Friday, March 12, 2010

Really, it is quite the addiction: brightly-colored cloth. Shopping for fabric is an art that I am very close to mastering (maybe I can consider myself a brown belt). You must be able to isolate true beauty amidst a sea of spools.  For me, if I see a pattern that touches my soul and shakes my foundation, I am resolute in buying it then and there, otherwise, as I've experienced, you will dream about the "one that got away".  Even if you find the elusive fabric of your dreams you cannot under any circumstance lead on that it's THE ONE.  You must present an unaffected poker face in order to bargain it into your bag. This process takes unbelievable control, dedication, and precision. Many have not survived the stress of the hunt, become dizzy and fall into a coma of radiant patterned spots. If this is the case for you, my advice is to go with your gut, lead with your heart, maybe prep yourself with a rousing motivational speech before shopping, and if all else fails consult my personal shopping ad in the classifieds.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

We eat rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beans here. Occasionally the treat of beet or cabbage salad is prepared as a side dish that the Americans swarm like moths to a lightbulb. It is truly a delightful rarity. One day my friend was in the kitchen as they were cutting mountains of fresh green peppers, tomato, onion, and cucumbers. Before she was able to celebrate the prospect of salad for lunch that day, the head chef dropped handfuls of the fresh veggies into boiling tomato sauce. She asked, "Why don't we eat them fresh?" His response was simple, "Because we are not poor."

Several days later in the kitchen, another American had the same experience as she watched all hopes of salad simmer away in the giant crock pot. The chef noticed the disappointment in her eyes and said, "You white people are like rabbits. You eat fresh vegetables, you drink a lot of water, and you scare easily."


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Have you ever been in a class and feel as though you are not absorbing anything around you, that your presence is a mere formality? Maybe a party where everyone else knows each other and they all have inside jokes from their childhood? Often I feel like I live in isolated oblivion here.  My knowledge is limited to what I can absorb through body language, context clues, and sometimes it is dumb lucky that makes me privy to the world around me.

There are many incidents that happen in the village that I'm completely unaware of. Living in a close nit society you'd think to catch wind of simple daily transpirings, but often communication is just neglected. For example, many of the children were going to the gate to buy snacks such as candies and biscuits from roaming vendors. Because other kids here don't have any money, this is problem. We have a canteen on campus that is now open and each child gets an allowance which reconciles the issue. However, to have had no idea it was going on is daunting and unsettling.  As an English speaker it is absolutely necessary to actively seek information.   These incidents give way to the glaring question, if everyday happenings in my community are lost upon me, what information am I oblivious to as a foreigner in the country?

Saturday morning I was in the Kimironko (district in Kigali) market with my 2 friends. We had beautiful dresses made and were paying the seamstress when I saw a man in the not to far distance sprinting towards me. I moved out of his path as he whizzed by. Trailing him were two police officers with rifles. I assumed he was a shoplifter, but when consulting our seamstress, she negated the hypothesis calmly, "He had a grenade." We were confused and attributed it to a mis-translation. But when we received emails from the U.S. Embassy reporting 3 other grenades that were detonated Friday night, the cold reality set in. 

It is very difficult to be a foreigner where you live. You are overcome by helpless ignorance when access to daily news is thwarted by language barriers and shoddy internet access. You isolate yourself in caution.  I never felt this way in Israel, maybe because the cultural exchange was not as vastly different, maybe because I blended in.  Even though Rwanda and her people have welcomed me, I still feel, after 3 months, like a guest on a Visa. I hope this too shall pass.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

As a volunteer at the village I have the privilege to wear many hats. I am Art Enrichment Program coordinator, I work on the ASYV website, I am the English editor for the Informal Education department, I write grant proposals, I teach advanced ESL to the staff, and (drum roll please) the most oddly fitted hat that you will see atop my head reads: "Coach"! Yes, I coach our girls in the Futbol Enrichment Program! 

Did I grow up playing soccer? No. Did I have any knowledge of drills prior to accepting this position? No. Am I good at soccer? Sadly... no, I'm pretty uncoordinated feet/ball wise. So why am I a soccer coach?

