Rwanda Recovery – Team Journals

Blog Post #1, July 19

The summer youth program has been a huge success so far. We ended up with 46 amazing kids between 12- and 22- years old. Despite the large range of ages, the cohesion among them is very strong, and their enthusiasm and energy make them a pleasure to spend time with. The older youth go out of their way to include the younger ones in activities, and the younger ones are very respectful of the older ones. I expected program attendance to be spotty because of health factors (anti-retroviral medications can have nasty side effects) and because some of the kids travel over an hour to get to the facility where we hold the program. However, attendance has been nearly perfect, and when we arrive at the program at 7:30 every morning about half of the kids are waiting for us.

We spend most of each day playing sports and doing various theater activities. On the first day, we played a game called “Pass the Object,” in which everyone stands in a circle and one person passes a pretend object to his or her left. The exercise was meant to push the kids to be creative and expressive in the presence of one another, but most of the campers were nervous and restrained. Many kids would just pass to their neighbor whatever imaginary object had been passed to them. It did not take long, however, for the kids to break out of their shells. By the third day, all the campers were at ease and really enjoyed participating in activities.

On Friday, July 17, we all met at 5:30am at the clinic and drove 2.5 hours to Akagera National Park, in the eastern part of Rwanda. The kids were overjoyed to be going, and they were singing and shouting throughout the entire bus ride. Many of the kids never traveled outside of Kigali, so going on a field trip was understandably exciting. For several hours, two guides took us through the park. Giraffes, antelope, and zebras were grazing in fields, crocodiles and hippos were wading in lakes, and we even caught sight of several babboons. I brought my point-and-shoot digital camera and nervously let the kids take pictures. It was clear by the quality of most of the photos that none of them had ever used a camera. They were mesmerized by it and took hundreds of pictures of each other.

Running a summer program is a lot more work than I anticipated. We get back to our house (which is around the corner from President Kagame’s house) at about 4pm and spend several hours preparing the schedule for the next day. Planning field trips, creating daily agendas, and budgeting inevitably take longer than I expect. The youth are so much fun, though, and their contagious energy more than makes up for my lack of sleep.

Language barriers have been more a source of amusement and entertainment than frustration. They get a kick out of teaching us Kinyarwanda, especially when we bungle words, which happens all the time. Kinyarwanda sounds very different from English, and I have a lot of trouble pronouncing certain words. We have 6 junior staff members, who are some of the older youth in the program. They all speak French, and a couple of them speak English, too. They are indispensable to the success of the program. Not only do they translate for us, they also motivate the rest of kids and jump in to take the lead whenever there is a moment of down time. They do things like leading Rwandan songs, cleaning up at lunch, and helping with attendance check-ins before we can even ask.

Blog post, July 31

Yesterday the July component of the summer youth summer program came to an end. The program culminated with a theater, dance, and singing performance that the kids created and performed for friends and family. The kids worked very hard over the last three weeks in designing the program. They spent several hours during each day of the camp learning two traditional Rwandan dances and three songs. They also wrote, revised, and rehearsed four 5-10 minute skits. The performance was wonderful and I am so impressed with the job they did.

Three of the four skits were about being HIV-positive, and I thought the youth did a wonderful job with them. There is a lot of stigma that goes with having HIV. According to the director of WE-ACTx’s Sunday Counseling Program, just last year ago most of the kids barely left their homes. Now the kids are not only leaving their homes, they are also writing about their experience living with HIV. I think the willingness of the kids to talk about AIDS has helped destigmatized the disease for them and also made them closer as a group. It’s not that AIDS is a constant conversation topic-in fact, it is rarely brought up at all. The majority of their chatter (at least of what I can understand) is quintessentially adolescent. However, I think it shows a lot of maturity that AIDS is not taboo anymore.

