Wednesday, December 28, 2011

There's a First Time for Everything

The past few days have included a lot of “firsts” for me.
1. First Christmas in Rwanda
2. First time carrying a load of materials on my head
3. First time being a part of a family of 16 girls
4. First time being stared at by an angry chicken
5. First time hitchhiking
  • I knew being away from family for the holidays was going to be difficult, and it certainly was, but I really tried to treat it like any other day, and thanks to Bourbon Coffee being open for business, and some friends at my side to play cards with, it really turned out to be as normal of a day as I could make it out to be. I learned that Christmas Eve is like American Black Friday on steroids in Kigali – it seemed as though everyone in Kigali waited until December 24th to shop for everything, meaning that the stores were loaded with patrons beyond capacity, the air was stale, and the temperature inside each store was intolerable. It also meant that the children were out in full-force, trying as they might to get whatever they could from the Muzungos. All I heard all day from the children in the streets was “give me a happy Christmas!” “Make me happy.” “Give me money!” It wore me down pretty quickly, and that, mixed with the heat and the crowds just about did me in for the day. Note to self: avoid doing any kind of errands on Christmas Eve in Kigali
  • We have been frantically preparing for the first year students to arrive in the Village (they came yesterday), and part of the preparation included hauling multiple months’ worth of materials to each house. In America, we would just throw the materials in a car, and drop them off at their respective end-point, however vehicles are hard to come by in the Village, and who needs a vehicle when you have manpower (or woman-power as is the case with me). I have always been rough and tumble, probably in part to the fact that I grew up with 3 older brothers, but the hauling involved brute strength over a lengthy period of time and an extended distance. I don’t care how prepared I thought I was physically for this, strength or no strength, I wish I had a donkey to help with lugging the household goods! Without a donkey, and without a vehicle, I was left to rely on my head and my back. All over this country, I see women carrying a variety of goods on their heads, and every woman with a child carries him or her on her back, so I have been curious to know how it’s done, and whether it’s efficient and effective. Well, I am curious no more because I have been indoctrinated. In fact, world-wide (with the exception of Western Europe and North America) people who must carry heavy loads often choose to carry the loads on their heads, apparently for good reason. Studies on East African women have shown that they can carry loads of up to 20% of their body weight (equivalent to a good size suitcase) for 'free', i.e. for no increase in their metabolism. Furthermore, these women can carry up to 70% of their body weight on their heads considerably more economically than their Western counterparts can carry equivalent backpack loads. For example, an African woman can carry a load equal to 70% of her body weight at 3.5 km/hr for 50% less energy that an American army recruit with the same load in a backpack. There’s a fun fact for you for today! Here’s the truth of the matter though – unless you can carry the load on your head sans arms (ie. for balance and/or to keep the load from falling off your head), there is no sense in hauling it via your head because before too long, the blood starts to drain from your hands and arms, and then you find yourself standing in the middle of the road unable to move, for fear that if you so much as twitch, the entire load will take a tumble to the ground. Yes, that happened to me. Lesson learned: unless you can balance your load on your head without using your arms, just carry the damn load with your arms like a Westerner, and stop trying to be something you aren’t.
  • As previously mentioned, the first-year students arrived at the Village yesterday, and the family assignments were handed out to each new student. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by 16 young girls, all excitedly clamoring about how much love they already felt from everyone inside the Village. One of the things that surprised and impressed me most was how quickly the students bonded with one another – holding hands, laughing and running with one another (boys and girls alike), etc. It was a sight to behold! The bonding expanded today, with girls playing with my hair, holding my hand, and resting their heads on my shoulder during morning conversation. The family dynamic is starting to take shape, and I am excited to watch it develop and unfold. The photo to the left is of my Rwandan family and their guardians on move-in day.
  • I was in Kigali this past weekend, and on my way back to the Village, I had to sit at the bus station for a bit, which is better than watching the best of reality TV in the states. I have come to expect to see a lot at the bus stations because there is an air of controlled chaos. If you will, imagine a dusty lot filled with people shouting and buses honking, mixed with buses driving in every direction imaginable, children selling sambussas, drinks, candy, peanuts, the cell phone companies selling phones and minutes, and people walking seemingly oblivious through it all wearing t-shirts from the U.S., which people have donated over the years. It is better people-watching than you could ever find at JFK or LAX airport! Truly, it’s a spectacle. Part of the exhibition is the variety of farm life that comes through the station and gets onto the buses. Sure, there are plenty of bushels of plantains and bananas, sacks of potatoes and carrots, but there are also chickens. Yes, I said chickens. What I learned was that there is not just 1 way to transport a chicken. I have seen multiple chickens inside a burlap bag, chickens inside wash basins, chickens inside shopping bags…all of them alive. BUT, the chicken that I encountered on Christmas was being toted around by his owner by its wings (for lack of a better term – I raised rabbits in 4H, not chickens, so I apologize for my ignorance when it comes to chicken body parts). The chicken/rooster was just chillin’ until our eyes met, and then I saw the anger streaming from his eyes. To be fair, I suppose I would be angry too if my arms were being held behind my back, above my head, and I was being toted through a hot, dusty bus station. That chicken set its eyes on me and would not look away. It was at that point that I made 2 declarations – 1. I am absolutely done with eating chicken, and 2. If that chicken got on my bus to Ntunga, I was going to either ride on the roof, walk, or hitchhike back to the Village. I was not going to be “locked” inside with 19 people and a chicken…that was certain. I apologize for not taking a picture of the angry chicken, but there was no need to make him any more angry.
  • Speaking of hitchhiking, that was another first this past weekend. A group of us wanted to go to Lake Muhaze (photo to the right) for the day on Friday, but when we tried to catch a bus in Ntunga, the line was way too long, and the buses were all showing up ¾ full of passengers, not enabling all 5 of us to catch the same bus. Along came a truck, and luckily we knew the sign for hitchhiking in Rwanda (with your palm up, stick out your arm and move it upward, as if you are signaling that you want a “lift.”) For ½ the price of the bus, we climbed into the back of the truck and enjoyed an open-air ride to the lake (photo to the left) . It was spectacular, and so much better than the 19 passenger buses for so many reasons, including the fact that there weren’t any chickens on board. Keep in mind that the bus is still a smarter choice a) if you are traveling alone, and b) if it is raining.

