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.

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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/

A Monumental Day Ahead

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The class of 2013 getting ready for a photo before the rain comes.

It’s 5am and the girls in my dorm are getting ready to see their peers accept diplomas: The first ever graduation of the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology here in Rwanda istoday. To understand why I feel like a balloon floating on euphoria you have to hear a little bit about how far these Gashora Academy girls have come.

Anocciat

Anocciat is highly appreciated by her teachers now, but it wasn’t always that way. After fleeing the genocide in Rwanda, Annociat’s mother gave birth to her in Uganda where they lived in a refugee camp. Just like food and water, education was a rarity. Very few were able to go to school but Anocciat was one of the few who attended. It took her 3 hours to walk to school and 3 hours back but she made the journey everyday. She soaked in what education she could but her teachers were keen on making things hard for her just because she was Rwandan. They beat her in front of her classmates, crossed out her right answers on exams and put in wrong ones, all the while saying things like “go back to Rwanda”. Through all of these difficulties, Annociat says “I still held on, worked hard because of true love and passion I had for education and learning.

Enatha

In Enatha’s village, no girls ever go to school. Why? Because people assume girls just get pregnant at school. When Enatha was 7, she asked her father if she could go to school. He told her “Go ahead and try.” So she did. Everyday, she would walk the far distance to school in bare feet since her family could not afford shoes. She would get to school with bloody feet and the children would tease her and break her down but she continued to go because, in her words, “I went there having in mind that I have to do what others have failed.” In an attempt to stop her studies the villagers burnt down her family’s coffee plants, “which were our source of everything.” Her father was traumatized and her mother thought about committing suicide, not knowing how they were going to survive. “After this situation, everyone was telling me to go and practice prostitute in order to get the materials to go to school and I said no that is not my dream.  I struggled, but still working hard was my goal in order to get what I want to be.” Enatha says the experience has pushed her to attain good grades so that her parents will not give up. Although her village is still not happy with her going to school, Enatha says she still attends school because “I have to make a difference and support my community so that they can move from the darkness. Living in the dark, always push me to strive reaching in the light, and I will reach there. This I believe.”

Enatha is striving towards a career as a doctor.

To be a part, however small, of helping these inspirational young women achieve greatness is something I am grateful for. I can’t believe my luck in being able to volunteer for this school that has allowed girls like Enatha and Anocciat to flourish and pursue their goals. This is the school that has sent girls to the prestigious African Leadership Academy: the school that has had girls flourish from being non-English speakers, to receiving high marks on the English SAT section. This is the school that teaches 270 girls how to become physicists, biologists and doctors in a country where only a small percentage of women occupy these positions currently. The Gashora Girls Academy is an epicenter for positive change in Africa. Being a small part of the accomplishments here at this Academy is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Seeing these incredible girls accept their diplomas today will be like watching a new and refreshing history unfold and the beginning of something beautiful.

Positive Change is Like a Papaya

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Positive change is like a papaya. It starts with a seed and when planted, it grows, flourishes and takes shape. When the fruit is ingested, it benefits the whole body and mind with it’s nutritious qualities. Positive change is happening here at the Gashora Academy like a landscape full of papaya trees springing up into the sky. The sisterhood I see here is an unquestioned source of strength and unity that lingers palpably about the classrooms and dorms. This is a place where empowering women is the absolute norm; it is so a part of the daily life that I forget about it sometimes. So I often step back and think “wow, that student’s perspective on contraception is revolutionary” or “wow, that t-shirt says ‘End hunger, empower women farmers” “How cool is it that we show films like Half the Sky and Girl Rising?” 

All of these simple aspects add up to a school where girls learn to appreciate their full value. They learn to become well-rounded women seeking their own individual careers and identities through paths like politics, engineering and physics. And on the side, the school instills an understanding of women’s human rights issues that we face around the world and offers solutions on a day-to-day basis of how to end such problems. How great is that? News articles will be posted on the walls about current issues. For example, an article was taped up on the wall outside about obstetric fistulas. Obstetric fistulas are a devastatingly common health problem women face in giving childbirth, mainly in developing nations. Beneath the article a teacher had written “Want to be a doctor and eliminate this problem?” This school is where positive change is happening. Education really is the key. It is like planting papaya seeds and watching the trees sprout and flourish.