RWANDA: Hardship and Hope

June 2-6,  2009– Kigali, Rwimiyaga, Gacundezi, Nyagatare

assignment:  write/produce a video for Food for the Hungry, an international relief organization  

BRIEF BACKGROUND 

Rwanda is called “the land of a thousand hills” …and 10 million smiles.  A land-locked country in E. Africa the size of Maryland, today it is said to be the safest and cleanest country on the continent. The national language is Kinyarwanda. There are 576 Rwandan francs to $1 US.  The largest franc is equivalent to a $20 bill.      

Fifteen years since the genocide, the green countryside is peaceful now. 

countryside 2

President Paul Kagame is considered an enlightened leader in Africa. He invited all who fled during a war (including the 1959 uprising) to return in peace to their homeland.  More than a million were repatriated from neighboring Uganda, Burundi and the DR  Congo.  He declared after the genocide that there will be no more references to Hutus and Tutsis, everyone will be called “Rwandans.” Blaming the French for provoking genocide, he kicked them out and replaced French with English in schools as the second language. Most signs are in English.

 Since their villages had been looted or destroyed, many returning  house, clay bricks and scaffold branches refugees  were settled in a huge wildlife preserve where they received a measured   plot of land to begin anew—enough land for a house (hut) and to farm. They built from scratch with tree branches and mud bricks, but at least they were safely home. 

 Kagame received a military education in the US before securing victory. I’m told he’s a Christian who was inspired by Rick Warren’s book A Purpose Driven Life and decided to become a beacon of light for Africa after reading it. 

 He outlawed plastic (except water bottles) because it’s not biodegradable and causes litter. Upon retrieving our suitcases from baggage claim in Kigali, the capital, visitors who had wrapped their suitcases in plastic (for security) or carried plastic bags were stopped and asked to dispose of them in the trash before leaving the airport.  Indeed, when driving  north from Kigali through rural villages we did not see a spec of litter.  Rwandans are required to devote one Saturday morning a month to community clean-up work.   

 June 2, 2009

Brussels Airways has the direct flight (8 hours) to Kigali.  I was one of a handful of Caucasians on board.  

Jacksons at Kigali home  Brenda, the wife of Food for the Hungry’s country director, picked me up at the airport and welcomed me into their Kigali home, large enough to serve as a B & B for all the staff and visitors passing through each year.  She graciously had dinner ready and a guest bedroom and bathroom for me with hot and cold running water, a luxury that would not last long.

June 3 

The camera crew and I set out in the morning with our suitcases in the van and the client’s Rwandan driver, Jean-Claude at the wheel, driving three hours north past remote villages where some had never seen a white person.   

  The sunny green countryside was pastoral and lovely.   countryside The land seemed to be sectioned off into equal parcels for huts and farming.  This is a beautiful country of gentle hills and savannahs. 

 People were friendly, waving and smiling to our van or responding to our waves.  We passed an endless stream of men, women (many swaddling babies on their backs) and school children walking up and down the hills along the dirt shoulders of the paved two-lane highway. There were few vehicles on the road, so people noticed us. Children especially waved enthusiastically.  

I observed Claude exchanging hand signals with each driver in a vehicle passing in the opposite direction.  He showed me the signals for “police check nearby, slow down” or “all clear, no police” or “police in next village.”  We did pass a couple of soldiers and a few traffic cops on the roadside.  One stopped us and asked a few questions in English then let us go after glancing at Claude’s papers. Claude said they mostly look for speeders.  

 In passing many rural villages, we witnessed how arduous life is for subsistence farmers in a primitive culture.   bike, girl help father 

bike carries goods from market

Here at the equator, work is back-breaking.  They use only a rusty hoe (no tillers or machines) to plant and machetes to cut the corn stalks, banana clusters or tree branches for construction and kindling.  We saw adults walking miles uphill in worn, torn flip-flops along the shoulders of the highway with bundles of goods balanced on their heads or loaded on bikes they were pushing and pedaling uphill, every inch a painful test of endurance.