There is a first time for everything, and I've always said I'll try anything once. I know the above list will grow over the course of the next 11 months, and throughout my lifetime, and I look forward to sharing more "firsts" as I experience them. The new experiences over the past few days have solidified that not every day will be spectacular; however every day is still great in its own way when I change my perspective and look at challenges as lessons, and obstacles as anything but insurmountable. My mom reminded me that, "This is a journey of strength and perseverance." Those words were added to my inspiration notebook which was given to me by my alumni association family at Lehigh, just prior to me leaving. Messages like those, and the notes and comments from my family and friends keep me smiling each night before I go to bed, keep me grounded, and get me jumping out of bed in the morning, anxious to see what will unfold with each new day so that I can share them with all of you. Keep the notes (and love) coming, I will keep sharing my stories from Rwanda!

Kinyarwanda word of the day: mugenda - translation: go away/leave me alone (useful when kids are swarming you and screaming "give me a merry christmas")

Another Kinyarwanda word: mbabarira - translation: I'm sorry/I apologize (useful when you keep bumping into people in the overcrowded stores on Christmas Eve)

What critter was in my room this week?: a black mouse - yes, I screamed like a girl and called my friend Miki to get it out of my room (it ran across the hall and into my housemate Jeanne's room...sorry Jeanne)

Memorable moment: watching the sun set from the highest point in the Village on Christmas day (see photo below)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jiminy!...there’s a cricket in my room (actually 2, plus 2 spiders and a roach)

I grew up in the woods, so I am not a stranger to the occasional critter or creature lurking about; however they seem to flock to my room in Rwanda! I’m getting better at dealing with them, and as long as one of the local spitting cobras doesn’t slip through the cracks, I think I’ll be just fine with whatever crawls off of Noah’s ark and into my room. (to the right is a picture of me outside my Rwandan home)

Today marks my 2nd week in Rwanda, which is hard to believe. On one hand the two weeks have flown by, however each day has seemed to last forever, so it’s a bit of a contradiction. Regardless, my formal seminar training is over, and the students arrive next week, which is when my job will truly begin. Stepping away from what was my “real world” and stepping into this new life for a year, it has become glaringly obvious that had the opportunity presented itself earlier, I should have done this long ago. It is all about timing though, and this time I got the timing perfect. Once you get away from a situation that feels too habitual and stale, you can really start to peel away the layers of life that had been repressed and ensnared. My mind already feels clearer, my body feels lighter, and if it’s possible, I can already sense a little bit of happiness peeking out from within me.

