Monday, July 18, 2011

Kenya: July 18

To begin, happy birthday Nelson Mandela and happy Mandela day to everyone in South Africa. On this day everyone is asked to do 67 minutes of volunteer work or service to others, in commemoration of each year of public service that Nelson Mandela has performed in his life.

Otherwise, things here continue to be great. This weekend Courtney and I went to Masai Mara for a break, which involved a lot of time in the car. We took an early morning bus ride on Saturday to Narok, and from there were picked up to drive the 150km to Masai Mara game park, one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. The drive that distance took just over 3 hours because the roads are TERRIBLE, marked with potholes and well..very little road at all, and just took a long time. The time we had in the Mara though made up for the journey, as we saw tons of game in two game drives. Packs of lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, even some hyenas, antelopes, impalas, hippos, some mongoose, baboons, and others. Now is the time of year when everyone comes to Mara to see the wildebeest migration (yes, the one that killed Mufasa) and at the end of this week they expect 1-2 million wildebeest to storm through the park. We didnt see any actual stampedes, but we did see plenty of wildebeests which were incredible to see. We also made some friends as we joined a group of people who came down from Nairobi. In our van was a couple from Edmonton, as well as two girls who were at a conference in Nairobi for a few days, one from Lusaka, Zambia, and the other from Chennai, India. Really great people and we had a nice time getting to know them over dinner on Saturday night.

The journey back from the Mara was pretty intense. We got back to Narok after 3 hours, and then had something to eat. We made our way to the taxi stand, and we got tickets to go back to Matongo, but it involved a few different transfers. Got into a bit of a fight in the parking lot of the gas station, basically me yelling at people calling them liars because we sat waiting for 2 hours before we actually left, and getting frustrated over something that is to be expected. Also made some friends in the matatu (taxi which holds 14) as they were from some of the communities that we are working with,.

After a 3 hour drive, Kepha came to our rescue and picked us up, with the teacher of a nearby school driving. The drive back to Matongo from there took about an hour and a half, in rain, crazy muddy roads where we were sliding more than in a blizzard in Toronto, and over bumps which essentially felt like we were driving down the side of a hill. All the time there was gospel music playing and the trunk didn't close properly, so it was insanely noisy. With the noise, music and circumstances, Courtney and I just ended up laughing our heads off for a good half hour, until we got back to our lodgings.

Today we recovered with a bit of a sleep in, and in the morning were met with a bit of controversy. Just before we left, Kepha found the guy who had been tending to our chicken farm, trying to sell eggs that we had been producing. He had apparently been stealing half the eggs we were producing, and after (I swear this is true) a high speed motorbike chase and a bit of pursuit on foot, Kepha grabbed the guy, who was holding a bag filled with eggs, and brought him to the office.

When Kepha told us what happened, we headed to the office, but half way we found them standing with the man, surrounded with a group of people. He had his head down, his hands were tied together with a piece of rope, and he just looked scared. The man was not just a thief who broke into the farm and stole the eggs, it was the man who we have trusted to look after the farm and the chickens over the past 8 months. I was shocked to see him sitting there with his hands tied. Kepha had told me that he wanted to take him to the police station, but when I arrived everyone sort of looked at me and told me that they wanted to forgive him and let him go since we had recovered the eggs he had stolen. I said that this was not my decision, as I suddenly got really uncomfortable feeling like a judge of some sort, and said that they had to do what the people wanted. Despite the involvement with our project, it was NOT my place to decide this man's fate, and so I said to do what the people there wanted to do, and just make sure that he went nowhere near the project again.

As I have always said, it is difficult finding people to trust here, because with hand outs comes people who want in. We are trying to help a variety of people, and of course it requires the right motivation and commitment to assist in such a project. I have found some amazing people to make sure this project is a success on the ground here, and if that means that once in a while we get taken advantage of or screwed in some way, I think that the ultimate result is a lesson learned, and it makes us stronger in the future. Leaks in the organization or project, especially a young project, just show that we are of course vulnerable, but it is better to have something amateur than nothing at all. There is lots that we'd like to get done, and in the end, at least we got all the eggs back even though a few broke during the high speed pursuit. I was obviously upset with this man, and even more upset when I considered that this chicken farm was created specifically to assist people in the community suffering from HIV/AIDS. If anything, he required forgiveness from above, not only the forgiveness of his fellow community members, and I hope that he realizes this soon. We were upset that this would likely make him someone who becomes idle and turns to negative influences, but I guess if need be, then we have the opportunity to offer someone else who has nothing to do with his time, the ability to get involved and help with a project.

