It’s been a week since I arrived back home. I’ve takin my last malaria pill, unpacked all my souvenirs, done laundry, and gotten caught up on sleep (and posting all my blogs from the trip).
And…adjusting back is hard. I miss the constant flow of activity. I miss the coffee. I miss people being overly friendly and excited to see everyone, no matter the day or time. And I even miss the dance circles…
This trip has fundamentally changed me. I’ve taken so much back (besides coffee) - the lessons of forgiveness. The sheer joy of sharing a story to eager listeners. The crafters. The polite (but firm!) bartering from the market. I feel motivated to share all these experiences, to compile them into something other than a blog and share it with as many people as possible, but I’m not quite sure how.
I play piano a lot now that I’m back. I have a feeling that my experiences will somehow transform their way into something musical. I can feel my creative juices (that have been stagnant ever since my hectic final semester at school) starting to flow again. I have been tasked with sharing my experiences and stories at the annual Anne Frank Project Social Justice Festival this fall - I feel confident that I will have something amazing to share there.
And this blog has been a lot of fun. Though uploads have been random and VERY inconsistent, the act of writing something every day has helped me process this experience in a much more efficient manner than trying to remember everything through photos. I’m happy I wrote down my thoughts, especially for the moments that I didn’t take photographs, or had feelings that would have been forgotten days later. It stands as a testament to all that I was able to experience and accomplish in the incredible, remarkable country of Rwanda.
We’re almost finished with our trip! We depart tomorrow. There was was still one final thing to do - our last activity before departure was a safari. This had been deliberately saved for the last day of our trip, as a sort of farewell activity. I was very excited to get started!!
Our group split into two and embarked on a six hour safari tour in the northern jungles of Rwanda. We drove in some VERY sophisticated safari jeeps, which offered lots of passenger comforts for the six hour journey. They contained functioning power outlets next to every seat, a raised roof, lots of space for our stuff, enormous windows, and impressively, a working refrigerator in the back!
We saw a surprisingly large amount of animals, giraffes, hippos, elephants, and zebras. They all seemed indifferent to the safari vehicles, often standing directly on the main roadway. The zebras, in particular, seemed reluctant to move from their groups on the side of the road. We observed a rather unique habit among the zebras - they liked to rest their heads on each other’s backs. My vehicle joked that they really “had each other’s backs". It was remarkable how wide open the park was. After driving for a mere ten minutes, you could stand up, look outside the safari vehicle, and imagine that the landscape went on for thousands of miles, uninterrupted. It wasn’t nearly as quiet out here as it was on the chimpanzee trek, but it was satisfyingly peaceful.
Perhaps it was fitting that on our last full day in Rwanda, we did a lot of talking. Between animal sightings (which could sometimes be a significant length of time), our group chatted. We talked about our childhoods (and argued WAY too much over what the Victorious TV theme sounded like). We reflected on the trip, and how much we’d all grown. We discussed life. It was rather sobering to realize that some of us would have to go back to our regular lives in a few days, on opposite ends of the continent. Some of us wouldn’t see each other for a VERY long time, maybe ever. No one outright mentioned this, but it seemed like it weighted heavily on our minds as we chatted.
Upon our return, I was completely coated in dust (which I kind of deserved, I’d been standing, with the dust blowing in my face for the majority of the ride). I looked like Pigpen from Peanuts. One of my strongest memories from today is everyone laughing and the smiles on everyone’s faces from my unkempt appearance. It’s a good memory that I’ll cherish for a while (and not just from the ridiculous photograph of me).
I’ve blogged quite a bit about Rwandan food. So far everything has been amazing - perfectly seasoned root vegetables, delicious and savory meats, and incredibly flavorful drinks. However, there’s one beverage I haven’t had the opportunity to taste as much as I would like, and that’s coffee. That would change today - we were going to visit a free trade coffee shop, and learn about the various types of coffee found in Rwanda.
Around mid-afternoon we visited the coffee shop. It was impressively upscale, akin to a fancy coffee shop in the US. The smell of coffee was deep, rich, and intoxicating - I almost believed you could get caffeinated off the smell alone. I didn’t need to worry about that though, as there was plenty of coffee for sale. I quickly ordered a plain black coffee to satisfy my craving for caffeine.
