This dispatch coming to you from an expat bar and restaurant in Kigali called Heaven which serves a Sunday brunch that includes Huevos Rancheros and, yes, Bloody Marys. It's a bit touristy, but I'm a bit of a tourist, so 'when in Rome'…
I'll try here to sum up the past 10 or so days which have been quite eventful.
We landed in Kigali airport at 1:30 AM or so Friday morning (Dec. 14) a bit tired but excited to finally be in Rwanda. We breezed through passport control and down to the luggage carousels. In an atypical stroke of luck, all of us got all of our bags and the doorknobs arrived as well.
Here's an optimistic Isabel and a jaunty Avi while we are getting our bags:
ASYV had sent two staff members and a van to meet us at the airport and we loaded up all our luggage. We became fast friends with Bosco & Eddy.
As a special treat, ASYV decided to put us up in a hotel in Kigali for three days for introduction to the city. Eddy, a staff member that works as a counselor in the village was conscripted into guiding us through the city for three days on what would have been his vacation. I probably would have pitched a fit and sulked about losing my vacation time, but Eddy was nothing but super helpful, gracious, cheerful and informative as he showed us around town.
A note on the hotel. It was really nice, and fairly new, but construction in Rwanda is not what we're used to at home. Some things, maybe even most things, are just a little off. Getting building materials is expensive and difficult. Because items can be sourced from all over, they often don't integrate well together. (E.g., a Chinese sink and a faucet from Belgium with different sized fittings.) Experienced laborers with standardized skills are also difficult to find. It's common to find sinks that don't fit with the faucets obtained or strange improvised installations. (The showers at our house in the village are, perhaps due to the pipes available, about 9 feet off the ground and could comfortably suit a giraffe, but douse the entire bathroom with splashes when the water is falling all the way down to me.)
Case in point, our hotel room was off the end of a long hallway. At the very end of the hallway was a door, with a handle, that led out to nothing but a three story drop. Who knows? Maybe the original plans were for there to be a terrace? Maybe this spot called for a window in the blueprint but a door was cheaper or available? Maybe there was no plan at all. See what I mean?
Here's my view out our hotel room of Kigali which is a beautiful and hilly city:
On our first day in Kigali we went to the State House Museum, the former home of President Juvenal Habyarimana. There you can see the actual wreckage of the April 1994 plane crash that killed President Habyarimana as well as Burundi's president Cyprien Ntaryamira, signaling the start of the organized genocide. The home was opulent, outfitted with French furnishings and chandeliers and secret passageways and gun closets. There is a chapel in the top of the house where Pope John Paul II performed a special mass for President Habyarimana in September of 1990.
Later that day we also went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which I had visited on my trip last year. The images of violence and the scale of the atrocity was no less shocking this time around.
Somewhere in the communications between the New York branch of ASYV and the Rwandan staff on the ground, the wires were crossed such that we were not only 7 volunteers coming to help at the village but perhaps a set of elite foreign dignitaries because our every need was catered to down to the last detail. We were taken to several very nice restaurants including a typical Rwandan buffet restaurant (salad, rice, potatoes, cooking bananas, stew with meat, rolls) where we also met the director of the village. Over the weekend we also went to an American style restaurant that served pizzas and pastas and a newly opened Chipotle style restaurant called Meza Fresh.
Friday night they took us to a club, Papyrus, but we went around 10 PM and we didn't know that Rwandans go out after midnight, so we basically had a private club to ourselves. Here's Michelle buying a Skol beer in the empty club:
On Saturday we met 4 students from the village who took time out of their holiday vacation as well to come and tell us about their experiences in the village, at school and answer any questions we had. The kids were impressive, with impeccable English and so much school pride. They spoke warmly of teachers who treat them like parents and truly want them to learn and all the opportunities at ASYV for clubs and activities. We went with the kids, led by our guide, to a popular vacation spot, Lake Muhazi. There we were treated to a traditional lunch buffet outdoors by the lake while we asked the students about their plans and dreams for the future.
