Off again…

Off again…

Time for another adventure! This time to Rwanda, where I’ll be spending 4 weeks volunteering in an orphanage that is home to 500 kids. (Yes, 5-0-0… I had to do a double-take!) It is in the town of Gisenyi, which is in the northwest of the country. I leave Saturday night and after 4 flights and 2 days I’ll finally get there on Monday (Halloween. I think I’ll go as a very tired traveler.)
Then after volunteering I’ll be spending a week in Egypt, assuming the political situation stays stable.

I’ll do my best to keep everyone updated with posts and photos while I’m gone.

See you in December!

Orientation

Orientation

Made it safely to Rwanda… Monday was spent sleeping. Tuesday was spent doing orientation for the volunteer program, followed by a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
Rwanda (sadly) is best known these days for the 1994 genocide, during which the Hutus killed 1 million Tutsis in a 90 day slaughter. The memorial was a grim reminder of the time– with stories from survivors, photos and last possessions of the victims, and in the most depressing area, remembrances of individual children who were killed, including their favorite activities, foods, etc. It certainly wasn’t a fun way to spend an afternoon, but an important place to visit nevertheless.

While the genocide certainly had a huge impact on the country, I don’t believe that it should define it. The most amazing thing to me about Rwanda is how they have moved past the events of 1994. Immediately after the genocide the Tutsis, who had regained power, decreed there would be no more “Tutsi” or “Hutu”, just Rwandese. Instead of dwelling on the anger and bitterness they certainly had every right to have, they decided that the country as a whole would move on.

This was especially significant because the genocide was a crime of neighbor versus neighbor– the killers attacked their own villages, often killing those they had known for many years. And now, 17 years later, many of the perpetrators are being released from prison, back to the villages they came from, where they are living side by side with the families of their victims and the survivors they left behind.

The fact that this has actually worked– that violence hasn’t returned, and the Rwandese have genuinely moved on, is an incredible lesson in forgiveness and resiliency.

Organized Chaos

Organized Chaos

Wednesday I made the journey from Kigali (the capital) to Gisenyi, where I will actually be staying. It was also my first visit to the Noel Orphanage. It is an incredible place that seems to run on a system of organized chaos.
Nearly 600 kids live at the orphanage– and the number rises daily as children are literally left at the gates. They range in ages from very, very newborn to adults who are mentally handicapped and have nowhere else to go. The majority are between 6 and 10. They are supervised by a handful of “mamas” who somehow manage to feed, clothe, bathe and entertain these swarms of children with very limited resources. They’re divided by age, with the newborns in one room, then the crawlers, then the toddlers, and on up. As volunteers we basically cycle through the different groups, helping wherever we can.

The kids are remarkably well behaved. Seeing a group of 25 3-year-olds take off their shoes, line up to get their hands washed, patiently sit in neat rows to wait for their lunch, eat their lunch, then turn in their bowls and retrieve their shoes, all in a matter of 20 minutes with very little direction is quite a sight to see.

In the afternoons we’ve been doing crafts with the older kids while helping them practice their English. (Rwanda changed from French to English as their second language a few years ago– which was a lot of fun for the teachers, who didn’t know English themselves) Here a little of the mischievousness comes out as we have to check pockets, socks and even mouths for extra beads and string before they get snuck out the door.

Overall though the kids are pretty incredible– despite having basically nothing, and very nearly having to raise themselves, they seem amazingly well-adjusted and happy. Even on my third visit, Africa continues to be a reminder to me of how little all the silly things we stress about really matter.

