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Archive for June, 2010

Early Thoughts

Sunday, June 27, 2010

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,


Friday, June 25, 2010

At the conclusion of our training the teams surprised me with the most amazing gifts.  Leoncie, the project leader of HRD, stepped forward with a team member from each of the other 6 teams to present me with a work of traditional Rwandan art.  A rural scene composed entirely of banana leaves depicts a woman filling a large gourd with milk, a symbol of prosperity.  Leoncie explained that I was represented by the mother wishing them prosperity and success.   Another team working with teenage mothers brought me a work of art made by the women in their program.  It was a large log-cabin style house made of the stalks of a plant.  Then Aloys, one of our three male participants stepped forward with a gift containing a wood carving.  The carving is of two warrior figurines in a hut, once with a bow and the other with a shield.  He had included a note written in English that he asked me to read aloud:

If someone ask me to say a single word about Gretchen Wallace I would say: “Gretchen is the Hero Woman I have never seen before. She is the woman keeping ever still by holding an arc to fight poverty, ignorance, etc. and a shield to protect violence (gender based violence) and other nightmare for Grassroots Community in Rwanda.

Personally I am very grateful.

God bless you.

I almost cried. I didn’t know how much this program and teachings meant to them.

To be true, I am always astonished, almost uncomfortable, when a team presents me with a gift.  Sometimes they will offer me a single papaya from their gardens.  It will be presented dressed formally in a clean paper bag.  Knowing these particular teams are subsistence farmers – even while operating their social venture – this means a great deal.  Still, I struggle with my own awkwardness in accepting a gift when I feel like I already have too much.  I grapple with the inherent inequality or injustice I somehow feel in these exchanges.  The flow of gifts should surely go the other way.  And yet, I’m slowly, humbly learning from these women to focus on what lies beneath – the gift of their intentions and their honor.  From such a place, intentions are all equal.  And my discomfort with who has more can transform into a higher consideration.  Above all, the greatest gift they can give me is the work they are doing to support other women and girls. And the chance to be their partner.

An Apprenticeship in Stretching the Heart

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The last few days have flown by as we have completed our Academy for Conscious Change intensive training course.  Today our teams made final presentations.  The work they are embarking upon is not easy, and they challenge me to think about how I might go about advancing my own rights in the face of opposition or threat of violence.

One team, “Handicap Rwanda, Reintegration, Rehabilitation & Development “ (HRD) is working on violence against women who have handicapped children.  Apparently, the stigma is so great against children with disabilities (including the blind, deaf, mentally disabled and physically handicapped) that they are often kept home from school, as they are considered to be without value to society.  HRD is providing education to parents about how to care for their children, and they will be creating an association for the mothers so that they can earn income to contribute to the needs of their family.  Through this association, they will have access to a support group with whom to share their challenges so that they will not feel isolated from the rest of society that discriminates against them.  The venture will also travel to raise awareness about the rights of children and the needs of  handicapped children.

Another team, titled “A Friend Indeed”, is combating the issue of violence against single mothers.  They are working with 80 single mothers, with a total 120 children, in learning how to parent.  They visit the mothers every two weeks to provide support in child care.  They are also providing education to young girls about reproductive health.  Finally, they will utilize theater to fight the stigma against single mothers and young women who seek access to contraception.  Their vision is that no child will be born who is not planned or wanted, and they hope to expand their program nation-wide.

In the next phase of the Academy, the teams develop a comprehensive venture plan over the next 3-6 months with our advisory support.  I cannot help feeling like a committed coach rooting for their success.  And yet, who am I to coach them?  Each of them is living in the midst of hardship unimaginable to most Americans, and yet they are fearlessly committed to working with those even more vulnerable than they to advance equality, opportunity, justice, and human rights.