The answer to that question is not only to give spectators a good laugh, but as a female athlete, I think it is important I stepped up. We want our girls to know that they can do anything they set their sights on. To have a female role-model teaching sports makes that goal seem a little more attainable. Luckily I have a strong support system of soccer enthusiasts to coach me. I do believe I'm learning, and I see with every drill and every scrimmage, their skill level increasing. My girls are unbelievably talented and AGGRESSIVE! They are not afraid to plow you down to get the ball and last practice I even had to send one girl to the clinic for a skinned knee after she dove to defend the goal (tear of a proud coach).  We will compete with outside teams and I think we are shaping up to be a pretty fierce adversary. My goal for the season is to instill a true sense of teamwork and love of the game, make exercise something they enjoy, and finally conceal as best I can how truly embarrassing my soccer skills are.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010


This is the greeting I'm met with whenever I leave the village gates. Its translation is "whiteman" but the historical context is what gives this sentiment its offense. Muzungu is the term the Rwandans called the colonizers, and now the word has been expanded to typecast all non- Africans.  Even some Africans who act "western" are ridiculed as "Muzungu".  After 2 months of living here I cannot stand being beckoned by a blanket term instead of being inquired my name. It makes my life here feel more foreign in a place I'm trying to make home and identifies me as an unwanted outsider.  The adults scream Muzungu just as much as the kids, but they do it to tease us, whereas some children are actually in awe of seeing someone of my complexion. The burden of being white in Rwanda can not be compared to the guilt of privilege that historians and sociologists contort many white Americans feel. It is a different breed of burden. My skin represents unsurmountable wealth and generosity. This complex burden has been shaped by the presence of ineffective aid. When the children here call us Muzungu it is usually accompanied by the only other English words they know, "Give me money".  They assume, based on the role of other white people they've seen in their lives, that I have pockets full of money and unlimited resources to give them on the street. You can only imagine how hard it is to reconcile this expectation on a daily basis. So, my solution is minimal, baby steps. When someone shouts "MUZUNNGUUUUU" after me in a market or tugs at my arm on the street, I respond "Ifete Izina." This means, "I have a name."  I say it calmly, my tone is plain as day.  I don't mean to be condescending, I mean to be understood.  Sometimes I am met with giggles and sometimes they follow-up by asking my name. "Ntwa Barrie." Baby steps. 

My friend told that she heard on the radio that the government recognizes this as a problem and is planning to fine any citizens who are found openly mocking foreigners with "Muzungu".  Children, instead of being fined will be enrolled in an international etiquette seminar.


Friday, January 22, 2010 

Whenever I reference "my girls" in these writings I am referring to the 15 girls in my family. Every family at Agahozo Shalom has a house mama, counselor, and volunteer. My family's house is right next door to mine and until they elect a family name (a very formal and thoughtful process here) we are known as family 4 living in house 21. 

One of my girls was born with a rare heart condition. The details of her condition are unclear to me as many of the counselors refer to it as a "heart attack" (many also refer to migraines as "sinus attacks"). On Tuesday I woke up to the painful news that she had to be rushed to the hospital in Kigali. My house mama and counselor planned to go in shifts and sleep with her in a bedside chair. I was advised not to spend the night and warned of the unfavorable conditions, but I couldn't have anticipated what I arrived to.  She was staying in the emergency ward, and though the hospital was relatively clean, the ward was an open aired room full of suffering with beds 1-foot apart only separated by a flimsy curtain. There were 2 doctors doing rounds and diagnoses and several visitors present. There was no privacy. Bed pans were buckets on the grounds and my counselor, bless her heart, helped many patients down from their beds, holding them up as they relieved themselves.  Then she took it upon herself to empty their waste buckets.  Since the doctor/ nurse presence was so diminished by the patient demand, I watched her tend to several other patients that were too hot, too cold, or needed tissues. She is an angel and I will never forget the air of deep kindness she spread across the room that day.  

