Here, There and Everywhere

Archive for December, 2010

Styling in Rwanda

The first thing that caught our eye, when we went to work at an orphanage in Rwanda, were the beautiful women of this small East African nation, who wear their traditional Kanga’s (wrap around dresses) and headpieces with poise, style and grace.

Photo: Alphonsine Bankundiye. Mother of four.

In a country known as the land of a thousand hills, Rwanda is becoming increasingly known for its environmental policies, gender equality, stable government and breathtaking beauty, but no beauty surpasses that of the unique, one of a kind, outfits worn by mothers, models, children and grandmothers. Kanga’s are not only colorful works of art, they can also be used, like quilts, to make a statement, tell a story or portray someone’s history. MORE

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Vacation In Rwanda?

If Africa and especially Rwanda, are not the travel destination that first come to mind when you think about relaxation, luxury and “getting away from it all”, you may want to seriously reconsider. The friendly greetings, bustling city and countryside belie the fact of the genocide which occurred in the early nineties. The majority of Rwandans now see themselves as one people and one country. There are an increasing number of tourists descending upon this beautiful lush land of national parks, mountain gorillas and terraced hillsides. Contrasting styles of traditional mud huts and dress are interspersed among paved roads, modern amenities and comfortable accommodations.

Same sex couples walk together on the streets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and nobody bats an eye. In fact, it is quite common to see men embracing, putting their foreheads together when greeting one another and walking hand in hand, as they stroll down the streets of the capital or along highways, dirt paths and country roads in one of the few African countries that has no laws against homosexuality. That doesn’t mean that these men are gay (most are probably non-sexual friends), but who knows who is and who isn’t?

Homosexuality is illegal for lesbian women in 20 African countries and for gay men in 29. In Zimbabwe, Uganda, Somalia and Northern Africa you can be prosecuted and imprisoned. South Africa is one of the exceptions, where homosexuality is legal and national legislation bands discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Rwanda doesn’t actively acknowledge homosexuals positively or negatively, but has no laws against it. It follows an unspoken policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. There is no kissing displayed in public, by homosexual or heterosexual couples, but other affections are accepted (hugging, touching hands).

The national parks and wildlife are not the only attractions in this lovely country known as the “land of a thousand hills”, as there are also traditional dance performances, art centers, shopping and an active social scene in Kigali and the northern city of Ruhengeri.

Kigali has a large market in the Nyabugogo district where you will be inundated with clothing, both women’s and men’s, as well as household goods and other local merchandise. Expect to bargain until you’re hoarse, as it is expected and part of the experience. One U.S. dollar equals approximately 550 Rwandan Francs. A new shopping center uptown houses a modern shopping center, complete with a Starbucks like coffee house called Bourbon Street, which has free internet access and all the caffeine you can handle. Rwandan’s don’t drink much coffee, as tea is their thing, even though Rwandan coffee has become a thriving export. There is live music at the Cadillac, Abraxis and Planete Club and numerous bars throughout town.

Some very fine hotels in the city include the Chez Lando (near the airport); Hotel Gorillas; Iris Guesthouse; The Presbyterian Guesthouse; and the famous Mille Collines (Hotel Rwanda). Prices range from $50 to $160 per night.

Some area restaurants include an exquisite Indian establishment called Khazana; the Shangh Hai, a Chinese restaurant with great service and food and; Sole Luna, an upscale Italian eatery out towards the airport. You can expect to spend anywhere from $10 to $20 per person for a good meal. People also partake of local Rwandan food at diners and cafes around town, but they can get rather boring, as they consist of the same overcooked vegetables, potatoes and meat, without any spice or seasoning. It is however cheaper than the “foreign” restaurants (about $5 to $10 per meal).

Ruhengeri, the largest city in the north, is the gateway to the Virunga National Park, which borders The Congo and Uganda in Eastern Africa. The scenery from Kigali to Ruhengeri is spectacular and The Gorilla Nest Lodge just outside the park is stunning. Imagine a luxury hotel, superbly crafted from local stone, wood and bamboo, tucked into the jungle at the bottom of a blue-green volcanic range. Top that off with spacious rooms, fine dining and friendly service from people that speak English, French and Kinyarwanda (the national language) and you have a virtual Shangri-la in the middle of Africa. The Hotel Muhabura is reported to be another great place to hang your hat and much less expensive ($35 to $50) than the Mountain Gorilla’s Nest, which charges $100 and up per night.

