Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Young Ladies of Eleanor Roosevelt Family

Here's the deal:  I wouldn't write anything here that is secret, or that I wouldn't want the girls to read, but I want you to have some sense of the new family I've been blessed with.  If all this sounds a bit too corny or Stepford Wife coming from me, maybe so, but the thing is: no matter what, when a 16 teenage girls decide to love you, just have to let them, and then, you love them back. If (probably when) they read this blog, they'll see things below I've already told them.  Now you can know them a bit too.  

(I certainly won't be blogging about their "story", or why they are here; that is their's to tell, but it is widely published that Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is a place for orphaned and vulnerable youth, and in a country with ~3M orphans there is an extensive search process to determine who is the most vulnerable.  What I find amazing is that when I get down (it can be hard here sometimes), these girls are the ones who cheer me up, and I had thought it might be the other way around...)

Jeannette is the tiniest girl in the family.  She is at least a year younger than the other girls, and weighs maybe 20 pounds less. She is like a tiny creature.  She loves eating all manner of leaves and where ever she is walking to and from school or the dining hall she has some leaves in her mouth.  She is shy and quiet and has a ready, easy smile.  She does not like working on the farm or service.  When the adults are not around, I hear, she is the silliest one and makes all her sisters laugh.  I call her Rabbit, which the other girls have adopted as well.  Rabbit:

Josiane (small) has been sick most of the time she's been in the village.  She has been in the hospital for three days and to the clinic umpteen times.  She eats a special salt-free diet which she must secure from the kitchen below the dining hall before each meal.  She usually hates the food (rare here, all the kids eat huge plates at each meal) but she pushes hers around and looks sad.  She loves to play cat's cradle with string.  She does not like it at all when I ask her to "please take two more bites" of lunch or dinner.  She has an amazing singing voice that still sounds like songbird even though she has had a persistent hacking cough since she arrived in the village.  She wrote a poem for her end of term English project about how God has a plan for all of us and everything has a reason.  Josiane:

Honorine makes a point to get near me and hugs me a lot.  We were partners on potato harvest day and I know I made her carry 3 more loads that the other girls because I was setting an example and she just went right along with it.  She LOVES mangoes and will climb any branch to get to one. She gives her all on the girls football team and at Mucaka mucaka.  Honorine (and me):

Agnes has these melting soft brown eyes.  She is the quietest girl in the family, and usually looks stern or serious, but when she smiles her whole face warms up. She is working hard on her English.  honestly, she has been the hardest girl for me to get to know, but she is finally getting used to me always looking for her and asking her how school was.  Agnes:

Josiane (tall) is one of the more rural girls in the family with very limited English, so she's been a bit harder to get to know as well.  She loves to joke with me in silly little ways, like saying it's night when it's daytime.  Sometimes she seems maternal to me in her mannerisms, even though she's just a kid.  When we have to work around the house she always knows what to do and shows me how to do it. She especially loves the "Susan" game.*  She taught me to carry things on my head with a weave of grass.  I am terrible at it, but she thinks it is funny.  Every assignment we have on the farm she knows how to do and does with a lot of confidence, and even tries to teach me the right way to do.  Josiane:

Violette is a sunny, happy girl that loves sports like karate and volleyball.  She is tall and lean and smiles a lot.  She is always happy to see me.  She closes her eyes and furrows her brow so tightly when we pray at the end of Family Time. I need to work harder to get to know Violette.  Violette:

Grace truly lives up to her name; she is a delicate, poised child, soft spoken and serious.  She floats around the campus.  She gets sooooo tired at family time.  When she wants me to know that she knows a word in English, she will carefully say "for example" followed by a synonym.  She is a dear that always wants me to sit by her at meals, which is unique and a social price, because the other kids usually hate having a chaperone around for meals (nearly their only 'free' time) roll their eyes when I sit near them.  If I sit somewhere else, she gently scolds me that next to her is my place. Grace laughing:

Alice is tall and looks a bit like Hillary Swank.  (Really!)  She is so responsible and earnest.  She smiles widely like her face is going to crack open on a hinge.  She nods seriously the entire time our family mother talks, (and talks).  She is a real dear.  She loves playing football (soccer) and is always happy to see me. Alice:

