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Archive for the ‘Journeys to Rwanda’ Category

Personal Inspiration

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

I’m never sure of Jeanine’s age. Some days I think she’s twenty-eight, but ask me next week and I’ll guess thirty-seven. When Jeanine listens closely to someone, her expression is severe; she looks close to tears. But then she’ll suddenly grin this huge, huge smile. Or she’ll open her mouth to explain something to you, and her whole face will animate. You’ll look into her eyes and think: Wow, all I want is to be best friends with this woman.

Jeanine is one of the team leaders of “Build a Family,” a Global Grassroots project fighting domestic violence (and people’s mindset about it) within their community in Rwanda’s Nyarugenge District.

But this blog is not about Jeanine. Well, it is, but not in the way you and I might think. It doesn’t fit inside that invisible little bubble of “the personal” that I grew up drawing around each person I met. These are the things that must have really touched you; those are the stories you tell but don’t feel. You were in a bad car accident as a kid? That can fit in the bubble. You witness accidents on your commute to work? Not in the bubble. That guy down the block, the one with the howling dog, was nearly killed by a drunk driver? Probably still not in the bubble.

I interviewed Jeanine recently; Marlene translated and Caitlin took on the role (and all-black outfit) of camerawoman.

Jeanine told me lots about her childhood, her children, and why she believes that Build a Family’s work is important for her community, where abuse (especially of domestic workers) is both widespread and often accepted.  But why is this project important to her? Why did she choose to get involved with this particular issue?  Were she and the other team leaders inspired by particular moments or personal experiences?

No matter how many different ways I asked, Jeanine was confused by this question. What did I mean? she said. I was just willing to help people. We know this is a big problem for our community. All my neighbors know it’s a problem, with many consequences. I just wanted to help people.

In the States, when we ask, “Why did you get involved in this work?” we expect one of the following answers: “I suffered from X myself. My sister was diagnosed with Y. My daughter was a victim of Z.”

In Rwanda, I’m finding that this idea of personal motivation is often wholly irrelevant.

The correct term in Kinyarwanda for your mother’s sister’s daughter is: your sister. Not your cousin. Rwandans are family people. Big, inclusive, extended family people. Maybe this is part of why Jeanine’s concept of “we” is larger than mine. Most of our team members seem to care more broadly – more generously – than I do.   “I got involved in this work because I saw that X was a problem for my community.  My neighbors suffer from Y.  My society is a victim of Z.”

Should I feel ashamed of my contained heart?  Or should I place less trust in our teams’ dedication, because their motivation comes from the plight of sisters eight-times removed?

Neither, is my conclusion. Look wherever you like for drive, for passion. How you come upon an inspiration makes it no more or less real. But do find something to care about, and then act, and base your actions in that place.


Coal for Christmas

Sunday, January 30, 2011

As an American child, I was told that if I wasn’t good, Santa would leave coal in my stocking. And sure enough, one year after a particularly terrible period of fighting with my brother Will, I got coal. Black licorice candy coal, but I was horrified.

(Will and I have since made up, and I find him to be quite the gentleman and very considerate nowadays.)

In Rwanda, Santa isn’t quite as ubiquitous as in the States.  Rwandan parents threaten an alternative punishment for bad behavior. “If you misbehave,” children are told, “the White Man will eat you during the night.”

No wonder some kids are afraid to come near me. If they don’t think I look like a ghost, they think I’m going to eat them.

The good news? Ex-pats are always plentiful around Kigali, so the threat works year-round.

A view of the two of the five volcanoes in the north. The white flowers are used to make Deet, which isn’t as necessary as we thought because there aren’t many mosquitoes at higher altitudes.

Photo Essay: The Dowry Presentation

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The following are a few photos from the dowry presentation of a good friend’s older “sister” (we would say cousin, with our all-American distinction between nuclear and extended family).

This traditional ceremony makes up only one piece of the marriage festivities for modern Rwandan couples – there’s also a civil wedding, a religious wedding, and a reception.

The dowry ceremony begins with the arrival of the groom and his family, who ask for the bride by name.  The bride remains hidden, and her family informs the groom that “Laeticia Mutoni” was married last week… no, she moved to Butare… no, here she is!  Yes, this 70 year old woman is named Laeticia Mutoni!  Oh wait, no, here she is – this 5 year old girl!  The jokes continue.

Eventually the bride and her wedding party process in and take their seats.  In between the MC’s chatter, the head of the groom‘s family presents the dowry to the bride‘s family as a thank you for the gift of their daughter.  More speeches, traditional dance and song, and the requisite round of Fanta or Coca follow.

