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An Inspiring Start to My Visit with Global Grassroots’ Teams

April 25, 2016 by Kathleen

Working for Global Grassroots this last year has been an extraordinary experience – and one that has just been ‘kicked up a few notches.’ I am incredibly fortunate to now be in East Africa, getting to better know our dedicated local staff and visiting many of our women’s teams. Most of these meetings with teams have taken place in iconic Africa settings, mats spread under large shade trees amidst thatched roof huts with mothers wearing skirts and head scarves of brightly patterned kitenge (fabric) and nursing their babies. My colleague Francis Kumakech and I began my Gulu, Uganda visits with a group named Cing Ma Wabu (Initiators).

Monday, 11 April 2016
It rained heavily for most of last night and, since the rainy season also means the planting season, everyone in the group was scattered throughout the area surrounding the village planting their crops. It took some time to retrieve some of the team from their fields so our 11.00am meeting got started just around 11.45 with five team members: Helen (Chair of Cing Ma Yabu), Katherine, Grace, Polline, and Pasca.

Pasca, Polline, Katherine, Helen, and Grace

Cing Ma Yabu works on helping couples strengthen their relationship in an effort to reduce the divorce rate. They use drama and role playing to educate couples about such issues as sharing household responsibilities, women’s rights, and conflict resolution. Not long ago, a woman came to the team looking for help. She said her husband was not sharing in the household tasks nor was he taking care of the things ‘a man is supposed to do.’ The wife had been asking her husband to construct a door to their home; they had been living with a blanket hanging over the opening for quite a long time. In addition, he was prone to spending their money on alcohol and there was not enough left to pay school fees, so their children were not attending school.

Four team members went with the woman to her home to meet her husband, do some role playing, and mediate while the couple discussed their issues. The husband began to understand his part in managing the household and, after a few sessions with the group, there was real harmony in that home. The husband has since built a wooden door for their home and the children are back in school. The husband has been much less likely to go off drinking every day – a change that the group sees with men throughout the village since they began their work. In the last year, Cing Ma Yabu has worked successfully with 15 couples who otherwise were heading for divorce.

When they first completed their training through Global Grassroots’ Academy for Conscious Change, there were 20 members. Their success in improving life throughout their village enticed others to join, particularly some of the men and women whose marriages they helped save. They now number 40 and have set that as a cap for membership. Helen, the team’s chair, acknowledges that a team larger than that will be too difficult to manage.

Cing Ma Yabu faces two distinct challenges in their work. The first is transportation. There are few cars where they live which is approximately 20 kilometers outside Gulu along rutted unpaved roads and plenty of dirt track through the brush. Some of the couples seeking help live five or more kilometers away that the group must walk. There are those who live further out in the sub-county that the group is unable to get to.

The second challenge the team faces can be more dangerous: when they show up at a household to mediate, the husband can be “wild,” often because he is drunk. The team knows they must tread carefully, working very hard to calm him down. Grace commented that, when that happens, “it is not fun” and sometimes all they can do is return when he is sober and able to listen and learn.

Cing Ma Yabu sustains their project by cultivating gardens for those who are either physically unable to do so or have jobs that take them away from home each day. They have managed their funds well and now have a savings account through a nationwide savings and loan association. Through this account, members can both save money and borrow funds should a need arise. Helen remarked that, in addition to seeing the impact their work is having on their community, the savings scheme is a great benefit that helps keep the team together.

A group of grassroots women with little to no education have built a strong, committed team that is bringing domestic harmony to their community, reducing the divorce rate, increasing the number of children who attend school, and improving the economic status of its members. To say I left their village both inspired and humbled is an understatement.

Ugandan roadtrip

May 8, 2014 by danilwk

Over Valentine’s week, Heidi and I took nearly a week-long road trip across Uganda to visit girls in our program in a partnership between Cornerstone and Global Grassroots. Eleven of our girls who are in their gap year between secondary school and university are part of a program with Global Grassroots to train them in “conscious social change.” In January, the girls attended a 3-week training where they each identified issues that concern them in their communities and developed ideas on how to confront these issues. They have now been back in their villages for a few weeks to study their issue in more depth, so we visited each of them, went over their proposals, and gave them a small amount of money to implement their venture ideas.