Aside from the obvious observation of finding critters sharing my space and observing my renewed sense of freedom, I have seen quite a few things that have made me stop and take notice.

  • Observation 1: Personal Space – it doesn’t exist here. I noticed this the first day, and every day since for that matter. The first few times, it can be a little off-putting; however I’ve grown used to it and have come to realize that this is a very familiar and comfortable culture when it comes to people getting close to one another. It is not uncommon to meet someone and for them to put their cheek right up next to yours, or their hand on your back. There is also a lot of touching, not in a lascivious way, but in a tender, caring way. The people here truly care for one another. For instance, when you meet someone, you will either do the triple-cheek “kiss” or the multi-level hand/arm touch-shake.
  • Observation 2: Rain = Stop – When it rains, it does in fact pour, but people here also stop what they are doing and stay inside. Right now we are finishing up the short rain season, with the short dry season up next. The intense all-day rain begins in April, and lasts about 2 months, and then there is a long stretch of it being dry. The 2 rainy seasons enable farmers to produce more product than locales where there is only one rainy season, so it’s a good thing, however I am just amazed how people just stay put and stay out of the rain when it moves in over a certain area. I followed suit this past weekend and camped out in a coffee shop for a few hours while the sky opened up outside. When in Rome…
  • Observation 3: Goat – I have gone through many phases when it comes to food. When I was a kid, I LOVED ribs and steak, and chicken livers. After being stuck on I-80 in Nebraska in 1999 next to a cow truck, and shortly thereafter passing a slaughter house, I stopped eating meat. I even became vegan for a short bit. Nowadays I only eat chicken…well, that was until I got to Rwanda. Now it seems that I’m back to being a vegetarian. Rwandan chickens are not like American chickens, and after hearing my friend Miki relay how he bought a live chicken in Rubona and watched it get massacred, only to find that there was barely any meat on the bones, I pretty much lost my chicken appetite, at least while I’m in Rwanda. One thing that would serve me well was if I ate goat because it is served EVERYWHERE. Every picnic, every restaurant, every little stand in the smallest of rural towns has goat bruchettes (see picture to the left). No, I haven’t taken the plunge, but give me 8 months when my mouth really starts to water, and my stomach really starts to growl, and then we’ll talk.
  • Observation 4: Family – Moving around as many times as I have, I’ve been exposed to a lot of living and work environments that consider themselves a “family.” Like families, they were each dysfunctional in their own right, but looking back, I now realize that they were each much more of a community than a family. I have only been here 2 weeks, but I have already started to uncover the difference between a true living and/or working family vs. a community. Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village epitomizes what it means to be a family. It is a village that prides itself on core values, a mission, a philosophy, and an overall understanding of, and appreciation for teamwork, cooperation, flexibility, support, and affection. Last night I was told a Rwandan proverb that translated into, “a tree by itself does not a forest make” and that sealed the deal for me. Although this journey is mine alone, I am not alone throughout this journey. I am surrounded by wonderful people. (to the left is a picture of my Big Sister and me, and below is my Rwandan Mamá and me)
This afternoon we wrapped up our training with a picnic celebration to celebrate the beginning of the next phase of this journey, and to celebrate the creation of a new family. Each of the Fellows was assigned to be a “cousin” in a family, and we found out who our Rwandan Mamá is going to be, and who our Big Brother/Sister was going to be. Being nearly 10,000 miles away from my family in the states, and a life away from my brother Kurt, it is so important to me to have that kind of foundation and support surrounding me right now. This afternoon I felt the love, I observed the bonds emerging, and all I could do was smile and tear up at the same time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nice to Meet You! (Ni byiza kukumenya)

This weekend my fellow Fellows and I left the confines of the village and headed toward Nunga to catch a bus and travel 45 minutes into Kigali. The village has a house for us to use whenever we want to step out of rural Rwanda and into the big city - for a hot shower, a fresh breath of air (minus the exhaust fumes), and/or food that doesn’t necessarily involve beans and rice (a food blog entry will be coming at some point). We got a taste of Kigali last weekend when we toured it a bit and went to the Genocide Memorial, but this weekend was for individual exploration, discovery, and bonding. The one constant between the village and the Kigali house is that we are living communally at both, which I am quite enjoying because it is like being back in college in that there is always someone around to hang out with, or who will accompany you on an adventure. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday each had their fair share of adventure, so tag along with me as I describe what I endured, experienced, and laughed about on my weekend away.