 Children of all ages walk to school by themselves for miles in the heat along the dirt sides of the road in worn out sandals.  Some walk six miles each way.  Your heart breaks passing so many friendly, decent people working to the bone to bear up in poverty.  bike, bananas

I don’t know how a primitive life without infrastructure is possible to   survive. The average lifespan is 49 years. Infant mortality is 85 per 1,000 yet I never saw so many children before; there are 6-8 per family.    

 After driving three hours, we pulled up to two small office buildings set back on a dirt road in the Rwimiyaga Sector of north east Rwanda.  A group of about 15 men and women from Highland’s Church in Arizona were already meeting with the sector leader and pastors.  They have established a long-term plan to build alongside the villagers a much-needed sustainable community.   

We videotaped their meetings and I conducted a couple of interviews, then we followed the group in a three-van caravan to nearby Gacundezi, where we taped a small milk collection center. 

African cows have horns  Along the road, we passed some herders tending their cows, a sacred animal because of the milk (African cows have horns.).  We spotted many zebra, gazelle, lots of cows, even  a monkey.  We followed the other vans as they turned down endless dirt roads deep into a resettlement area near a lake close to the Uganda border.

 The residents approached us with curiosity; vans just don’t pull up in these parts, especially ones filled with Caucasians.

  Paul, family at resettlement area

Many had never seen a white person before.   village, kids never saw white person

The children were especially shy when we waved and smiled to signal that we are friendly.  The older ones waved back; the youngest turned and headed up the hill a bit frightened.  Dwight, the country director, spoke in Kinyarwanda and with the help of Paul, a native on staff, they were able to determine the needs of the people living in this temporary resettlement for the past year.  The area lacks a school and health clinic. 

One pregnant woman with five children said she was ill and needed a doctor. kids, lollypops in purse The nearest clinic is more than eight miles away; the only vehicle is a bicycle.   

 We asked permission to take their photos.  I mimed my request by holding up the camera and pointing.  I couldn’t tell if they understood, but we took photos anyway and showed them the digital feedback in the cameras.  They were so excited to see images of themselves!  They began to pose with each other for more photos so they could see the result.  We learned that smiling and waving first, then taking a digital photo and showing it in the camera was a great way to break the ice.  

 On the way back, we stopped at another village where they had never seen a white person.  As our caravan pulled up, people emerged from their huts and the fields to greet us.  village gathers, never saw whites

village people curious

Having visitors is an honor in Rwanda. 

village, distant women   Women with babies swaddled on their backs hung back under the trees, but large groups of men and children swamped our vans excitedly.  I heard a child scream when I got out so I walked over to her in her mother’s arms.  The child screamed louder and covered her eyes.  Her mother smiled at me and turned away to calm the child.  I followed, taking out a lollypop but that made things worse.  It took a moment to realize that with red hair and white skin, I was a monster! 

   Dwight and Paul conversed with a group in Kinyarwanda while the rest of us smiled, waved then took digital photos. 

K, camera  Again, when we showed the result in our cameras, everyone gathered around to view it, then wanted more shots taken to see more. Soon we were engaged in a nonstop picture-taking-showing fest.  Too bad Polaroid cameras were discontinued because permanent photos would have been a treasured gift here.    village, boy poses

We climbed back into the vans and headed out while the entire village gathered to bid us goodbye, smiling and waving.  All but one little girl still screaming. 

 We arrived at the Nyagatare District and town at dusk and checked into the Blue Sky Hotel.  Curiously, it’s the only hotel in the entire sector (county) for miles around. We all had private rooms and bathrooms upstairs (no elevators or air conditioning in Rwanda).  Mine did not have hot water.  

mosquito net over my hotel bed  Each room included a mosquito net over the bed and a TV set with remote control. The one working station was broadcasting a “Friends” episode.    

 Fortunately, the hotel staff was prepared for our large group of about 20 and served a full buffet dinner: fish, meat, rice, vegetables, potatoes, mashed bananas with bottled water, Fanta, coffee or tea.  Fruit is the only dessert.  Rwandan coffee is excellent.   

