Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Working' Five to Nine, What a Way to Make a Living

One of the things that continually surprises me about life here at ASYV is how thinly the local staff is stretched.  They all work so hard and no one flinches when they are asked to do even more.  It's impossible for me to imagine the village working in America with the same number of staff and still providing all the same services.  Let's just say this is not a union shop.

The same kitchen staff makes every meal of the day.  They arrive at 4 AM, to prepare breakfast that will be served at 6 AM (porridge and rolls) for 500 students.  As soon as the breakfast dishes are done, those same employees will begin making lunch for 500 students and about 200 staff and visitors that will be served at 2:00 PM.  Mountains of rice are prepared.  Thousands of carrots and potatoes are peeled and chopped by hand.  Beans are cooked with a sauce.  Other vegetables are often added to the sauce.  Somehow, before lunch is served the staff also finds time to tend to the kitchen garden, often planting and hoeing and also finds time to bake tomorrow's 500 or so breakfast rolls. Once lunch is wrapped up by 3PM they have 5 hours to get ready for dinner.  Another 500 students and maybe 100 staff served more potatoes or cooking bananas, rice and sauce.  Once the kids finish eating by 9, the kitchen staff clean all the serving dishes and the whole kitchen and are finished for the day around 10 PM.  These workers get one day off a week.  In a lot of places this would be two (possibly three?) shifts of work.  Here it is a typical day.  Look out if there is something special to prepare like salad, fruit or meat, then the day is even longer.  There are also special meals to prepare for some restricted diets. Most surprising to me is that this whole staff is friendly, smiling and greets anyone who visits the kitchen warmly.  They also never fail.  Meals are always ready, and there is always enough to eat. That's an 18 hour day folks.

Another great example is the drivers: There are three drivers who work for the village.  To pick up the teachers all over Kigali and drive them to ASYV they start work at 4 AM, driving all around the city and getting to school around 6:30 AM, I guess. (I am usually not up at that hour.) A second driver picks up the administrative staff like the finance department.  The third driver is alwas in the village if there is a need to take a student to a hospital or other errands.  All day, those drivers run errands picking up supplies for the village or taking sick kids to the hospital.  Add to this insanity: sporting events, field trips, and sometimes shuttling kids or staff for special programs.  Then when the school day and after school meetings are over, that same driver drives the teachers home and gets everyone dropped off by 7 PM or so.  Then they get fuel and get ready for the next day, so are probably done with work at about 8 PM. 16 hour day is just the standard for their position.

Take the role of the family mother: These women are asked to parent 16 kids, get them up at 5 AM for breakfast and supervise, chaperone and love them once they are back from school from 3:00 PM to lights out at 11 PM. During the day while the kids are at school there are staff meetings, english lessons, computer lessons, securing supplies from the village inventory for the house, visiting with health & wellness for any problem kids and more often than not, caring for at least one sick kid at home.  In the afternoon, many lead Extracurricular Programs teaching sewing, traditional weaving and even carpentry.  They work 12 days in a row, then get 2 days off to see their external family (some have husbands and biological kids). 

Then there's the village IT coordinator who has to try to keep about 100 rickety machines that kids download every virus under the sun onto functional.  The machines have 3 possible operating systems (Windows, Linux or Ubuntu) and a wide array of software products.  Also, in addition to doing this full time job, please just imagine this for a second, the village asked him to start teaching an IT class in the afternoon 4 days a week.  He teaches from 3-5:30 PM Monday - Thursday for about 50 students. He assigns and grades homework and tests and plans his four 150 minute classes per week.  All this while evaluating software the village needs to run the finance department, print report cards and helping people map a network drive and connect to a printer.

I've done a little org design and optimization, and honestly if I was going to try and staff this place for an American workforce, I think I would about triple the staff, which of course would blow the budget. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. I think part of it, certainly, is that the job market here is terrible, so employers have a lot of leverage to ask whatever they want.  On the ground though, to really feels like the staff are so committed to the kids, and to the future of Rwanda, that any request is received and acted upon.  Every full time employee here sacrifices seeing their family, sleep and any notion of free time to keep Agahozo-Shalom running and do the best they can for the kids.  It is truly awe- inspiring dedication.  It's not a job for them, it's a calling.

