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.

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