Even in America hospitals make me feel very uncomfortable. Thankfully my girl's bed was located in the corner so she could escape from the room if only by looking at the wall. The night before I came, our girls wrote cards expressing how much they miss and love her, so I came with a stack of these brightly colored sentiments.  She was dazed, and I was awkward as I hung uncomfortably at the foot of her bed.  In the background a man was moaning in pain, a young boy wheezing 1 foot away. The sounds were so persistent they seemed like a soundtrack to the experience, and all I wanted to do was pick her up and carry her OUT so that she too would not be engulfed in the symphony of sadness and death.  But, I didn't need to. She gazed up at me and smiled with surprise and delight. I emptied my purse of the cards and as she focused her attention on the love sent from her family, a smile stretched across her face that was so radiant it drowned out the pain of the room. She laughed and together we left, we traveled into the hearts of our sisters that created such beautiful expressions of healing. We talked until she dozed back to sleep. I watched over her as she lay dreaming and that radiant smile was still engraved in her cheeks. 

She was released that day, shortly after my visit, and is being watched closely here. But I will never forget her smile, the one that had the power to silence all the pain in the world.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Every Erev Shabbat the volunteers organize a small get together for all who wish to join and rejoice in the coming day of rest. This past Friday I decided to wear my new skirt I had made in Rubona (the nearby market). I hand picked the fabric- a bright green base adorned with a pattern of navy blue and bright yellow peacock feathers. All evening I was greeted with compliments, "Wow! You are looking soooooo smart!" For some time I thought they meant "sharp". However, "smart" is actually the expression they use here if you are nicely put together. I like to interpret it as: "You KNOW how to look good."  People in Rwanda like to stay fresh. Even if you only have 2 outfits, you wash them every day and those who can afford to sport button-ups and dress-shoes through the dusty village paths.  

I didn't bring many "smart" outfits to Rwanda. I have 2 pairs of jeans with many holes in them! I thought I'd be painting all the time and didn't see the use in messing up other clothes. One the first days here, a counselors asked me, with considerable concern in her voice, "Are those your only pants?" I laughed it off until one day, while showing my girls pictures from back home, one turned to me with a straight face and counseled me, "Barrie, don't you know you are pretty?" I guess I need to step it up. 


Monday, January 18, 2010 

After 3 weeks of intensive English emersion lessons, 1 am bed times,  6 am lesson planning, and 3 pm naps became my normative routine. So it was with bitter-sweet sentiment that my role as "ESL teacher" ended this past friday. On my last day of classes I woke up at a total loss for what to do on this momentous day! Then I received a piece of extraordinary advice. Carlos suggested, "Have you done comedy routines yet?"

"BRILLIANT!" I thought. 

I instructed my class to get into groups of 3. Once in their teams they had to write jokes in English and I told them to write several because their task was to make me and the other students laugh. I told the other students to be unyielding judges! Don't let even a smirk slip unless truly deserved!  In the first five minutes I received a lot of doubtful, "this is hard, I can't do this" pleas whichI squashed immediately by telling them, "I wouldn't have assigned it if I didn't know you could do this!" The truth was, their apprehension made me question whether I was pushing them past their level. But when the groups announced they were ready, my doubt subsided and one by one I found myself howling with laughter. Most groups decided to perform short comedy sketches. One group set up 3 benches in a row. Then they called on a volunteer and promptly blindfolded him. They led him to the first bench, had him feel out his bearings and said, "You must jump over these 3 benches." The volunteer gasped in desperation, but the roaring audience gave him momentum to proceed. What the poor blindfolded kid didn't know was the team had removed all the benches from his path and so he jumped high with fear driven determination prancing about the empty floor like a ballerina. I was in tears! 

Several of my students thanked me for the lessons and others asked if they could reserve me as tutor for the school year. I was both proud and extremely relieved. 


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When I first arrived to Agahozo Shalom, somehow my name was transformed from Barrie to "Berra".  Even though it is spelled on every staff itinerary "Barrie" I am nevertheless known as "Berra" to many. In Rwanda it is hard to distinguish the accent between "R" and "L". For example, a girl in my family "Fabiola" goes by "Fabiora" (or that is at least how I hear it). So, the other day I was was walking to thevillage farm which is right next to the house of a girl named Bella. She and her friends came running to meet me, and still panting she exclaimed: "BERRA! WE SHARE THE NAME!" She was so excited I didn't have the heart to correct her. Since, of course, it has spread like wildfire and more than half of the kids now call me Bella! I've learned to tune my ear for it, and they are right, it does sound similar!


