Friday, June 28, 2013

Some brief fun updates...

I went to the Western part of Rwanda to Kibuye this past weekend to chillax at Lave Kivu.  It is super gorgeous there, as you can see here:

Saturday night I camped on Amahoro Island.  I don't usually love camping but I actually had a really great time.  This was my bunk mate:

He seemed scary at first, but was really focused on building the nest so we got along okay.

In other news, for Miki's birthday he chased everyone around with one of the village's new javelins in his birthday skirt.  Tradition is really important here.

My favorite Jewish Carpenter, Avi, made this cross for the upcomong gravesite rededication for Jeannette. Thanks Avi!

Miki and Avi also welded a new barbecue from scratch which is pretty amazing:

All very inspiring.  Anne (the founder) is in the village this week, so it's sure to be quite busy.

Peaceful Resolution

I know you were all up all night holding vigils about this.

Luckily, the situation has come to a peaceful resolution.  My aides in this difficult situation, Miki and Kome, were able to intercept a transmission from this previously unknown cell of Boko Haram operating here in Rwanda that the hostage was being held on the village water tower.

The situation was precarious when I arrived but I was able to perform the rescue which was captured by a local news team.  See below:

Monday, June 17, 2013

More Living, Less Blogging

That's just the way things go sometimes.  I have a lot more to tell you, but less time to tell you, so you'll just have to imagine most of it. It has gone from crazy busy to ludicrous speed around here and I just to not have time to catch you up on everything.  All is well.

The girls in Eleanor Roosevelt family are working hard this term to get involved in everything in the village (drama clubs, dance groups, choirs) and also working hard in school to learn to write compositions and improve foundational math skills.  By and large, they are healthy and adjusting to the village pretty well.  We have the types of problems you might imagine with 15 girls living together.  ("I fetched water for a shower and someone else took it."  "She took my notebook."  "She borrowed my shoes and didn't wash them.")

I still love eating meals with Grace, Yvonne, Noeline and Josianne.  Ornella and Adelaide have been getting quite serious about basketball.  Happyness is dancing and singing all the time.  Honorine wrote a poem and read it at village time!  We are having vision screenings and the girls who had dental screenings last term have been getting teeth pulled.  Time marches on.  I can't believe I've ben here almost 6 months.

We miss Jeanette and are planning to go and visit her gravesite as a family on Saturday, July 6.

I am busiest teaching TOEFL prep for the top 16 students in Sr. 6. These kids are amazing and I am really enjoying working with them.  They all dream of winning Mastercard Scholarships to American universities like Stanford and Duke. They do well on the reading comprehension and writing sections.  Grammar is harder and grammar lessons are no fun. I am really stretching to explain things like the present perfect and past participles.  I wish Mrs. Howe, my 4th grade teacher, was here.  She would know what to do.  Additionally, we are especially struggling with the listening comprehension section because hearing actual Amercian English accents at real speed is not something the kids have much experience with.  We are listening to a lot of NPR World Story of the Day podcasts.  They do not love this, but I think practice is the only way to improve here.

"Somehow*" I am working on The Big Project (R) for JC.  Just, you know, writing a hit pop song and then directing a video for YouTube that will go viral.  No biggie.  As you know, this is my area of expertise.  Anyway, we are inspired by Hot Cheetos and Takis and I am working with an amazing Student Leadership Committee to write and record a fun song and we will see what happens.

I am still working in the Student Resource Center to help students write CVs and cover letters and leading a ridiculous thing called "tutoring club".  Every minute of the day is scheduled and honestly generally double booked, so I just do whatever I can before I fall asleep standing up around midnight.  If you are waiting on an e-mail back from me, do not hold your breath.

I had an amazing birthday.  Thanks so much to my mom who mailed me the highest tech, best coffee mug (and a whole box full of other awesome goodies). [Suck it Mega.] My sister sent me some high tech quick dry pants from Athleta.  Here in the village, my housemates decorated my door with construction paper and made me a 'cake' out of amandazi and nutella.  It totally made my day and reminded me of when my sister used to decorate the bathroom we shared for me  on my birthday when we were growing up in New Jersey.

