We’ve spent two very short weeks in Rwanda and leave the country this afternoon, but Caitlin and I return in August to spend a full year here. In some ways this brief trip was perfect in its incompleteness – the children of new friends not yet visited, whole swaths of Kigali still missing from my mental map, mango season just around the corner. I can’t remember ever leaving a place so full of impatience to get back. Each project site we visited this past week gave such a rush of inspiration that even just selfishly, emotionally, I cannot wait to meet the rest of the Global Grassroots teams and get to work.
Emotion is such a cumulative beast, built of links to personal history. In a way it is selfish by definition, but I’ve been feeling guilty this week when my brain lines up that way. During our Monday visit to Have A Good Life, a clean water project in Nyarugenge, I found myself staring up at this nearby tree. It looked like the arboreal version of Indian Paintbrush: red blossoms stuck on the tips of skinny branches, dark against deep afternoon sky. My California high school’s symbol was a Paintbrush blossom, and suddenly all I could think about was our little green campus and cafeteria conversations from seven years ago and the research project on Darfur I did for history class my senior year. We looked at water-related contributions to the genocide and even had a poster at some youth conference in San Francisco. It suddenly felt so absurd – how little, in retrospect, I could have understood about a region of Sudan I’d only glimpsed in stylized photographs. How hopelessly self-absorbed I must be, at that moment, to stand next to a crowd of children dragging jerry cans of water up a hill in a country full of loss and to tie up my emotions in a wave of nostalgia for a childhood community I was ready to lose. A young woman was explaining to Gretchen and Caitlin how many kilometers she lugged dirty water each day before Have A Good Life. Wow, I thought. Feel something you should.
But then Caitlin asked one of the boys playing nearby to explain the project’s sign post – a hand-painted rendition of the Global Grassroots logo – seven women clasping each other’s hands over a globe. “Everybody is coming together to hold hands to bring water to Africa,” the boy said. And he’s right, of course. Just the hand-holding helps.
Without those cafeteria conversations, I wouldn’t have chosen that twelfth grade international studies class. Were it not for that twelfth grade water project, I wouldn’t have gotten so involved with STAND, the national student anti-genocide group, in college. I might not know anything about Global Grassroots, and I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here writing on a porch in Kigali beside oversized pumpkin vines. We see and feel the world the way we do because of who we come from, and perhaps that is not only our right, but our duty to those people who made possible whatever good we do in our lives.
I’m sure I can’t imagine the number of individuals involved in the establishment of Nyarugenge’s water access point and in the creation of the water safety and gender based violence trainings held by Have A Good Life – let alone all those who influenced those individuals to prioritize personal strength and social change. Sure, some change leaders are the heroines of the heroines, the heroes of the heroes, the strongest and busiest intersections in the community web. No matter what help I am able to offer our teams in the coming year, my impact will be nothing beside the work of any one of the invincible Rwandan women changing their communities with Global Grassroots’s support. Women like Jeannette of Have A Good Life. Women like Mediatrice of Think About the Young Girls, another project we visited this week. As part of their work to keep girls safe from sexual assault and in school, Think About the Young Girls has built separate female latrines at the primary school in Byimana and is currently constructing showers and changing rooms that will be stocked with sanitation supplies. But during our visit we noticed a new addition – a line of kids waiting to have their heads shaved by a young barber behind a classroom. When asked about the haircuts, Mediatrice explained with intensity that young girls often face harassment at the local salon; apparently the salon site is a favorite target of boys. In addition, many kids pick up lice or a skin disease from the shared instruments at the salon. So, the school had hired someone to shave heads for a smaller fee, keeping the kids safe, healthier, and on campus. I think everyone listening to Mediatrice’s story felt uplifted at that moment. The women of Think About the Young Girls began with particular goals for a particular project, but they have become true social change agents, constantly watching for chances to make the world better in quiet, innovative, effective ways.
These incredible women work every day to change their communities, but they are also the products of those communities. We try to change the world according to our own vision, just as we experience and feel the world according to our own histories. Is either of these a selfish act? Yes and no, I think. The conflict lies in the definition of selfishness. The words “our own” describe not a single point on the globe but a mesh of all those who have touched our lives – whose hands we have held – spreading out from ours, our left and our right.
See you in August, can’t wait,