The beautiful ceremony you see here took place in the yard of a Kigali home, decorated with tents and grass mats.  Caitlin and I felt so grateful for the opportunity to attend, despite the internet-order bride jokes the MC made at our expense…

The wedding party. The bride is reaching for her ceremonial drink, which she and the groom share.
Traditional dancing and clothing. Male dancers sometimes wear huge manes of yellow hair on their heads, too.
More dancing. The singers and drummers are just out of sight to the left. I wish our connection were fast enough to upload any video. Rwandan dance has this gentle, bird-like strength and energy.
And, time for soda. Can you spot the Fanta bottles between the beautifully woven banana leaves and the women in their mishananas?

Noheri Nziza! (Happy New Year!)

Friday, January 21, 2011

In Rwanda, New Year’s is a bigger deal than Christmas. There was not a Christmas light to be seen when I left on December 22nd, but now the country is decked out. I suspect everyone was waiting for New Year’s, when they stay up very late, anticipating the president’s televised speech at midnight. The hardiest celebrants watch the ball drop in NYC at 7am.

We’ve lived in Rwanda for about six months and thought it was high time we start sharing some of the inspiring, surprising, and hilarious things we witness every day. We’ll bring you up to speed on our work and tell stories about life and culture in Rwanda in general. When work and life are slow, as “African Time” sometimes is, we’ll throw in a clip from some of the more interesting things that have happened from the last six months— from team members meeting with the Mayor of Kigali to a too-close-for-comfort encounter with maggots.

The last two weeks, down the road from our house, cheering has reverberated from the concrete National Stadium where Kigali is hosting the Under-17 African Cup. Tomorrow Christina and I will shout along with the crowds at the final match: Rwanda vs. Burkina Faso. Rwanda’s Junior Wasps just qualified for the U17 World Cup, and the entire country is ecstatic. I’m excited to hear the take on the game from our Global Grassroots’ teams next week… especially if our captain is still injured after the loss to those cheating Senegalese.

No Woman Should Ever Have to Trade Sex for Water

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Let me tell you about an extraordinary Rwandan woman and water change agent, Seraphine Hacimana, a 39 year-old mother of seven children, who I first met in 2007.  Seraphine first became aware of water issues when working on her father’s farm and fetching water as a child.  When she later married, she moved to the rural village of Gahanga, where she experienced first-hand the 3-4 hour walk women have to make down a hill to collect water from a contaminated, hand-dug well.  As with other such water holes that serve thousands in the surrounding area, it was not uncommon for the women to wait in line for hours, and occasionally fights would break out between them.  Some would even wake in the middle of the night to get to the water source first, before it got too crowded, the water murky with activity.  Walking alone in the dark, these women would face the risk of attack or sexual assault.  For others, the long and grueling return hike could further serve as a trigger for domestic violence, as their husbands waited angrily for the water they needed to bathe or for tea.

But what Seraphine was most concerned about were the women for whom this journey was almost impossible.  The women who were blind, pregnant, elderly, physically disabled or HIV + and too weak to carry large jerry cans back up the hill each day faced two impossible choices:  if she had children, she could keep them home from school to manage the task or she could pay for water to be delivered by a man on a bicycle.  Most women know how important it is to keep their kids in school.  And the latter is only an option if you can afford to pay.  One woman told us on condition of anonymity: “If your children are coming home from school and you need water to cook them rice and beans, you do what you have to do for that water.”  Women throughout Seraphine’s community were left with no choice other than to trade sex for the water they needed each day.


Seraphine recruited a team of 18 other women, who now call themselves Abanyamurava or “Hard Workers”, to design their own water solution.  Of the team of 19 women, only seven are actually literate, and their leader, Seraphine, only has a first-grade education.   With a little social entrepreneurship training and a small $2600 grant (provided by my organization, Global Grassroots),  Hard Workers embarked upon a project to install two large water tanks right in the middle of their village.  The venture collects rainwater off the roof of a church during the rainy season and orders water delivery by truck during the dry season.  They purify and then sell water to those who can afford to pay, so that they may give water away for free to vulnerable women.  Now in their third year of sustainable operations, the project is serving 800-1000 people daily, and has eliminated sexual exploitation for water in their community.  With their proceeds, they have further been able to buy health insurance for women, pay school fees for local orphans, ensure girls stay in school, combat water-borne disease and even reduce incidents of domestic violence.  The women even guard the tank themselves, taking shifts in twos each night, sleeping beside the tank to ensure no one steals their water.  The project has become such a recognized value to the community that now, when a woman gets ill and cannot cover her shift, sometimes her husband will offer to do it for her.

