A number of you have asked, so here's the address:
PO Box 7299
Don't mail anything of value or anything you want me to get in less than 4 months and think of even a postcard as an experiment.
Also internet access does not flow quite as freely as I might have told you, it's been hard to find when I'm in Kigali and super slooooooow when I'm in the village so don't worry if you don't hear back from me for a spell. (Another factor is that I'm pretty much scheduled from 7 AM to 10 PM every day and after that I tend to take an ice cold shower and pass out.)
Things are going well here. I've joined a new family, (#8!) of 16 incredible girls, a momma (Momma Daphi) and my new Big Sister (Erica). The first day the kids arrived was incredible. We were so excited and nervous to meet them and they were 1000x more nervous and excited to meet each other and see their new home. As a part of the festivities, I helped greet bus loads of kids and their guardians and check "luggage". Some of the kids came to move in with a small brown paper bag, slightly larger than a lunch sack. It's amazing where they're coming from, and what they'll be exposed to over the next four years.
We've been playing a lot of ice breaker games and I made a G-Rated Rwandan version of my favorite, Mingle, Mingle, Mingle: House (2), Moto (2), Bananas (3).
Today we ran "Mucakamucka" which is pronounced like "Mu-Cha-Ka Mu-Cha-Ka" which is like a military jog and sound off at 6:00 AM. Everyone did it, many in flip flops.
Then we harvested beans on the farm. I've picked beans before. IN A GARDEN. Maybe 50 individual beans. We cleared several acres and made 10 giant 'haystacks' if beans. It was fun to do with the kids and in the beautiful setting, but I was glad after about two hours when we were finished and I don't think I'd do well as a migrant farm worker. Let's hope it doesn't come to that when I come home. Mostly this week we are working on orientation for the new kids and I'll start my professional skills development program after New Years.
This will be two New Year's Eves back2back at ASYV. It was a blast last year so I'm looking forward to doing the Dougie with my girls and rocking out in the dining hall.
Also, we have a new tradition: Akabanga Saturday when Courtney brings Akabanga hot sauce to the dining hall to spice up the rice and beans. I need to get you a photo of Akabanga, because it comes in basically a visine bottle and the kids seem to love it.
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Monday, December 24, 2012
Greetings from Kigali, Rwanda. This is the second-ever edition of the holiday letter from the southern hemisphere (although this time, just barely. I'm about 4 hours bus ride south of the equator.) As always, I hope this bulk e-mail finds you happy, healthy and well and if you've grown tired of this particular tradition, do please let me know as this newsletter operates on an opt-out policy.
2012 saw my return back to residence in Washington DC, this time in NE. It was surprisingly good to be back in town. Special thanks to Sarah, my close friend and college roommate for adding the title landlord and letting me move into a space she had in her row house on Capitol Hill. DC is a great town for disc and I made a lot of new friends playing women's club for a team called Veto and about seven varieties of league (spring, summer, fall, women's, weekend, weekday, etc.).
This September I travelled with my mom through Fargo, North Dakota to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota for Sarah's wedding. (Earning her a rare double-mention in the annual holiday letter, typically reserved only for family and Allen Iverson.) It was great to see the foliage, the beautiful lake and the moving ceremony. Congratulations Frank & Sarah!
This year's big news is a career change. For most of the year, I continued to work for Perfect Sense Digital, mostly in Knoxville, Tennessee for HGTV.com and FoodNetwork.com. ("Hey, ya'll!" to my home away from my home away from home in Knoxvegas.) In October, I resigned to pursue a year -long opportunity with Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, in Rwamagana, Rwanda, about 45 minutes bus ride east of the capital Kigali.
I had the chance to visit the ASYV (www.asyv.org) last year for about 10 days as an English language volunteer and I just fell in love with the place. The school is for orphan and vulnerable high school-aged kids. The philosophy of the organization is one of capacity-building and is about healing kids past, enabling them to maximize their full potential and to help them become successful adults. I was struck with the effort to give the kids avenues to pursue art, technology and culture and amazed by how appreciative and receptive the kids were to work with.
Now I'm back for a year as a Professional Skills coordinator. I'll be working to help the kids write CVs, practice interviews, learn about potential future careers and help build and deliver curriculum that will help the kids find paying jobs when they leave ASYV. I'm so excited about doing this work that feels truly meaningful to me. I arrived here in Rwanda on December 14th and so far am getting adjusted, oriented and trained. The new class of kids will arrive on December 27 and that will be the real start of the new job. Wish me luck as the stakes are higher here than anything I've ever done. If I fail, I'm failing a kid that needs my help. If you give to charities this time of year, do consider ASYV, as it's about as worthy an organization as you'll find, and I can tell you from experience that the donor dollars go to fund meaningful programs for these kids.