Friday, January 8, 2010 

Last night I decided to skip dinner at the dinning hall and my friend and fellow volunteer, Micaela, and I boiled spaghetti in an electric kettle. This experiment turned out to be a supreme success! We dressed our warm noodles in a cream of mushroom-condensed-soup sauce and the meal was accompanied by a fresh pineapple I bought for 60 cents at the market.  I was unbelievably satisfied as we sat, ate, and worked on our English lesson plans for the day ahead. 

We teach 4 hours of ESL every morning. Yes, you are right, I was hired to teach Art! This is, however, a temporary station until the kids start school on January 18th. After the 1st day, I was counting down the hours! 8 am-10 am I teach one class and 10 am-12 pm I'm in another… with no breaks :/ This schedule is particularly exhausting for us because, in class, I speak louder to project to the room, more slowly, and enunciate my words with extreme precision to relay as clear a message as possible.  I was suffering from severe migraines by lunch and realized I needed a more engaging game plan so as to split the airtime with the kids. So, I consulted John, Paul, George, and Ringo…

The song "Penny Lane" is packed with great vocabulary about careers! They mention a banker, barber, nurse, and a fireman! We sang the song together, went over words they didn't understand and then each student was instructed to share with the class what job they wish to pursue after they finish school. This was followed-up by homework to write a short essay about, "When I am…" In my class we have aspiring doctors, government ministers, a music producer, and even a President! Glad I'm rubbing elbows now :) The kids loved the lesson, and had never heard of the Beatles before! As we sang together the song took on new life. They even made hand movements to correspond with the lyrics and when the words "very strange" came (which happens twice in the song) they would jump up and scratch their heads with exaggeration and scream, "VERRRYYY STRANGEEEE!" 

Tomorrow we are learning weather, the months of the year, and seasons through The Temptation's "My Girl"! 


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How do you define poverty? To me it is depletion of the resources humans need in order to survive. These resourcesinclude food and water (bodily sustenance) and shelter. But is shelter limited to the physical roof over your head or could it be interpreted as emotional connectedness in love and family? Can a human live with the absence of love?

When we, Muzungos, walk through any community we tend to accumulate a following of neighborhood children.  It is as if we were dropping candies or luring them with a pipe.  They are enamored by "the white" of our skin.  Thiswas the case as we traveled through the Kimironko district of Kigali.  It was hard not to notice that several of the young boys tagging along were carrying plastic containers of glue that they would stiff periodically.  The glue fumes get them high and serve as an appetite suppressant. As we walked together I was startled as violent shouts erupted.  A teenager grabbed one of the young boys in our entourage and twisted his arm with so much intensity it seemed he wanted to detach it from the boy's shoulder.  Several people attempted to pry the boys apart and it was then that I realized the teenager was trying to steal the boy's glue. 

Hunger is very real here. Resources in the village are abundant compared to many other places around the country. Agahozo Shalom is attempting to do many things including providing meals 3 times a day, but many of our children pile there plates as if they won't have another meal in the foreseeable future. They serve themselves mountains of beans and potatoes until the dish is dry, even if their brothers and sisters have not yet eaten. Sharing is a very difficult concept to convey to someone who is cultured to expect only what he/ she can grab. I am confident they are learning and will continue to learn, but how do you show someone that love will nourish them? How do you communicate "love" as a source of sustenance and protection?  


Monday, December 28, 2009 

(Scene: A dark gravel path, sparsely lit, I am walking beside 3 girls from the dining hall back to our houses after dinner.)

"Mureweh!" I call out. (Good afternoon/ evening)

"Hello!" they respond enthusiastically. Today was the first day the American volunteers led English classes and everyone was anxious to practice what they learned. Many of us assessed the class level by playing games, singing songs, and exchanging greetings... some students only absorbed fragmented sentences and a few greetings.  

"How was your day?"I reciprocated... ... ... silence. Even in the dark I could see their blank faces staring back at me. 

Let's try something else... "How are you?"

This was returned with a sudden chorus of, "I'm great!" "Very fine!" "Nice, and you?"

