I recently embarked on a 2 week trip to Africa that would change my life in ways I never imagined. It all began when a coworker mentioned a volunteer trip she and 2 others were planning. They would be joining an organization called Venture 2 Impact that was headed to the capital of Rwanda, to provide career skills to disadvantaged people of Kigali. When I heard the details of the trip, Kigali sounded exotic, the volunteer work sounded heroic, and I knew it would be the trip of a lifetime. I hedged on the decision for a month or two but with 1 spot left on the team I knew in my heart I couldn’t pass it up. I pulled the trigger and booked my flights.
I had no idea what I would encounter and how it would affect me, but I was headed to Kigali, the land of a thousand hills, to volunteer in a community I knew nothing about.
Most people who have heard of Kigali know it as the epicenter of the 1994 genocide where nearly 1,000,000 people were brutally slaughtered in 90 days for no more reason than a social disparity between two tribes, instigated in part by Belgian colonists. We spent time on one of our first days in Rwanda at the Genocide memorial learning about the horrific event and its lasting impact on the community. It was troubling to think that I was alive and in high school during the time it occurred and barely knew anything about it. At the time, the US had recently been involved in events in Somalia which did not end favorably and Rwanda held little to no strategic value, making us apprehensive to provide much support. Rwanda needed help and we were complicit, standing by, as the tragedy unfolded.
Nearly everyone in Rwanda has been impacted by the Genocide. Many people we met didn’t know who their parents were or the date they were born. Some had stories of refugee life and others of lost siblings or neighbors. The very topic of race and the divide that led to the genocide are illegal to discuss in Rwanda. While the gruesome events are in the past, the silence on the topic doesn’t feel like a durable solution and there is a ghostly tension of the potential for further unrest as the two tribes still exist, and the one that was the target of initial attacks is still in power. The tension however is mitigated by the leadership of Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s 3 term president who has encouraged the country to live as one people and work together to prosper. His third term was an exception permitted only by petition of 3.7 million people and a parliament amendment allowing not only an extra term but 2 more subsequent ones if so desired.
When you ask a Rwandan how they feel about the history of Rwanda they say “one people” and “never again.” When you ask them who they look up to they say “Paul Kagame.”
The genocide was a horrific, savage story but with actual feet on the ground in Kigali, the tragedy that precedes this country’s reputation gives way to something altogether different and something profoundly beautiful. This dichotomy is fascinating and unique to Rwanda. No other people have been able to move past a massacre and find forgiveness in the way they have and in such little time. This intrinsic beauty is something I would have the privilege to experience over and over in my time there and a gift I will always admire as I continue to shape my own personal beliefs of meaning and happiness.
The first thing you notice when you arrive in Kigali is that it is a modern city. There’s evidence of material poverty all around you but it is a bustling, functioning city otherwise. Thinking of low-income areas I know around home, I expected to feel sadness as I observed their ways of life. Surprisingly, the first emotions that struck me were not sadness but an overwhelming sense of energy and vibrancy from the community. There were people walking about holding hands, moto taxis zipping by, teenagers on cellphones, children playing in patches of grass, strip malls of shops, and lots of smiles. I didn’t know anything about the local language, Kinyarwanda, when I arrived, but learned quickly that “mzungo!” translates affectionately to “white people!” and children everywhere yelled it with glee as they welcomed us to their city.
This was not a broken land. It was a land of pride.
As for our volunteer work, 14 of us would be spending 5 days working with a global organization, Hope and Homes for Children, teaching disadvantaged people in the community a variety of skills to help them with job placement and career development with the ultimate goal of reducing child abandonment and closing orphanages. The program would continue after we left with additional groups of volunteers for a total of 3 weeks.
Through our work, we learned that orphanages are often used not only when children are without parents but when the means to support them can’t be met and families feel they have no other options to provide for them. Closing orphanages is the positive end result of providing necessary skills to mothers and young women as well as fathers and other community members to keep families intact. To this end, our curriculum consisted of basic English lessons, basic computer skills, and business development skills for the benificiaries.
We worked mostly with young women though senior men and women as well as children were also in our classes. We also worked directly with Hope and Homes for Children to provide teacher training and a focused program on developing a social media presence to help gain awareness and financial support for the social and community work performed by the organization.
Teaching local Rwandans was an incredibly humbling task. Some of our students were relatively fluent with both spoken and written English, while others had no literacy at all. Some of the people we met couldn’t even write in Kinyarwanda. I went into this experience having never taught a single class, let alone English, to anyone before. To say I was intimidated would be an understatement. I was terrified.
