January 5, 2014

We started off our day visiting some pups! Last week I let it slip (well, I always do…somehow) my insane obsession with dogs to our program director, Melissa. A few others also shared their love of the k9 and they decided a trip to “Wag” on our free morning was fitting. The main place was shut down because the owner is giving birth in America but we still got to see some foster dogs. May have wanted to adopt one and bring her home J… there is still time…


After the visit we went back to GEI headquarters and did some processing of the past few days. It was very relaxing, we meditated for 20 minutes first. It was special. I don’t give myself time to process or relax very often, and I realize how important it is  to give yourself this time to filter in everything. This trip has been very confusing emotionally and I’m grateful we’ve been given time to sort through it. It was interesting to hear about how others are taking in Rwanda because I’m all over the place. I can’t pinpoint my emotions here – it’s a ride of highs and lows.


Speaking of which, we visited the Gihembe refugee camp afterwards. I prepared myself for the worst – expecting to see sickly, damaged and crying people. That wasn’t the case. As I’ve mentioned before, the children are so excited to wave to us in our vans and visiting this camp was that…. x1000! The children surrounded the van and we had to slowly walk off it because they were so excited. The camp does not get visitors often, or at all. Drew had to go through quite a bit so we could be allowed inside. And even so, they only let us stay for an hour under close supervision. At first they weren’t even going to let us perform but they did eventually. They were very suspicious of our visit – of any visit by outsiders. We of course weren’t allowed to take pictures. My memory of it is very vivid and I hope it stays that way.


The children immediately jumped at the chance to touch us “mzungu” (white person in Kinyarwanda – not a negative term, just a descriptive term). They were fighting over who could hold my hand and were very protective of it when they were able to. They were rubbing my arms quite violently, some even pinching my skin. They were really interested in the whiteness. Some were even jumping to pet my blonde hair. Whenever I knelt down to talk to a little one they all swarmed my head to get a closer touch of this strange hair color. It was rather bizarre on my end, I’ve never received so much attention – especially in this gawking type of way. I had a cloud of little children everywhere I walked and sometimes I couldn’t even walk because there were so many around me jumping for a chance to touch me or talk to me. They were pretty shy once they did talk to me often asking for my name and either running away when I told them or giggling nervously when I asked for theirs. They were so happy when I (attempted to at least) said their name. The littlest children were the most shocked, I imagine we are the first white people they’ve ever seen. They would fight through the crowd somehow and just stop and stare with their mouths and eyes wide open. They would smile once I said hello but were just speechless. I remember I took a little girls hand and she shrieked in laughter and ran away and then just watched me from afar. We walked around a bit and this one little girl (maybe 6?) took hold of my hand and refused to let anyone else take it from her. She would scold and booty-bump anyone else away. As we were walking/dancing down the streets my hair would get in my face and I’d have to break our hand-holding to put it back behind my ear. She didn’t like this threat of losing the hand so she became my little hair stylist, watching for any hair in my face that she could tuck behind my ear. She’d jump up and gently stroke my hair, it was so sweet. She was initially nervous when I tried twirling her, I think because she thought I was trying to get rid of her but when she realized I was twirling her she loved it. She would giggle and sway and dance about. It was wonderful. I couldn’t speak much with the children because of their lack of English but we still had a lot of fun dancing through the streets. The streets weren’t paved and had many holes so it was pretty difficult on my end to balance with several children hanging on each arm or pulling on my shirt. A few times an adult came in and scolded the children for hanging on so much, I think they noticed some of the difficulty of walking. They were stumbling throughout as well but I think the excitement of seeing all of us was an adrenaline rush for them. A lot of the children had shaved heads and were quite dirty. I don’t think it’s a hygienic thing though, as they streets are dirt and I was pretty covered just from being there for an hour. The really tiny children had quite a bit of snot on their faces and I was wishing I brought some wipes, I’m not sure how appropriate that would be though. The children were the best part of the visit. I wish we could’ve stayed longer. You can tell they do not get visitors, and I feel bad that we were just a flicker in their lives.


The little girl on my arm, though… what a little fireball. I mentioned her determination to stay on my right hand but she was so much fun too. I asked her what songs she knew and she started singing a song. I couldn’t catch on to most of it except the one part “Rombri-see Rombea-saw” and once she heard me singing she sang only that part with me. Eventually my whole little gaggle of children started singing just those words and it was probably the best experience of my life. I felt so happy to have made some kind of connection with these kids, and they seemed so excited to have me singing along with them. We sang those two words as we shimmied down the streets, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that memory.


We met Drew’s friend Clovis in the camp. Most of his family is still there but two siblings have been resettled in Florida. He invited us into his home and we met several relatives. They were all dressed so nicely and the mother seemed so excited to host us. It was very sweet.


We performed our play for the children. We all headed to the basketball court and each brought a large amount of people with us. We simply made a square and starting performing and eventually the crowd caught on and watched. My first ever theatre performance was in front of hills and hills of refugees in Rwanda, isn’t that amazing? It was really loud and I tried to speak up as much as I could. I forgot a small line but I don’t think the kids minded much! It was amazing seeing all of their eyes on us and I think they really appreciated us performing for us. I think our visit was nice for them, but adding in our performance and donations I think made it much more meaningful for them.


Most of them are Congolese, fleeing the violence and unrest in the Congo. Most of the children were born in the camp and don’t know any better. I feel so bad for these children who are growing up in a refugee camp. I know its better than the possible violence they’d face in the Congo, but I wish there was an easier way to be resettled elsewhere. As foreigners, they can’t work legally in Rwanda. It reminds me a lot of the people who are angry over the foreigners who work and “take our jobs” in America. But you have to consider the horrors they are fleeing from. You can imagine the parents don’t want their children living in these horrors.


