It’s been awhile since I’ve updated – I’ve been so busy here! But I’ll give a brief run through of a few days last week and will post more when I have time.

Thursday, January 8-
We woke up super early and headed over to Azizi Life – a company that pairs visitors with families in a village to get a glimpse of what their daily life is like. It was such a cool experience – we split into two groups and I was with Drew, Tim and Rob. We were with a group of women, and boy do they work! I realized I’d make a horrible housewife here.

The first thing they did was dress me in appropriate clothing – my choice of fabric that they wrapped me in for a skirt and a head scarf. It was a pretty blue print that matched my blue shirt quite well : )

After that, we peeled cassava. I’ve never had cassava before coming to Rwanda but we eat it often – it’s a very starchy vegetable. The casing peeled off easily, it was relaxing to sit and peel the cassava. There were lots of children around us and the one girl – Joslyn would soon become my favorite. The home itself was similar to the ones I saw when passing through villages on the way to Akagera.  The women showed us their kitchen, which involved a small enclosed fire they would feed dry leaves into. They showed us how they cook the cassava, using a large wet banana leaf to cover them to keep them moist before putting the metal pot lit on it.

After that, we headed out to the fields. We cultivated their soil for quite some time and it was tough work – especially with the head scarf, I was so warm! I came across some potatoes on my way. I’m not sure if it’s because I was the only girl, or that I looked exhausted but they kept telling me to take a break. I shared my water with one of the women and she seemed really shocked by that. After we finished our plot, they gave us curved knives to cut down some of the long grass. It was interesting learning how to cut at the right angle, and what we did with the grass afterwards was the coolest part! We made our own head-pieces out of banana leaves and then carried the bundled grass on our heads!! I’ve been seeing so many women, in the city and country, carrying things on their heads and now I know how! I still wasn’t very good at it – I blame the curved spine ; ). We fed the neighbor’s pig with our grass. It shows how communal the villages are, they work for everyone’s benefit

Afterwards, we made the long trek to fetch water. We had lots of yellow jugs to carry with us and despite the women trying to keep the children at home, most of them followed us. We passed many houses and everyone was eager to greet each other – another thing that is so noticeably different about Rwanda and the USA, people here are so friendly and caring for one another. The other group was also getting water at the same time so we were all able to meet up. The women found a station of continuous water flow and we filled up many jugs. They only allowed me to carry one, and the children didn’t even want me carrying any! They kept trying to take it for me. The children are so willing to help.

We had lunch – a very large lunch. The guide served my plate and it was more than I could handle. I didn’t want to be rude and not finish my food so I was on a mission to eat everything on the plate. Two large pieces of cassava, sweet potato, half an avocado (can you imagine just having an avocado tree to eat from all the time? Mmm), beans and vegetables. The cassava is the hardest bit, it’s so starchy! I kept whispering to Tim to take my second piece. They brought out corn on the cob after a bit but I couldn’t bear to eat any. We had great conversations with them (via translation) and really got a feel for what their lives are like. You can see how happy they are, being able to be with friends and their children all day. They do a lot of tough work, but they do it together. They eventually asked what our favorite foods are and I said pineapple – which ended up being our dessert. I knew I had to take some because I mentioned it’s my favorite, but they didn’t notice my first piece so I had to take another piece. My tummy was about to explode! The food was delicious though, so it wasn’t hard to eat – just hard to digest after eating so much!

After lunch, the women taught us how to make jewelry. I was a walking food-coma so I made sure to sit on the benches, plus my back was starting to hurt from the lack of support. It was super cool seeing how they first make the materials. They strip a plant’s leaf (not sure what kind) until they have long pieces of white thread.  They do it with a long knife against a piece of wood or rock. Then, they dye these strings any color and use the strings to create jewelry. I made earrings, well I thought I was. They eventually made mine into a necklace and the two women helping me made earrings to match it. I’m glad because mine wasn’t nearly as detailed and nice as theirs were. It takes a lot of patience, a good eye and a strong thumb to make these items. They said I was good at it, that I don’t seem like a beginner but I think they were just being nice to me : ).  It took a long time, about 40 minutes, just to make my necklace. They sell for so cheap, I couldn’t believe how long it takes to make these items. The women often make them together, so I think its also a chance to have conversations with each other as well.