It was an incredible joy to see where each girl comes from and I swelled with pride at the difference they are already making in their villages. The power of seeing our girls gain the confidence to lead in their communities and work with others to find local solutions to local problems nearly brought me to tears with each visit.

Women Leaning In and Leading from Within at the “G-Level”

May 7, 2014 by Gretchen

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women Work and the Will to Lead rightly encourages women to engage more intensely in claiming their place at the table on the road to leadership positions in corporate America. Granted, more female leadership at the highest echelons of the private sector would go a long way to transform the institutions that drive our economy. But readers would be amiss to assume from Sandberg’s chosen spotlight that to achieve widespread gender equality the primary driver is for more women to aspire to the C-Suite. In fact, women can and do lead in whatever endeavor they have chosen. Sandberg’s call for women to rise to their potential is applicable far beyond our stereotypical vision of corner office success. There is no better example than that of a disadvantaged woman rebuilding her country after war.

I founded and run a global non-profit, called Global Grassroots, which is focused on identifying change leaders at the grassroots level, shall we say “G-Level”, among the world’s most marginalized women and girls. We operate a social venture incubator in Rwanda and Northern Uganda that provides mindfulness-based leadership practices and social entrepreneurship skills to help these women develop sustainable micro-non-profits to advance their own ideas for social change. Some of the most extraordinary leaders I have ever met, I have found among the ranks of undereducated subsistence farmers, war widows, the rural poor and survivors of horrific violence. There are three reasons why grassroots women’s leadership is crucial for gender equality: First, women have inherent wisdom and insight into what is most needed to evolve society especially with respect to issues that directly impact women and their families. Second, once women have a successful experience leading change, they are likely to continue solving problems especially benefiting the most vulnerable. Finally, true gender-equality will be built on women achieving parity at all levels of society, especially among the most marginalized, because that is where women are most deeply affected by inequality.

Take Global Grassroots venture “Hard Workers” for instance. In 2007, in a rural and mountainous Rwandan community called Gahanga, a team of 19 women including their leader Seraphine Hacimana, were troubled by the three mile journey women embarked upon each day down a hillside to collect water at a contaminated valley creek just to meet their family’s basic needs. Collecting water at remote access frequently points puts women at risk of sexual assault. Further, many of those who were left physically disabled by the war and those who were elderly, blind, pregnant or HIV positive were too weak to make this journey. Some would send their daughters to collect water instead of school. Others would hire men to deliver water on a bicycle. But for those too poor to pay for help, many ended up being pressured to exchange sex for water delivery daily, just to provide for their children.

With our training and an initial $2600 seed grant, the team designed their own non-profit water solution. They installed a water tank next to a church within close walking distance to collect and purify rainwater from the roof. Hard Workers launched their operations in August 2007 to serve 100 households (totaling between 800 – 1000 people) with fresh clean water daily. The organization is focused not only on ending sexual exploitation for water, but also ensuring the elimination of water-borne disease and protecting girls’ ability to attend school. The revenue generated from those who can afford to pay ensures the most vulnerable always have water for free. Further, the team uses any profits to pay orphan school fees and provide annual health insurance for women and their families. Given women were now freed up from water collection for other economic pursuits, the organization later established a small revolving loan fund for the poorest women to start their own businesses. Today, the venture is operating sustainably, has expanded to three additional sites and now serves close to 9000 people. To save the cost of hiring guards, team members, some even widows in their late 70s, sleep on the ground alongside their tanks in shifts each night to prevent people from stealing their water.

Gender relations have already begun to change. Village men have asked to join the project, and occasionally when a woman is sick, her husband will take her shift guarding the tanks at night. Women from as far as three hours away have since traveled to visit the team to learn from them. Project leader Seraphine Hacimana has spoken on the radio about water issues, was been invited to Kenya to share their work, and was recently recognized by government officials as an example of women serving other women. But what is most remarkable about this team is that of its 19 members, only seven are literate. Founder, Seraphine is a mother of eight children in her 40s with only a first grade education. Once living on the edge of survival, Seraphine is now a community change leader. This is the potential of G-Level leadership to transform individual lives and whole communities.