Interested in the response, I probed on, "Did you like dinner?"

... stares...

hmmm, "Do you like English class?"

... stares...

"Did you have fun today?"


Then one girl broke the silence, "I LOVE YOU!" she exclaimed with pride. 

I wondered if she knew the meaning of her words. I hugged her and she grabbed my hand tightly. Though we could only exchange a few words and I've only known her for 3 days, at that moment I truly felt her love and the genuine excitement she felt knowing her communication was successful. So, I responded, "I love you too." 

A second later she replied, "I LOVE TO PLAY FUTBOL!" ... And the moment was gone. 


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Transit in Rwanda consists of buses, taxi-sudans (which we were advised not to get in), taxi-motos, and your 2 legs.  So, sometimes you have no choice but to jump on the back of a taxi-moto (motorcycle), say a prayer, and hold on tight. Not going to lie, I thought I was going to die my first ride.  It was Friday night in Kigali and I was with my friend from the village traveling from the central bus stop to her home.  I tried my best to conceal my desperate panic as I mounted with my big backpack.  I couldn't figure out how to tighten the helmet and soon it was too late as we accelerated off up the winding part gravel/ cement roads! After being shrugged off by the driver I realized it is inappropriate to hold onto him, but through the wind coming at me at god knows how many miles per hour I could distinguish his faint sadistic chuckle that said, "Stupid foreigner". Since Friday I've taken 2 more motos, I'm not going to call myself a pro but I've certainly learned to balance myself with a tad more grace, contain my screams, and keep my hands to myself.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I arrived in NY for our first training session on November 30th. There I met the other 9 international volunteers and we spent 3 long days going over the ins and outs of village life, expectations, our roles in the village, logistics, logistics, logistics. Of course we realized we would have no idea what life at Agahozo Shalom would be like until we got there.  Its day 7 in the village and life is constantly changing. I'm quite positive I won't find a true rhythm until school starts when all the kids arrive on campus January 4th. The Rwandan staff has arrived and for the past 3 days we have endured seminars from 8am-6 pm. Suffice it to say, my butt is soorrrrreeeee! Don't get me wrong, the content is not only interesting but incredibly valuable. We are learning about pre-colonial Rwandan history, religion, and education systems and how the education model is integrated into Agahozo Shalom. We do health and wellness training and discuss sex education, HIV, and teaching our youths to respect their bodies. We had a session about physical and emotional indicators of Trauma... Thorough!

So, let me explain the structure of this incredibly unique village.  We have the village administration, senior staff, health professionals, kitchen staff, maintenance staff, house mothers, counselors, and volunteers (me).  The house mothers live with the kids, each mother has 16 children for whom she is in charge. We all play unique roles in the village, but if there's one thing no one will leave the training without absorbing, it is that we are all here for the kids and as a family we are all equally responsible for their well being. The counselors play the role of big brothers and sisters, they also help lead after-school enrichment programs. I live with 4 Rwandan counselors, one of whom is my partner in coordinating the art enrichment program. As "volunteers" our role is to fit in wherever needed and transfer some of the skills and outside knowledge we came with. So far, it hasn't been butter smooth.  Just a few minor challenges to face... Everyone speaks Kinyarwanda, challenge #1 learn the language. Challenge #2 remember the names of 40+ staff and 250 kids, and create strong relationships with everyone. Challenge #3- don't get frustrated and constantly be reminded you have a whole year to complete these goals. I'm warming up... I just wish our curriculum included glute exercises!


Saturday, December 5, 2009

"Never go to a Rwandan restaurant hungry" we were told in orientation. Expect a slower pace of life. Unlike in America where you can order your pho-meat patty and enjoy a biteful 2 minutes later, in Rwanda ordering the chicken means going out back and killing since it is rare to have refrigeration to preserve previously prepared meat. This first week and I'm sure my first few months will be a complete adaptation. The past couple days have been orientation. We learned a lot about the structure and principles of the village but also were given a crash course in "Rwandan perceptions of Americans". To give you an idea I've composed a top 3 list:

  1. Everything an American says, he/ she thinks is the truth. 
  2. In America people never apologize for their actions. (That one makes me sad)
  3. "White people have watches but they don't have time."

