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Genocide Memorial

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the official start of the Rwandan Genocide.

On April 6, 1994 a plane carrying the president of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, beginning one of the biggest atrocities in modern history.  Over 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed in just 100 days.  Each day, 10,000 were murdered.  To put that into perspective, take the number of victims killed in the tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001 (2,977). Multiply that by 3. And repeat it for 100 days.  More than three times the number of victims of 9/11 (10,000) died in Rwanda every single day for 100 days straight during the 1994 Genocide. This was all in a country roughly the size of Massachusetts, until over 1/10 of the population had perished, and millions of others were displaced.

Today, 21 years later, Rwanda is a country of progress and hope.  It is a beautiful country adequately called the “land of a thousand hills.”  In the past two decades, Rwanda has seen incredible prosperity and renewal, with a booming economy that has increased the standard of living unprecedented rates.  GDP growth rate in Rwanda averaged 6.28% annually between 2000-2014, and per capita income tripled in that time (from $206USD in 2000 to $638USD in 2014).  Rwanda has some of the lowest rates of corruption in the region, and has significantly reduced the percentage of the population living in poverty.  The government has the goal of Rwandan becoming a middle-income country by 2020, which it has made significant progress towards.

At Agahozo-Shalom, I have the pleasure of working with children who truly are the future of Rwanda.  Students who believe in the power of dreaming big, who feel it is their responsibility to improve their communities, and who are the truest definition of resilient.

I see the future of Rwanda in students like Ornella, who believe in the power of women and defying social norms in order to work hard and make a change in the future.  In Cadette, who is passionate about remedying the negative effects of poor nutrition in her community and is dedicated improving the health in her country.  And in Angelique, who raised her younger siblings after their mother died and father left with their abusive step-mother, and who only four months ago knew no English and is now first in her English class.  Students who are committed to making Rwanda a better place by developing and sharing their talents, whether it is music, debate, architecture, poetry, economics, or business.  I am proud to know and work with 500 inspirational young men and women who give me full confidence in the future of this country and of the world.

IMG_1598As we enter the period of Genocide Memorial, I am thinking especially of the loved ones of so many that I have come to call friends and family here in Rwanda.  Let us always remember atrocities like the Rwandan Genocide in order to learn from the past, and to work towards the end of hatred and violence.  No matter the person, no matter the community.  Never again.

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Valentine’s Daybate Tournament

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love, of passion, and of commitment. This year I celebrated Valentine’s Day surrounded by all of these things and by something that truly makes my heart happy – The Agahozo-Shalom Debate Team at their first tournament of the year.

iDebate is a local nonprofit that runs the Kigali Debate League, which Agahozo-Shalom is a member of. It was founded in 2013 by a group mostly of previous Rwandan high school debaters who thought that there should be a more formal forum for debate in their country. What has developed from that in the past two years is truly incredible. This first tournament had 42 teams from across Rwanda (largely the Kigali area) who came together to debate in the World School Style of Debate (3 vs. 3 debate). The motion for the debates this year for the Kigali Debate League is as follows: “The government of Rwanda should adopt the East African treaty by establishing a common market, a monetary union, and a political federation of East Africa.”

As the school year only started three weeks ago, the debate team only had one week to prepare. This meant understanding the complexities of the topic, researching and reading articles, preparing their cases, etc. It meant many late nights and long days of meetings and work as well as garnering help from outside sources including Jesh, one of the co-founders of iDebate IMG_4022who comes to the village to coach the kids and Eric, Director of Operations here at ASYV and coincidently did his Business Law Master’s thesis on regional integration in East Africa (basically exactly the topic).

We brought 3 teams to the tournament, one team of novice debaters from the Enrichment Year, and two teams of experienced debaters, as well as a number of other kids from the debate team to watch and learn from the experience. One of the teams broke to quarter-finals (top 8) after winning all 3 of their first rounds and having high speaker points… then semi-finals… then finals! Watching each of their out-rounds was one of the most stressful experiences for me – I found myself feeling like an over-involved soccer mom, feeling more anxiety waiting for the results and arguably as much joy as the kids with each win.

For the finals, the Agahozo team consisting of Maxime and Bonfils from Senior 6 and Ornella from Senior 5 was up against Gashora Girls Academy (the school that took first place in Rwanda last year, and had half of the teams in quarter-finals at this tournament). The whole tournament watched as Agahozo and Gashora debated in an impressive final round. Bonfils spoke with composure and strong evidence. Maxime debated with passion and striking rebuttles. Ornella orated with conviction and comprehensive arguments.

It was a 4-1 decision – Agahozo-Shalom won. As the decision was announced, everyone rose to their feet with excitement, hugging one another, shaking hands, giving high-fives, and cheering with pure euphoria.

