Embarking on Their Dreams

The Gashora Girls are some of the most incredible young women I have ever been lucky enough to meet. Here is Celeste, Enatha, Yvonne, Jocelyn and Merveille, embarking on their dreams. I am so proud of, and inspired by all of them.

Uncomfortable Encounter Turns Uplifting

What at first was an uncomfortable encounter ended up being an uplifting situation. So, this 50 something guy came through my line at the local grocery store where i’m a cashier. He started hitting on me, fiercely. When older men hit on me, it’s not a compliment, it makes me feel unsafe and insecure. When guys hit on me in a disrespectful way, I feel like I’ve been knocked down a peg, reduced to my body and it’s not a great feeling. So the guy put the merchandise on the conveyor belt, looked me up and down and glanced at my name tag, glomming onto some topic to chat me up about.

“Julia. Ya know, the Beatles have a song about you.” And he proceeded to sing quietly to me under his breath and then said “That’s a nice song, don’t you think?”

I just tried being professional throughout his attempts to flirt with me and tried not to make much eye contact. The singing could have been kind of funny if it weren’t coming from someone who had me trapped at my workplace and from someone eyeing me sexually.

Luckily, the encounter was brief but as he turned to leave he gave me one more look up and down and said “Wow, you’re looking real nice in those hip-huggers.”

Just a little comment; enough to make me feel vulnerable and enough to jab at my comfort and security. First of all, hip huggers? The phrase definitely told his age, but it was also a way for him to comment on a part of my body.

And I’m sorry to say, I think I had the classic response which was to look away and say, “thanks” uncomfortably.

I tried to shrug it off like no big deal, but damn: It made me really uncomfortable. But what made the situation uplifting was when I was counting my till in the count-down room and mentioned it off handedly to my co-workers, who were immediately appalled.

“What?!” One of them said, a nice guy who’s expecting a baby with his wife. “You can report him you know.”

And then one of my managers over heard our conversation as he was walking out the door and took a step back and said “What happened?” When I told him, he took it very seriously and encouraged me to call a manager over next time so one of them can pull the guy aside and tell him that kind of behavior isn’t tolerated at the Good Food Store.

The fact that they were all taking it so seriously and that my manager was making sure to put his female-employee’s comfort at the top of the totem poll was very encouraging. I felt rejuvenated. Yeah! it did make me feel like shit, and people shouldn’t be permitted to objectify others and make them feel unsafe. Other grocery stores would probably be inclined to say something along the lines of, “Well forget about it, he’s a paying customer” and put the customers demeaning persona ahead of the well-intentioned workers. But, not where I work!

At first, my posture slumped after the encounter and I felt demeaned, but after talking to my co-workers and manager, I felt empowered and more secure in the place of my work, knowing that they have my back and won’t allow creepers to be creepin’. I don’t deserve such creepy disrespect and neither do other people.

What would you say to someone who was inappropriately hitting on you at work?

 

Rwanda Girls Update

Here is Celeste, one of the students from the Gashora Girls Academy, rockin’ it at the United Nations for the summit on International Girl Empowerment. I would have loved to hear her speech. What an inspiration she is.

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And here’s a great compilation of photos from some of the students from the Gashora Girls Academy at their respective colleges around the globe. You go girls!10599250_10152650194720539_5182486934905369152_n

Micro loans Go a Long Way

Africa has been especially on my mind lately. In honor of missing the beautiful continent I’d like to share this awesome video expressing how women of Uganda can and have used their micro loans to improve their lives and communities. This video is the largest lip dub in Africa with 500 women lip-sinking. Every single woman in the video has started a business of their own with a micro-loan. Check it out: It’s a fun music video. For more info check out www.microbanker.com

A Gashora Student Who is Rockin’ It

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Celeste Dushime. Photograph: UN Foundation

Celeste, a student of the Gashora Girls Academy where I worked in Rwanda, has an article on The Guardian! Although I didn’t get the pleasure of teaching a class of hers frequently, I did teach one class in particular that she was in and I was absolutely blown away by her intellect and voice for women’s rights. She really stood out to me: while we were having a discussion in class about health care reform in Rwanda she said some very astute and intelligent comments about how women are treated differently in Rwandan culture and how she believes this needs to change. And here she is on The Guardian now, speaking out! You go girl! Click on the link below for the brief article.

Grenade Attacks

I wrote this post on September 19th : I didn’t want people to worry about me, but now that I am safely back stateside, here it is.