A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life

Each morning we get up and have breakfast (a few slices of bread and some fruit) then trudge up the hill to the taxi park. (“Taxis” being the 10 passenger vans crammed with 16 people that are the most common transport in East Africa). Then we take the taxi about 15km, all the while praying they don’t try to pick up more people to squeeze in along the way, which they inevitably do.
Once we get to the orphanage we head to the library, where we lead various classes, usually of a crafty nature (today was play-dough, yesterday was beads), and help them with their English. This leads to chaos, because there are always more kids that want to participate than we could manage to supervise (remember– 600 kids at this orphanage), so one of the older kids plays bouncer and lets in a few at a time, replacing the ones who are finished with the next ones waiting. In theory. Neat and orderly it is not, and throughout the activity you have kids yelling your name through the windows, doors and cracks in the wall, hoping they’ll be the next to let in. We always seem to end up with double the number of kids that we started with.

Around 11am we go help the toddlers with their lunch. This basically means entertaining them while the “mamas” bring out the food, and then hand feeding the younger ones who haven’t quite mastered getting the food onto the spoon and then into their mouths.

After the toddlers eat they lie down for a nap in neat little rows, boys in one room and girls in another. While they’re getting settled we help the mamas wash the dishes. Then we head to the volunteer house for our lunch– more bread and fruit.

Then it’s time for more activities in the library, during which we try — almost always unsuccessfully — to remember which kids already did the morning activity so that everyone gets a chance.

Later in the afternoon the toddlers have their porridge (think runny cream of wheat) and then we walk them to the grass yard where they have time to play– time they don’t usually take advantage of because they don’t want to let go. The toddlers love to hold your hand, or finger, or pocket, or whatever else they can manage to grab, and since there are more kids than we have fingers it often leads to ferocious battle and then, inevitably, tears as the kids jostle for the best position. So then once we’ve made it to the yard they don’t want to give up the finger they fought so hard to hold.

Once we manage to pry ourselves away, it’s usually time to go. Now we’re the ones on the side of the road hoping for a taxi to stop. Once it does we head back to town, do whatever errands we need to do, then back to the volunteer house, where we have a little time to relax or take a cold shower (no hot water here). Then we have dinner– by candlelight if the power has gone out– usually of potatoes, rice, beans (starch is big), sauce and a small portion of meat. Then a little more time to relax before we do it all over again.

As I’m writing this it sounds not-so-great, but it’s actually quite fantastic.

A few photos of the kids and orphanage so far…

Gorillas in the Mist (Literally!)

Gorillas in the Mist (Literally!)

This past weekend I went to Musanze, which is about an hour’s (cramped) bus ride away from here in Gisenyi. Why, you ask (or, I assume you ask)?
GORILLAS!

Rwanda, and it’s neighbors Uganda and the ultra-dangerous-right-now-but-five-minutes-from-our-house D.R. of Congo are home to the last mountain gorillas in the world. You literally have to hike up the side of a volcano to get to see them. I almost died about 5 times on the climb up, but I made it, and the gorillas were incredible. My knees are sore, the altitude made me dizzy, and my ears still haven’t popped, but it was definitely worth it. The group we saw had 12 gorillas, including one that was about a year old. After finally reaching where they were we got to sit for an hour and just watch them… They walked in between and around us and basically pretended we weren’t there. It was pretty amazing.

Then today it was back to volunteering at the orphanage. Our newest activity has been showing movies on a projector in the library. On Friday we did Alice in Wonderland. We started with about 10 kids and by the time we turned the lights back on it was PACKED with kids (and some mamas!). Kind of crazy since the vast majority speak little to no English and Alice in Wonderland isn’t the easiest plot to follow.

Speaking of English, given the language barrier it can be difficult to explain to the kids what we want them to do during an activity. Fortunately, we have a great helper in Pink John, so called because there are about 10 Johns and this one likes to paint his toenails sparkly pink and loves (LOVES) Justin Bieber. He’s quite fabulous in every sense of the word. He is about 15 and has somehow managed to pick up excellent English so he translates for us and is always a great help. I feel pretty bad for him though because Africa isn’t exactly the most progressive of places. Fortunately all of the volunteers love him so he gets a ton of attention. He is also the only kid who can’t say “Melissa” so he calls me Morris. But he’s Pink John and he’s fantastic so I don’t mind at all.