- clown car meets Rwandan bus – Many Rwandan buses would be considered conversion vans in America, and most conversion vans fit 8 -12 people comfortably. We proved on Friday night that you can fit 19 people inside one in Rwanda, as we left the village and headed to Kigali! What’s that you say? Your feet and legs fell asleep and you can’t feel one of your hands? No problem…your body should regain circulation once you get out of the bus. One of last year’s Fellows took a 60 hour bus ride to sight-see, which I am most definitely NOT ready for…I need to work on my circulation problems for the 45 minute rides and work my way up to hours at a time in the bus. Note: do not sit in the first bench on the bus unless you are wearing pants, as your shins will be pushed up against the under-cab engine which tends to heat up quite nicely during the ride :)

dancing queen meets moto – Kigali is like a lot of big cities with a multitude of restaurant choices, so our evening began by choosing the New Cactus restaurant, which is about a 10 minute uphill walk from the Kigali house. The views were spectacular in the open-air restaurant, and the food hit the spot! Friday night we were ready to let loose and discover the nightlife, so around midnight we headed out on the town and danced our pants off at two local hotpots. There is not a "last call" at the bars in Kigali, so many people stay out well past sunrise...I am not saying that I did that, but I heard about it from others hehe. The “letting loose” part was enjoyable in itself, but it became complete when I took my first moto ride. In Rwanda, although there are taxis, the preferred, cheaper, and more fun way to get around town is via moto, or motorcycle taxi.

Moto + crazy Rwanda traffic and drivers = danger, however it’s thrilling to hop on the back of a moto and weave in and out of traffic, enjoying the sights, and cooling off with the air blowing all around you. Two big thumbs up for the experience!


American doughnut haven meets Rwanda – After a few hours of sleep, one of my friends and I headed to a place that the taxi drivers refer to as “the place where your people eat.” ABC, or the African Bagel Company is hard to find, but worth the trek via moto. It is run by a couple of Missionaries and serves coffee (dunkin' donuts brand), freshly made doughnuts, and freshly made bagels and egg sandwiches. Although the food is just so-so, the setting is serene, with a large garden-like area for everyone to gather, with lawn chairs, hammocks, ground blankets, and plenty of shade. As the taxi drivers say, this is THE place for American ex-pats to meet each weekend for breakfast, gather, and catch up on life events and stories. It is a very homogenous crowd, but it was really wonderful to see the American ex-pat community come together and socialize. Everyone from Embassy officials to Peace Corps volunteers, to NGO (non-governmental organization) employees came together on this day to enjoy the morning and spend time together.

- goodbye Starbucks…hello Bourbon Coffee – Something I have been craving is coffee. Although it is one of the so-called cash-crops of Rwanda and its primary export, Rwandans don’t drink coffee, and it is all but non-existent in the village. For someone who should own stock in Starbuck’s because I was such a frequent customer while living in the States, the lack of coffee here has been difficult. However, my frustration came to an end when I found Bourbon Coffee in Kigali (which has several locations now open in the US – NYC, Boston, and DC). After falling in love with Costa Rican coffee when I traveled there a few years ago, I was convinced that nothing could top that...I was wrong. At Bourbon Coffee, I had an “African Coffee,” and I was proven wrong – Rwandan coffee is THE best coffee…it’s AMAZING! Now if only there was one in the village… :)


- where’s Waldo meets the mzungos – The trek back to the village started off a bit bumpy, as it was hampered by our inability to find the correct bus to take us back to Nunga. One good thing about standing out because you’re white is that you are easy to spot, like Waldo in those Where’s Waldo books. After numerous conversations via cell phone with the bus company, the dispatcher sent a bus out to find the 4 mzungos who were walking aimlessly near the bus depot. Before we knew it, a bus was honking at us and told us to get inside!

- Tide meets Rwandan wash basin – I finally took the plunge (literally and figuratively) and did laundry this afternoon. Luckily one of my housemates was also doing laundry, so she introduced me to the "Rwandan way" of doing laundry. Albeit time consuming, the process was not all that bad, and now my clothes smell fresh and clean, with a touch of sunlight thrown in from the drying process. Note: if it rains after you hang your clothes, don't rush out to grab them off the line, but rather allow Mother Nature to assist by providing a secondary rinse cycle.

