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.


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!


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.