Hard Workers succeeded because they not only leaned in, but they led from within. They identified what they felt most passionate about, then leveraged their own skills, capabilities and courage to initiate a solution of their own design. Most of all, they were united by a common vision that came not from aspirations defined by dominant culture, but from an inner sense of purpose. Anyone who wants to lean in and lead from within can start by identifying what issue or realm of work you are most passionate about, what you are uniquely capable of doing, and what your exclusive insights are from your unique life experience, and then cultivate and contribute these assets in partnership with others who share a common purpose.

Sustainable, systemic change has to be driven by women from all levels of society, especially given women’s inherent wisdom as marginalized care-takers of community. In order to achieve gender equality, it is thus critical that we facilitate leaning in at both a grassroots level and at the top of the economic pyramid for women’s future leadership worldwide.

Asking the Poor for Money: Creative Fundraising in Rural Villages

June 20, 2011 by Caitlin
Emmanuel, Lamonte and their team Invincible Vision 2020 founded a literacy project in rural Rwanda where they knew their beneficiaries would be the neediest— but also the poorest. The program faces costs for chalk, books, transportation, cleaning supplies and teacher salaries. To make ends meet, students and teachers collected stray sticks and stones on their way to class. Once the piles grew big enough, Emmanuel sold them to a construction company to finance school supplies. When the stream of scrap material dried up, the school founders brainstormed new strategies and bought a few pigs and rabbits. They bred them and gave some of the litters to the poorest students. The students could improve their standard of living by raising the animals and selling the offspring, and even eating meat themselves occasionally. They now give half of each litter back to Invincible Vision to continue the program. Each month a portion are sold to restaurants*, and some community members who support the school decide to pay to join the program. As of now, the growing system generates $80-$100 each month. Some people raise an eyebrow when I explain that we encourage our change agents to raise local support for their project. “But the villages are too poor,” they argue. In our experience, the team leaders find creative ways for the villagers to contribute, and both the donation and its spirit make the project more sustainable than a stream of American dollars. A team fighting gender-based violence sells homemade lunch at construction sites. While serving the hungry workers, they explain their project and delicately describe the benefits of equal relationships. Other teams host theater performances or community talent shows, or use one of the village’s few television sets to screen a movie; ticket sales are quite profitable. Even so, team leaders often choose to forgo compensation, despite the fact that being a change agent prevents pursuit of full-time and more lucrative jobs. They insist on devoting the money to their project and may continue to live on less than two dollars per day. Similarly, the teachers at the literacy program have often gone months without salary, content that school supplies be given first priority until the full budget is raised. Patiently arranging their own schedules around the pace of social change, these leaders dedicate themselves to sustainable development. *This is an example of what Christina and I do. We met with Invincible Vision 2020 and reviewed their financial records and fundraising strategies. We helped them think about their resources and skills, then brainstormed new ideas. After our meeting, they began the local talent shows and selling pigs and rabbits directly to restaurants, which fetches a higher price than the market.

At our training program, we teach team leaders how to use whatever you have- a wheelbarrow, a ball, a rock, or just yourself- to fundraise. To practice, we give them an assortment of dollar-store items and an hour to raise money on the streets outside the classroom. The winner's earning are matched by Global Grassroots. Here, one woman prepares to do some sort of trick with a bouncy-ball for a small crowd after explaining her project and purpose. The winning team used the props to do a sort of comedy-music-dance routine and raised almost $10 performing in small bars.

I was digging for a picture for this post and came up with this. Pretty embarrassing, and no idea why it's floating in my photo library. Or why I'm publicly acknowledging that. One of the team leaders organized his poor, illiterate students to collects rocks and bits of brick from the dirt road on their way to literacy class each night. Eventually they had a large pile, which they sold to a construction company. The revenue paid for books and pens.