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At the bus station

There was another grenade attack last night here in Kigali, Rwanda. Yep, there are grenade attacks happening here. I’ll admit, being in the city when there are grenade attacks happening at the bus stations and the markets I frequent is a little intense. And what’s crazy is that almost everyone I talk to about it is nonchalant. When I say “Did you hear about the grenade attack yesterday?!” their response is “Huh? Oh yeah I heard about that. So where should we get lunch?” For me I’m thinking. “I was just there an hour ago, at that market, where the grenade blew up and people died. I was just there.” Makes me pause and think about the people who were there just going about their daily lives when it happened and the fact that I could have been there too.

For the three months I have been here, there have been six grenade attacks. Six. All of the attacks are happening here in the city and three of those attacks were just this weekend while I have been here in the city. One of the attacks left dozens dead and injured many more. The only way we all even know about it is from the U.S and Canadian embassies that have issued information to us via email so as to warn us of the danger. This weekend they have issued a warning saying “…do not go out unless absolutely necessary.” But I have to get back to Gashora village somehow so I can get back to my students and go to work. Plus it’s safe there. But that means risking going to a bus station where many of these attacks have happened. No one is sure of the motivation behind the grenade attacks but they always happen at crowded areas.

Also, right now there is a conflict between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. The M23s, (the militia group in the DRC) have been lobbing bombs across the border over here to Rwanda. Luckily, lately the bombs have subsided and they haven’t dropped where I live, but pretty damn close. It would be like someone bombing one side of New York City while you’re on the other side. So when you think about it that way, yes, these bombs are falling very close to where I live everyday. And yet, everyone around me is incredulously nonchalant about it and I find myself putting it in the back of my mind just as they are. What else can ya do? If it got to a point where it really was so unsafe and dangerous, I would have to fly back to the states. But that’s really not something I need to do. But the thing that really concerns me is the idea of putting my mother in danger. My God that would be the worst thing. My mom is coming to visit next month and then we’re going to fly back to the States together. I think it’ll be an amazing adventure for her and I think she’ll have a great time but I don’t want there to be any risk of grenades or bombs. I’m just really hoping things calm down. (Update: Things did calm down and my mother and I had an amazing time.)

So Rwanda is one of the safest countries in Africa but… there are grenade attacks… and bombs coming from our neighbors to the west…and it’s all just part of the risk of being here I guess, despite the fact that things really are pretty safe in this country otherwise. Although I’m taken aback by the whole thing, my experience here is still amazing and of course I plan on continuing work at the school.

What’s Next?

Now that I’m back in the States, what’s next? That is the ultimate question, one I have been exploring. For the past several weeks I have been MIA from my blog because I’ve been absorbing the surreal experience of being back in the States and looking at my life in a different light, sometimes feeling guilty for what I have that others don’t throughout the world. The other night I was playing beer pong and laughing along with everyone at a party, but I was absent in mind, lost in thought. My friend Cooper must have caught onto this because he said good-naturedly, Julia must be tripping out right now. What does it all mean?” Haha and indeed I was. What does it all mean?

I spoke at a fundraiser dinner about my experience in Rwanda and I’ve been working on editing my book as well as working on a new one, playing guitar and partying with friends like I did before I left for Africa: So things are surreal and strangely similar to when I left but the internal growth and understanding that has grown is awesome to experience: My world perspective has been shaped: My perspective is ready to go to work as teaching tools now and into the future.

1120031423bToday, I walked out my door, sat in my car and drove ten minutes to a beautiful hiking trail. (That right there is incredible in so many ways.) As I walked along the trail taking in the beauty of the stretching Ponderosa Pines with their vanilla smell permeating the air and the rushing river’s sound reaching my ears, the sunlight obscured a shape in front of me: A deer stood hardly two feet from me beside the path staring up at me. It nodded it’s head gracefully several times not sure whether to move closer or back away. I like to think it was a magical moment, this deer pausing to stare up at me. But in all honestly the deer was probably paralyzed by fear. So for whatever comes next I plan on moving onward and not being a deer paralyzed by fear; a deer caught in the headlights: I plan on moving forward towards endeavors in one way or another. Can’t wait to find out what my next adventure will be: Will it be another big adventure or a small one? We shall see. 1120031419

What Does This Experience Mean?

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What does this experience here mean, volunteering in Rwanda? One of our students posted a status on Facebook saying something like “all these white people come here to see how much better their lives are than ours.” She wasn’t talking specifically about any of the Muzungu (white) teachers, or anyone I know. She was talking about tourists in general. But it is an honest statement. Hmm… It’s important to really look at your own intentions while volunteering abroad. Luckily I don’t think I am just another white-honky seeing how good I’ve got it back home, although I certainly do acknowledge my white privilege. What I am developing is a way to be a positive indent on this planet. My intention is to be of help, to observe, to explore and to journey in order to come to understandings about my country and about myself  and to help others in the process. Education is such a beautiful part of life; I want to make sure everyone, no matter what country you come from or if you’re a boy or girl, has the opportunity to reap the benefits of equality through education. So far, I have had the pleasure of seeing what  life is like on a different part of the planet, I’ve formed friendships, taught great students and have met amazing people.