A year and a half ago, Agahozo-Shalom was just starting their debate team, spearheaded by Frank and Maxime. They were learning what debate was, and teaching themselves the skills. Back then, they would lose every round. Jean Michael reminisced that a team would hear they were against Agahozo, and would be relieved as it would be a sure win for them. Now, these kids are incredible.

I am so thankful that iDebate exists. Just as speech and debate was transformative to me in my high school experience, I see it as the same for these kids. Not only the life-long skills, but the passion and commitment, the experiences and opportunities. Some of the enrichment year IMG_3974kids remarked that they need to work on their English, and that they really want to be leaders and aspire to be like some of the older kids on the team.

After the awards ceremony, a girl from another school came up to me and asked how she could get into Liquidnet Family High School at Agahozo Shalom. I explained to her that it is not like other schools. Many of the other teams we compete against are private schools that are very expensive, or that only give a few scholarships to students. For Agahozo, students are identified by their district in senior 3 as being among the most vulnerable (having lost one or both parents, and also fitting other criteria for vulnerability depending on their situation), then undergo the ASYV recruitment process (which includes visits to meet the students at their schools and in their homes before 4 from each district are selected). Our students have made such an impression on her, that she wants to be like them. It’s truly amazing.

Maxime, Bonfils, and Ornella let other team members wear their medals and hold their trophy for the rest of the evening and in the pictures, because it did not matter if a student competed IMG_4141and lost, or was just at the tournament to watch. We are one Agahozo, and a victory for one group of us is a victory for us as a team. For me it was a special experience, as it was one of the first times that I truly felt a part of Agahozo, and not as one of the “cousins” who is somewhat of an outsider. In all of the moments of excitement, anxiety, and joy of the day, I forgot that I was not from the same country as these kids, and instead, we were all so united. That is the magic of this place, and this experience.

The bus drive home was filled with so much happiness, singing and chatting. I smiled as I looked around at the 25 kids who surrounded me, all who love debate, singing aloud to the songs playing from the speakers.

As we turned off the dirt road through the main gates of Agahozo-Shalom, “If you see far, you will go far,” Ornella changed the song, and everyone in the van started clapping and cheering. We drove past the dining hall just as the other students were leaving. Instead of stopping, the driver of the van sped up and continued down the road for a victory lap around campus – down past the basketball courts, past the mango tree and administration buildings, while the kids cheered and laughed and sang with genuine pride and joy. It was not just a win for Maxime, Bonfils, and Ornella, but a win for Agahozo-Shalom, because together, we are one.

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Recent Realizations and Revelations in Rwanda

1. The etymology of the word “muzungu” is hilarious.

The word Muzungu, which is what foreigners/”white people” are called here in Rwanda, has a hilarious history. I was googling the spelling to make sure it was correct, and found this description. According to Wikipedia (obviously the most reputable of sources): “The word Muzungu comes from Kiswahili, where ‘zungu’ is the word for spinning around on the same spot. That dizzy lost look was perfected by the first white people arriving in the African Great Lakes. Muzunguzungu is Kiswahili for a dizzy person. The term is now used to refer to someone with white skin.” Hilarious!

2. Sometimes I think that everyone at the village has their watch set an hour behind mine.

Did daylight savings happen and I was not informed?! “African Time” is no joke here – nothing begins on time. This applies to everything, other than meals. Paradoxically, there is a huge emphasis on time management at the village. One kid in each family is in charge of “time management,” it is a constant topic of conversation, and each enrichment year kid is even given a watch at the start of the year. The follow-through is far from the expectations – for staff and kids alike. Hour-long staff meetings that are scheduled to start at 8 often start around 8:30 and staff will still trickle in at 8:45. Occasionally, though, a meeting will start on time, so I still show up on time for meetings. There was one event recently that was scheduled to last one hour. It started 20 minutes late, and ended THREE HOURS later than planned. That one doesn’t even make sense to me! Especially as we sat there the whole time waiting for lunch, as it had been 9 hours since the village had eaten breakfast. Patience really is a virtue here. While I feel I am a patient person, I am learning a whole new meaning with my adjusted view of time management and learning the true meaning of African Time.

3. Helmets on motos are kiiiiiind of useless here.

UNLESS you learn the tricks. For me? I make sure I have a hairtie to tie the exess of the moto strap that will not adjust beneath my chin. So the issue is that the helmets are usually not adjustable and are WAY too big for a normal sized head. One time, the helmet fell down over my eyes, and because we were speeding down the hilly dirt roads, I was too scared to move my hands to adjust it, so I spent most of the ride basically with a blindfold on. It is fortunate that it is the law that moto drivers wear a helmet and have an extra helmet for the passanger. Moto rides are simultaneously absolutely exhilarating and absolutely terrifying. In Kigali they are our primary form of transportation, and on the paved roads, are really not bad. On the hilly dirt roads back in Rwamagana district, however, I usually find myself gripping on for dear life (though I am making progress and sometimes only need to use one hand to grip on at a time). Let me tell ya, that 30 minute moto ride through the hills and dirt roads to the city center of Rwamagana… if you ever want an authentic “wind blown” look to your hair, that’ll do it.