Anyway, interesting day and we kicked off later in the afternoon peace club #9 at Glory Academy here in Matongo. Had a great talk with the students there, and they were really enthusiastic about the idea of a peace club.

In town today Courtney and I found pasta and she's been working for the last hour on a killer tomato sauce, so am going to go try it and very excited for some decent tasting food!

Kenya : July 15

Today was a phenomenal day. As word gets around about our organization people get in touch with us with different ideas and requests for partnership and support. One such person is the director and principal of a school in a village called Kipkelion, which is about a 2.5 hour drive from our village of Matongo.

I did not know much about the school until we arrived there, and when I did it became clear exactly what ideals and message this school embodied. We quickly found out that the school had approximately 190 students, the majority of whom were orphans. They were orphaned as a result of either HIV/AIDS or the post election violence which killed many at the start of 2008. This area was badly hit by the violence, and we found out that most of the village was essentially burned down Despite the dark past and the situation of these children, we were blown away by the reception we received, and the high spirits of all the kids at the school.

As our car pulled into the entrance of the school, a school made out of loose wooden boards and a tin roof, we were greeted with 50 children singing and dancing, who had been doing so for a half hour as we made our way to them. As we stepped out of the car, we were given roses (not common in this area) and wreaths to put around our necks. They were happy that we were white visitors who had come to the school, despite the fact that we had not been able to offer them any support yet at all. They just wanted people to see the efforts that had been made for their rehabilitation, and what the school does, and the kids were so happy that we were able to attend. We were blown away. Those who attended were myself, my friend Courtney from the US, Joe from Austria, and Kepha and Millicent, two locals who are helping run the organization.

As the kids continued to sing the song of welcome, they walked as we followed them to the school building. At the front gate of the school stood all the other kids, lining the road as we walked to the school, as well as a few parents (of those who have parents) and all 20 teachers.

We walked into the school grounds, and while speaking to the principal, all the kids rushed to take their seats in class. Then, one by one, we went into each class to introduce ourselves to the kids for a few minutes. We said good morning, spoke to them about a few things, saw their classrooms, and asked what they were learning about. They have kids from grades 1-7, and as we got to the older classes we asked them what they wanted to be when they were older. The answers we got blew us away, as the kids said they wanted to be engineers, doctors, magistrates, pilots and teachers. The passion of the teachers and the work that they put into the kids was amazing, and we were impressed with the efforts of the children and especially the amount of English that they knew.

After the classroom visits, we, along with the parents, teachers, school administrators, and all the students, took our seats in the field as each grade came up and did a small drama performance for us. I said to them afterwards that I wished that kids in North America learned how to do this, because it no doubt teaches a bunch of different skills that could make kids more outgoing, creative, and turn the focus away from solely academics. We were stunned at their level of performance, and we were all just realy touched by the welcome we got. We spent time afterwards taking pictures with the students, speaking to some of the elders, and speaking to the principal, and I told him that we would try find him some help and partners at home.

This school has nothing to do with the project we are here to do, but after seeing the kids, their determination and their abilities, especially keeping in mind what happened in their pasts, we need to find some help for them. There is huge potential to create a partnership for pen pals with different schools in Canada, sponsoring school activities, uniforms, supplies, books, etc. so this will definitely be an effort I will be working on when I return home. The whole visit left us all speechless, and on the way back in the car we were all pretty silent, gathering our thoughts and thinking what else we could do to help.

Peace is obviously important, and its what we are here to proliferate. It is at these lowest levels however where it is most important, and it is incredible that these children have such positive outlooks and attitudes. We were introduced to students who walk 5 km each way to and from school, and even one who runs 12km every morning to get to school. This is what their lives are, and we have the ability to help improve them at least a little bit. I really think it is our duty to help and this is where peace comes from, the lowest, grassroots levels.

Later that night we did a shabbat dinner back in the village while still talking about the experience from earlier that day, and the impression that we were left with was that if these youths could turn out so well, and still be positive, then there is hope for anyone, and lots of potential for our immediate projects and organization to grow.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Kenya: July 12

Today I met with 25 people who are HIV positive. We met in a small room of a building which serves as a clinic both for HIV/AIDS patients, as well as other patients who require medical services.