No matter how beautiful the drive north has been or how luxurious your accommodation, nothing quite prepares you for the magnificent mountain gorillas that reside in the Virunga National Park. Even though tourists are only allowed an hour visit, to protect the gorillas, the $500 fee charged to see them is worth every penny. The funds from the fees (permits) are used to maintain the sanctuary, continue research, guard the gorilla families and support local communities and projects outside the park. These creatures, which have 97 percent of the same DNA as humans, are gentle vegetarian mammals that live in clusters of communal families and alternate between play, sleep and time to enjoy a tasty meal of bamboo, greens and fruit. If you take the time to travel to Rwanda, do not miss the adventure of visiting the mountain gorillas.

The people of Rwanda are as beautiful as their country, which has to rate a ten on the lush green scale of tropical paradises. From smiles and generosity in the cities hotels, shops and fine restaurants, to the lodges and safari’s to see the gorillas, volcanic mountains, game parks and lakeside resorts, this Central African country has moved leaps and bounds beyond their tragic civil war over sixteen years ago. It has literally risen from the ashes and become the “new Eden” of Africa. With a stable government, abundant overseas investment and a pervading sense of hope and reconstruction, Rwanda is now considered one of the safest countries to visit on the continent.

When you go:

Easy access from the U.S. via England to Kenya and from Kenya to Kigali (the capital of Rwanda), makes it an affordable, though lengthy trip. The time spent traveling is well worth the long haul. There may soon be an even quicker route from Atlanta to Kigali, via Johannesburg South Africa.

National language is Kinyarwanda, but many people also speak English or French and there is a big push for everyone to learn English.

You will need up to date vaccinations and malaria precautions.

A great resource for touring Rwanda is: Bizidanny Tours & Safaris B. P. 395 Kigali, Rwanda. Phone 250 08501461. Web Site: www.bizidanny.com

Barbara Jenkins at Rancho Del Mar Travel has been arranging trips to Africa for thirty years. 1327 La Sobrina Court, Solana Beach, CA 92075-2105. Phone: 858-755-7368.

The Rwanda Tourist Board can be contacted at: www.rwandatourism.com.

Women On Front Lines

Women are offering their personal resources, time and energy like never before. At least 59 percent of those surveyed in the U.S. in 2002 by United Way said they had volunteered or done community service work in the previous year and those numbers have continued to rise in the last eight years. Thinking about others and getting beyond our own selfish desires, seems to be a trend that nobody wants to stop.

Of course people volunteer for different reasons and are moved by a variety of intentions. Some folks want to get out of a rut, keep busy, feel needed or recognized and make new friends; others to have an impact or for personal growth. And some simply think it’s the right thing to do. As Daisy Gale, a quilting instructor, mother of eight and girls softball coach from Utah says, “It doesn’t matter how much you get involved or where, just get involved! Give a little each paycheck; donate time and/or energy. You don’t have to travel overseas. Go ahead and get your hands dirty.”

Daisy and seven other women did go overseas and joined a group doing humanitarian work in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. They provided medical care, job education and trauma relief for over 150 children at The ROP Center for Street Children. Like volunteering in the U.S., they didn’t have to take the time away from their jobs, families and homes to lend a hand, but they did and every single member felt they received more than they gave. “I haven’t volunteered much in my life,” says Joanna Ransier, a nurse in her fifties. “Raising three children and going through a divorce was more than enough. I never expected this to come around.”

Dottie Webster, a sixty-three year old housewife from Arizona, smiles, “We treated them (the orphans) and opened their hearts and helped them relieve some of the fears and pains. They know we care.” This sense of giving and receiving, even in the midst of some of humanities worst suffering, consistently runs through these women’s thoughts. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of being able to give back,” smiles Caroline Sakai, a psychiatrist from Hawaii. “So many of the kids said before they felt so different and they didn’t have hope and now they feel like they have hope.”

There are over a million orphans in Rwanda and countless agencies, both government and private, trying to ease the impact such numbers have on society, by providing food, clothing, shelter and education, but there are still thousands of children living on the streets or temporarily housed in government centers, only to be released back on their own after three to six months.

The children at ROP are some of the lucky ones who have a home, food, clothes, medical care and some education. Upon entering the abandoned automotive warehouse that was once used for ROP, the team was greeted with exuberant music and dance by the children, teachers and staff. “This trip reminded me of what’s important,” says Paula Herring, a forty-year-old business management teacher from California. “Before I came I thought of the kids as having nothing and little to be thankful for, but since working at the orphanage I saw a lot of potential and a sense of hope that not only they, but most Rwandan’s seem to have.”