(One last case-in-point: Every minute of the day is scheduled from 6 AM to 10 PM, so if you have something unplanned to deal with, you need to scheduled it outside of that time.  I just left a 10 PM - Midnight meeting where everyone but the Americans sat patiently. I don't know if Rwandans are just genetically harder workers than any Americans I've ever known, or if the aftermath of the genocide changes you in ways where anything else seems tolerable, even reasonable by comparison.)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Clown for Dancing Party

This is the 2013 Agahozo Shalom 'class of cousins'. I.e., this year's ASYV volunteers. We're 9 people from the US, Israel and Nigeria and in addition to being assigned a family we all have different jobs.  Though everyone get's pulled into all kinds of things, here's a rough rundown L-R:

  1. Elizabeth is from NYC and is working with the Alumni (college aps, scholorship search, etc.).
  2. Michelle is from Pittsburg/Philly and coordinates English Learning for kids and staff.
  3. Avi is from Israel and organizes guests and visitors (& teaches carpentry).
  4. Kome is from Nigeria and organizes the sports programs the village (teams and rec).
  5. Shira is from California and works on village internal and external communications.
  6. Miki is from Florida, back for a second year of lording over the Science Center.
  7. Isabel is from DC and Middlebury and teaches Art.
  8. Me - Professionals Skills: CV creation, Career Awareness, Teaching TOEFL.
  9. Jerrod is from Denver and teaches Music and Theater.

Want to be in next year's photo?  You can apply here:  http://www.asyv.org/application

If you do, you might get to see a lot of interesting things, including:

a)  A neon orange moth on your sink when you get up to brush your teeth: 

b) The scariest mask.  [The small print describes this item as a "Clown for Dancing Party" Indeed. I will not be attending said "Dancing Party" thank you very much.  RwF 2500 is ~ $3.75]

 c) This is my gym now.  These are two paint cans filled with cement separated by a broom handle.  Since I hurt my Achilles and can't run I am trying to lift to still do something at all for fitness.  Hopefully this is the amount weight you like, because in Rwamagana there's no adding 5 pounds a set until you max out.

Groundhog Day Wake (In Kinyarwanda)

  • It begins with the scraping of chairs.  16 kids arrive in our small family room, each with a chair brought from their family's house.  It's a long process to get the chairs all in and arranged and a bit like that game where you can move one of 25 plastic tiles to get the photo of the tiger back.
  • Then there is a 'game'.  This involves all of the kids from the visiting family drawing a number 1 through 16 and then being paired up with a girl from our family of a previously assigned number to sit together, or for one visitor, a chorus of "Oh, Sorry!" and being handed a framed photo of Jeanette.  (If the other family is a boy's family, this game is accompanied by copious giggling, like you might imagine would happen in a 6th grade PE class forced into partners for square dancing.)
  • Then an 'emcee' from our family welcomes the visitors.  There is a strict protocol.
  • There is a moment of silence.  
  • The emcee invites one girl from Eleanor Roosevelt to speak, who thanks the visitors for coming and for being with us.
  • The emcee invites one child from the other family to speak, who stands and offers condolences.  
  • The emcee invites one girl from Eleanor Roosevelt to sing a sad song.
  • The emcee invites one child from the other family to sing a sad song.
  • The emcee invites our family mother to speak.  She gives the same speech about God picking the fresh blooms off the rose bush, and Jeanette being a good girl who was very obedient (possibly untrue?) [Look, I loved Jeanette, but obedience was not a strong suit for her, and definitely not a defining characteristic. One of the things I loved about her was that when Momma would ask her do something ridiculous like mop an already clean floor she would scrunch up her nose and make a face and move as slooooowly as possible to do the task. I always liked that she was showing her personality and a bit of backbone.]
  • The emcee invites the visiting family mother to speak, who invariably claims a close connection to Jeanette, and then encourages the girls of Eleanor Roosevelt to make the most of opportunities at the village that Jeannette did not get the chance to, and to study hard and dedicate their effort to Jeanette.  
  • The visiting family offers a gift, usually a package of biscuits for each girl, or a bag* of milk or some candy.  As with all food in the village, this generates significant excitement.  (*Not a typo.  Like a pouch really.  Not that different than a capri sun, sans straw.)
  • The emcee invites our family big sister to speak and she and talks of death as a natural part of life, and how we must not be selfish, that we will all be together in heaven soon.  Simultaneously, the gift is being distributed, so there is much rustling of packaging and perhaps a minor disturbance if there is not enough for everyone. 
  • The emcee invites the visiting family big brother or sister to speak and s/he says that Jeanette is an angel in heaven watching over all of us all the time, a possibility I find troubling on a number of levels.  Rustling continues
  • The emcee invites me to speak, and I struggle.  This is the first English of the night and the kids are all well into their snack at this point, and tired.  I look at 31 bored faces.  Over the rustling and chewing sounds, I try to honor Jeanette and also be honest about how we are feeling at that point in the long, rote ceremony.  I usually talk about how she was funny, and a joker and brought a lot of joy and levity to our family.
  • The emcee calls us to stand again, and invites someone to lead us in a closing prayer.  The prayer is long, and fervent and maybe even a bit evangelical seeming in cadence and volume.
  • All the chair scraping begins in reverse.
So far we have been visited by 14 of the families in the village, so this will happen 17 more times. 