About a year ago, the youths with whom I work in Kenya told me that they had started a chicken farm. Like I said in a previous post, this farm is used to donate eggs to people in the three communities who we work with who have recently been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. They are asked to acknowledge their disease, come forward for treatment, and those who ask are provided some eggs as a show of support from the community of youths, as well as giving them the few nutrients that eggs provide.

I walked into a small room and these 25 people were seated on a number of benches, and before me I found the majority were elderly women, a number of men, and two children. The volunteer who is in charge of the group, who calls themselves PLWA (People Living With AIDS) gave each person a chance to speak, gave me a chance to speak to them, and we just had a discussion for a while. The HIV/AIDS crisis here, though perhaps not as bad as some other countries in Africa, is still terrible. Aside from the obvious health effects, there are significant social stereotypes that are increasingly difficult to overcome. A woman of 80 stood up, leaning on her walking stick, and told me that people do not greet or speak to her because they know that she is HIV positive. When she said this many of the others in the room nodded in agreement, as they too have the same experiences in their villages. This practice on its own demonstrates that there is a long distance to go both in terms of prevention as well as information in general society, both here and abroad, as to what HIV/AIDS is, and how it can be dealt with in a proper manner.

After the meeting which lasted about an hour, I got to speak to a number of them personally and they told me how the disease afflicted their livs. They told me how they are grateful for the eggs that we provide, no matter how small a gesture it is, and I informed them that we would be meeting with them next Tuesday to distribute the eggs to them. We stressed that their plight is the plight of the whole country, and that throughout our peace building efforts, we would also try to bring people together to help fight this disease, boost awareness of it from all levels in our particular village, and do what we can to help. It was a really eye opening experience, especially seeing the number of elderly woman who were afflicted, and it upset me to know how difficult it is to be open about it here. It is one thing to not be open about it in a society where HIV/AIDS is not such a massive problem like at home, but here, where in some parts of the country 30% of the people are afflicted, the only way to overcome this disease is by finding out your status, and seeking assistance. The youths here are acutely aware of the massive step that is required to admit that you have this condition, and so they decided that the chicken project would be just a small way to help people cope and show that not everyone in society feels the way that others do.

Aside from that visit, later in the day we visited a peace club that I helped set up the last time I was here at Agai Primary School, near Sondu. We spoke to a group of 30 students, they told us the progress that they had made with their club, and shared some of their ideas. I told them that I'd give them $50 if they come up with a good idea in one week that they can use the money for, and even before I left the room they started brainstorming what they could do. This visit showed how important it is to continue to engage the youths, in particular the students, who want to learn, who want to make a difference, and who have the ability to spread various messages amongst their peers.

Otherwise, just got back to the office, and we are going to have dinner soon. Dinner tonight consists of Chapatis (African pancakes), samosas filled with peas, some vegetables, mango, and I am treating myself and two others to beer. Mmmm warm beer....

Courtney and Joe arrive tomorrow from Nairobi, and I'm really excited for some company and to see what we can do together!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Kenya: July 11

Yesterday was pretty funny. As a youth group in Kenya that is somewhat organized, some other groups have heard about us and have asked that while I am here, I can go and speak to them, and see what they are involved with, and give them some advice.

Yesterday, I was asked to advise on the feasibility of a fish project. That was fun. I was taken to a village two hours from here, met some of the youths involved, and then walked through a muddy field to a "pond" which was the size of a swimming pool that someone would have in their backyard. I was told that there were approximately 300 tilapia in this pond, and was then told about how they harvest it, what they are able to sell the fish for, and how they feed the fish. They then turned to me and asked me for advice on how to make the farm more productive, and asked what else they should do to improve the project. I usually don't find myself without words....but I sort of just stared at them and said..."the project is still young, you'll figure something out." They all nodded in agreement, and that comment seemed to bide some time, until Kepha stepped in and offered his two cents, which was much appreciated and a good way for me to take a back seat.

It always makes me laugh when I am asked some questions here that I would of course never be asked in any other setting. There is this perception that white people (mzungus) know just about everything there is to know, and so it takes some explanation that my knowledge and experience is of course very limited. Also, since the villages in Kenya are rural and all agricultural, many of the youths here believe that Canada, and specifically Toronto, are exactly the same. I often get asked what is our cash crop in Toronto, how many cows I own, and whether I have executed a variety of animals. Its difficult to explain the truth, so sometimes, depending on my mood, I just go along with it and tell them that instead of a pool in my backyard we grow maize, and instead of 4 cars in the driveway, we have cows that regularly wander around the neighbourhood. Helps prevent the "lost in translation" look I get from so many.

