Monday, January 23, 2012

monkey business for my birthday

My father has always teased me that one day isn’t long enough for me to celebrate my birthday. Who am I to disagree with him – this year I allowed the celebration to last a few days…this may be my only birthday in Rwanda after all. I wanted to be in the Village for my actual birthday because the girls in my family seemed really excited that my birthday was coming up, and I honestly couldn’t think of any other place I would rather be, or any other people I would rather be surrounded by. They didn’t disappoint, as they had a whole celebration planned, complete with candles, a MOUND of confetti, which they threw on my head, songs, and handmade birthday cards. The amount of love they showed me was magnificent and so moving.

Since my brother’s untimely death this past July, I have really been thinking quite a bit about growing older, and I am trying to be thankful for each and every day that I have here on Earth with family and friends. That is honestly what I thought a lot about on my birthday – I want to make each day of my life meaningful and I want to find something to be grateful for in each of those days. My brother accomplished an astounding array of achievements in his short 33 years; however there was still a lot that he never got to encounter, so I am trying to make sure that I make the most of every situation so that I can experience things for the both of us.

I decided to make this weekend MY weekend, and I did something that I have dreamed about since I was a little girl – I went into the jungle and chased around chimpanzees! My friends Melanie (Briggs) and Monica (Timar) have supported my chimpanzee obsession by buying me many things chimp-related (statues, notebooks, key chains, etc.) for years, but the real chimpanzee is so much better! It was a long journey to Nyungwe, Rwanda – about 6 hours by bus across the entire country. The final 2 hours through Nyungwe National Forest reminded me of Tanzania with respect to the roads – they call it an African massage because of the constant bumps/shaking/vibration caused by the rough terrain. The scenery however, reminded me of Costa Rica – I had entered a dense, primary rainforest. It was early to bed because I had to wake up at 4:30am and get ready to meet the guide at 5am. Then I was back on the bumpy road for another hour and 45 minutes toward Cyamudongo Forest, where a family of roughly 40 chimpanzees reside. The terrain was fierce with wet, thick underbrush underfoot, tripping vines grabbing at my ankles, choking vines grasping for my throat, prickly branches sticking to my legs, and lichen-covered trees everywhere in sight. The sky was barely visible, and the make-believe path that we were following was nearly 75 degrees steep (or so it seemed)! As soon as I reached the top of the hill, I got word from the chimpanzee trackers that the chimps had changed course and were headed down the hill, which meant I had to backtrack and run back down the same “path” that I had just climbed! It was more treacherous going down, and I found myself on my butt more often than not. I have to admit that I was tempted to go Romancing-the-Stone-style and just slide down the darn muddy hill. If only I could use all 4 limbs like the chimps!

As soon as I reached the main path, I was told to wait for the chimpanzees to reach the same point because they would cross the “street” and head down the next steep hill, into the valley below. Sure enough, after a few minutes I could hear the “hoot” noises coming closer and in a matter of a few seconds, an entire group crossed the street, one-by-one (with the exception of the one momma chimp with the baby on her back). As each one emerged out of the jungle, they stopped, stared in my direction, and then scampered back into the forest below. It was breathtaking! After another bit of time waiting on the road above, listening to the chimpanzees below, I got word from the trackers to venture down into the forest. After trudging through more vines, trees, moss, and mud, I found them. There was a moment when the tracker pushed me ahead of the group and told me to run down the path…moments later, I found myself 20 feet from a group of chimpanzees who were standing on the same path as I was, staring at me as if to say, “why the hell are you running after us?” I stopped, frozen, unable to grasp the reality of the moment. Who gets the opportunity to truly chase after chimpanzees?! It was an outrageous notion, and I had just done it! As we were staring at each other, the tracker told those of us in the group to turn around – here WE were also being chased…one of the male chimpanzees was following us on the path, keeping a close eye on what we were doing. It was astounding.

The trek wrapped up with our group chasing the family of chimps up and down a few more hills, and then coming to a halt, standing still, watching them swing high above us in the rainforest canopy, from branch to branch, tree to tree. I decided to just put my camera down and watch it all transpire without a camera lens hampering my view. I took many mental pictures, which will be with me long after my digital photos are forgotten. The monkeys’ free-spirited and playful nature made me smile and made me escape the reality of my world for just a few moments. I got lost in the moment, and loved every second of it. I came here to be present and live in each and every moment, and I did that while I was with the chimpanzees. I had lived yet another dream, and crossed yet another thing off my bucket list. What’s next? You’ll have to stay tuned to see…

A memorable moment from this weekend hitchhiking (to save $120), and getting picked up by a dump truck (see photo to the right, inside the cab)! Aside from the ridiculously fun, ultra-bumpy ride, the 40 minute ride was FREE!