Take “Justine” for example.  She has four children, including a teenage daughter born of another man.  Her current husband is HIV+ and sounds as if he is battling severe depression as a result of his circumstances.  Luckily, neither Justine nor her children are HIV+.  However, she carries the full weight of her husband’s anxieties, as he contends the support she provides for his step-daughter to go to school results in less care and attention for his own needs.  He frequently demands the daughter be sent away to live with her grandparents.  Justine is caught between a dying husband and an isolated daughter, both of whom need her care.  Even still, Justine is working to fight unplanned pregnancies through reproductive health education within her community.  Apparently there have already been three pregnancies of young girls aged 12 -14 in their village this year.

These women’s hearts stretch to what appears to be a limitless capacity to take on the needs of others.  I think I could stand to do an apprenticeship with each one of them.

Dear Rwanda

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Dear Rwanda,

Remember the times we watched the sun rise over the Kigali hills together? And remember the time we hung out with all those barber shop boys and their Jessica Alba obsession? And the Francophone door to door Congolese mask salesman? The markets, and the wrong-side of the car taxi drivers, and all the beautiful women… Oh, and Rwanda, remember the long walks on dusty roads and the way you always smell like firewood…

Rwanda, I know I’ve only known you for two weeks, and that we don’t even speak the same language, and I know you’re much more complicated than I can understand, but Rwanda? I think I love you.



Monday to Monday

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

When our van pulled up to the Academy this morning, the scene was such a contrast to what we had witnessed in the same place, at the same time, just a week earlier. When we arrived Monday, June 14th for the first day, Rwandans were gathered in thick clumps all around the entrance and peered at us, silently. I stared back at them, wondering who was supposed to make the first move. After all, I was a visitor to their community- should step up and introduce myself, or wait to see how they welcomed me? Ultimately the children provided a buffer, crowding between us and the Academy participants. They struck cheesey poses for my camera and pushed to see the digital display. Eventually, I turned to the women and gave a sheepish wave, a ‘muraho!’ and an over-eager grin.

Today when we arrived, the children were not there; our presence is no longer novel or exciting. Some Academy participants— Marcelline, Marie-Jeanne, Christina— waved to our van as we rolled up, and I returned the greeting without hesitation. When I climbed out of the van, I shook a few hands on my way into the classroom, set up some supplies, then took a seat on one of the benches, between the women…

8 Hours Without Accoutrements

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Today’s adventures began with the door to my room in the house I’m staying in blowing shut while I was in the shower.  I discovered, while I stood dripping in a towel, that the door had somehow locked me out with my keys, clothes, money, phone and everything else I owned inside.  Hmmm.  Quite inconvenient, given my staff was going to be arriving to pick me up in 10 minutes.  I changed back into pajamas and found the guard, who came in with a butter knife to see if he could unscrew off the deadbolt.  I quickly realized this was going to take much longer than anticipated.  I ran around to the windows, which are all barred, but managed to cut open the screen to make a hole large enough for my arm to fit through.  Luckily my suitcase was open next to the window and I was able to grab some clean clothes.  Phew.  At least I wasn’t going to be teaching in pajamas today.

With a pair of borrowed flip flops, I combed through my wet hair with my fingers and my outfit was complete.  I headed off to class significantly lighter than usual – no longer toting a bag filled with Wet Ones, hand sanitizer, wallet, phone, camera, chargers, Luna bars, water bottle, notebooks, pens, passport, teaching materials, calendar, business cards, blackberry, sunglasses and cloth wrap.  I went through a small wave of panic, but then quickly settled into a new sense of liberation.  Why can our women show up with nothing to their names, but I can’t seem to go 8 hours without accoutrements?

There has been a practice I have been working with in the US when I get overwhelmed by my never-ending list of to-dos and emails flagged for follow-up.  I put all lists aside, meditate a moment and just feel into what is most important for me to respond to. Usually the most critical items come to mind and then I do not have to get overly distracted by the sheer quantity to tasks awaiting me.  (Apologies to anyone I did accidentally let fall through the cracks – this is not meant to suggest you are not important).   It is more about trusting my intuitive to guide me.  Today I did the same – leaned into what felt important to teach and we actually had a more productive day than most.  There was no stress, no need to take time to review notes or prepare.  It just flowed.