I barely had time to take a sip before our delegation was ushered into a smaller room for a master class in coffee tasting. We sampled coffee from five different regions of Rwanda - North, South, East, West, and Central. We were told to rate them on a chart based on numerous factors, including bitterness, sweetness, aftertaste, mouth feel, etc. I never realized there were so many different factors that went into a good cup of coffee! It quickly made me realize that I’m a HUGE amateur when it comes to coffee drinking - there are so many subtleties that I was unable to identify (but I was still enjoying myself!)
Naturally, my bag was packed full with several bags of coffee after the experience. The hiking yesterday was my favorite experience by far, but this is taking a close second - and I have many gifts to distribute to my friends back home!!!
4AM this morning was one of my most anticipated moments of our trip - we were going to go hiking in one of Rwanda’s national parks! It was more than just hiking - this particular hike would be specifically trekking to see chimpanzees (hence the 4AM wakeup time). The prospect of seeing the chimpanzees was exciting to most of our delegation, but it was an added bonus to me - I was just excited to hike. Several others on our trip were concerned about this experience for various reasons - the early wakeup time, the uneven terrain, the length (we’d be in the jungle for several hours), but I was ready - I'd hiked a fair distance back home, as well as on my travels in Vancouver, and Europe - this was my favorite part of travel!!
We arrived at the national park at around 5AM. Our trek would take us deep into the jungle, so we didn’t start right from the entrance. Instead, we took a series of jeeps deep into the thickest part of the jungle. I'm sure we put their suspension to the test, as this was the bumpiest ride we’d encountered on our trip so far - and we were packed pretty tight in the vehicles, with four in the trunk (with no seat belts, naturally!).
Once we actually got into the forest, it got very quiet. Our guide informed us that the chimpanzees were extremely intelligent, and could hear us approaching from a fair distance away. I didn’t mind the silence. It gave me time to focus on the incredible landscape and scenery. Even as our guides ushered us off the beaten path and cleared us a walkway with machetes, I was enthralled with how bright and vivid all the colors were. Every shade of green imaginable shone through the trees, and there was a still, reverent quality to the forest as the sun rose. I got to take lots of pictures (I stayed near the front of the group most of the time, waiting for others to catch up).
We actually did see some chimpanzees, high in the forest canopy. They are LOUD, fast, and much bigger than I’d imagined. I was actually glad we didn’t see any on the forest floor, as it would have been terrifying! I didn’t get a chance to take photographs of the chimps, as they were too far away to get a decent shot, but seeing them is a memory I will treasure from this experience. At times it almost felt like they were observing us as much as we were observing them, and I was worried they might climb down from the trees for a closer look (though thankfully, none of them did)!
I appreciated the time we took to have a quiet trek through the forest. It was a good chance to rejuvenate, and have time to reflect on the natural beauty of Rwanda. Not everyone in our delegation felt the same way (especially as we hiked a few hours back uphill to the waiting vehicles), but I absolutely loved it. If I ever have the chance to travel back here, I want to spend most of my time hiking and trekking through the forest. I could easily have spent another week here!
Tonight I distributed a gift.
Background - the church I belong to in Buffalo (St. Joseph’s University Parish, UB North Campus) has a ministry that distributes shawls around the world to people in need. The ministry creates shawls (usually knitted or crocheted), prays over them as they are made, and then distributes them throughout the local community. Before I left for Rwanda, I had been tasked by this ministry to distribute a shawl in Rwanda - to find someone caring, loving, and deserving of one of these prayer shawls.
After visiting Urukundo and seeing the incredible work and service to the community they provided, I already knew that my shawl would go to someone there. For the past two days I also overheard Mama constantly remarking that she felt cold during the evenings - and I couldn’t imagine a more deserving person than her to take the shawl. So after devotions tonight, I presented it to her.
Mama looked fantastic in the shawl. It was an elegant, flowing, light green color (selected because of the color in the Rwandan flag) which suited her perfectly! She continued to wear the shawl after devotions, and several of the children followed her around, gently touching and commenting on its softness. It appears that gift will continue to be cherished for years to come!
Today I decided put aside my reservations about waking up early (and I have a LOT of reservations about waking up early) and go to church at 7AM. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to attend a Catholic service on Sunday - it just so happened that our delegation didn’t have anything planned, there was a church very close to our hotel, and Noel, our bus driver, agreed to take Lila and I there.