Frankly, my intentions were to be a giver in the me-Africa-relationship and give my all to the school, which i have, but wow if I don’t feel like a kid at Christmas ripping open my presents because of what I have inadvertently been given while volunteering here: My soul has deepened: My feeling of family has grown from across the Atlantic ocean to the continent over here: My eyes and heart have been opened, my mind broadened and I have learned about the raw-ness of life: I am now rooted in knowing my connection to the planet and more so than ever and I know that the whole of humanity is my family: The girls have welcomed me to their amazing school and they have made me adore each of them for their uniqueness of spirit and incredible intellect. So again, what does my experience mean?  I’ll just briefly look back on these past several months, as the experiences pop into my head, whether they were good experiences or unfortunate ones.IMG_1002

I have rooted myself to the Gashora school and have traveled. I have looked on as people from the village “steal” drinking water. (Think about that for a second. to “steal” drinking water.) I have observed my dinner being carried to the back of a building, it’s eyes blinking unknowingly. I have picked up trash in people’s backyards along with students for the national community day and then burned the trash into billowing, engulfing clouds of toxic smoke. (hmm…) I’ve met Masai women in Tanzania who have undergone female genital mutilation and have met the young British girls in Zanzibar, hours before they were attacked with acid. I have bought avocadoes for less than a nickel from sweet old women at the market under acacia trees. I have been chased by giggling children in bare feet and dusty dresses. I have seen the dedication of hard working students who yearn to be doctors and scientists of their own country that so recently told them no, “people like you” stay in the home and should not go to school. I have learned about the long journeys my students have had to overcome just so they can get their education. They were beaten, run-down and teased by their previous teachers. They have walked hours on bloody feet just to get to school and their families crops have been burned to the ground just because they were girls and wanted an education. They have stood up to the old ways and voiced their opinions against child marriage. They have fought for their rights as women/girls/humans. I am in awe and ever grateful for my experience here.

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So what’s next? I don’t’ know. But I DO know I will continue on a positive path. No matter what I’m doing, my love for humanity, particularly women’s rights, will flow through me. I see that there is this giant, wonderful transformation underway world-wide that is starting to enable women to rise up in equality and have their rights. As you may know, a world movement for women’s rights is still very needed: unequal pay for equal work, objectification of women, victim blaming, bride burningssex slaveryfemale genital mutilation and acid attacks, just to name a few, are reasons a women’s rights movement is so important. (Click the blue to find more info about each.) The fact that this list is so abhorrently long is reason enough for us to say, no more.

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It’s unfortunate it has taken this long for a world-wide movement but I am so grateful to be involved in it. So how do I stay involved in this women’s rights movement that is, I believe, underway? Well, sadly, in my very own country, we still need to fight the good fight: Women’s rights are being chipped away in the States: The human right to have control over one’s own body is being challenged by certain governmental figures. If a woman is told that a bundle of cells growing in her uterus essentially has more rights than she does, what does that say about our country? The USA is a giant role model for the world and if they’re not enabling women’s rights, who will? In Rwanda, I see first hand the huge impact that the USA has on other countries in the world. So if the States can’t get their shit together, then what? If the States won’t pay women an equal salary for equal work then we’re all screwed. If they don’t offer proper maternal and paternal care then who will? If my own government in the States will bend over backwards and jeopardize their own people and economy and shut down the government in large part due to their opposing opinions about birth control, where is my country and this world going? So to answer the question I had at the beginning of this paragraph: How do I stay involved? Well, my own country needs a lot of help too. I will stay involved in the women’s rights movement where ever I go.

Torn Between Worlds

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I’m torn between worlds. I now have two true loves: Missoula Montana and Kigali/Gashora Rwanda. It is hard being in love with two different places. The countdown for returning to the states is 2 nights. One arm is being pulled back into America where I live in the mountains and walk out my door to hiking trails and a comfortable life and friends. The other arm is pulling me to Rwanda where adventure waits around every corner and bright African students anxiously absorb their education. One arm offers a comfortable lifestyle, relaxed and at ease. The other offers challenges needing to be overcome, but an enveloping, ever-present sense of purpose. I don’t know how I’m going to feel when I get back to the States. I honestly didn’t think it would happen but I really am a very different person now than when I left. I have molded like clay; obtained insight and wisdom. But I also feel as though I have aged several years and the weight of the human experience has made my load heavier. With each step I take getting closer and closer to the states I feel my heart ache for both places at the same time. But what I should really be looking at is, “wow, look at what I have accomplished.” So instead of gazing starry eyed or fearful-eyed into the future I’m just going to say, “Wow. This has been an amazing 5 months.”

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