Sunday, January 29, 2012

Take Two: Lake Bunyonyi

This weekend, Ally and I decided to take a mini-vacation at Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda. As you may remember from a previous post, I’ve been there before! It is a really easy place to get to from Kigali and the lake is relaxing and peaceful. I also needed to renew my 90-day visa in Rwanda one more time (it’s crazy to think I have less than 90 days left here!).

Paddling to the island in our dugout canoe

So we left Friday morning and returned just a few hours ago (Sunday afternoon). I talked about what the island is like last time, so if you missed it the first time, go check it out!

Ally and I swimming in the 2nd deepest lake in Africa!

During this trip, we met some pretty cool people. We all talked late into the night about our different experiences on the continent and by the time we went to bed, all of the candles had burnt down. It was a mixed bag of people: a college professor, law school graduate, volunteers at a hospital in Uganda, and many more. We came from many different places: Italy, England, Washington, Colorado, California, New Jersey, Virginia, and Vermont, but we all had one thing in common: our thirst for travel and our love of Africa.

We bonded over our common experiences and ridiculous stories. We laughed about riding in the back of trucks alongside fruit and livestock to get from place to place, chickens on top of mini-buses, the severe lack of quality cheese on the African continent, and advised each other on the best places to travel.

I was also introduced to the game of backgammon this weekend. The lodge had a backgammon board and we used bottle caps as pieces and Uno cards as dice. Ally was an excellent teacher and I have to say I’m thoroughly addicted to this game.


Overall, it was a relaxing weekend, and we are ready to get right back to work tomorrow!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Patience is a Virtue

As of yesterday, I have officially been in Rwanda for 4 months. I have realized that it was so easy to be lulled into a routine. I’ve been working at the center 5 days a week and have been completely immersed in happenings there. I had become part of the perfectly contained little bubble where street boys are in the process of being rehabilitated; blissfully ignorant about what truths and realities lay beyond the center gate. Perhaps not ignorant, but I wasn’t actively seeking the other end of the story. And yesterday, my friend Willy shook me out of my reverie and brought me back to reality.

Valance is 22 years old. He is currently in his fourth year of secondary school. He is well dressed, well mannered, and speaks broken English. As Willy, Ally, and I sat on a small patch of grass underneath a tree a few meters away from the market, Valance told us his story. He goes to school right after he finishes his work. He pays his school fees by working as a night watchman. Ally asked him when he sleeps. He replied “The two hours I have after school and before work are enough.” But during those two hours, Valance has no home to go to. According to him, he was born on the street.

Some of the boys we talked with

Valance is just one of the ten boys we talked to on Saturday. Near the Kichukiro market, a community of street boys has developed. These boys carry bags for people in the market to make some money. They dumpster dive for food, steal money, and beg when necessary. When it’s cold at night, they smoke marijuana to dull the numbness in their fingers and toes. They sleep on doorsteps; going to bed late and getting up early to avoid being arrested by police. The majority have been arrested and spent many nights in prison in conditions unfit for any living thing. These boys have been dealt an awful hand from birth and have every right to be bitter, but they agreed to talk with us. We promised we would share their stories with others.

As we sat there for an hour talking to these boys, my mind kept wandering to the boys back at Les Enfants de Dieu. This was their life not too long ago. They were not always laughing and chasing a football at the center. They spent many nights on doorsteps, their tummies growling, and running from police. They came from the provinces, from the different districts of Rwanda, but they all ended up at EDD.

Our friend Willy is a product of Les Enfants de Dieu and probably one of the most intelligent and kind people I’ve ever met. It is hard to believe that Willy was smoking marijuana and stealing radios from cars at the age of five. Willy is about to start secondary school and often makes visits to groups of street boys to listen to and document their stories.

Willy translating for us

Yesterday showed me one of the many chronic problems Rwanda faces. The street boy problem is no going away. There are centers (similar to EDD) for the kids, but they don’t stay because the boys are not being rehabilitated properly. I feel helpless because I could do nothing to help these boys. Not having an answer is something I’m learning to live with here. I feel frustrated that nothing is being done. I find that reform and change is slow here. African time applies to all aspects of life. I feel angry at the injustices that they face. All I can do right now is keep my promise and share their stories.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hanging Out

This week, Ally and I are hanging out at the center and preparing our lessons for when we begin teaching next week. Here a few photos from spending time with the boys:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ally's First Day

Today marked Ally's first day in Rwanda. We have had many adventures already, but I'll let her do the honors. Check out her blog here:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Watch out Rwanda, You’re About to Get a Double Dose of VT!

So it’s been over a month since the last volunteer, Claire left Rwanda to go back to school. She has already started classes at Northeastern and is getting back to normal life. After a month of being on my own, I’m so excited that a new volunteer is coming. But she isn’t just any volunteer; she’s Ally Bataille! I couldn’t be happier to welcome her to Rwanda and to EDD.

