Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Blog from Rwanda by Christina Paragamian and Alexandra Gurley

Waking up at four in the morning to go gorilla trekking was not the most ideal way to begin the “trip of a lifetime.” Although we were told that the ride showcased Rwanda’s natural beauty, we fell asleep almost instantly (despite the rocky terrain). We only woke up when our stomachs grumbled for granola bars (man, we had a lot!). After four hours of driving, we finally arrived at our destination. We had our first encounter with a Rwandan bathroom and laughed about our safari outfits. We heard that there were two possible treks: the difficult and longer trek or the beginners’ walk. Having played sports our whole lives, we assumed that we were adequately equipped to handle the challenge. We thought wrong! Warning: Gorilla trekking is not for the average human. As we huffed and puffed up the beautiful hills, we passed waving children in small mud huts along the way. We were so surprised to see the enthusiasm and friendliness they showed towards us, complete strangers. However, soon we were more focused on our aching legs than our beautiful surroundings. Finally, we spotted our first gorilla. We spent an hour observing different members of the Agashya family in their natural habitat. Our guides made strange noises in the back of their throats to tell the gorillas we came in peace.

We were mesmerized by how similar the gorillas were to humans and how calm and peaceful they appeared. We even learned that when the gorillas pounded their chests, it was not done in aggression but rather in camaraderie. Although we had seen photos of the mountain gorillas, nothing could have prepared us for this experience. The silverback, the dominant male of a gorilla family, was three times the size of the average man. Although his size was surprising, we were more interested in the mother and baby. The mother playfully held her four-month-old baby with tenderness and care, just as you would find in our culture. We laughed at the little baby’s fluffy Mohawk and were sad to leave.

After the trek, we watched a local soccer match and took photos with the children. They were so eager to be photographed and to look at photos of themselves on our camera screens. It was amazing to see how something that seems so normal to us, such as taking a photo, was completely foreign and exciting for there children.  After spending the night in the lodge, we set out for another day of trekking. This time, we did a much easier trek in a more densely forested setting and we were lucky enough to see twelve gorillas all at once. On the ride back, we yet again consumed granola bars, but this time we decided to eat while watching our surroundings. The rumors were right: Rwanda is definitely the Switzerland of Africa.

Our first activity upon arriving in Kigali was to visit the Genocide Memorial. Although it was extremely sad, we were happy to go and finally learn about the genocide. Learning the extent of the horrors that occurred amazed us. After visiting the Genocide Memorial, we can now fully appreciate how willing Africa was to forgive and move forward. Berra, the country director of Women for Women International-Rwanda, stressed the importance of sharing the story. She told us to “go home and tell everyone.” At that moment, we realized our role as the next generation. We learned that knowledge and understanding are the most powerful tools in fighting genocide.

After the memorial, we visited the Women for Women offices and classrooms. We were greeted by dancing and singing women. We were honored by the welcome we received and grateful for their openness and acceptance of us. We went to a Social Networking class and observed an average lesson for the women. The teacher explained to the women that relying on and working with their neighbors is more effective than working alone. It surprised us that this was not second nature for them.  “Ubudehe” means to work together, and this is one of Women for Women International’s most important messages. They acted out skits demonstrating times when having friends was beneficial. At the end, the women were given the opportunity to ask us questions. They asked us to say hello to everyone in America and wondered if we had cooperatives back home. They said they were grateful for us taking the time to visit and learn about their culture, but we felt the opposite was true. They certainly had given us more than we could ever give them. Unfortunately, one baby did not feel the same way. He promptly burst into tears when our crazy pal Liz tried to pick him up.

After the class, we were given an opportunity to buy handmade goods from the women. We also ate lunch with employees and listened to their stories. One thing that really struck us was how every single person we met had an equally touching past. We felt insignificant hearing what they have gone through and comparing it to our lives. Another surprising aspect of the lunch was learning that the women did not know to say “Thank you” when we purchased their homemade crafts. What is second nature to us did not even occur to them. Women for Women teaches their students aspects of our lives that we take for granted such as the following: health, cleanliness, family law, education and management skills.

The next excursion was one of our favorites because we were greeted with such excitement! The whole group went to visit a school and as soon as we arrived, we were surrounded by little girls and boys. They seemed so happy to see us and immediately sang for us. They grabbed our hands and took us to their classrooms where they jumped and laughed with us. Seeing them so excited with our visit made us so happy. The impact we seemed to make on them made us grateful for the opportunity and we realized that although the kids were the ones jumping around in excitement, the excursion was just as exciting and gratifying for us, if not even more so.