Carl shared one of his own stories on the way to the camp and it gave me an idea of how terrible it is for the people living in the Congo. The Congo has become quite the hot-spot for minerals and it’s been swarmed with people trying to make money from it. The government is dysfunctional and hasn’t been able to control the people. I should also mention that after the genocide ended, many of the perpetrators fled to the Congo for safety against retaliation or court. Some (innocent) Hutus also fled in fear that the Tutsi would lash an equally violent attack on the Hutus as revenge. So, the Congo has many many problems, and I’m sure I’m only referring to the surface of them.


We met with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). I think they met us as a way to get an idea of why we were visiting – to be sure we had good intentions. I hope that after this visit they allow Drew’s future groups to stay longer in the camps. I’m glad we were able to have this personal interaction with them, it gave me an idea of how they’re trying to help these refugees. It was very businesslike and I felt that they really did appreciate our visit and interest in helping. There were two women and one man and our group sitting around a table and I felt so lucky to be able to chat with these important people. She mentioned some facts about the camp… this is what I remember:

  • There are about 15,000 people in the camp
  • The homes are 4x3 for an entire family. So, a family with seven children all have to live in this tiny home. They often all sleep in the same bed, which proves problematic because the children never get a sense of privacy or ownership.
  • They are only able to fund schooling for children up to “basic 9” which is similar to the rest of Rwanda. After grade 9, the education is no longer mandatory or free. This is also a problem because the children have a lot of free time and often get involved with extensive alcohol and/or sexual activity. One of the problems they face is how to keep the youth busy.
  • The only way out of the camp besides marriage of a foreigner is through resettlement. I’m glad the USA has been hosting most of the refugees. Out of the two camps she mentioned, thousands have been sent to safety in the US. About seven have been settled in Canada, and two in Finland.
  • Beforehand, the refugees were given food – often the same kind over the years. Now they have switched to a money system, so the people are able to buy the groceries of their choosing. Each person only gets $9.60 a month. I think this has its pros and cons… it gives the people a sense of dignity and ownership in a place where they little but it is still so low. And I wonder if they all use the money appropriately. I think it’s a better system than before, I’d hope that with such little money people will be influenced to make the right decision as to how to spend it.
  • The people get 14 liters of water a day – to bathe, cook and drink.
  • The camp suffers a similar culture of silence as we do in America. Women who suffer from rape in the camps often don’t speak about it because of the consequences they may face in the future. The woman said they are able to bring the perpetrator to court, but after release they are sent back to the  camp. This could mean that the woman may even live next door to their rapist who they’ve convicted. You can imagine how frightening this may be for the woman. It’s bothering that around the world woman are facing these same issues of fear…


As you can imagine, the refugees are very happy when they get the chance to resettle. The woman mentioned that she gets phone calls of excitement – over things such as furniture or bedrooms. They’re so appreciative of these little things that we don’t even take notice of. Seeing the extreme opposite was unsettling, really makes you consider what you really need to spend your money on.


Carl and Drew mentioned a visit to a hospital and to a very specific doctor. This doctor specializes in a surgery on a woman’s bladder. The violence against women in the Congo is extreme, the women often become sex slaves. The women aren’t only penetrated with male parts, but with objects as well – and not gently. Many women suffer from an ailment (I wish I could remember the name!) that involves their bladder being punctured so they leak urine constantly. As if this isn’t enough, many of the women are shunned because of their smell and the idea that the Devil is represented in their suffering. This doctor has become a hero to these women. People from all over the world come to learn from him because he was become so well-practiced in this surgery because of the many, many cases- an average of 200 women… some staying for one month, some for a year depending on the severity. The women appreciate the doctor’s specialty and their chance at a new life. It seems that Carl had a similar reaction when he visited the hospital, the women were incredibly excited to have a visitor. They all came out to dance and sing for him, despite him saying it was not needed and that he was the one that was grateful for the visit. He started welling up as he told the story, and his voice especially cracked when he mentioned he saw an old woman, about 75 years old, come out and join the dancing. It’s sickening that young woman or middle-aged woman have suffered from this evil, but raping and brutalizing a gentle grandmother was especially upsetting. Carl came to find out that the song they were singing was an original – a song dedicated to the doctor and a celebration of his existence. It was a beautiful story, and it just continues to show me that these Congolese are just like the Rwandans in their strength. I expected to see broken and damaged people, but that has not been the case. I admire them so much. They’re able to find song and dance despite the cruelties served against them. Drew was right, this experience involves having your heart broken and fulfilled every day.


It makes you want to do more. I feel so grateful to have a secure and loving home. It makes me sick though. Why am I so lucky to have been born in a stable and safe environment? I could’ve easily been born in the Congo or in Rwanda and faced all of these horrors. I could’ve been raped, I could’ve been beaten. I could’ve starved, I could’ve been given HIV. I could’ve watched my family being murdered, or being forced to murder them myself. I could’ve survived and had to live with the memory of the cruelties. It makes me feel both grateful and disgusted for my luck of being a white American. How can I relate to these people? Even the color of my skin makes me an outsider. I want to do more, I want to help these people. But where do you even start in the Congo? I’ve been given a brief history and that is even full of complexities. It has to be a small movement to change, but people are dying everyday. What can I even do as one person? A person with little experience in anything relating to these extremes. I also feel that as a westerner we can sometimes do more damage than good. A person who is capable of making meaningful change must have a deep understanding of the history and culture at work, and as of right now I have neither. It’s something to consider for the future, if I can ever be someone who is able to help in a way that is welcome.