Yesterday I showed Kepha a picture of downtown Toronto that I had taken from my office. Its a view of tall buildings, City Hall, etc. I told him that this is what Toronto looked like and that I worked on the 60th floor of a building. He looked at the picture in silence, looked up at me, and slowly said "Mr Adam....this is what I imagine heaven must look like." Its all about perspective, and its always important to keep that in mind before I burst out laughing. Looking at the rolling green countryside here, the orange and red sunsets, and the bright colours everywhere, I told him that I imagine that this here is what heaven must look like, and he could not understand why I said that.

Last night for dinner we went to a local family, the parents of one of the youths with whom we work. They had me into their house, and as is the practice here whenever I visit anywhere, I go around shaking the hand and meeting everyone present, and then we sit, and each person takes turns with opening remarks and comments. The children even introduce themselves to their parents, which I always find weird, and then talk about what they do, and welcome me in.

In this particular house, everyone was laughing and we were having a really nice time together. Then they took out the dinner. It was ugali (which is like this maize meal food that we have at every meal), and some vegetables, and they told me they had cooked a chicken precisely because of my visit. Was very nice, and they made me a plate of food. Almost as soon as I put my hands into the meal (often no cutlery here), a chicken walked into the room and came up next to me. Just stood there. Watching me, as if it was daring me to eat its brother. I sort of looked at the chicken next to me, then looked at the chicken leg in front of me....thought about it for a second....then pushed it to the side and ate the rest of the meal. I then pulled apart the piece of chicken to make it look like I ate something, and thanked them for the meal.

The last few days have been fantastic and have consisted of catching up on what has been happening here since my last visit, getting to know a few more areas, and meeting up with new friends I have not seen in a while.

This past Friday we visited a nearby high school for boys where I spoke to approximately 200 students. One of the projects that we are involved with is school visits and setting up peace clubs in various schools so that students can go on and become ambassadors in their own and each others' communities. Schools are good to use because they are made up of students from a variety of communities, and so they have a variety of experiences and abilities in terms of reaching out to others. We spoke for about half an hour to the group of students, and then 20 of them suddenly came out dressed as Masai warriors, and did two Masai dances and songs, which were really great to watch.

That was the only thing we did on Friday, and then Friday night I was able to do a little Shabbat dinner with my friends in our office. I taught them about the different blessings over the food and candles, and performed them with them responding "amen" every time I paused to take a breath. Had a really nice night, and then as always, I went to my room at about 8pm.

Here, when it gets dark there really isn't much to do. The place where I am staying is a 15 minute walk down a dark road from the office where we spend most of our days, and so when its dark its best to just get home when I can. I usually sit and read for a few hours, though lately I've discovered a few movies I have stored on my ipod, and watching parts of those has made me pass the night hours. I usually go to sleep around 2am at home, so I can't quite get used to turning in 6 hours before that like most people do here.

On the weekend I got to visit the village of Kiptere, where I stayed on my two prior visits to Kenya. I got to see some old friends there and see what they are up to. The highlight of my trip there was to visit an older man in the village named Geoffrey. Geoffrey is a retired teacher who suffers from cerebral palsy. Despite this handicap however, and his inability to move very much, he is brilliant, and quick, and its always so nice to speak to him. I brought two of my friends with on Saturday to meet with him, and we just sat for 2 hours laughing and speaking to him about things like being a good parent, what is needed for the youths in Kenya today, and a variety of other random but really interesting topics. The other youths, who were now meeting him for this first time, just sat in awe listening to him, and laughing at his jokes. When we left, Kepha told me how impressed he was with Geoffrey and how he wished that Geoffrey was his father.

Later in the day we traveled to Kericho which is a nearby town, so that we could meet one of Kepha's brothers, get some lunch, and try find some souvenirs. I also met up with my friend Jess, who since I was last here has spent two years in teachers college. She looked great and was THRILLED to see me, which was really nice. She burst into tears when she first saw me, and spent the rest of our hour together worrying that I was not eating enough, things like that. She's very sweet and thoughtful, and calls all the time to make sure things are ok. She'll make a great teacher, and it was really nice to see her and all these others again.