Mixing Cultures: A Job Interview in Rwanda

May 31, 2011 by Caitlin
I sent my resume to someone before dinner. By bedtime I had an email from someone else who received it via email forward. I replied, and they shot back proposing an interview less than 24 hours later. Wow, things move fast in America. Here it takes at least two re-schedulings (my child is sick, it’s raining) before a meeting can happen. Skype interview at 6pm. In the morning, our car was an hour late so we didn’t leave Kigali until 10. We arrived at the village around 11:30 but the meeting didn’t get started until about 12 because someone was busy and then we had to go carry the benches to sit on. In the next meeting, it wasn’t until we were walking out the door that the women admitted they were way over budget because when they went to buy a megaphone they accidentally bought a microphone, which has lots of cords but no sound, so now they need to buy a speaker and an amplifier. We drive to another village, and the woman there is “coming, coming!” for 45 minutes, so that’s how at 5:40, 20 minutes before my interview, I found myself in the village of Byimana drinking milk (goat’s milk? something funky there) in someone’s living room. At 5:45 we’re walking out and she tells us that she’s cooking us eggs. No, thank you, I have an interview. Oh no, I’m so sorry! Here, just take the eggs (hard-boiled eggs are a common snack)— NO don’t crack them, they’re raw! Raw?! You’re giving us raw eggs? Why? Yes, I’m so sorry, should I cook them? NO DONT COOK THEM, I have to go, I’m sorry. Yes! Your interview, of course. Go, go. But wait! That’s my daughter running towards us with a bag of samosas for us to eat. Wow, what good timing! Let’s eat them together on the hood of your car, which is running, because you have to go. Ok, here, let’s all take two, but oh no wait, we don’t have a napkin to take the samosa from the bag (cultural thing, can’t take food with hands)… what to do what to do, dear, dear… Oh good you have a journal! Please rip some paper from your journal, here let me help… With five minutes to spare we pull out, holding our second samosas. I do the interview by cell phone in the car, and ask the driver to please turn down the radio. Wow.

Twenty minutes before my supposed-to-be-Skype interview, I found myself in someone's living room, two hours from Kigali, drinking milk and trying to deter a woman from giving me various foods. I ended up doing the interview on my cell phone in the car... I'm guessing our jobs next year will be different from this year. At the very least, we'll speak the same language as our co-workers. Also, we'll probably work at an office. Indoors.

Literacy: A Love Story

May 23, 2011 by Christina

Varrène met a man and fell in love.  He was a soldier and stationed outside of Rwanda, but they communicated by letter.  The affair by love letter was difficult for Varrène – not because she didn’t love Paul, but because she’d never had an opportunity to learn to read or write.  Illiteracy was her secret; Paul didn’t know.

Every time Paul sent a letter, Varrène took it to a friend, who read it for her and helped compose a response.  But Varrène found it upsetting to have Paul’s secrets and her feelings so exposed.

Soon after Varrène and Paul got married, Paul was deployed again – to Darfur as part of a UNAMID peacekeeping unit.  Some of his salary passed to his wife through a joint account, but Varrène had no idea how to use a bank.  She knew how often tellers cheated illiterate women, giving them bank slips to sign for 500,000 Rwandan francs when 50,000 was requested and then pocketing the difference.  Varrène was also struggling to start a small hair salon to make income for herself.

Varrène heard about the Let Us Build Ourselves literacy project, which teaches reading, writing, basic math, and basic business skills to vulnerable women in Nyarugenge.  She met with project leader Innocent Baguma and signed up.  She wanted to write her own love letters.  She wanted to walk into a bank and know how to fill out a form, where to sign, and for what she was signing.  She wanted to get around town without begging strangers to read signs or store names to her.  She wanted to manage the bookkeeping of her struggling salon herself.

Varrène attended class every afternoon, learned quickly, and made use of her new abilities.  She realized that her employees at the salon had, indeed, been fudging the ledger and cheating her.  Under her own financial management, her salon began to do well.  She felt confident enough to open her own bank account and manage her husband’s without help.

Varrène recently returned to Let Us Build Ourselves to tell Innocent how much the ability to read has changed the course of her life.  She wanted to encourage other women to come, learn, and move themselves forward.  At that time, Let Us Build Ourselves was struggling to pay the rent for its classroom.  With profit from her salon, Varrène donated a month’s rent for the project’s classroom and office to keep Let Us Build Ourselves running.

Paul has finally returned from Darfur.  Today, the couple lives near Varrène’s salon in Nyamirambo, close to the market.  Paul still does not know that when he met his wife, Varrène was completely illiterate.  Both are heroes of this story.  Maybe they’ll live happily ever after; maybe they won’t.

April Showers Bring May Flowers

May 19, 2011 by Christina

Some flowers of Rwanda.

They’re not all from May.  They’re not all flowers, either.  Please, as Cait and I and our Rwandan co-workers love to say, “be flexible in your mind.”

Orchid in Nyungwe Forest.


Lake Kivu, Kibuye.