Ornella is from Kigali and is basically just like any American high school freshman you know.  She has ben to Kenya, Tanzania and Unganda.  She likes Nikki Manaj, The Hunger Games and wants to be an architect.  She is on the basketball team and is working hard at practice (5 AM!).  She organizes the other girls in the family, and perhaps bosses them around a bit, but usually in ways they need, like to clean up or to be respectful when others are speaking. She's a confident girl with amazing English. She likes modern dance and hip hop.  She explains everything that is going on to me in the dining hall in a really patient way and takes very good care of me. Ornella:

Chantale. Wow!  The MOST POSITIVE person I have EVER met.  Every day was great. Every class was great, or "somehow great". She loves her extracurricular assignments.  It's not because she doesn't have more English to express herself, because her English is strong.  She says "great" and "very very okay" with the most genuine smile.  She tells me every night that she prays I will dream of God. She loves to sing and has a beautiful singing voice, and finds me in the dining hall and teaches me songs.  She is super fun to watch sports with!  Whenever ASYV plays a football (soccer) game, we sit together and she jumps up and yells "Wow!" with every nice pass or quality shot. Chantale:

Yvonne is super fun to dance and party with.  She loves to play with my hair. She is one of the jokers of the group and also a good way to get an honest read on the family.  If something is going wrong, she will tell you, not sugar coat it.  She is amazing at leading the other girls when she is called upon to do so and takes over like she is used to leading an army.  She beat me 2 out of 3 at Connect 4 (she let me go first all 3 times).  She is my dance partner at every performance in the amphitheater and is working hard to try and teach me to dance like her.  She is also trying to teach me the songs we sing during mucaka mucaka, so I know what I am saying as I jog along chanting syllables in Kinyarwanda. Yvonne:

Adelaide, oh my Ad.  She is so enthusiastic.  She is on the basketball team and her coach tells me she is the most coachable girl, listening well all the time and following instructions.  In the family, she is earnest, and emphatic about integrity and respect (shouting 'yeeeesss!'  and 'of course!' when others say something about a core value).  She has very strong English skills and will translate for me what is going on during family time.  she is a bit of a jock in her style and likes modern dance and hip hop. Adelaide:

Noeline is from Uganda and speaks better English than Kinyarwanda. She is a very good kid, and studies very hard.  She worries about breaking rules and imagines scenarios where she might break a rule and tries to avoid them.  "What if I need to do x, but that would make me late...?" She exclusively calls me 'cousin' and thinks incorrectly, but understandably, that I have a lot of information, asking questions about what will be taught at school, when things will happen, why certain decisions were made, etc.  When we have service in the dining hall she gets really nervous and scurries around and rounds up extra chairs and forks for the table she is responsible for.  You can tell she is used to working very hard and getting yelled at a lot if anything is amiss.  She had some really strong feelings about Valentine's day and about how much her grandparents loved each other, that were very sweet and a bit of an outlier from the other girls thoughts about love. Noeline:

Samila is shy and has a big smile.  She is soft spoken but loves to sing.  She surprises me with her opinions in the family debates, she is usually on the less popular side and fighting hard, my unlikely devil's advocate.  She is in to current events!  She somehow found out recently about the asteroid over Russia and is worried about one coming to rwanda.  I told her it would probably be okay [based on nothing, but my general belief that it is better to assume things will probably be okay, regardless of the actual odds when there's nothing you can do about it anyway].  She was very concerned about lighting striking a church where the pope was as well.  Samila:

Happyness is a modern dance choreographer and always wears makeup that makes her look like she is going out to party.  She can drum on a chair with a rock in a really cool way.  She can be so sweet to me and when we were working in the kitchen she gave me her peeler and took my knife because she feared for my fingers and took pity on me. She likes to learn songs in English. Happyness:

Adelphine is my prankster.  she is always laughing and scheming. I know I am in for it when she starts her sentence with a high "Ko-nee, …" .  She is the most animated in the debates (and gets a bit swishy).  when we work on the farm she is always embarrassing some poor farmhand by telling me that he loves me and wants to move to NYC with me.  Of all my girls, she is the the most interested in marrying me off.  This week at mucaka mucaka I took off from my slowly walking group and starting jogging with a pack of boys that were moving at a decent pace.  iIm in the pack and it's quite dark, but as the sun starts to rise, I can see that at the front of the pack, hanging right with them is Adelphine and she's not on any sports team or anything.  She ran the whole way and back singing the entire time.  Adelphine:

*The Susan game:  The girls like to play a game where we pretend i'm a high school student from Texas named Susan and they get to ask me questions.  It's weird for me and a very basic form of "acting" or role playing but it KILLS them and they laugh their face off because I am saying answers that aren't true about myself.  For example, they ask me if I have a brother (in real life I don't, which they know; they are very interested in anyone with some family relations) but I say yes, Susan has 2 little brothers and then they all laugh for 5 minutes because I made something up, which is just so silly and frivolous to them.  I wonder if Rwandan kids ever play 'make believe' when they are little.  I had thought that was universal but now somehow I don't think so.  They all want to know how I know all this about Susan, and I try to explain that I don't, that she isn't real and that just makes them laugh even more.  For me, the whole experience is surreal, but it comes up a lot because they LOVE it.  The whole thing makes them seem very young. 