4. The ritual of getting rid of a few cockroaches is totally worth being able to take a hot shower at the ASYV house in Kigali.

So we are still without running water in the village, other than the occasional hour or so of water that will come on late at night maybe once or twice a week… so you have to be lucky to catch that water. We have all taken to hoarding water in large bottles, because even the rain basins have run dry (and when it rains, the kids immediately use all of that water up). The dining hall has drinking water (thankfully!), and a outdoor faucet that works, but the 10 minute walk with a jerrycan of water (SO HEAVY) back to the house is only debatably doable. While at the village, I have only taken two showers with running water, both under the faucet that is at waist height. I have actually gotten super used to bucket/water bottle showers, and not having running water. Needless to say, however, going to the Kigali house, and not only having running water, but having hot water for showers is beyond a luxury. Honestly, I don’t even think the word luxury suffices in my mind right now. Having to kill a few of the largest cockroaches that I’ve ever seen in my life (Shelby – if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for your dear cockroach friend Hal) is well worth it for a hot shower. Rachel and I have become a pretty killer cockroach removing team (pun intended – sorry again Shelbs).

5. A Mattress/Liquor shop makes total sense.

There is a small bar that we go to in Rubona at night sometimes, about a 20 minute walk from ASYV. While the bar is not what I expected, it is exactly what I should have expected in the village of Rubona. The bar is basically a little room, and an outside area with plastic chairs and tables. The bar sells beer/soda and goat brochette/plantains, but you can bring drinks in from outside. There is a shop that sells liquor right outside the bar, which seems to sell two main products: liquor and mattresses. Since I am not a big fan of beer, I sometimes will get gin and have gin with fanta (classy, right?!). In the little shop, you have to squeeze around the tall stack of mattresses to see the bottles gin and whiskey. Mattresses and liquor… why not?!

6. Goodbyes are apparently totally unnecessary on the phone.

I don’t think I will ever get used to this. No matter who the phone call is with, if the person on the other end feels that the conversation is over, they will hang up. It is not out of rudeness, but just the norm here.

7. Apparently muzungus really want laminated maps of Rwanda, flash drives, and taxi rides.

Walking through Kigali as a muzungu, its impossible to not be bombarded by vendors trying to sell things. It’s not street food and souvenirs like many places I have been, but instead, maps of Rwanda, English-Kinyarwanda-French dictionaries, flash drives, cell phone minutes, and taxi rides. Even when I’m clearly walking somewhere, I get several dozen honks and inquiries on whether I need a moto or taxi ride (not all Americans are so lazy that we can’t walk!). I find myself walking through the crowded parts of the city repeating “oya, murakoze, oya” (no, thank you, no) as I’m approached by vendor after vendor. They are all super friendly, but it’s really a hilarious combination of items to be selling.

8. The fastest that kids will walk is when they are late for dinner.

Growing up in the Northeastern US, I have had to adapt my expectations from living in a fast-paced environment to life here at the village. I’ve gotten used to talking much slower, the Internet loading much slower, and meetings lasting much longer. I have also had to adjust my pace of walking, as the kids here walk at a very “leisurely” pace. The “running” during mucakamucaka (the Saturday morning run) is often no faster than a slightly faster walk using a motion resembling running. However, the quickest I have ever seen the kids walking is when they are late for dinner in the dining hall. There is a lack of forks in the dining hall, and if you are late, you will often not get a fork, and will definitely miss out on prime meal dishes (like potatoes, and the rare salad, corn, or avocado).

9. It is probably not good to recommend to “lather President Kagame” in an application essay. Rather and lather are very different words.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it is still difficult to remember that l’s and r’s are used interchangeably in most words here. Not only does it make a pretty big difference if one of my girls is telling me that she is going to pray or play (which is pronounced exactly the same), but my favorite is the difference between rather and lather. I was editing one student’s application essay for a scholarship for a university in Ghana, and it remarked that he would “lather President Kagame.” At first I was like whaaaatt thaaa… until I realized that he meant that he would “rather Presdient Kagame” do something. Definitely made more sense.

10. “Truth or Dare” is just as uncomfortable and awkward and hilarious no matter the country.