I didn’t take any pictures as I wanted to remain as respectful as possible. However, the church was gorgeous - a cavernous, reverent space. The seats were simple and plain benches, without backs or kneelers. I sat near the back, hoping to attract as little attention as possible, thinking maybe the service wouldn’t be full. However, the church was packed full to capacity, and Lila and I attracted many curious looks (as we were the only non-Rwandans there).
Despite not speaking any Kinyarwanda, it was incredible how much of the mass I was able to understand. Obviously I couldn’t understand the homily (where I found out that priests in Rwanda like to talk just as much as priests in Buffalo), but the opening prayers, Our Father, blessing of the Eucharist, and collections were basically identical to services in Buffalo. The bright spiritual music was also remarkably similar to the contemporary music ensemble at my home parish. It was a wonderful morning of joyful celebration!
Today was a big day. This was the day we got to share our story-based learning skills with local teachers - the main reason why we came to Rwanda in the first place. These were adults, teaching at very high-performing schools, and they were counting on us to give training and advice to help improve their classrooms. If I though there was pressure at the boy’s school earlier this week, that was nothing compared to today.
We arrived at Urukundo, Drew gave some opening remarks, and we introduced ourselves as a delegation. There were a LOT of teachers there to learn from us, many of whom had travelled a significant distance to be there. It felt like over a hundred, but realistically was probably closer to 75. Unlike the boys earlier in the week, not everyone seemed eager to be there, and I could tell my group might have to work a bit harder to get everyone on board with story-based learning.
Once we split up into our groups (my group was mostly made up of language teachers, especially English and French), we each took a classroom and ran through our exercises. The story-based exercises were basically ingrained in our bodies at this point in the trip, so distributing the information wasn’t terribly difficult - but we received very interesting reactions from the teachers when teaching. Several stopped us to ask or inquire why we did certain things, or tell us what it reminded them of. There was a surprisingly large amount of dialogue about the education that I was not expecting to have.
We also encountered several cultural differences when teaching. The simple act of raising one’s hand, quite commonplace in the US, was replaced with a rapid snapping of fingers (which startled us at first). Many teachers weren’t too keen on offering verbal responses when we asked them to create themes, or to offer descriptive words, instead choosing to walk up to the chalkboard and write them down instead. And nearly everybody sat down at one point during the training (as theater majors, our delegation was quite used to standing up for extended periods, but we didn’t account for teachers who were older, or pregnant, or simply not used to standing for extended periods of time). None of these differences seriously affected what we were communicating, but they did force us to adapt our teaching styles, which in turn helped us to further our message.
I also made friends! The music teacher took some spare time after lunch to show me the music room (which had a piano!!!), and I was able to improv a simple tune with him on the guitar. And I also struck up an impressive conversation with the Urukundo school coach, John-Paul (who’d actually gone to college in the US, and was looking for a job in the states…). Through shared experiences (and LOTS of laughter), we quickly became good friends.
After working through the basic exercises, all groups presented a small story demonstrating the themes they created. It was wonderful to watch their enthusiasm, and the conversation at the lunch table was buzzing with interest. Tomorrow we’ll be applying story-based learning to the teacher’s individual lessons - it should be exciting!
Today we paid a brief visit to the location that our main teacher training would take place at - Urukundo Village. It was a beautiful, well-equipped facility, filled with multiple classrooms and buildings, and even a dental clinic!. We were informed that Urukundo was one of the highest performing schools in the area. We had all brought a bag full of school supplies to donate to Urukundo through our extra baggage, so it was exciting to finally see where our donations were going to go!
We arrived in the middle of several heated games of football and volleyball taking place in the main courtyard. Once our bus pulled up however, the games quickly dissolved as the children swarmed around the bus. Everyone was excited to see us and invited us to join in their games, but instead we walked to the main building for a warm welcome from the matriarch of Urukundo, Mama Arlene. Arlene (who insisted that we call her Mama) is the founder of Urukundo, and you could absolutely tell that she LOVES working with the children there. In fact, as she told her story of founding Urukundo, she interspersed it with the stories of multiple children (“my kids,” as she referred to them), and the interwoven connections she has created since moving to Rwanda.