When I first arrived it was myself, Liesbet from Belgium and Nina from Norway here at the house (plus 3 more at the orphanage itself), but now Liesbet has gone home. Nina and I have grown pretty tired of the white-bread-for-lunch routine so we’ve been experimenting with the local establishments. Today we had brochettes– which are basically shish kabobs of an unidentifiable meat that I am just going to hope (or pretend) is beef. But they are actually pretty tasty and are 2 for 60 cents including potatoes so I can’t complain. I’ve also been trying to turn the crazy Rwandan market offerings into something recognizable– I made some halfway decent quacamole last week (The avocados here are GINORMOUS, like the size of my foot. Seriously.) and some tuna salad for tomorrow. Ahh, the little things that remind you of home. There is one store in town that sells things they think Mzungus (pale people) will like, and apparently canned tuna, Nutella and Pringles are about it.

Pictures of the gorillas and more of the orphanage (including Pink John!) are below…

A Note to Potential Googlers

A Note to Potential Googlers

I came to Rwanda through the Global Volunteer Network (GVN), which is a volunteer placing service that is based in New Zealand. They placed us with Faith Victory Association (FVA), a Kigali based NGO/charity, which placed us with the Noel de Nyundo Orphanage near Gisenyi.
GVN is safe and is not going to steal your money, but realize that you are essentially paying them half of your volunteer fee to send an email to Claire with FVA and tell her you are coming. The rest goes to FVA (some of it paying to cover the costs of your stay) but none of the money you pay actually goes to the orphanage itself. In the end, I would have preferred to volunteer directly with the orphanage, which you can do through the Point Foundation. There is a volunteer house on site that is actually nicer than the FVA house (hot water, sometimes!) and you are more connected to the orphanage because you’re always there. Plus it costs much less and you can use the money you save for a better purpose.

There is a time and place for GVN, and if you are a first time traveler or nervous about coming to Africa and figuring out the ropes on your own then you may find it is worth the extra cost. But I just thought I would let you know that there is an alternative.

If you have any questions you can email me at emeybee at emeybee dot com.

Out and About

Out and About

With this being our last week in Rwanda (time has gone SO fast), Nina and I took a few of the kids we’ve gotten close to– John, Benoit, Patrick and Patrick (there are even more Patricks than Johns)– on a little farewell outing yesterday. Tara and Abby, two volunteers who are living at the orphanage itself, also came along, as did Innocent, who Tara has semi-adopted. The boys put on their best clothes and we loaded them up in the taxi buses and headed from the orphanage to Lake Kivu.
They did a little swimming and then we had lunch at the Serena (a hotel that’s right on the lake). We ordered hamburgers and fries for the boys and when they arrived they all looked semi-terrified at the very-large burgers in front of them. Meat is rare at the orphanage and they were a little unsure of what they were getting themselves into. After a little encouraging– and a demonstration by Innocent on how to actually eat the thing– they dug in and all was well.

After lunch it was more fun on the lake. John and Innocent, true to character, quickly made friends with everyone at the hotel and in no time were swimming with retirees and playing soccer with college students. All were enthralled when the hotel staff did a jet ski demonstration.

Once it was time to go we took the kids back on motos (motorcycle taxis)– another first for most of the boys, as evidenced by how tightly they held on the moto drivers.

Overall it was a fantastic day, and a great way to start wrapping up our time in Rwanda.

Fond Farewell

Fond Farewell

I’m in Kigali now and in a few hours will be off to Egypt (by way of Nairobi and Addis– I don’t get there until Saturday!)
Rwanda has been fantastic. It is definitely in my top 5 of places I’ve been, and I’ve been to some amazing places so that’s saying something. The people have been fantastic, the scenery is incredible, and it has just been a great trip all around.