Some problems, both locally, nationally and internationally seem so big that people dismiss them as unsolvable, hopeless or impossible to solve. Feelings of helplessness and impotence in the face of such seemingly unsolvable dilemmas can create apathy, detachment and a turning away from the realities in the world, let alone on our front door. And yet . . . the fact is that you don’t have to solve ALL the existing problems or end ALL the suffering in the world. Yes, you can look at the big picture and provide the maximum impact for the most people possible, but it still comes down to helping one person at a time. Suzanne Connolly, a grandmother from Arizona who was teaching trauma relief with the women in Rwanda said, “We try to stay in the background and train the community. The teachers are the ones that will continue to be here when we leave, not us.” When people find ways to multiply their giving and leave tools for living, it can literally touch thousands of lives.

Most of the children at ROP are survivors of the 1994 genocide and the AIDS pandemic, which took their parents, families and relatives lives. Yet, even in the aftermath of some of the worst atrocities ever perpetrated by humans upon other humans, people have found hope, renewal and inspiration. “I think I walked into this experience with a lot of sympathy for the kids because they have so little and I, as an American, have so much,” Kelli Barber, a young nurse from Tennessee explains, “and so many of the kids were dealing with trauma and shame. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they were much more than their past or their circumstances. I was really inspired by their strength, sense of community and spirit.”

Remembering you “can’t do it all” is just as important when you volunteer, as it is with your own job or family. No matter how clear or well defined your intentions are, you are human. Everyone has different limits, boundaries, amounts of energy and personal resources. Whitney Woodruff, a nurse practitioner in her twenties, who was in charge of the medical team at the orphanage, says insight-fully, “Working with the kids here is overwhelming. I’ve seen more children in one day then I do in a week of private practice and they are dealing with such an array of issues. I’m so glad we’re taking a two day break.” All of the advice that people give to “take care of yourself” can be used when you volunteer – give your self breaks; no when to stop; find healthy ways to relax and rejuvenate; and be sure to pause, take a deep breathe and remember that you are just as important as those you are helping.

Whether you’re checking in on a neighbor across the street, volunteering in your community with children, youth or elders or flying around the world to help orphaned children in Africa, just DO something and be clear why you’re doing it. Audrey Blumeneau, a teacher and mother of five, originally from Chicago, joined the women who worked at The ROP Center for Street Children. She says, “I originally went to be with my husband, who was asked to contribute to the orphanage work, but once I was there I realized I had come home to a second home. I cared not because they were orphans in a land and culture I found fascinating or because they had experienced such great loss, but because they were just like my kids. We all need the same thing . . . to love, be loved and remembered.”

One Tooth At A Time

Dr. James Hall ended up working harder after he retired, then anytime during his forty years of dentistry, including a number of years in the U.S. military and private practice in Ocean Beach (near San Diego) California. What was overwhelming and exhausting, was a stint he did with a medical team at a center for orphans in Rwanda. There were over 150 young people who had never seen a dentist or had a toothbrush, let alone any instructions on oral hygiene and care! “Connecting with the kids and making eye contact is amazing, like a universal language,” says Dr. Hall, who saw up to 25 children per day!

Paying his own way to work at The ROP Center for Street Children in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, “felt like the right thing to do,” says Dr. Hall or “Jim” to his friends. He had the time, the money and most importantly, the skill and desire to make a difference in the lives of children who had survived the 1994 genocide and/or the AIDS pandemic. He had never thought about traveling around the world to Africa until a friend told him about a group that was going to provide medical care and trauma relief. “It was like the day I decided to become a dentist,” Jim recalls, “I had just graduated from Purdue and gone to see my family dentist. He asked me what I was going to do with my life and said he’d always thought that I would be a good dentist. When he said that, it was like a bolt of lightening that went up my spine. It gave me a chill. I immediately knew he was right, even though I’d never thought about it before.”

The team Dr. Hall joined was part of a group that consisted of nurses, therapists, teachers, journalists and economists. They worked in the orphanage and at other teaching centers in Kigali. ROP had minimal facilities, a leaking roof, dim, if any light and a wooden bench as a dental chair. With the help of interpreters, Dr. Hall had each child lay down on the raised bench and examined their teeth and gums. “Some people think being a dentist is boring,” states Dr. Hall, “but everyone that comes presents a new problem, a new thing to solve; a new communication. I learn something new all the time.”