Afterwards they sang and did some dancing for/with us. The guide asked if, since we’re a theatre group, if we happen to have anything to perform for them as well? It was pretty funny, because we’ve been performing everywhere! So, of course we do! We performed for them and as usual, the favorite part was the ending when we sing “Mwaramutse!” It was a lot of fun performing for them. It was hard to leave, as we spent our entire day with them. I was especially sad to leave Joslynn – the little girl that was so funny. She was always jumping around and singing – getting the rest of the children involved. You can tell she’s the one that creates the most fun for everyone. Every time I saw her, she was either dancing around a group of children who were just standing (and eventually started dancing as well) or on the look-out for water bottles. I’m not sure why the children love water bottles so much, I know they make them into toys – attaching half of it to a stick and leading a skinny tire around with it. But the children, from all over, are always so excited to get empty water bottles. Joslyn was no different, she even hid a couple water bottles under her shirt – as if no one could see the large bumpy chest/stomach she newly developed. It was so funny, she was being so stealthy. I put my half-full water bottle on the ground during the dancing and I saw her bending backwards to get a side-eye glimpse of it often – to be sure it’s still there and no one else snagged it. By the end of my performance it was gone. She was hysterical.

Before leaving a women taught me how they carry their babies. I’ve been interested ever since coming here, the babies are always strapped to their backs. I didn’t understand how they were able to do so, I thought someone would have to hold the baby in place while they strapped it to them with fabric. Nope! She bent over half way and had the baby on her back, the baby knew well enough to hold on to her clothing as she tossed fabric over her back and then tied it in the front. I couldn’t believe it! I think I’d drop my baby if I did that. But then again, I’m afraid to even hold a baby in my arms. She asked if I wanted to try with her baby but I couldn’t do it, I was too afraid I’d mess up! Super cool to see it done though, and it’s such a normal way to carry babies here, even children carrying their little siblings do the same.

Friday, January 9
The next day we drove to Muhanga – Buffalo’s sister city. Drew has been visiting the city every year and this is where we donated the two cows. We met with the mayor, who actually stayed with us the entire day! It was great having her with us, and we met formally in a hall first where she sat with her panel and spoke with us (via translation). My favorite part was when she mentioned how open they are to having us return – to work in their schools. I’ve already decided I want to come back after graduation for 6months-1 year to work/volunteer in the schools so it was really awesome to hear how welcoming she is to having us come back. It was exactly what I needed to hear – that she wants us to consider returning to work in the schools.

Afterwards, we went to the house where the cows were being distributed. I was confused at this point, I thought we were just collecting the cows and then going to the appropriate homes. But, the cows came out and a man started singing and touching the cows with sticks – then I realized he was blessing the cows. The ceremony has started! There were a lot of people in the little area, and the cows were a bit nervous. One hit me lightly as he trotted about nervously. It was an interesting ceremony to watch, I just wish I was better prepared for it, knowing that the ceremony was happening. Everything was done in Kinyarwanda so I only was able to understand the bits that were translated. The mayor gave a small speech, at one point saying that this distribution is possible because of good governance. I think someone mentioned that the mayors of each place must spend days at a time within each village – sleeping there and meeting the people. The mayor is meant to be close with the people they serve, and to know them personally. I can’t say I know Byron Brown all that well. It was great to see her mixed in with the people, to enjoy the ceremony. We donated one cow to an older couple, and the other to a younger couple. The boy must’ve only been in his low 20s and was nervous to make his speech. It was super cool to listen to the singing and eventually they started dancing. I wish I would’ve gotten more involved in the dancing, and I tried to as best I could. I call it the bystander effect – being behind someone who isn’t involved and being influenced to not get involved. I really like the way they dance, lots of arms movements. The kids love to dance.

