Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hotel Rwanda Reborn

Tuesday night we had dinner at Hotel Des Milles Collines, (Hotel of the thousand hills). On Tuesday evenings, brochettes are served and cost only 1100 Rwandan francs, a little less than 2 dollars each. Beef, chicken or fish are roasted on a skewer and are very much like our kabobs. Personally, I can recommend the fish and the chicken! The hotel is fenced and gated and sits in the middle of a bustling commercial area. We entered the beautiful lobby through glass doors and were met by the sweet fragrance of flowers. This could have been a Ritz-Carlton in the US, spacious and well appointed. On the balcony patio, tables were set for dinner. By the pool there was a bar and a band playing “Afro-fusion”, a pleasingly soft, bluesy  type of music. Tables were set around the pool, chairs were cushioned and the view over the city was amazing. But for those of us who have seen the movie “Hotel Rwanda”, we were mesmerized by the pool. During the genocide less than 20 years ago, this hotel was a refuge for those fearful of losing their lives. Over 1,000 Rwandans lived here in harsh conditions to save their own lives.. As the aggressors cut off the water supply, those in the compound used the pool water to survive. The atmosphere today gives no hint to the hotel’s history. All is light, clean, beautiful and happy. The irony is not lost on me. Hotel Des Mille Collines is still a refuge, but now one where we came to escape the business of our hectic days, the routine of the past 2 weeks, to be rejuvenated. And as we sat around that pool, watching the sun set over the thousand hills of Rwanda, we each felt that the pool still has a life giving quality, because we left with a renewed energy to face the excitement of our adventure.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Treasure in the Heart of Africa

Sunday was a day of reflection. Celia and I attended an early service at St. Etienne Anglican Church with Shannon Lair, who is coordinating the teaching efforts of all 3 teams. Shannon is a teacher and lived in Kigali for almost 2 years, so she considers this city one of her homes. She is a great help in educating us: how to get a taxi, how much to pay, how to honor the customs of the Rwandans. Our experience would be much more challenging without our trusty guide, Shannon!
After church, we visited the Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali. Much like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the exhibits chronicle the time line of genocide in recent history. In Germany, Sarajevo, Namibia and Cambodia, entire races have recently been targeted for destruction. Some of these horrors have taken place in my lifetime and I am embarrassed to say that, at the time, I was unaware of the gravity and impact of the tragedies. Now that I meet survivors of the Rwandan genocide every day, it is impossible not to feel emotionally about the inhumanity that still flourishes in parts of our world. Here it is not uncommon to meet a person between the ages of 18 and 30 who is the only surviving member of their family. These are young men and women who were deprived of any family connection or support in the early and formative years of their lives. Many saw their families killed and were left to fend for themselves as children and teens. Others were left to care for their siblings, to provide food, clothing and shelter in any way they could. All were left to struggle with the emotional impact of all they had experienced, without a mother or father to lead or reassure.
The second memorial that we visited was quite a drive outside of the city. There we saw a church, benches filled with stacks of clothing belonging to the dead. Underneath the church, the skulls and bones of those massacred in that very church building are kept. This graphic and gruesome display was heartwrenching The situation is mind-boggling, but even more so is the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation that lives in Rwandans today. These people realize that bitterness, unforgiveness and hatred will only harm themselves and so they choose to move forward, grateful for what they do have, rather than to focus on the horrid past. They remember, hopeful that history will not repeat itself. But they also provide an atmosphere and opportunity  to heal and grow, learning from the past and moving into a bright future.
The walls in Kigali are topped with broken glass, to keep intruders out.
On Sunday morning at St. Etienne, a handful of Americans worshipped alongside their Rwandan Christian brothers and sisters. We sang familiar songs and heard scripture and a sermon in English. The priest’s challenge to us was to work with our hands, mind our business and live holy lives (1 Thessalonians 4:1-12). This is a great charge and for this next week, it should be an easy task. The great challenge for me will be when I return home and am tempted to fall into old habits. When 4 classrooms of eager students don’t demand my attention, what will I fill my time with? But more than the lesson of the sermon, will I carry with me the lessons of forgiveness and reconciliation? My prayer is that I will take the example of Rwanda back home, becoming more forgiving, more involved in others lives and more eager to enjoy all that is around me, because this truly is the treasure of the heart of Africa.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Community Service Saturday

On the 3rd Saturday of every month, Rwandans turn out for a community service day called Umuganda. It is designed to keep communities clean and well-tended. Our effort this morning was to paint blackboards at the primary school where we are teaching. The boards are well used, since the students English lessons prior to our arrival consisted of their teacher filling the blackboard with English, science and social studies lessons written in English. Although most of the teachers do not speak English, they dutifully copy the lessons and, likewise, the students copy the board into their notebooks. The headmaster of the school, a young man named Lambert, had hoped that we could paint the 2 boards in each of 3 classrooms. We managed to finish 10 classrooms in under 3 hours!