In addition to his passion for learning something new, Jim has a big heart. He spoke to each child as if they were the only person in the world and told them how important their teeth were. More importantly, he stressed their individual importance. He reminded them that they are “a very special person” and even though he said it hundreds of times, it was always sincere. The kids responded in kind with nods, smiles and gigantic grins of understanding.

For three weeks Jim (Dr. Hall) sweated in the African heat, from morning until night, to see as many children as he could. Even though he was tireless in his endeavors, he could not see all of the children and realized that something more needed to be done. Before leaving Rwanda, Dr. Hall and another team member found some local dentists and were able to meet with the Kigali Dental Association. “It seemed to me that it was better for us to pay for local dentists to provide ongoing care for the kids, than just do one big push,” he says. “Not only does it keep it in the community, with Rwandans helping Rwandans, but it also helps the local economy.”

There are over a million orphans in Rwanda and countless agencies, both government and private, trying to ease the impact such numbers have on society, by providing food, clothing, shelter and education, but there are still thousands of children living on the streets or temporarily housed in government centers, only to be released back on their own after three to six months. Dr. Hall had no illusions that he was going to “save the world”. “If I can reach just one kid and they believe their teeth are really important,” Jim smiles, “I’ve done something. I know something good came out of this. I just trust the way the world works.”

Upon entering the abandoned automotive warehouse that was once the home of ROP, the team Dr. Hall traveled with was greeted with exuberant music and dance by the children, teachers and staff. They received the same gift upon their departure and were deeply touched. Jim says wistfully, “The sound of the music and voices was overwhelming. I had tears running down my cheek.”

It is ironic that it is Dr. Hall who feels grateful for his experience in Rwanda, as much or more than those that received his care. “Dentistry is so intimate,” he says softly. “I feel it is a great privilege to be a dentist. It takes such great concentration. Everything and everyone else is excluded. It keeps you in the moment.”

Perhaps it is that sense of “being in the moment” that made it possible for this retired dentist from California to connect so closely with children and teenagers from another culture and another land, without being able to speak their language. He was able to look beyond their personal suffering, recent past and present conditions and see them as precious human beings who want the same things we all do; to be seen, honored and cared for.

Birthday in Rwanda

Volunteering for three weeks with a medical team and trauma specialists to provide care to children orphaned by the 1994 genocide and AIDS in Rwanda, is not a young man’s usual birthday wish on their fourteenth birthday, yet that is what Shona Blumeneau, a teenager from Santa Cruz, California experienced at ROP Center for Street Children. “It was really cool and different,” he says with a warm grin. “The people are very kind.”

Some estimates put the number of orphans in Rwanda at over a million. There have been vast improvements since the nineties, but thousands of kids are still living on the streets and many of the orphanages and youth centers that have taken in survivors (also referred to as “street rebels”) are struggling to provide basic needs, let alone education and vocational training for the children in their care.

Shona and his family held yard sales, received donations from relatives and friends across the country and had a local musician put on a piano concert to raise funds for their journey. “I worked as a referee and as a coach at a summer soccer camp,” Shona recalls. He saved half of any money he got for his birthday or holidays and put it away for his airfare to Rwanda. He says could have stayed home with friends, “but I really wanted to see Africa and make a difference.”

When he arrived in Africa and started working at ROP Center for Street Children in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, Shona found that “half the time the kids accepted me and tried to bring me into their culture and the rest of the time they wanted me to get them things or bring them home to The States.” He said they all assumed he was rich because he was from America and comparatively speaking, he is. The average daily wage in Rwanda is about one US dollar per day. “It would be hard to grow up in an orphanage and not have a family to support you,” he reflects. Every morning they returned the boys and girls would approach, grab his hands and ask if he remembered their name. They wanted to be seen, heard and reassured that they would not be forgotten. “It was awkward when I said ‘No’,” says Shona, “but I couldn’t remember everyone’s name.”

The team Shona traveled with came from throughout the U.S. and included two nurses, a psychologist, family therapist, nurse practitioner, dentist, minister, two teachers, journalist, photographer and a quilting instructor. They worked with six translators, from early morning until evening, with hundreds of children at ROP for almost three weeks. Shona assisted the nurse practitioner and dentist to give these children the first check-up they’d ever had in their lives. “At first I took pictures and then I started taking their height and weight and testing their eyes with a wall chart,” Shona proclaims. “Whitney (the nurse practitioner) taught me how to look in ears and what to look for and Jim (the dentist) showed me how to record information about teeth and gums.”