Update: Whether cowardice or sloth I'm not sure, but I bagged it for the half-marathon.  The Achilles still hurts enough when I walk and I just don't think I could gut it out.  I'm mightily disappointed. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Home Visits

Over the break between Term 1 & Term 2 in April, I had the chance to visit a few of the girls from Eleanor Roosevelt where they stay on their school holidays.  I skewed my visits toward the girls who have more English because they are better equipped to translate for the adults where they live.  

[There is an interesting debate to be had about sending these kids 'home' over school holidays.  Most of them come from pretty rough situations.  I think in the US it would be unheard of to send some of these kids back out to these conditions.  That said, Agahozo is a strange type of place in Rwanda and the mission is to make these kids productive citizens of Rwanda.  If they come out after four years speaking Hebrew with no connections to where they came from they'll be ill equipped to integrate back into society.  The thinking is to help them maintain some connections with guardians, neighbors or some other support network outside of Agahozo.  Luckily for me, I have no say in this matter at all.]

I went to visit Ornella in the Kimironko suburb of Kigali, near the big Amahoro National Stadium.  Ornella was home with a bunch of other kids aged 14-4.  We goofed off and talked about basketball practice and fashion.  It felt like visiting any kid in the states except maybe she was more polite than you would expect.  She made me tea and freaked out when I didn't take sugar in it.  (Rwandans like their milk and sugar with a tiny bit of tea flavoring.)  We talked about the loss of her mom, and how that has affected her.  She's very proud of her mom and protective of her memory.  Doing right by her mother's memory is a source of motivation for her now.

That afternoon, I went to visit Yvonne in the Nyamirambo suburb of Kigali.  That was quite a moto ride up steep and rain washed dirt roads. She lives in a modest house with her 90 year old 'grandsister' (this could be any older relative, really) and her sister who is 14.  Her younger sister is in one of those Christian sponsor-a-kid programs and she has an album full of photos and letters of people from Michigan she's never met. The program provides most of the nutrition in the household, and I was glad for it.  Yvonne's grand sister was very embarrassed not to be able to offer me tea, as hospitality is the custom for guests, but I tried to assure her I was just there to see Yvonne and to visit.  Yvonne was beaming and laughed the entire time.  We went for a Fanta afterwards.  She is an absolute dear and I will probably try to put her in my carry-on bag when I come home. 
Yvonne, her "Grandsister" and her younger sister

The next day, I visited Samila in Rwamagana, who lives literally feet from the bus station there. I met her Mom, or her aunt who she calls mom. Relations can be quite fluid. She might mean this woman serves as her mom now.  There were maybe 7 or 8 other kids in the house who came to meet me and Samila was helping to care for lots of them.  This woman could not believe I was not Jewish.  She was under the impression all white people are Jewish.  They made me a large meal with cooked bananas and also offered me 'ground nuts' peanuts, which is a big treat and usually reserved for celebrations.  Samila also tried to translate a strange story for me about a chicken and a dog eating the same food, and the chicken says the dog smells, but I think the fable was lost in translation.  Maybe they were saying I smelled bad.  I really have no idea.  This woman also asked me, "Are you a poor?"  [person is implied, in Kinyarwana the word for poor is like a degenerate.]  I had to pause.  Okay, I know by no stretch in the Rwanda comparison scale am I "a poor".  I am "a lucky".  But I am here to work for a year and help out however I can, but not field every request for money.  People ask me all the time for money.  Kids in the village ask me to buy them things all the time.   I was afraid the next question was for a donation.  "No" I finally replied.  I am not poor.  Would I be willing, in that case, to take Samila back to New York with me and send her to college?  "No, that is not possible."  I guess it never hurts to ask.