During family time last week, a family of Senior 6 boys (equivalent to seniors in high school) who live in the house behind my girls, joined us for conversation and games. This was the first time I was truly reminded that these kids are high schoolers. They have the exact same emotions and reactions as I had in middle school/high school (and quite honestly, felt watching them as a 23 year old college graduate!). As the boys walked in, Mama and a few of the girls took it upon themselves to insist that the families sit amongst one anther instead of segregated, so they grabbed the boys by the hands and walked them to different spots in the room (a process that took a good 10 or 15 minutes). We chatted, and had a few planned activities, then the boys had planned a game of Truth or Dare. Hilarious. “TRUTH: What boy in this room do you love?” “DARE: Dance in the middle of the room” “TRUTH: Who is your crush?” “DARE: Hug the boy across from you.” I felt like I was at a co-ed party in middle school. The girls were so nervous and giddy. Some things are just unbelievably universal.

11. Just because you think someone is a Rwandan ambassador does not mean that she is.

So. We’re still not really sure how this one happened. Somehow, we thought that this woman who visited the village was the Rwandan ambassador to Switzerland. Turns out that she is not. We think this myth may have started because someone referred to her as “our” – meaning Agahozo-Shalom’s – ambassador in Switzerland, because she is running a fundraiser for ASYV with the Rwandan ex-pat community in Switzerland, but that turned into all of the cousins full-on thinking for a week that she was the official Rwandan ambassador to Switzerland… until Rachel and I were doing yoga with her (she’s a really awesome person, and a yogi, and so cool), and Rachel said something to her about being the ambassador… and in all of our embarrassment, we learned that we were greatly mistaken. Hilarious.

Though we did actually meet the US Ambassador to Rwanda last week. And it was actually Tony Blair who visited the village this week.

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The morning of 7 moto rides, no doctors appointment, and a marriage proposal

Yesterday, I spent the morning in Kigali as a not-quite-tourist psuedo-lost in Kigali.  For reference, Kiyovu and Ramera are areas of Kigali that are roughly 20 minutes apart by moto.

Monday morning I had to go to a doctor’s office to get a blood test. I was feeling fairly confident at navigating my way around, as I knew where the office was, and am beginning to feel like a seasoned moto rider (no longer feeling the need to grip on for dear life and being able to negotiate the moto prices when I am initially given the Muzungu price).

I woke up early and grabbed a moto from outside our house in Kiyovu. I headed to Ramera to the doctors office. Despite calling ahead, it turned out that the doctor was not in, and they were not able image_1to do the test I needed anyway. The nurse told me where I needed to go, and insisted that any moto driver would know it. I asked for more specifics of where to tell the moto driver (like the area of town, other nearby landmarks, etc.) but after a 15 minute conversation, I felt confident that I would easily find a moto driver that would take me there with ease.

I stepped outside of the building, and after warding off a few men trying to sell me maps of Rwanda, English-Kinyarwanda dictionaries, and other tourist chachkis as per ushe, I asked a moto driver to take me to the biomedical center laboratories in town. He stared at me with a blank expression. Several other moto drivers crowded around to help, but none had any clue where I was requesting to be taken. A man who was trying to also travel somewhere by moto came over to help. He took out his smartphone, called a friend to ask, but after no conclusion, googled the place. After ten minutes or so, he found the address of a place in Kiyovu. He felt confident that this was where I was headed, so I thanked him and the moto driver took me to the address, located approximately one block from my house in Kiyovu.

This was not the place we were looking for, but instead the Deloitte building (shout out to all my friends working for Deloitte in the States, I stay literally a block from the offices in Kigali). A man selling food at a stand outside the building explained that six months prior, the offices moved to Ramera. He told the moto driver where it was located, and he took me there. 20 minutes later, I ended up a block from the original doctors office, at the Rwanda Biomedical Center offices, where a very helpful security guard lead me to reception.

Turns out that I was standing in the head administrative offices of the large national organization, which is definitely not where I was intending to go. The woman at reception wrote down on a post-it note where I should go, and after hailing my 5th moto of the morning (it was only 10am), I found myself passing all of the exact same landmarks on the ride between Ramera and Kiyovu for the 5th time that morning – the same hotels, parliament building, non-profits, restaurants. I found myself in a fit of laughter at my predicament as I noted the 10th time I was passing the sign for the Ethiopian restaurant we had been dying to try (each ride I passed the front entrance and the back entrance of it).

Finally, after making my way through Kiyovu, past my house again, I made my way to the laboratory that I was initially intended to go to. As I waited for a while, I found out that first I need to see a Rwandan doctor, and a script from an American doctor would not suffice.

The other cousins were at Bourbon Coffee (the hardcore Muzungo coffee shop, that has free wifi and delicious veggie burgers and iced espresso drinks) a few blocks away, so I abandoned my mission for the day, and instead enjoyed a delicious iced café mocha and veggie burger with fries.