We next went to dinner, where Mama continued to tell stories. I wished I could have continued listening, but instead I was seated next to several children, all of whom kept asking me about my bracelet, my glasses, my hobbies, and everything else you could possibly imagine. The children at Urukundo were not the least bit shy about anything - they were forward and direct in their questions. It was a bit shocking to see at first, and made me reflect on my shyness - I am not naturally that forward!!
After dinner, Mama led devotions. I had no idea what devotions were, but was eager to observe and participate in a tradition that was well beloved at Urukundo. Devotions turned out to be a miniature version of a worship service - there was prayer, song, a bible verse/lesson, and then devotions would end with a dance circle (I’m starting to notice a trend…). It was very ritualistic, moved quickly, and clearly everyone knew the order well. The children were respectful and silent during the time of prayer, and were proactive in involving our entire delegation in the dance circle (which I’m gradually getting better at!!).
Urukundo, despite our rather brief visit, struck me as an inspiring location, and I can imagine that the learning here is of consistently high quality. I can’t wait to do some teaching of my own here tomorrow!
Today we took a little break from the city bustle of Kigali, and instead visited a rural village to experience a day in the life of a traditional Rwandan. It was immediately obvious as we were driving to the village that we weren’t in the city anymore. Much of the roads were not paved (“It’s like an African massage!” as our driver put it), and we definitely put the suspension system of the bus to the test!!
The moment we arrived at our designated household, we were greeted enthusiastically by about a dozen women. We were welcomed with open arms, enthusiastic voices, and even a singing and dancing circle. It was such an enthusiastic greeting that we all participated in the dancing (and yes, I felt slightly more confident this time around!). Eventually we were led into their house. Our delegation introduced themselves, and so did the women. All of them proudly announced their ages (ranging from early to mid-50’s), which surprised me - they looked far more youthful than their ages would have us believe.
We had a lot of work to do that day. First on the agenda - prepare food for lunch. We were instructed in how to chop up and dice the vegetables. These were then tossed together for a stew in a simple pot over a fire, which would cook until it was time for lunch. Like all the other food we’ve had so far, it smelled AMAZING, but we couldn’t linger and drool over the food. We were given small gas cans and instructed to collect water at a well about 20 minutes away. Although the cans didn’t look that heavy, they were VERY difficult to carry back uphill for half an hour. We took frequent breaks on our way back (but the women and children who were with us didn’t - very impressive!).
We also walked out to the field to do some hoeing and tilling of soil - basic farm work. I was intimidated by this at first, but thankfully Rwandan soil is very fertile and easy to till (as opposed to the tough, raw soil back in the states). It was repetitive, but not overly difficult. We were also instructed on how to balance items on our heads, traditional Rwandan-style (spoiler - we created a miniature “holder” out of leaves, which made things easier), and we used this skill to bring feed to local livestock.
After lunch (DELICIOUS), we were shown some traditional Rwandan crafting. This was exciting to me, because I am an artist and was eager to see some master crafters at work. The women instructed us in creating two objects out of plant leaves and fibers - a bracelet (which I chose to made), and some soccer balls (which most of the delegation chose to make). Both objects were were durable, efficient, and it was incredible to watch the efficiency in making them (Both projects were done in under an hour)!! After completing the crafts, some of our delegation went out into the streets for an impromptu game of soccer with local kids…it was great!!
I wasn’t feeling that well through the day, and planned to take things easy. However, I was struck by how quickly the women picked up on that, and how kind and accommodating they were about it. I was constantly asked if i needed anything, or if I wanted to take it easy, or if I needed food or water. The kindness was overwhelming, and definitely my big takeaway from today!!
I am traveling to Rwanda with the intent of a sponge - I want to absorb as many unique experiences as I possibly can, and bring them back to share with my culture. I am a multifaceted artist, and Rwanda is a treasure trove of valuable experiences to draw inspiration from. As a visual artist, I look forward to seeing unique handmade art, and letting it inspire an artistic vision. As a musician, I look forward to hearing vastly different than what I’m used to, and letting that inspire music from my soul. And as a teacher, I’m looking to see teaching methods different than what I have known. I want to bring these gifts back and share them with my culture.