The next day I took a bus east to Kibungo to visit Adelaide.  I met her brother, sister and grandmother. Her grandmother makes these beautiful traditional tiles out of clay on wood.  Adelaide was happy to greet me. She made me sweet milky tea and 2 (two!) Blue Band sandwiches.  This is not my favorite food, but it was a very kind gesture. We visited for a while and talked about faith.  The word mercy came up a lot. Mercy is a concept I can get behind.  The home seemed safe and comfortable and they had a TV, the first I'd seen. Adelaide's grandmother insisted that Adelaide come with me to the bus station to put me on a the right matatu (bus-ish van) to Sake to see Grace. (This was a bit embarrassing and perhaps attracted a bit of mazungu attention, but that was mostly coming my way anyway.)

Adelaide's brother, her sister, Adelaide and her Grandmother proudly showing off some of her Grandmother's artwork.

Me and Adelaide

At the bus station in Kibungu I boarded my matatu for Sake, headed toward Gafunzo City to see Grace.  Matatus leave whenever they have at least 5 more than capacity for the van, so we sat there for a while. I didn't know exactly where I was going or when I would get there, or how I would get home from there, but I was going to see Grace, the very first of my girls to ask me to come to visit her.  The trip was on no paved roads, and they were pretty bad due to the rainy season. This was not my favorite journey.  Eventually, I saw a sign for the Gafunzo primary school so I asked to get out.  Once I stepped out of the van there was general alarm.  What was a Mazungu doing here? Where exactly was I going?  Moto drivers surrounded me.  Men left bars to come and see what was going on.  I called Grace and waited for her to come and fetch me.  Gafunzo city was like a slightly bigger Rubona, with a market, a couple of informal restaurants and shops, a school and a medical clinic.  

When Grace came to fetch me there was a crowd with her. The entire time I was at her house, people kept just stopping by, entering without knocking even, to see the Mazungu in Gafunzo city.  I guess they don't get many tourists in this small suburb if Sake.  Grace was so so so so so excited to see me.  She took me on a tour of the town. She took me back home and offered me a meal. When she took the lid off the pot I almost cried.  She had made me spaghetti. She knows, because I usually eat at her table, that when we have spaghetti in the dining hall I love it and have seconds or thirds. For me, its a big treat to switch away from the rice for a meal. The kids, in general, don't really like the spaghetti and see the event as unfortunate. Grace had asked her mother to purchase and make spaghetti for me.  I can only imagine what percentage of the family food budget for the week (month?) was allocated for this luxury.  Further mystifying to them is why anyone would pay more for this food which they do not like.  When the meal was served, only Grace and I ate, not the 6 or 7 other people in the house, though the small kids looked on wistfully.  There might have been a better way to handle this I guess, but I didn't want to show anyone up and insist we divide what was there 9 ways.  Mostly on these visits I go along with the advice of the host and just do what they say.  I hope I am following custom and I'm afraid to push for things to be different because I don't have all the details. Hopefully it all evens out eventually.  

Grace made me spaghetti!  (Sorry for the bad light.)

 Grace and her older sister

 Grace's sister and some of the kids living in this house. (Dorbs!)

Grace and her mom.

Oh my goodness, how gorgeous is Grace's mom?  This is Grace's actual mother, and I also got to meet her older brother, and older sister.  

I also, went to Rugalika to Jeanette's grave site, to see her home and younger sister.  She is buried right next to the family's two cows, maybe 6 feet from the house.  We will be working to install a gravestone for her, more on that in a future post.

Preview: I may take a handful of ibuprofen and try to run a half marathon on a pulled achillies tendon this Sunday. Stay tuned. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Serengeti Safari

Back during the break in April, I went on an incredible Safari in Tanzania with Ellen.  We went to the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, and Tarangire National Park.  

At the time I had a million things to tell you about it but then I came home and the frenetic pace of life at Agahozo took back over. I saw many amazing animals and the scenery was breathtaking.  Highlights included: seeing 5 lioness go on a hunt, watching graceful giraffes graze on tree tops,  watching hippos graze out of the water like cows, and watching baboons play on a river bank.  (Arusha is nothing special, but it was even kind of fun to learn that.)

Like with the gorillas trip,  I took just a few crummy photos with my iPhone. At some point I'll link to Ellen's photos with the nice camera and you can get a better sense of what I saw. 

Still even from these you get the idea:
Our guide and our rover 

 Awesome fancy camping lodge just outside of the Serengeti

 Ellen snapping some 'Phants

 Baboons were super fun to watch play.

About a zillion impalas

 The mannequins in Arusha emphasize different features than you might expect.

I had a lot of fun, though four days in a safari rover is definitely enough.