At noon I had an appointment to return to the tailor to pick up my outfit that I had made for me (a few weeks ago Mable helped us go to the fabric shops and then the tailor for those of us who wanted to have custom outfits made for us like many Rwandans have), I had gone for a fitting the day before with Max (who also had an imageoutfit made), and went to pick up my outfit. It turned out incredibly!!! I am so impressed and overjoyed. I tried it on, and everyone in the shop wanted a picture of me in it (with the woman who made the outfit).

 

The zipper was broken, so I waited for a bit while it was being fixed, so I was chatting with the staff of the tiny office (it’s very clear that it’s not often/ever that Muzungus come in there), but it’s this really impressive little office where several people make incredible clothing (everything from dress shirts, to suits, to dresses, etc.) from scratch. While I was chatting with them, one of the guys who works there had the other (who spoke English) translate a message for me. It was roughly along the lines of “he wants you to know that he loves you and wants to know if you want to marry him because he loves you”. Absolutely hilarious, the whole shop was laughing hysterically. Obviously I turned down the proposal (though we’ve had fascinating conversations with the kids at Agahozo who tell us that we should be no older than 25 when we get married – the thought of them that people get married at 30 is unheard of… maybe more on that in another blog post later – super interesting views and conversations/debates!).

I needed to head back on the bus to Rwamagana with the rest of the cousins at 1pm. After watching the tailor fully replace the zipper on my shirt, I thanked them all and said my goodbyes. They told me I must come back (and honestly my skirt/top turned out so well I think I might get more clothes made! The fabrics are incredible and the tailoring is such high quality… and the leftover fabric I can bring home to use for a quilt!). I stepped outside and caught my 6th moto ride of the morning, negotiating the price to approximately 25 cents as it was to cover the roughly 15 minute walk back to the house that I did not have the time to walk in order to leave on time.

I made it back to the house just in time to grab my backpack and take my 7th moto of the morning with the rest of the cousins to the bus station to make our way back to the village. So while I did not get my blood test done (still need to figure that out), I did manage to get my beautiful outfit, a marriage proposal, and a pretty good sense of the route and great view of all of the landmarks between Kiyovu and Ramera! I realized how little I know about Kigali and how thankful I am that English is an official language (and how much I want to learn Kinyarwanda), but more than anything, I gained a sense of gratefulness for the willingness of strangers to go out of their way to be helpful to a lost not-quite-tourist.

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Lake Mugesera

A few weekends ago, we celebrated the new grade at the Enrichment Year picnic at the nearby lake.  Lake Mugesera is a stunning lake that we can see in the distance between the hills from many places on ASYV’s campus. We began the 7 kilometer (4.3 mile) walk at 7:00am following breakfast at the dining hall.

I brought my portable speakers to energize the kids (thanks for sending them to me, Mom!), listening to a mix of King James (the most popular Rwandan pop artist) and American pop music they were familiar with – dancing, singing, and chatting for the two hour walk. It was really unifying and motivating to walk together as a family, dancing as the time passed quickly as we walked through small villages and made our way to the lake.

The lake was beautiful. A few girls in my family had been to a lake before – mostly those who live in the western province near Lake Kivu – but most had never seen a large body of water, and almost none had ever been on a boat before.

We were greeted by local children (who began following us roughly halfway through our walk). These children were so joyful, and loved being photographed (then giggled and smiled so big when they saw their picture on a camera), and were AWESOME dancers, and yet it was striking how visible their extreme poverty was. They were getting water from the dirty lake for drinking, their clothes were torn and dirty, they had obvious signs of major medical problems (malnutrition, eye issues, chronic respiratory distress), and yet the just wanted to share their happiness.

The most difficult part of the day was when the children had to stand nearby behind the fence while we ate. We were not allowed to give our food to the local kids, despite their desperate looks of hunger. Once we all had finished our food, they were given our leftovers. While this is likely far more food than they were used to, it was heartbreaking to watch (it is difficult to even put into words). Not just for me, but for my girls as well. At Monday night’s family time, each girl in my family shared a little about her experience at the lake. While they all talked about what a wonderful time they had, but how hard it was to see how poor the local kids were. One of my girls said, “The local kids, seeing how little they have, it makes me want to work hard and then help people who need it.” Healing the heart and healing the world, that is the goal of ASYV. transforming the most vulnerable into socially responsible citizens. And here it is at work.

One of my unofficial roles here at the village is to help with photography when Bruce – a recent ASYV grad who is the photography/videography intern – is not around. In order to capture the experience, I was on all of the boat rides with the families – 9 boat rides to be exact. So except for the period of torrential downpour, and lunch and dancing with the local kids, I was on the boat for most of the day.

