s the nicest building in town, with towering ceilings and tiled floors. Despite the assumption that a medical center would be full of suffering patients, there are only a few, and they don’t seem to be suffering. The first room we enter, the room where blood is tested for diseases, smells of alcohol swabs. There are signs on the walls encouraging the use of condoms, and a separate room for family planning.
The medical center also contains a library for medical employees to continue their education. Unfortunately, many of the employees do not understand English, and cannot read all of the books. This is the only library in Gashora and is not open to the public.
Then, we tour the old medical center. It’s a shaded, grimy building containing hospital beds as remnants of the old center. The man giving us the tour is almost too tall for the building. Though the new center only has a few rooms, it’s clearly a vast improvement.
At the end of the day, the reality of poverty in Gashora has us exhausted. As we leave the town, children hold our hands and follow us as far as they can.
They say, “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” some of the only phrases they know so far. Our Kinyarwandan is about as good as their English, so we’re feeling good about our time here.
By 8:30pm, we’re ready for sleep.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Touching down in Rwanda

                                                     Night 1
All of our flights go smoothly, despite a delay taking off from JFK and a short layover in Brussels which has us speed-walking across the airport wishing we had time to brush our teeth. The last leg of the trip, a 7 hour flight, proves to be the most difficult. We feel a little queasy from our anti-malaria pills, exhausted from lack of sleep and vertical naps, and the flight attendants keep our bellies bloated toward the pull-down trays.
But the airplane is sparse, spacious, and allows for decent stretching of the legs. Sara sits next to the Director of Human rights from Uganda, Lauren and Nicole find themselves in front of a crying baby who likes to punch seats, and I meet a missionary of Rick Warren’s, an Evangelical  pastor who has sent around 15,000 missionaries to Rwanda.
The religious situation in Rwanda is interesting. At the time of their appearance in Rwanda, the Belgian missionaries from the Catholic Church believed in a “Hamitic Ideology” which considers certain ethnicities superior. These missionaries believed that Tutsis were whiter and came to Africa from Europe; this ideology played a role in the ethnic division of Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda which led to the genocide.
In 1959, when Hutu extremists first began the process of eliminating Tutsis, churches became a refuge for the Tutsis. However, in 1994, when the genocide began, some priests encouraged Tutsis to seek refuge in churches and then informed Hutu extremists that they could come in and mass murder the hiding Tutsis.
Some Rwandans believe that the Vatican has yet to come clean about the blood on their hands, and people are very angry with the Catholic Church. Still, survivors of the genocide are born again Christians who see their survival as God’s message that they have purpose. Rick Warren, despite his bad reputation in Uganda, is a hero in Rwanda. The current role of church includes teaching Rwandans the Bible which increases literacy, and creating development projects that teach trades and create infrastructure.
Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda, does not claim to be a religious person. Still, he accepts current involvement of the church because it allows Rwandans to reach toward reconciliation, something so difficult that spirituality seems to be the only option.
When we descend the steps from the plane, a sweet smell greets us. Our feet hit the African asphalt, and reality still hasn’t hit. After retrieving our bags, we meet Tim, one of the faculty members and also the whitest person in the airport. He waves us down, clearly jittery from cappuccino, and we meet our Rwandan partner, Lama.
On the way to our hotel, La Palisse in Kigali, lights dot the many Rwandan hills like blue fireflies. At the hotel, red cobble walk ways remind us of Western’s campus. The hotel personnel lug our bags to our rooms up a steep hill; they really like to help. Our rooms are unexpectedly gorgeous, despite the old smell. Mosquito nets hang from the ceiling like a flowing African dream. 
On our way to dinner, at an Ethiopian restaurant, we pile 17 people into a van. Most of the roads in Kigali are paved, but everyone squashes up against each other as the van rumbles over the red Rwandan clay. “This is called African massage,” says Lama, laughing.
We meet Taya, a student from Washington State University, who has been working in Gashora with the cooperative we will be servicing during our trip. She’s been in Rwanda for almost a month and has many tips for us: bring tissue with you everywhere, you never know when there won’t be toilet paper; bring wipes, you never know when there won’t be a sink; take every opportunity to wash your hands; don’t buy things without assistance from a Rwandan friend, white skin=jacked price; the kids will love you and fight to hold your hands, three kids to each hand.
“You’re going to love it here,” she says. We hear that from everyone we meet. 

