Thursday, February 23, 2012

And it Begins Again...

It's that time of year again! Yes, the Harwood Union High School group has returned to Rwanda to continue their partnership with the Land of A Thousand Hills! We were so excited to welcome them at the airport on Tuesday afternoon. Despite being jet-lagged and severely sleep deprived, they were energized to finally be here. This year the trip is a bit different as the Harwood group is joined by a group of teachers and students from Woonsocket High School in Rhode Island AND three people from the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, Vermont.

Follow their experiences on their blog hosted by the Vermont Folklife Center here:

UPDATE: The Vermont Folklife Center website is currently offline due to hacking. The Harwood blog has been moved to this new location for the remainder of the trip:

You can also check out Andrea's blog here:
She is a reporter for the Addison Independent and has joined the group on the trip this year.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Blue and White

Yesterday, Ally, Elizabeth, and I went to visit some street boys with our friend Willy. We decided that we would go back to the same place we did the first time. For more information about that trip, take a look at my blog: Patience is Virtue.
When we interviewed these boys the first time, they were convinced we would never come back. They told us that people come to hear their stories and often never return. We were determined to prove them wrong.

During our first visit, the boys told us about their lives on the street and the struggles they face on a daily basis. Many of the boys sleep on doorsteps, on top of cardboard, or behind bushes, tying to stay warm and trying not to get caught by the police. We went home that day with heavy hearts, as we could do nothing to help their situation.

A few weeks passed before Ally came up with a brilliant idea. She had brought over a set of long-sleeved soccer jerseys that once belonged to my cousin’s high school, Bishop Grimes in Syracuse, New York. Many thanks to her mom Liz for shipping them to me! We had intended the jerseys to be for the boys at Les Enfants de Dieu, but after helping to re-organize the storeroom, we realized the center didn’t need any more clothes. Ally suggested we bring the jerseys to the street boys we talked to before.

Armed with a camera and a backpack full of jerseys, we caught a bus and met our friend Willy who guided us to a market where he knew we could find the boys. They were busy carrying customers’ bags for a few francs or a piece of food. We sat down with them (and one street girl too!) to continue our conversation. A few little boys whose curiosity was stronger than their shyness joined us. We talked to them for a short time and then Willy suggested we give them the shirts because they still needed to find food before sundown.

Talking with the boys

I'm in the tie-dyed shirt

When Ally, Elizabeth, and I started pulling the jerseys out of our bags, the boys began to clap. We tossed each boy a shirt and they promptly put it on. The blue and white jerseys were a hit because coincidently, a popular football (soccer) team in Rwanda called Rayon Sport has the same team colors. They boys were so happy they could have apparel that supported their favorite team. They thanked us, shook our hands, and followed us to the end of the road to say their goodbyes.

We walked away with our hearts a bit lighter, knowing that a few street boys in Kigali, Rwanda wouldn’t be as cold during that cold night. A big thank you to Bishop Grimes for donating the jerseys and making 14 street boys smile!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dig Deeper

It was almost three years ago to the day that I made my first visit to Les Enfants de Dieu and to Rwanda. I was fascinated by the peacefulness of the country and my first impression of the center was amazement, as I talked with the boys in broken English. They were full of life and interested in our small group of muzungus. It was explained that the boys ran the center through a ministry system. They had the power to decide on the budget and even fire the staff. To me, the concept was brilliant and seeing the boys take ownership of it all made me eager to return to Rwanda to work at Les Enfants de Dieu.

During my first few months in Rwanda, I felt that everything was perfect. I loved going to the center every day to play with the boys. The classes I taught were enjoyable, and I loved discovering the rest of the country on weekends. But as I began to settle into day-to-day life and started to see reality, my perception of things became more clouded. Rwanda is often painted as a pretty picture, an example for other war-torn countries to follow, but that is far from the truth. I soon found that the conclusions I had drawn in 2009 were missing pieces; pieces that could not be gathered by a silly high school girl on a mere three week trip. It turns out that when you scratch the surface, you’ll find that Rwanda’s scars still run deep.

So, what does this have to do with the center? My friend Faraz (overseer of the center) made an excellent point when he said that Les Enfants de Dieu is a microcosm of Rwanda. All you need to do is some digging to find the truth behind it all. I mentioned in my pervious post that the past few weeks have been stressful. This is partly because I have found that the ministry system that made Les Enfants de Dieu run so smoothly has fallen apart. In the past months I have watched boys fall through the cracks because someone was not doing their job. At first, I felt helpless. I had boys come to me with problems that a psychologist or social worker should deal with. This helplessness turned into frustration and soon to anger.

As a volunteer who has been in Rwanda for 5 months now, it’s impossible for me to separate myself from work when I go home. The cogs in my head are constantly turning, trying to figure out solutions to the constant problems the center faces: How can we get more donors to pay the boys’ school fees? How can we best organize the new library? What donations do we need the most? I cannot simply turn a switch and forget about it because these boys have become my life. They are my students, my friends, and my brothers and we have a mutual understanding that we will do the best we can for one another. There are nights when I’ve cried myself to sleep thinking about one boy or another because of the stories they’ve told me.

As you can see, I’ve grown attached. It’s impossible not to once you realize just how special these boys really are. The boys at Les Enfants de Dieu have taught me that children are truly resilient and when given the chance, they can rise to the occasion and take on the responsibility of any adult. So when these boys are hurting or when something is not right at the center, my protective instincts kick in.