With these perceptions in mind a Rwandan might tell you something because he/ she thinks it is what you want to hear and not what they believe. My hope is to push past these misconceptions and represent myself and my "Muzungo" (white) heritage simply by doing me.  


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Today is my birthday. For the past 5 years I have dreamed of traveling to Africa. Could I ever wish for a better birthday gift than to step foot on the fresh soil today. Well for me, it is "tonight"/ early morning, after 15 hours of traveling I've lost track. How do I feel? A little disoriented. I'm anxious about settling in.  My strategy thus far has been to take each moment as it comes. I packed my bags... got on a plane... got off a plane... got on another plane... landed in Kigali... stood stunned on the runway... arrived in Agahozo Shalom.  We are in temporary housing for this weekend until the Rwandan staff arrives.  Our 3 day orientation in NY was saturated with information to prepare us (the 10 international fellows) for the year and our roles in the village.  I'm getting irritated swatting gnats off my illuminated computer screen, time to sign off. 


Saturday, August 21, 2010

When I met Victoire she hugged me with a certain tenderness usually reserved for old friends. She arrived to the village several days after the other kids. I knew she was special from the beginning, even before I learned of her illness. She carried herself with an unmatched poise and resilience.  She had the air of a survivor, strong and wise beyond her 17 years.  After her first several emergency trips to the hospital in Kigali, I realized she had been fighting an ongoing battle with her body nearly her entire life. It was finally revealed that her heart was not pumping blood the way it should. She was constantly dizzy and weak from lack of oxygen and her small frame would become bloated from retaining fluids. Despite her physical discomfort, Victoire always persisted.  Whenever she felt slightly better, she insisted on joining the other kids in school. She had a unique hunger for knowledge, a courage to pursue things that she was told were "impossible" for her to accomplish given her condition.  

The most striking quality about Vicky was her smile. Vicky's smile wasn't just a smile, it was an energy that could light up an entire room. There were several times when I visited her in the clinic and she was in bed drifting in and out of sleep. But, as soon a I sat down next her her she would roll over and greet me with a beaming smile, strong enough to supply me a whole day of courage. A true testament to the contagious love she exuded was the bonds she shared with her sisters. Vicky made the village community stronger. Her battle was an inspiration to us all. 

When Vicky went to South Africa and survived a very difficult open-heart procedure in which the surgeons nearly rebuilt her heart, it looked as though she would return to the village stronger than ever. But due to a post-op infection, this dream was never realized.  It is futile to look for reason behind the loss of a beautiful, strong 17 year old woman. However, I can take comfort in the fact that Vicky spent the happiest time of her life with us in the village.  She was loved so deeply and her story has even touched the lives of those abroad that never had the privilege of meeting her. Her village family never has to mourn alone because we host visitors offering their condolences every night. Her life impacted so many people, in fact, they announced her death on the Rwandan radio.  

Vicky was and always will be my sister. Today I weep because her life was cut short and she was never able to grow to her full potential. But her spirit lives inside me everyday and it is the force that encourages me to persist in hard times and to continue to make a positive impact on the lives of others. I will miss you Vicky. May you finally have the peace you deserve. 


Monday, June 21, 2010

When you suffer the loss of a loved one it is hard not to feel a stinging pinch of regret. I should have told her I loved her more often. I wish she could have seen her grandchildren get married. I wish I could have been at the funeral. Even after coming to terms with the regret, solely focusing on the blessing of the life lost takes time and healing. My family is mourning the loss of my Gaga. She passed away one week ago,  June 13, 2010. At age 90, she lived a long, exciting, and inspiring life.  She was a dedicated wife and mother, a shark of a business woman, a savvy designer and artist, an outspoken Jewish advocate, a public servant, a vital member of her community,  and a loving grandmother whose pride knew no limits.  I was able to spend time with her when I went home for the April vacation, for this I am beside myself with gratitude.  