Day 1
“You can’t manage time, but time can manage you.”
After breakfast, we plan to visit the Kigali Memorial Centre which commemorates the genocide, get lunch and figure out financial affairs in Kigali, and visit a local neighborhood before heading to our hotel in Gashora.
Instead, we sit on the stone steps in front of the lobby chatting with hotel personnel and playing cards. The van can’t fit us and our luggage. Eventually, we decide on using two vans, one to get our luggage to Gashora, and one to transport us for the day. 
                                       Tim in the van
On the way to the memorial, a Rwandan student filming us, Olivier, tells me about a saying in Rwanda: “I can’t manage time, but time can manage me,” and we laugh about the van confusion. When a car stops in the middle of the road, completely in our way, Olivier shouts, “This one’s drunk!”
“No, he’s from Congo,” jokes Lama.
“No, Uganda!” laughs Olivier. In African countries which were originally colonized by the British like Uganda, people drive on the left side of the road, but in Rwanda, which was a Belgian colony, the people drive on the right.
At the memorial, somber faces visit mass graves and read walls of history. The first panel reads: “This is about our past and our future, our nightmares and dreams, our fear and our hope.” 
                                                              Mass Grave
Before being colonized by the Germans in 1892, the division between Hutus, Tutsis, and Twas was socio-economical. The Germans sided with the monarchy, which was comprised of Tutsi, the richer class. Still, classes were fluid and a Hutu could become a Tutsi by becoming rich. For example, a Tutsi was defined as a Rwandan with ten or more cows.
After WWI, Rwanda was given to Belgium as a trust territory. In 1932, Belgians issued identity cards, even using rulers to measure facial features of Rwandans to determine whether they were Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. They determined that 5% of the population was Tutsi, 84% Hutu, and 1% Twa. Belgians viewed Tutsi as superior.
When the ruler, or mwami, of Rwanda refused to join the Catholic army, and challenged Belgian rule, he was disposed of. Eventually, Belgians believed that the conservative Tutsis were more vulnerable to Marxism and decided that the Hutu class was more connected to the Catholic Church. They then switched to being sympathetic toward Hutus. In 1959, after being encouraged by Belgians, Hutus began to overthrow the Tutsi.
In reference to 1959, when he was forced to flee to Burundi, Lama says, “my mother told me that the object wasn’t to exterminate Tutsis but to get them out of the country so that [Hutus] could take our land.”
When Tutsi refugees in Uganda grouped up as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and surged Rwanda on October 1st, 1990, things got tense. The genocide started on April 6th, 1994, led by the government’s party of Hutu extremists. In a hundred days, over a million Rwandans were killed, mostly Tutsis, until the RPF ended the Genocide on July 18th. More details about these events will be spread throughout the blog, but I’d like to give readers a break :)
For any worried parents out there, Rwanda is currently the safest country in Africa, filled with smiling, helpful faces. We have flushing toilets, cold showers, cell phones, and have only seen 3 or 4 mosquitos; Malaria risk is very low in Rwanda.
After visiting the memorial, we travel to the busy city of Kigali and settle for lunch. We learn that if a woman orders an orange Fanta, it implies that she is a virgin. So a lot of us order orange Fanta. We visit an ATM, and a local grocery store much like a Fred Meyer. Then we wait…I remember the saying about time which Olivier told me. We don’t have time to visit the local neighborhood. After waiting almost two hours and paying a few hundred francs for the bathroom ($1=612 RWF (Rwandan Francs)), a van arrives to take us to Gashora. 
A bright orange sun sets over the luscious hills of Rwanda which are spotted with banana and guava trees. The area we drive through was burned to a crisp during the genocide but has since been replanted. We all get another African massage on the way to the hotel, which is a of couple miles past the Gashora city center. After freshening up, we head back to the city center for dinner.
Here, we meet “Big Dog,” one of the students sponsored by Lama’s program. He joins us for dinner and we soon discover how silly he is. Dinner consists of some of the usual local food: potatoes, beans, and pineapple.
We celebrate the birthday of one of the Rwandan students working with the Covaga Cooperative, Cedric. He tells us that he’s never had a birthday celebration before; he’s just turned 26.
We almost fall asleep in our cake.
But first we need to walk 20 minutes up a dirt road, in the dark, to reach our hotel.

This is only the beginning.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


We stuff our bags, check our lists, frantically text each other for opinions on bag sizes, call/see our families and friends for goodbyes, cuddle our pets, ingest anti-malarial pills, check e-mails, research Rwandan current events, and wrack our brains to be sure we've got it all: bug spray, toothbrush, laundry detergent, lotion, sunscreen, water bottle, ibuprofen, allergy medicine...

On Thursday at 5am, we'll trudge in to the Seattle-Tacoma airport, sleep still crusted in our eyes, our hearts thumping quickly. It will probably be raining. After passing through security, we'll rush to the Starbucks and sip the last drops of our Pacific Northwest home. We'll update our Facebook statuses, write in our journals, and feel our nerves dancing.

As the first group of Western students going on the study abroad trip to Rwanda, we're the guinea pigs: we're still unsure of what exactly we'll be doing (but we'll keep you posted).

What we know is, we're going to have a blast, build relationships with awesome people, and learn more than we could ever imagine.