Another memorable moment from this weekend while playing cards at the Gisakura guesthouse in the afternoon, my friend Miki and I found ourselves suddenly SURROUNDED by blue monkeys who smelled the bananas we were eating. They swarmed around us and made me giggle like a toddler. It was so thrilling to have so many monkeys so close in proximity to me (at times they were 2 feet away)! (see photo to the right)

Another fun adventure from this past weekend – the canopy walk, complete with a 1 and 1/2 hour hike, high above the Nyungwe Rainforest! The canopy walkway is 200 meters long, and is suspended 70 meters high between giant trees. It offers a magnificent view of the upper canopy. (see photos below)

Stomach-turning moment from this weekend – on the bus ride back to Kigali, the man seated behind me was unable to wait to “pass water” (what they call peeing in Rwanda), and ended up peeing himself. Yes, the bus reeked of urine, and we still had 4 hours left in our ride.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Urgency, Effectiveness, Efficiency, and a Recipe for Success

Life is different here. Every day I see, discover and hear things that strike me as odd, but that is just because they are different from what I am accustomed to. I find some things amusing, others intriguing, and others just downright baffling. My quest to learn 1 thing a day is still alive and well, as there is always something to learn here in Rwanda. I will start with the notion of urgency, effectiveness, and efficiency. Those are three words that have been engrained into my thoughts and actions since the day I began working as a teenager at the local Geauga County Fair. As I have grown older, I have become someone who requests that those three tenants be respected and heeded, so I have had to switch gears a bit, take a back seat, and bite my tongue since moving to Rwanda.

Urgency does not exist – plain and simple. Rwanda has its own pace, and it is most definitely NOT urgent. The other night I was walking back from the dining hall and one of the staff members mocked me because I was, “being passed by Rwandans.” People here walk S-L-O-W-L-Y, so to be passed by a Rwandan indicates that you are practically moving backwards because they are never in a hurry. I must say though that I have learned to take my time and not rush. It is refreshing to slow down and live in the moment, and to allow myself to get lost in my surroundings as I go to and from a place, BUT, the slower pace means that less gets accomplished, especially when there is a lack of effectiveness and efficiency. Case in point - last week the Village water pump stopped working, and we ran out of water. For two days, there wasn’t any running water – to shower, to brush your teeth, to flush the toilet, to drink…the pipes were dry. Although I was beginning to feel as though the water issue was an urgent matter, none of the Rwandans seemed especially concerned. There was even a hour when I saw people using the backup collection of rain water to wash a Village vehicle. Clearly THAT was an urgent activity, although not an effective or efficient use of backup water from the point of view of a Westerner :)

It is so easy as a Westerner to be tempted to jump into a project that is underway and explain, show, or overhaul the process from a Western perspective. But, I stop myself every time because that is not why I am here. I am not here to tell people how to do something, or to explain that the Western way may be better or faster or more effective or efficient. My job is to assist the Rwandans and support them with their efforts; all while proposing supplemental ways of enhancing their ideas or plans. Even if I have a great idea, I have to introduce it in a way so as to make them think that it is an idea that they cultivated, thus making them believe in it more, thus increasing the odds that there will be buy-in from those involved. It’s a slippery game, but oddly intriguing. The key is sustainability. I can arrive with the most incredible plan or idea, but if there isn’t local buy-in and belief in that plan or idea, it will die when I leave this Village 10 ½ months from now. It also has to make sense to the locals. In a way, many people here seem to have the old-school American mentality of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They seemingly do things a certain way because that is the way it has always been done, and there isn’t any reason in their mind to change the course of action, regardless if the “new” way is more effective or efficient. That notion drove me batty at my last job, but keeping it in context here in Rwanda, it makes sense here, and with that newly found discovery and understanding, I have a new sense of calm when it comes to those kinds of situations.