 Since I don’t do cold showers, I did what I could with bottled water before retiring.  I should have appreciated what was provided because there was no running water in my room thereafter.  

 June 4, 2009

Following a hearty hotel breakfast of eggs, toast, potatoes, juice and coffee, we set out for a long day of videotaping in various locations, a few with the church group. Our first stop was the Gacundezi Primary School.

  When we drove up, a sea of smiles and waving hands in blue school uniforms greeted us.  

Gacundezi Primary School & K

The head master mentioned that no one has visited this school before and these children have never seen a white person.  We were greeted like rock stars.  Some kids gently touched my hair and skin to see what I was made of.   Rwandans have shaved heads, so my full hair and color must have seemed bizarre.

 I rolled a suitcase out of the van into the headmaster’s office.  Inside were school supplies I packed from my home office, 200 pens donated by TD Bank in Delray Beach and assorted stuff from home:  frizbees, balls, glitter and glue, balloons, books.   I gave half the contents to the headmaster and saved half for the school we were videotaping next.  He was most grateful.  

Taking digital photos with so many kids surrounding us was a major event; they could not get enough of seeing their images in our cameras.  The headmaster tried to steer students back into their classrooms, but they followed our van to the gate, waving and calling “Goodbye” until we were out of view.

  Rwimyaga Primary and Secondary School was the next stop.  When we drove up, two classrooms were being conducted under the trees. 

Rwimyaga Primary School, children under trees, teacher 2  In each class were nearly 100 elementary school children in green uniforms sitting like sardines on benches learning to count in English by rote.  Each teacher under the trees wrote on a blackboard with chalk but no erasure.  When we came close to videotape, the children stood up in unison and welcomed us in Kinyarwanda.  Unlike in the US, teachers are strict and students are respectful and well-mannered. 

 We met with the headmaster who explained there are more than 2,300 in his  school and not enough supplies or classroom buildings for them all, so the trees serve as classrooms.  I rolled my suitcase into his office and gave him the rest of the supplies.  He said many students do not have pens, so with only 100 left from TD Bank, he decided to single out the best students to receive them. 

pen distribution at Rwimyaga Secondary School 2  He called a few to his office for a picture-taking moment of the pen distribution for my bank back home.   I’ll try to get more pens, a valuable school supply here.

 The day was hectic videotaping several more interviews and a school celebration held outside for the church group.

Gacundezi Secondary School, celebration 2, c-u  Students welcomed them with a ceremony that included singing and dancing then a dance join-in session. After the celebration, we followed a few church group members to their home visits with children they sponsor in the Gacundezi cell (village area). 

Rwimyaga, home visit 1  Here sits a typical primitive village where families of 10 live in small, two-room huts. One woman who was here during the genocide agreed to be interviewed in her hut.  Her eight children came inside and sat quietly (just like American kids).

 With Paul interpreting, she spoke about being beaten then, and how happy she is now to live in peace in her hut and have Food for the Hungry provide the school uniforms and supplies for her children’s schooling. “My life is good now,” she said. 

 We thanked her then I asked permission to take a photo with the children around her.  She shrugged not knowing what I meant.  Paul said it was OK, so I snapped a picture and showed her the image in the camera.  She was overcome with emotion when she saw her family portrait.

   Rwimyaga, home visit family

 Back at the Blue Sky Hotel, there was no running water in my room but the buffet dinner was delicious. I learned to appreciate bottled water, especially during the day.  To everyone else, the weather at the equator was hot, but coming from Florida it was just fine since there is little humidity.  

 June 5

Along the drive back to Kigali, I asked to make stops so the crew could videotape typical scenes of daily life here.  We experienced several touching encounters with villagers when we pulled over.  First we smiled and waved then mimed permission to take a photo. Showing the image in the camera helped get the approval to videotape.  Gacundizi Primary School, boys in trees 1

 We stopped to tape a group of women, some with babies on their backs, pumping water from a central field pump.  I could see their reluctantance to allow the cameraman to videotape so I got out of the van and approached them.  One woman gently pulled at my white shirt and said something.  I looked at Claude, “What does she want, the shirt off my back?”  “No, she wants clothes,” he said.  “She wants to know if you have any clothes you can give her.” 

