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Day 5: Women’s Outer Wisdom

June 18, 2010 by Gretchen

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

June 18, 2010 by Gretchen

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

June 17, 2010 by Gretchen

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.

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

June 15, 2010 by Laya

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

June 15, 2010 by Gretchen

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

June 14, 2010 by Laya

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

June 14, 2010 by Gretchen

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

June 12, 2010 by Gretchen

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

June 9, 2010 by Laya

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.

A Breath of Fresh Hope for Women in Haiti’s Tent Camps

March 24, 2010 by Gretchen

Port-au-Prince Haiti, March 13, 2010

AMURTEL Haiti (www.amurtelhaiti.org), is the women-managed wing of AMURT, which has been working in the country since 1998 as a registered NGO.  Their mission  is to improve the quality of life for disadvantaged women and children, and provide  relief  in natural and man-made disasters. AMURTEL particularly focuses on creating empowering and long term sustainable strategies for holistic community development. In response to the devastating earthquake that hit Port au Prince January 12, 2010, AMURTEL has partnered with several other agencies to offer life-saving services and resources to 14 refugee camps in the surrounding neighborhoods of Jobel and Lavale Bourdon, Port Au Prince, serving 10,444 displaced people. Global Grassroots partnered with AMURTEL to offer a trauma healing workshop in Coherent Breathing to women displaced by the earthquake. The following was written by Didi Ananda Deva Priya, one of the female monks working with AMURTEL in Haiti.

With quick efficiency, the camp committee in the Sitron camp announced our arrival for a women’s gathering. Soon the women were spreading  large grey tarps on the bare ground, and to our surprise, a microphone and amplifier were waiting in the middle of the space. I was amazed to see that already the camp had wired electric lines throughout the site, and indeed, a bulb was shining in a hut on the hill. Two months have now passed since the earthquake, and people have begun to settle and adapt to the circumstances with characteristic resilience. The construction of latrines was nearing completion, and groups of men were busy chopping poles to construct a large community tent for clinics, meetings, religious services and other collective events.

As the women began gathering, it seemed at first, that there would be plenty of space to do the deep relaxation exercises and yoga that the AMURTEL team had planned together with our partners from Global Grassroots. It would be a new experience for both Gretchen, from Global Grassroots, who has worked facilitating women’s trauma recovery for survivors of the Rwandan genocide, as well as for  the Didis from AMURTEL who have years of experience as meditation and yoga instructors. Soon the space on the tarps were completely packed with at least 150 women and girls of all ages, and even the men in the camp had gathered around in interest. Plans were quickly improvised to adapt to the tight space.

Gretchen opened the gathering by explaining the normal reactions to a stressful event such as the earthquake. As she described common experiences, such as trembling, difficulties with sleep, racing heartbeat, over-sensitivity to certain sounds, hyper-alertness, and more, the women began nodding empathically and eagerly joined in discussion, sharing their own experiences vividly. They all expressed great relief at discovering that they were not sick, but rather having a normal reaction to an abnormal event. They listened with keen interest as Gretchen described how the stress regulating system in our bodies, intended to help us survive trauma, can remain stuck “on”, in ways that become unhealthy. Then she led the group in a series of breathing exercises, followed by the Didis who led some loosening warmups, yoga exercises (in the end, just one standing up posture suitable to the cramped conditions). The yoga sequence ended with a self massage, which they enjoyed immensely, and by then the initially giggly and noisy group had settled down into a calm and open feeling. This was followed by a session of relaxation, with slow, regular, timed breathing designed to awaken a relaxation response and turn the stress system “off”. The women were elated to share how they felt lighter, rested, and hopeful that they would be able to return to normal again with techniques which were simple and easy to remember for practicing on their own.  The session ended with singing on a joyful, uplifting note. An elderly man approached one of our native Haitian volunteers, and expressed how grateful he was that we were sharing this for free – he understood how important it was for their healing, and that they would not have normally been able to afford access to such techniques. The singing continued echoing from the hills  even as we walked out of the camp.

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