Today we are heading to a college to try start a peace club there, and then tomorrow will be meeting with some families who are HIV/AIDS positive, and who are receiving the eggs that we have from our chicken project. My friend Courtney arrives on Wednesday along with another volunteer from Austria named Joe who is coming to check out some of the stuff we're doing here.
Do not have all that much time left here, but am trying to make the most of it. As always however, the people remain phenomenally hospitable, and as the resident mzungu, I am constantly followed by a group of people just sort of looking at me. The main mode of transportation around the village is by motorbike, and so whenever I am riding on the back of one, I drive past groups of children and others who shout 'MZUNGU!!" and then try chase after me. Still takes some getting used to, and one of the hardest things is the fact that everyone sees you and asks you for money. Its difficult, and for so many of them you really want to help. People have asked me for assistance for their church, for medication for certain illnesses, for mosquito nets, etc. and its difficult to say no to these people. This is however the world, and we're trying to help in small ways however we can, but obviously can't help everyone just yet.

Anyway, its time for lunch. Rice and avocado as usual. Not going to lie....the food here I can do without. I find myself craving sushi and McDonalds, which I don't even really eat at home (McDonalds that is), but its not ugali, which is all that matters. Otherwise, no complaints and looking forward to the arrival of Courtney!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Kenya: Day 1

I've finally arrived back in Kenya and its really nice to be back. I took a 19 hour bus ride from Kigali to Eldoret in Kenya, crossing two borders (driving through Uganda) and making some friends on the bus, including Abdul, the young Rwandan guy who had his luggage stolen at the Ugandan border. Really unfortunate, but its hardly surprising based on how the border crossings are conducted.

You arrive at the border, and the driver shouts "BORDER!" Everyone then stands up, gets off the bus, and walks to the exit desk of whatever country you're coming from. They give you one of those customs cards to fill out, asking for all your information like name, date of birth, passport number, where you stayed, where you are staying, how long you're in the country, and others. I had to fill these out about 7 times from going into each country and exiting each one, and I noticed that the border guards do not look at them at all. On this last time leaving Rwanda, I figured to test out the authorities, so in the whole form (a page long), I just wrote 'Adam', and handed it to the agent with my passport. She took the form, didn't look at it, put it aside, and stamped my passport.

After getting your exit stamp, you have to walk a kilometer across no-man's land, in the middle of the dark, with only one security officer with a rifle standing in the middle. By the time you get to the other side there's another long line waiting to get their visas to the next country done. You get the requisite money ready, usually around $30 USD, fill out another form (this time I just wrote 'Hummel') and then gave them my passport. They look through it, find a page, and stamp.

At this point, you exit the building and are attacked by swarms of men wearing yellow jackets who are trying to exchange your money. Every single one of them asks you, even if they have just seen you do it with someone else. There are thousands of people just standing around at these border crossings, which is why I say that its hardly a surprise that the guy on the bus had his stuff somehow taken, and eventually making your way through these money changers, people selling water, cookies, bananas and coke, you get back onto the bus.

The bus ride was long, and I arrived in the town of Eldoret in Kenya around 2pm. I asked one of the organizers of the Youth Ambassadors for Peace, which is our organization here, to come and get me from Eldoret, not knowing that it was about a 3 hour drive from his village. He arrived nonetheless, we had lunch together, then we jumped into a packed matatu for the drive back to the village. A matatu is the most common form of transportation in Kenya, and its basically a van with the driver in the front, and three rows in the back. In Nairobi, people fit about 12 people into a matatu including the driver. In the villages however, they fit as many people as can physically fit into the vehicle, including their chickens. On the way to the village I sat with my huge pack on my lap, Kepha and Albert (organizers) on either side of me, and 20 other people behind, including 3 chickens who kept squawking everytime we made a sharp turn.

Eventually, we arrived in the village, and I was shown our office. It has a big picture of our logo on the front and says 'Youth Ambassadors for Peace' on the top.

I walked inside and found it perfectly organized, with two tables, with some flags, carved African art on the tables, and two computers sitting at the head of the table. On the walls some of the youths have painted African artwork, and there are printed photos of scenes from the football tournaments, school groups that we have created, and there is a picture of me from facebook, which is hilarious. There is also a great picture of Courtney and myself (Courtney Toretto is my friend who came with last time to help run the workshop and who is coming next week thank God!)