Maybe we are a little too hung up on our stuff in the US.  Even including those of us who think we are already anti-materialistic.  What would it be like to go about an entire day with nothing but your clothes and shoes?  I highly recommend you try it.

A Darker Red

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Arriving back in Kigali after class today, I promptly plunked myself down on the back porch and sat like a stone there, eyeing the birds and the flowers until the sun set and darkness grew around me.

At the beginning of my first week in Rwanda, I was enchanted by everything. Everywhere I looked were bright colors and even brighter smiles. Africa was as glorious as I had imagined. I was welcomed to it with rhythmic song, abundant laughter and joy.

This place has a pulse, it feels alive and real and vital in a way few areas can compete with. Biologist E.O. Wilson theorized that because the human species had spent over two million years “growing up” in East Africa, we are each hard-wired on a cellular level to feel a particular resonance with it – to feel like we’re returning home.

Yet, day by day, the more difficult realities of Rwanda began to fall like big, heavy raindrops, turning the terra cotta colored earth a darker red.

On one hand, I feel so at home here, so at ease, so inspired, and yet the complexities that rise up around me are sometimes so dense and relentless, that I am having trouble coming up with the words and the writing that normally keep my head above water.

This week has grown more and more “real” in small yet potent doses. Slowly, and in hushed tones, the events and consequences of what transpired here 16 years ago have been discussed with or near me. Not unlike the dialogue of a Jane Austin novel, there is a great sense of both propriety and consequence to what is said.

It’s not that I didn’t anticipate this aspect, but when it’s actually there in front of you it penetrates in ways you can’t really prepare for. When there is a 20 year old guy downtown joking with you while holding the wares he’s selling in the mangled remains of what were possibly once his healthy four-year-old arms… well, that’s when pain and cruelty creep up on you and wipe their dirty boots all over the otherwise bucolic pictures in your head.

It’s a tricky thing. I know from experience if you let images like that run on repeat in your brain you end up like the otherwise trusty steed Artex, sinking slowly into the Swamp of Sadness  (three points for getting that reference).

I’ve been doing cohesive breathing work all week with the group. It’s remarkable to feel the silence that enters the red-floored room when we practice together. Even the groups of school kids looking in with curiosity from the windows and doorways seem to get more still.

It seems to me that, in any occupation, finding a sense of peace inside you is important, but in work for social change, it’s positively vital. Some of the problems these group are addressing, from water shortages to child prostitution, are so overwhelming that to keep the joy and gratitude pumping through our hearts, you need that place of peacefulness to return to when it gets a little much.

And so tonight, as I sit out outside watching the southern stars appear and the red soil darken, I’m trying to remember the feeling in that room. I’m trying to remember to breathe.

Just. Breathe.

Day 5: Women’s Outer Wisdom

Friday, June 18, 2010

I do believe that in many cases, wisdom and intuition may be all we need to guide us.  And time and time again, the Rwandan women we partner with demonstrate just that.

Today we conducted another exercise to diagnose the priority issues facing women in their communities.  The women shared about the myriad of underlying challenges to educating girls:  One root cause was that girls frequently drop out of school when they start menstruating.  Without affordable access to sanitary products or bathing facilities, girls often stain themselves.  Ridiculed by boys, girls simply stop coming to school during menstruation.  Others face spying or even assault in shared latrines.  Further is the difficulty faced by the children of prostitutes.  When their mothers see clients in their tiny houses, the children can’t study and have to leave.  Teachers in their community have coming together privately to provide these children with safe spaces to study for their exams. Additionally, young girls are often targeted by older men, who find them easy to manipulate with small gifts and nice clothes.  A myth that sleeping with a virgin will cure HIV further exacerbates the issue.  And most of these predators believe that if the girls are young enough there is no risk of pregnancy.  Yet in one small village, three 12-14 year-olds had recently fallen pregnant.  When girls get pregnant, they are sometimes rejected by their families and end up dropping out of school for good.  While contraception is free with health insurance, young girls are too afraid to try to access it in public clinics in small villages where it would be generally unacceptable to be sexually active at that age and out of marriage.