When I learned of her death, my initial instinct was to isolate myself in my room here. I had an aching desire to travel home and didn't want to be a part of village life, have to contrive a smile, or worst: allow a tear to escape in front of the children. I didn't want to talk to people about my pain.  I even felt guilty mourning the loss of a woman who lived to the ripe age of 90 in a community of mothers who lost their infant children in a senseless slaughter. But then something incredible happened, I couldn't escape the condolences.  Groups of 16 at a time came into my living room to make me tea, to ask me to remember her with stories, to support me in this difficult time. I was overwhelmed. I was encouraged to cry, but also to accept the reality that life ends.  Several of my girls composed and performed a song to comfort me. They told me to "be patient".  This means that I must continue life and be patient because we will be reunited some day in heaven. My fellow volunteers organized a minyan to say the Mourner's Kaddish and we sat shiva together and remembered my Gaga with stories of tribute.  Though this past week was a struggle, my fear of coping with this loss alone was never realized. I am insulated with love in this village, it is truly a place of healing.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Warning: Graphic content

When the height of mass killings swept this tiny country in 1994, many people thought they could go to the churches for refuge as they had during massacres in years before.  In the southern province, those who fled to the churches soon caught word that they were no longer safe houses. Murambi was going to be a technical school. It was nearly constructed in 1994.  It is situated at the end of a long winding hill in a valley surrounded by the country's quintessential rolling hills- hills filled with lush vegetation, wild flowers, echoing the laughter of children. It is inconceivable to imagine that these very hills were stations where the Interhamwe militia waited quietly for Tutsis fleeing for their lives.  Murambi was never a technical school, instead it became a faux-refuge, a trap. Classrooms intended to house equipment for research to nurture the young minds of Rwanda today house the semi-preserved bodies of those massacred there. Twenty four rooms filled with bodies covered in stale white lime. 

After the massacre, the Interhamwe militia bulldozed mass graves. They packed the graves so tightly with bodies, 50,000 bodies, that 3 months later when Tutsi survivors came back to extract their loved ones for proper burial, the corpses were not a day decomposed. Murambi is a memorial.  

On king size bed frames lay the contorted bodies of those murdered. Weaving in and out of the classrooms, I found myself looking into the calm hills for hope, for reassurance, for denial. But there was no solace, only eerie contrast. Sun-touched clouds smiling on rolling hills, broken skulls still coated in remnants of hair. Life existed here? No. Only death exists here today. 

Struggle still painted on their faces, torn dresses, the outstretched corpses of infants, inconceivable.

Flowers growing out of the cracks in the concrete sidewalk, remembrance, humanity?

Walking among strangers, no words. Words? Inconceivable. 


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sunday, 5:30 am, I stumbled out of my bed. My brain, still in hibernation mode, couldn't process the excitement of my body as I tripped over the clothes I had set out the night before. It was Marathon time! … or so I thought. In true Rwandan fashion, 4 hours later the race commenced. The village brought 20 committed young runners to compete. 2 boys ran in the 21 km race, 4 ran the 11km relay (myself included), and 14 came for the 5 km "run for fun".

So, with the sun nearing its full peak in the sky I trudged up and down Rwandan hills, each one stepper than the last. Even the downward slopes felt like a slow descent to the gates of hell, the sun relentlessly beating on my back. Truthfully, I exaggerate, and however trying, the race was exhilarating! A cadre of runners in the 5 km race were chanting and clapping, setting the tempo for our runs. Slogans like, "J' TAIME, I LOVE YOU!" and "GO MAMA GO!" filled the air with encouragement. The full marathon runners zoomed past me like the wily coyote and left me questioning how some bodies are capable of such physical rigors. As I approached the finish line in the national futbol stadium, I thought my legs were going to give out under me. But the momentum from the crowd's cheers and my desperate longing to end my misery were just the push I needed, so I lengthened my strides and leaped over the line that separated me from relief and pride!

The runners were each given a t-shirt, a packet of biscuits, water, and a banana. After my heart beat caught its normal pace, I sat in the shade of the bleachers. François, one of our 21km runners came up to me and urged I share his biscuits. I insisted that I had just finished some and he should enjoy. "NO!" he said, determined to get me to eat. Then he said something that will stay with me for a very long time, "I got an extra packet and if we are lucky enough to have, we must share. That is humanity." I was so moved that I ate the biscuit. And as I watched him offer his remaining crackers to the strangers around him I was reminded how truly special our children are.