Last week, we went on a field trip to a genocide memorial. When we arrived, we laid flowers at a gravesite outside of the memorial buildings. After a moment of silence, we took a tour of the building. Several of the youth had visited the memorial before, but others were visiting for the first time. Considering that the genocide occurred only 15 years ago, it is a source of smoldering emotions for every Rwandan. Some of the youth are old enough to remember seeing killings and they have all been personally affected by it.

The trip was difficult and draining. Many of the kids were overcome with emotion and a few had pretty severe breakdowns. Having grown so close to my campers, the hardest part of seeing the memorial for me was in watching my campers as they relived the traumatic events. A couple of the youth even saw family members in photographs on the wall. Fortunately, two excellent counselors who know most of the kids well accompanied us.

After the memorial, we went to Bambino Super City. Bambino is a dumpy amusement park, with a dirty pool, small pavilions, and a couple rundown rides. We arrived at the park on silent buses. The place was almost empty, except for a few scattered people sitting on chairs drinking beers. As was the case a lot of times throughout the program, I had to remind myself that what seems depressing to me really is thrilling to the kids. They are so easy to please because they have so little, and they were excited and grateful for the chance to drink fanta (orange soda) and go on a ride. At Bambino, we set up a speakers and a DJ played hip-hop. One by one, the kids stood up and started dancing. It was a great to end such a turbulent day on a happy note.

Blog post, August 10

The July Youth Summer Program ended last week and we have quickly transitioned into the second component of our Rwanda project: the August Leadership Program. For this program, we are meeting with 15 of the oldest kids from the July program to work on a photography and writing project. A WE-ACTx donor has graciously lent us 7 cameras and a photo printer to use this month. The kids return to school on Monday, so we met a lot this week in order to fit as much in as possible. As much fun as I had hanging out with the 46 kids in the July program, it’s really nice to be working with a much smaller and older group.

On Tuesday, we met for three hours and showed everyone how to use the digital cameras. The kids were really excited to be able to play with the cameras and take pictures on their own. First, we showed them the basics of how to use the cameras. Next, we showed a short slideshow of professional photographs. For each picture, the group discussed whether they liked it, and why. The purpose of the discussion was to demonstrate that a photograph is not just a still shot of reality. Indeed, how an object looks in a picture has more to do with the choices of the photographer than it does with the actual object. For the rest of the session, the kids just took photos of each other (many, many photos) playing theater games.

On Thursday, we continued with the photography project by walking all around Kigaing trying to capture photographs of the ordinary, every day aspects of city life, from women sweeping the streets to flowers on the sides of roads to graffiti-stained walls. We also prepared a writing workshop, which produced thoughtful work that played with individual voice and autobiography. Yesterday (Saturday), we continued the photography and writing exercises we’d done on Thursday, and we also played a group game that generated a fascinating conversation about HIV stigma in Rwanda and how/whether the youth believe it will change in the future.

In the upcoming week, we are meeting with 5 of the most mature youth in the program for a narrative-gathering session. Even though most of the Rwandan population is younger than 21-year-old and HIV is so pervasive, little is known about the experiences of HIV-positive young people in the country. Since we have grown extremely close with several of the young adults in our program, the WE-ACTx Medical Director has asked us to facilitate a narrative gathering session with five of the youth in the program. These testimonies can be used for educational as well as fundraising purposes. More importantly, the opportunity to tell their stories will be therapeutic for the youth; they have all faced great tribulations in their lives, they are deeply committed to education about HIV/AIDS in Rwanda, and they seem eager to talk to someone about their past. During this session, we plan to ask them to talk about what it is like to have HIV as a young adult in Rwanda, how and when they acquired HIV, how AIDS is viewed in their country, and what they want to do when they get older. We’ll obviously be extremely sensitive about the way we ask these questions, since they are personal inquiries that are laden with emotion.

