Friday, June 1, 2012

Day 7

Today began early, like all days at the village, as we loaded onto our bus bound for Rwanda’s second-largest city, Butare. We drove to Kigali first to pick up a Rwandan guide who has been with the Tufts group for many years. Like many Rwandans, he is a genocide survivor and his story is truly incredible. He came with us as we continued on our journey through the hills of the Southern Province. When we finally arrived in Butare, we went to an artist’s cooperative that sold beautiful traditional artwork. After shopping to our hearts’ content, we had lunch at a Rwandan buffet and then continued on to the former Murambi Technical Institute.

It is very difficult to find words for the memorial at Murambi. The school was the site of a mass killing during the genocide. Threatened Rwandans from the surrounding area fled to the school to take cover under the directions of the government—however, because of its location, isolated amidst the hills, it was easy for the Interahamwe and government soldiers to attack and kill an estimated 50,000 people in one day. The classrooms where the masses hid now house their preserved bodies. Walking through the memorial, we saw piles and piles of human remains, each frozen in the moment of their deaths. Some bodies were reaching to each other; some shielded their faces in fear; some were clearly the bodies of children, one with its thumb in its mouth.

Murambi is unique among Rwandan genocide memorials because, towards the end of the genocide, as France attempted to establish a safe zone for survivors, they used Murambi as their base. The zone, known as Operation Turquoise, ultimately did nothing to stop the genocide or protect Tutsi survivors, as many killers or genocidaires were able to slip through the lines and continue with the massacres. The French soldiers committed atrocities of their own, most famously covering the mass graves to construct a volleyball court. There have even been reports that French soldiers took Tutsi girls who fled to Murambi for protection, raped them and threw them out of helicopters over the Nyungwe forest.

Murambi, like most places we’ve visited in Rwanda, is surrounded by a stunning landscape. The juxtaposition between the beauty and tranquility of the surrounding hills with the horror within the school buildings is overwhelming. In the silence we could hear sounds of life—livestock, children playing, the rumble of cars—and it was moving to feel life moving forward around us as we immersed ourselves in the country’s tragic history. While we walked over towards some of the mass graves, some of the local children even climbed under the fence to come and see us. It was a startling reminder that for many Rwandans, in spite of what happened in these hills, life must continue.

After walking through the museum on the grounds, we held an interfaith memorial service that was put together by members of our group. It was a difficult moment standing with our Rwandan guide and some members of the staff at Murambi as we tried to process everything that happened there. We piled back in the bus and made our way back to Rwamagana.

After almost five hours and one stop at our favorite convenience store, Ndoli’s, we arrived back at Agahozo-Shalom. Even though we were all exhausted from such a difficult day, we all agreed that it would be best to have a discussion to help process everything. We spent almost an hour and a half discussing memory, anger, forgiveness and a ton of other issues that came up after our experiences earlier that day. Our time at Murambi was a dramatic shift from our days at Agahozo-Shalom, but it was a transformative experience that definitely put our trip in perspective and raised new questions for all of us.

-Hannah & Sam Kelly

Day 6

Paige: When I first wake up I find myself grumpy, tired, and questioning why I volunteered for this trip. After this initial disgruntlement, I step outside of my room to put on sunscreen and bug spray and I am surrounded by beauty. These opposite moments separated by mere minutes caused me to experience the strongest feeling I've had here: gratitude. Nate and I have both experienced gratitude in many ways while being here: Gratitude for the funding, gratitude for the interactions with Rwandans, and gratitude for everything that we have in our lives. With the word gratitude having such a huge impact on many of our thoughts, Nate and I chose the word for today to be gratitude.

Nate: While I'd like to think I have always felt gratitude for the wonderful life I live in the U.S., Rwanda has expanded that gratitude tenfold. It is one thing to read about how lucky we are to have running water, food on our tables, two story houses, etc., and it is quite another thing to walk down the road in Rwanda and have little kids run out of their one-room mud houses to shake your hand and try out the one English word they know: "Goodmorning!" (which they say far into the afternoon). It's really a shame that fortunate people often have no idea how fortunate they really are. I'm very excited to come home with a new appreciation of the life I live, especially considering that much of America's wealth is derived from the exact variety of colonialism/imperialism that is largely responsible for Rwandan poverty. Let me just say I have never been appreciative of the beautiful innovation that is the washing machine.