Later in the day some of the volunteers took me out to a restaurant in Rwamagana where we had chicken and bananas stew and some beers.  Then they gave me a real honest-to-goodness chocolate mousse cake that was like a real dessert from America (unheard of in Rwanda).  We were all flipping out.  It was a coordinated effort that involved getting keys to a refrigerator and a matatu/bus ride back and forth to Kigali with a cake (no small task) and it really was the nicest thing in the world.  The cake was super wonderful and delicious.  [It did almost kill Jerrod, who is deathly allergic to almonds, but that was a small price to pay in my opinion.]  I also got a gift bag from some of the volunteers with amazing treats like a Snickers and Doritos and some hand carved art.  I was touched that everyone went so all out and I had a really fun day.  There are some cute photos out there of the day and I'll add them here later if I can get my hands on them.

the staff took this floating on the ceiling of the cabana

me saying, can't you just hear my voice, that all i need to be happy has been provided: , a cake, a huge beer, and a cabana.  i was elated.

me stalling cutting the cake

party team: avi, rod, kome, me and miki

I kind of thought he might die

Jerrod - post almond

In less uplifting news, I still cannot run without pain.  Achilles tears are no joke.  I have been doing my rehab exercises since April.  This blows as running was one of my favorite things to do in the area and a major component of keeping me sane / stress management.  I'm broken hearted about missing the marathon and more importantly not really being able to work out at all.  I am doing this lame circuit training to still pretend like I am exercising but it pretty much only serves to make me angry.

Even worse, last weekend, I got super sick and had to go to a cray third world health clinic.  Actually everyone at Polyclinique Du Plateau was incredibly prefessional and nice.  What I know now is that I had a bad cold, and then I contracted a nasty stomach virus.  What I knew then was I had a fever, vomiting, other extreme gastro intestinal symptoms, a bad cough, a runny nose, ear pain and generally felt like every system I had was failing.  I went to the clinic and they gave me IV fluids and some IV stomach calming meds and some tylenol for the fever and I felt much better in 12 hours or so.  They wrote me about 7 prescriptions, some of which you can see here:

Also here's me in bed, running my mouth, like I do:
I am so miserable and weak in this photo and Hassina, village director of Health and Wellness is taking pics to entertain me.  My thinking at the time, was that the only thing to make up for how much discomfort I was in would be fishing for sympathy later on the blog.  The logic holds.

I was feeling pretty terrible for a while there, but am much better now.  Also, then all the other volunteers got the stomach flu, and once we knew what it was and that it ended in about a day it didn't seem so scary, but since I was patient 0 everything seemed so strange and unpleasant.

I spent the night in the clinic and had three bags of IV fluid and two examinations and the bill was about 130,000 RwF, (about $200), which is pretty low compared to what I would have paid for that kind of care in the US I think.

Now I am better and back in the village and just working and trying to deal with a minor hostage situation.  I'm delighted to hear the Spurs won game 5 and I wish them the best, but closing out at Miami is no small task.

Hope you are well.  I am busy here, but generally doing okay and trying to find a few meaningful interactions a day with kids amid all the chaos.

*I should probably write an entire post on how Rwandese use the word "somehow" but it is ubiquitous on any topic and is a reducing modifier that means, kind of or sort of or might mean complete disagreement.  For example, "Do understand me?" "Somehow", by which is meant, "no."  I love it and use it all the time, somehow.

Hostage Situation (so *this* is happening)

Background: I was given a bag of Doritos for my birthday from the other volunteers, which is a prize possession around here, 1) because I love Doritos and 2) because they are very difficult to source in Rwanda.  I hadn't eaten the Doritos only because I have been sick (stomach virus and a sinus infection, more on that in a separate post...) and I wanted to be able to taste the Doritos.  I was really looking forward to them.  Then on Friday, the bag went missing.  I went ballistic and immediately began a thorough and noisy search of the village to no avail.  Then late on Sunday night I received the following email:

Dearest Courtney,

I think I have found your Doritos. Ever since you told me about their disappearance I have been searching the internet far and wide for any clues. I found this image on a Boko Haram website. It appears your chips have been taken to northern Nigeria where they are being held hostage by the rebel group. 

Kome has reached out to some of his friends in Nigeria to help with the negotiations. They told us that if you want to see your chips again you must either send 1 million USD (for some strange reason they have specified that they only receive payment in nickles) or publicly perform any song by Brittany Spears and send a video clip for proof. 

Let us know what you want to do and we will facilitate the transaction through Kome's contacts in Lagos.

We know these are stressful times and want you to know we are here to help any way possible.

Miki & Kome 

My response:
On Mon, Jun 17, 2013 at 7:33 AM, Courtney Kelly <> wrote:
This very serious communiqué has been received and is being analyzed for clues back at Langley. Please await a detailed response.

