Friday, December 20, 2013

When They Meet with an Obstacle, Mount to the Sky;

Happy Holidays!

Welcome to my 2013 holiday letter, a throwback to when we communicated in more than 140 character bursts. How quaint! 2013 was an amazing, incredible year.  I spent the year living in Rwanda and working for the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village

I lived inside the village, near Rwamagana about an hour east of Kigali.  I ate my meals in a dining hall with 500 high school students.  I was a 'cousin' to a family of 15 orphaned and vulnerable girls who live together in the village, in the Eleanor Roosevelt Family.  With them, I worked on the farm, helped with homework, played games, taught English and tried to serve as an adult role model living the values of the village.  It was amazing to see a group of teenage girls learn to treat each other as family and blossom in the safety and opportunity of the village. 

It is a rare thing indeed to be given a whole additional family and I feel so lucky.  I traveled around Rwanda to visit each of the girls in their home outside of the village and those were rich and memorable trips.  It is not often that just showing up matters, but in some cases the presence of a foreign visitor for a girl that doesn't have much social status in her village can be a big deal.

Here's me with Eleanor Roosevelt:
The whole fam

My 'day job' was working in the Student Resource Center, like a high school guidance counselor's office, helping the oldest kids with resumes, studying for the TOEFL and scholarship applications. Having spent my professional life in consulting, I approached this role as if I had 500 clients.  Without fail, these were the best clients I ever had.  So appreciative.  So eager.  No less demanding.  There were always more requests from students than hours in the day and I was always busy and frequently exhausted, but the days were interesting and felt like they mattered.

Here's me at work in the resource center:
"Copy/paste from Wikipedia is frowned upon."

Really the best part of the work was making friends with the kids and getting to know them.  I had a blast and now I am really missing some of my buddies.
Ferdinand and me at his house in Kigali

Yvonne and me on a bus before a big adventure

Maxime, future ruler of the world.  Bow down now.

Me and Serge/O2: Rapper, class valedictorian and Ethanol Entrepreneur, to name just a few

Maurice and Miki discuss the documentation for Science Extravaganza day

Maurice is my new little brother and taught me all kinds of things.  He worked hard to take care of me all year. A real highlight of the year was him making me spaghetti dinner.  He is one of the students I worked closely with in Application Boot Camp for the last couple months. Give me a call if you know any admissions officers with clout.

It's hard to sum up an experience like this without leaning on trite cliches.  What I can say is that I've been inspired by children who have overcome more than you can imagine and still have wonderful positive outlooks and take charge attitudes.  I hope that I can stay mindful of them while dealing with things that qualify as annoying or 'problems' now that I'm back home.  It was also very nice to be reminded that we 'need' a lot less than we think we do, and that possessions can be a real drag.

Now that I'm used to being surrounded by 500 students all the time, being away from them feels quiet and strange.  

Aside from working with the kids, I really enjoyed running in Rwanda, with beautiful, hilly trails at elevation.  Now that I'm home safe, I can tell you without my mom having a heart attack that I also liked taking zippy little motos everywhere to get around.  They are just so convenient and the trip is always exciting.

While there, I took a couple of great side trips.  In April, I went Gorilla trekking in Rwanda.  It was a beautiful, memorable experience. 
This baby gorilla was about 2 meters from me, taking a nap

I also went on a visually stunning safari in Tanzania seeing the Serengeti and all manner of wildlife.  Highlights for me were watching the giraffes and the hyenas.
'Phants and 'Phants

In August, I went to Zanzibar for a beach vacation.  All the cliches about that place are totally true.  It blew away my expectations and was the most beautiful place I have ever vacationed.  The ocean views were straight out of a Corona commercial.  It's a pity it is not that easy to get to, because I heartily recommend it.

This beautiful view from my front porch of  cheap, cute rental

Me on the Beach in a state of total appreciation

I'd be remiss if I didn't take a chance to thank everyone who helped and supported me this year.  I received care packages, donations for the village, letters, and even simple emails checking in to keep me connected to home and my spirits up.  I always felt lucky and loved and thanks to everyone for being a part of that.
Thanks to folks from Scripps and others who donated dictionaries to the village

As for 2014, I truly have no idea.  Place your bets. Send your suggestions.  My short term goals are getting over jet lag, getting my winter coats out of storage and catching up on the NBA.  I'll be in North Carolina for the holidays visiting my mom, my sister and her two girls, Kate and Lindy, who in just one year grew up into complete, fully functioning adults.  I am hoping they will give me an internship or at least agree to mentor me.  I may try to be in Philly on March 1st when the 76ers retire Allen Iverson's number (Dorko, make a note). What can I say, it's a time of transition for me and my heroes.