In addition to appreciating and understanding a new way of looking at things and situations, I also uncovered an discovery. I came to realize that urgency, effectiveness, and efficiency aren’t as important as I always thought them to be. What matters is to have competent, intelligent leaders above you and workers surrounding you, all who possess the passion and inspiration to make the work meaningful, and the respect for one another to make the work possible. If you have those key ingredients, most everything else will fall into place, and the bits that don’t, don’t really matter. That recipe for success did not exist in my life before Rwanda, and I am so thankful to have made that discovery so early in this journey. This really is a good fit, and these people are exactly who I want around me each and every day. They make me stronger, smarter, more worldly, and more productive. They are what each and every place of employment needs.

Funny Story of the Week: I was sitting and waiting to meet a tour group which was coming to the Village, and several staff members scolded me for sitting out in the sun. When I came inside to sit and wait, one of the staff members said to me, “your skin is changing color…WHAT IS WRONG?!” I looked down and all I saw were my ever-present freckles, which apparently are not very common here. It is one of those things I have taken for granted because in America, I don’t think I have ever had to try to explain what freckles are to another person. Like I said before, this place is different. Think about it – how do you explain freckles? After trying to clarify the dots on my skin, the staff member responded by saying, “so it is a skin disease that you will pass on to your children.” There was no way to cleanse that way of thinking, so I just had to laugh. I really wanted to tell him that because I have been eating so many beans, the color of the beans is starting to ooze through the pores in my skin, but I refrained.

Sweet Moment of the Week: It was one of my little sister’s birthdays this past week, so I found her in the dining hall and gave her a hand-made card and a hug. During our nightly family meeting, she mentioned how my gesture made her feel so special, and that she could feel the love that I had for her. She said that I made her day special. Little did she know that I was struggling a bit emotionally that day, and when she left her friends at dinner to come sit next to me, SHE made my day special.

Cultural Highlight of the Week: A Kigali-based theatre troupe (Mashirika) and The Anne Frank Project from Buffalo State University came to perform at the Village on Saturday. The entire show involved our own students performing traditional dance, Mashirika performing an emotional and thought-provoking piece about genocide, and The AFP performing a medley of Rent songs intertwined with scenes from Romeo & Juliet. It was a joy to watch it all take place outside in the amphitheatre!

What I Am Craving This Week: dried mango, apples, southern sweet tea, and my iPod (mine died)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

It Is A Challenging World In Which We Live

This week I hit a milestone – one month in Rwanda :) If you have been following my blog, you know that the past 4 weeks have been filled with adventures and many opportunities for learning and growth. I don’t want to paint an unbalanced picture however, because there have been challenges, which is to be expected no matter where you live in the world. I did not come on this journey to escape trials and tribulations or to avoid the world, but rather to be inspired by, and learn from the challenges that will be presented to me while in Rwanda.

Challenge 1: Most of you won’t be surprised to hear that I was sick this past week. The truth is that I tend to catch colds and much more serious infections/diseases rather quickly. Quite honestly, that was the one fear that almost kept me from coming on this journey, but luckily I took the leap despite my fear of not having a CVS down at the corner, or Western Medicine within the boundaries of my living enviornment . This week was nothing serious – I picked up a wicked cold and sinus infection, all mixed in with some chest pressure. It is always miserable being sick, and the challenge of such seems to be exponentially worse when you are far away from home. Although I brought boxes of cold and flu relief with me, nothing seemed to want to boot out whatever was in my system, which is when I turned to Rwandan Mother Nature Medicine, or so I call it. There are many plants, weeds, and trees that grow in the Village, and when Western boxed medicine failed me, I trusted what I was told by the locals and loaded up on sage, lemongrass, mint, honey, and a special tea made with an “antibiotic” leaf (see the picture to the left), which just so happens to grow in the courtyard of the health and wellness center here in the village. The leaf is quite well known, in fact any time anyone saw me with it, they inquired whether or not I was ill. I have no idea what the leaf actually is, what is in it, or whether or not it actually has magical medicinal powers, but I was willing to give it a try. Depending who I spoke with, I heard various tales about the antibiotic leaf. I was told that my best bet was to brew it into a tea. A second option was to hold it over my nose and mouth and breathe through it, much like an oxygen mask on an airplane. The third option seemed to be the most risky – I was told that I could chew the leaf and/or tuck it between my gum and cheek, but that the side-effects were strong and included a sudden loss in blood pressure, the loss of hearing (for an unknown amount of time), and/or the numbing of my tongue and cheeks. As I stated, I was willing to give anything a try, but I was not willing to faint, lose my hearing, or my sense of taste and feeling in my mouth over a leaf. In the end, I honestly don’t know whether it was my immune system, the numerous American cold pills that people were pumping into me, or the magical antibiotic Mother Nature tea which took away my ailments, but here I am a week later feeling much better.