I came into this journey with many hopes and goals, one of those was to be 100% authentic, one was to bring my whole self to the experience, one was to push past my comfort zone and try things that I wouldn’t ordinarily do, and one was to live in the moment and be open to, and appreciate the newness of everything – good, bad, or indifferent. This weekend was a great start to all of that. I brought my whole, authentic self to each situation, tried new things, and soaked up every moment. I think a new goal is to learn something new every day while I am here. It might be a Kinyarwanda word, it might be a task, or it might be a more personal lesson related to learning about myself. The lessons have begun, and I am thoroughly enjoying this educational endeavor.

Kinyarwanda word of the day: Murakoze – translation: thank you

What I learned today: how to do laundry Rwandan-style

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

shower curtains and vacuums...things I miss

I knew I would eventually uncover some things that I took for granted back in the states, but I didn’t expect my discovery to begin so early in my journey. There are definitely some things that I brought that I now deem excessive (like the number of sandals I thought I’d want/need), but there are other things that I really wish I had (like a bottle of WD40 for all the squeaky hinges in my house). I know this will be an ongoing journey of discovery, but I thought I’d start a list of things that I really miss having readily available to me, or easily accessible without taking a moto (motorcycle taxi), followed by a taxi van, followed by another moto in order to get to a store an hour away where I might have a chance of buying such things.
Things I miss:
1. WD40 – as I said previously, there are a lot of squeaky doors in my house, and seeing as how it is extremely quiet here at night and in the early morning, it’s a bit unpleasant to be awakened by hearing high-pitched, whiny shrills coming from all the doors in my house.
2. Curtains – although the students are supposedly going to be working on a sewing project during 1st term to make curtains for the rooms with bare windows (ie. My room), that seems like an awfully long time to “be on display” to anyone and everyone who walks by my window.
3. Vacuum – I never thought I’d say that I miss my vacuum, but it’s true. There is no good way to clean the floor here. There is a “squeegee” of sorts, and we were told to throw buckets of water on the ground and squeegee the water out of our rooms, down the hall, and into the bathroom in order to move the dirt out of our rooms/hallways and into the bathroom where there is a drain. Yes, it’s as tedious and inefficient as it sounds, and I feel like the process just spreads dirty water around the house instead of actually cleaning the floors. I decided to forgo that method and chose to live with dirt on my floor…sorry mom.
4. Hooks – again, a simple concept, but not readily available. My engineer friends must have worn off on me over the years because I jerry-rigged a few things for now until I find suitable hooks I can hang up on the walls. Those 3M removable hooks would be just perfect, but I KNOW I won’t find them in Rwanda.
5. Candles – I don’t want to paint the wrong picture and make you think that I don’t have electricity, because I do. The problem is that it’s quite inconsistent and it goes out every day, sometimes multiple times (3 or 4 times today in fact). If the electricity goes out after 6pm (when the sun sets), it’s dark…really, really dark, and there aren’t any candles I can light to cast a lovely glow in my room or my house. It’s just dark. On a related note, thank you Stephanie Briggs for my headlamp! It’s a lifesaver!
6. Napkins – I know this one sounds strange, but there aren’t any napkins here. It probably sounds snobby, but it has taken some adjusting on my part to eat without having a napkin to wipe my hands and/or mouth. Thanks mom and dad for instilling such asinine napkin-wiping habits in me…this is torture! But seriously think about it – after eating a greasy sambussa from the local market (a thin dough shell filled with meat and/or potato, spices, herbs, and peppers), you don’t want to lick your fingers (goodness knows what you touched before you ate the sambussa), your fingers are laden with grease so you don’t want to wipe them on your clothes because you’ll never get the grease stain out without a modern day washing machine, so what are you to do without a napkin? I made the decision to rub the grease into my skin and think of it as a moisturizer of sorts. It’s like Vaseline, right?
7. Shower Curtain – This one is more of a design flaw in my house, rather than me actually missing a shower curtain per se. The problem is that the shower head is not of highest quality, so when I turn on the shower, it seems to spray everywhere except on me. Now this takes some imagination on your part to understand the picture I am painting for you, but when I say that the water sprays everywhere, I mean that when I am done showering, the toilet is soaking, the 4 walls are dripping, the windowsill has water on it, the sink has water in it, and the floor has a nice slick layer of water all over it. It goes EVERYWHERE. Thank goodness for that squeegee previously mentioned in point 3 above!