Paige: We started off the day with service in the village. I walked into the kitchen and was surrounded by carrots that needed to be peeled. We sat down in a circle and began to peel. While peeling we talked about Rwanda thus far. We talked about reconciling the service that we do here versus helping others in the surrounding communities. We thought about how whether we were making an impact. This conversation was interrupted by the kitchen staff bringing out a fried egg with onions on a delicious piece of bread. Again I felt gratitude. The best food I have had this entire trip. And I knew that the snack for us was a form of showing their own gratitude: gratitude for the help and gratitude for the company. Even though we spoke different languages and had little to relate to each other about, we could connect on mutual gratitude.

Nate: I did Karate from age 6 to the end of last summer, so I was very excited yesterday to discover they had a Karate club. I became considerably less excited when they told me they meet at 5am, but I made the trek this morning, and I'm so glad I did. There are only four members, two experienced ones and two newcomers, but they blew me away. The experienced guys were sparring and doing kata (the karate equivalent of a dance routine) as if they'd been training for a decade, but they can't have been doing karate for more than a few years. As impressed as I was, I was also disappointed that I had nothing to teach them. That's why I was overjoyed when it turned out they didn't know any self-defense. For the next half hour I taught them defense against lapel-grabs, hair-grabs, bear hugs, and wrist grabs. They picked it all up right away, and we all walked away sweaty and smiling. I felt so much gratitude to be able to give to the youth in a unique way. Over the past few days we have been discussing whether we were justified in coming all the way to Rwanda when there are so many people who we could have helped at home without thousands of dollars of plane tickets; I won't pretend to know the answer to that question, but the experience of sharing a Japanese martial art with Rwandan youth is one I will never forget.

-Paige & Nate

Day 5: Tuesday

Today we started the day with the word perseverance in mind, as we continued to work on various service projects around the village. Some of us spent time in the farm or kitchen while others helped with landscaping and construction projects.

Before lunch, we met again as a group and had another discussion regarding our experiences here at the village. We talked about the dilemma people face when choosing where to donate their money. The discussion was based around an essay written by the philosopher, Peter Singer. Following this discussion we had the opportunity to meet with the House Mamas and Big Brothers and Sisters (Counselors) for the various families in the village. It was very interesting to hear what they had to say about village life and their motivation behind their work at ASYV. One of the Mamas told us that what she enjoyed the most about ASYV was the fact that she could be a mother to someone who would not have a mother otherwise.

The rest of our afternoon was filled with a variety of activities including soccer, basketball, and yoga. It was a great opportunity to spend time with the students during their free time and admire their incredible talents.

Tomorrow we look forward to visiting Butare and the Murambi Genocide Memorial knowing that it will be both an emotional and powerful experience.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Day 4: Monday

This morning we had the luxury of sleeping in until the late hour of 7:15! We began by setting our Kavanah (intention) for the day: "We look at each other wondering what the other is thinking but we never say a thing" (Dave Matthews Band). We thought this was important as we began to spend more of our time in the village and getting to know individual students. We also wanted to focus on communication and really absorbing everything that we experienced. After this, we split up into our morning service projects. Some students helped the landscaping staff build a fire pit outside of our guest house, another group built an irrigation system for the farm, a third group built a parking structure, and the final group prepared lunch with the kitchen staff. It was really meaningful to see our direct positive impact on the village and to do work that was really needed in the village.

Following our morning service, we had our second learning session called "Do We Have Responsibility to Take Action?" We read texts from the Qur'an, Talmud, and the Bible about each religion's point of view on people's responsibility towards others who are in need. We discussed their relevance to our work in Rwanda especially after reading the following poem:
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me." -Martin Niemoller

This poem raised questions about genocide and people's role in prevention and response. We talked about being bystanders and whether or not we have a responsibility to take action when we are not directly affected. This discussion was really moving in the light of the role we are playing while we are here.  