Some of the students we teach were attending classes on Saturday and many others showed up to help with community service. It was a perfect time to visit and take a few pictures. And little Rwandan kids love to have their picture taken!
On the walk home we met up with two women who were carrying these loads on their heads, a common form of transport. One of the women was carrying extra cargo! I have yet to see a baby cry when it is on its mothers back like this.

Back at the guest house, we were joined by 7 young boys who live at an orphanage called the Peace House. They were entertained by all of our electronics. Several took photos with our cameras and Iphones, while others looked over our shoulders as we were on our computers. They sang for us and were fascinated by Bekah's ukelele (but, so am I!). What a grand way to wind up this day dedicated to community....


Friday, May 27, 2011

Thank Goodness for College Students

It's Friday night. Our weekend started with a relaxing afternoon on the porch, then we were joined at dinner by Tojay, Fred and Joel( a Rwandan who earned his Masters at Harding). Afterwards, we headed back to the porch to sing and listen to Tojay play the drums. I'm hoping that the new camera (Thanks Jeff!) captured the performance on video. I am admittedly an amateur and find it much easier to enjoy my travels without a camera in front of me. But in the interest of sharing this fabulous experience, I am stretching my boundaries. This old dog is up for learning some new tricks.
As the singalong died down, several of the college students gathered to head out. Maybe to salsa dance, maybe to the internet cafe. Did I want to go? Well, why not? On the taxi ride over, we got a message that there may be a concert at some restaurant...Do we want to join? Who knows? Life is full of possibilities, these young people remind me. Any choice will be a good one, I am sure.
But for now, we sit in the internet cafe, each of us tied to technology, with a cup in our hand. Relaxing after a challenging week. Rewarding ourselves for a job which we hope has been well done. And tonight, I am grateful for my new young friends for helping me to keep a fresh and exciting perspective on life. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Luxury Redefined

Every day, after teaching two morning classes, we come back to the guest house to rest and eat lunch. The two hour break is a nice refresher from the high energy of our mornings and afternoons. Today, we found a little friend, who must have come to work with his mother or father. He is not at all afraid of 19 big, tall muzunga (white people). It was a challenge to get him to stand still long enough to take a picture, but I wanted to share this sweet surprise.

Last night, for the first time on this trip, I retreated to my room. Both roommates were out for the evening, so I showered and was ready for bed by 8pm. I had no way to connect to the internet, so I rested and read, went to sleep early and woke up ready to tackle the day. In our fast paced schedule, this was a luxury, a word which now has a new meaning for me. Things that I have always taken for granted, I now know are a luxury to so many in this world.
While I don’t want to say that I take my family for granted, I realize that I do. In Rwanda there are so many young people with no family as a result of the genocide. One of my roommates, Cindy, discovered that one of the 4th grade students is a 21 year old orphan. His name is Tojay and he is very bright. Like so many Rwandan orphans, he lived on the street for quite some time, fending for himself. He now lives at an orphanage for young men called Ten Talents (I know that you understand the significance of the name). For the last 2 years, he has trained as a carpenter and now finds himself back in school to prepare himself with an education. He and another orphaned young man, Fred, came to the guest house last night to visit. Cindy is tutoring each of these students after school and today they joined us for lunch. The meal that has become tiresome for me (meat, 2 starches and vegetables) was the best they have ever eaten they said. How humbling. Bright eyes, big smiles, willing to learn…I admire the resilience of these young men, which is so characteristic of each of the Rwandans I meet.
Fred, Cindy and Tojay

They remind me to be grateful for three things: my family, my food and my education. Not everyone in this world has been so blessed.

Since it is noon here, I will eat lunch soon, then walk through the guest house garden, down the dirt road to the school to teach 2 more classes.