Kivu again. Spot the endangered flowering Caitlinicus.


Lake Muhazi, eastern Rwanda.


Nyungwe Forest.


Wild West(ern Rwanda)


these guys smelled like flowers.


Beside Gisakura Waterfall, Nyungwe Forest.


Tea plantations, southwestern Rwanda.


Seeds of Peace guesthouse, Lake Muhazi.

When communities get smart, girls don’t drop out

May 15, 2011 by Caitlin
Almost one year since we finished college and it’s graduation season again.  We attended a graduation party here, back in September (see Christina’s post), for the elite all-girls school Fawe.  Since then, I’ve realized all the factors that conspire against Rwandan girls who want to graduate. According to a group of primary school teachers we are working with in rural Mahembe, a suspicious number of girls disappear around puberty. In Rwanda this ‘coincidence’ isn’t suspicious at all, and it is reported in rural schools around the country. Christine, the president of the team that calls itself “Perseverance,” explained that girls drop out of school for many reasons related to puberty: they want to escape harassment from boys, menstrual periods are hard to manage away from home, and, just like in the US, teenage girls get pregnant. Christine, Marie-Claudine, and Marcelline noted the inadequate facilities at school for menstruating girls.  There are no sanitation supplies available, unlike in the US where tampons and pads wait neatly next to the sink or in a metal dispenser on the wall.  There is no water for the girls to wash out their rags, clean their stained clothes, or even wash their hands of embarrassing evidence.  There is no place to rest when cramps become unbearable. Most importantly, there is no privacy.  Boys and girls share the same latrines— a mud outhouse with a hole in the ground and a feeble wood-plank door that seems perfectly designed for enterprising boys who spy and squeal while a girl spends extra long in the latrine. The teachers are raising money to build a separate latrine for girls and a private area with a spiket for washing.  They also hope to provide pads every month.* This measure will ensure that girls continue to attend school through menstruation; their goal is to decrease the number of girls who stay home during menstruation to just 40%. But the problem isn’t solved with a few pads and a better bathroom. The teachers know that menstruation isn’t the only reason girls drop out around puberty. Teenage pregnancy is a great concern in this predominantly Christian country.  Rwandan schoolgirls end up pregnant for many of the same reasons as American girls, and for other ones, too. Sometimes they don’t know the link between sex and pregnancy. Other times, they fall prey to “sugar daddies” who offer them candy or spending money in exchange for sex.  In Kigali, sugar daddies are usually well-dressed men with cars. At Mahembe School, they are young boys with bicycle taxis who hang out around the school. These older boys tempt the schoolgirls with coveted fried donuts and rides to and from school. Girls don’t think they can attend school while pregnant, much less with a child, and so after their mistake, they drop out. There were ten such cases last year.

These billboards dot the country, warning against Shuga Dadi. Some girls are lured in by rides or candy, then get pregnant and drop out of school. "Sinigurisha" means "I am not for sale."

Not all who drop out are pregnant. Boys harass girls with mature bodies, and sometimes it’s just easier to stay home. Parents know that this harassment happens, so they take preventative measures. One study of rural schools in Tanzania found that girls’ performance started lagging behind boys’ around puberty because they weren’t allowed outside the home after 6pm and couldn’t participate in group study sessions.** According to the Mahembe teachers, parents don’t see much value in educating girls.  “They think that if she goes to school, she’ll get pregnant and drop out, and then they’ll lose their money [from tuition].” And the loss of money is nothing compared to the loss of family pride. It is not uncommon for a single mother to be beaten by her brothers and kicked out of the house.*** The team’s comprehensive solution includes workshops for girls, taxi-bikers, and parents. They will emphasize to fathers that it is just as important to educate girls as boys, and that their daughter is not guaranteed to “waste” their money by finding a boy and getting pregnant. The pesky taxi-bikers will learn about safe sex, and the girls will be educated on the myriad of issues they face so that they will be better equipped to make good decisions. Christine, Marie-Claudine, and Marcelline are also introducing a reproductive health curriculum for all Mahembe students aged twelve to eighteen. They will partner with the local clinic to hold open public workshops about HIV, promoting condom use. For the girls who have already left school, community social workers are being dispatched to follow their cases and work with the family to re-enroll the daughter. “If people are educated about reproductive health,” a team member told us, “the number of unwanted pregnancies will decrease, and fewer girls will drop out of school.”  Fewer drop-outs means more graduations, more parties, more women in skilled jobs, and one more step towards gender equality. The Stats 73.2%:  US high school completion rate 75%: Rwandan ninth grade completion rate (after 9th grade, education is no longer free) Neither country reported a notable sex difference. I maintain that in Rwanda, there is an inequality in real opportunity for education; more girls would graduate if the system were different and they felt safe at school, were supported by their parents, and understood how to prevent pregnancy. (The US data was taken from the most comprehensive report I could find: High School Drop-out and Completion Rates in the United States: 2007, by the US Department of Education. The Rwandan data was taken from the results of a study by the Ministry of Education, which were published in the government newspaper The New Times on April 22, 2010.)