When we went to visit a women’s cooperative, we were once again greeted by song and dance. It was very interesting visiting the cooperative because it showed us what the women take away from Women for Women’s training. We saw how each woman received their own plot of land where they harvested different crops. We all went through one plot of land grabbing bean pods, and we saw how fast work goes when we work together. Although each woman maintains their own individually plot, they work together and act as a community which makes the work easier for everyone. They gave our group two pineapples to thank us for visiting them although we felt that we should be thanking them for sharing their lives and stories with us. Pineapples take about a year and a half to grow, so we were especially touched by the generosity.

While at the pineapple farm, we had the opportunity to speak with an extraordinary woman whose story only reaffirmed the importance of Women for Women’s work. The single mother shared the story of how her life changed with Women for Women. Before joining the organization, she was abused by her landlord. When she could not pay exactly when he wanted, he would steal her two children’s food and beat her. She and her children often went to sleep hungry and scared. When she joined Women for Women, however, she learned that she did not need to tolerate this treatment. She also earned enough money to buy her own small house and a calf, feed her family, and send her children to school. We were both shocked and inspired by how much the women’s lives had changed as a result of participating in Women for Women International’s program. We were saddened by their personal struggles and deeply proud of their great accomplishments.

Another excursion that we found particularly interesting was our trip to the Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative (CIFI) farm. Women both raise animals and grow many different crops on the CIFI farm. We were amazed by how the women utilized each and every part of the land, wasting absolutely nothing. The way they organized the animals and the vegetation was incredibly efficient and practical. For example, there was one structure that housed three or four animal groups on top of each other. By placing the rabbits on top, the rabbit debris fertilizes the grass which the goats underneath eat. They even use horse dung to generate power. These inventions and structures utilized everything resource available at the far in order to produce as many products and as much profits as possible.

After visiting the farm, we went to Gahaya Links. Gahaya Links employs many Women for Women graduates. These women create baskets and jewelry that are sold both to visitors and to big companies in America, like Anthropologie and Kate Spade. It was really cool to go behind the behind the scenes and see how products we buy at stores in D.C.  One of the greatest aspects of Gahaya Links was how Joy, the founder, required the women to practice good hygiene and to save their money, reinforcing the skills the learned through Women for Women’s program. She genuinely cares about the women she employs and this is something that cannot always be said about employers in the developing world.

Having visited the businesses of Women for Women graduates, we were lucky enough to be invited to Women for Women graduation ceremony. Although we arrived late, the women were thrilled to see us, and five or six of the women shared stories of gratitude. We were touched by their personal stories, and we felt that we did not deserve their praise. They are the incredible ones, not us. After these speeches, a few women performed a skit. They depicted a woman with two kids and an alcoholic husband. The drunken husband did not understand why the woman joined Women for Women, and so the children explained all of the benefits of the organization. After beating his wife and getting drunk a few more times, he finally realized that the organization benefited the whole family by giving them the tools they needed to obtain a steady income. Women for Women taught the mother to fight the abuse, and eventually convinced the husband that man and wife should have equal power in the relationship.

On our last day in Rwanda, we once again saw how the genocide impacted the country. We visited an orphanage that was open during the genocide. It houses the children of genocide victims and protected them in 1994. We spent the day cleaning up the area with the kids, because every last Saturday of the month, all Rwandan citizens participate in cleaning up the country. This, as well as the plastic bag ban, is a cleanup measure that the country has really benefited from. After cleaning up with the kids, some of the teenagers showed us their rooms. One bed particularly made an impact on us. Rather than having a blanket or even sheets, it only had a Twister mat on top of a mattress. Despite circumstances like this, the kids were extremely joyful and hula-hooped with us. We taught them to play Limbo and played soccer with them.

One problem the orphanage faces, however, is what to do with the kids once they turn eighteen. They do not have the funding to send them to university, nor do they have enough money or facilities to keep them at the orphanage. It was heartbreaking to see the difficulties an organization that is doing so much good faces. We vowed to help as much as we could, but learned that mailing blankets and art supplies was not always helpful as  items are often stolen before reaching the orphanage.

This was perhaps the most difficult part of visiting Rwanda. We saw so many people and places that needed our help, but we did not always know how we could help. Seeing women and children so optimistic and happy with so little made our desire to help even stronger. W learned that one surefire way to assist was just to share our experiences. By telling everyone we know what we saw and how we felt, the opportunities for additional aid for and knowledge of Rwanda increases. Knowledge is the most important tool in both preventing future genocides and doing our part to help the victims of Rwanda’s genocide. Sharing our experiences is the least we can do after the people we met and the stories we heard gave us more than we can possibly express.

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