Sunday was a bit more touring of Kigali and also some necessary errands re obtaining Rwandan cell phones and showing us where to buy laundry soap and candles and the like. We also met Inuma, who is the housekeeper for the Kigali apartment where we are allowed to stay in town on our weekends off (every other one or so, barring an event in the village for which we need to stay). It really is an amazing perk that ASYV has a place for us to stay in downtown Kigali that is convenient to shopping and just a short walk from restaurants and coffee shops.
Then, finally, we headed to the village. It was about an hour van ride through gorgeous countryside. As I told you before, the village is beautiful. We had a nice lunch at the village in the dining hall and met the kitchen staff and the head chef, Helam, who greeted us all warmly.
The five American girls will all be staying together in the same bright yellow house with a large sitting room, a kitchen, two bathrooms and three bedrooms. (It's a very nice house and I'll get you a photo soon.)
I had time for a run around the village before dinner and between the jet lag, the hills and the elevation, I was dogging it, but it felt great to move around a little again.
On Monday we had a very thorough tour of the whole ASYV property. There is a large functioning farm that supplies more than a third of the village's food needs for 500 kids and another 150 or so staff. The farm grows cabbage, beans, corn, cucumbers, peppers, bananas (two varieties), pineapples, mangos, coffee, avocados, has cows (for milk) and about 200 chickens for eggs. There is one tractor which is a gift directly from the First Lady of Rwanda! Solomon, the farm manager is an amazing guy with a warm smile who invited us to come back down to the farm to purchase spare eggs any time. Oh yes Solomon, we'll be back!
The living area has 32 houses for the kids and more houses for staff that live in the village (counselors, grade coordinators, maintenance), guest houses for visitors, as well as administration buildings, computer labs, art, music and science centers and a health clinic.
There is a sports area with a basketball court, a volleyball court, and a soccer field. That is next to a large dining hall that also serves for school assemblies and 'village time'. Up a steep hill from the dining hall is the Liquidnet Family High School which has classrooms for all of the kids, a library and some more computer labs. The front of the school is an amazing view:
Up at the top of the hill near the school is a nature park, green houses and bee hives. The village is filled with beautiful birds and butterflies. A past volunteer documented 200 (!) different species of birds on the village grounds. They are everywhere. Here's a beautiful heron-like bird that was out in front of the house next door to ours one afternoon:
And here's a little gecko on the ceiling. These guys are everywhere in the village:
Tuesday through Friday I had the privilege to attend a staff seminar on village methodology. Five educator trainers had travelled from Yemin Orde in Israel to facilitate the sessions. I found the entire occurrence improbable. My brother-in-law Robbie is a high school principal in North Carolina and I kept imaging what he would say if I put this to him. "Hey Robbie, over Christmas break we're going to need the entire staff to come in for 4 days, from 8 AM to 5:30 PM. We need all the teachers, the nurse, the cafeteria workers, social workers, maintenance and facilities, transportation, basically any adult who comes on campus. We're all going to sit together for 4 days of methodology and make sure we're all on the same page about the language we use with the kids. No problem, right?" No chance.
The training is based on the concept that it takes a village to raise a child, and that these children need to be healed and made whole in order to succeed in the future. We discussed the importance of the kids past experiences and how that has shaped them. We discussed strategies to reach difficult and traumatized children. We learned methods to try and rebuild damaged self-esteem and discuss the delicate line between helping kids and spoiling them of their self-sufficiency. We learned and practiced the DNA (Discussion - Negotiation - Agreement) method used when any child at the village makes a mistake. There are no punishments in the village, only mistakes and agreements how to correct the mistakes, and these agreements are a consensus between the child, the educator and involved parties. If that sounds almost impossible to you, you're right, but they just keep talking, and talking and talking and listening and listening and listening until they move to a place where the resolution doesn't embarrass, anger or alienate the child, but actually brings her/him to a closer sense of belonging. The guys from Yemin Orde swear by it. I'm looking forward to seeing this used in the village.