Challenge 2: A second challenge I was faced with this week involved teaching English to 34 first year students in the Village (including the 2 boys featured in the traditional African dance video in my last blog). I never have been, nor have I ever planned on being a teacher, but when it comes to the kids in the Village, I do what I am asked to do. Every day this past week, along with one of the week-long ESL volunteers, I made lesson plans and taught English for 4 hours a day to the advanced students within the first year class. The challenge wasn’t so much in the lesson planning, or the instruction, but it was everything that goes into teaching students life lessons. The students here all come from very challenging backgrounds, ones that would put most Americans’ “tough lives” to shame, and although they have each been “raised” to an extent by an elder, there are seemingly many holes when it comes to them having worldly awareness and knowledge, and respect (for themselves and others). Don’t get me wrong, these students are brilliant – they could easily go toe-to-toe with many American University students when it comes to their ability to discuss and debate many topics at a high level, however when it comes to history for instance, their knowledge-base seems to be a bit one-dimensional, and when it comes to manners and respecting themselves and others, their knowledge-base seems to be semi-non-existent.

One of my favorite pieces of the Village’s mission is to educate students both formally (in school) and informally, and to teach them academic lessons, as well as life-lessons. Simple lessons like not conversing with friends while someone is speaking seems to be a new concept to so many students here, whereas in America, I am pretty sure we learn that in Kindergarten. Other lessons like respecting each other’s opinions, whether you agree or not, and not insisting that your opinion is more valuable or more accurate also seems to be novel (although many Americans don’t know those lessons, regardless of age).

The biggest and most surprising challenge arose while discussing various leaders, role models, and inspirational figures (specifically Anne Heyman, Nelson Mandela, Lady Gaga, Barack Obama, and Steve Jobs) with the students. During the discussion and lesson, other notable “leaders” were brought up by the students, particularly Hitler and Gaddafi. During those discussions, not only did I realize how insular my educational background was when it came to those two men and their actions, but I was also made aware of how narrow the views were of the students in my class. The big difference is that many of the students' views were polar opposite from what I had been exposed to in my formal education. It is all a matter of context and perspective I suppose, and it was a HUGE lesson learned on my part. It was a challenge like no other I have really ever faced, but it was a lesson.

This year will undoubtedly be filled with ups and downs, and although this past week was filled with challenges including those listed above and those not relayed to you via this blog, I am confident that this was the best decision I likely have ever made for myself – to stop living a life that didn't fit and which was challenging me in really negative ways, find the courage to walk away, listen to my heart, follow my instincts, and become a better version of who I was before. As Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life…Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I challenge each of you to heed Mr. Jobs’ advice, or at the very least, learn from others who have.

Most Touching Moment of the Week: The girls in my family were making acrostic poems with their first names and decorating them for their rooms. Several of the girls wrote in the background of their poems, “I LOVE” and drew and line after the phrase. They then came up to me and asked me to write my name in the blank so that it read, “I LOVE BARRETT.” Priceless.

Most Amusing Moment of the Week: One of the boys in my advanced English class that I have been teaching for the week was asking me to tell him about my family and friends in America. He and his friends were very inquisitive about my romantic life back in America and found it “impossible” that I didn’t leave a boyfriend behind when I moved here. In the next instant, one of them raised his eyebrows in a flirtatious way and said, “well, I am available.” Again, priceless.

Best Meal of the Week: Not just once, but twice this past weekend I went to the Indian restaurant next to the Kigali house to eat, and gorged myself until I was sure I was going to pop. I have never had such amazing Indian food in my life, and I have a feeling that I just began a new ritual for each time I go to Kigali. If you are ever in Kigali, you must eat at Zaffran in Kiovu! PHENOMENAL!

Best/Oddest Compliment of the Week: I was buying groceries at a supermarket in Kigali, and during checkout, I was conversing in Kinyarwanda with the clerk (just basic greetings and conversation, NOTHING advanced), and after our exchange of words, he asked, “are you Rwandan?” I almost laughed out loud, but resisted the urge and told him that I was from America. I know that I have picked up a lot of sun, and that I have a lot of freckles, but there is no way in the world that anyone could possibly think that I am actually from Rwanda! I took it as a compliment nonetheless.