According to our team, some Rwandan girls don't go to school, even though they want to. They fear harassment from boys, there is no place to wash when they are menstruating, their father believes it is a waste of money, or they have gotten pregnant.

*For a creative, local solution to the exorbitant price of sanitary pads, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) is engineering sanitary napkins out of banana fiber. http://www.sheinnovates.com/ourventures.html **From an interesting paper recommended by a friend: Sommer, M. (2010). “Where the education system and women’s bodies collide: The social and health impact of girls’ experiences of menstruation and schooling in Tanzania.Journal of Adolescence, 33, 521-529. ***This is according to another Global Grassroots team, A Friend Indeed, which provides support to unwed mothers and their stigmatized children.

On Love. And Shooting B roll of a Filmmaker.

May 9, 2011 by Christina

I show up at Charlotte’s house on Thursday, 10 am.  In my bag: an orange, bendable tripod; my flip video camera in its protective sleeve (an old glasses case of my Grandma’s); a list of the B roll shots I want to collect; and a peanut butter sandwich in case this takes us most of the day.

B roll is the supplemental footage that a filmmaker intercuts with the main shot during an interview or a documentary.  In other words, if you’re interviewing Jill about her relationship with Jack, you don’t want to bore your audience with one headshot of her, just sitting and talking.  The audience can keep listening to the audio of her interview while the visual adds dimension by switching to show Jill on the hill, Jill joking around with Jack, or Jill polishing her pail collection.

Charlotte knows about B roll.  She’s the leader of Achieving a Better Life, a Global Grassroots project that uses theater and film to expose and fight against domestic violence.  Some of you might remember when Caitlin and I helped Charlotte get her project up on Global Giving: http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/eliminate-domestic-violence-in-rwanda/.

I’ve been spending most of my time, lately, on the collection and processing of filmed interviews and B roll.  I’m hoping to gather a truly cohesive portrait of at least five teams, including Achieving a Better Life (ABL).  All five teams have discussed with me the importance of getting their story out in the world, and they’re completely on board with what I’m doing – they just don’t always understand why I’m asking them to pretend to talk on the phone with a friend or why I want to pause to film the goat tied outside the GBV workshop they’re hosting.  B roll sessions usually involve a lot of explanation and direction from me, and a lot of giggling from all of us.

So.  Thursday, 10am.  I knock on Charlotte’s door.

She has her one-year-old twins dressed in matching, lime-green shorts and t-shirts printed with USA-shaped American flags.  She has a page-long bullet list of the shots she wants me to get: Charlotte working on an ABL script; Charlotte tying one of the babies on her back; Charlotte lighting charcoal; Charlotte walking through her gate while chatting to a neighbor.  She tells me that I’ve got to stay until 12:30 at least.  That’s when her older children get home, and she wants me to film her greeting them and asking about school.

Looks like we’ve already covered ‘Charlotte being amazing.’

We film a couple of shots in her living room, and then Charlotte leads me out to the back.  She has plantains and potatoes set out to be chopped.  She has a pile of dishes next to a line of plastic wash bins.  Her makeshift charcoal stove is ready to be lighted.  Two dirty children’s school uniforms lie in another set of nested bins.

“Ready?” Charlotte asks.  She straps one of the twins onto her back with a piece of fabric, and I scramble around her to film from different angles.  She power-walks around the corner to pour water into a bin from a jerry can, and I race close behind her.  She lights the charcoal with a flame and a piece of melted plastic and starts to heat oil.  I sneak a couple shots of the bubbling oil and some pink plastic baby shoes lying in the dirt nearby.  Then I realize she’s almost finished the next step – peeling and chopping potatoes for fries – so I rush over with the camera.

