Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Yay, A Friendly Face!

Ah, civilization! :-)

Before heading to Italy I popped by London to see Denise, Bobby and baby Sofian. It was fabulous to see a friendly face and equally exciting to meet the baby, who is ADORABLE (as you can see)!

I also quite enjoyed the tasty food and shops-- I guess I missed city life more than I thought. I will also admit that I really loved the couch, tv and real bed with nice sheets and pillows, ah!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We really just hung out for a few days taking care of some much needed errands (aka- hair and eyebrows) and eating anything but rice (replaced with scones and clotted cream- yum).

My last day in London we were joined by Denise's mom and sis. It was lovely joining the family get together with Ma VV and Nat and having a delicious home cooked meal compliments of Bobby.

The stay was short, but such a good break from my break! ;-)

I was definitely sad to leave, but hopefully we'll catch up in August somewhere else in Europe.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Can Rwandans Count?

Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills. After traveling north for 3 hours on a jam packed mini bus blaring Enrique Iglesias I can assure you there are way more than a thousand (thank you motion sickness patch!)

After a couple weeks working with the kiddies, we needed to get away from it all for a little r&r. Okay, in reality we just wanted to see a bit more of the Rwandan countryside.

The drive along the winding roads was really beautiful- much different from the other countries I'd been to in Africa. Rolling hills, dotted with small towns and almost completely used for farming-- from what we hear, perhaps over farmed. It was amazing to see the locals along the steepest hillsides plowing fields of mostly maize and potato (no surprise since those are the staples of EVERY meal. Btw, maize and corn are not the same thing as I sadly learned after excitedly biting into an ear--- wow, was I disappointed).
Of course, you also see the local women carrying all sorts of things on their heads, but this time with a baby strapped to their back-- I am sad to have left Africa without learning how to carry stuff on my head :-(

Our first stop was Gisenyi, a town on Lake Kivu about 1.5km from the border with Congo. The town was pretty basic- your standard dirt road main street with shops and a market.
One difference from Kigali may be the number of white people-- we noticed pretty quickly that we were more of a novelty here since people would stand in front of us and just stare. The kids were a bit more forward, saying "Muzungu, give me money." After a bit of time, I just decided to be super friendly and "bonjour" everyone that stared at us.

Well, to be honest, I didn't say hello to everyone. Interestingly, this area was a stronghold of the Hutu hardliners leading up to the genocide. Over the last 15 years they have been holding community trials to hold people accountable for their actions. They house those found guilty in the local prison where they perform community service. On numerous occasions we passed groups of prisoners walking down the street or highway and were able to distinguish the genocidaires by their pink uniforms (the common prisoners wear orange). Very creepy to be face to face with people that have committed such horrific atrocities! I marvel that the Rwandans have been able to reconcile and move forward for the good of their country.

We stayed at the Peace Land Hotel which was up the hill from town and overlooked the lake. It was quite nice to start the day with breakfast and a view (of the Congo--- the peninsula jutting out the right hand side of the above picture).
The World Cup started while we were in the area, so we of course watched our fair share of games from various spots. The Africans are very excited and proud to be hosting the tournament and supporting the six African teams playing. They also seemed to like England for some reason, which I wasn't so happy about during the match against the US--- luckily England was nice enough to give the US a goal so I could gloat about the 1-1 tie.

Before leaving we (L to R: Devon, Daniel and Jonny) traveled about 8km south to another part of the lake which was idyllic, with beautiful flowers, fishing boats and a taste of local life. For a change we had a really delicious meal, but like everything in Africa, it look a while. Yes, so long that some of us missed the bus back to Kigali. Still not sure how it can take HOURS to grill chicken and fish- we were guessing they had to catch the fish first?

Next stop, Musanze- the town closest to Volcanoes National Park where for a small fee (aka crazy pricey) you can trek to the mountain gorillas for 1 hour.
Since I booked my gorilla permit before I left NYC, I was on my own for this part, but the guys at the Virunga Hotel were super welcoming.
Ephrem spent hours trying to find a group I could join for the drive up to the park entrance to save me money. Although unsuccessful, he got me a driver, stayed up all night and then escorted me to the park the following morning at 6am where he arranged the group of gorillas I would see. Like everyone, he had a story--- he was actually born in California, but can't prove his citizenship since all documents were lost in '94 and anyone that would know details is now dead.
There doesn't seem to be anyone you meet that doesn't have a tragic story- don't misunderstand, it's not as if they talk about it all the time, it's just so common that any basic conversation often leads to some sad tid bit being revealed.

The Volcanoes National Park is wedged right between the borders of Congo and Uganda--- the only place you can see mountain gorillas in the world since there are only about 700 remaining at the last census (could be off given the recent war in Congo). There are 250 gorillas in Rwanda of which they have 8 groups for tourists and 8 for research.

I trekked to the Agashya group with an American family from Rochester, NY and a few others, along with our guides and trackers. Only a short 30 minute hike and we were in the forest with the family of 24 gorillas, including one silverback.
We did our best to keep our distance, but for the most part we were constantly stepping back or climbing through trees to get away from the curious youngsters. At one point, the silverback was on the move and ended up right next to me as I had no room to move back--- they are SUPER HUGE, so it was kinda scary. Sorry, I have no photo proof as I was too frightened to snap a picture!
The hour went by very quickly watching them swing from trees, or fall to the ground when the branches broke under their weight. They were pretty cool!
After the gorilla trek it was time to head back to Kigali for my last night at the Favor Guesthouse. Leopold (the chef) and Judith (the Scottish manager) were really lovely and made our stay very pleasant; however, we still liked to escape every now and then for some non African food.
My last meal in Kigali was at my favorite Sol e Luna--- legitimately good pizza with some very poorly named cocktails, as Daniel pointed out ;-)
That only left time for me to stop by the office one last time to say goodbye to the kids and staff. For my parting all the kids sang me a song about how God will protect me- it was really very sweet (albeit very religious)!
Although it was hard to leave the kids, I will admit that I was ready to leave Rwanda. For some odd reason, I appeared to be allergic to the country. Perhaps it was the amount of greenery, but the entire time I was sneezing, coughing and congested. I guess my body doesn't like all that fresh air!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Working in Rwanda

I've been in Kigali, Rwanda for about 2 weeks now, volunteering with a local organization, Faith Victory Association.