While I missed spending the day with my girls, it was a really special experience to get a snapshot of each family (both literally and metaphorically) during their 20 minute boat ride.

Some were much more talkative than others, some sang songs the whole ride, others enjoyed their surroundings and feeling the water. Regardless of whether they sang gospel songs, Rollin’ on the River (Alan), Waka Waka, or Ludacris (Max, obviously), one thing was universal – all of children in the 8 families are filled with so much happiness and joy.

We returned back to the village at 6:30pm, so after a full day picnic (definitely the longest picnic I have ever attended lasting over 11 hours), we celebrated Shelby’s birthday with banana bread, Milano cookies, and a celebration in Rubona (the local village a 20-minute walk away).

Check out the beautiful pictures from Lake Mugesera and the joy from the kids – both ASYV and local below:

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“School was very good. We got backpacks, and books, and pens. So it was very very good.”

-Valentine’s response when I asked her how her first day of school at was today

Valentine and Diane

Valentine (right) with Diane

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January 26, 2015 · 11:19 pm

The First Month

Today marks one month since I arrived in Rwanda. As always, time is such a funny thing.

In the past month I’ve learned quite a bit.  For example, I have learned:

-Several dozen Kinyarwanda phrases (which never cease to impress my girls)
-The difficulties of washing my clothes with a bar of soap and water in a bucket (let me tell you, the clothes does not get very clean)
-The terrifying yet exhilarating experience of riding a moto down a dirt road for the first time
-But most importantly, I have learning why Agahozo-Shalom is so special.

Today we had an all-staff seminar, where the nearly 150 staff members, from teachers, to Mamas, to drivers, to the Village Director, social workers, and repairmen all came together for a day-long interactive seminar that focused on the village philosophy, core values and how we can make the most out of this year for the kids. JC, the amiable Village Director, talked about how Agahozo is home for these 500 kids. He said, “Home is not these buildings… these buildings are simple infrastructure that support us, but home is you. It is all of us.”

JC explained the goal is “to transform the most vulnerable into the most responsible.” This is something that Agahozo Shalom does remarkably. Working with the recent graduates on their applications to post-secondary jobs, scholarships, and schools, these young people are some of the most socially responsible, passionate, and directed people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. This past weekend, I helped a recent graduate prepare for an interview. She was discussing how important Tikkun Olam (Hebrew word for “repairing the world”) was during her time at ASYV. She explained that Agahozo Shalom gave her the opportunity to help others when she thought she had nothing to give. Once she realized that she had worth, it empowered her to realize her true potential and teach other girls their true value. Her response left me speechless with chills. It was truly beautiful.

All of the staff are so inspiring and dedicated, and no matter what, the focus is always on the kids. Everyone has a talent, and every child has the opportunity to discover it, whether that be through the science center, recording studio, debate team, hospitality club, performing at Village Time, or helping others through Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). These kids are transformed. They are confident leaders, passionate about making a difference, excited about their futures as they grow up at Agahozo Shalom Youth Village.

It is unlike anywhere I have ever been before.

Tonight, the girls in my family – despite having to be at breakfast at 6am tomorrow morning – insisted that we continue to play games and chat during family time tonight. Despite my intermittent yawns, their unrestricted joy and candid laughter kept me going. I felt so at peace, laughing uncontrollably and joyfully feeling so completely at home. They said they were having too much fun to go to sleep.

And this passion and motivation carries into every aspect of their lives here at Agahozo.

It is difficult to believe that just one month ago, some of my girls were living in dilapidated homes and struggled to find one meal a day, while others were the heads of their households. It is like Agahozo Shalom is a magical place.

Before leaving the states, I was constantly asked by nearly everyone “Why are you going to Rwanda for a year.” Now, I can only think, how could I not be here? How could I possibly be anywhere else? There is no where else that is as inspiring, as challenging, or as rewarding as Agahozo Shalom. It is one of the hardest places I have been – there are constant stressors and difficulties- but the happiness and joy far outweigh the hard moments. I feel like I am my best self here.

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What an incredible first month it has been. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

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Indatwa Class of 2014 Graduation

On January 8, 2015, we celebrated the third graduating class of Agahozo Shalom Youth Village.  The Indatwa class chose their name during their first year at the village as an inspiration throughout their four years.  Indatwa most closely means “role model,” which these students have absolutely done throughout their incredible accomplishments during their time at ASYV.  It was such a joy to share in the celebration of their graduation – and subsequently help a number of graduating students with their applications to universities and preparation programs through my work at the Career Development Center! Mabel dressed us up in traditional Rwandan dress.

I made this short video to commemorate the day, and the 122 graduates.

