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Archive for June, 2010

10 things I like about Rwanda (In no particular order)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Kigali recently got voted cleanest city in Africa, in part because they’ve outlawed plastic bags.

The dirt is the color of wet terra cotta.

Everyone here seems extraordinarily warm and outgoing. They smile at you and wave hello (ok, that part often comes after the staring – I am somewhat noticeable here).

It’s a lush, tropical paradise with birds, flowers and lizards.

Beers are so cheap, they may as well be free.

Avocados are so plentiful they are considered poor peoples food (the waiter apologized that they were kind of small today, but an American avocado could have fit within the hole left by the pit of these).

The moist, warm air.

The fact that i’m below the equator, and all the stars are different.

Rwanda has a higher percentage of women in parliament than any other country in the world.

The last Saturday of every month, neighborhoods all organize a monthly day of service, where everyone gets together to weed, clean and improve the neighborhood.

Breathing in Byimana

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I should pause and describe the scene of our Academy program in the village of Byimana.  I sometimes forget to do so, as much of what I experience, which would be so exotic for another, is something that I have come to find so comfortingly familiar here in Rwanda:  The women in their beautiful multicolored wrapped skirts; a sweet child sitting on the floor of our classroom while his mother takes notes; ten children and men peering through the bars in the windows of our classroom wondering what we are doing; giggles from small children as they ask to have our empty water bottles.  We are teaching in a small building used by Byimana local government.  It is a single room with plastered walls and a cement floor.  Narrow benches form our seating, and though the women are more comfortable setting up the room for me as if I am preaching to their congregation, we rearrange the benches in a circle so we can all address each other.  They watch me with curiosity, but they are open-minded and willing to participate in whatever I initiate for our class.

I’m feeling more grounded.  I’m grateful for all the visitors with me – they’re challenging me and bringing really valuable ideas to the table. And the tension that marked our first gathering – a combination of nerves, anticipation, uncertainty about how my offering would be experienced – has left me now.

On our second day, we went in depth into the personal transformation portion of our work.  We started out by exploring our own desires and aversion to change and the emotional reactivity that sometimes causes us to create harm inadvertently.  We considered how perspective and preference can cause angst and how trusting the intuitive sense can help us access inner wisdom.  And then we breathed.

I’m utilizing a technique called Coherent Breathing and a program called Breath~Body~Mind which was developed by Dr. Richard P. Brown and Dr. Patricia Gerbarg to relieve stress and trauma. This program includes Coherent Breathing (influenced by Stephen Elliot) and Qigong movements from Master Robert Peng.  Coherent Breathing sets the optimal pace of breathing necessary to enable your body to rebalance the autonomic nervous system resulting in greater calmness, energy, and resilience.  Our women have taken an assessment to measure their level of post-traumatic stress, but through simple observation, I can see the stress melt from their shoulders, feel the energy shift in the room, and hear their comments afterwards that they feel deeply rested.  One rather heavy-set, beautiful, enthusiastic woman even exclaimed that she felt so light she must have lost several pounds!  The woman have already asked how they can teach the technique to others, including children in their communities. I am encouraged.

Tomorrow we explore power.

First Day of School

Monday, June 14, 2010

One of my struggles in coming to Rwanda has been so painfully cliched, so unbearably P.C. that I am somewhat embarrassed to recount it here. What it amounts to is white guilt. A phenomenon, I have found, which is easy to dance around intellectually but hard to find a place for it to settle emotionally.

Today was our first day of hosting the Academy, and my first day meeting the people I’ll be spending the next two weeks with. The questions kept leapfrogging over each other in my brain:  Given the dual fogs of language and circumstance, how would we see each other? Was I going to be able to connect with these women? Would they be able to connect with me? How were they going to receive a group of muzungus (white people) pulling into town?

One of our translators is Joseph, an economics student at one of the universities here. On the hour and a half drive to the town of Byiman I tried to have him teach me a couple basic words in Kinyarwanda – the local language.

Mwaramutse – Good morning.

Ndabishimiye – Nice to meet you

Nitwa Laya – My name is Laya

By the time we pulled up the dirt road that leads to the school house, the 37 women were already there waiting for us. I reviewed my words and stepped out of the van only to discover that there’s nothing like 37 women looking at you to make you instantly forget how to say hello and what your name is.

