Friday, June 24, 2011

Day 11 --> Saying goodbye to ASYV/Rwanda

            Our last day in Rwanda :(. We are all so sad to be leaving the Agahazo Shalom Youth Village. After forming bonds with the students here and becoming accustomed to life in the Village, it will be hard to come back to the States and leave our new Rwandan friends behind. Fortunately, we can all stay in contact via email and Facebook!
            On our final day, we woke up to another beautiful morning over looking the Rwandan hills. At breakfast, the students were teeming with excitement for the impending national song and dance competition that was taking place at the Village later that afternoon. After breakfast in the dining hall and emotional final goodbyes, we had a tree planting ceremony in the center of the Village with Ilan Blum (the Village Director). Ilan spoke to us about the future of the Village and how meaningful it is for students like us to bring alternative cultures to the students at ASYV. The ceremony was meaningful, and it was a real treat to look out over the center gardens and see the cement (“sima” in Kinyarwanda) benches that we had helped construct over the past week. Some of the students in our Tufts group also designed a plaque to leave behind in the Village as a celebratory memory of our trip. The plaque included a mosaic of “Tufts ‘11” and a jumbo elephant. All packed up and ready to go, we piled into the bus and began our one-hour trip back to Kigali.
            In Kigali, we did some great souvenir shopping and had lunch together. We said goodbye to Rachel Olstein – thanks for everything, Rachel! – and also made sure that we had given her the letters that we had composed to ourselves, to be sent in 6 months. In these letters, we were encouraged to write about our experiences in Rwanda and goals for the future, or anything else that was on our minds.
            The airport was bittersweet. We were sad to be leaving Rwanda and the amazing ASYV students that we met, but there was also an air of excitement as we brainstormed ways that we could bring the experience back to Tufts and our communities. We discussed a few different categories: fundraising, awareness, continuing to be in touch with the ASYV, connecting with the Rwandan community in Boston and Rwandan current events, and promoting our own group bonding. When we get back to campus, we are hoping to start an official group devoted to these goals!
            After many hours of travel, we arrived at our various destinations. Thank you to Tali, our student leader, Amanda, our staff member from Tufts, and Rachel at the ASYV, and thank you to the donors who made this trip possible! We all learned so much on this trip and can’t wait to share our experiences with our friends, family, and communities!

- Janet and Zac, 6/5/11 - 6/6/11

Day 10 --> Last full day at ASYV

Our last full day at the Village started out as every Saturday morning does with Muchaka Muchaka, in which the entire Village takes a run at 6 am around areas of the Village and into Rubona. The run was a lot faster than last week but still just as enjoyable. The run definitely provides volunteers with the strong sense of community the Village has. Our kavanah for the day was a word that we created ourselves: presfutast. It is a combination of the words past, present, and future. We decided on this word because our group had engaged in several informal discussions about how humans deal with their pasts and move beyond them to create a positive present and future. Many questions have arisen about how we deal with our past and how, after genocide, humans move past the trauma and live in the present. We included the word future as well because we had a discussion about what we can do in the future to sustain our relationship with the Village and the students there. In our discussion, we threw around ideas about several fundraisers we want to plan at Tufts next fall and thought about other ways to stay connected to each other and to the Village as we take back our experiences to Tufts.
            After our run and morning meeting, the whole group took part in service work around the Village. Work included chopping food in the dining hall, digging holes on the nature trail, carrying woodchips to a banana plantation on our heads in a basket as well as working on the farm.  In order to prepare for a long day of travel the next day, the group took some time to pack our rooms, clean, and enjoy our last few hours with the beautiful view from the Village.
            Our second discussion of the day was about the value of short-term service trips. We read a few articles that both valued and critiqued these trips and their consequences. On one hand, short service trips can benefit rural communities through building homes, playgrounds, or through interacting with the people living in these communities. It also provides the volunteers with a feeling of accomplishment. But is it all about us? And do short-term service trips truly impact the community if they are just there for two or three weeks? Is it more effective to just send money to the Village instead of spending the money to send us all to Rwanda? The group decided that our service work at the Village was in fact valuable and the connections we made with the students made the trip worth it. By visiting the Village, volunteers are able to bring the world to the students, most of who cannot travel abroad. We are able to answer their questions and make lasting friendships.
            After lunch and our discussion, we hiked to the nearby lake that was breathtaking. It was also a fun way to bond with the group during our final day and see more of the Rwandan countryside that surrounds the Village. We ended the day with our final dinner at the Village. We got to have final discussions and laughs with students. We also were able to watch the traditional dance group at the Village practice for a competition that was being held at Agahozo-Shalom the next day. They were absolutely incredible. We had never seen anything like it. It was definitely a wonderful last full day at the Village and we want to thank everyone who made it such a wonderful trip!