Kinyarwanda Phrases:

· Nimenshi Cyane! – That’s too expensive! (really helpful when you are bargaining for a moto or in a market)

· Ndwaye ibicurane – I have a cold

· Ndi ingaragu – I am single

Monday, January 2, 2012

You want me to do what at 6am?!

For those who know me, you know that I like my sleep. Actually, that is an understatement. My brothers still tease me, and my brother Kurt used to say (in a half-irritated, half boastful way) that I could out-sleep anyone in this world. It is true that I do love my sleep, and I cherish those days when I can sleep in, undisturbed, and wake up feeling rejuvenated and refreshed. I have never grown out of the sleeping in phase, and quite honestly, I never plan on doing so. However, having said that, sleeping in is not going to happen on any Saturday for the next year because of Muchaka Muchaka. Let me continue this preface by saying that Kurt was like Forrest Gump and could run, and run, and then run some more, without being phased. I was not built like him, and I am not, nor have I ever been a runner. In fact it is a rarity for me to ever feel like going for a run, but I have been known to do it. Apparently I will be doing it more often than ever before, again thanks to Muchaka Muchaka.
What is Muchaka Muchaka you ask? Every Saturday morning at 6am, the entire school (students, staff, administration, mamas, big sisters/brothers, and cousins) lines up and goes for a run together. Yes, I said 6 in the morning, as in the time when the sun is rising. This past Saturday was the first Muchaka Muchaka of the year, and it was, well, early. If I am going to be honest, I have to admit that the running was not all that bad, thanks in part to the drill sergeants leading the herd of us through the streets of Rubona. I call them drill sergeants jokingly, but essentially that's what they are - they are there to motivate us, shout out chants, lead songs, etc., all to try and make the run all the more enjoyable and bearable. I must say that I feel bad for the residents of Rubona who like me, enjoy sleeping in because there is not a chance in the world that anyone could sleep through the Agahozo Shalom Muchaka Muchaka singing and chanting. Once we finished the run, we all headed to the dining hall where some of the students led the group in further singing and dancing while we waited for the morning porridge. The joyful and spirited singing that these students participate in blows me away and gives me chills every time I hear it. They know so many national songs and EVERYONE participates with full gusto. It truly is something to witness and experience! I bet that I could visit every high school in America and not be able to find an entire student body that would be willing and able to spiritedly sing any song related to patriotism, let alone an entire selection of songs!

As if the 6am Muchaka Muchaka didn't make the day long enough, it happened to be New Year's Eve, which meant that the day was going to be extra long, thanks to a 3 hour student-produced "talent show." I think all of the Westerners had our doubts when we were told that the brand new students, who have been here less than a week were going to conceptualize, organize, and perform in the New Year's Eve show, leading up to the stroke of midnight. Well, the naysayers were put to shame because the students pulled it off and there was not a single person in attendance who was not thoroughly entertained. The show featured various acts that ranged from traditional dance (see the clip at the bottom of the page), to modern dance, singing, comedy skits, theatrical skits, and interpretive dance. It was quite a range, and it was absolutely incredible to see these students peel away their inhibitions and perform on stage in front of 150 people. Every time I saw one of my girls on stage, I was like a proud big sister, beaming and taking pictures.

I can't say that I am going to keep the Muchaka Muchaka tradition alive and well after I leave Rwanda in a year (time will tell), but I will say that every time I am timid or afraid to step out of my comfort zone, I will think back to the New Year's Eve celebration and think of the students and their performances. They will give me courage to live in the moment, and embrace each opportunity.

Kinyarwanda Words of the Day:
umwaka mushya muhire - translation: happy new year
Lesson of the Day: if you catch a raccoon and want to eat it, place the meat in a salt brine mixture to a) kill any potential parasites and b) tenderize and season the meat - weird lesson, I know, but I learned it today!
Favorite Sound of the Day: hearing my girls laugh with pure delight when they try to teach me a new kinyarwanda word and I am unable to correctly pronounce it - they truly double over with laughter and the sound is just magical!
Favorite Quote from a Student: During the New Year's Eve celebration, one of our new students was translating for me (in perfect, advanced English mind you), and after about 2 hours, he said, "please excuse me while I go quickly to the wash closet (the bathroom for those of you who are confused), but do not worry because I will return soon."