It was sad to say goodbye to the kids of course, particularly John, and to the other volunteers– always the Catch-22 of these type of trips. But I will definitely make it a point to return to Noel again. Like most things in Africa (or anywhere really) it isn’t perfect, but the orphanage accomplishes a ton for these kids with very few resources. Unlike most of the kids in this part of the world, the 600 kids Noel cares for are guaranteed shelter, 3 meals a day, and an education. It is pretty amazing.

They can always use help, however, and if you’re interested you can contribute through the Point Foundation, a UK charity.

And now off to Cairo… I’ve been reading about the protests but from what I’m hearing they are confined to Tahrir Square, and the rest of the city is business as usual. So as long as I avoid that area, things should be fine. Cross your fingers for me!

More pictures from the orphanage below…

Sleeping on Safari

Sleeping on Safari

Since I had a long layover in Nairobi I decided to interrupt my tour of airports and took a cab out and about some Hunter Horse Sales. I was able to go to the Nairobi National Park on a little mini safari. The park doesn’t have nearly the wildlife of the Serengeti or Maasai Mara, but for being located in Nairobi itself it wasn’t bad. Actually, the sporadic sightings worked out well for me– I had been hopping from city to city and hadn’t been able to sleep since Wednesday night. So I napped while the cab driver watched for animals, then every 20 minutes or so he would tap my shoulder to wake me up and point one out. Tap, tap, tap– giraffe! Tap, tap, tap– zebra! Thus I managed to finally get a little sleep AND have a safari, all at the same time.
Afterward, we went to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which is an elephant orphanage on the outskirts of the park. They take in baby elephants who have been left behind, or whose mothers have been poached, then nurse them until they’re three years old before returning them to the wild. We got there right as feeding time started, and it was hilarious to watch them be fed with gigantic baby bottles of milk. The older ones were even able to use their trunks to hold the bottles themselves. After eating the elephants rolled around and played in the mud and basically acted like (big) little kids.

The elephants were roped off for “safety”, but the flimsy bit of string didn’t stop a few of the more curious elephants from pushing forward– to the horror of some Kenyan kids apparently on a field trip, who backed away as quick as quickly as they could. One elephant even grabbed my hand with its trunk. It was fantastic. And muddy.

After that it was time to head back to the airport, then to Addis, before finally landing in Cairo in the middle of the night. After sleeping as late as I possibly could this morning (sadly, it was only 8am) I headed out to the Citadel, Muhammed Ali mosque and the Coptic Christian area of the city. No signs of trouble or protests, so I think as long as I don’t go to the main square where they are centralized then all will be well.

Pictures from Nairobi below… I’ll get to the Cairo pictures tomorrow. Go ahead and read the ultimate review of Happy Pooch by follwing the link!

Cairo Minus the Tear Gas

Cairo Minus the Tear Gas

Still in Cairo… last night went to the Khan el-Khalili bazaar and then today saw the Pyramids, Sphinx, and a pharonic boat (which was actually surprisingly interesting), rode a camel and… went to the Egyptian Museum. The museum is where all of King Tut’s treasures, the royal mummies and many (MANY) statues are stored, so it’s a key part of an Egypt visit. But there was some question about whether we would make it there, because it is a stone’s throw from Tahrir Square, where the protests are going on. It was checked out before our visit and since all was calm, we were able to go. Still, it was a little daunting that hovering over the museum’s courtyard are the remains of the former Democratic party’s building that burned for several days during the revolution, like a little charred reminder of what has been going on.
I should mention that I am here on a tour, which I never, ever do, but with all the turmoil I thought it wise (and comforting) to have someone else be responsible for my safety.

The pyramids were great, and it was nice to go at a time when I could actually enjoy them (last time I was here in August when it was insanely and oppressively hot). Plus the cloudy weather made for some great photos.

Tonight we take an overnight train down to Aswan (good timing since the elections start in Cairo tomorrow and things may get testy), so despite whatever risks there may have been in coming here, I am leaving unscathed. So, yay.

Pictures follow…