And a few hours later:

Hi Courtney,
                    Now you must understand the seriousness of the situation at hand. You must know that time is of the essence here. in Warfare, hostage taking is common and they more often than not are silenced after a few days if they are not high priority.
My contacts have asked me to inform you that getting Langley involved is of no use.  You cannot win this one, you are on African soil and there is precious little they can do. But if you insist and get them involved, then Miki and I would withdraw our services and from that point on you take responsibility for whatever happens.
Kome & Miki

I really can't tell you what will happen next, but I do know this situation is likely to escalate.  In the hopes of a peaceful resolution, I am asking youo to tie Dorito colored ribbons around trees in your front yard.  (Those of you who live in apartments should buy houses and move to facilitate this request.) Barb, fire up the prayer vigil. Thank you and please stay tuned for more instructions. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Dictionary Distribution Drive! - Delighted Denizens

You guys never cease to amaze me.  THANK YOU SO MUCH.  The folks at Scripps Networks Interactive Knoxville (with some other helping hands) have sent a huge shipment of Kinyarwanda/English Dictionaries to ASYV.  I am so excited and so overwhelmed with gratitude.

I know that it was a concerted effort and that many people donated books, so many thanks to Vikki Neil for coordinating that and thank you to everyone who got involved and pitched in. Extra thanks to Jillian, Amy & Erin who I know were excited to help from the start and gathered donations.

The books have allowed us to place several dictionaries in each of the 32 family homes as well as many in the school and other libraries and study locations around the village. Additionally some books have been held back in reserve as awards for the winners of the upcoming spelling bee and village quiz night.

I opened the large boxes with a few of my girls from the Eleanor Roosevelt Family: Yvonne and Josianne. (Aren't they beautiful?) Some photos of that are below (Photo Credit: Jerrod Popham).  

Yvonne & Josianne helped me to distribute the books thoughout the village.  You can see the smiles.  However, what we really needed to convey the excitement is sound.  The girls were giggling and couldn't help opening and paging through the dictionaries right away.

Think about that for a second.  These are teenagers.  Giddily, eagerly flipping through a dictionary.

The sounds in each house when we brought the books were like Christmas morning with bikes and a new gaming system.  All of the kids shouted, "Wow!" over and over and hugged each other.  I'm not kidding or exaggerating.  If you got a "wow" out of an American kid for a dictionary it would probably be sarcastic, but these students were genuinely thrilled to have a key to unlock the language they've been working so hard to learn.  I really cannot express how grateful and excited you have made 500 kids, kids that I think are just amazing.

I can't imagine how frustrating it's been to try and learn a foreign language without a dictionary, but I know it will be much easier for them now.  The dictionaries will be used every night while students do their homework and throughout the day at school.  Starting now and years from now, when these students have better chances than they would have at scholarships and jobs due to improved English, this effort will be the reason. It's a real, substantive change that's been made and I am so appreciative.

Here's a few pics of us opening the boxes:

(Thanks so much to fellow volunteer Jerrod Popham for taking and giving me these photos.)

And here are a few more of my thoughts in interview style:

How does it make you feel that these people at Scripps sent you so many dictionaries?
 Overwhelmed with their generosity.  I know why I give to these kids.  I work with them every day and I know they are so deserving, but that people half a world away who have never met them care is a real testament to the generosity of the good people at Scripps in Knoxville.  It makes me proud to know them.

Where you surprised they wanted to get involved, since you were at Scripps as a consultant and not an employee?
In a way, yes, but in my time consulting at Scripps I was continually made aware of how Scripps gives back to United Way and many other generous charitable campaigns.  The staff I worked with in Knoxville were very supportive of my endeavor and interested in my plans, and I know they are just wonderful people, so I'm not really that shocked that they once again decided to get involved and make a difference.  As a consultant, Scripps employees never made me feel like an outsider, but instead treated me with genuine Southern hospitality, welcoming me into friendships and their homes, and when they learned about this great cause, they got involved, regardless of the labels.

How has this donation affected the Rwandan people you are working with?
 It directly impacts the lives of 500 vulnerable orphans in the residential youth community where I work.  They take all their classes and tests in English but learn it as a second or third language, after Kinyarwanda, their native tongue, and French, the official language here in Rwandan until 2008.  These students are so dedicated, but they really struggle to learn a language without a Kinyarwanda /English dictionary.  That's where Vikki Neil and Scripps stepped in to get involved. When I was handing out the dictionaries, the kids were celebrating like they just got the best present in the world.  They were so immediately appreciative and excited.


How has this donated affected you?
Does it sound sappy to say it has re-affirmed my faith in humanity?  In a large sense, I feel great that my friends and colleagues care about this organization for orphaned and vulnerable Rwandan youth and want the best for them.  On a micro level, I work with these kids every day and I have grown to really love them.  I am so excited for them to have these dictionaries and learn English better.  So the effect on me is that Pacifique, who works so hard, has another tool to help him learn, and that Agnes, who is too shy to ask questions, can learn straight from the book. And there's 498 other kids with stories like that who will truly benefit from this.