To be fair, it’s time to name the things that I am surprised I don’t miss, although it’s only day 5, so we will revisit this list in a few months.
1. Hot water – I know, I know, I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me a month ago either, but the cold showers are not all that bad. They are really quite tolerable.
2. Washing machines – Truth be told, I haven’t done my laundry yet, but there are two huge sinks outside my house (one for the soapy wash water, the other for the clean water rinse), which seem completely adequate when it comes to cleaning clothes. Then we get to hang our clothes in the sun to dry. I may wish I had a wash board circa the early 1900’s, but we’ll see about that. I am going to have one of my housemates show me how they do laundry first, and follow their lead…stay tuned.
3. Refrigerator – The variety of food we have been served has been amazing given that there is not any refrigeration available in the village. Milk gets cooked in order to pasteurize it after it is retrieved from the cows in the farm, and all the food is made fresh and immediately consumed, and any leftovers are composted. So simple!
4. TV – I was really mindfully not to get too addicted to any fall shows this past year, knowing that I would never be able to keep up with them once I got to the village, and to be honest I don’t miss TV. Although there has been some downtime where I gladly would have watched Law & Order re-runs or new episodes of The Amazing Race or AC360, I like the simplicity of just going for a walk, meditating, striking up a conversation with someone, writing, or reading a book.

So, what should you take away from all of this? Continue reading...
  • Next time you take a hot water shower, think of me inadvertently washing down my ENTIRE bathroom with cold water, and not finding the cold water experience painful in any way.
  • Next time you wash your clothes, save some electricity and think about letting them dry in the sun like I do here (sorry for those of you being blanketed in snow at the moment – try this only in the summer).
  • Next time you stock your refrigerator up, think about all the preservatives in all of that food you are going to consume.
  • Next time you go to vacuum your floors, think of my squeegee situation…it’s bound to make you smile.
  • And lastly, next time you’re complaining that there is nothing on TV and that you’re bored, consider living the simple life – go for a walk, read a book, write in a journal, meditate, or have a conversation with someone. There is a lot of peace that comes along with simplicity.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

lesson learned as I journeyed through Kigali

I feel much more settled than I suppose is normal, but then again I have always felt that "normal" does not describe me. After all, it was just 3 days ago when I moved to a foreign country and culture without speaking the mother tongue. I have to say though that it feels good.

It has been a bit of a whirlwind, but I tend to operate best when my schedule is hectic, so these days have been good for my well-being. I will have to slow down QUITE a bit in the coming weeks and months, as there is a different pace of life here, much like “island time” in Hawai’i. Here there is Rwandan time. Time management is actually a new notion to this culture, and it is something that the village is continually working on with the family members who reside here. Each new student actually receives a watch for Christmas, and the seed that is the notion of time management is planted in each of their minds. I have already learned that if meal time is scheduled for 7am, it means that the food will actually be served closer to 7:20am. If the van driver is supposed to pick us up at 8am, he will likely show around 8:30am…it’s just how things go. TIA – This Is Africa and everyone entering this culture has to be flexible, understanding, and adaptable. Growing up in the theatre, where I was taught that early was on time, on time was late, and late is unacceptable, means that this is going to take some adjustment J

Let’s switch gears for a moment as I take you on my journey in Kigali…take one (as there are guaranteed to be many trips to Kigali over the course of the next year). In the span of 12 hours today, I embraced the capital city and its people. I began the day by walking through the outskirts of Kigali so that I could immerse myself in the living environments that many of the Agahozo students reside in when they aren’t in the village. The town I toured was Nyamirambo, and the people, the sights, and the sounds were all glorious in their own unique way. One thing I have noticed is that when locals find out you are from America, they tend to ask for “cash/check” which, although somewhat troubling, gives me a little chuckle each time I hear it.