In the afternoon we joined the students for their after school activities. We had a choice of attending one of the professional skills development classes: IT, Hospitality, or Agriculture. Later in the day, we had another option to go to an Enrichment Program, including traditional art, modern art, music, photography, sewing, basket weaving, science, or video. Two of our friends had the wonderful opportunity to teach a science class. They taught about neuroscience and the students thoroughly enjoyed it! These activities were a great way to immerse ourselves in the daily routines of the students in the village. After this we went to clubs. There are a plethora of choices, it was so difficult to choose one to attend! Tikkun Olam, Culture Club, Newspaper Club, Movie Club, and Research Development Club were among the myriad of options. Some of these club meetings were conducted in Kinyarwanda, but we had wonderful student translators who welcomed us and made us feel part of the club. 

After dinner, we had a quick meeting and all shared the best parts of our days and what we are looking forward to for the rest of the week. Today was our first day spent completely in the village and we really began to feel a connection to the students. Our group is also becoming a family and we are very much looking forward to the rest of the week! 

Muramuke! (goodnight!)
Natasha and Arlen 

Day 3: Akagera National Park

Why would you want to leave this place,
The land of a thousand rolling hills.
Where the wind shares its secrets,
Of what was and what will.


We made our way to Akegara National Park today, three hours away from ASYV. We packed into our military-green Jeep cars and made it through the rugged terrain all the way across the country. Everyone was excited about the safari and all the animals we were about to encounter. But for me, it wasn't the safari that struck me that day—rather the ride up to Akagera and back. My Jeep was fortunate enough to have the main Akagera tour guide with us, Cecille. She was this passionate, energetic, loving woman, wearing her Safari gear and guiding us through the park. Although we really enjoyed our time talking, laughing and joking with her, while watching all the giraffes, zebras, antelopes and elephants, there was something from that day that will stay with me forever.

Our Jeep driver Aloys, a native of Rwanda, was very soft spoken throughout the day. He would joke around a bit, explain to us where in the country we were—but he kept to himself the entire time. But on our way back he began to open up to us. I (Jessica) began talking to him about the state of Rwanda today, the people, the culture, the food, the economy and social climate. I asked him what he does for fun in Kigali, what restaurants to go to, night clubs, etc. Then I said, " Aloys, can I ask you a personal question..." There was a pause, as he looked at me through his rearview mirror. There was a very particular tenderness in his eyes. A look that I get from many Rwandans. They are eyes that have seen hell and back, but managed to have faith in God and humanity. They are eyes that are resilient, strong, humble and so raw that it hurts me. But they are eyes that I have fallen in love with here in Rwanda—for they are the truth. He responded, " You are welcome to ask me anything you not be shy or hesitate." We began to talk about the war, the effect of the genocide on the people today, and where he wants to see Rwanda in the years to come. He said that he wants people to come to Rwanda and visit this beautiful country, so that they can go back and share with their people and their country what a special place this is, but also learn from them. We continued to talk for more than an hour. As he was talking, I looked out the window at the rolling hills, green valleys and the rays of sunlight that God was placing on this place. I waved at the young children running out of their homes yelling "Muzungu, Muzungu." They were innocent, pure and beaming with love. They were the essence of what humanity should be. 

However, what upset most of us in the group was seeing the expressionless faces of the parents behind these children as our safari jeeps passed by. It is difficult to fully absorb the differences between the genuinely happy and carefree children and their parents who seem to have a better grip on reality.  Traveling through Rwanda has definitely put our experiences here at the village into perspective. 

- Jessica and Ariana

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Tufts in Rwanda 2012: Day 2

Today, we woke up at 5:30 and jumpstarted our day with an
Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village Saturday morning ritual called Mucaka
Mucaka. During Mucaka Mucaka, students form groups and run around the
campus singing traditional Rwandan chants. It was very special that
the students could share this ritual with us, and really helped us
feel a part of the ASYV community. Mucaka Mucaka gave us a sense of
positive reinforcement before we began a long day doing service work.
After Mucaka Mucaka, we went to breakfast at the dining hall, where we
watched the ASYV Traditional Rwandan Dance club practice a few of
their dances. It was fascinating to see the students exhibiting pride
in their national heritage.