So, feeling very much at home I had some dinner and slept in the bed in the back of the office. That was yesterday. This morning I was taken to meet the principal of the local high school, who is a mzungu (white person) like myself, who is from Finland. Strict, keen, and serious, she welcomed me to the school and spoke about her experiences living here the last 15 years. She then offered me a guest house on the grounds of the school that I was happy to accept.

Now, last time I stayed in Kenya, I stayed on a bed that was just a mattress and a frame. The toilet was an outhouse with a pit latrine, and putting a rock over the whole in the floor, this room doubled as my shower. The shower consisted of warm-ish water in a big bucket that I would splash on myself every morning, and though it did the always sort of left you wanting more. This is what I was expecting this time around, and was all ready for it.

However, the guest house at the school is amazing. It has a room that locks with two single beds with mosquito nets hanging over. In the same building there is a living room, a kitchen, and.....wait for it.....bathrooms with toilets and showers!!!! I took a great shower this morning with warm water from outside (heated by the sun) and....well....was happy to use the toilet and not have my back and knees aching for hours afterwards...that's all I'll say.

After this glorious morning, Kepha and Ledmark took me to see the chicken project. It is a farm with about 120 chickens now, and the eggs they lay are given to a number of families in the three villages we work with who have recently been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. It is a fantastic project started entirely by the youths here, and it was amazing to see it in action. Kepha told me that we would be meeting with some of the families who receive the eggs we donate, and that they were keen on giving their testimony about how they discovered their HIV+ status and how they are coping with this disease. Its amazing that they have done this, and seeing one of our projects in action was really touching. Had some great help from friends with fundraising for this project, especially Nikki Greenspan in Israel, and Naomi Max, who helped run a chicken fundraiser at CHAT. Seeing the success of the project, when I get home I will try get in touch with some chicken or egg farmers in Ontario and see if they'd like to sponsor or help, because it doesn't cost much and has a huge impact on some people's lives here.

Tonight we are making a plan for the rest of my stay here, and am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Courtney. Another volunteer I met in Nairobi may also be joining me which would be great as the more the merrier, and we have lots to do. Will hopefully be running another short workshop, will be meeting with many different classes of students in class, improving the chicken project, and more that I will update as we go along.

Happy to be back and thrilled at how productive the people involved in the organization have been with the money that I have sent. Really makes me optimistic about the prospects here, but there is still much that has to be done. There are 13 months until the next election, and the tension can already be felt in some places. Living in a hot spot like Matongo, the village that I'm in now, is really eye opening and just speaking to the people and hearing their thoughts about politics here and the next election is interesting. Now its just a matter of raising money and developing projects in the next year to help.

Last thing: This village is not used to seeing white people. I have met about 150 people today, and the rest who I haven't spoken to just stare at me as I walk past. The best people to meet are kids though, because they get really really excited and start shouting "MZUNGU MZUNGU!!". I usually go to them, say hi, shake their hand, and if my camera is out take a picture of them and show them. While walking with Kepha, he told me that most of the kids shout "MZUNGU" then say to each other "let's see what the mzungu's hands feel like" and then come over and shake my hand. Hilarious, and there is another thing I've experienced which is that African men don't wear shorts. Its hot here, and could not imagine walking around here in jeans or in dress pants as most people here wear. He said that a lot of people I walk past comment on the fact that I'm wearing shorts, and say that the hair on my legs is nice. What a great ego boost.

Until next time!

Monday, July 4, 2011


As I sit down to write this (on a computer where the 'y' and 'z' keys are mixed up, so apologies for any typos...) the tv is on behind me, and I'm watching the Liberation Day rally taking place in Kigali, Rwanda. Today is the fourth of July, and aside from its obvious significance in American history, today marks the 17th anniversary of the end of the Rwandan genocide. Today is marked with a massive rally in the Kigali stadium, a military parade, and purple banners posted all over the city marking this day of celebration and rebirth for Rwanda.

My time in Rwanda has been really remarkable, and I sort of wish that more people would visit this city. As I said before, its clean, and safe, and beautiful. People listen to traffic rules, there are garbage cans along the roads (something missing from other African cities), and there is a general sense of contentment around. On this liberation day here it is really incredible to consider that not long ago this country was plunged into at least 100 days of chaos, that can be marked only as one of humanity's (and the international community's) massive failures.