Most of the children at ROP are in their teens and adopted the young American as their brother or “inshuti” (friend in Kinyarwanda). “Everyone has a story,” says Shona, “about how their life has been since the genocide. There was one kid whose parents and siblings were killed, except for a baby sister. They were stuck on the street, taking care of the sister and eating rotten food until the director of the orphanage found them and brought them to ROP.”

His time at the orphanage was not all work and no play. “Sometimes I was just chilling with them talking, trying to communicate and understand each other. A lot of them are learning English and I picked up a few words of Kinyarwanda.” Shona’s family also brought four suitcases of donated soccer uniforms they had been collecting from parents and kids back home and provided enough outfits and balls for four teams. Shona, who has played soccer since he was four years old, would make foray’s to play with his adopted brothers and sisters on the mud and rock strewn field behind the orphanage and come back after twenty minutes dripping with sweat. “Those guys are really good!” he’d exclaim, trying to catch his breath, as he collapsed on one of the thin wooden benches used by students during class.

The words “life-changing” are often thrown around loosely in our society. To Shona Blumeneau, the words are real. “This trip has changed my life,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever whine about anything again.” His perspective on the privilege he enjoys in America was matched by his new found appreciation and understanding of Rwanda. “Even though there is poverty, it isn’t as bad as people describe it. Most of Africa is poor, but there is also a lot of development and hope. The kids really want to learn everything they can. I have a lot of respect for them.”

When asked if he would like to return to Rwanda, Shona, who is now a high school senior, said quickly, “Absolutely! I learned that even though I’m in another country, I still like working with kids and I can do that anywhere, even if I don’t speak their language. I think I would like to work in the medical field and I love traveling.”

You can bet your last dollar that this determined young teen from the United States will indeed make his way back to Africa, where the orphaned children of The ROP Center for Street Children will hold his hand, look him in the eye and ask, “Do you remember me?”

An Orphan’s Life

When this story about Franco was first written, the orphanage was called El Shaddai. It has since changed it’s name to the ROP Center for Street Children and moved to the other side of Kigali.

If it isn’t difficult enough to be a teenager, try growing up in a country that just over 16 years ago experienced one of the worst genocides in African history and combine that with having both of your parents die from AIDS when you are only 15 years of age. That’s the life into which Franco Gakwaya was born, but it is not the end of the story.

Rwanda is in East Africa, adjacent to Lake Kivu and bordered by the countries of the Congo, Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania. It is a land-locked nation, known as the “land of a thousand hills” for its rolling iron-rich red landscape, fertile fields and volcanic mountains. Some of the rarest species of mountain gorillas live within its northern borders and chimpanzees are protected in national parks in the east.

Even though Rwanda is now a bustling and successful country that is providing health care, education, jobs and economic growth to it citizens, most people only know about the 1994 genocide, in which a million people were killed by their neighbors over a 30-day period. It was horrible and still affects every single Rwandan.

The AIDS pandemic has also touched Rwanda. As a result, there are thousands upon thousands of orphaned and vulnerable children. In the last twelve years, many of these children have been placed in foster homes, orphanages or boarding schools, but far too many still roam the roads and live on the streets. Franco is one of those who found a new place to call home, an orphanage called ROP Center for Street Children. ROP is located in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, the most densely populated country per square mile in all of Africa.

“We sleep four to a bunk for the older boys,” says Franco, “and six for the younger smaller kids.” MORE

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Beautiful Rwanda

Rwanda is becoming increasingly noticed for its environmental policies, gender equality, stable government and breathtaking beauty. Positive internal and international support for infrastructure, education, security and eco-tourism has made it an attractive African destination.

The friendly greetings, bustling city and countryside belie reminders of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. There are an increasing number of tourists descending upon this beautiful lush land of national parks, mountain gorillas and terraced hillsides. Contrasting styles of traditional mud huts and dress are interspersed among paved roads, modern amenities and comfortable accommodations.

I traveled to Rwanda with my wife and son primarily to work at The ROP Center for Street Children. However, we take advantage of the opportunity to explore Kigali, the nation’s capital, and discover a modern city center. MORE

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