Belated Posts: My First Week In Rwanda

I am back in Canada after a six week stay in Africa! I have not yet recollected my thoughts of the entire trip, but short and sweet words include - my travel was of nothing but amazing life changing moments. 

A brief description of my trip includes a 5 week stay in Rwanda and a 1 week climb of the tallest peak in Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro, which was most daring and physically demanding activity I have ever done in my life. 

Due to the lack of internet connection, lack of time and general laziness - I had failed in my endeavor to blog on my travels. This has happened all too often, and I do feel disappointed in my lack of determination and persistence. 

However, I did manage to write a few thoughts that I`d like to share. This first of these posts (there are only two, sadly) marks my one week stay at Rwanda, and my reflections of this wonderful country during that time. 

It has been a week in Rwanda, and introspection has become a rarity.
In the morning, I am ushered to breakfast by 7am and then am immediately driven to my placement at Gisimba. There, is where I am surrounded and at times partake in the hyperactivity of toddlers as they play in dirt, fight without reason nor rhyme, and cry as often as they laugh. My role as a nursery teacher ends around noon, and most inevitably, my energy is spent and time to replenish is acutely needed. Lunch is conventionally two hours long, we have yet foud a “spot” for lunch, as our placement is located in a poor area where water seems like a luxury let alone subpar sanitary restaurants. Instead, we are picked up by our “designated school bus” for the trip, and taken to a comfortable place downtown to dine.
In the afternoon, we spend time with the Orphans. There are approximately hundred orphans at Gisimba, but most are away in private schools and some have school in ther afternoons. Hence, we greet a limited number of them. We are to set up a program of learning for the month, in which is still in the works. 
The placement ends at 4pm, and from there on, there is a considerate amount of free time. 
Such is the generic routine of my life in Rwanda. 
The reason why I write that there is not much introspection, is because the daily life I have here is much akin to first year residence. There are nine students on this course, and we have all become relatively close in a short amount of time. Everything thing we do, is done together, in partners, in groups, and rarely as individuals. This has its advatnages and disadvantages. From one perspective, it builds relationship, team work, and we are able to bond and relate to this unique experience of being in Rwanda. What ever reflection we have, we are able to discuss, build upon and relate. However, there are hardly any alone time given to understand the emotional state of being, and deeply probe thoughts until it becomes fully formed. 
Many times, because I am invovled in group activities, the thoughts thare are formed are fleeting and incomplete.
There are number of things I am taken back thus far on my trip, the most notable being the notion of fit with my particular placement. I have previously noted that i had never been entirely comfortable with kids, I often feel awkward and unapproachable, and there is an unprecedented premise to “act silly” around kids in order to relate; none of which are acts I take comfort in performing. 
However, from the very first day at Gisimba, things proved to be rather different. These kids are creatures of extreme extraversion, friendliness and affection. Although I did have experiences of momentary awkwardness, I never felt the way I expected to feel: unattached, stoic and and being in a permanent state of distant appreciation.  Instead, their contagious friendliness caught on, and I played with them all the same, resuming a chid like demeanor. 
Teaching, however, is of a different manner. I have always known this component was to be difficult, I have never thought I would be good at teaching, and my intuition on this front was one hundred percent accurate. I teach the middle class, which are a group of 40 naughty 4-5 year olds, with the attention span of a goldfish. Having them stay quiet without distrubing their toddler neighbours are difficult enough, cathing their attention and instilling knowledge is almost an impossible task. This is compounded fact by the real dividing boundary of a language barrier - often I hear screaming fits of Kinyarwanda shouted at me, without the slightest clue of what they are referring to. Because of their limited english, I often times find myself shouting in a futile manner, as they stare back at me with zero comprehension. Needless to say, communication is proving to be quite diffucult. 
My day mainly comprise of me drawing pictures that resemble numbers, animals, objects (or whatever it is that I am teaching them that day), and shouting english vocabularies at them with the intention that repetition will eventually prevail. The first 60 seconds prove to be the most effective, with the last 29 minutes proving to be an absolute disaster, without fail. They get bored easily, and the class inevitably erupts to uncontrollable chaos.  Without the presence of another teacher, I will without doubt not have even been able to engage in the acting of teaching. 
In between classes, the kids have recess and I am to play with them. This proves to be the most tiring activity; I have to manage the perpetual crying and fighting that is prevalent on the playground, while exerting considerable energy to keep the kids entertained. Many times i run blindly in empty space chasing kids in mild amusement, other times I’d divide the times round the monkey bars, lifting kids upon the bars only to have them fall down a second later. By the end of recess, I am inevitably left gasping for air with sweat soaking through my back. 
Another difficulty is the morning routine of chanting nursery rhymes. I have been exposed to nursery rhymes as a child, but have mostly forgotten the majority of the songs I have learned. Since my chidhood was spent in China, most of the rhymes I learned were in Mandarin. As of here, I should probably explain that we as volunteers are expected to teach kids english nursery rhymes; a feat that have proven to be my worst nightmare. Not only do I lack knowledge in such a endeavor, I am terrible in “acting out” the movements that are accompanied with the rhymes. Most often, these are where my feelings of awkwardness preface. 