I got to know all of the 46 kids in the July summer program very well. Several of the kids invited me to their homes, which has been wonderful. Between last Sunday and this Sunday I have made seven visits. It’s amazing to see the camper’s homes. They live all over the greater Kigali area, and these visits are really the only way I would ever get to travel through the residential areas. Even though the neighborhoods are very poor, with thousands of small houses packed together, each area has a very distinctive feel and a strong sense of community. Rwanda is an extremely hilly country, so the neighborhoods also tend to have beautiful views.

Three of campers whom we visited no longer have living parents, but they all had very loving older siblings that they lived with. All of the families are incredibly gracious, and when we visit them they usually insist on introducing us to their whole extended family. Many of them could not afford to feed three visitors (my friends, Chloe and Gia, always came along with me), but they will always insist on buying us multiple Fanta, which is the soda that everyone seems to love in Rwanda. We always leave these visits on a major sugar high.

Blog post, August 15

As my time here comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting more and more on my experience as a foreigner living in Rwanda. I was unsure before I arrived how people would react to me as an American, and I prepared myself for the possibility that I might be treated with suspicion, disinterest, or even hostility. Throughout the past two months, however, almost everyone I’ve met has been warm, kind, and generous. Because of the friendly, congenial culture in Rwanda, leaving will be really hard.

While I’m flattered by how respectful people are here, my relationships are much more complex than I initially thought when I arrived. The level of poverty in Rwanda is astounding compared to that which most Americans are accustomed. At the same time, parts of American culture emanate throughout the country. As a result, the perception of America among many Rwandans comes largely from watching music videos, and seeing foreign expatriates driving around the city in SUVs. There are also many stories of American volunteers who have come to Rwanda, become smitten with a child or young adult, and gone on to pay for that individual’s medical bills or college tuition. Very few volunteers actually do take a Rwandan young person under their wings like this, but it has happened enough to plant a seed of hope among many of the people I met.

It is admirable that some volunteers act so generously towards people in Rwanda, but it does advance the illusion that all Americans are wealthy. People, especially many of the youth that I have become very closely to, treat me with a degree of deference that I’ve never experienced before. At first I thought everyone was merely grateful that I’d come to volunteer, but I quickly realized that many were driven by other motives, too. A couple people invited me over to their homes, and then quickly added, “and then I will come over to visit you where you stay.” They clearly believed a relationship with me could mean free meals and gifts. On one occasion, a good friend of mine at the WE-ACTx clinic requested that I send him a computer from the U.S. A camper in the summer program gave my number to her cousin. After a few friendly phone calls, the cousin asked me to fund her college education.

As the solicitations accumulated, I started imagining how I might behave towards someone if I thought that the person possessed almost infinite wealth. Would I covertly hope to benefit from such a relationship through free meals and gifts? I’d like to think I would not, but I probably would. Considering the problems the youth in my summer program face, it is only human for them to hope I might be their ticket to a better future.

Nevertheless, as I’ve recognized how some of the campers view me, it makes me second-guess the authenticity of our relationships. At first I felt only honored when campers would invite me to meet their families, but now I wonder whether accepting their invitations will feed false expectations. When people go out of their way to treat me with kindness and respect, I wonder whether they actually like me, or if their kindness is motivated in part by the hope that they might get something back in return. The impact of being an American has not jaded me, but it has forced me to consider more carefully how I interact with the people I have met. For example, when I visit my campers’ homes, I bring the same gift to everyone: a bundle of bananas, 3 oranges, a box of tea, and cookies. This seems like enough food that feeding me won’t overly burden my hosts, but not so much as to entice other families to invite me over for dinner. Also, when Rwandan friends invite me to travel places with them, I only pay my own fare. This feels stingy-bus fare is less than a dollar, after all-but I fear it would tarnish my relationships if people think that hanging out with me will yield them food and money.

Over the past several weeks, I have made many close friends and met people I’ll never forget. I think these friendships are meaningful and sincere, but as in all relationships, I now recognize that there may be more than meets the eye. As an American doing international work, I have to accept that I do not know all that is going on in the minds of the people I meet. All I can do is show trust to others, while simultaneously communicating clear personal boundaries.