Ceremonies Rwandastyle

So, I've been to a couple ceremonies recently.  Rwandans (it seems to me) like ceremonies, and discussing protocol, and having protocol committees.  At these ceremonies no one is in a hurry and there is a lot of introducing someone who will introduce someone else who will introduce a speaker on a topic.  No ceremony is complete without some traditional dance, traditional songs and usually an appeal to live up to the development goals of HEPK.  Rwandans seem very patient to me, or maybe I seem impatient to me, probably both. 

The first ceremony was the village naming ceremony.  We got a name! No more "Family 8".  I have been really looking forward to having a hero name.  Each of the 16-child families in the village have hero names to serve as role models.  The names range widely from biblical names like King Solomon to more modern names like Steve Jobs.  Other examples include a Marie Curie family, a Joan of Arc family and Abraham Lincoln. 

I didn't involve myself too much in the name choosing.  I'm going home in 8 months (who's counting?) but this will be their family name forever.  Moreover, sometimes my opinion in the family carries a lot of weight and I was afraid that if I voiced a preference some of the girls might get behind my suggestion blindly. This is a big decision, part of their identity, and it is their decision to make. The girls had a (NY-provided) list of names to choose from and on their own narrowed the options there to their top 5: Max Weber, Moses (yes, that Moses), Olave Baden-Powell (founded girl scouts), Eleanor Roosevelt and King Faisal

I was pulling for Olave or Eleanor because I think girls make good role models for girls, but also kept that to myself.  I helped the family research (read the wikipedia pages of) each 5 names and sat back to watch the internal voting.  Olave and Eleanor were the top two, and what really sealed the deal in the run-off was that Eleanor lost her parents at a young age herself.

We were announced as the Eleanor Roosevelt family in a special village time ceremony that also welcomed families named after Rosa Parks, Clara Barton, Adam Smith and Martin Luther King Jr.

I think Eleanor is a good role model for the girls in my family and I'm looking forward to sending them a copy of her biography as a gift when I get home so they can really get to know her.  One thing that makes Rwandan sense about Eleanor is that she sometimes worked behind the scenes to exert her influence and powerful Rwandan women are coalition builders and string pullers. (Maybe that is true everywhere.)

(The good news, is my nickname still works.  In Rwanda, I'm CMFK-ER, so that's a relief. )

Here's Grace and Chantal Vanna Whiting our new family name:

I also recently had the opportunity to attend a wedding introduction ceremony for an ASYV Big Sister/ family chaperone.  The introduction ceremony is traditionally the first meeting of the bride and groom, and the exchange of the cows.  (That's right, it's cows then vows for Rwandans.) 

This instance of the modern day introduction ceremony was held one week before the wedding.  The ceremony involved traditional dance, traditional singing and the fathers of the bride and groom negotiating the terms.  It's common for the father of the bride to fib things like "she's not even here" or "she's off at college" to drive up the price. In the end, Betty went for 8 cows and Fantas all around.  I got mashanana'd up again for this event.

Here's me and Shira:

 Me and Isabel:

And just me in front of where the bride and groom were eventually stationed.

We had a lot of time to kill taking photos because Rwandatime is even worse than ultimate time.  The wedding invite was for 1:00, we were the first to arrive at 1:30 and the ceremony began at about 3:00.

One notable item, the mothers of the bride and groom didn't even sit on the front row and weren't acknowledged in any way.  Also the bride and groom miss, most of this ceremony, as the two fathers are hammering out the terms, so when they finally appear it means it's almost over.  It would be weird for me for my whole family to be having a party about my wedding and for me to miss it, but I guess that is the tradition.

And okay, one more.  This is a stretch for a "ceremony" but I went up to the Liquidnet Family High School for my girls end of term English projects and got to see them put on sketches, read poems and sing songs in English.  It was great and a huge marker for how much they have improved at English in just a few months since they arrived.  They were 'cold' because it was only about 75 that day.  This is how one of my little dears (Josiane) was dressed:


Oh my goodness!  You guys are amazing.