Death is also a very common theme in the daily lives of Rwandans. Upon the third day of my placement, I met the orphans at Gisimba for the first time. There were a group of them playing soccer, and I was talking to an older boy as he pointed to a small boy not older than than 6 guarding the goal post, and said “You see that boy,” he mentioned casually, as I nodded subsequently. “His mother died today. She was very sick, and died of AIDS.” 

Those words not heard often in the west, and here in Kigali, it seems the people here have become disencitized to death of close ones. 

A (mostly) Pre-Departure Travelogue:

May 18th 2014 7pm:

The last minute race to pack as light and all encompassing as possible is an almost inevitable failure. You begin, with an adrenaline of singular ambition - I have 24 hours, I can do this, this is going to end well. Then, a quarter way through, no doubt blindly sorting through a heaping mountain of appropriate attire, you realize you only have one pair of long pants that represents the ultimate idealism for the temperament you will be venturing into. While in most situations, such realization presents no actual dilemma, the exception falls upon this very trip because you will be away for an excruciating 6 weeks and the destination is Africa where necessary infrastructure is a rarity, let alone water and wind proof ventilating long pants. 

”!@:LKJ#K!@L$J@LK!#J@L”. You say. But nevertheless decides to ignore the minor set back and continue on the path of boundless enthusiasm in meeting your said goal. Yet, the first set back slowly morphs to a tumbling avalanche of “Wow, they prescribed me X pills short in Y drugs, and I need this or else I might die there. Fuck.” and “WHERE ARE ALL MY LADY THINGS?!?!” to.. “If I can only recall where I put that plane ticket……………..”. 

Needless to say, things are not going well. Ambition slowly recedes to a full panic attack followed by omnipresent paranoia. 

May 20th 12:22pm:

The pack is mostly finished, with the exception of some sort of head gear contraption needed for times spent in dark places without sufficient electricity. I did not realize packing would be this stressful, having lived in London for university, and being a greyhound frequenter, I thought I was pretty good at packing light and sufficiently; but boy was I proven wrong. I had to “re-edit” my clothes alone four times in order to assess the optimal quantity. Never mind the arduous mind battle over the “right” amount of scarfs, snacks, medicine; it was a eminent reminder of why procrastination rarely ends well. 

As the countdown to Rwanda towards zero, I also have developed slight anxiety over the type of luggage I will be bringing on my trip; my designated carry-on bag is a 55L backpack that barely scrape carry-on qualifications. If things go awry, I may have to send it via check-in and risk not having any of my snacks and additional documentation by my handy-dandy side. 

I am also finding myself increasingly scrutinizing minute details. Things such as: how much reading material should I bring? Is just one book appropriate? Should I also bring a magazine? Are consuming my frazzled mind at an uncomfortable pace. 

May 20th 11:52pm (Kigali time):

I have touched down two hours ago, and have semi-settled into our current situation which can only be described as nothing short of “culture shock”. Our rooms are cramped in a tiny quarter with stains specked across the walls. Washrooms comprise of three stalls, with standard toilet seating, but the unsanitary condition of the toiletry reminds me to abstain from any fluid. The showers are also of the same condition, rusted to the point of questionable detriment. My peers looked on to one another with seeming hesitation - can we survive this this?

I have expected living conditions to be different from home, but nothing I imagined was close to comparison. However, I am not going to let this ordeal deter me. I’m in Rwanda, living in a hostel, and if other human beings can survive in such a condition, then so can I.

The flight to Kigali was of splendid beauty. We flew from Toronto to Brussels, and from there took a connecting flight towards Kigali. As we took off from Brussels, we were greeted by natural wonders. In between the German-Austrian border, we saw the Bavarian Alps; a range of Rock Mountains that roam the borders between the two nations. It homes the Kingdom of Bavaria and the majestic palaces of Wittelsbach.

We were welcomed to the continent of Africa by the Saharan desert; the world’s hottest and deadliest seductive monster. Contradiction to previous pre-conceived notion, the desert was comprised of different formations. There were areas of flatness, followed by terrain, dunes, and groups of rocky mountains. The Nile river meanders its way through the desert terrain, forming the oasis needed for the dry arid land.

*******************

Edit: this was written a while back with incomplete detailing. Since internet very bare, uploading photos has been met with utmost difficulty. I will update when I find sufficient time and internet connection.