I am staying in Kigali with my friend Pierrot, who's entire family was killed during the genocide. On Saturday when I arrived, he took me to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, which is a museum dedicated to the history of the genocide. It is an incredible museum, and I must admit that throughout I obviously had in mind some recollections of experiences at other genocide museums, like Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington. I was obviously making some comparisons in my mind.

This genocide museum is different in one particular way however, and that is what lies behind the museum. There are numerous giant slab's of concrete, placed throughout the massive gardens, under which lie mass graves. In these graves are buried approximately 250,000 people who lost their lives during the genocide (out of a total 800,000). This museum is different therefore because it is a, for lack of a better word, living museum, because it is always changing and growing because the graves keep expanding. As bodies are discovered, as I learned they are every few weeks, they are added to these burial sites, and become a part of the museum and collective memory of the country.

Pierrot took me down to the lowest level of the garden where there was a giant slab of concrete, but unlike the others, a lid had been removed, and there was a gap in the top. Leading down into the grave was a small concrete staircase, and scattered around the top were bunches of flowers. The parking lot nearby began to fill up with visitors dressed in black and other strong colours, and a herz showed up in the parking lot, out of which was carried a white coffin. Today, a family was burying the remains of their father, whose body had only recently been discovered, who was killed 17 years ago. I stood watching as approximately 1000 onlookers gathered around the grave site, as the President of the Genocide Survivors' Society spoke about the importance of remembering, and how important it is that those who have information about the location of bodies or remains from the genocide, come forward so that the country can continue to heal. Amid the singing of Rwandan memorial song, standing on the side of a hill marked with bright green grass, pink flowers, and the unfolding hills of Kigali next to it, the coffin was carried down the stairs into the grave, and this father was placed alongside countless others whose bodies had been recently discovered.

Last night I went out to a restaurant/bar called Papyrus Restaurant. I was with Pierrot and a number of other people who I have befriended since arriving in Rwanda, and in the middle of dinner Pierrot went to say hi to someone. After a few minutes he called me over, and introduced me to his friend, and told me that it was this friend whose father was buried the day before. I spoke to him and said that what I had witnessed and felt was entirely unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I asked him how he felt, and whether he felt a sense of closure, and he just looked at me and said 'relieved'. After 17 years of not really knowing the fate of his father, he was finally able to have some closure and place his father to rest. He told me about his experience about the genocide, and the fact that everyone in Rwanda was involved in some way. He said that everyone knew either a victim, or a perpetrator, or a collaborator, and he said that people who he was friends with, who worked for and with his family, and people he had trusted his whole life, had turned against him and his family when the country descended into war. He continued to speak however of the reconciliation process and how fortunate Rwanda has been in their ability to improve their future and come together. What stuck out must was his sense of relief and comfort, being able to erase this question mark from his mind once and for all.

Outside the museum is a flame that is lit every year on April 4, the anniversary of the start of the genocide, and is extinguished today, July 4th, the end of the war. The flame, as well as the museum itself, is an incredible monument to what happened during that time, and meeting and speaking to people most affected has really opened my eyes as to so many of the issues still encountered by people today. This is only a little of what I have felt and thought in the last few days here.

Yesterday I also visited the Hotel Milles Collines, the famous landmark most commonly known from the movie Hotel Rwanda. Though marked with controversy, I just wanted to see this site, one of the more famous hotels in the world, and it was so interesting to see what it was like. A beautiful, luxurious hotel, with a big blue pool in the back next to a bar and cabana, it is difficult to imagine so many refugees camped out in this spacious and lush setting. We went up to the rooftop restaurant to get some pictures of the view from the hotel, and just considered how much such a place can change in such a short time. Today, instead of refugees drinking the water from the pool or boiling it to use for their dinner, there were British and American families jumping into the refreshing water and enjoying a day in the sun. Maids walked in and out of the rooms that were once used to house numerous families at a time, hiding from the militias just outside, as they were protected solely by the fact that the hotel was being used as a UN base of sorts. This hotel was almost as important a landmark as the museum itself, and it was also a symbol of how reconciliation and working towards the future can be effective.

Ok, enough about the genocide. Kigali itself has been amazing in so many ways, and I leave tonight to head back to Kenya via Uganda on what I believe will be the most painful bus ride of my life (approximately 2o hours with a stop of unknown length in Kampala, Uganda).