The Garden
The Road to School
 Today we are teaching parts of the body and have done the “Hokey Pokey” to remind the kids of their new words. I’m not sure who is having more fun, us or them. We can begin to see that the students are catching on, remembering new words, forming new sentences. We are just on week 2 and by the time the 3rd team leaves in late July, I hope that most of the students will be comfortable with their newfound knowledge.
And, likewise, I hope that I, a student of this new culture, do not forget all that I have seen and experienced, this glimpse into a world so different from my own.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

Here I sit at an internet cafe, using their free internet to update my blog.  My family can tell you that this is a far cry from the Judy that left Little Rock last Monday. But as they say here, TIA (This is Africa). Most everything is different here, so why not a change of attitude? Like, why worry when 30 dirty children crowd around me to hug me? Or to feel my hair? Or to be so anxious to get near me that I have to stand firm to keep my balance?  I am a curiosity, but I am also someone who they know cares for them. Their smiles and shining eyes when they greet me confirm that. We have a connection that defies the language barrier.
When in Kigali...why not ride a moto-taxi? So I packed my laptop in my (big) purse and hopped on the back of a motorcycle (sorry Dad!). My friend and I negotiated a price and here we are. There are several of the students with us at the cafe, so we will all head home together. On the ride over I wondered, are these crazy drivers or are they actually the best drivers on earth. What looks like chaos really works well and I have yet to see an accident.
I, like most of you, am so used to getting what I want when I want it. Now, internet has to be scheduled. Meals come at predetermined time. Lunch and dinner are guaranteed to have a small portion of meat, rice, potatoes or bananas and a vegetable. Dessert is always fruit. One shower and toilet is shared among 5 of us. And I have roommates again. Celia, Cindy and I are in a 3 bed room. It is a nice arrangement, but I miss my own bed and bath! 

Many of you know my aversion to having dirty feet. That is now a thing of the past. Wearing sandals to walk on dirt roads guarantees grimy feet. And when the trucks drive past, dirty everything. I am in Africa, so I try to go with the flow. And appreciate the simple things. And be grateful for the home I have to return to.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Slip Slidin' Safari

Up at 4am to leave at 5am. Three  Toyota Land Cruisers picked us up at our guest house to take us to Akagera National Park in the Eastern Province of Rwanda where we would go on a safari.  That SUV is the most comfortable place I have been since I got off of the plane. Good thing for us…we would spend the next 13 hours in it!
The park is about 2 ½ hours from Kigali. This was our first trip outside of the city and as it turned out, the safari wasn’t the only educational tour we would have that day.  Along the highway was a continuous view of poverty, like nothing I have ever seen.  One room houses without doors, small children walking alone on the shoulder of the road or playing in the dirt yard, goats tied up by the front door, women kneeling in the front yard washing clothes in a bucket, then laying them out to dry on the bushes. There was a steady stream of people walking beside the highway. Cars and trucks passed within inches of them sometimes, but neither driver nor pedestrian seemed alarmed.

 While it was still dark we began to pass folks on the way to market, women with bundles carried on their heads and men with bicycles loaded down with a variety of goods. The children followed along, some big enough to help by carrying a load. This was the scene all the way to the park.

When we arrived, each car had a park ranger to ride with us to tell us about the park and to spot animals. Our guide, Emmanuel, was knowledgeable and friendly. Our first sighting was 2 giraffe along with a herd of zebra. We got out of the car to take pictures of the cooperative bunch. Moving on, Emmanuel kept his eyes peeled, He showed us water buck (a type of deer), blackfaced monkey, impala and a herd of baboons running through the brush.

 We ate lunch by a lake where 4 or 5 hippos were submerged. Every few minutes they would raise their heads and eventually they raised their backs out of the water. As we moved on, the roads became very wet and muddy. We would slip and slide through the muck, hitting holes in the road that the driver couldn’t see because of the water. We had full confidence in him ( he has been driving for safaris for 17 years) and we were having a great time. After all, it wasn’t our car!

We saw mongoose, topi (another deer), buffalo and antelope. Our big quest was for the elephant, which remained elusive. But we had drive the length of the park, south to north and had plenty of photos and memories of animals and scenery. So, we bumped along the dirt road out of the park to head home. Our driver was as skilled on the road as he was off road, but driving in Rwanda will still curl your hair. We never felt unsafe, but let’s just say that in the US he just might have to repeat driver’s ed.
On the way home it began to rain. The people still walked beside the road and it occurred to me that this is a culture that carries on. Despite inconvenient circumstances like the rain or washing clothes by hand, or going to the town pump with 5 gallon jugs to get water, then carrying the full jugs back home, or not having electricity….or recovering from the awful history that this country has so recently experienced; in spite of all of this, this culture carries on. They carry on with pride and a dignity that does not come from material wealth, but from a strength that I am seeing for the first time. And I think that, even though I came to Rwanda to teach, I am the one who has a lot to learn.