Upon arrival at 1am from Nairobi, I met a Canadian woman, Devon, who reminds me so much of Piper Goodspeed. It's been great rooming with someone that seems so familiar and delightful.

In the morning we joined the other volunteers, Amy and Jonny from England and Daniel from Singapore/Germany/USC, for orientation.

No surprise, the orientation was heavy-- giving us a good overview of Kigali, our volunteer assignments and the 1994 genocide when over 1 million Rwandans were killed, including the families of many of those we are working alongside.

Following orientation we drove to the city center for lunch (they eat the same thing for EVERY meal- no more rice or french fries please!) and a visit to the Kigali Memorial Center.
The Memorial Center is quite moving and informative. I learned a lot--- I didn't realize how easily the genocide could have been prevented as there were killings starting as early as 1990. I also had no idea that the French were (knowingly) involved in arming the hardliners that would later commit the murders. The genocide was well planned with lists of Tutsis to target and where they could be found. So many signs that the international community chose to ignore since there were no interests in this small African nation.

The unrest all stemmed from Belgian colonial rule when they divided Rwandans into tribes- Hutu and Tutsi. Until then, Rwandans had been living peacefully together with no distinction between groups. In just a short 30-year rule, Belgium certainly did a lot of damage.
As you might suspect, the memorial had mass graves, skulls, clothing and pictures of the victims. There is also a wall with an incomplete list of the victims where you see whole families listed (it is incomplete since they are still finding human remains).

However, the real tear jerker is the room dedicated to children. There are a ton of pictures of kids killed with a list of their favorite drinks, sport, friend, last words and/or cause of death.

For example, the picture of Francine stated that her favorite sport was swimming (yes, that got to me), she liked eggs and chips with milk or Fanta tropical and was hacked to death by a machete. A 2-year old Eillette was smashed against a wall and a 4-year old Ariane was stabbed in her eyes and head. It is horrific to think that people could be so heartless. Needless to say, many tears were shed!

Having read a few books on the genocide before arriving, and recalling pictures and the movie Hotel Rwanda, it is hard not to picture the devastation of 15 years ago while looking out over the beautiful green hills of Kigali

Speaking of Hotel Rwanda, over our first weekend break, we stopped for a drink at the Hotel Mille Collines, the site where so many people were kept safe.

The story of this hotel seems to be a little different in Rwanda, as noted by a complete lack of acknowledgement in the Memorial. The locals claim that the heroic hotel manager was less that altruistic, charging people to stay and kicking people out of hotel rooms in favor of those with more money. Either way people were protected, but maybe the facts are a little less Hollywood than we've been led to believe. Regardless, I quite enjoyed the pool!
Rwanda really is a beautiful country. Very different from the other African countries I have visited--- cleaner, paved roads, well landscaped and orderly. Kigali is extremely hilly, with red dirt, jungle like vegetation and terracotta roofs dotting the hillsides. It also feels much safer, perhaps due to the quantity of guards on the streets with AK47s?

It is also really easy to get around- just 180 Francs (less than 40 cents) for a bus into town. Getting into town is pretty easy, crammed into a mini bus, but leaving town is a little more of an adventure--- there is so much pushing and shoving you can't help but laugh it's so ridiculous (sure the locals thought us "Muzungus" (white people) were crazy).

On weekdays I am working. I was supposed to be helping women start small businesses, but in fact I don't see the women much. Instead I am working with kids at a before and after school program.

The kids range from 7 to probably 15-years old and are really cute and heartbreaking all at the same time.

We've covered all sorts of daily topics including shapes, body, World Cup, weather, etc. We've had good fun making play dough (which all turned green when they mixed up the colors), paper snowflakes, paper plate masks, and playing Twister, musical chairs, hot potato, duck/duck/goose, tic tac toe and lots of football (soccer).

Despite the fact that they speak very little English and my Kinyurwanda is limited (to say the least), it isn't so hard to communicate.

The cute part is obvious, but the heartbreaking part becomes evident pretty quickly as well.

One problem- school in Rwanda is not free, so not everyone can afford to go to school. The saddest part- it is only $100 a year to send a kid to school. I'll be sponsoring a kid for sure!

Then you have a smart little boy Rodrique who asked me what a bed was- I guess he had never seen one.

Alfonse is the one that makes me the saddest (picture with me). His mom has AIDS and is in the hospital suffering from TB, unlikely to make it. Right now 11-year old Alfonse is taking care of himself and his 12-year old mentally challenged brother all alone. He is around a lot, so we've spent a lot of time together and he is so starved for some affection- it breaks your heart!

On the plus side, many do have both parents. While poor, they seem to enjoy the time they spend with us and learn a little. They LOVE to see themselves in pictures, as you can probably tell by them hamming it up for the camera--- Aline, Emmanuel and Ami (L to R) are among the cutest of the bunch and are often attached to some part of me.

Rwanda isn't exactly what I imagined it would be, but it's been a great experience.