- Inbal, Jenny, and David, 6/4/11

Day 9 --> ASYV/Rubona

Today was our last day of service work at the Village, one of our last days to spend time with the ASYV kids, plus we just got back from seeing the Murambi memorial. With that in mind, as leaders of the day, we decided to make today’s Kavanah “connection.” There have been a lot of different aspects of our trip -- the service work, the genocide education and mourning, intense discussions about how we should be giving back to the world, and bonding with the Village and with each other. We decided that today, we should try to think about how all those pieces fit together. We also wanted to emphasize that it was one of our last days to connect with one another and with the Village kids, and with the labor we were doing.
The day started at 6:00am for the enthusiastic bird watchers in the group. After the 6:30am breakfast, we started our service work, which included more wheelbarrowing, rock-carrying, and cement-mixing. The benches we’ve been working on are almost finished! They will be completely finished and polished by the time we leave the Village tomorrow morning. During this time, a few people also helped bake Challah (a type of bread typically eaten on the Jewish Sabbath), which ended up being DELICIOUS and was eaten in its entirety within a couple of hours.
From 11-2, we walked into Rubona to experience the Friday morning market. It was slightly stressful and surreal, very hot, and extremely fun! Popular purchases included samosas, vegetables, lamb skewers, and sugar cane. When we got back, we had lunch followed by some free time before Shabbat. During this time, some people went on a tour of the bee hives with Jared (shout out to Tali for her multiple stings). Also, many of us played soccer with the Village kids, who totally kicked our butts.
At 5:15pm our group reconvened for Shabbat. Our service was less traditional than last week’s, and included a special round of roses and thorns where everyone went around and shared their most positive or meaningful experience from the past ten days. After our Shabbat service, we headed up to the cafeteria for Village Time, a weekly one-hour meeting where everyone gathers and talks about what’s been going on at ASYV over the past week. After dinner on Friday nights, the Village youth do a fun activity together. This week (as with last Friday), there was a dance party on the porch of the dining hall. A few of us stayed for that, although it was just embarrassing because the ASYV kids put our dance moves to shame.
The rest of the night was pretty relaxing. I think that we did establish a lot of connections today, especially with the Village, the kids who live there, and with each other. Every day our group gets more familiar with the Village physically and emotionally, and it is clear that, within the group, the connections between us are strengthening as well.