I'm looking forward to a year working in Rwanda. I'm trying to learn a bit of Kinyarwanda and also planning to travel in Africa on my breaks (April & August). Do look forward to next year's holiday letter which will no doubt have some adventures to relate.
My family is all doing well. My mom got settled into Selma, North Carolina this year and now has a new Golden Retriever puppy, Nolan. We had a lemonade stand again this year for Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation and it was a lot of fun:
My sister Lynn is still in Raleigh with her husband Robbie and my nieces Kate and Lindy are doing just wonderfully. Kate is a freshman in high school now, though no one knows how that happened. Lindy pretty much runs her elementary school.
I had the chance to see many of my cousins, aunts and uncles over the Thanksgiving holiday in Louisville, KY. Here is me and my sister Lynn at Churchill Downs on Thanksgiving Day:
Before I headed out I had the chance to go to hiking with a friend in Virginia and also catch an Eagles game. (I don't want to talk about it.)
Do let me know if you have any plans to be in East Africa or any interest in going Gorilla trekking. (Rwanda has the best and safest trekking expeditions for this severely endangered species.) Otherwise, you can always find my updates here at http://courtneyspondence.blogspot.com/.
Peace to you in the coming year.
So, getting used to a new place can be frustrating. I've been to three (3) different Bourbon Coffee's today trying to get Wi-Fi to send my Christmas letter. Every transaction with a Visa card is a 15 minute suspicion-filled interaction that finds me resorting to prayer (to Vishnu, Rudolph, Yahweh and the almighty Dollar). The only thing harder to find than a public restroom is toilet paper. And then sometimes, when you're super mad and super sad you get a little sign.
Here's a view of my walk home to the Kigali house in Kiyovu:
Noheli Nziza ! (Merry Christmas!)
Here's a view of my walk home to the Kigali house in Kiyovu:
Noheli Nziza ! (Merry Christmas!)
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:
Thursday, December 20, 2012
The irony is, I guess, that the more time you have to blog the less you have to blog about. Lately I've been busy from morning to night hence the absence of updates. I'm well aware that I've been here in Rwanda for nearly a week, and I have heaps and heaps to tell you about that, but this post is going to wrap up a long overdue update about my departure.
Also a note of warning, this year's Christmas letter is going to be late. Think New Year's Day…
Despite Sandy putting the kibosh on my farewell from Knoxville, I still arranged to have at least three more going away parties. (I pretty much only go away for the parties.) I loaded up all of my possessions and put them in a u-haul storage unit in NE DC. I hope that Deirdre is not too unhappy about her new living quarters. On my way out of town I had a farewell at the Big Board in DC. Do go by there for a burger if you are in town. It was a super fun time and amazing to see so many people come out for someone who had only been in town a few months. I had a blast with some folks from the DC disc scene and also a number of normals, friends new and old. Extra special thanks to Sarah and Frank for dragging out an 8 year old on a school night, Ben Pauker for bringing me crisp 2006 hundred dollar bills in mint condition and the gang from Snack Pack who came from far afield. I had a super fun time and somehow failed to take a single photo of the event that was marred only by a brief, but insistent, open mic night.
After recovering from that shindig, I got my bags packed and headed out to NYC on the Amtrak. I had every single thing I'm taking to Rwanda for a year, so as you can imaging navigating inside Penn station with my overstuffed and heavy bags was a real treat. Jesse and Alyson met me at Penn Station and gave me some keys. Oh man Brooklyn! Why did I ever leave? It was so great to be back in Fort Greene. Once I got back in the 'Lyn I got to walk Phineas and then I had dinner at Roman's with TG and a few beers at Hot Bird.
Saturday started with an incredible brunch with Danielle at Dizzy's in the Slope. Then it was a bit too rainy for a full walk around Prospect Park but I got to see Dave and Ali and take their baby, Ella, to a bar. She had fun the whole time and never cried or fussed at all. Then I met Erica for dinner at a place that served us "nachos" on potato chips with mozzarella cheese. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Maybe not my best choice for only a few meals left in NYC, but we were in a rush to get to the Park Slope Bier Garden where yet another farewell party was being staged. Again it was great to see tons of folks. Special props to Tishler, Erica, and Taliesin who ended the night by pledging a trip to see me in Rwanda and go Gorilla Trekking. It's in writing now gals. I'm totally holding you to it. Also high marks for Julie Sussman who stayed late and walked me to the subway.