A few more of my faves:

(Thanks Ellen!)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Live Long and Prosper - Mountain Gorilla Trekking

This is from over a month ago, but I've been away, and busy and also not feeling like blogging, but I did want to capture some thoughts on this experience.  The event was like a wonderful, brief encounter with aliens who are more evolved than us and not that interested in getting to know us better.

At the start of the school holiday in the beginning of April, I went with my friend Ellen to see Rwanda's #1 tourist attraction: Mountain Gorillas.  There are about 600 Mountain Gorillas left in the world and 300 of them live in the Virunga forest on the border between Rwanda and the DRC.  Volcanoes National Park was made a wildlife preserve in 1925, and claims to be the oldest national park in Africa.

I love animal-based attractions and I've been to see Koalas and Cheetas before, but nothing compared to the experience I had Gorilla trekking.  It was, no exaggeration, one of the best experiences of my life

The day before our permit to trek, we hired a driver take us from Kigali to Musanze where we stayed in the Muhabura Hotel, which fit all the Rwandan Stereotypes for fruit plates, crummy pasta and frequent playing of Kenny Rogers.  (I guess Kenny was at the height of his fame in the USA in 1983 and I cannot for the life of me explain the frequency his songs are played on Radio Rwanda 30 years later, but if you are out and about you are pretty much guaranteed to hear him a few times a day.  Rwandese love themselves some KR.)

On the morning of the trek, we rose at 5 and met at the park headquarters in Kinigi at 7:00 AM.  The headquarters are surrounded by a ring of mountains and it was a gorgeous sunny day.  When you arrive, the park rangers divide you into groups which will each go to visit one of the 8 gorilla families habituated for tourists.  Some of the groups are quite easy hikes, while some of the gorilla families are further up the steep and slippery trails.  I was hoping for a fairly strenuous hike to be part of the experience and make it feel more like an excursion and less like a petting zoo.  It was a 30 minute ride from the headquarters to the start of the hike for our group over quite bumpy 'roads' and at one point Ellen almost asked to get out and walk.  

Our group was about 8 tourists, a lead guide, Augustine, and about 5 porters.  There are also additional security/ park ranger staff stationed throughout the hike to protect the gorillas from poachers.

Once we got to the start of the hike, it was about an hour or so up a fairly difficult jungle/forest trail to where the spotters had last seen our assigned gorilla family.  The hike was not too difficult, but did get my heart rate going.  The only real problem were stinging nettles which were everywhere.  The trail was lined with them the entire hike and they stung me through my performance gear shirt and quick dry pants.  When you go, wear jeans and rain pants and a couple of long sleeved shirts. I was stinging pretty much the whole time, but so excited abou the gorillas I almost didn't mind. 

After about an hour, our guide said we were getting pretty close and we put down our hiking poles and bags.  Then we went through a clearing and honestly I was expecting to start looking around to 'spot' the gorillas.  Instead, there was a large male Silverback maybe 5 feet from me, so it was more like opening a door on an apartment and 'spotting' the couch.  He turned around and approached us curiously while our guides told us to move back and simultaneously made this low purring/ cooing sound that is supposed to soothe the gorillas.  Then the silverback suddenly turned back around and went down the hill a bit to eat shoots.  

The gorillas don't use the trails, so the next hour or so, was our group moving through thick foliage and tons more stinging nettles to angle to see members of this gorilla family.  We saw gorillas eating in groups of two or three or on their own.  Mostly they would keep eating for a while and glance over at us some, and then eventually relocate for a better leaf pile or some privacy.

I could not believe how peaceful and quiet the whole experience was and how close we were to wild members of this severely endangered species.  It was a beautiful experience.  It feels like I'm under selling this, and I guess I just can't explain it well, but it was high touch, high access, and didn't feel rushed or exploitative.  The gorillas, while habituated to people are still basically living a wild gorilla life and seem more or less unharmed by the daily one hour visits of small groups of tourists.   It just feels like you are right inside an episode on Gorillas from Animal Planet or Nat Geo and that is my kind of snow globe.

I didn't take many photos myself, because Ellen had a great camera with her and took some high quality ones.  I'll add a few of those to this post later, but for now here are just a couple to give you a sense of the experience.

Here's a picasa link to a few more, but none of these are the best pics really, I know.

After the gorillas we headed to the Lakeside town of Gisenyi on the border with the DRC to relax for a few days at the gogoeus Palm Garden resort.  It was a nice spot for reading by the lake and I wouldn't mind going back.  I did almost walk to the DRC in the dark, and that was a minor mistake I'll have to tell you about more in person, but other than that Gisenyi was a quiet, sleepy, pretty place to relax for a couple days.