How could I stand before these people in their own land and fake competency in a skill that was entirely new to me?
What I learned quickly is that the most critical part of our work was our ability to form bonds with the community, not deliver a lesson plan. The subject matter of our lessons were almost secondary to the job of sitting with the students, listening to them, and giving them a sense of empowerment in their own lives and education. We learned in our preparation work about “affective filters” which are basically guards students can put up when they don’t feel a connection with their teachers, or worse, feel threatened or misunderstood.
We were there to teach but more importantly we were there on a humanitarian mission to let Rwandans know they were heard and valued, something we have failed to provide them for decades.
One of my favorite students, Pauline, had a way of coyly smiling as she was receiving new information. I was never entirely sure if it was a defensive reaction for not understanding or her way of inviting more. I would repeat over-and-over something about a computer shift-key or space-bar and she’d laugh. After a few repetitions the giggles would give way to a more serious look and a bit of a “hmph” which is when I knew she was processing. Then the magic would happen. An ear-to-ear grin would spread across her face which I knew was the very moment of impact where shyness, wonder, and confusion became comprehension. It was the moment I became a teacher. It was the moment a life was changed.
Listening to our students, we learned that most people had basic jobs as craftspeople, many making shoes, dresses, and jewelry. We also met cooks, teachers, and even many small business owners. One man who had returned from last year’s program had launched a business manufacturing paper bags he sold to community shops. He was expanding his work into multiple sized bags and recently started offerring laundry services for tourists and guests at local hotels. Another was a produce wholesaler who was learning to segment his clients based on contract levels so he could tailor his services accordingly. We met hairdressers concerned with how to keep customers returning and how to attract new clients. My fear of having no value to add quickly faded away when I realized that most job skills are transferrable and what people we met needed most was help in moving the needle one percent, not to launch million dollar businesses, but to make sure they were providing good services and finding ways to constantly improve and evolve.
My time was filled with more stories than I can recount about passion and progress and how education was improving lives. I knew the skills we taught and the connections we offered would be impacting our beneficiaries and their families but I never realized how much I would be changed in the process. Rwandans are not shy about physically showing genuine gratitude and affection. They are not afraid of or stigmatized against touch. One day as we walked to the classroom a young girl about 2 years old ran up to our group and threw her arms around each of us, one by one, 3 times over. This type of interaction, with strangers no less, is utterly unheard of in America but was quite commonplace in Rwanda. The girl’s mother watched proudly as her child welcomed the strangest foreigners she’d probably ever seen, with the warmest embrace I’ve ever experienced. I have never held more hands or been hugged by more strangers in my life than during my week in Rwanda. Rwandans teach you what it means to be human and remind us how powerful kindness is.
The experience can only be described as an emotional and bodily awakening of how it feels to be alive, loved, and appreciated on a most basic human level.
We talked a lot on our trip about the various types of poverty people experience, the most familiar being material. But people can also be poor in emotional support, community, arts and many other ways. As much as we worked hard to deliver knowledge and skills to beneficiaries, our Rwandan friends were working effortlessly to open our hearts to their world. One afternoon a beneficiary was struggling to take notes while holding her newborn. One of our volunteers offered to hold the baby and without hesitation the mother handed over the child who was then passed around from one set of loving arms to the next for an entire afternoon. Without hesitation, the entire community came together to care for the baby. Our hearts were full. We learned that while a city could be so poverty-stricken financially, it could be rich beyond measure in other ways.
It’s hard to do justice to everything we experienced in Rwanda and I can only hope that our students will remember what we tried to teach them. I hope they remember the words they learned during our show-and-tell and speaking exercises and I hope that Pauline will remember how to login to her email the next time she has access to a computer or the internet. I hope the businesses we discussed continue to flourish and our beneficiaries continue to find new clients. What I do know is that I expected to return home with harrowing stories of what it was like to spend a week in a developing country. Instead I’ve returned with a renewed sense of humanity and appreciation for life.
One day, a particularly curious student asked me, “are you rich?” I was taken aback for a minute and struggled with how to respond. Eventually I looked up and shyly said, “no, not where I am from” but in reality, as I looked around the room, full of smiling faces, children dancing, beautifully colored dresses, eager students absorbing new knowledge, and a genuine sense of unity, work, and patriotism, forms of wealth almost entirely foreign to me, all I could think was “no, my friend, you are.”
Thank you to my donors for helping make this trip possible and helping educate the people of Kigali. And thank you, Rwanda, Venture 2 Impact, and Hope and Homes for Children for giving me the opportunity to be touched by such beauty. I am forever grateful for my experience.