After breakfast, we began our first service work at the farm in the
village. Together with the students, we constructed a road by clearing
a large swath of weeds and grass in order to provide easier vehicle
access to the farm.  We worked from 7:00 to 9:30, and even after only
two and a half hours, we were exhausted.  It was humbling to realize
that the work we had done for such a brief span of time is done every
day by the vast majority of Rwandans, from morning to evening.  We
came to respect how hard-working and diligent Rwandans are, and how
committed the ASYV students are to the betterment of their own
village.  A large number of Rwandans depend on subsistence farming in
order to make a living. All the students that we worked
with were extremely eager to be a part of the community effort on the
farm.  We were inspired to see so many young Rwandans working together
to create a better future for the village and for their country as a

We then ate lunch and got our first look at the ASYV school on the top
of the hill upon which the village resides.  The school looks out upon
the rest of the village and offers a beautiful view of the rolling
hills of the eastern province.  The village's motto states, "If you
see far, you will go far," and so the school strategically lies at the
top of the hill above the rest of the village, so that while at school
the students can see as far as the horizon goes.  A senior-5 student
served as our wonderful tour guide of the school.  She'd only studied
English for two years but she speaks it impeccably, showing the
students' dedication to their studies within the village.  She took
the time to explain the different combinations of classes and the
various clubs that the school offers, such as the Drama Team, the
Leadership Club, TV Club, Tikkun Olam Club, Newspaper Club, and more.
Our tour guide was the Secretary of the Guest club, in which the
students help plan for volunteer guests arrivals. The clubs at ASYV
serve as an outlet for what the students are really passionate about.

Following the school tour, we had our first interfaith discussion. We
discussed the importance of having an interfaith service, versus
having a more secular experience. Since it was our first religious
discussion as a group, it was gratifying to hear everyone share their
varying religious beliefs. As the trip is an interfaith service trip,
we have students from many different religions, including Judaism,
Christianity, Islam, Sufism, etc. Accordingly, everyone has unique
perspectives on the motivation behind service work. The discussion
also included boundary breakers, in which we got to know one another
in a more personal way and allowed us to be more open with one another
in open discussion.

Our day culminated with dinner and a relaxing evening at the guest
house. We are excited for what the next few days bring, and are
especially looking forward to spending more time with the students at
the village!

Reporting LIVE from ASYV. We are Katie and Shane.