Afterwards, we met with the two families that have received donations from the previous groups. One was a cow, and the other was solar panels. The women initially lost the cow due to sickness, but received a new one and has learned how to keep the cow healthy (beforehand the cow’s excrement would mix into his food). The family with the solar panels was really neat. Since receiving solar panels, the village has been given electricity but the family still prefers the solar panels. Beforehand, once the sun went down there wasn’t any light. The use of the solar panels allowed the home to have light well beyond sun-down, and became a study space for the neighborhood students. It’s amazing, again, how much everyone cares for each other. The boy, in his speech, remarked that he will lend his cow when needed to sick families. The family with the solar panels didn’t keep this luxury to themselves, but opened their doors to anyone who wanted to visit and use their light. It’s so nice to see how communal the families are. The father was so excited to show us the electricity they’ve received, I couldn’t understand what he was explaining but I could see his smiling face and excited tone as he fiddled with the wirings of the ceiling light and radio. I should mention that “Call Me Maybe” was playing as we entered the house. Drew said that the family has really prospered since his last visit, that the house has become much more developed. It’s wonderful to see how appreciative the families are for the donations and seeing how well they are doing afterwards.

We visited Mama Arlene afterwards. This woman, from Pennslvania, has created (over years) an entire compound for children without families. Rwanda is trying to get rid of the word “orphanages” and I accidently called the children orphans to Mama Arlene who immediately told me they’re not orphans – that she is their Mama. It was so sweet to see how protective and loving she is over each child. We met with her teachers first and performed for them. She showed us around the school and I initially thought that might be the end of the tour – but then she brought us to the children and MANY buildings. There were fields to play in, crops growing, and different buildings for the children. It was like a mini-community. The children were ecstatic to meet us – all grabbing hands and giggling and dancing. We went into one building and had the children sit around her.

Mama Arlene is older, and has been doing this since 2006.  It must be wonderful for her, you can tell how much she adores children. As an older woman, I imagine her own children are all grown-up and this job must give her the chance to take care of children again – to always be a “mama” to a little boy and girl. My own mom loves kids and I can’t help but see her in this kind a work, as a woman who genuinely loves children and wants to help them. Part of this stems from my own concern about her grandma-napping my own children in the future, haha! Kidding. Kinda.

She had the children sing a song for us “You are my sunshine” and all the children knew it. We sang along and I started tearing up as I heard her voice singing along with all these little voices. It reminded me of my own grandmother who passed away when I was in highschool, it’s a song that always reminds me of her and how she’d sing it to me often. And here was this women taking on the role of mother for all these children and singing the same tune. Children who have no family, that only have her and their fellow orphans – this little family that came together and have to rely on each other. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be so little and to know so much pain and rejection. The song reminds me how much my grandmother loved me and I saw her in this woman, this woman expressing her appreciation and tenderness for these little ones. It made my heart swell with emotion, I really felt my grandmother there.

Afterwards Mama Arlene told the children to go find a mzungu and play. The children kept rotating among everyone but one little girl kept close to me. She loved to dance so she was my best buddy for the time and Mama Arlene told me she has a beautiful voice but the little girl was too shy to sing loud enough for me. We gave the children our donations and it was awesome to see them using them! Previously, they’d be distributed after we left but we were able to play with them.

One little boy, David the trouble-maker, took to the rugby ball immediately. At first he was just throwing it and guarding it from other children but I told him it was a rugby ball and he was so excited to learn what rugby is. He even had me follow him outside so I could teach him how to play. I did my best explaining it to this little 7 year old (I think) and he listened so intently and kept asking me to teach him more. It was so sweet and eventually more kids joined in. We moved to another building but David kept calling me from that building’s yard to come play with him. Again, he kept asking me if he was throwing the ball right and he was trying to teach the newcomers the right way. I had to leave at that moment and it has to be the most heartbreaking good-bye I’ve had with any of the children during this trip. Most of the time they’re so busy, excited or distracted to give a personal good-bye. He stopped running and just looked at me, and asked “Are you leaving us?” and his face dropped from excitement and determination to just rejection and sadness. I said yes and he asked when we would come back- tomorrow or next week? Earlier he asked me if I was sleeping over. You could just feel how much love these children craved and it broke my heart seeing his face drop like that. I know it wasn’t a huge rejection leaving him there but it felt like I was just adding more mistrust and insecurity in this already vulnerable little boy. He was a little trouble-maker, a boy who often couldn’t sit still in class and was always talking, but you can sense that he’s just trying to make a connection with someone. He had that eagerness in his eyes and the moment he took my hand to bring me into the yard, I could tell that eagerness was just to have someone love and want him.

I know Mama Arlene is giving him what she can, I can see that just from her immediate frustration when I used the words orphans. She’s a wonderful woman and I hope she can find a good place for little David.