So partially in response to this post, and more generally due to a deep-seated awesomeness and capability to deliver positive outcomes, Kate Condon organized a bra drive for the ladies of ASYV.  She crushed it!  Many thanks to all the employees of Perfect Sense Digital, Scripps and Kate's personal network who chipped in bras for the girls.  Together they collected 176 (176!) bras that were neatly sorted by size and arrived by FedEx.  I cannot thank Kate and her friends enough.

Based on my own prejudices, I decided to allocate the new supplies to the sports teams first.  The girl's basketball team, football (soccer) team and volleyball team got first dibs on finding some well fitting support and after that the rest of the bras went to the village clothing supply to be provided to the neediest girls.

When I sent news to the basketball team about the distribution, they were so excited they showed up at my house 30 minutes before the agreed upon time.  Once they saw the supply it was like a feeding frenzy (or that bargain wedding dress show warehouse show).  They immediately started trying on to find their best fit, all smiles and squeals of delight.  (This isn't really the type of thing you can photograph without raising the attention of certain Interpol departments but please trust me that the grins were ear to ear.)

For several of the girls, it was their first ever bra and they wore it out and haven't taken it off since!

The new gear was certainly in use during a basketball game here in the village on Sunday, March 24.  A school from Kigali (College Amis Des Enfants) came to play the against our girls and boys teams.  Here's some pics of the game, which our girls dominated:
Going for a rebound

Coach calls a timeout to regroup

Free throw (good)

Keeping the handle while spinning away from the defense

For me it is humbling how much some of my friends at home, (and some folks I've never even met!), care about the girls at the village and were willing to jump to action to help them.  I think the girls felt so fortunate to have guardian angels looking out for them from another hemisphere.

Thanks to all involved!

The bounty:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Last night I attended a ceremony.

One of the "big sisters" Betty is getting married.  All 32 of the family mothers crowded into her house to surprise her.  When she came home from family time at 10:00 PM we were all there.  Betty was so surprised.  She started crying immediately.  From 10:00 PM to 1:00 AM the mothers sang so many traditional songs that they know; maybe 30 different songs.  And they prayed for Betty.  But mostly the offered advice.  The ceremony is a family leaving ceremony where the mother says goodbye to her daughter because she is leaving and gives her advice for a good marriage.  The 'advice' was very traditional: clean a lot, have good hygiene, clean your floor, learn to use a broom, clean your face, give your husband the best pillow, give your husband the best food, a man will stay at home if the house is clean.  (This was translated all for me).  Betty cried the ENTIRE time.  3 hours of bawling.  I am still not sure if that is just what is expected, because it is a sad ceremony, because traditionally a girl would go away and leave her family and the appropriate  expected thing for the bride-to-be is to cry and cry, or if the whole thing was horribly cruel.

I found the whole thing incredible   I had never seen any thing like it.  I was amazed that all these women new and passionately sang so many songs.  I don't think 32 American woman could come up with more than 5 songs they all know. Furthermore, I was shocked that the ceremony was so serious and so sad.  It was NOTHING like a bridal shower.  There was a lot of ordering Betty to set a good example and be a good girl, and mostly to clean a lot.  And she cried and cried.  Here's a dark wack photo of the event (my iPhone is pretty poor in low light, but you still maybe get the idea):

This photo from the restroom at La Galette bakery & cafe has some pretty good advice as well, in my opinion:

Friday, March 8, 2013

Some Photos of International Women's Day at ASYV

Hey.  I got all mashananahed up again.  I was self-conscious, but my girls loved it.  No pics of that, but pics of drumming, a play, a fashion show and some traditional dancing.  It was quite a production.  I had a blast!

Miss Rwanda was here.  I didn't photograph her, but she was really patient and let every kid in the village get a photo with her.

Monday, March 4, 2013

My new favorite thing in the world

So  pretty much has this topic covered.  I'm not feigning breaking any new ground, but terrible English translations still make me smile.

I bought this toy recently at T2000 in Kigali:

There's a lot of Engrish on the package, as you can see, but for me the most wonderful is the list of "function":
  • Site can swing
  • Light
  • Music Sound
  • Not be able to resume normal place (emphasis added)
It's that last one that seems really, really powerful to me.  I interpret it that this toy is the end to normalcy, that your life will be irrevocably changed by its use.  I am pretty sure that is what they meant.