Their influence is gaining.  Hard Workers’ project has been visited by women on the other side of the country, via a three-hour bus ride, to see how rural, uneducated women were able to launch their own water venture.  Seraphine has been invited to speak at both local meetings and on the radio about water issues.  This year, Hard Workers is expanding to a second site to serve another 800-1000 people, and men have since asked to join the venture.   These amazing women change agents, some even grandmothers in their late 70s, are now seen as the first to bring development to their community.

I have seen time and time again, in my work at Global Grassroots, that women are experts in their own experiences and know exactly what they need to do advance their lives.  They have viable solutions to those critical issues, though they also have the least access to the education, skills and resources necessary to advance their own ideas.  The issue of sexual exploitation for water is almost invisible to outsiders, so it is critical that we trust local women’s ability to identify their own priorities, and then serve as their partners while they take the lead.

I share this story for three reasons.  First, in addition to microcredit for women-run businesses, we also need more resources for micro-social enterprise, or women-operated non-profits.  As Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn proclaimed in their best-selling work Half the Sky, grassroots women are the solution.  Not only can education and economic empowerment enable women to find their voice and achieve gender equality, but facilitating their work as change agents ensures they will build civil society, advance human rights and lead systemic social change too. These grassroots women are radical innovators within their local or cultural context, even if their ideas are not always new in a global context.  Unfortunately, the larger social entrepreneurship arena does not always recognize these women as social entrepreneurs.  Similarly, the international development world does not often trust that local women have the ideas or know-how to advance change themselves, thus investment in and the participation of women at the grassroots level is minimized.  I firmly believe a woman with the courage, resources and skills to advance her own solution is the greatest lever for social change in the developing world.

Second, when women have the opportunity to serve as change agents, it facilitates healing from the wounds of war and conflict.  In Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries where sexual violence was used as a tool of war, women experienced not only a terrifying physical violation, but a failure of their community to protect them.  Many of these women now not only struggle with significant post-traumatic stress, but they feel utterly devalued by society. At the same time, they are most often tasked with rebuilding civil society post-conflict.   Experiencing the success of advancing social change locally supports a woman’s sense of agency, sovereignty, dignity and power in her own life and her community.  Not only can she transform the social issues she faces (often silently), but she can also come to see that she is valued by society and has something to offer.  “Restoring the connection between survivors and their community” is one of three primary phases of the trauma healing process, documented in Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and an integral component of our work fusing personal transformation and social change.

Finally, as we can see in Seraphine’s story, water access is one of the most critical issues facing women throughout the developing world.  Ensuring women have control of and affordable access to clean water allows girls to stay in school, decreases incidents of violence, combats water-born disease, increases women’s productivity by freeing up a significant portion of each day, prevents sexual exploitation for basic needs, enables women’s change leadership and provides a means for alleviating poverty through social micro-enterprise.  Not only should clean water access be a right of every human being, but clean water ventures are an opportunity for women to ensure their equality and security in several other spheres as well.

Grassroots communities throughout the developing world, especially across Africa, are now joining this new “women for water” and “water for women” movement.  Encouraged, Seraphine and I await the day, where every woman globally may sip a cool, clear drink of water in safety and solidarity together.

To listen to Seraphine, who was just nominated for a CNN Hero Award, talk about water and to learn more about her work, go here:




The Politics of Power

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I recently came across this fascinating article about the how power affects us by one of my favorite science writers, Jonah Lehrer. It brought to mind something that happened at the Academy of Cnscious Change this summer.

In essence, the article tells us that contrary to the phrase “nice guys finish last”, science is finding is that nice guys actually finish first. But then, once they get that promotion, win the election or start that organization, they often lose all the nice-guy qualities that got them there to begin with.

“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” Mr. Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making.”

We’ve seen that idea play out over and over in everyone from Google to politicians to priests.

While the article presents a rather bleak picture, it got me thinking back to a day at the Academy where we did some role-play exercises around the idea of power. One thing that struck me was that our Rwandan participants had a very easy time describing what it felt like to be powerless, but when in the power position, seemed to be more concerned with how their powerless partner must be feeling.

However, as they start their organizations, they will increasingly find themselves in more powerful leadership positions within their community. It suddenly struck me as not only socially, but neurologically sound that the next part of the academy emphasized increased self-awareness and compassion as they rise in stature.

I wonder if the CEO’s of the world might like an Academy of their own….

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,

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.



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.

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