“Okay, I got the chopping,” I tell her.  She springs up, moves over to the laundry, and doesn’t pause or giggle when I hang off her back steps on my knees for an aerial view of her soapy hands.

“Now for drying!” she cries, and I follow her to the front of the house.  We hang the laundry, wash dishes, fry the potatoes, pick legumes, write fake scripts on the computer, and rifle through her awards and certificates to show off ABL’s successes.  We get the twins to clap for us, and I film them eating (and throwing) pieces of orange.  We stage several phone calls, during which Charlotte pretends to discuss her funding difficulties with a friend.  “We have finished shooting, as you know, but I don’t yet have the financial means to take the project to the editing studio.”

At one point Charlotte asks me, “Is there anything on your list that we must do?”

“Nope,” I tell her.  “No, you’ve got us covered just great.”

When the older children get home from school, they burst into the living room, where Charlotte and I are seated.  I’m on the wrong side of her to film – the contrast from the bright windows I face makes the lighting impossible – which is something that both of us have been very aware of all day.  But as she kisses her daughter on the head and admires the battered toy car her son has received from a family friend, Charlotte seems to have finally forgotten about me.

Anais swings off her backpack and accepts a sticky orange slice.  Gilhaume nestles against Charlotte’s knees.  I scoot across the room and try to capture this intimate daily reunion, but when the footage turns out dark and blurry, part of me is glad.

It’s been a long day – I want my peanut butter sandwich – and I’ve got so much of Charlotte’s life stored digitally inside my Grandma’s glasses case.  It feels right that this one secret moment should remain hidden from view, powering Charlotte through her visible life: work and chores and worries.  That’s how we all live, isn’t it?  Even those of us who always mean business, like Charlotte, run on some invisible fuel of  love.

Lighting charcoal.

Hanging laundry in front of the house.

Working on a script about GBV on the ABL computer.

Genocide Commemoration: A guilty conscience on April 9th

April 12, 2011 by Caitlin

I’m writing this post on a bus somewhere in Tanzania, making my way from Kigali to Dar es Salaam, the coastal city where three friends from college are currently vacationing to visit another Yale friend who lives there. When I booked my April 9th bus ticket to Dar and Tuesday’s plane ticket to Johannesburg to visit another friend, I was joining the exodus of ex-pats who leave Rwanda during this somber time of genocide commemoration and take advantage of closed offices to travel. It seemed rude to arrange meeting with change agents, and especially to ask our co-workers to translate, while they memorialized lost loved ones.  The president of Global Grassroots warned April was a difficult time to be in Rwanda and agreed it was a good idea for us leave the country. But as I’m watching the scenery change from Rwanda’s lush green to Tanzania’s yellow-brown, I don’t feel very excited to go travel.

On Wednesday night, April 6th, as I came home from a friend’s house, the streets felt eerie. Seventeen years before on that very night, checkpoints had been erected on those very streets. Anyone who tried to pass was stopped and their identity card demanded. If the ethnicity read Tutsi, they were killed, raped, or maimed by machete. An extremist Hutu militia group called the Interhamwe organized an efficient system to exterminate all the Tutsi minority. They came frighteningly close: 800,000 Tutsi were killed, which was five out of six.

My co-worker recommended that Christina and I attend the commemorative activities at the National Amahoro (Peace) Stadium the morning of April 7th, regarded the first of 100 days of genocide. We arrived with our friend Stephen at 8, and he waited in his long security line, which had about ten men for every one woman in ours. We sat through an hour of sound checks before Rwandans filled the rows and the 9:00 documentary aired. Made by Rwandans, it showed four women giving their testimonies: one was raped repeatedly and contracted HIV; another lost all of her children and family; another lost her beloved husband and twin sister, but survived along with 17 children by hiding among corpses; I can’t remember the story of the fourth, but I think three is more than enough. All around Rwanda purple banners hang, proclaiming “Remember the Genocide” or “Uphold the Truth. Preserve our Dignity.” That was the theme of President Kagame’s speech, too.