 I held up my index finger meaning “wait one minute” and dashed up to the van, opened the trunk, unzipped my suitcase and yanked out what was on top.  It was a long, cotton nightshirt in lime green (not a common color here) with several pink flamingos in sunglasses across the middle and the words “Delray Beach” underneath. The nightshirt had two white bleach stains on the bottom.  

 I hurried back to the water pump and held up the garment for her approval.  She smiled, took it from me and examined it, then put it on over her African ethnic dress.  It fit her perfectly.  She smiled again and gave me a thumb’s up! 

 Greg took a picture of us with the rest of the women by our side.  When we parted, they smiled and waved. Carrying water jugs, the women disappeared down a dirt road that cut into the field to their huts. Despite the heat of the day, she did not take off the nightshirt.  In an unknown village in Rwanda somewhere between Kigali and Nyagatare, the City of Delray Beach has a presence (photo coming).  The same with Boca Raton, but that’s another story about a cap.

It was nearly 3:00pm when we pulled up at Brenda and Dwight’s Kigali home dirty, hot and hungry.  Brenda had lunch and our rooms, complete with hot water, waiting for us.  I did everyone a favor by taking a long, hot shower that felt wonderful.  She and helpers were preparing her famous buffet dinner this evening for all 20 of us.

Dwight calls it the “Mt. Kilimanjaro” dinner. On a big plate, you build a mountain starting with rice, then curried chicken in sauce over that, then some kind of beans, chopped tomatoes, chopped onion, chopped mango, chopped nuts, some other chopped items I can’t remember, raisins and topped with shredded coconut.  It was fantastic!

 June 6

I awoke to Brenda’s scrambled eggs, the best bagels I’ve ever tasted (from a bakery in Kigali) and delicious Rwandan coffee (wish it were available online).  Chatting for awhile with Brenda and Nathan, I learned about his complex project building a pipeline delivering sanitary water to remote villages and all the construction and people challenges he confronts daily, including the recipients. There’s a book in this. 

 Betsy helped load my suitcases into her car and drove me to the Kigali marketplace where I bought some beautiful hand-made baskets before heading to the airport.   Kigali Market, boy w grain

   Kigali market, grain section

It was difficult to bid farewell to the wonderful, dedicated staff with Food for the Hungry.     Jacksons, K, Elgin, Becky, Greg

  This  remarkable, moving journey in Rwanda is one the crew and I will never forget.  I smiled, waved and bid everyone farewell.   The Kenya Airlines flight to Dubai included a long stopover in Nairobi.  From primitive to futuristic, another culture shock was waiting in the Middle East.   –KL

MORE PHOTOS: of Rwanda at http://picasaweb.google.com/hawaiikaren

VIDEO:   

 

to return to Website:  http://www.multi-mediaworks.com

4 Responses to “RWANDA: Hardship and Hope”

  1. Thanks for the post–I just sponsored a child from Rwanda (Gacundezi) and was looking for info on the area, etc. so this was very helpful.

    –sponsored through Food For The Hungry

    • klustgarten Says:

      So glad it was helpful. Congratulations, the kids are great. You will enjoy the experience; hope you go there, too.
      Karen

  2. Erin Gibbons Says:

    I recently had 50 tshirts in all sizes made for my husband who is a professional mixed martial arts competitor, they had a couple typos and really do not want to simply throw them out. Anywhere that could use them?

    • klustgarten Says:

      Indeed yes, thank you! I’m putting you in touch with Friends of the Orphans, the Miami office for Haiti. I checked with Sherman there and he said they can definitely use the T-shirts in Haiti, but they have no way to get them from you. You’d need to ship or drop them off at the Miami office. From there, they have shipping containers they fill with supplies and donations bound for Haiti. Staff at their orphanage and pediatric hospital in Haiti retrieve the containers and distribute the donations. Please e-mail Sherman and let him know I referred you. When there’s a will there’s a way. Thanks again! shumphrey@friendsus.org .

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