And then in the next moment it all changed. I don’t remember who began it, but an arm got outstretched and suddenly I’m surrounded by 500-watt smiles as each of them greets each of us with grasping hands and shoulder pats and triple cheek kisses and lots of smiles. Lots and lots of smiles.

It felt like we were family, being welcomed home after a very long journey.

A small miracle

Monday, June 14, 2010

Today was my first day of training for our 2010 Academy for Conscious Change.  I was actually really nervous for the first time in a while.  But it was not because of my new group of participants, but more because I had a large group of Americans observing, which is not usually the case.  I will be curious about what they think as we get deeper into the course.

We have an amazing group of Rwandan participants – 34 women and 3 men representing 8 different teams working on a range of issues from domestic violence to malnutrition.  All seem deeply committed to their social issue and open minded enough to let a crazy “muzungu” get them to do a bit of Qigong and then lie down on the floor for a round of coherent breathwork.  They giggled and kept one eye open (and on me) even during the meditations, but they were willing to participate and I am ever so grateful for it.

We ended the day with homework that encouraged each individual to notice the little miracles happening around them.  As we clarified what that meant, one woman offered her example of what she thought that might mean from what she had experienced that day.  She told us that she originally thought foreigners were stiff, inflexible and formal.  But when she saw us lying on the floor too and when Laya, one of our staff from San Francisco gave her a kiss on the cheek to greet her, she felt that moment to be a miracle.  As my Program Officer Gyslaine translated for us, I got chills.  The woman explained, it was a miracle not just because we were friendly, but we were willing to touch them and get close to them and get down on the ground with them and just be with them.

Back to Rwanda

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I am writing over a triple Kenyan latte in Nairobi’s airport.  The sun is coming up.  World Cup fans fill the spaces usually taken up by foreign aid workers and African businessmen.   All are wearing evidence of their leanings – a jersey, a scarf, a hat, a patch.  They are not afraid.  Everyone is glued to CNN.  South Africa looks like they are celebrating New Years.  The flight attendants on Kenya Airways even have new uniforms – red jerseys that say GO AFRICA on the back with a big soccer ball on the front.  In Amsterdam, bright orange was worn everywhere by loyal fans.  Even the public restrooms in the airport had bright orange toilet paper. It feels as if the rest of the world is having a party that the Americans are too busy to attend.  How is it we can’t quite get into the fabulous sport of soccer/futbol?

I think the two days it takes me to get to Africa are good for me.  They allows for a slow transition whereby I leave behind the hurried pace of America, where I work most days as a one-woman show wearing a hundred hats.  Over dark coffee in several airports, I slowly ease into a place of presence, ready to arrive as GG “President” to the hundreds of women and staff I have taught and learned from since 2005. In less than 2 days I’ll be hosting a new Academy for Conscious Change.  I can’t wait.

Into Africa

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

At the end of the week, I’ll be boarding a plane from Stockholm through Amsterdam and Nairobi before finally arriving, 18 hours later, in Kigali, Rwanda.

I arrive sometime after midnight, and Gretchen doesn’t arrive until the next morning. Fortunately, i’ve connected with a friend of a friend of a friend who lives there and is going to meet me in the center of town in the middle of the night. I’ll be the confused looking white girl with the suitcase. I hope he’ll be able to recognize me.

While I have technically been on the African continent before – sleeping in Bedouin huts on the beaches of Sinai – this will be my first trip to Sub-Saharn Africa. My heart starts pumping a little faster just to think about it. This is the Great Rift Valley, after all, this is the birthplace of our species. As an Anthropology major, I have a propensity to totally geek out on this part of the world. And Rwanda; land of the mountain gorillas, land of 1,000 hills, land of not one single international ATM.

Wait a second. No ATM? – in the entire country? Something about that simple fact snapped all my dewey fantasies back into sharp focus. Yep, this is a cash-only operation people, bring what you think you’ll need, and oh – by the way – no bills earlier than 2003.

In the modern world, it doesn’t get much more off the beaten path than that. In retrospect, it is telling that Lonely Planet doesn’t even make a Rwanda guide book. It’s just a measly 55 pages stuffed into the back of the East Africa multi-country guide. So yes, while it’s Africa: glorious recipient of my romantic imagination and intellectual curiosity, it is also Africa. While I’ve done a fair bit of traveling, I can be reasonably sure this will be different than anything else I’ve experienced. For many, many reasons.

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