Before the president spoke at noon, a man sang a song in Kinyarwanda. In the middle of the song, shouts rang outside the stadium. It sounded like the person was shrieking in pain. I feared there had been some sort of violence by the genocide deniers (exiled Hutu extremists called the FDLR who oppose the current government, led by Tutsi Paul Kagame). The shrieks continued for about a minute, then subsided.  The song continued uninterrupted until someone shrieked again, but this time from inside the stadium. Everyone looked across the field from my section where police and volunteer staff in white shirts and purple kerchiefs were running up the stairs and parting the people (there are no aisles). They stopped at a wailing woman, the source of the sound. It reverberated around the whole stadium and the noise carried so clearly. We all watched as they picked her up, still shrieking, and carried her– on her back with her arms and legs in the air– down through the crowd and out to the stadium exterior until the sound finally subsided. But before she was out more wails began, this time to my left under the big screen. Her shrieks blended in with the other woman’s and they echoed and echoed across the whole stadium, competing with the music. She too was carried out, on her back.

It continued through the song and escalated during the following performance of slow, expressive dancing to beautiful, penetrating music. One woman would shriek, and it would grow louder and more hysteric until the volunteers or police came to assist her, carrying her out as her limbs flailed, sometimes grabbing people and clawing at the uniform of police. There would be another. Then a short reprieve, and then another and another and another until the entire stadium was just filled with wailing and its echoing. It was naked pain. Most people around us were weeping, and the boy next to me was sobbing silently, shaking. I didn’t know what to do, so I slipped him some tissues.  A girl six seats over in the row behind me was crying and crying while her friend rubbed her back.

Stephen and I had tears, too, while all around volunteers rushed to carry people out as they shrieked and their limbs flailed. The girl behind us had been sobbing quietly for about twenty minutes before it escalated, becoming harder and louder and more inconsolable. Eventually they came to her and she seemed to be thrashing to resist the uniformed man who was carrying everyone out in our section— around ten people total.  There were more than twenty sections. When we left, the grass ringing the stadium was lined with people recovering from their trauma. I heard shrieking and saw someone being carried in front of us and realized he was a man… so it hadn’t been all women. Men could make those high-pitched noises too, and it sounded terrible. His arm was rigid, reaching out, and he was crying, crying, crying.

My friend didn’t go to the stadium. She was orphaned in the genocide and preferred to spend the day at home with her family. With a purple shawl draped over her, she welcomed me that evening. We hung out, talked, drank tea and ate some dinner, looked at wedding pictures and told a few funny stories. She seemed to be weathering the day well, but then again, she raised her three sisters, found herself a good job and is raising a beautiful daughter while her soldier husband is away– she weathers everything well. We were relaxed in one another’s company and talked and flipped through photos. When my eyes drooped, she told me I should sleep in the extra bed while her sister and her friend, who was also orphaned, shared another bed. In the morning we played with her daughter and talked about the genocide and its legacy. It was almost noon and she told me I should stay for lunch, but I thought I should probably go pack for my trip. I wish I could’ve stayed.

I texted my other close friend who lost her mother, hoping to pay her a visit, but she didn’t respond. I respected her privacy and hurried about packing for my 5 am bus. Before I knew it, it was too late to call the other people to whom I had intended to express sympathy. As I crossed the border into Tanzania at 8:00 am Saturday, I simultaneously received a text that my message to my friend hadn’t gone through, and a text from the other woman thanking me for the night together and my support. The stamp pounded my passport and I swallowed hard. Whenever you meet an ex-pat here, you ask each other how long you’ve been in Rwanda, and sometimes it feels competitive. We all round up– “almost six months,” “just about a year”– never wanting to seem like what some Rwandans call us, “the foreigners who come and never stay.” That phrase was tossed around often after the genocide when all foreigners were evacuated.  I’m incredibly fortunate to be traveling to places like Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique, but I wonder if there wasn’t a better time. I knew I wouldn’t be able to work, but I didn’t know there would be other things to do.

I don't know what the first line means, but the second is "We Remember the Genocide Against the Tutsi: Upholding the truth, Preserving our Dignity" (I think that last part is right, but my Kinyarwanda is not good)

I'm updating this post with a photo I took recently of a billboard in town, sponsored by BCR bank. During these 100 days, the national (and only) TV station RwandaTV broadcasts the flame seen on this billboard, along with a small "17," in the upperleft corner of the screen during all its programming.

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