-- Say and Doreen, 6/3/11

Monday, June 13, 2011

Day 8 --> Butare/Murambi

Our day started off fairly early with a two hour bus ride to Butare. We were overcome by the beauty of the Rwandan landscape throughout the drive. The rolling hills, numerous banana trees, and brilliant blue sky were mesmerizing. After arriving in Butare, we were given time to buy crafts and gifts for our families and friends. We then had a delicious Rwandan buffet-style lunch and stopped at a women’s co-op for ice cream.
            The day quickly became emotional, impactful, and thought-provoking, even though it started off fun and light-hearted. After lunch, we made our way to Murambi to see a genocide memorial. The memorial is located at a school where tens of thousands of individuals fled during the 1994 genocide, after being promised protection. 55,000 people were believed to have been at the school, yet there are only 14 known survivors today.
We were fortunate enough to hear the story of a Rwandan genocide survivor as soon as we arrived. He told us of the notable increase in discrimination and hostility leading up to the genocide in 1994. His father, lying on his death bed, warned him to flee the country to protect himself. Once outside Rwanda, he joined the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), which worked to take over parts of Rwanda to put an end to the ongoing genocide. He eventually learned that almost all of his family was murdered. This survivor (who will remain unnamed) spoke with us about how he considered suicide, his desire for revenge, the influence religion had on him, and how the memories of the genocide still haunts him and his wife to this day. All of us were so honored that he shared his story with us and will certainly never forget it.
            Next, the tour guide discussed the history of the memorial and led us outside to the mass graves, where we took a moment of silence. The horrifying events that took place at Murambi contrasted with everything one might expect in such a location. Outside the gated memorial, overwhelmingly beautiful mountains stretched as far as the eye could see. There were small houses and farms right outside the gates, and the laughter of children playing broke the silence. It was hard to comprehend that atrocities were committed there and that tens of thousands of individuals were buried in such a small area.
            We walked through the school after visiting the mass graves. Preserved bodies of those murdered at Murambi were lined up on tables in a few of the classrooms. The bodies were still intact because they had been buried deep in the mass graves and had not been decomposed. Additionally, they were preserved in limestone. Seeing these bodies had an indescribable effect on us. It is one thing to imagine the atrocities of the genocide, another thing entirely to see the dead. A number of the bodies were still in the same positions as when they had died- poses of intended protection or self defense. Many of us felt sickened, especially when witnessing the bodies of the young children. How could the international community not intervene? How could genocide occur so soon after the Holocaust? What happened to never again?
            A memorial service was held after we finished the rest of the tour. We said a few prayers, talked about how the memorial affected us, and were given time to collect our thoughts. The long ride back to Kigali also gave us time to try to fully comprehend what we had seen.
            In Kigali we had a delicious dinner at an Indian restaurant, which helped lighten the mood after an emotional day. We discussed the impact of the genocide and the importance of forgiveness after the genocide. This day truly reinforced the importance of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda. From what we have witnessed, the Village has done an incredible job in reinstating a sense of community among individuals, providing love and hope, and fostering forgiveness among orphaned children. The Murambi memorial left us with a sense of despair, but the smiles and enthusiasm of the children at ASYV gives us hope. Seeing first hand what these children have gone through makes the work of ASYV even that much more impressive. Even though the atrocities committed in the past seem unforgivable, somehow the Rwandan people have managed to restore a sense of community and hope. It is truly incredible to witness.

- Lauren and Arielle, 6/2/11

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Day 7 -> Boundary Breakers and Exploring Rubona