Tufts in Rwanda 2012: Day 1

Day 1: Journey   to Rwanda, Kigali Genocide Memorial, and Village Time

We all chose to come to Rwanda for different reasons and had different expectations, but we were all excited to be going. Some wanted to see a new country, while some wanted to see a new continent. Others wanted to experience a new culture. I think all of us wanted to learn about what had happened in 1994, and many also wanted the trip to help guide them to their future career choices.
                  I will never forget the moment we stepped off the plane. I’m (Tayo) from Ghana, and when I go home I’m used to being hit with the hot air and the smell that can only mean that I’m finally in the place I love the most. But here I was, in Rwanda, a place I’d never been to, feeling sensations that were almost the same! I (Laura) was entirely unsure of what to expect as I had never been to Africa before.  However, we both felt that after feeling the hot air and seeing the bright lights of Kigali—the endless hours of travel had all been worth it. We went through immigration and, after dealing with some luggage issues, hopped on the bus to Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. The bus ride was surreal. Although it was night time and everybody was exhausted, we were all so excited to be in the country that we had read and watched so much about.  (Tayo) The city of Kigali seemed so quiet compared to Accra, and it reminded me of the movies I had seen about the genocide. A car full of military personnel passed by and it frightened me for a minute. It was hard to reconcile the friendly faces of passersby with the menacing looks of similar figures in the movies.
Agahozo-Shalom was as beautiful as expected. However, we were still excited to return to Kigali the next morning and do some snack-shopping, money-changing, and genocide memorial visiting. Before leaving, we were taken on a tour of the village by a staff member. She talked about the mission of the village and more about how everything works in the village. Then we left for Kigali.
Our first stop was money changing, then the memorial. After going through the exhibits, which included rooms full of preserved bones, survivor testimonies, clothes, history lessons, and brief summaries of other genocides; we came out to the mass graves and did a short interfaith ceremony of our own. We read from the Koran and the Bible, as well as from other sources, and we did a quick traditional hand-washing and sprinkling of water.
I (Tayo) really can’t remember how my emotions transitioned while we were at the memorial, but I know that I came out very angry. One thing I vividly remember was reading about the children (in the children’s exhibit) who were victims of the genocide. Exactly how does one smash a child against a wall, or chop him/her with a machete? Someone carried that child for nine months and suffered labour to bring it into the world. It scares me that life can be cut short so suddenly—there must be spiritual repercussions.
I (Laura) was frustrated that such a horrific genocide occurred so recently.  I was disgusted that the United Nations failed so miserably in helping this country. Seeing hundreds of images of people brutally beaten or shot to death in the genocide really brought our group to think about what had happened and what we can do to halt such events in the future. Although the entire memorial was quite moving for all of us, I was especially touched by the children’s room.  It was one of the last rooms in the progression of the exhibits and left me in a somber mood. I remember seeing names and pictures of all these children who had so much promise, but were murdered at such early ages. In particular, I vividly remember seeing the last quote of a 10 year-old boy, which read “somebody will save me.”  Then he died.
This thought brings us to today’s word of the day—Destiny. Each day two students decide on a word that is meant to be kept in the back of our minds throughout the day. This is how I (Tayo) chose to reflect upon the word during our trip to the memorial—can it be one’s destiny to die before one’s time? I cannot think that God meant for a child to die so brutally, but that would mean that these children were robbed of their destiny and purpose through no fault of their own. How is that fair or just? I’ve always thought of destiny as a right—each person should have a fair chance to get to that endpoint that God has planned for him/her.  For Laura, the genocide memorial was also a reminder that so many lives were cut short for such unnecessary reasons.
At village time tonight, someone said that we make our own destiny. Do we? Here is how I (Tayo) thought it through.  I could choose to die for a friend, and in doing so, I would cut my own life short. Would that make me a failure, or would it simply mean that I had made a new destiny for myself? Could it be that the children who died in the genocide may have been meant for something else, but due to the choices of others, were shifted to an alternate destiny—to bring joy to their parents, remembrance to those who had lost them, and haunting thoughts to those who perpetrate evil? Maybe not, but that is how I am going to look at it. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to be in God’s will, we may end up on a different path. That doesn’t mean that we have lost control over our destiny. I believe that I can make choices that will impact my future and the future of others, that evil does not have free reign but is merely an obstacle, a fork on the many roads to many possible destinies.
Speaking of faith, we had a wonderfully short and informal Shabbat ceremony, led by Natasha and Katie. They shared their traditions, and many other people shared thoughts as well, related or unrelated to Judaism. Three prayers were read, in Hebrew and in English. Finally, Nate led us in an interfaith song that incorporated Buddhist, Moslem, Jewish, and Christian prayers. It sounded amazing and it really manifested what our group is doing—coming from different backgrounds, perspectives, and faith to share this experience together.
The group had a wonderful day, overall. Nick and James played basketball with a student. Nate and I (Tayo) had deep conversations with students who opened up to us, challenged us, and broke down our walls. I personally felt led by my own faith to start thinking about being more humble in my heart. Jessica basked in the warmth and resilience of the village mamas. Camilla, Ariana, Natasha, and Sam (both of them, as we have two of them) experienced the Rwandan hospitality of the students, who interpreted parts of village time and constantly engaged them. Paige made instant friends who wanted to make plans with her for later in the week. Arlen has partners for Mucaka Mucaka tomorrow morning (see the next blog post if you want to know what that is or how it goes). Katie reconnected with the student she had breakfasted with this morning. I (Laura) was welcomed to visit one of the student houses and asked to watch traditional Rwandan dance.  Jenny and David were able to continue processing the experiences they had last year, now that they are student leaders. Each person in the group is growing—in our perspectives, in our personalities, and more. Let’s see how it goes. And so there was evening and morning of the first day J

-Laura and Tayo 25/5/2012