At the border coming into Rwanda I met two French students, Lorraine and William, who I spent a lot of time with in the last few days. We went out together on Saturday night for dinner and drinks, and they are both traveling and doing some volunteer work throughout East Africa as well. Last night I had dinner with the two of them, Tony from California, Mark from Barcelona, a girl from Rwanda, and Pierrot, and it was really fantastic just sitting with such a diverse group of people. At one point however, there were three people speaking to each other in French, and the others speaking in Spanish....and me. At which point I picked up my phone to bbm some friends at home and not be too alone, but they realized soon.

I have been driven all over the city to see the wealthy neighbourhoods, the highest peak, the nice coffee shops, and have had some delicious food. I have been so impressed by how many people from all over the world are living in Kigali doing volunteer work, and I even met some Israelis yesterday!

Pierrot has really spoiled me with his hospitality, and has taken me all over and ensured that I've felt comfortable at all times. In his house, he has a guy who works for him, essentially doing the house work, gardening, etc. Last night when I came back home to change, I noticed that my room had been cleaned, and my pile of laundry was missing from the corner of the room. He had taken the laundry, cleaned it, and hung it up to dry. Later, I could not find my shoes to go out, and later found that he had actually even taken my running shoes and gave them a nice thorough clean, and they were also sitting outside I wore flip flops to dinner. Really funny, but really amazing, and this hospitality has made me feel really at home. At dinner last night Pierrot said to me that he always has an extra room in his house and that if I know anyone traveling through Rwanda, they are welcome to stay with him, which is such a nice gesture, and now its out there!!

Ok, that's definitely enough, but if you've read this far then you are either family or a really good friend. Taking the bus to Kenya tonight, and getting down to work on Wednesday! All's great though, and am on bbm if anyone wants to say hi! Paul Kagame, the President, is about to speak at the rally, and Pierrot is going to translate his speech for me since two days in Kigali is not enough to master Kinyarwandan just yet.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Uganda and Rwanda

So before starting with the project in Kenya, I decided to take a bit of time to explore some other parts of Africa. I took a 14 hour bus ride from Nairobi to Kampala, Uganda, where I stayed overnight and was then picked up by a tour company to do a four day safari in the northern part of Uganda.

I had a driver named Agri, and it was just me and him for the four days, and I actually really enjoyed myself. A bit of other company would have been ideal, but was good times nonetheless. I went to Murchison Falls, about four hours north of Kampala. The falls themselves were beautiful, and then one day I did a game drive through the park where I saw Ugandan Kobs, lions, elephants, antelope, a hyena, giraffes, warthogs, tons of other animals. That afternoon I did a boat ride down the Nile towards the falls where I saw thousands of hippos, a few crocodiles, and some beautiful birds including a fish eagle. My second night staying at Red Chili Rest Camp, I was sleeping in my hut and heard something rustling in the bushes outside at around 2am, so I jumped out of bed and looked outside, only to find two massive hippos grazing outside. Anyone who knows of my affinity to hippos could imagine the look on my face, and I got some pretty awesome pictures....well the best I could get without getting too much of their attention.

The next day we went to Budongo forest where I did a hike through the forest, which was beautiful, and I saw a couple chimpanzees and kolobo monkeys. Stayed overnight at a really nice lodge and met an older Australian couple who just travels the world, and had dinner with them. The next day went chimpanzee trekking through the forest and saw a few different chimp families. Got some great shots of them too and will have to figure out a way to post them sometime soon.

After returning to Kampala, I got on an overnight bus to Kigali, Rwanda, where I just arrived. I am staying with a friend named Pierrot, who is a native from Rwanda, who I once met at a conference in Amsterdam in May 2008. He was a speaker, discussing his experiences during the genocide here where the majority of his family was killed. We have kept in touch since then, and when I mentioned I may come to Kigali he insisted on being my host. Two hours ago he picked me up from the bus station, took me out for coffee and breakfast, and showed me a bit of the city. Kigali is NOT like the rest of East Africa. It is clean, beautiful, neat, really safe, and the people here have worked so hard to recover from the negativity of the past. This is only the experience I have had since arriving two hours ago however, looks good so far. I am currently sitting at Pierrot's house, which he shares with his cousin, just on the outskirts of downtown Kigali.

Later he is going to take me to the genocide museum here. He told me that a friend of his also had his parents killed during the genocide, and only last week did they find his friend's father's body, so they will be having a memorial service at the museum which he wants me to see. So, I am really appreciative of his hospitality and thoughtfulness, and am looking forward to the next few days here before returning to Kenya on a 24 hour bus ride...ya.