Today was the third day of work! Being the leaders of the day, we decided that the Kavanah of the day would be “perseverance” because we have been working really hard and we need to maintain the high level of energy! Also, since in the past few days some of us have expressed concerns over not bonding with the kids in the Village, we should also realize that making connections take time and that we need to persevere in our effort to connect with the kids. It is also important for us to keep connecting our experience in the Village to the larger context of Rwanda because it’s sometimes easy to forget that the creation of ASYV was because of what happened in 1994.
We started the day with Trevor (Long Term Volunteer), continuing our work on the benches for the center of the Village. We moved more bricks, cement and sand around. By now, some of the benches are partially built and it seems that they would be completed soon! At 10:30, we played a game called “Boundary Breakers” in which Tali asked a series of questions for us to really get to know each other. We found that exercise to be a very good way for us to connect to each other as a cohesive group. For example, questions asked included: “What is your dream job?” “What is your biggest regret?” “What makes you happy?”, etc. Through hearing everyone’s answers, we really learned a lot about everyone’s aspirations and formed connections on a deeper level. After lunch, instead of continuing the discussions, many of us took a field trip to Rubona (although David and Nate went and helped Hizamark and Clyde with their music project). The walk to Rubona was very nice (although hot) but we really got to see the rural parts of Rwanda. Many of us reflected that our trip to Rubona was the highlight of the day (and in the case of David and Nate, the music session). While we were at Rubona we ate brushettes (lamb on a stick), visited various stores and interacted with some of the residents there. After we returned, we had dinner with the kids again and caught up on the happenings of the day.
However, there was one experience stood out to us in particular. Three students, Inbal, Rachel, and Dan, witnessed something that many people can’t imagine witnessing in their lifetime. Because they weren’t able to perform their tikkum olam social service work on Tuesday, they were able to sit in on a local town meeting to discuss the wellbeing and situation of a family ridden with poverty, poor health, sexual abuse, and betrayal. The students of ASYV came across this case while performing their tikkum olam service work, cultivating a local house in Rubona, Rwanda. However, one day, the students found a woman with half of her body paralyzed lying on the ground of the mud hut house with no furniture or windows. Thus, the students of ASYV decided to look further into this woman’s situation to see if they could help her in any way. Unbeknownst to them, her story would only get more complicated. It turned out that this woman, who is probably in her 30s, was lying on the ground of a house that no longer belonged to
her. Her husband had sold the property without her consent and had spent 80% of the money in one week. Her husband had been in jail for raping their 7 year old daughter but had been let out because the family with 4 children, had no other source of income. What was originally thought of as a short term service project turned into a long term challenge for the students of ASYV. The students got people from the sector, the local government, the women leaders in the community, and from ASYV to sit in on this hearing and to discuss how to help the woman and her family. The problem is that although the community is aware of the husband’s criminal behavior, he is able to walk free because his work is needed to support their 4 children. In addition, the wife needs to go to the hospital to figure out why she can’t move her body and someone needs to take care of the children while she is gone. Another problem is that the hospital does not provide a mattress, sheets, food, or transportation, which would be an additional cost for the family. During the meeting, the community members decided that while the wife is away at the hospital, the community would take care of the 3 kids (the 1 girl who was abused is living in another district of Rwanda with another family member). We found it inspiring that despite the fact that some of the individuals in the community cannot fully support their own families, they are willing to take in an additional child for the benefit of the community. In addition, other community members volunteered to cook food for the woman while she is in the hospital and ASYV students already coordinated getting her a mattress and sheets.
After hearing this story from Rachel, Inbal, and Dan, it got us thinking how complicated solving one issue is. It is not as easy as getting the woman to the hospital and paying for her stay, because it also includes taking care of her children, keeping them safe, while not angering the father so that he poses a further threat. It is incredible that despite the community’s awareness of the husband’s monstrous act of raping his own daughter and selling the family’s house and spending 80% of it, there is no true justice. However, despite such an atrocity, it is incredibly inspiring to know that the students of ASYV and the community have worked extensively to help one woman and her children, amongst the many other people in the community who need help. Whether one tries to help one person or an entire village, he or she is still making a difference.
In retrospect, we think that the Kavanah, “perseverance” we had chosen in the beginning of the day was established. Many of us have formed a much closer bond with the community, the kids and each other by the end of the day, whether by teaching music, talking to each other or listening to people’s stories. The connection that we have finally formed with the community was really a big step for us as a group to take to understand Rwanda just a little bit more.