With a very sophisticated and in-depth knowledge of the complexities of these social issues, the Rwandan women change agents we support are embarking upon the courageous process of initiating their own solutions.  Why any international NGO would think they have more knowledge about what priority issues face these communities and what is needed, I don’t know.  As many challenges as may exist in these rural communities, there are as many remarkable women leaders willing to dedicate themselves to their eradication.  I fully trust these women’s wisdom, and I invite all to watch over the next year as they set about solving these issues themselves from the grassroots level up.  It is truly an honor to partner with them in this work.

Day 4 Women’s Inner Wisdom

Friday, June 18, 2010

The last two days of our Academy for Conscious Change have been full of tiny miracles and awe-inspiring moments. Thursday we began a journey with our women that started with yoga, continued with a short session of deep breathing and then a short meditation.  Out of the meditation, our participants responded to a simple invitation:  What is one thing you know to be true?  I was deeply moved by their wisdom. Here are a few of their responses:

  • There is no difference between love and compassion
  • Everyone thinks that animals are ignorant, but when you take care of them every day, you realize that they can recognize you outside and know when you are inside your house
  • Love is more powerful than war.  Forgiveness is more powerful than punishment
  • You can be rich without security and peace of mind, but the poor can be free without stress
  • Life is short. Don’t pay attention to the problems you can’t control
  • Bananas take five months to grow from the flower
  • You can’t succeed when you feel afraid
  • Families of alcoholics can’t progress
  • Reflecting before reacting is better and can help you to have a better relationship
  • There are no wild animals that will eat you if you go outside at night
  • Women taking care of children alone are overworked
  • Even if you are rich and can buy nice clothes, that doesn’t mean you look good

I’m working on a few of my own truths:

  • Each moment is always new
  • Breathing can heal
  • Anyone who enters your life (whether they love you or challenge you) is there to teach you something
  • Real outer change is inner-directed
  • Animals generally don’t want to be eaten
  • The things that really need to be done don’t need to be on a list
  • Food tastes better when you grow it yourself
  • I feel more grounded when I’m barefoot
  • At our very smallest components, all things are the same
  • The only thing that exists is now

In Search of Obama in Rwanda

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Each day we drive in a rented minibus to the rural village of Byimana about 1.5 hours outside of Kigali.  The scenery is stunning.  The road meanders around tall, terraced hills.  Women and children walk along mountain paths with yellow jerry cans on their heads.   Toddlers who catch our eye wave from the roadside.  The hills are an alternating fabric of banana trees and slanted, emerald farmland.

Today we passed by a local market on market day.  Usually we see the empty skeleton of the market and can only imagine what fills the area below the crooked grass roofs marking each stall. But today, the grass field was awash with women perched between mounds of tomatoes, bananas, oranges, potatoes, avocados, mangoes.  Serpentine walls of colored fabric separated the produce from the clothing sections. Higher on the hill, men and women attended grass mats filled with household goods.

But I was in search of Obama.

Now I must take a step back and try to describe the extraordinary fabric that Rwandan women typically wear wrapped around their waist. VERITABLE REAL WAX is stamped along the edges.  Prints of flowers, images and swirls of color – orange, blue, yellow, burgundy, green – make each one a work of art.  I’ve also seen prints with images as odd as New York City skylines.  A friend is coveting fabric made with the faces of African leaders – Mandela, Kagame, Mugabe.  She’s making a quilt.  But nothing is as amazing to me as the Obama fabric – round images of Obama’s likeness plastered across an African print background.   I am determined to find some.

Every stall we went to, Gyslaine asked if they had Obama.  Some had seen some on Tuesday, others said I could find him in the center of Kigali.  A few had him last week, but he was already gone.   So my search for Obama will continue this weekend.  I know he’s here in Rwanda.  It’s only a matter of time before I find him.

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