Ally and I go way back. We met in Mrs. B’s kindergarten class and the rest was history. We were inseparable through elementary school. We had the same teacher from kindergarten through fourth grade and we did everything together. Ally’s house was a few miles beyond my own so the bus would pick her up first and then come pick me up. Ally would always save me a seat next to her. We started and ended each day with each other. When we needed partners in class, we didn’t even have to look at each other. It was a given. The combination of our names “Ally and Elena” rolled off our teachers tongue more easily than our names separately.

Ally and myself on a field-trip to Lake Elmore

So when middle school came and we weren’t placed in the same class, we were devastated. We tried really hard to stay connected, but it was difficult because we were on opposite ends of the school and didn’t see each other during the school day. This separation continued into high school. It wasn’t until senior year that Ally and I began to reconnect.

Our bonding at swim team!
I think we might be 9 or 10?

It all started with our common interest in travelling to Rwanda through the Harwood program. We were both accepted and we started to hang out more because we did a lot of group bonding in preparation for the trip. And then we left for Rwanda, Africa and had the time of our lives. When you share an experience like that with another person, it bonds you together. After our return home, our whole group clung together, trying to help each other through the pains of re-entry. A year went by and it was clear that Ally and I were still obsessed with Rwanda. I believe this journey was her idea to begin with.

We started planning and saving, and here we are today! Ally will arrive in Rwanda on Friday January 13th at 8:00 PM and our dream will finally have fulfilled itself; we will have both returned to the country we fell in love with 3 years ago.   

Be sure to follow along with Ally on her blog:

How come the water from the tap and the power are turned off a few times a month? Are they planned outages or random?

I wish I knew the answer to this! The water shut-off is definitely less frequent than the power. For the past month or so, I've lost power for about 15 minutes between the hours of 6:00 pm and 8:00 pm. I have no clue why.

It's also very difficult to tell sometimes whether or not the power-outage is due to the main line being cut, or just that the house cash power has run out. Rwanda runs on a cash power system where you pay (on your cell phone of course!) for a certain amount of power. You are then texted a code that you enter into the cash power meter on the side of the house and BAM! your power works again. So I'm constantly going outside to make sure it's not the meter when our power goes out.

I think I'm just going to chalk this one up to things I don't understand about Africa. I have a feeling no one really knows why these things happen, they just accept that they do.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Here in the US always get TV commercials about how to help Africans to get clean water. How is the water situation where you are?

Yes, there are definitely many commercials telling you to call a phone number and donate money. Although I can only speak from my experience, I believe the water situation is okay compared to other countries on the continent.

The center I work for has one pump it uses when the water from the tap is turned off (happens a few times a month). The pump was installed by UNICEF which deals a lot with water projects throughout Africa.

As I said, the center runs off of mainly water from the tap which we pay for. The boys drink that water without any problems. At my house, I don't drink the water, but I do brush my teeth with it and I've never had a problem.

This, of course, is strictly my experience and it is also in Kigali, the capital. I would imagine that water problem are much more prevalent in the provinces than in the city. As you drive in the countryside, it's common to see little children carrying yellow cans of water back home from the river where they collected it and I can imagine that many of those water sources are breeding grounds for water-born diseases.

Overall, I think Rwanda is better off than many countries in Africa due to the heavy rainfall. After all, Rwanda does house the source of the Nile!

How are the shower conditions there?

Hi Lino! You will be very happy to know that I have a shower with a water heater in my house. There is always the problem of not having power or water, but that only happens once or twice a month and only for a short period of time. When I'm traveling, I've become accustomed to taking bucket baths and cold showers.

So if you ever decide to visit East Africa, we've got you covered in terms of showering!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Do they have supermarkets and department stores and malls like we have here or is it more small stores and open markets?

Great question! There are many markets which sell fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fabric, local crafts, etc...This is where many of the locals do the majority their shopping. You'll find these types of markets both in Kigali and in the provinces. There are also small grocery stores all around Kigali (and in bigger towns outside of the city) that provide bread, candy, canned/boxed goods, hygiene products, and much more.

Finally, there is every ex-patriot or western travelers favorite store: Nakumatt. Nakumatt is a Kenyan, Western-inspired supermarket with everything you can imagine. When I came in September, there was only one located in the Union Trade Center. Now, there is another one a mere 5 minutes walk away from there! I don't exactly understand the marketing scheme behind this, but this is Africa, right? Anyway, some of the things I buy in Nakumatt include: Oreos and Ritz crackers (imported from Indonesia), Heinz ketchup, and soy sauce. Perhaps these seem like random items, but to a girl who lives to eat, it's heaven. There is a similar supermarket called Simba, but I only shop there when I can't find what I want at Nakumatt (which is rare).