- Kia and Kevin, 6/1/11

Day 6 -> Tikkun Olam and Family Time

            The morning started at 6:15am when a few of us went to breakfast.  A few others meanwhile took advantage of an extra hour and a half of sleep.  At breakfast, it was a little quiet until there was a STAMPEDE to the cornbread.  Before we knew it, we were left alone at the tables while the kids rushed to get this special treat.  After breakfast or sleeping in, we went to the amphitheater for our morning meeting. 
            Our kavanah for today was a word we made up to capture the essence of such an important day.  Our word was famunity, not a combination of immunity and famine, but a cross between community and family.  The more time we spend in Rwanda, we continue to see that because families in many cases have been broken, the community has taken the place of family.  Today we helped to rebuild multiple communities.  With our service project, we are helping to improve the ASYV community.  Through tikkun olam, we worked alongside ASYV students to fix the neighboring community, Rubona.  At family time, we saw firsthand the way the kids at ASYV have become each others family and as always, we as a group worked to strengthen our own Tufts family.
            After our group morning meeting, we met with the informal education department.  We split into multiple groups to discuss the roles and perspectives of the counselors and house mothers of ASYV.  Discussions ranged from how ASYV finds vulnerable children and staff to how children are disciplined.  The conversation was a little shorter than we might have liked, but it was a fresh perspective of the role of the village.  We saw the house mothers need family just as much as their kids do; they become each others family.
            The busy day continued with a new component of our service project.  We began construction on the four stone benches that will complete the central gathering spot of the Village.  Half of our group moved HUGE heavy rocks while the other half dug massive holes all for the foundation. The sun was beating down and there was blood shed and laughter!  It was a grueling three hours. Some of us got to work alongside workers from the surrounding community. Afterward we went to lunch where there were fresh vegetables. We ate cucumber and cabbage salad and the usual fare of rice and stew.
            After lunch we went straight to Tikkun Olam, which happens every Tuesday in the village. The kids at ASYV learn not only that they can lead happy and successful lives, but they are also capable of repairing others in their “famunity” at the same time they are repairing themselves. We all broke up into 4 groups. Some of us went to the local school in Rubona to teach English alongside the ASYV students. The students-turned teachers were very enthusiastic and in control of the class. They also had a lot of fun singing songs and getting their sillies out. Another group went to the health clinic in Rubona which sounded like an eye-opening experience. The clinic had an impressively large supply of medicine, but also was far from our western standards of sanitation and was staffed by nurses not doctors. The third and fourth groups were both building houses for people who currently live in grass huts which, due to a new law, are now illegal in Rwanda. However, the two projects were in different states of completion. One group was digging the foundation for a house, throwing and playing in mud, and learning a traditional Rwandan game (which photo evidence proves David is terrible at). The final group cut grass near the school to strengthen the bricks that would go in the house. Sports EPs started at 5 so Rachel and I, along with Tali, Amanda and Inbal, played football (not American) with the first-year students. It was amazing how generously the kids play with each other on the field. It’s like they all have one mind. Luckily Dan is 50 pounds heavier than most of them and was able to hold his own. In the same time period, the rest of the groups returned from Tikkun Olam and many Tufts Students went out to tutor or hang at the homes of children in the Village. It is midterm week and everyone is busy with studying.
            Soon it was dinner time, and we walked with the kids up to the dining hall. As usual, finding a seat was difficult among the bustle and chatter of the kids. We sat down and started to talk with the kids around us about our busy days, midterms, jokes and more serious matters. Dinner was the usual fare of rice, beans and stew. Mmmmm. After dinner we went in pairs to join ASYV students for family time where each of the families get together, drink tea, debate and debrief about how the week was going. Experiences were varied but highlights included Dan and Kevin freestyle rapping and “dougying” with the whole family, talks about boyfriends and economics, games, songs and a strong feeling of camaraderie. Many of us were asked to come back again tomorrow. We all left feeling much closer to the families we visited. We ended the day with thorns and roses and all fell asleep quickly after our longest day yet.

Fun Fact:  One kick from a giraffe can kill a lion.
 - Dan and Rachel, 5/31/11

Day 5 -> Planting trees and EPs

               Today was the first school day on the Village! We woke up and went to breakfast to see the students go to school. After breakfast, we went to sign up for what is known at the Village as “EPs” which stands for enrichment programs. Some of the enrichment programming available at the Village is traditional art, modern art, carpentry, traditional dance, movie-making and photography, piano, sewing and others. Each Tufts student chose an EP of interest to participate in. After signing up for EPs, we met two of the Village’s long-term volunteers who explained our service project to us. Our service project for the week is planting trees around the Village to provide an area for the students to relax in the shade as well as building benches around the center of the Village.
Although we knew this was going to require a lot of manual labor, Trevor and Jared got us excited and motivated to start working! From there, we walked up to the center of the Village, and started to plant the trees. After a few hours of hard work, we had our second group discussion about the importance of giving your time versus giving your money. It was interesting to hear everyone’s different opinions about the subject. The second part of the discussion addressed the issue of the relation between Israel and Rwanda. The text implied that people who have gone through an experience have a burden to help those who are going through the same thing. We discussed whether Israel had an obligation to help combat the genocide in Rwanda and also whether they had more of a burden to help than other countries around the world. The discussion carried over to the rest of our service for the day, where small groups continued to plant trees (avocado trees this time) in front of each of the family homes.
After our service for the day, we had lunch with the students and then went back to our guest house to sort the shoes that we brought to the Village. The shoe committee did a great job and when we sorted the shoes we found that we had collected around 400 pairs! Soon after sorting the shoes, we all went to our EPs for the day. At carpentry, the kids finished building the fence on the nature trail behind the school. It was so fun to be able to just walk with the students, talk with them, and sing American songs that they knew like Baby and One Time by Justin Bieber. The night was complete with thorns and roses like always. Overall a great day!

- Kara and Sharonne, 5/30/11