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

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 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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Shadadi’s Story

IMG_3534I would like to share a story from one of our amazing girls at the school. This is a response for an essay in the Common Application for college. What belief have you challenged and what triggered you to act? 

This is Shadadi’s response in her own words:

“What is she waiting for? Is she waiting to grow horns so that she can get married?” said many family member and traditional leaders in my village. This was said during a meeting which was held to help my family to nurture me since it had failed to do the job very well and is missing the most important concepts [meaning early arranged marriage].

I reject the concept of getting married at a young age without my own consciousness. I cannot stand seeing a beautiful young girl being violated by being damped into marriage where most of them divorce after few months.  This makes me feel like I would tell them that I will get married when I feel like; that will be when I am done with my studies and old enough to make my own decisions.

Standing in the public and trying to convince the population around that early marriage is not the best thing to do and it does not benefit anyone except causing too much trouble made me a disobedient and talkative girl as stated by the traditional leaders because I was trying to oppose the clan belief. They started calling me a big headed person and saying that they curse the day I started going to school because it made me different from the rest.

As the saying goes, “what is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular.” This is one of my principles in life because it tends to identify me from the rest of the people who believe in popularity. I have most of the time been hated and ignored for opposing most ideas which are being supported by the majority. I do so because I first have think and analyze before taking any decision which might present my position in one way or the other.

This character of self-confidence has helped express myself and gain respect as a literate especially back home in my village. This is so because after consisted opposition of their beliefs many started coming on my side after analyzing that I was talking sense and ignored me saying I was a child. This gives the courage of being a change maker whenever I have an opportunity to. This is how I managed to change the belief which people had followed for many years without opposition.

Surprise!

IMG_3503The girls of my dorm threw me a surprise party! I’m going to miss these girls like crazy. They lured me away from the dorm under the guise that a co-worker needed me “urgently” and when I got there she and some students were painting their nails. “Well this sure looks urgent!” So I got my nails painted a nice sparkly purple and when I walked back to my dorm all the girls were convening in the living room space clapping and singing something in Kinyarwanda and they had a table set up with biscuit crackers with juice in cups and music was playing. Isn’t that awesome?! They then each took turns saying what they liked about me being here and what they’re going to miss. I brought out the little card I had made them and we had a mini dance party. The girls are crazy-awesome dancers. I usually ask them to show me dance moves but I usually fail miserably. I do have to admit though, they are either jokingly impressed by my moonwalk or genuinely impressed. Either way, it’s fun. So we had a great time jamming out but then, one of my students ran up to me saying “Hurry Ms. Julia, someone fainted outside and she’s not doing good!” Yikes. So I ran outside to see one of my students lying on the grass in the arms of several students. But then a smile spread across her face and to my right, out of no-where, the girls appeared with a bucket of water and dumped it over me! They got me good. After the first bucket came a second and a third and there was awesome laughter all around as they continued to dump water over each other and me. So much fun! These girls are just the best. I’m always going to carry them in my heart and remember what wonderful young women they are.

BOO!

IMG_0984Ya know, it’s fitting that halloween is coming up because it looks like I’m already starting to celebrate the spooky celebration: Today i accidentally terrified some children in the village. Who knew “boo!” could be so scary. I guess coming from a strange white person it is quite scary. I went for a jog along a winding dirt path up a hill past houses and fields under wisps of pink sunset and some adorable kids starting following me as they frequently do. So here I am taking my time and i decide to slow to a jog, looking behind me to smile and wave back to the kids who run up to me giggling with big smiles across their little faces. They usually shout “GOOD MORNING!” no matter the time of day and this evening is no exception.Or they wave and say “komera!” which is a greeting that means something similar to “you are strong/stay strong!” So i did the usual “good morning, komera” thing but i felt like shaking it up. So I flipped around and said “boo!” i had a smile on my face to show them i was joking but i think that might have made it all the more creepy for them because they genuinely recoiled in fear and ran away as fast as they could. Whoops! I tried to show i was joking with gestures and they returned to saying “komera” but lets be honest; that was awkward.IMG_0978

Transitions

Here I am in my last week here at the school. Argh, it makes me sad. But it is very bitter sweet: I’m excited to be in my home country with family and friends soon and yet I am going to miss Africa and these amazing young women so immensely I cannot even begin to describe it. For a while I was seriously considering staying here for an extra ten months because I love these girls so much and I am so passionate about the work being done here but in the end I really do think it’s time I return to the states: My heart sinks and uplifts simultaneously at the thought. But I don’t want to think too much about it just yet because I want to soak it all in a little while longer before I go.

One thing that made me incredibly proud was helping a student with her speech for graduation. When Alexia, a student whose smile shines out of her with the great warmth, gave her powerful and uplifting speech at graduation in front of the president and a crowd of nearly one thousand people, I was beaming. I just helped her a little with her speech but even that was pretty cool. Apparently she was a shy and timid student when she first got here and now she’s giving speeches. It was empowering to see the first ever-graduating class of the Gashora Academy receive their diplomas. This school (and Rwanda in general) is where the revolution for women’s rights in Africa is beginning to blossom. Rwanda is like a little epicenter for positive change, and I sure hope it continues on that path. Alexia is just one of the many incredible young women who I think will positively transform their country. I love these girls and I look forward to seeing what they accomplish further down the road.

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One of our star graduates stands with the founders of Rwanda Girls Initiative while they                                          are filmed by the Emmy Award winning film maker from Frontline.

Graduation was crazy! President Kagame coming made for some heck-deck planning and organizing. Although my dorm girls are used to waking up early (they wake up everyday at 5:30am for homework study) i had to wake them up even earlier, an extra half hour for the day of graduation so that soldiers could search through all their stuff, as well as mine, for the president’s arrival. Then we weren’t allowed back in the dorm until after he left in the afternoon. After breakfast, we all got searched several times before we could enter the community center where we were going to hold graduation. The atmosphere was surprisingly calm as several pleasant officials searched us. When it was my turn, the woman examined my camera carefully and said “Can i take a picture?” I laughed and said “Sure.” So she took a funny photo of me and let me go on my way. No cameras, phones or electronics were allowed in and a red carpet, VIP section with black leather chairs were brought in for His Excellency by  officials and a presidential podium was brought in for security measures. Amazingly, everything went smoothly and we all got to watch these impressive young women take the next step in their journeys. Pretty awesome.

If you’d like to see the official graduation photos, here they are. Can you spot me in the crowd? http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulkagame/sets/72157636200940596/