Nakumatt and Simba are really the only big stores that can compare to what we have back in the US. There are no malls or department stores. The streets of Kigali are lined with small shops selling everything you can imagine and in most cases, set prices do not exist. You'll have to haggle to get the best deal possible. If you're a muzungu (white person) this can prove to be difficult. I always ask someone how much an item should cost before I go to buy it so I have a ballpark to work with. It's very common for a shopkeeper to charge a white person double the price. But when you throw out a few words in kinyarwanda ("oya" meaning "no" and "umusazi" meaning "crazy" are my favorites to use in these types of situations) you can whittle the price down to something reasonable.

One final thing I should mention, mostly because it blows my mind, is the method in which Rwandans use to buy clothing. There is no Wal Mart or JC Penny. Instead, there are street vendors who walk around with a pile of jeans on their heads and t-shirts in their arms. Interested in a pair of jeans? Flag one of these guys down and he'll be more than happy to help you! Can't find what you're looking for? At the market there are tons and tons of used clothes (ever wonder where old Salvation Army, GoodWill, and other donated clothes go when they can't be sold?) that you can barter your little heart out on!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Photocopier has arrived!

Big news! The photocopier machine has arrived at the center. It was just installed today and will be fully functional tomorrow! Last March I began the fundraising and in less than a year it’s finally here!

It can copy and scan!

Many thanks to the St. Michael’s College and Harwood Union High School communities back home in Vermont who donated money and time. Special thanks to the students who went on the Rwanda trip with Harwood in 2011 and agreed to donate all of the profits of their community night to this project. Teachers and administrators at the center will have a much easier job now!

Check out my other post about the project here: Photocopier Fundraiser A Success!

Questions? Ask me in the Question Box to the right! Comments? Leave one below! I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Her Garden

This weekend, I went with my friend Josiane to visit her home in the Eastern Province. I work with Josiane at EDD and she has told me so much about her family and the land she owns in the village she grew up in. Josiane has a vibrant personality and not a day goes by where I don’t hear her laughter or see her smile. I love being around her because her happiness is contagious. Perhaps that is why it’s so difficult for me to remember that she and her family suffered many losses during the genocide.

One of the first things we did after arriving at her mother’s house was go for a walk to see her land a few kilometers away. As we walked together up the dirt road, she stopped to show me invisible landmarks from a Rwanda I will never know. A field where corn now stands used to be the house of family friends. All of them were killed and their house was burned to the ground. Two women walking down the road that Josiane greeted were the wives of men who killed her father. She told me, “I know that the genocide is over, but I still fear them.” We passed by a small path that would be a shortcut to get to her land, but we did not take it. Many had died along that road trying to escape the Hutu killers. We skirted a small house at the end of the road that belonged to a family who was known for poaching in Akagera National Park. When they heard the President’s plane had been shot down in April 1994, they were quick to use their hunting weapons and begin the slaughter of their neighbors.

 I knew we reached our destination when I spotted a perfectly square area of turned over earth. It was on this land 18 years ago that the house of her father, her grandfather, and uncle once stood. Today, there is nothing to mark their existence besides a crumbling stone wall, formerly a piece of her house. Her cows and goats roam freely across the hillside. It is Josiane’s dream to turn her land into a beautiful garden and eventually a hotel. The garden will become a memorial to her family members who died during the genocide. A monument will be created out of the last few stones of the wall. On the side of a small hill in the Eastern Province of Rwanda, a dream is beginning to take shape.

The land!

Josiane and the stone wall: all that is left of her house

When I asked Josiane if she wanted a picture with her future garden, her face lit up. She dropped to her knees and grabbed fistfuls of dirt. “This is my land.” She told me. That day, she had listed off all of the things that the genocide had taken from her. But her land was not on that list. The land of her father remains, 18 years later, and it has a story of promise and hope.  Out of the blood that was shed on the earth in April of 1994 will grow a beautiful garden for all to enjoy, and understand the story behind it.

Her cows

The family and I

Josiane and I

What happens in Rwanda at the new year?

What a great question! I certainly can't speak for all of Rwanda, but I can share my experiences ringing in the New Year!

My friend Josiane invited me to her home in the Eastern Province of Rwanda (near the Tanzanian border) to celebrate the New Year with her family. Our celebrations started with going to church. It was a very beautiful Catholic mass with a full choir and incredible music. After that, we went to the house of Josiane's cousin to share many fantas, Primus, and Skol (Primus and Skol are Rwandan beers). There were about 15 of us, sitting in a circle, talking about Josiane's family and the many crazy situations they got themselves into.

Every once in awhile, the atmosphere would become serious and someone would make a speech about the coming year which would soon be followed by a prayer or song. We laughed, talked, and drank together until the clock struck midnight.

The thing that stood out to me most during my New Year celebrations was the desire to be together with family. Josiane's cousins came from all around to celebrate with their family and it was really important for all of them to be together.