If I were to tell this story in its entirety, this blog post would be a mile long. Essentially what happened was Ally and I called for back up. Faraz, overseer of the center, lives in Kenya and tries to visit the center once a month. During one of his monthly visits, we shared some concerns we had about the center. A week later, we witnessed a staff member beating one of the boys with a stick repeatedly. Despite the fact that this type of treatment is common in Rwanda, it’s not okay with me that it’s happening at the center. After a heated exchange with the staff member, Ally and I decided we should contact Faraz.

As soon as I emailed him, he flew to Rwanda to deal with the list of issues we were concerned about. The number one priority was to restore the once functioning ministry system and give the boys their power back. We believed this would help solve many of the other problems. Our weekend was a whirlwind of meetings with Faraz, the ministers, and Rafiki in an effort to try and get the center back on track.

As we entered the center on Monday morning, I could feel the weight lifting off my shoulders. I watched the Minister of Administration strut across the yard up to the offices, documents underneath his arm and a newly acquired bounce of purpose in his step. An hour later, we had our class and the boys were the most enthusiastic and well behaved as I’ve seen them in awhile. It’s probably a comforting thought that punishments can no longer be given by adults, but must be decided upon and implemented by the ministers. EDD is well on its way to maintain its reputation as being the best center for street boys in all of Rwanda. The center will continue to set the bar and be a progressive example for others to follow.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned during my stay in Rwanda is the importance of digging to find the truth. This country is complex and nothing is as it seems at first glance. Just like you must spend time with another to truly know them, you must also spend time in a place to truly understand it. Had I not been here for 5 months, I might not have realized that the center was going in the wrong direction. Had I not taken the time to develop meaningful relationships with the boys, they might not have felt comfortable sharing their problems. There were moments when I felt helpless, but as it turns out they were not worthless. If there is one thing I’m proud of, it is the fact that I took the time to listen and to understand the boys, the center, and Rwanda. I wont pretend I understand any of them fully, but it’s a start.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This week has been particularly exhausting for various reasons. We’ve been putting in long days at work and dealing with many changes at the center. So, it warmed my heart to come home to a surprise Valentine’s Day present from our cook Claire. On each wall in our living room was a flower with a note saying “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

On top of that, our friend Willy stopped by the house to give us all a silk rose with a Valentine’s Day card. It was definitely the best Valentine’s Day gift I have ever received. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

In Other Words...

Ally has had some great blog posts in the past week. Be sure to check these out:

How Would You Feel? A commentary on the word "muzungu" meaning white person.

Run, Forest, RUN! A story about one of our afternoon runs down the streets of Kigali.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

One, Two, Three, Eyes on Me!

My time in Rwanda has challenged me in many ways. I find myself drawing upon skills and tools I learned in all different aspects of my life. My education at Harwood first introduced me to this incredible country and taught me about the language, the history, and the customs. My education at St. Michael’s prepared me to be a teacher and at times, a social worker. Not a day goes by that I don’t use a learning strategy, technique, or simply just the kind words of advice from my professors to help me get through the challenges Rwanda throws at me on a daily basis. But in the past few weeks, I’ve been drawing upon my elementary education to help me.

I will be forever grateful to those teachers who subtly gave me the tools to help organize a large group of excited children. When I was younger, I had no idea that the command “One, two, three, eyes on me” would transcend the walls of my elementary school and be put to use in Rwanda. I was beyond excited when Ally and I first introduced it; we heard, “One, two, eyes on you!” and received instant quiet.

Sword fight game

Tools like these have been very helpful in developing the new class that Ally and I started a few weeks ago. The Rwandan Government mandates that students have an extra-curricular class that includes art, physical education, and music. We found out that the boys in Primary 1 and Primary 2 at the center do not have this class and we decided to fill the void.

Practicing the verb "to touch"

This class has become an English/Physical Education class and will hopefully evolve to include music and art in the future. Ally is majoring in Health Science with a Physical Education licensure so she also has many tricks up her sleeve from her classes and internships through Johnson State College. So far, we have successfully mastered different versions of tag: regular, tunnel, and candle and are currently working on blob tag. We also taught them a game called sword fight, which has become a hit even outside of class. For every game, we introduce key English words they have to use while playing the game. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

To Market We Go!

First of all, my apologies for neglecting my blog. As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m very much enjoying my time with my new partner in crime. Also, the internet connection has been sub-par these past few weeks which makes the simple task of checking your email frustrating.

Anyway, I thought I would talk about the market since it is the place I go most frequently aside from the center. Yesterday I spent 5 hours there. Yes, you read that correctly. You might ask: What could you possibly do at the market for 5 hours? Oh so many things…

Josephine's fabric selections

I have a fabric woman named Josephine. I only buy fabric from her because she gives me the Rwanda price rather than the muzungu price. She hooked me from the first moment I stepped foot in that market in September, just as she hooks every other English-speaker, I’m sure. Her English skills are unparalleled by any other vender and I just simply cannot say no to a woman who refers to me as her sister. 

Ally trying on a traditional shirt

Some fabric I thought about buying
but resisted the temptation

So for 5 hours, Ally and I hung out with Josephine in her fabric stall at the market while we waited for our clothes to be altered by tailors. We chatted with her and her customers, held some adorable babies, got a few marriage proposals and made some new friends with fellow muzungu college students studying abroad in Rwanda. Just another day at the market I guess!