As always, I hope you enjoy the holiday letter and don't find it too obnoxious.  You can 'opt out' by sending an email asking to be removed from this distribution list.  For those of you looking for more frequent updates, you can find me online at and @CourtneyMFK on Twitter.

Happy New Year!  May your 2014 be peaceful and fun.



Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sweet Baby Kate

I go to Rwanda for one year and this happens:

Here is Kate, on the left, heading out to a school dance with a friend.

When I left she looked like this, I promise:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Visiting Eleanor Roosevelt at 'Home'

     So I've done some 'home' visits before.  This can be confusing.  "Wait, aren't they orphans?" some friends ask. Yes, or selected for extreme vulnerability, (remaining parent is sick or unable to give care, extreme poverty, abuse in the home.)  Also Rwanda's social system is very different than the US.  Everyone has some guardian, assigned by the government. It might be an uncle you hardly know, some distant cousin, a stepmother.  This guardian might be pretty unhappy you've been assigned to them.  Or not.  Maybe they care for the student the best the can.  Regardless of the situation everyone has to leave the village during school vacations, so they maintain some connection with where they came from, and so they have somewhere to go when the time is up. This stresses me out, seeing them going back to vulnerable situations they were selected out of, However, for some of the kids just being in the village and having other people call to check up on them can improve how their guardians treat them, or how they are perceived for the future.  If you think your house boy is going to turn into a well educated earner you might be a bit nicer to him.  So it's possible the situation they are returning to isn't quite as dire as the one they left.
     Some of my girls live entirely alone, or only with other siblings.  Some live in homes with a surviving parent who has remarried.  (In Rwanda its pretty common for this new spouse to be openly hostile to the previous union's children.  This of course seems crazy to me, but is cultural.)  Some live with Grandparents or 'Granduncles'.  Many live with aunts or uncles that have plenty of their own children to care for.  Many work as house girls / domestic servants for their guardians during the break. 

After the *end* (brief break? halftime?) of Application Boot Camp, I went to see everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt I hadn't been to see yet. 9 more girls.  Every visit was wonderful.  All the girls were glad to see me and I was always shown Rwandan hospitality and treated like royalty.  Below are a few photos and a few notes from the visits.  For some of the longer visits, I was afraid I would get lost and took Yvonne with me as my tour guide.  She was amazing and is the best travel companion one could ever hope for.

Agnes, Me, Her Mom
Visiting Agnes was nuts! We took a bus two hours south to Nyanze.  Then a 1 hour moto ride to Busoro city.  Then asked around for her at the local government because she does not have a phone and her mom doesn't have a phone.  We finally found someone who knew where she lives and took us to a bike taxi to take us, for another 1 hour ride.  When we got there she was so surprised. She said she didn't think we could ever find her. It was great to see her.

Travel team starting a journey in Nyambugogo Bus Park

Friend and Ornella
Improbably, on the way to visit Josiane, we bumped in to Ornella in Remera bus park with a friend.  Doesn't she look all grown up with braids in?

Josiane's family and Me

Josiane lives in Muthenderi, in the East, not too far from Kibungo.  I met her mom at the baptism recently at ASYV. She has two younger brothers and a younger sister. It was a long journey to find her and there was no mobile phone service, so Yvonne had to work extra hard to track down where to go by asking anyone nearby.  When we finally arrived it was great to meet the whole family.

Brother, Cow, Me, Adelphine

Ancient Granny, Aunt, Me, Adelphine, Brother

Adelphine lives with her aunt, 2 brothers and an ancient Grandmother who insisted on walking me up the steep train back to the dirt road they live off.  Her family was super nice and super generous.  Her brother had set up a solar panel so the family could charge their cell phones.

Solar set up in Rugobabgoba

Violette and her Family
 That same day in the afternoon I visited Violette. Her aunt had a little baby girl named Chance that cried a lot.  This photo is Violette's aunt, self, Aunt, cousin and laughing Grandmother. Violette showed me around her village.  She took me to a community animal share where these pigs are starving.  The photos are terrible, they were moving constantly and the light and angles were all wrong, but trust me starving pigs look weird:

This is a pig,  In Runda.

Yvonne and Josiane sample the fresh cassava root 
Yvonne and I travelled to Butare to visit Josiane, who lives alone mostly or sometimes with her half-brother when he is around.  I met her neighbors and saw the fields she cultivates.  She harvested some cassava root for me right there and we ate some fresh from the ground. Yes, she is wearing a Plaisir shirt, one of two competing condom brands here in Rwanda.  Okay, this didn't delight me, but I do support condom use.