You can see more of my photos from graduation on my photography page, or the full album here.

Congratulations, Indatwa Class of 2014! We can’t wait to watch you change Rwanda and the world!

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15 Things I Have Learned During My First Weeks In Rwanda

1. If there is running water, take a shower immediately!

And text all the other cousins to let them know! Since coming to the village, we have gone without running water roughly 80% of the time (that might be a generous estimate). Oftentimes the water will only be on sporadically in the middle of the night. The water will come back on at 4am, and be back off before breakfast. Also, don’t expect to have water for the entirety of your shower. Wifi without running water is a norm here (though power cuts are somewhat frequent as well, no where near as frequent as water cuts). Rainwater bucket showers aren’t nearly as bad as they may sound. Since the rainwater basins run out of water frequently too, if there’s running water, also fill up every bucket/jug/jerrycan in the house. Note: this is because several months ago one of the water tanks at ASYV was struck by lightening, so we are running on public water. There is hope that we’ll have more reliable water in a few months.

2. Being called “muzungo” is not offensive.

“Muzungu” means “white man” or “foreigner.” Here, I often get called “muzungu” by pretty much anyone of any age. The young men who were rebuilding one of the family homes would greet me every afternoon by saying “Hi Muzungu!” to which I would reply “mwiriwe!” (good afternoon in Kinyarwanda). It is just like “gringa” was used in Peru. Now the kids here mostly call us “cousin” whether they know our name or not, but occasionally we’ll hear “muzungu” in the midst of their Kinyarwanda conversation, usually talking about the cousins or one of the visitors.

3. L’s and R’s are largely interchangeable in speech.

This can be extremely confusing. My first day here when I was learning the names of the girls in my family, I was convinced that one of the girls names was “Luce.” I even repeated it back to her and she said I was correct. After looking at the list of names later that night, I realized her name is “Ruth.” “Playing” and “praying” are pronounced exactly the same. It is hilarious to hear people try to pronounce the cousin Shelby’s name. She gets looked at with confusion when she says “Neet wa Shelby” and they often respond “Sherby?” which has lead to her nickname Sherby or Sherbs. K’s and C’s are also sometimes pronounced as “ch” so the capital city of Kigali (typically pronounced Kih-gah-lee) is referred to as “Chih-gah-lee” or “Chih-gah-ri.”

4. Sleeping under a mosquito net is kind of like a having a fancy canopy bed.

Due to the high rates of malaria here (a few cousins got malaria last year, and several kids get it every year here), we all are on anti-malarials for the year, and everyone at the village sleeps under a mosquito net. It feels like a canopy bed that I always wanted when I was younger and gives me my own space in the room. Also, with the pictures and decorations that Katherine (my roommate and fellow cousin) and I have hung up in our room, it definitely looks like we’re living in a dorm room again.

5. Kinyarwanda is hard.

…unless of course you’re Alan (who has mastered way more Kinyarwanda than the rest of us). While French and English are both official languages in Rwanda, they are typically taught in schools, whereas Kinyarwanda is most widely spoken as the native language of Rwanda. No matter how hard I try to pronounce Kinyarwanda words, there will always be laughter from Rwandans, particularly the girls in my family. They definitely appreciate the attempt, but I can never seem to pronounce the words right. The word for family and door sound almost exactly the same. The word for spider has like 8 syllables! Mw, ng, rw, cy (chai) and nry sounds are definitely letter combinations I am not used to but are pretty common in the Bantu language! I have learned many of the basic greetings and a handful of other phrases. My girls enjoy teaching it to me, and I love learning it!

6. Honesty is brought to a whole new level here.

“That girl is big,” “you have a pimple on your face,” or “why do you have so many freckles” are all meant with no malice whatsoever. Just honesty. We’ve been warned that after every break we should expect to hear “cousin, you have gotten big.”

7. I should never expect to look as “smart” and put together as Rwandans.

The Rwandan staff here have a way to look incredible and stylish despite the heat, lack of water, and red dust/dirt everywhere, while us westerners look like we’ve been hiking through the desert for a week even immediately after a shower. Their clothes stay impeccably clean. I had never been told I looked “smart” as often as when Mable (the wonderful grade coordinator) dressed the girl cousins in traditional dress for graduation. Also, smart means professionally/nicely dressed, not intelligent (though sometimes its nice to think I’m being complimented on my intelligence).

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… also, Rwandans love their shoes! My two pairs of Chacos and handful of shoes for other uses (ie. hiking boots and shower shoes) are nothing in comparison the shoe collections of my Rwandan housemates! To say there are almost 100 shoes lining the shoeracks in the hallway belonging to our 6 Rwanda housemates is not an understatement (see photo below). They manage to wear heels gracefully through the rocky pathways, while I manage to trip almost daily while wearing my Chacos (which are actually meant for hiking).