As of right now, I am loving Kigali and we have also moved to a more spacious room with a personal bathroom; it definitely isn’t five start hotel, let alone a hotel at all, but living accommodation has become very agreeable.

As for placement: I have been working with a nursery school in the morning (4-5 year old… brats, let’s just say) and in the afternoon I have been hanging out with orphans in the same institution I have been placed at.

I never thought I would be have enjoyed my placement because I have never got along with kids exceedingly well, but children here  very endearing, loving and affectionate - not to mention uh, misbehaving. I actually am enjoying my placement… thus far. I think. :)

This weekend, we will be heading down to the Akagera National Park for a Safari, a trip that i am most looking forward to. I hope this sparse update is momentary sufficient, because wifi is a luxury that I have taken too much for granted back home.

To Kigali and Back:

***This is rather a long and (quite frankly) boring read, purposed with giving some background context. I provided titles to separate content and to help with the skimming :)

image

For those unaware, I will be travelling to Kigali, Rwanda in 3 days, for a duration of six weeks with my university on a missionary trip. The trip is an integrated component of a French community service learning course I have taken (and am technically still taking) in my previous semester at the university that focuses on society, culture and reconstruction in Rwanda. 

When I first announced my intention for such an endeavour, I was met with outrage, confusion and subsequent bombardment of questions such as, “What is Rwanda?”, “Is that the place in Hotel Rwanda?”, to more reasonable inquiries as to “Why?” and “What are you doing there?”. Needless to say, it is not a location popularized as a travel destination, and it also became obvious that there are number of individuals who have never even heard of Rwanda.

So, what is Rwanda?

Just as a forewarning, my scope of knowledge is rather shallow, and is analogous to the general population at large. This is pretty much written with supplements from Wikipedia. If you have heard of Rwanda and have done basic research on the genocide, this will be a complete repetitive bore.

image

Rwanda is located in East Africa, and is one of the most economically promising nation in the region. It is the home of the endangered Mountain Gorillas, and is predominantly Catholic with three official languages: Kinyarwanda, French and English. Previously a German and subsequently Belgian colony, it became a sovereign state in 1961 under the ruling of Gregoire Kayibanda; a man of Hutu ethnicity. 

Rwanda’s claim to fame (or rather infamy) was the genocide that occurred between April-July 1994; it marked a violent blood bath of Tutsi slaughtered by Hutu majority. Statistics from Wikipedia dictates that approximately 500,000-1,000,000 Rwandans were killed in a matter of 100 days which translated to 70% of Tutsi in Rwanda or 20% of Rwanda’s total population. The genocide only ended when the Rwanda Patriot Front (RPF), a political party formed by a number of Tutsi exiles in Uganda, broke into the country and captured Kigali (capital of Rwanda) on July 7th 1994. The RPF is current Rwanda’s ruling party.

There are a number of historical factors that laid the ground work for such a horror, but most academics agree that its most prominent reason laid with the Belgians. In short, under Belgian rule, the notion of “Tutsi Supremacy”  was escalated to such an extent, that ethnicity became extremely politicized through reforms and even many scientific studies (with unsubstantiated evidence) were conducted to prove Tutsi were intellectually superior than their Rwandan counterparts. This predominant favoring of one “ethnicity” of another, led to increasing resentment that fueled a number of important subsequent historical events such as the Rwandan Revolution and the Rwandan Civil War, that were as much about political independence as about ethnic strife.

image

Why am I going there?

I have developed a healthy dose of curiosity since teen-hood (from reading too many books no doubt) to travel to places less traveled, and even more so to historical landmarks of human suffering, horror and general depravity. My top 3 travel bucket list established since teen-hood were of obscure, and (in the eyes of many) incredulous nature: Central to Southern Africa, Auschwitz concentration camp and “space” (-_-). In summation, I suppose, you can say “I have always wanted to visit Africa”. 

What am I doing there?

As mentioned previously, the trip is a component of a service learning course I am taking with my university. The course is designed with the purpose of learning and understanding the culture and history in Rwanda in order to develop an appreciation for foreign culture.

Specifically, I will be volunteering in Kigali (capital of Rwanda) at an affiliated institute with my university, most likely teaching kids ranging from the age of 4 to teen hood english. The affiliated institute are of the following: the College of Health and Medicine, a higher studies institution purposed with training health professionals, Gisimba Memorial Centre and Centre Marembo; both schools tasked with teaching kids from kindergarten to highschool in a variety of subjects. 

image

*******************************************************************************************

Wow, this was unexpectedly a long read! I got rather carried away, and will try to write far more colloquially from here on- as I have no desire to instigate textbook-inducing snores as opposed to concise, engaging and vicarious excitement. :)

This marks the start of my journey in Kigali, follow here for continuous updates on my trip! 

….Now back to the evil deed of packing. Toodles!