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Posts Tagged ‘Rwanda’

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.

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.

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.

I am a full person

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Today I visited one of our projects working to combat illiteracy among women.  As we walked through the busy marketplace of Nyamirambo, I was at first confused where we would find a classroom among the crowded pathways that separated stalls of fabric, shoes, buckets, jerrycans, pots and tools.  We rounded a corner and ducked into a darkened classroom in a cement building that abutted the market.  As my eyes adjusted, I saw about 30 women squeezed side by side at desks usually reserved for children.  Innocent Baguma, teacher and founder of this initiative, called “Let Us Build Ourselves” was finishing his reading lesson, as women followed along in books filled with cartoons.   

When the class was over, Innocent introduced me and invited me to the front of the classroom, as the women applauded.  I offered thanks and acknowledged the courage of these women, some appearing to be in their 70s, to make the effort to learn to read.  I then had a chance to ask them more about how the project,  just completing one year of operations in July, had begun to transform their lives. Here is what they said:

I came here with no knowledge of how to read or write….I remember before, because I had no knowledge of how to read or write, someone would write a letter for me.  But for now I am able to write it for myself. At that time I was very, very shamed because someone else could know my secret…that was very hard for me. I’m very grateful for your support in helping women in this literacy program. 

It was a very difficult period when my children would come from school and say, Mother can you please explain to me what is happening here in this homework? And I couldn’t say anything and it was very hard.  And I was in possession of a cell phone. Someone could send me an SMS message, but I couldn’t read it.  And someone could even call me and I would not know who was calling.  But now I can tell.

I am married and I have four children and a husband.  I came here with absolutely no idea of reading and writing. But for now I am very, very thankful due to our leaders who have been very patient… This project has been most helpful to the extent that we used to go to town and people would tell us where we were to stay, but we didn’t know where we were going because we had no knowledge of how to read the signs on the road.  I came here and didn’t even know how to write my name.  But currently I am able to write my name and even the name of my children and my husband.  Before I couldn’t go to the hospital or carry my babies to the hospital because I couldn’t read what was written on the papers given by the doctors.  And I had to ask my husband one day to be absent from his job to escort me to the hospital. It was as if I was not a full person, and it was very shameful.  As for now, we do not have any problems.  We can take our children to the hospital and buy medical treatment without a problem. 

I came here to sell flour.  I couldn’t measure what I was giving to the customer.  

Before people in my region didn’t respect girls and did not send them to school.  And they would say that the diploma or certificate for a young girl was to get a husband.  That’s why I grew up with illiteracy and it was very hopeless to us. Now, even our daughters have to be taken to school so that they may not face the same problems that we faced.

Girls used to pass along all their days working at home. Girls were supposed to go to the kitchen, sweep, draw water. But now we have a chance because we have been able to go to school. We do believe that young children, girls and boys, they do have an equal right to schooling.

I was so touched by the commitment and determination of this group of women.  They sat wearing eyeglasses that we had collected and sent to them earlier in the year so they could see their books or the blackboard.  I have no doubt that the gift of reading will propel these women forward in many dimensions in their lives.  Let Us Build Ourselves is not only creating new hope and opportunities for this group of women, but transforming the way in which they will raise their girls and influence other parents in their communities.

On my way to Rwanda

Friday, July 24, 2009

This is an exciting return visit for me to Rwanda. We now have 11 projects operating, six of which have been in existence now for over one year. Another ten projects have been so patient, waiting for us going on 7 months now through this economic decline, as we continue to seek new funding for their endeavors.

In the last year, our team has grown then shrunk then grown again. Last year at this time we were considering expansion to Northern Uganda. Then the economic recession hit and we had to let three of our core staff members go. That was unbelievably painful because they believed so strongly in our mission, had sacrificed so much for our teams and suddenly we weren’t able to stand beside them any more. I’m heartened to know that everyone has found their niche and in some cases a new calling.

This year we have new volunteers and interns who are exceedingly committed and enthusiastic about our work. It feels like a fresh start. And Gyslaine, our dedicated project officer and longest serving staff member in Rwanda, has brought a new little girl into the world. New life and fresh starts indeed!

I return to Rwanda now with bittersweet memories of the amazing progress pioneered by dear friends who have joined other endeavors and with excitement for what is to come. Despite our challenges I still remain inspired every day by what our teams are able to accomplish with so few resources, but with such resolve. I return because of them, because of the vulnerable women and girls that they serve, and because these beautiful people have dedicated what little they have to help others. They serve as my guides on this planet. May they inspire many others to follow.


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