Chantal, her Brother and some kids who live nearby
Chantal lives in the Western Province, in a house alone with her brother who is 1 year older than her, Placide. They do have some aunts and uncles nearby.  After a 2 hour bus ride to Ngororero, a 30 minute moto ridge to Gatumba, she met us near a market.  Then we hiked 1 hour straight up to the house where they live.  Mountain goat style.  The house is adorably decorated and impeccably kept.  It's hard to imagine what this house would be like with two American teens living there on their own.

Chantal, Yvonne, Placide and a friend, about halfway up to their house

Noeline, Her Aunt, Uncle, and 4 boy cousins

Noeline and 2 cousins in front of her house

I visisted Noeline in Cuminagatanu (15) about 20 minutes outside of Kigali town center.  She lives with her uncle, aunt and their 4 sons.  Her uncle is an interesting guy who told me Anne Heyman could not really be a woman because she was so intelligent. Thanks.  Noeline was so glad to see me and made me a special card.

The visits were all bitter sweet because it was so good to see the girls, and also for most of them this will be my last time seeing them, at least until I come back for their graduation in 2016.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

ABC: Application Boot Camp - Sleep Deprivation Training

I am so exhausted.  And drained.  And spent.  

Raissa, Esther, Poet, Du and Jeaninne working on Applications

Immaculee, Francine and Jean Bosco - yes there's an app for that

Tonto Eric visits to lend support and one zillion recommendation letters

There's no way these photos can display the complete chaos of the past few weeks.  After exams finished in the village twenty senior 6 (seniors) students were allowed to stay in the village for two weeks to work on university applications. They were selected based in their grades and a mid-year college essay writing exercise.  These are some of the top students in the village.  The thinking is that these are the students that will have the best chance of being accepted and receiving a scholarship to a university.

They had really not started working on college applications at all before their national leaving exam.  Everyone is laser focused on studying for this exam, basically all year, but especially third term and it's hard to get them to think about anything else.  Now, with exams finished, they're all supposed to go home, but the catch is home probably does not have electricity, let alone a computer, and in the age of online university applications this is a real barrier.

So we hosted this program where the students could stay after school and work on applications.  There were actually 21, 1 student from last year.  They were working on applications primarily for MasterCard Foundation Scholarships like UBC, McGill, University of Toronto, Arizona State University and Michigan State University and some other possible scholarship opportunities.

I had thought it would be a fun couple of weeks, answering few questions.  Reading a few essays.  It was fun, but it was insane.

I had 10 'counselees'.  So many of the form application questions make no sense if you're Rwandan.  Address? No one in Rwanda has an address (we use the school's).  First Name and Last Name (given name / family name) are even a big discussion.  Rwandan's (like Imaculee Mugwaneza) have two names, a western and a Rwandan, but neither follow from your family and they think of Mugwaneza as first.  Don't even get me started on 'What is the value of your home?"  The kids had never filled out any forms like these.

And the applications are complicated.  For just one, first you apply to the school, request an application fee waiver, send transcripts, letters of recommendation, letters of financial validation AND then you apply for the scholarship, with the same biographical data forms again, then tons of financial information and then lots and lots of essays. For just one student, and just one school it is a lengthy complicated process.

Add 20 students, all hoping to apply to many schools. Mix in regular power outages that caused kids to lose their work (Save! Save! Save frequently please!) Documents need to be completed, printed, signed by people all over the village, scanned, the PDF file size needs to be shrunk and then, then you can submit part of an application.

The students would be at my house asking questions at 6 AM.  Serge showed up while I was taking a shower.  "I'm in the shower, Serge!  Can I have a few minutes?"  He replied "No Problem" and started shouting his questions at me.  KIds stayed in the computer lab working until 2 or 3 AM.

I had real trouble setting limits.  "No I don't have time to answer this question that is simple for me but a complete unknown for you and blocks you from applying to follow your life dream." So there were ten baby birds, loudly chirping, and one very tired robin flying to get a worm, grab a cup of coffee on the way back, give the worm to one baby bird who is unsatisfied and see 9 others squawking their heads off.

Camp was scheduled to run from November 11 through the 22nd.  But on the 23rd none of them left.  "We're not finished.  We have more questions."  To be fair the power had been out for long stretches ever single day of ABC.  Finally, on Tuesday Nov 26, I left, as an escape plan and because I needed to start visiting the remainder of the girls from Eleanor Roosevelt (more on that soon). They are still calling and showing up in Kigali with questions.  My guess now is that this will 'end' when all the applications are due.

It's a very difficult process.  I'm not sure if any of them will succeed.  However, we will have tried.  I think maybe the practice of applying, and paying attention to every detail on the application will be good for everyone who made the effort.

I would like to go to sleep for a week, but I need to visit the rest of my girls from Eleanor Roosevelt and start getting ready to come home.

Breaking: I'll be back in the US in December.