Then I went on a 2+ hour hike up Mt. Kigali to the most spectacular man-made forest and lookout point over Kigali city. My cohort of fellows (pictured to the left) and I took a few moments just to catch our breath and take in the nature. It was a phenomenal hike! After a traditional (and might I add delicious) Rwandan lunch, we negotiated prices for cell phones and SIM cards (bargaining is a MUST here), and finished our day by touring the Rwandan Genocide Memorial (another MUST if you plan to visit Kigali). There are no words to describe what the Memorial meant to me, or what it means to anyone and everyone who visits it, but it touched me deeply.

I have to say that the highlight of the day was meeting 4 of the students from Agahozo (one of them is pictured with me to the right, atop Mt. Kigali). They were our tour guides for the day, and the adjectives delightful, radiant, and inspirational aren’t strong enough to do them justice. They were exceptional in every way, and I can not wait to meet the other 496 students who will arrive over the course of the next month. Over the past few days I heard from various staff members at the village describing the motives behind the work that they do and that in fact they, “do it for the kids." After spending the day with 4 of the kids, I now comprehend the totality of the staff members’ statements.

We all have heartbreak in our past, we have all experienced loss in some way or another, and we have all pushed through the pain to exist in whatever form possible each and every day. These children and the people of this country are different though - they have faced many things unfathomable to most of us, and yet I can already see a glimmer of hope in the eyes of most everyone I meet, sense the love in their heart, and feel the affection permeating out of their souls when I am near them. This is a country with so many people filled with so much pain, sorrow and hurt, and yet bursting with love, kindness and compassion. I think that’s a very valuable lesson learned today, and it’s only day 3…

Friday, December 9, 2011

...and so the journey begins!

It is very surreal to make a wish one day and actually have it come true. Thinking back to when the news was delivered that I had been chosen as a long-term volunteer and Jewish Service
Corps Fellow at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, I remember the influx of emotions that I felt at that moment. I have always been a dreamer, and I have never shied away from pursuing my dreams, but living abroad in sub-Saharan Africa seemed almost unattainable. It was one of those bucket-list items that you jot down but don’t actually think will ever get checked off the list. Very few people in this world actually follow their dreams, and even fewer get wishes granted. Yesterday one of my dreams became a reality, and my wish to live and work in sub-Saharan Africa was granted. Many people dream, and many people wish, but not many take any action to make either a reality. Speaking fresh from experience, it’s scary as all get-out to take a life-altering leap like this, but I am proof that anything is possible if you set your mind to it, have a loving and supportive community of family and friends around you, and are able to come to the realization that living just for the sake of living is wasteful if there isn’t any passion behind what you are doing. In mid-November, I walked away from my career, gave up my apartment and moved my belongings into a 10x15 storage unit, and I began the final stages of preparation for a journey of a lifetime.
Yesterday at 8:10pm, as I stepped out of the airplane in Kigali, I took my first physical steps in the country which I will call home for the next year - Rwanda. A few hours later I arrived at my physical home, the Agahozo-ShalomYouth Village, and the excitement hit me like a bolt of lightning. At the village, there is a saying, "if you see far, you will go far," which is one of the many motivational messages ingrained in you once you enter the gates. The 144-acre village sits atop a hill in Eastern Rwanda, and you can see all the way to Burundi. The landscape and colors here are majestic and infuse a sense of magic into the area. The village name alone sends a message - Agahozo is a Kinyarwanda word for 'place where tears are dried' and Shalom is the Hebrew word for "peace" - together they spell out that this village is a place to dry one's tears and live in peace. It is a village with enormous healing potential, where everyone can face their past, live in the present, see a future and "restore the rhythm of life." The Youth Village is modeled after the Yemin Orde Israeli Youth Village and houses 500 orphaned high school children. This special place allows everyone who lives here to feel safe, get educated, learn and develop life skills, and become productive members of society. My reasons for being here are plentiful. Some say that this is my own Happiness Project, some see it as a year-long version of the show Survivor, and others insist that this is my own personal Eat, Pray, Love experience. What this journey actually typifies will be relayed as the days unfold. I can’t promise that I’ll find happiness here, or that the eating part will be pleasant (much like the meals on Survivor), or that I will find a new spiritual depth, or find love, BUT, I can promise that it will be a journey of a lifetime that will forever change me…hang on, it’s going to be one heck of a ride!

Highlight of the Day: waking up and seeing the land of a thousand hills in daylight, right outside my front door!
Laughable Moment of the Day: looking up during a skype conversation to see a giant mouse perched atop my roommate's bed!
Kinyarwanda Word of the Day: Mzungu – translation: white person