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8. Three people on a moto? No problem!

Motos (motorcycles) are the preferred method of transportation (sometimes basically the only form of transportation) especially out here in Rubona (the local town/village)/Rwamagana(the district, slash slightly larger town), we sometimes get lucky and can have the ASYV drivers drive us, but otherwise the only option is walking (its like a two hour walk to the bus station) or a moto. Motos are both exhilarating and terrifying.

9. Sorry has a somewhat different meaning here.

When someone trips or knocks something over, someone will say “oh sorry!” even when they were completely uninvolved in the mishap. Katherine said she has not heard this, but at least for Shelby and me (who are apparently much more clumsy than Katherine) we hear “oh, sorry” multiple times a day.

10. Late is early.

Regardless of the strong emphasis on time management here, showing up five minutes late to a meeting, I will likely still be the first one there. Also, meetings will often last for hours with seemingly little purpose, and efficient doesn’t always seem to be a word in the vocabulary. Also, always bring your cell phone, because things often change or come up very last minute.

11. Apparently we love our water. And our salad.

All of the kids comment about how much the cousins (what the fellows are called here) love their water and how much we drink. Due to the heat and amount of walking, we always carry our water bottles around and stock up on drinking water when we are in the dinking hall (since they boil their water so we can drink it). Also, we go crazy in the dining hall when there is salad (usually a sort of cucumber/green bean mayo type mixture, or cabbage) or especially avocado.

12. Rwandan snacks – sambosas, ibyraha, and amandazi – are delicious!

15 cents (100 Rwandan francs) for veggies/meat in fried dough, potatoes/onions in fried dough, or just fried dough? Yes please! There is a little shop right outside the gates of the village called The Shalom Shop (ASYV is like 95% of their business and they carry things just for us… largely the cousins). When the back gate is not open and we are too lazy walk to the front gate, Betty who works at the shop will take our order and bring us our food right to the gate. Sometimes it feels a little like we’re in a very free jail, since we pass our money and get our snacks through the fence, but it is SO worth it!

…. But we also really miss American snacks. And we tend to spend a LOT of time talking about food. We talk about the food we miss from home, what we could possibly cook once we buy a hot plate, and food we will get in Kigali (the western supermarkets are expensive, but sometimes $4 for Pringles is necessary).

13. There are other people that like hugs as much as I do!

… maybe even more than I do! Here hugs are a natural way of greeting anyone, often regardless of your relationship with them. Note: hugs are almost always followed by a handshake (this definitely takes some getting used to!). Mama Bernadette taught my girls to give hugs when greeting her, Media their big sister, or me, which is so wonderful!

14. Rwanda is absolutely stunning!

It is definitely called “The Land of a Thousand Hills” for a reason. From the red dirt, lush green landscape, and mountainous backdrops, every new scene looks like a painting, like this view from the front of the school.

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15. Above all, the people of Agahozo Shalom are absolutely incredible.

The kids here are some of the most inspiring people I have ever met.  The staff are no exception.  All of these kids come from vulnerable situations and hard backgrounds, and yet their confidence, talent, and determination make even the hardest day so much brighter. From listening to the girls in my family talk about the joy throughout the day at Family Time, reading application essays about the difference ASYV has made in their lives, or seeing the smiles on the kids faces as they walk around campus, these kids are amazing. I cannot wait to spend almost a year here, being inspired by the students each and every moment.

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Celebrating the New Year

We counted aloud – ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR… FIVE! While somewhat different than the typical countdown that I am used to on New Years, the excitement when the clock struck midnight was no different than could be seen anywhere around the world. The crowd erupted into cheers as a representative from the families and staff cut the giant cake (quite possibly the largest cake I have ever seen).  Some kids had never had cake before. As the kids enjoyed the sambosas, snacks, and cake the smiles on their faces matched the upbeat ambiance of the evening.

Last week, Agahozo Shalom celebrated the New Year with a celebration lead by the Enrichment Year kids, who were in their fourth day at ASYV. The celebration consisted of five hours of beautiful performances of singing, traditional dancing, and modeling, interspersed with music and dancing. A few kids volunteered to MC, and introduced the performances with such energy and humor that the time flew by. It was a truly incredible way to ring in the New Year – surrounded by incredible kids, full of so much joy, talent, and confidence.

The following day, the staff and kids were surprised with a huge barbecue, with all sorts of side dishes, beef brochette (meat is a rare treat here) and soda (an even rarer treat here!). The picnic turned into an impromptu dance party, with everyone taking part in the joy.

It was a beautiful start to the year and my time here at Agahozo Shalom.  I posted some more pictures on my photography page .

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