Sunday was also a fantastic time, including watching an improbable Eagles win at the Dram Shop over Bloody Mary's (see my twitter feed for proof @CourtneyMFK) and getting to go to see the Nets in the new Barclays center. (Thanks Jesse!). That place is like a space ship, it was incredible inside and tons of gourmet food as well. The Nets let us down a bit, getting down 32 at one point and losing to the Bucks, but it was still a fun time.
We had the opportunity to meet Anne Heyman, the founder for several hours. She explained the story of the village from her initial inspiration until now with the village being weeks away from graduating the first class. It's incredible that it went from an idea to a fully functioning school for 500 kids in the time that it has. Her vision for development being focused on capacity building and having an exit strategy is compelling. Her passion for the kids she works to help shone through with every topic she discussed. We also met the executive director and had the chance to talk to several formal volunteers and get tips and guidance for the year ahead. During the orientation I had another social style evaluation, and yes Stalin, I am still a Driver. Oh well.
We went on a learning field trip to look at Images of Apartheid at the International Center for Photography in midtown. That was an exceptional exhibit and a stark reminder about extreme governmental control. I'll spare you my detailed review of the exhibit in the sake of time, but I will say that if you haven't watched "I Ain't Gonna Play Sun City" in a while, it's a blast from the past and you should: Artists United Against Apartheid - Sun City - YouTube .
Tuesday night was my last night in the good ol' U. S. of A. for about a year and after phone calls to mom Kelly and the Gupton house I attended my third and final farewell party. Thanks to Drew and Cara for hosting on no notice. It was super fun to eat Pizza, watch Knicks/Nets and play poker. I even came out ahead by the end (charity perhaps?) and won yet another of those prized 2006 Benjamins. I had an amazing time and I wouldn't want to go out any other way.
Staying with Jesse and Alyson in the apartment I used to live in in Ft. Greene was a several hundred dollar donation to ASVY who would have put me up in a hotel. Thanks Guys! In addition to helping the orphans it was great to be back in Ft. Greene and a real treat to hang out with Alyson and Jesse, and (of course) more importantly Phineas! Phineas is super smart and also acts like a person and watches TV and looks at you with a proud condescension. In the mornings before heading to orientation I would gather my belongings on the edge of the couch while I was getting ready, like a staging area. By Wednesday, Phineas had figured out this meant I was going to leave soon and let me know what he thought about that:
Wednesday was an abbreviated orientation day so we could get back to our luggage, do laundry if necessary and any last minute shopping or errands. Then I hailed a car service to JFK (thanks again to Jesse's help). At JFK all of us assembled our heavy, overstuffed bags and, wait for it, three bags of doorknobs.
Sidebar: There's an entire post here on the doorknob situation, but I'll sum it up since I'm already so far behind. Sourcing building materials in Rwanda is very difficult. (Foreshadowing here for some weird fittings in my 'luxury' hotel in Kigali in a future post.) Most of the construction materials for the village were actually sourced from China, which fit the budget, but it turns out the quality has really varied, so some items, like doorknobs, have had unexpectedly short lifespans. This time around a decision was made to purchase higher quality doorknobs, but then they need to be shipped to the village, a process for the landlocked country that is more than 3 times the cost of the already more expensive doorknobs. Since every cost trades off directly with services for vulnerable kids, these are hard decisions. ASYV is trying to send the doorknobs over piecemeal when people from the states visit the village, but this means boxes of doorknobs crowding the tiny NYC office, coordination required to get the doorknobs to the traveller and an inconsistent stream of supplies to the maintenance team in the village. Making do and improvising are a reality.
After waiting in a long check-in line and a longer security line we made it into the terminal just in time for one final farewell beer on American soil together. The flight to Istanbul was an uneventful 9 hours, filled with movies and meals and a nap. We were on the ground just long enough in Turkey to take our Malarone get a coffee and wander around the terminal a bit. The flight to Kigali was another 7 hours with movies, naps, flashcards and some pretty gross Turkish Airlines meals. The flight landed at 1:00 AM a few minutes earlier than expected and we were all glad to have finally arrived. After preparing for months to come here, it was a huge relief to finally be here. I was tired, flight-grimey and glad to be in Rwanda!
Next Post - Landing in Kigali and Beyond.