I left the seminar feeling so motivated to work with the kids, so inspired by the potential of the village and so excited to work with all the educators with the same mission to create futures for children and help them maximize their potential.
On Wednesday, the training wrapped up around 5 and dinner wasn't until 7 so I had time for a run. It was sunny out and about 75 degrees. Its seemed like a perfect time for a run, but what happened next was that I went on the craziest, plague-filled 10K run of my life. A couple of last year's volunteers told me they typically ran down the main road in front of the village until they reached a 5K marker and then turned around. That sounded simple enough. Little did I know…
Minnesota might be the land of a thousand lakes, but Rwanda is the land of a thousand hills. The first complication was that it is a steep incline up the entire first 5K, and back down then whole way home. Think Tour de France mountain stages. That's better than the other way around (down then up), but with the severity of the incline and the air at elevation (2000 m above sea level) I was dying from the outset. The homes surrounding the village are mostly poor and cook over open fires of banana leaves and sticks that children collect during the day. I had unfortunately timed my run for dinner and found myself jogging slowly, wheezing in a smoky haze like being downwind from a campfire, or maybe inside one. The road I was running on is dirt and gravel and whenever trucks or a moto went by dust and rocks would be kicked up. So... steep hill, smoky, dusty air. Add to that a massive gnat population that gets in your smokey, dusty eyeballs. And then there were the kids. Every 200 meters or so some kids would see me coming and all start shouting and run out of their yard. They would run with me, shouting in Kinyarwanda and smiling, some tapping me or pulling gently on my clothes. I'm talking 6 or 7 5-8 year olds, barefoot, running in a pack on the road, and running quickly. I would try to outrun the kids so they wouldn't all be strung out across the road and get hit by a truck or a moto, so picture that when the 7 kids swarm around me, I take off sprinting on an interval (a smokey, uphill interval) and I would be just about dying when the last one would give up. Then I would get 10 or 20 uphill seconds to recover before the next mob of smiling, shouting children would be on me. It was the hardest run I can remember in ages, but still pretty fun. If I can find time for that a few times a week I should be able to stay in decent shape.
After the seminar ended on Friday, we came in a staff van to Kigali for a few days. We went to the Bourbon Coffee downtown for some Wi-Fi and were surprised to be reminded about Christmas coming up by the decorations:
(LtR: Me, Michelle, Jerrod, Tree, Kome, Shira)
For dinner we went to a fantastic Indian restaurant right next to the Kigali apartment for fast, cheap, delicious Indian food and followed that up with a night of bar hopping to several popular night clubs. Strangely, we found one of the best hip-hop DJs I've ever danced to (since that guy in Krakow I'm always going on about) that was playing a lot of Tupac, Ol'Dirty and Snoop. I had a blast and it was a great way to wrap up a big week.
The rest of the weekend we've been hanging out in Kigali, buying some essentials for the house and finding touristy places with free Wi-Fi. A lot of the goods you'll find for sale on the street are imported from China, and Chinese marketing totally cracks me up. Apparently someone in China thinks men's underclothes should convey both Dignity and Elegance:
Sunday evening was a big treat. The traditional dance group at Agahozo Shalom was named one of the top 5 in the entire country and the kids from our school had the opportunity to perform at the main Amahoro Stadium in Kigali in front of the Ministers of Education, Culture, Sport and several other honored guests. I knew from being in the village that the kids in the 16-member troop had been giving up lots of their vacation to come to the village and rehearse their dance program. The program was an intricate 30 minutes of choreography with many costume changes, props and interwoven routines, with no music other than one student playing traditional drums and 5 students singing for the entire program. It was an amazing spectacle of concentration and art and I was impressed with how talented the kids are and proud of our school for vulnerable orphans ranking right up there with the best schools in Rwanda. Here's just a few of the many photos I took of that performance (oh yeah they made the set too!):
This year's annual holiday letter will be out soon, a little behind schedule. Here's links to all the previous ones if being thorough is your thing: